|By Leonie Cooper
6th May 2016
Yesterday NME was granted exclusive access to AC/DC’s European tour rehearsals, ahead of the iconic band’s opening night in Lisbon on Saturday with new temporary frontman, none other than Guns N’ Roses’ mercurial Axl Rose.
It was revealed last month that Rose would be stepping in for Brian Johnson, after the band’s vocalist of over 35 years was advised by doctors to stop performing or risk losing his hearing altogether.
We met up with AC/DC guitar player Angus Young and bass player Cliff Williams as well as being granted one of Rose’s first interviews in five years, to find out how two of the biggest names in rock ended up coming together, and found them on funny, excitable form – despite Rose still struggling with a broken foot.
How have rehearsals been going?
Angus: “Pretty good!”
Axl: “They’re awesome because they’re over!”
How did that first rehearsal feel?
Angus: “It was good, it was good. That’s where you find out straight away if something’s going to…”
Axl: “How bad somebody sucks.”
Did anybody suck?!
Axl: “I did, but they went, ‘You know what? Come back next week and try again’.”
Practice makes perfect. How are you all feeling now about the start of the tour – does it feel different from usual?
Angus: “We’re all excited.”
Axl: “There’s differences, but at the same time no, because I’ve been around these guys now for about a month, meeting everyone in the crew and seeing how the show is and watching shows – like a football player I’m watching tape, stuff like that, and doing a walk through today of things. So yes, there’s differences, but it’s just because it’s a different show and there’s different songs.”
How many times had you seen AC/DC play live?
Axl: “We met very early, in early Guns N’ Roses, in the first couple of years at the Forum in LA. I met him [Angus] and Brian backstage.”
Angus: “It wasn’t in that police station?”
Axl: “No… well, that was the second time!”
How long have you been a fan?
Axl: “Like about five minutes before that?! No, since I was a kid.”
And how much of an influence did AC/DC have on Guns N’ Roses?
Axl: “Very much, it was a big influence of Izzy [Stradlin]’s and mine. And then it was something we had in common in meeting Slash. Slash’s girlfriend made him listen to AC/DC pretty much 24/7 – he didn’t really get to hang out with her unless he did!”
How’s the foot?
Axl: “It’s getting better little by little – it’s about halfway there. I’m only now starting to put weight on the front and I haven’t been walking up until the last few days.”
But it’s on the mend?
Axl: “Yep, it is on the mend – I went and had x-rays two days ago and was on the phone with my doctor and we’re doing good.”
There’s a new chair for the shows too, apparently? [Rose borrowed Dave Grohl’s ‘throne’ from last year’s Foo Fighters show for Guns N’ Roses’ Coachella gigs]
Axl: “It is the same actual chair itself with a different base so I worked more with their stage set-up, ‘cos I just thought it was too high and grandiose and crazy whereas this kind of blends in.”
A bit more low key?
Axl: “A little more low key.”
So why Axl, why did you pick him? How did this whole thing come about?
Axl: “I paid them a lot of money!”
Angus: “I spent it well! Axl could probably tell this story himself, he contacted a guy who had worked with us…”
Axl: “One of their production guys they’ve worked with a long time, Opie, who also works with the Stones, he’s doing the Guns N’ Roses tour right now - he’s doing this tour. So it was somebody we had in common. When I read the news about Brian I just called Opie to find out what they were going to do – not in the sense of like, ‘yeah, I want in!’, it was more like, if I could help. I didn’t even know for sure what songs I could sing, I didn’t know what their dates were – I hadn’t looked at that. [But] I found out Obie had already thrown my name in the hat!”
So you made first contact?
Axl: “They told me ‘don’t ever call us again’!”
What were the other names in the hat?
Axl: “It was my hat, so there were no other names!”
Angus: “It was a rigged deal!”
Cliff: “We worked with some different people.”
Angus: “You get a lot of people… the modern world being what it is, everyone’s ‘well, I can sing a song’.”
Axl: “There’s a lot of challenges in the material – there’s all kind of different things that both singers do that make each song special. Each song’s kind of etched in stone in how it’s done.”
Angus: “I saw your thing with Guns N’ Roses, I’d seen that on the internet…”
Axl: “They’re ruining our material!”
Angus: “It was ‘Whole Lot Of Rosie’ by Guns N’ Roses. I saw that, so I knew he could…”
Axl: “Do that one song!”
Angus: “And I thought, ‘it’s a good beginning!’”
Did you ever consider getting a number of different guest vocalists?
Angus: “To be honest with you, it was a case of ‘what do we do?’”
Axl: “They were in the process of trying to decide what they were doing as a band in general, is my understanding, because it just went down.”
Angus: “It was a crisis that came then, and we had to act. We were in Miami at the time, when all of this came up, and unfortunately, when you’re in that situation you got to make decisions pretty quick, because there are a lot of people waiting. We were supposed to actually play in Atlanta, so you’re kind of going ‘what do we do now’. Because of the nature of Brian’s deafness, we knew that there was no easy fix. So you’ve got to then say, ‘what do we do here?’ The options were very limited and you think, if we just stop with all of this machinery it’s going to be a hell of a lot of legal entanglement…”
Axl: “That, and the fans, and not wanting the band to have to go through that, as I have gone through a little bit of that at times!”
Angus: “It was good that he offered, y’know. He said, if I can do it…”
Axl: “Which I had no idea, I mean, they play really loud, they have their way of working and you never know if you’re going to blend. But it started out pretty good and its gradually got better. I’m hoping to make it through the first show before I get fired!”
Did you ever consider pulling the shows?
Cliff: “We wanted to finish what we’d started.”
Angus: “And that was our main goal, especially Cliff and myself, being there the longest. We wanted to complete what we had started. And I mean, you can’t call a tour ‘Rock or Bust’ and then go bust!”
Axl: “Ha! That’s amazing.”
So what happens after these shows – does the band continue in this format? Do you get another singer? Does Brian come back?
Axl: “Whatever they’re doing with Brian, that’s not my place to talk, that’s their business. Anybody else, I will slowly poison them!”
What’s his prognosis – is he able to rejoin in the future?
Angus: “He has to be very careful of what hearing he’s got left. This is what he told us - he was gutted about not finishing [the tour] because he says he would have loved to have gotten through. It was his call, what he wanted. He made that decision himself. He didn’t want to be deaf. And I perfectly understand that – when you stop doing this, you want to walk away with all your pieces! I don’t even want to leave without my fingernail!”
Did you speak to Brian at all for advice before joining the band?
Axl: “No, I have not spoken with Brian, only because we haven’t spoken much about Brian. There hasn’t been any negative talk with the guys or anything, it’s just the time schedule of having to get things together for the shows, while also I had Guns N’ Roses commitments and then breaking the foot. The day I found out it was broken I left the hospital to rehearse. My only day off was the surgery day and the next day was back to rehearsals.”
Not much of a fun day off.
Axl: “Well actually, the Profenal – I know why Michael Jackson was into it now! The doctor said, it’s not for home use!”
Tell me about learning the songs – did you know all the words already? How did you teach yourself?
Axl: “Little by little. There’s a lot of them that you didn’t realise that you somewhat instinctively know and then just every rehearsal – there’s been about 20 rehearsals, something like that. So that way, if I really screw up, they can really blame me for that, because I did have good rehearsals.”
Of all the songs, do you have a favourite to perform?
Axl: “Right now it’s ‘Hells Bells’ because it’s the hardest song I’ve ever had to sing and it was the big challenge. So right now I have a lot of fun when I get it.”
Have you nailed it?
Axl: “Well, let’s say in rehearsals yes, but I don’t know… you never know who’s gonna win ‘til the race is run. We’ll see!”
What’s your message to the 7,000 fans in Belgium who returned their tickets?
Angus: “You’re going to miss a great night out.”
Axl: “I miss them already, y’know, and I don’t even know them!”
Is it true you auditioned a singer from an AC/DC tribute band to front the group for these dates?
Angus: “A lot of people were putting people forward. You know, you’ve got to be fair, you’ve got to listen to anyone who said something, you listen to them. You’ve got to do the right thing.”
You gave everyone a fair chance.
Axl: “And then when they didn’t show up for some reason again…”
Angus: “He was in the alleyway!”
Axl: “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer…”
What’s the latest with Phil [Rudd, former drummer who was arrested for threatening to kill a former employee last year]?
Angus: “Phil I haven’t heard from. He’s been very quiet of late.”
Axl: “I’ve talked to him about these other singers, though!”
Have you seen the Bon Scott [former frontman who died in 1980] statue that’s just been unveiled in Scotland?
Angus: “I’ve not, no. I always check first with his family. We always keep in contact with his family, because sometimes things are done and they’ve not been informed and some people use their name and they’ve just not been told. They’ve been unhappy with a lot of things that have gone down, people have done stuff and ignored their wishes.”