Interview, Part 2: Leslie West Discusses His New Album, 'Unusual Suspects'

Here's part 2 of my recent interview with Leslie West. When we left off, Leslie was discussing his leg-amputation surgery and his wife.

"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.' " West said. "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).

Well, thank God you're all right.

Thank you. I was flying down to Mississippi; it was going to be Mountain’s show at the Hard Rock Casino, of all places. On the flight, we had to stop in Memphis and they couldn't go nonstop to Biloxi. It was 10 hours and my leg was hurting me. It was hurting me before that, even. I had five stints on my leg last year and it was doing great, and they opened up the artery and there was circulation and everything. But I guess something happened where they took me off the blood thinner three days before I went down there.

I took Coumadin, and it takes three days for you to notice a difference to see whether it's working or if there's a change in your body. It's not like you take it one day and you can tell. So they told me, and I don't even want to say the doctor's name, but they told me to stop taking it because my blood was too thin. And sure as shit that's what happened. But thank God. It could've been my hand or my arm.

I was really glad this album was done -- mixed and mastered -- before I went. Because right now would not be a time I would feel like going and recording an album. And this one turned out so much better than I thought. I've never had an album received like this. Even in Mountain, people used to always find something wrong with something.

It's a funny thing; there's a bonus track on the album called "Beetlejuice." "Beetlejuice" is from Howard Stern's show. He's a little black dwarf with no teeth, and they got him to sing a couple of lines, and Howard asked me to make a song out of it. One of his writers, Richard Christy, played drums on it. One idiot reviewed the album and said, “Boy, Leslie really sounds terrible on this.” I’m singing background on it, but that's not me. It shows you in the liner notes who's singing on it. The guy's real name is Lester Green, but if you go to, you’ll say holy shit. It was a goof, you know? So you know everybody's going to take something and complain.

Everybody's a critic, and usually the people who talk the most smack have never done anything.

Yeah, really. I remember when Wheels of Fire by Cream was reviewed in Rolling Stone; this was a long time ago. And they spent two pages ripping, and I mean destroying the fuck out of the album, and then the last line was, “in spite of all that, this album will be a monster." That was the first fucking platinum double album ever, you know?

Billy Gibbons must've been a trip to work with. How did “Standing on Higher Ground” happen? Do you have any stories about working with him?

ZZ Top’s first tour was when they were opening for Mountain at the Capitol Theater in New Jersey, and my producer, Fabrizio, was working with Billy on some other project, and Fabrizio told Billy he was working with me. Billy said he had this song called “Standing on Higher Ground” that would be great for me. So Billy came in the studio and we finished it and wrote it and played together and sang it together. It's funny because every 20 minutes or so Billy would go out to the lounge in the studio, and he carried a pair of dice with him and he had a pad of real $2 bills from the bank and he would just rip them off like note paper.

And so there's my wife and him and the interns playing fucking dice on the table, and every 20 minutes Billy would go out and grab another beer. And by the end of the day he had like 20 beers. This Mexican beer that he was drinking. But what a piece of work he is. He's just incredible. He wrote a really great quote when they did a full page on me in The Sun in London, which is like the biggest paper in the world.

And Slash wrote something too. I met him once at Hollywood High. He went to Hollywood High and I was doing a show for the homeless with Ginger Baker and Edgar Winter. Miles Copeland, Sting’s manager and the manager for The Police, put it together. At the time, and don't laugh, I said, “How the fuck are the homeless going to afford to buy these tickets?” I took me a bit to realize it was for the homeless (laughs). So Billy wrote a great quote; I've got it somewhere. In it he wrote standing on higher ground, you know, and I had just lost my leg and how much fun we had in the studio. Billy didn’t realize I could sing like I do. He knew from the old days, but I'm telling you, stopping the smoking and giving up drugs -- what a difference it made.

What about Zakk Wylde? How did those sessions go?

My son, you're talking about? He calls me dad (laughs). We have the same manager, Bob Ringe. But this guy, for somebody who doesn't do drugs and doesn't drink anymore, he is such a pisser. Some of the shit that comes out of his mouth ... he was talking about politics; we were playing the Westbury Music Theater and he came to see me, and he started talking about politics, and I said, “What the fuck are you talking about?” He’s saying how he would change the world with this, that ...

I have a DVD called The Sound and the Stories that was produced by Dan Tremonti, Mark Tremonti’s brother from Creed. They really did a great job. It's a high-grade film; it's not videotape like some of these stupid instructional videos. But there's one section in there called “Leslie West's Guitar School for the Not-So-Bright,” and I'm down in the basement in the Chicago Theater. I went out to see Zakk, and I was going to play with Zakk. So they set up a little fake guitar school downstairs in the basement, and I say, “Can you send in the next student,” and you hear Zakk yell, “Student? How about your son?" And he pretends he's my son. I say I want DNA, and it goes on for about 15 minutes. Then we go into the guitar shit.

But it's so funny, I realized a long time ago when I was in regular school, teachers were asking me questions that they already knew the answers to. Give me the answers -- that would've been a big help. So I realized in order to get me to learn something, you’ve got to get my attention first. So with Zakk and me screwing around first before we started talking about guitars and playing, he's just great that way. Maybe he is my son. Who knows?

Kenny Aronoff is a monster drummer. What was it like working with him on this album? Did he come in and just bang it out in a couple of takes?

Oh god, Kenny. He did the whole album in two days. And he wrote out the charts. I mean this guy -- I know why everybody wants to work with him. He's out with Chickenfoot now. He knows how to take one section of the song into another, and he knows what to play. I remember reading a quote by Dustin Hoffman talking about the definition of the word genius; he said the definition of the word genius is “knowing how much to say without saying too much.” So I apply that to the guitar: knowing how much to play without playing too much.

Kenny knows exactly how much to play without playing too much. It's like you know some of these speed-freak shredders. I don't know what a shredder is, but to me it's like pornography. I couldn't explain it to you, but if I saw it I can say, "Oh yeah, that's pornography." It's like a shredder. When I see a guy going a million notes an hour, it's like, where's the downbeat in here? I can recognize it, but Jesus, I just play with two fingers so I can’t play that fast. But it's almost like a speed freak talking, and he doesn't leave any room for commas or anything. So yeah, I was just thrilled with the way Kenny played. I didn't have to tell him anything.

What can you tell me about your Dean guitars?

I played a Les Paul Junior my entire career and when the opportunity came up for Dean to do a guitar, I knew what I wanted. So we worked on the body for some time but it's got a nice, beautiful cutaway on the top, and you can rest your thumb if you ever wanted to finger pick. We worked on the pickups too. I wanted a Leslie West pickup out, and with the Junior, it was always a single coil and it made a lot of noise.

So we tried to get this pickup to have all the facilities of the P90 within a humbucker, and I think we came pretty close. I'm really happy with the pickup. The volume knobs go to 11 on the USA Custom. I think Eddie Trunk, the guy that does the heavy metal show, he was interviewing me on the web and he goes, “Does the guitar really go to 11?” and I say, “Yeah there's an extra notch that really gives you that extra boost,” and he's looking at me with this stupid face and I say Eddie, “Go fuck yourself."

But I'm telling you the pickup just feels like it has that extra bit. You know if you turn it to 8 you get a really great sound, but if you really let it go to 11, it just moves and jumps. It's like putting a gearshift through a Ferrari and you hit that last gear and you just take off like a rocket. There's only one pickup in it and there is no three-way switch on it. I just roll off the tone knob, which is basically what I do, and I used to always get more tone out of the Junior then I could out of a three-pickup guitar.

I do have a couple of two-pickup Dean Leslie West guitars, just for certain songs where I like to use the neck pickup. We just came out with the Mississippi Queen model and it's great. I play all of them, from the most expensive to the least expensive. They're all great guitars; they play great and they have my pickups in them. And the Mississippi Queen one -- the graphics on it are fantastic. These guitars, when I started out, I didn't have to play them, but at the time the worst guitars in the world were Japanese guitars. Now they're pretty good. But I wish I could have gotten a guitar like this for the money that this guitar sells for back then. The street value on the Mississippi Queen is only $600, and it plays just like a $5,000 USA Leslie West model. It's a different wood, that's all. One's mahogany and maple and one's a laminate. But the sound of it and the way it looks is fantastic. I think it's on the Dean website. You can see it there.

How did you get into playing in the first place? What made you start?

I started on the ukulele. My grandmother's brother was a famous playwright. He wrote a show called “Mr. Wonderful” with Sammy Davis Jr on Broadway, and he also wrote TV shows like “Car 54” and “McHale’s Navy.” He also used to write on Jackie Gleason. Gleason used to have a show called “The American Scene Magazine,” which was on Saturday nights, and it was an hour-long show. He did all of his characters -- the Honeymooners, Reginald Van Gleason the third and so on. So my grandmother took me to see my uncle, and we get into the theater and I don't know if I was 8 or 9, but the announcer said, “due to the summer, Jackie Gleason will be replaced by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey's orchestra." So I got real upset.

Then they said, “Tonight's guest is Elvis Presley." So I got to see Elvis Presley -- and that's all I needed.

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