Guns N' Roses: Chinese Whispers
NEW EYEBALLS IN A SECRET CLUB
Zutaut settled into the day-to-day work of trying to get the album made. Feeling like “the new eyeballs in a secret club,” he saw how money and time were being squandered.
“One of the things that Interscope wanted me to do was have a look at the budget and try to figure out where all of this money was going.” He noticed “an astronomical amount” being spent on rented gear that was not being used. “It’s a bit of a luxury to have a ’59 Les Paul at however many thousands of dollars a month when it isn’t even being used. Maybe one day three years ago they needed this piece of gear, but now the track it was used on isn’t even still being considered. We’d paid enough in rental for it that we could have bought it.” In the end, he recalls that he reduced the monthly costs by $75,000 in rental equipment alone.
Axl Rose’s irregular time keeping was also causing its own problems. “He’d come to the studio once or twice a week,” Zutaut says, “and then we might be there for two weeks because he stays to work on stuff. Or he might come at four in the afternoon and work ’til midnight the next day. It didn’t bother me, because this was how GN’R had always operated. Whether it’s Axl, Duff, Slash or Izzy or whoever, when these guys want to record, you record ’em. This is not a nine-to-five job for them.”
However, several nine-to-fivers were being employed on the sessions, even on days when nothing was happening. “Musicians, engineers, Pro Tools guys, assistant engineers—in all honesty, these fucking people are getting paid shitloads of money, and they’re sitting on their ass doing nothing because Axl’s not coming to the studio and they can’t get him on the phone. So you’ve got all these people sucking money out of him doing nothing, spinning their wheels. They’re inventing ways to stay busy.”
Apart from the administrative work, 95 percent of Zutaut’s job was to listen to all the songs. “There were probably 50 or 60 songs on four or five CDs with 12 to 15 songs a piece,” he recalls. “I had to go through those songs and then sit with Axl and work with him directly to pick and choose which songs would be worth finishing.”
A nocturnal worker, Rose would spend the night listening to tracks Zutaut and Baker had worked on that day. At two or three in the afternoon, he would wake up, call the studio and tell what he liked and didn’t. Slowly, the album was coming together.
“We were finishing tracks,” Zutaut confirms. “Doing overdubs with Buckethead and Robin Finck and some stuff with Tommy Stinson. I felt we had a well-finished version of ‘The Blues,’ ‘Madagascar’ and ‘Chinese Democracy.’ ‘Atlas Shrugged’ was pretty good.” Though Josh Freese had laid down the original drum tracks, he was no longer in the band. “And because of Axl’s belief that the record is supposed to be the energy of the people involved in creating it, we had to replace Josh Freese’s drumming,” Zutaut explains. “And his drumming was spectacular.” The task fell to Brian “Brain” Mantia. “I would not have wanted to be in Brain’s shoes,” Zutaut says. “Basically we were saying to him, ‘We have got a brilliant performance of this and now we need you to recreate it.’ ”
BLACK HAWK DOWN
Problems between Zutaut and Rose began to surface around the same time that mixes were being finished. Direct Ridley Scott had requested permission to use “Welcome to the Jungle” in his movie Black Hawk Down, and negotiations had begun to see if he would accept a remade version featuring the new Guns N’ Roses lineup.
Rose and Zutaut disagreed on the wisdom of remaking the track. According to Beta Lebeis, Axl felt it would be too difficult to recut the track in the middle of finishing Chinese Democracy. She recalls that he told Zutaut, “ ‘Listen, we’re making the album. Now we have to stop and do this?” But Zutaut claims that the band had already rerecorded the song. “Part of Axl’s induction process for his new band was that they rerecorded every song off of Appetite,” he says. “We just had to spend a day mixing it.”
To resolve the matter, Rose and Zutaut requested a private screening of the movie. When Axl showed up, he was shocked to find a group of strangers in the theater. Certain that Zutaut had misled him about the screening in order to gain an advantage, Rose turned on the producer. “He said, ‘I can’t believe you lied to me about this,” Zutaut says. “You told me it was a private screening! You’re fired!’ ”
Zutaut believes he was set up by someone looking to discredit him, though Rose’s camp denies the accusation. Whatever the truth, Zutaut was off the album. A few months later, so was Roy Thomas Baker. Buckethead hung on until 2004. When he left, the band issued the following statement: “During his tenure with the band, Buckethead has been inconsistent and erratic in both his behavior and his commitment, despite being under contract, creating uncertainty and confusion and making it virtually impossible to move forward with recording, rehearsals, and live plans with confidence. His transient lifestyle has made it near impossible for even his closest friends to have nearly any form of communications with him whatsoever.”
Here, in the middle of 2008, it doesn’t seem too far fetched to suggest that Chinese Democracy, by its very title alone, is intended to be a never-ending project—an impossibility that, from time to time, seems convincingly within reach. Zutaut dismisses the notion. He points out that not only did Rose demonstrate a clear intention to finish the album but the vast majority had been finished while he worked on it. “By the time I left, I felt that there were probably 11 or 12 tracks that just needed need final mixes. We could have had a record out for September 2002. I don’t think it would have been an issue. I would have given it another three months for a few more overdubs and three for mixing and, worst-case scenario, [it would have been] out spring of ’03.”
In February 2004, after yet another missed deadline, Geffen wrote to GN’R’s management: “Having exceeded all budgeted and approved recording costs by millions of dollars,” the label wrote, “it is Mr. Rose’s obligation to fund and complete the album, not Geffen’s.”
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