|The same car on a bigger road
After more than a year as a member of Guns N’ Roses, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal looks back at his time with the legendary rock n’ roll band. Ron speaks of playing GN’R covers in a band called Leonard Nimoy, performing “Don’t Cry” with Axl in Japan, jamming with Izzy Stradlin, how he became a member of the band – and not least the culinary highlights of life on the road.
(Note: I originally did this interview for Danish music magazine, Gaffa. Both my editor and Ron have given permission for this unabridged version to be made available – exclusively for Here Today… Gone To Hell! While the journalistic value might have suffered somewhat in an attempt to include everything, this should be regarded as a little treat for the fans of Ron and Guns N’ Roses.)
By Mikkel Elbech
The time is set, and when the clock strikes 11am, I phone up Ron – well-prepared with questions that should ensure an interview of a considerable length. I myself am placed in sunny Santa Barbara on the west coast, while Ron is three time zones away in his home in New Jersey. He is, in fact, busy recording in his home studio when I call him. He apologizes kindly for being busy and postpones the interview a couple of hours, and then calls me up and postpones it a tad more. Oh, well, no biggie – after all, Guns N’ Roses are notorious for being late, so no surprise that a little delay is occurring here.
It’s four o’ clock, and I give it another go. I’m in luck, and the interview can begin. He’s still in the studio, which is in the midst of thorough renovation. He’s clearly excited and gives a basic rundown of the activities happening.
- Me and Frank were just laying some drum and guitar tracks to a song for this rapper, and we’re doing it at my studio. I had my studio all taken apart while I rebuild this one big room, and I just put all the equipment back in there. You should see what it looks like where we’re playing! The walls are just wood with insulation hanging out of them and wires sticking out for the outlets that aren’t in yet. There’s no ceiling, it’s just beams going up to the roof, his drum set, a bunch of mics, my computer setup, and my amp, and it’s the complete opposite of everything you would imagine on MTV Cribs or anything like that. As ghetto a studio as you can possibly imagine! We don’t even have walls. But it sounds great, it sounds amazing. We got the coolest drum sound and everything just came out great. Frank might go meet with the record label, and I have to go to south Jersey and do a photo and video shoot for a guitar magazine, that’ll be coming out later in the year.
Who are you recording the song for?
- I can’t say. But he’s good and he’s got a cool song, and we had fun playing on it.
Only a few musicians get to experience a transition of the kind that Ron has experienced. A lot of less known musicians get to play with big legends, but not many fill out as prominent a position as Ron does in Guns N’ Roses, playing lead guitar alongside Robin Finck. It’s impossible to imagine that a rock musician as Ron didn’t encounter Guns N’ Roses around the same time as the rest of the world did – 20 years ago when “Appetite For Destruction” destructed the rules of rock n’ roll in the 80’s. And sure enough – his earliest memory of the band is not unlike that of many others.
- That would be about 3 o’ clock in the morning, watching MTV. I think I was 17. I remember seeing this video for the song “Welcome To The Jungle”, and I was pretty blown away. Every once in a while you see a band that you just know has something special about them, and they most definitely did.
Played GN’R songs in cover band
Back then, as a musician, did you rock out to the music and dream of, at some point, being a member of the band?
- No, I never considered it. To me it just wasn’t something that would have been a possibility. Especially, I mean, at that time – you know, if you see a band come out that you like, the first thing you say is not, “wow, I sure hope that band members leave and I get to join!”
Maybe not actually becoming a member, but more just dreaming about it, pretending that you were – playing cover songs and stuff like that.
- I did have a cover band back then. What cover songs were we doing at the time… We were doing covers of GN’R.
Yeah? Which ones?
- We’d do “Brownstone”, “My Michelle”, uh, what else… I think we did “Jungle”. A bunch of stuff off of Appetite. I had a band called Leonard Nimoy – you know, the guy on Star Trek? He played Spock – and we would do covers of AC/DC, Kiss and Aerosmith, Guns, and… It’s pretty funny, we would – no, I shouldn’t even get into that story, it’s too much! We just did some crazy shit.
Can you describe the transition from being a solo musician to quite suddenly being a member of GN’R, playing venues for thousands upon thousands of people?
- Oh man… How is it different... Strangely enough, it doesn’t feel that different. You know, I’ve been asked this a lot – how does it feel to be playing in front of a hundred thousand people after playing in front of, maybe, a thousand? And the funny thing is that the whole idea of playing music – everything you do when you play, it comes from within, and that doesn’t change. So, in a sense, it’s like I’m just driving the same car on a bigger road. If anything, you drive a little faster! (Laughs) But yeah, it feels the same. It never felt unnatural to play with these guys, especially because they’re a good bunch of people, and that’s what makes the difference in the band you’re playing with, whether you’re playing in some local band or with Guns N’ Roses or a band like that. If you genuinely enjoy being on stage with the people you’re on stage with, everything is okay.
And I assume you do enjoy being a member of the band?
- No, I hate them! (Laughs as he’s obviously joking) It’s been well over a year now, and we’ve become better friends, and I’m just more happy to see them every time we get together.
I was gonna ask that – how is the atmosphere in the band? Is it professional, friendly, partying, or what?
- I was just over Frank’s house for a barbecue, hanging out, enjoying ourselves. And then yesterday and today we were in my studio recording stuff (no, not for Guns N’ Roses), and while we’re doing that we might make a call to Chris Pitman to say hello and see how he’s doing. It's great.
So did you know any of the members of the band personally before you joined?
- I didn’t know any of them personally. Surprisingly, because a lot of us have backgrounds where we have the same friends. I’ll be talking to Frank’s friends about people I hung out with 20 years ago that I still talk to, and they still talk to them. Frank was around back then in the same circle of friends, and it’s funny that we never met before we were playing together in Guns. It’s strange how that worked.
Recommended by Joe Satriani
Do you have a story of how you became a member of the band?
- Actually, I got an e-mail from Joe Satriani saying “Listen, I just recommended you to Guns. They’re looking for a guitar player – so if they get in touch, just so you know, it’s not somebody playing a joke on you or anything.” I was like, “alright, cool.” And Chris Pitman e-mailed me this funny e-mail, I gave him a call, we talked for a while, and he was a great guy. Started talking to management, and everything looked like it was on track. And then some Internet rumors came out that sort of delayed the process, haha.
So when were you first in contact with the band?
- It had to be around summer, late summer of 2004, that we started talking.
Your latest solo album deals with the concept of normality. Is Guns N’ Roses a normal band to be in?
- Haha, what do you think?
I thought it was a clever question!
- You know, I don’t have many other bands as big as Guns N’ Roses that I can compare it to. So it (the album “Normal”) is supposed to say, “what is normal”? And normal is just what you consider normal.
“Don’t Cry” with Axl in Japan
So, if anyone ever had a hard time telling the many guitar players of the band apart, then you have been noticed for your rendition of “Don’t Cry”. And then on the tour you just did in Japan, then that part of the show where you did “Don’t Cry” suddenly became the extraordinary encore with Axl singing the song for the first time in 14 years. Can you tell me about that – how it came about, and how it felt to be on stage during that song?
- Yeah… We were heading off stage, and then turned back around, went up there and did it.
How come you hadn’t done it during the actual part of the show, like you usually do?
- It’s always different. It may not seem like it when you read the set lists online, but it's never the same show. A lot of times the things that seem significant to you go very unnoticed by other people, then something subtle like, “let’s do “Don’t Cry” in a different spot”, people take a big notice to that – especially with Axl singing it, of course.
So, was it planned?
- It was kind of spontaneous. It was just like “let’s do it”, and I was like, “Yeah? Alright. Let’s give it to them.”
What have been your highlights of touring the world with Guns N’ Roses for well over a year now?
- Things that stand out… First thing that popped into my head when you asked me that was when we were playing in Poland. It was a little Mexican restaurant across the street from the hotel, and me and Frank and a bunch of us went. We sat down at the table and they brought Frank a nice bowl of black beans, and usually black beans are just the beans in a little bit of sauce. But this time they pureed the beans, and it was the most delicious black beans I’ve ever eaten! And he was saying that’s how his mom used to make them. That’s the first thing that popped into my head – the pureed black beans at a Mexican restaurant in Poland. Next thing that pops into my head would be backstage when we were playing in Oslo, Norway. They had this salad that had cashews and hot red peppers in it. It was a spicy, Thai-style cashew salad. It was very good. That’s the second thing that popped into my head. In case you’re wondering, yeah – I am a little bit hungry!
Oh yeah, apparently! So, do you have any onstage highlights?
- Oh, onstage, alright… I don’t know, man – every night just being there is a fucking highlight. And you can’t even compare – people say, “which show did you like better?”. It’s like asking “which child do you love more?”. It’s just one, big, collective great fucking time.
What’s your favorite song to play live?
- Oh, god… I don’t know, I don’t have a favorite! I suck at doing interviews, ‘cause when it comes to those questions, it sounds like I’m not answering, but it’s the total truth when I say I enjoy playing them all. There’s not a song that I don’t like. There are certain songs I like because of the energy and you get to run around, and others where I can just close my eyes and listen to the melody, as if I’m listening to the song and not even playing it. And other ones might just be more self-indulgent, because I like my own guitar part in it or something like that, or even just a singing part.
Don’t you have one song, though, that you’re looking forward to during the show?
- Hmm… I like doing “Chinese”, ‘cause I get to play the fretless. And what else… “Nightrain” is fun. I love when Robin first kicks into Sweet Child O’ Mine and does that intro riff and the whole audience just, you know, erupts. And every time I have to smile, I can’t help it – it just puts a big smile on my face, ‘cause I know that the people are happy and enjoying themselves. That’s why we’re there.
It seems inevitable that some people, including both fans and critics, won’t be truly happy about GN’R until the Appetite line-up gets back together. What are your feelings about that?
- How can I even answer? I mean…
More in the terms of if it’s something that you think about, get frustrated about, or just don’t even care about?
- It’s not something I think about. I don’t think about the past. I respect everything that the band was in that time, as well as any time – any time before I was in the band, I have the utmost respect for the band and what they accomplished, but you can’t keep thinking about the past. I have to think about what we’re gonna do next and what we can do better right now. I just don’t think about that stuff. It was great then, and it's great now.
Playing with Izzy
So, how did it feel playing with Izzy, who’s kind of a bridge between the two eras of Guns N’ Roses?
- Izzy’s a sweet guy, I really enjoy spending time with him. He’s a cool guy to hang with. We always had fun playing on stage. It was funny – one of the last shows that we were doing together, we were backstage and we were working out a song – “The Devil Went Down To Georgia”. It’s a southern song from the late 70’s, and it has this really fast violin stuff in it, and we worked it out. I was doing the violin part, and he was strumming the chords. It was cool, but we didn’t play it on stage. He’s a real nice guy and I definitely enjoyed his company.
Do you have any funny anecdotes about touring with Sebastian Bach?
- Oh man, what can I say, so many... but I shouldn't, haha! They’re too funny and… You just had to be there! He’s a fun guy. On the last tour, we went out to dinner a lot, Sebastian and his band, hanging out… And, he’s a very funny guy. He’s like a light switch that’s always on! And if you try to shut it off – it has two settings, on… and on! He’s just non-stop. Love the guy, and his band!
What are your views of rock n’ roll today?
- I think I have a biased opinion about it, but I think it’s in okay shape. Everything will not be the same as it was. There’s always gonna be a time in your life where the music meant something to you and the music represented a time when you have the best memories and you were just… And that can never come around again. You know, I will always love grunge. So, at a time when Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Nirvana – to me, that was a very special time, and when I think back on it, I don’t always think of the music. I think of how I felt and it brings me back to that feeling, and it was a good feeling.
So what are you feeling today, when you’re listening to contemporary rock?
- There are a lot of good bands out there. There’s so much music that’s accessible to you, so sometimes it can be harder to find new bands that you really dig. But there are some great fucking bands out there. It’s not bad, you know – any time in music, there are certain styles that are so strong that they make such an impact, and five years later, you’re laughing at the way everybody did their hair and stuff like that. You know, people might be laughing at emo haircuts in a few years, but then 20 years later everyone’s gonna have them again.
Do you have any current favorites?
- Muse will always be a band that I just love. As far as, like, modern bands today… Well, Chris Cornell’s solo work I love. I don’t know if that really counts – that might just be a bridge to all the grunge stuff that I was talking about! I don’t know. I’m trying to think about, what are some cool bands that are out there… I like My Chemical Romance. They write great songs and put on a great show. There's an album I just finished mixing of a band called Return To Earth – they're friends of mine, Chris Pennie from Dillinger Escape Plan, Coheed, and Cambria on drums, Q*Ball on vocals, Brett Aveni on guitar. The music is kinda like a Queens Of the Stone Age vibe, very cool stuff – nice vocal harmonies. Can't get their songs out of my head!
So how do you think Guns N’ Roses fit into the current rock n’ roll scene?
- How do we fit in? I think Guns fits in the way a lot of bands that have been around a long time fit in – they’re an exception to the rule. You know, bands like U2, Aerosmith, Kiss, The Rolling Stones – they can do whatever they want for the rest of time, and they’ll always be Kiss, The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith… You know, I think that Guns N’ Roses – and again, I’m biased – I think we fall into the category of standing the test of time, and if you go to a Guns show today, you won’t be disappointed hearing songs from 20 years ago or one that leaked a few years ago!
Optimistic about the future
What’s in the cards for Guns N’ Roses now – are you all asking Axl that question from the Sweet Child O’ Mine outro; where do we go now?
- (Laughs and sings) “Where do we go now…” I can not talk about future plans or anything like that. Those things need to come out when the time is right and everything is confirmed, so… That question I cannot answer. That question will be answered, though, in time, by the right people, and I’m looking forward to things coming up.
So you’re optimistic about the future?
- I think whatever is going to happen is meant to happen, and you can’t spend time wishing for something else, when it’s not possible. You have to flow with life, and whatever happens, you've got to accept it and say “this is what was meant to be”. If that makes me optimistic, then yeah, I’m optimistic! It’s basically just accepting that which we cannot change.
And with an answer as delicately unspecific as expected, the interview comes to a close. What remains is an image of a man who remains with both (bumble)feet on the ground, although he has fairly suddenly become part of the big rock n’ roll machinery that is Guns N’ Roses. The general attitude that once in a while makes Ron seem a tad unimpressed – such when he’d rather talk about pureed beans than playing Madison Square Garden – only makes him a tad more human.
Becoming a member of Guns N’ Roses and then turning into a prima donna could have been one way to go – but for Ron, it appears to have had somewhere near the opposite effect. On top of the chaos that surrounded the original line-up as well as predecessor Buckethead, Ron appears to be a stabilizing factor. Fans around the world are encouraged to adopt Ron’s optimism, cross their fingers and await the next move in the world of Guns N’ Roses with the same calmness.