Guns N' Roses: Chinese Whispers
Ten years on, in 2001, Axl once again needed Zutaut’s help to finish a project. But once again, nothing would happen until Zoot tried again to explain what had happened between him and Axl’s ex-wife.
“After I told him, he said, ‘Can I really truly believe that? Do you swear to God?’ And I said, ‘Axl, I swear to God.’ And he’s like, ‘I just can’t believe that fucking bitch lied to me.’
“He finally looked at me and said, ‘Okay, we’ve got that out of the way. Now we can move forward.’ ”
Having cleared the first hurdle, Zutaut then had to prove he could help in the studio. “Here was the Axl that I met in 1985 again,” he says, “a guy that had a vision and wanted to make the best record that had ever been made. And we talked, and he said, ‘I go to the studio, I tell ’em what I want, and they tell me that they’ve got what I want, and then when I listen to it I’m bummed out.’ He goes, ‘Nobody seems to understand my language.’ ”
The two men talked continuously for six hours as Axl brought Zutaut up to speed on the state of Chinese Democracy. Fully briefed, Zutaut entered the studio the next day without Axl and met with Roy Thomas Baker, with whom he had worked at Elektra Records. Axl had asked Zutaut to help with the drum sound for the album’s title track. The singer had told Baker that he wanted the same drum sound as Dave Grohl on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the breakthrough hit from the group’s album Nevermind. Baker and his production crew claimed they had it, but Axl was not satisfied.
After hearing the track for himself, Zutaut agreed with Axl. He took a break and went to the local Tower Records, where he bought a copy of Nevermind. Back in the studio, he and Baker set to work matching the drum sounds. “I guess maybe they heard the Nirvana hits on the radio and they just thought that they knew the sound,” Zutaut says. “But none of them had thought to just go buy the album and listen to it.”
They sent the finished recording to the Axl, who called Zutaut straight away. “I’ve only been asking for that for, like, six fucking months!” he said. “I wish I’d called you a couple of years ago. Can you come out here and do this?” Zutaut said he’d talk to Interscope/Geffen about it. He would, after all, be working for the label, not Axl.
A week later, the two parties were still trying to agree on a fee when Axl telephoned Zutaut. “He said, ‘I don’t give a fuck about the money. Whatever it takes. I just know I need you here to move forward, ’cause I’ve been spinning my wheels for at least six months. I’m gonna tell ’em they have to give you the money if they want the record.’ ”
Zutaut got what he wanted with one compromise: he agreed to make part of his fee contingent upon completing the album by the
label’s deadline. It was, in essence, a wager. “Which, of course, I lost.
“But back then, I felt that I could get it done no problem. It was like Use Your Illusion and Appetite all over again. I know what Axl wants, I can get it out of the crew that are in there now. RTB [Roy Thomas Baker] and I worked at Elektra Records for two years so, you know, no problem! By deferring some of the money to a trigger date on delivery of the record, Interscope saved some money and they got my services, and everybody was happy.”
THE RETURN OF BUCKETHEAD
Buckethead had already joined and quit Guns N’ Roses by the time Zutaut signed onto Chinese Democracy. One of the producer’s first tasks was to get the guitarist back.
Born Brian Carroll in 1969, Buckethead began to demonstrate his guitar virtuosity as a young teenager after taking lessons for a year from future Mr. Big guitarist Paul Gilbert. By the time Buckethead joined Guns N’ Roses in 2000, he had released five solo albums of dysfunctional funk metal and scorching shred guitar and built up a sizeable cult following, particularly among guitar players. With his blank white mask and signature KFC bucket hat, Buckethead was the anti Slash, a quality that made him an inspired replacement. (GN’R fans briefly flirted with rumors that Buckethead was Slash in disguise. To this day Paul Gilbert gets asked if he’s Buckethead.)
Zutaut arranged to meet privately with the guitarist at a Los Angeles deli. There, Buckethead poured out his numerous complaints. Chief among them were an incompatibility with Roy Thomas Baker and frustration with coming to the studio every day, even when Axl was not present, and playing the same parts repeatedly. Axl, he explained, is his hero, but after a year in the studio, Buckethead was convinced Chinese Democracy would never come out. He just wanted to get on with his life.
When Buckethead was finished speaking, Zutaut began laying out his case. “Look,” he said, “I got almost six albums out of GN’R. I’m talking to Axl every day. I feel pretty good. I think I can get the record finished.”
He also had plenty of praise for the guitarist. “You’re a genius,” Zutaut told him, “I’d love to work with you. You’re one of the few people that can be in GN’R and make GN’R special the way Slash made it special. I promise you that I will be in the studio with you every day, and I will help you get what you want done, and I won’t tell you to be Slash.”
What, Zutaut asked, could he do to make the recording experience better for him? Suddenly, says Zutaut, “he went into Buckethead mode. I was talking to Brian, who was confiding in me, and suddenly he was Buckethead, and he was telling me some story about how his mum was a hen and his dad was a rooster. I couldn’t tell whether it was fantasy or reality or who I was even talking to. But he believed it!
“Then it’s like Brian comes back and he’s kinda saying, ‘You know I’d really like to make a movie of my life story and how I was raised in a chicken coop. It’s the only place where I really feel comfortable.’ ”
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