Interview, Part 1: Leslie West Discusses His New Album, 'Unusual Suspects'
photo by Chris Marksbury
Recently it was my great honor to sit down with rock legend -- and one of my all-time favorite players -- Leslie West to talk about his new record, Unusual Suspects.
The album features Leslie's classic searing and smooth guitar tone, as well as guest performances by music heavyweights like Slash, Zakk Wylde, Joe Bonamassa, Steve Lukather, Kenny Aronoff and Billy Gibbons.
Leslie had me fascinated and laughing my ass off.
This is part 1 of our one-hour conversation. Stay tuned for part 2.
For someone who has accomplished so much, Unusual Suspects sounds like you had something to prove. Was that the case?
I don't think I had anything to prove; I think we just made a good record. It came out much better than I had anticipated. I was writing the songs starting from about six years ago, and when you put it all together you don't know what it will be like until you listen to it. It was only maybe a month ago that it came out when I got to listen to it.
“One More Drink For The Road” is a great lead-off track. How did that one come to be?
My songwriting partner, Joe Pizza, wrote it a long time ago. I’m not really a drinker; it’s just an expression. But it turned into a really good shuffle, like a boogie. And Steve Lukather played great acoustic guitar in the front behind the piano. He just walked into the studio one day and Zakk Wylde was there recording with me and Steve was close by and wanted to see my producer, and I said, “Steve, you’re just the one to do this,” and I gave him the part I wanted him to play. He is such a great studio musician, I knew he could knock it out in two minutes. I was really thrilled he was on there.
I saw you last year at the Winter NAMM show performing for the Dean Guitars NAMM Jam. Your voice was just wow; that's what impressed me the most. What do you do to keep your voice in shape?
Yeah, Dave, I stopped doing drugs (laughs). I also stopped smoking, but yeah, it has seemed to really make a difference. I get more wind and better range. Not that singing was ever my strong suit. Somebody wrote once about me that the vocals were an excuse to get to the guitar solos, and I don't think it's like that anymore (laughs).
“Mud Flap Mama” is a great song. Tell me about that one.
My wife Jenny wrote the lyrics, and I didn't want to do anything with my wife because of what happened with Felix Pappalardi and his wife Gail writing the lyrics, and then she ended up shooting and killing him. So I just had a bad taste on working with your wife, you know? And Yoko Ono and the Beatles and the whole fucking thing. I was reading a story a long time ago and it said, “in walked Yoko, and Paul said, 'Oh no!'”
But I looked at the lyrics and all of a sudden I started to play the slide guitar and I came up with that riff and I started singing and fooling around with the words, and it turned out great. And it's funny; in Europe people don't know what a mud flap girl is and I had to explain to them that on the trucks the mud flaps stop the mud from kicking dirt up into other people's cars and windshields, but they didn’t know what it was, so in some of the interviews I was trying to explain it. Every truck stop you go to though they sell mud flaps that have that girl on it and it sort of looks like my wife. And having Slash play on the song with me worked out great.
What was the recording process like as a whole for the record? Did it go by pretty quickly?
No, I started working on it about a year ago. I did preproduction in New Jersey here at Intermedia Studios. My partner Joe, the songwriter, he owns it with his partner Ronnie, who owns one of the biggest generic pharmaceutical companies in the country. It's right here in Jersey. I went to school with him. My wife works with Joe. His real name is Pizza, believe it or not. Joe Pizza.
What are your thoughts on music piracy?
What, you mean people stealing my shit?
Well, in Europe we started our own bootleg label because there was so much bootleg shit out there. I was tired of seeing people coming up to us at concerts with boxes of albums that never were albums and asking me to sign them. It just pissed me off. It's almost like someone sticking their hands in your pocket and trying to pick your pockets. It's stealing, you know? And even some of my friends who are musicians, they get real excited and say, "Wow, I've got this great bootleg of Hendrix," and I say really? It pisses me off.
Good idea to come up with your own bootleg label.
Yeah, we came up with our own series because all those fake bootleg albums were not intended to be released. You want it to sound good, not like somebody sitting in the audience with a microphone recording it. It bothers me and I'm sure it doesn't bother a lot of people, but it bothers me. So in England we had the idea to start our own bootleg series. At least it was stuff that we liked.
Stuff you've officially authorized; that's the way it should be.
Yeah, so we did that, and I'm sure there are a lot of artists that are really pissed off; and there are certain albums that people show me and they’ll say, “Look at this bootleg I’ve got of you in Prague," and I say, "Fuck, that show sucked." And they're so proud of it that they have this and then they want you to sign it. At first I was not aware and I was like, “Wow, sure I'll sign it.” But then I realized what was going on and I said fuck that. At least let me like what I'm putting out.
The song “The Moon” is incredible. You can really feel all that you've gone through in that track. Also I thought it was interesting that there were no special guests on that one. Was this song a personal statement you had to make on your own? What does the song mean to you?
Well, I'll tell you exactly what it means to me. It means when I was getting high I would just keep getting high. Especially after a show, you just keep getting high. I'd say let me see how fucked up I can get. Let me go to the moon. Then, of course, at the end of the song I find out I was already on the moon. And a friend of mine, Del Bronham, from this group Stray in England from the '70s, I was over in Scotland touring and my tour manager was friends with Del and it was a solo tour. Me on guitar and Todd Wolfe who was Sheryl Crow's guitar player, and then when Todd had to leave we came back to do some shows in Spain and Del came out and we spent some time together and he helped me write some of the lyrics.
He knew exactly what I was talking about. It came out so much better than I had anticipated. Fabrizio Grossi did a great job producing and I had no idea the song was going to come out that well. He said to me, “You know when you start singing and playing it reminds me of The Doors, the feel of The Doors." And when all of a sudden it goes into the heavy part in the middle and just hits you in the chest, like holy shit. It impressed me and if it impressed me, you know? I have to like something before I can expect someone else to like it. Believe it or not, it's probably my favorite song on the album.
In the videos I've seen, you seem like you really have a great sense of humor. Out of all your fellow Dean guitar artists, when you guys are hanging at the NAMM show, is there a particular group of people you really have a good time joking around with?
I like hanging out with Michael Schenker because it's hard to understand a fucking word he says (laughs). He speaks pretty good English; Uli too. Going up there is great. You get to see guys you haven't seen in forever. In fact, I should've been on tour with Uli and Michael now but believe it or not, we could not find a tour bus for me that had a wheelchair lift. Because I can't walk on my leg with a walker; I'm just learning. I’ve only had it for a few weeks.
But there is not one tour bus in the whole United States that is equipped with a wheelchair lift on the outside. The aisles on a bus are very narrow and this one company was going to do a bus and they were willing to do it for free, but there wasn't enough time for them to rip it apart and make the insides bigger, the aisles bigger and make it easier to get into the bathroom to shower, and so there wasn’t enough time to do it. So we had to put it off and postpone the tour. I thought I would be ready, but I didn't realize we were going to run into that problem.
When you do reschedule the shows, it’s going to be a happening tour. Everybody's really excited about that one.
Yeah, we were all looking forward to it. It would've been fun, so maybe we can do it in Europe or something after the 1st of the year. I go to the hospital three times a week -- Kessler Rehab, which is a world-renowned place. Christopher Reeve was there when he got paralyzed. It's a rehab for amputees, people with brain trauma and brain injuries, and I'm trying to learn a lot. I used to walk one foot in front of another, you know, and now I go walk and use my hip and butt muscle to bring the artificial leg around.
They amputated the leg above the knee. If I would've had it below the knee it would've been easier, but they told me it would've meant we might have had to do two or three more amputations because they couldn't get high enough up where it was away from the blood clot. My wife actually saved my life because they put me in a coma for two days in Mississippi trying to bust the clot. They did bust it up, but my blood was so thin at that point that it was going all through my body and it was toxic. And she made them wake me up.
They put me on Propofol, believe it or not, for two days, and she wanted them to wake me up so she could tell me, “Listen, this is what's going to happen." She didn't want me to all a sudden one day say, “You cut my leg off." I made a joke with her. I said, you know honey, I meant to say, "Pass the salt” and it came out, “You evil bitch, you cut my leg off” (laughs).
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