Slash: The Lone Gun
Originally published in Guitar World, May 2010
It’s been two years since Velvet Revolver misfired, but Slash hasn’t been sitting on the sidelines. With a new solo album and a slew of guest appearances, the guitarist is locked, loaded and ready for action.
For the past few years, Slash, arguably the most celebrated rock guitarist of his generation, has been, for all intents, a man without a band. It was back in the early part of 2008 that Velvet Revolver, that uneasy mix of three parts Guns N’ Roses and one part Stone Temple Pilots, went off the rails in the midst of a U.K. tour in support of their second album, Libertad. Months of tension between singer Scott Weiland and his bandmates eventually erupted into a fullblown war of words that began onstage at a show in Glasgow, continued online the following day, and ended on paper on April 1 of that year, when Slash and the rest of VR—bassist Duff McKagan, drummer Matt Sorum and guitarist Dave Kushner—released a written statement through their management confirming Weiland had been sacked. Slash declared at the time that Weiland’s “increasingly erratic onstage behavior and personal problems have forced us to move on.”
It hardly requires stating that this was not the first time a clash with an errant lead singer had compelled Slash to “move on.” And yet, while Velvet Revolver have remained dormant as their search for a new frontman continues, Slash has been far from idle. In fact, he’s possibly been more active than ever, popping up with regularity alongside a slew of big and varied names, and in a wide range of arenas. He’s been spotted at the Avalon in Hollywood, jamming with Perry Farrell, Dave Navarro, Tom Morello and others; at a festival in Kristiansand, Norway, riffing on Sabbath and Stones classics with Ozzy Osbourne and Ron Wood; and at the House of Blues in L.A., trading leads with Joe Perry on the blues classic “Walkin’ the Dog.” And then there are the odder outings—performing at the Grammys with Jamie Foxx, T-Pain and Doug E. Fresh; with Will.i.am on a remix of the Who’s “My Generation”; and on a cover of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” with Adam Lambert and other contestants on American Idol. For a musician whose official band status currently reads “on hiatus,” Slash has been a very busy boy. At times, by his own estimation, too busy.
“I tend to bite off more than I can chew,” he says, relaxing at home in L.A. on a February morning. It’s a relatively quiet day for the 44-year-old guitarist, and yet, even at this early hour he’s already been up and out—somebody, after all, has to take the kids to school. “The thing is, if something comes up that sounds interesting, I’m usually gonna say, ‘Okay, cool,’ and give it a shot.” He points to a recent one-off collaboration as an example. “Steve Lukather asked me to record with him and [jazz-fusion great] Lee Ritenour for a song on Lee’s new album. And I said, ‘Sure—what day?’ And I put it in my calendar and quickly forgot about it.”
He laughs. “So one night I’m home, my wife’s asleep, and I’m sitting around watching TV, like, Fuck it, I guess I’ll just go to bed. And then my Blackberry goes off and it’s a text from [Lukather], and he’s like ‘Dude, where the fuck are you?’ And I just thought, Oh shit! Today was the day! So now it’s midnight, and I jump in my car and fly down to the studio to lay down guitar on this, like, syncopated, rock-fusion type thing that I’ve never even played before. I had to sort of just get it together and make it up on the spot, with these two incredible guitarists flanking me on either side. So that’s kind of the way things have been going for me.”
It’s a typical Slash-style tale, wherein the guitarist, Les Paul in hand and top hat on head, manages to remain calm, collected and characteristically cool while standing in the eye of a rock and roll hurricane. Which brings us to a bigger story and, in many ways, the crowning achievement of Slash’s many collaborative projects over the years: his new, and first, solo album. The disc, titled simply Slash, finds the guitarist playing alongside his own wish list of musical talent, including three of his former Guns N’ Roses bandmates and more than a dozen of his favorite vocalists, from legends like Ozzy, Lemmy and Iggy Pop to rock contemporaries like Avenged Sevenfold’s M. Shadows and Wolfmother’s Andrew Stockdale to pop stars like Fergie and Maroon 5’s Adam Levine. Not bad for a guy who once lamented his recurrent search for a lead singer as “the story of my life.”
As for attempting to pull off a project essentially jam-packed with singers, Slash says, “The idea to do something like this stemmed partly from the fact that over the years I’ve played on so many things for other people. I enjoy doing that, but at the same time to just go in, lay down some guitar on someone else’s song and then leave, is not 100 percent satisfying for me. I found that, in a lot of cases, I would have liked to get involved in the songwriting process with some of these artists. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while.”
Time, however, was not always permitting. But in a move similar to how, in his tumultuous last days with Guns N’ Roses, Slash found respite in the cozier confines of his own Slash’s Snakepit, the Velvet Revolver upheaval provided an opening for him to pursue this latest outing. “During that last Velvet tour, all the frustration from years and years of being in a band came to a head for me,” he says. “And at that point I thought, You know what? This is the perfect time for me to just focus on doing what I want to do, to regroup and get my head together, and just be the captain of my own ship—even if only for a minute.”
Slash began compiling ideas for what would become his solo album while still on the road with Velvet Revolver during that last ill-fated U.K. trek. Riffs were born on buses and in dressing rooms, with no clear idea of how—or where—they would eventually surface. But with the tour completed and Weiland sent packing, Slash began composing in earnest for what would be his own project. Around the same time, he befriended the father of one of his son’s schoolmates, an engineer who had turned his home garage into a recording studio. “Eventually,” Slash says, “I started going over to his place and cutting demos.” He added bass and drum parts to his initial guitar riffs, fleshing out arrangements and working up the skeletons of songs.
“I’m pretty old-school,” Slash says of his demoing process. “So my M.O. was essentially this: Here is a piece of music—some guitar, some bass, a shitty drum machine. Basically, I was just trying to get to something that sounded good enough to play for people. But what was happening was, whenever I had an idea and I listened back to it I would think, Who would sound good singing this song? And it would just come to me, like ‘Kid Rock would be great for this.’ Or, ‘Chris Cornell would sound great on that.’ ” He laughs. “After that, I just had to muster up the nerve to send tapes to all these guys and talk them into doing it.”
Shitty drum machine notwithstanding, most of his prospects, not surprisingly, required little in the way of convincing. (Though there were the rare holdouts—notably Jack White and Dave Grohl, each of whom offered his services as an instrumentalist but declined to contribute vocals. White does not appear on the album, while Grohl can be heard bashing away on the drum kit on the instrumental track “Watch This,” with McKagan on bass and Slash unleashing some blistering wah and talk box–drenched leads.) From there, it was a matter of working with the artist to build off Slash’s initial demo. “There were no lyrics or vocal melodies on anything,” he says. “That’s not my deal. So it was really open season for whoever was going to sing the song to take it wherever they wanted. We’d get together, discuss it, work out some ideas, and then later on they’d come in and lay it down.”
The end result is an album that has its share of surprising moments, such as the electrostrip club grind of “Beautiful Dangerous,” with Fergie, and the spare, fingerpicked ballad “Saint Is a Sinner Too,” which features a lilting vocal performance from Rocco DeLuca. At the same time, the sound is incredibly familiar—as it should be, given that Slash is not just a rock and roll icon but also a rock and roll fan. To that end, when paired with a singer he clearly reveres, Slash happily indulges in that artist’s signature sound. As such, “Crucify the Dead” finds Ozzy Osbourne wailing over an ominously Sabbathian chugging riff; “Doctor Alibi” pits Lemmy’s gravelly vocals against a suitably dirty, biker-rock groove; and the tongue-in-cheek “We’re All Gonna Die” (follow-up line: “So let’s get high”), with Iggy Pop, is a bare-bones, four-on-the-floor-style romp. “Iggy was actually the first guy to come in and record,” Slash says of the Stooges legend. “He just showed up, banged out his part and was gone. It was quick and easy. He really set the pace for the whole album.”
That pace was considerably more straightforward and efficient than should be expected from an effort that trades on such star power. In fact, the basic instrumental tracks for the songs on Slash are the sound of a power trio making quick work in the studio. Slash enlisted one-time Jane’s Addiction bassist Chris Chaney and ex–Nine Inch Nails drummer Josh Freese, both pedigreed session men who travel in similar L.A. rock circles as the guitarist, to join him on the recording. (In a further six-degrees-like connection, Freese is an alumnus of one of the many Chinese Democracy–era lineups of Guns N’ Roses.) Working off the same rough demos Slash had been sending to prospective singers, the three often hammered out finished song arrangements in one day’s time. “We would get things to a point that felt good, and where we knew what the parts were, and that was about it,” Slash says. “I come from a simple place—I’m a perfectionist, but only to a certain point. It’s a ‘close enough for rock and roll’ sort of thing.”
Recording commenced in May of last year, when Slash booked the trio into the L.A. studio of producer Eric Valentine (Queens of the Stone Age, All-American Rejects), who also helmed the project. In keeping with the streamlined approach to the working process, Slash likewise pared down his gear. He tracked his guitar parts with his Kris Derrig–built Les Paul, the now-famous copy he acquired during the sessions for Appetite for Destruction and also employed as his main instrument on that record. Slash has made use of this particular Les Paul to some extent on every album he has recorded in the years since; this time, it was his only studio guitar.
“Over the years, beginning with the Use Your Illusion albums and all the way through Snakepit and Velvet, recording guitars became this thing of, If you want a different sound, grab a different instrument,” Slash says. “So I’d start with a Les Paul, and then maybe add in a Tele, or a Strat, or a Gretsch. But I’ve come to realize that just never does anything for me—I’m always left with this sort of unsatisfied feeling. So for this record I narrowed it down to the one guitar I’ve been recording with since Appetite, and that’s it.”
In a similar vein, when it came to amps he stuck primarily to just one, an Eighties Marshall JCM800 that he pulled from his collection of that model. “I just went through all these heads I had in storage until I found one that sounded really great,” he says. “A funny thing is, for the first song we recorded, which was the Iggy Pop tune, the amp was unbiased. It was all tweaked out and crackly, but there was something about that sound. So we tracked the song with the amp all fucked up, and then I had it biased and used it on the rest of the record.”
Slash cut two rhythm tracks for each song, often combining the Marshall with a different amp on one of the tracks to imply a dual-guitar sound. “We’d layer in, say, an Orange, or a Magnatone, or a Vox, and then pan the guitars left and right to really separate the parts,” he says. He strung his guitar, as always, with Ernie Ball .011s, and kept effects to a minimum. “I used some old fuzzes, an MXR Blue Box, a talk box, a wah, some other things. I have basically a big a tub filled with pedals, and Eric [Valentine] has a bunch of old-school stuff too. So we would grab something when we needed it but didn’t really go crazy with anything.”
The sessions, Slash says, “went like gangbusters. We did the basic tracks live, and then we’d have a singer come in and lay down the vocals, usually in a day. The only guys who didn’t come down to the studio were Ozzy and Kid Rock—Ozzy did his part up at his house in L.A., and Kid Rock recorded his song [“I Hold On”] back in Michigan. But one of the charming things about this whole process was getting the chance to work with all these artists in a very laid-back, just-for-the-fun-of-it setting. And because people weren’t feeling any type of pressure whatsoever, I think we wound up with some amazing performances. And that’s a testament to how simple and easy things can be. When you do something just because you enjoy doingit, you get some magic moments.”
For Slash, some of those magic moments were found where he least expected them. “One of the biggest surprises for me,” he says, “was ‘Gotten’ [with Adam Levine]. I love Adam to death, and we’ve been friends for years, but I can’t say that I’m someone who listens to Maroon 5 too much. But the piece of music I had, with the string parts and all that, it would have never worked if I had brought it to, say, Velvet Revolver. The only person that I thought had a smooth enough voice for it was Adam. So he and I got together at his house and worked it out. And when he came to the studio, it was one of the most amazing things. He sang that song as flawless as it sounds on the record—perfect falsetto, perfect intonation. He was incredible.
“It was a similar thing with Rocco DeLuca,” he continues. “I had been looking for someone with that high, clean type of voice for ‘Saint Is a Sinner Too,’ to go along with all the fingerpicking stuff in that song. I had actually thought of [Radiohead’s] Thom Yorke, but then a friend played me some songs off one of Rocco’s albums and it just seemed like a perfect match. He has that ethereal vibe.” Other high points? “ ‘Nothing to Say,’ with M. Shadows—that was a fun one,” Slash says. “It’s probably the first time I’ve been able to get away with playing a straight-up metal song. And then Fergie. I already knew that she could sing rock and roll [Slash and Fergie had earlier collaborated on a version of “Paradise City,” which appears as a bonus track on Slash]. But when everyone else hears ‘Beautiful Dangerous,’ they’re gonna be like, whoa!”
But perhaps the most hotly anticipated guest spot for longtime Slash fans belongs to his reclusive one-time Guns N’ Roses co-guitarist, Izzy Stradlin, who contributes to the album’s leadoff track, “Ghost” (which features the Cult’s Ian Astbury on vocals). Slash opens the song with a characteristic repeating single-note pattern high on the neck before Stradlin joins in with wide, ringing chords that outline the chord progression. As on much of their classic work together, Slash plays dirty and aggressive throughout, while Stradlin stays loose and Stonesy.
“Musically, ‘Ghost’ is very much a ‘Slash’ kind of thing,” Slash says. “It’s a way I put shit together that goes all the way back to the Guns days. So once the music was completed, I immediately thought of Izzy. It just seemed like his style of playing would be perfect. Hecame down to the studio one day with this hollowbody guitar and a little amp. He got there before I did, as usual, and by the time I showed up he was done.” He laughs. “But it was cool, because there’s a certain kind of audible personality that happens when Izzy and I put our guitars together. It’s instantaneous.”
Though his musical connection with Stradlin runs deep, Slash says the relationship fills a different space in his life than it once did. “It’s always fun to play with Izzy,” he says. “And within the context of Guns N’ Roses, it was essential for me. When he quit, it definitely created a void, which slowly and surely led to the demise of the band. From that point on it just started to fall apart. So he was indispensible.
“Then, with Velvet Revolver,” he continues, “Izzy came in and jammed with us in the very early days. We wrote a bunch of songs together, and it was cool. I loved working with him, but when he left that time, it wasn’t necessarily as crucial to the survival of the band. It was nice to get back together with him for this album, because we hadn’t recorded together in a really long time.”
And yet, as much as he may enjoy getting together in a musical context with several of his former Guns bandmates, Slash admits he is conscious of taking things only to a point. Step over a certain line, he says, and the always-churning rumor mill heats up to an even greater degree. It is partly the reason why, a few years back, he agreed to show up at an event at the Key Club in L.A. marking the 20th anniversary of the release of Appetite for Destruction but balked at performing onstage with Stradlin, McKagan and original drummer Steven Adler. It’s also why, although the three ex-Gunners all appear on Slash, they do so on separate tracks: Stradlin on “Ghost,” McKagan with Grohl on “Watch This” and Adler, with Alice Cooper, Flea and the Pussycat Dolls’ Nicole Scherzinger, on the bonus cut “Baby Can’t Drive.”
“You put too many of us together,” Slash says of his former bandmates, “and instantly it becomes sort of a Guns knockoff. So I couldn’t be like, ‘Hey, I’ll get Izzy and Duff on this one!’ As much as we enjoy each other’s company and playing together, we’re all very aware of that aspect of it.”
Besides, there’s little need for Slash to jump deliberately into the reunion rumor fray—not when he’s continually pulled in by no accord of his own. Take the recent flare-up on Twitter, where the guitarist, who posts regularly to his own page, raised the idea of organizing a benefit concert to help victims of the earthquake in Haiti. This was, in short order, followed by a tweet from Axl Rose, who ranted, “Pretty low n’ selfish usin’ the devastation in Haiti 2 start (false) reunion rumors.” Slash contends his initial post was in no way meant to suggest a Guns N’ Roses reunion. Furthermore, he says, “I don’t know if Axl was talking to me or talking to fans who took what I said and then started writing that a reunion would be a great way to raise money. Either way, I just try to stay out of it.
“But all things considered,” he adds with a laugh, “it probably would have been a great idea, as far as fundraisers go.”
Then there are the continual big-money reunion bids, often proposed by outside parties looking for a not-so-cheap thrill. A recent offer was rumored to be in the nine-figure range for a full-scale, multi-year tour of the original Guns N’ Roses lineup. “I think that number was more like our projected take by the end of the tour, not the upfront money,” Slash says. “But it was a real offer as far as getting together with Guns. There’s just oodles of fucking rich, eager businessmen who would love to get in on something like that. But for me, money was never the motivation in the beginning and it’s definitely not the motivation now.”
For that matter, Slash already has a band he’s focused on getting back on track. Though Velvet Revolver has yet to fill Weiland’s position, Slash confirms they will in fact reconvene for a third album at some point in the future. Exactly who will be at the microphone when that time comes, however, remains as much a question as ever. Over the past two years, several names have been floated as potential replacements, including, for one, Slipknot and Stone Sour frontman Corey Taylor. Slash confirms that while Taylor did indeed jam with the band on a number of occasions, in the end, “it just didn’t go anywhere. Corey’s awesome, but it didn’t seem to gel.”
Another candidate for the slot in Velvet Revolver was Alter Bridge frontman Myles Kennedy, who, in an interesting twist, appears on Slash, contributing vocals to the song “Starlight.” Slash says, “A few years back Matt [Sorum] reached out to him for the Velvet gig, and truthfully, I didn’t even know who he was. I hadn’t even heard of Alter Bridge, but Matt was going on and on about him. Then I heard Myles was supposedly up for the Led Zeppelin thing, so I thought I’d check him out. And I was blown away.”
In the end, Slash says, “Myles wasn’t interested in Velvet because he’s loyal to Alter Bridge. And that’s commendable.” However, with Kennedy’s Alter Bridge bandmates currently off exploring their own reunion with their former group, Creed, the singer will be joining Slash on his upcoming world tour. “Myles can pretty much sing anything,” Slash says, “so he’s perfect as far as being able to handle songs from different vocalists.” Those different vocalists include not only the ones who appear on Slash but also singers like Weiland and Rose. For the tour, Slash says he’ll be revisiting material from the entirety of his career, from Guns N’ Roses to Slash’s Snakepit to Velvet Revolver. “We may even do some Alter Bridge, too. It’ll be a little bit of everything. And as far as the Guns stuff, I’m going to dig out some cool tracks. I’ve realized that over the years, with every band I’ve been in, I’ve just been playing ‘It’s So Easy’ and ‘Mr. Brownstone.’ This whole time, those two songs. I’m fucking sick of them. So we’re gonna change it up.”
And so, looking ahead to the upcoming tour and, following that, a third Velvet Revolver album, Slash will continue to be busy. Which is how he likes it. Though currently clean and sober, he admits—and here he is perhaps stating the obvious—to having an addictive personality. “But I’m much better off addicted to work than addicted to drugs and booze,” he says. And so the man with a legendary appetite for destructive behavior (his recounting of some of his greatest binges occupies a healthy portion of his 2007 autobiography) is now content to have music and family as the top priorities in his life. “All this positive stuff took over from the negative shit,” he says. “Plus, I was really just bored with all of it. I did everything to such excess there was really nowhere left to go.
“I also think that at some point I realized that my type of lifestyle wasn’t very conducive to getting much of anything done,” he adds with a laugh. “I wanted to get a handle on the music, and also take care of my family and just get things together. So now, as far as my professional life goes, I’m pretty much in the studio, or playing onstage, or working in some musical context on something.”
As a result, more than two decades into his career, Slash continues to seek out new musical experiences, whether it’s composing what he describes as a “soundscapish” instrumental film score (for the currently in-production This Is Not a Movie, from Mexican director Olallo Rubio), dropping in for an occasional guest spot (he likens his Grammy appearance with Jamie Foxx to “driving a motorcycle onto a NASCAR track”) or recording his first solo album. “It was definitely a lot of fun to do,” he says of Slash. “And it was also an eye opener in terms of seeing what I’m capable of if I really put my mind to it.”
He pauses, and then looks to the future. “That said, is the solo thing going to be the direction I take going forward? Probably not. When it comes down to it, I still see myself as a ‘band’ kind of guy. That’s my background, and that’s how I was raised. I come from a place where great rock and roll is, for the most part, made by guys in groups. So this kind of thing is probably sort of a one-off deal for me.” He laughs. “Until I come up with some other crazy idea…”