It's 10 years since the last classic Guns N' Roses line-up imploded amid acrimony, law suits and heaps of vitriol. Now Slash, Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum have joined forces with former Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland to form Velvet Revolver, a band with a new album and a whole new attitude. Here, an invigorated Slash talks about the benefits of live after Axl
Words Phil Ascott
There's nothing quite like a new greatest hits package to inject fresh momentum into former band members' ban balances. Which was undoubtedly the case in March this year when Guns N' Roses' Greatest Hits album was released. After debuting at number two, the album subsequently topped the UK charts, and it has already sold over 600,000 copies in this country alone. More remarkably, the band's debut Appetite For Destruction, released 17 years ago, still sells a staggering 9,000 copies per week worldwide. Kurt Cobain and grunge may have initially killed hair metal stone dead, but years later there's something of a resurgence occurring.
The Darkness are, of course, the obvious carriers of the torch, and their recent video for Love Is Only A Feeling clearly aped GN'R's epic November Rain video, the Hawkins boys strutting around on cliff-tops Slash-style. But with Young Heart Attack, Dirty Americans and the like coming up on the rails, it seems the band's debauched, overblown rock'n'roll spirit is at its most fashionable in years.
Considering the aforementioned sales figures, it's unlikely the members of Guns N' Roses need ever work again. Certainly Axl Rose, who retains the rights to the GN'R moniker despite being the sole original remaining member, is having a good stab. Having released just one new track under his tenure, GN'R's first album of original material since 1991 is still pending. Yet despite the financial security, artistic integrity has led the other Gunners to toil unsuccessfully in an ever-evolving music scene. Slash has released two disappointing albums under the Slash's Snakepit banner while guesting on records by everyone from Alice Cooper to Michael Jackson. Meanwhile, rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin has continued a low-key solo career, and bassist Duff McKagan has released a solo album, joined Sex Pistol Steve Jones and Duran Duran man John Taylor in Neurotic Outsiders, before forming a new band Loaded. As for drummer Matt Sorum, who joined Guns in 1990 replacing Steven Adler, he was also a member of Neurotic Outsiders before rejoining his previous band The Cult. Sad but true, for the best part of a decade these ex-Gunners have all been firing blanks.
So in 2002, when rumours began circulating of a new project involving Slash, Duff and Matt, the inevitable seemed to be finally happening. The ex-Gunners had given up on recapturing former glories and were going to head out on the road and live off them instead. After all, Axl was soon to tour doing the same thing, so why shouldn't they get a piece of the action? In fact, the truth was far more intriguing. This was a brand new project - a project which, over the following two years, would entail countless false starts, member changes, police arrests, drug scandals, car crashes and general calamity. A project so ridiculously messed-up it might just be the one that the ex-Gunners could finally be proud to put their name to. A project first named the Project, then Reloaded, and now, finally, Velvet Revolver.
FAST-FORWARD TO March2004 and Guitarist has been invited to Velvet Revolver singer Scott Weiland's Lavish rehearsal studio in Burbank, on the outskirts of Los Angeles, to meet the band's main protagonists. On entering the facility, evidence of the former Stone Temple Pilots vocalist's accomplishments are instantly apparent. Gold, silver and platinum discs line the walls; a reminder to us of just how successful the band were Stateside, if not in the UK. Heading in to the main rehearsal area, decorated in bohemian fashion with drapes and throws, we find the band's techs Adam Day and McBob - who've been with Slash and Duff respectively for over 15 years - busy setting up and checking the band's equipment in preparation for rehearsal later that afternoon. To the left there's a custom Fernandes guitar and a row of effects pedals which must belong to the band's second guitarist Dave Kushner, while over to the right there's a Les Paul and a stack of Marshalls that could only belong to one man - Saul Hudson - better known as Slash.
"Live it's gonna be an honest rock band and that's enough for us now" Duff
The man himself arrives soon after, looking fresh, fit and trim. The only thing that's troubling him is that he's lost his wedding ring somewhere, most likely in the car, but he's sure it'll turn up (later Duff tells Slash he thinks it's come off because of the weight he's lost). Generally though, he's in good spirits and extremely keen to talk. And man, can he talk. While you might expect the Jack Daniels to have slowed his enunciation to a slow, cool, spaced-out drawl, Slash's conversation style is actually much more stream-of-consciousness, drifting from on-point to another, then back again with barely a pause. It doesn't take him long to bring Guitarist up to speed on the band's rollercoaster ride to date. Seatbelts on, deep breath, here goes…
In early 2002, Slash was in the process of putting a band together with Steve Gorman, the former Black Crowes drummer. Sadly, while they were in the process of auditioning bass players, their good friend drummer Randy Castillo (who'd played with Motley Crue and Ozzy Osbourne) died. Slash attended the funeral and afterwards he got chatting to Matt Sorum, who mentioned that a fundraiser was being planned for Randy's family. Sorum asked Slash if he'd like to jam at the event. Never one to turn down a jam, he agreed.
"You know me, I'm always up for a jam," Slash laughs, "so I said, Do you want to put a band together?" Matt called former GN'R bassist Duff McKagan, who was living in his hometown of Seattle at the time studying for a business degree. He agreed to take part, also mentioning that his friends Keith Nelson and Josh Todd from Buckcherry weren't doing anything right now and might be able to complete the line-up. "In the back of my mind I'd been thinking abut working with those guys anyway," claims Slash, "so we called them up and we met for one day of rehearsal." That first rehearsal proved a pivotal moment for Slash.
I DON'T KNOW how to explain it," recalls Slash, wrestling for the appropriate illustration, "…when you're playing with certain people - for me in this instance it was Matt and Duff - all of a sudden you're the fuckin' toughest thing in the world. Just that vibe. And it's weird, I hadn't felt like that for a while, I'd felt pretty much on my own. So we had a great time rehearsing and I didn't stop to think what it all meant."
The next day (29 April, 2002) the band played the memorial gig at the Key Club in LA. Arriving on stage under the name Cherry Roses at around 10pm, they played six songs, including Guns N' Roses classics such as Paradise City and It's So Easy, plus a rendition of Mama Kin with Steven Tyler on vocals.
"The place fuckin' exploded," recalls Slash. "It was like, Wow, this is really heavy. So the next day Duff and I talked and said, You know, we should probably do something with this. So that's when it started, with Keith and Josh."
Were you scared of reuniting with the old Gunners? "For each individual guy in Guns there's gotta have been some sort of self-realisation because Guns, just like any band worth its salt, was a tight unit that lived in its own world. After years and years of doing that, especially after turning in to a huge stadium band, your sense of reality, no matter how fuckin' grounded you try to keep, gets a little distorted. So we all had to go through these long periods of growth, and discovery and self-realisation. Really serious downs, chemical abuse situations to get sorted out, and for everybody it was different. For me, I would never have thought of jamming with any of the other guys in Guns N' Roses. I didn't mind jamming with Izzy from time to time, maybe as old boyfriends or girlfriends screw from time to time, but you don't want to go back to a heavy relationship. That's how it was with all the guys. But after all those years it wasn't about the fear of that, or wanting to go out and make a tone of money because of knowing that we could capitalize on that. It was totally innocent and totally naïve."
There must have been a worry that people thought you were doing it for those reasons?
"None of us were hanging out wondering what to do next. I was starting another band, I wasn't thinking about all that. But that vibe that was hard for me to explain to you, that energy we got from just getting into a room, especially all this time later, was so intense. Then when we got up on stage and played, you know what, it's too awesome a chemistry, to awesome a sound, too unique a fuckin' thing to blow it off. And I'm not going to blow off fuckin' anything because of the fuckin' redhead (err… guess that'll be Axl then - Ed). So we said, Fuck it. To this day, we have a lot of people with certain expectations, comparisons they want to make. And we don't fuckin' care. Because the thing that got this going was just a fresh raw desire to do more with this thing that we'd established."
Les Pauls, Marshalls, and Slash: THE classic rock combination
HOWEVER, ACCORDING TO Slash this incarnation of the band didn't turn out sounding quite the way he, Duff and Matt had imagined in their collective minds. Perhaps the sound was a little too Guns N' Roses MkII for its original members. Buckcherry had, after all, been dubbed a second-rate GN'R during their existence. But for whatever reason they soon parted company with Keith and Josh and welcomed second guitarist Dave Kushner in to the fray. An old school friend of Slash's, Kushner had played with a number of bands on the LA music scene, and his layered, effects-based style proved a good complement to Slash's straight-ahead ethos.
"Dave experiments with different shit all the time and has all these different wild little sounds that he uses," explains Slash. "And he's really good with it too because he's tasty about it. It's not going on through everything, he just adds here and there."
With Dave on board the band prepared to audition singers. One of the first vocalists they thought of was Scott Weiland, an associate of each band member in one way or another. Dave met Scott when his former band Electric Love Hogs supported STP in the nineties; Matt had been in rehab with him; Duff had become acquainted with him as their wives (both models) had become friends; while Slash and Scott had known each other for years. "It was one of those things," claims Slash, "where, as we didn't know anybody in this business right now who we even like that much, it didn't matter to us if they were in a band or not. It was, Who's the best guy, and he was the guy. But he was still in STP so nothing happened."
And so began a painstaking eight month auditioning process listening to tapes of some 200 singers a week.
"Of course, there were Axl copyists," Slash recalls, "complete fuckin' star-struck dreamer types and really, really accomplished singers who just weren't the right person. It's not like we knew definitely what it was we were after but with out background we'd know it when we heard it. Obviously if you walked in wearing a pair of shorts and Lacoste shirt with a sweater round your neck that wasn't going to be a winner. But we were really open-minded."
There's a good chance we'll be able to see quite how awful some of these wannabes were when the band eventually release footage of the auditioning process, which was recorded for TV channel VH1.
"Yeah, they were there for a lot of it, documenting what was going on. And we're looking to do something with that. They've got this huge amazing story of how it started all the way up to Scott coming in. We're probably gonna add some more stuff to it. A lot of people thought it was some kind of reality TV thing because at the time there was a lot of that going on. But it was more that I wanted to do a really honest 'rockumentary' because it's been so long since anyone put something like that out. When I was a kid that was the coolest shit you could find, a Hendrix documentary, or Cream. To this day the only DVDs I buy are on groups that I love. So that's what we were thinking."
While the auditions were continuing, another former Gunner, Izzy Stradlin, mysteriously began to show up at band rehearsals. Had he joined the band? Was a GN'R reunion even on the cards? Slash sets the record straight.
"There was one point when Izzy came in and we wrote a bunch of songs together. Izzy thought, Yeah we'll just sing ourselves , we'll go out book some clubs. Typical Izzy. It was a great idea but my aspirations were far more long term and a lot bigger. Izzy's always been like that. All the way up to when Izzy quit GN'R, when we were doing those stadiums, it was getting a little overwhelming for him. Just kickin' it in the clubs with a couple of beers, that was fine for him."
LUCKILY, AS THE search for a singer rumbled painfully on, an opportunity arose for the band to finally work with Weiland. The Stone Temple Pilots were still trying to get out of their deal with Atlantic and sign to a new label but progress was slow and the singer was becoming disillusioned. Slash sent Scott a CD of the material they were working on and it was enough to entice him down to rehearsals.
"We had theses two movies to do songs for and that was the catalyst for getting us together without putting Scott in the position of auditioning," explains Slash. "The first time we ever played live with Scott we'd written Set Me Free. The music was done, we gave it to him, he wrote the words. And he showed up on the day that we had all these film music producers there for our first real live performance. It was funny because you look back on it and think, you guys were crazy, but at the time we just got up there and did it. Cathy Nelson from Universal, who we ended up going with, she had The Italian Job they were talking about Money by Pink Floyd and we were like, Okay we can do that. It was a great way to get everybody together without any real pressure. If it all goes great, great, and if it doesn't, no big deal."
Was it a track you were familiar with personally?
"I knew what it sounded like. I remember learning it when I was stoned when I was about 15, in San Diego on a fuckin' hippy bus my girlfriend's dad used to drive across the country. It was parked at some lake and I do remember trying to learn the whole of the Dark Side Of The Moon album there. Gilmour's great, he's awesome, and I did pay quite a lot of homage to him on that track. I didn't want to make the solo quite as long, I took all the key licks and tied it together to one shorter solo. But I love Gilmour."
From that initial rehearsal, Weiland instantly clicked with the band. "It was funny," says Slash, "the day he walked in to rehearsal it was like, Wow, there's this guy. It was like he'd been in the band for 20 years. He had that certain kind of voice, that certain kind of swagger, and a certain kind of talent. He's very creative, and all that shit made him unique t the rest of us."
"Having recorded their first self-penned track, Set Me Free, for the Hulk soundtrack, Weiland was finally officially confirmed as Velvet Revolver's vocalist in early May of 2003. But on 17 May, just when the band finally seemed on track, Weiland was arrested for a driving offense and a search of his car uncovered drugs and syringes. He was charged with possession of heroin and cocaine. Sadly it was just the latest in a long line of drug offences that have dogged Weiland's career. He had been arrested twice before for drug possession in 1995 and 1997, and served time in prison in 1999 after a heroin overdose put him in violation of his probation terms. In 2002, having separated from his wife and with STP in limbo, he was in the throes of suicidal depression and heroin addiction had reasserted itself once again. Living alone as a recluse, meeting only with his dealer, these were desperate times for Scott. The opportunity to work with Velvet Revolver presented a flicker of light in his pitch-black existence, yet he was still unable to get clean. Having parted company with one apparently unhinged singer, it seemed the ex-Gunners had gained an equally troublesome replacement. And from an outsider's perspective, the idea of one junkie joining a band full of ex-junkies seemed like a recipe for disaster.
"I'm not gonna lie, there were moments of concern there," says Slash, "like, Is he gonna be okay? Are we gonna be able to take this to the next level? But he wanted to do it so badly. He was so willing to do what it took to get through this. Plus he wanted to play so fuckin' badly, and write badly, it was fuckin' him up anyway. It was good timing for him to hook up with us when he did. For the most part there was no support from anybody outside of us. We've all been there and that helped."
Velvet Revolver: alive, kicking, and heading our way
WEILAND GOT THREE years' probation and was also instructed to attend a court drug program, but the band ploughed on regardless and from July onwards they began the recording process. With the music written for 60 odd songs, a tape was made for Scott to pick what he wanted to sing. Once the tracks had been selected and worked on, the band entered the studio in October.
"We were looking for someone to capture the band's sound live. If you can do that, that's 75 per cent of the battle. In the end we chose Josh Abrahams (who's worked with Staind, Limp Bizkit and Courtney Love among others) and Ryan, his recording engineer, because they knew exactly how to get the vocals, the guitars and the drum sound. We didn't need someone to produce the record. We needed someone to record us. So we co-produced it with Josh."
With the basic tracks recorded at NRG, a studio in North Hollywood, the guitars were then re-done at Pulse, Josh Abrahams' studio.
"I've always gone back to re-record because I hate playing with headphones," admits Slash. "I never get a good sound. I've gotten better at it over the years, but I always go in with the mindset of going back and getting in to the control room and blasting away with huge speakers. The funny thing was I told Josh Abrahams I like to do that but Josh is one of those new school producers and the day I came in to do overdubs there was nothing but small Yamaha NS10s on top of the board. I said, Sorry I need really huge monitors to do this. So one of the songs on the record I recorded through NS10s (see Track-By-Track for details), which you can't crank too loud because they blow up, while waiting for the right sized monitors to come in. It was a different experience for me and the track sounds really good, probably just because I've gotten better, more professional over the years."
Slash continues to use his fake Les Paul - a 1959 replica made by luthier Chris Derrig in the mid-eighties - for recording purposes.
"That was my main Les Paul for the whole record. The thing is, maybe I'm just too single-minded or one dimensional, but as far as an overall rock'n'roll sound goes, for me when you get it right you don't want to fuck around with it too much. I've only got one other guitar that sounds remotely like it and it's built by the same guy and I got it less than a couple of years ago. He's got an amazing catalogue of guitars, he's built some of the prettiest sunburst '59s you've ever seen."
Were the solos planned out at all this time?
"You known, in the early Guns days the solos were a little bit more thought out, I have t admit. As time goes by, I realize that when solo sections get a little bit complex, it gets to sound a bit corny. So most of these are real improve. I think Fall To Pieces had been the same since the first day I wrote it, You Got No Right is now a worked out solo piece but at the time it was spontaneous. I like having more go-for-the-throat solo sections rather than big structured ones. I'm not out to impress anyone, you know." Unfortunately, the recording of Scott's vocals proved rather more time-consuming as, once again, he had fallen fowl of the law. On 27 October, the day of his 36th birthday, Weiland crashed his BMW into several parked cars and attempted to flee the scene. He was charged with hit-and-run offences and driving under the influence. A judge ordered him to a detox facility in Pasadena, then to a lockdown facility. He was given permission to leave for four hours a day under supervision to record with the band, and was tested for drugs on his return. His vocal tracks were eventually completed in late December, and although Weiland remains under supervision at the time of writing, if he can stay drug-free he'll be able to join the band full-time this June. At last, after all the hype and screw-ups, it seems the band are ready to be judged on the music. Tour dates have been announced and the album, Contraband, will be released in the UK on 7 June. The most hyped rock'n'roll band on the planet will be among us very soon, and Slash for one, can't wait.
"I'm pretty fuckin' positive. At this point it could be any one of us t fall off the fuckin' track because we all have the same problems. Or some variation on the theme. Basically we're all in this together so we stuck it out and we all went through it together. Everyone was saying, You'll never pull it off, it'll never happen. We fought against that all the way. And we're ready to prove them wrong." G