|Axl gets in the ring
By Chris Nadler
The following interview with Axl Rose took place just a few days before it was officially announced that Izzy Stradlin would be replaced on the second leg of the Guns N' Roses tour by former Kill For Thrills member Gilby Clarke and a few days after the death of Queen singer Freddie Mercury, of whom Axl had been a long-time fan. A tough week, to say the least. But Axl was talkative, very candid and honest, and especially open. He was not off on some tirade, but eager to discuss the songs on the Use Your Illusion sets now that listeners had been given some time to live with and absorb the massive amount of material. "We've been educated and trained in our lives to not necessarily try and understand something, but to go for the surface thing," Axl remarked early in our conversation. "The surface is always easier." We tried to make things a little harder.
With all the notoriety & controversy surrounding Guns N' Roses, do you ever feel you guys are not allowed to just be a rock n' roll band anymore?
A lot of people will say that. And a lot of people in bands will go, "Oh, we're just a rock & roll band." That's something we did. All the members of Guns N' Roses have said that, but basically that's denying responsibility and not accepting where you're at with things.
We can still make our music, we just have to figure out how to do it. Before we had to figure out where to live, now we have to figure out how to deal with whatever legal things are going on. It's all a part of it. I mean, music is the main thing, music is the bottom line. But every other aspect of the business is part of this thing and learning how to deal with it all. We got so big, it's taken a couple of years to get a grip and learn how to handle where it was at, and learn how to handle how huge it got with the press.
So what did you learn?
That you have to just deal with it. Just take the time to understand it, and go over where you feel you didn't get your point across so well before. And just being aware of the interviewers' motivations, how your interviews are being used, how much money different people are making by running articles on you or comments by you.
Basically, just learning how to work with the press. It's like you're playing a crowd of mixed people. Some are into Guns N' Roses and some aren't. But they all come to the show.
Are there any particular aspects about the band or yourself that you feel has been neglected by the press or overshadowed by some of the more controversial episodes that people prefer to exploit?
We've been educated and trained in our lives to not necessarily try and understand something, but to go for the surface thing. The surface is always easier. If Pink Floyd was being interviewed, they'd be asked, "How much do you make?" Instead of getting to the psychology of a particular song. Like, "Well, in the fourth line, you said this, did that relate to...?"
I'd rather people get into why we did a certain song in the particular style or why we used certain instruments, why certain words were used, language, tone of voice, things like that.
I'm talking about helping to explain the music to the listener who likes the song. They know what they got out of it, and now they want to know how it happened, what went into it rather than "they just wrote this song and played it."
Listeners seem to be liking and getting more out of the songs on Use Your Illusion II than Illusion I, judging by the sales, did you all figure on one part of the set outselling the other?
We didn't actually take into consideration that people knew more songs on II than I. We thought that "Civil War" and "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" would be old news, rather than people wanting to get them in their hands. We looked at it like the first half of Use Your Illusion I was more similar to the energy on Appetite For Destruction, and would be a lot more fun to skateboard to. We thought of it that way. We thought it would be more successful in the beginning and we'd have to work on II, but actually II took off harder so it gave us the time to work on I and also drive wide and push it.
Don't stop there! If Use Your Illusion I is the skateboard set, what's Illusion II?
I'd say "Civil War," "Heaven's Door," "Breakdown," "Estranged," "Locomotive," and the second version of "Don't Cry" are a bit deeper and more mature than some of the songs on the first side of Illusion I. Those are just as important to us, but were more fun and more raw expressions of emotions.
Besides having more of the same energy that Appetite had, Illusion I is also much angrier than II.
Yeah, well, like I said, except for "Shotgun Blues" and "Get In the Ring," it's in touch with other emotions that were there - and maybe are there - that we still have a need to express through those songs.
Yeah, there's more anger in the songs. A majority of the songs on that side are near the energy of those started with Izzy, and we went from there with and turned them into Guns N' Roses songs, put my words to them. It's raw, go-for-it energy. We thought about all of the words, but a bit more top-of-the-head, just expressing the emotion of how you felt about something, not really trying to explain it.
We did that with songs like "Coma," "November Rain," "Estranged," and "Locomotive." I'd say "Right Next Door To Hell" is something like the chorus from "Locomotive," but the verses are much deeper, much more serious.
Did you all mix and match from different songs while writing? Will two or three separate ideas ultimately be pasted or patched together as one song, for instance?
Oh yeah! A lot. We always knew we were going to do a double album the second time out, but we ended up doing four albums worth of material. What happened is, in the process, we were writing more songs, and all those songs were actually a part of the whole package, so we had to put it all together. We got it all out of ourselves too so we could start fresh with the next project.
Which songs came out nearest to the way you heard them in your head?
Everything on that record is exactly the f*cking way we wanted it. I can find a couple of points where a note wasn't quite in time, and a couple of things like that, but everything came out the way we wanted it. That's not to say it's perfect or it's the best, but we have a real good understanding of our abilities and what we sound like now and what we were able to do. I didn't really do any harmonies with myself like on "Sweet Child." On this record, I just sang with myself. It was in different keys, so there was some form of harmony. But it wasn't planned harmonies like on "Sweet Child" or "Nightrain" on the first record. I just wanted to sing with myself in a different octave.
We worked really hard on it, and really there is nothing on the record that didn't come out the way we wanted, except maybe the vocal speech at the end of "Breakdown." The mix on the speakers that we did the mastering on was loud enough, but on other sets of speakers it's not. It depends on what stereo you're hearing it on, and we didn't know that.
Is there a song on the record that is particularly hard to sing because of the memories or emotions it touches on?
"Estranged." There's something really wild, for me, in performing "Estranged" 'cause all of a sudden I realized I don't want to be sitting at the piano playing this song to keep the energy of the song moving live. I need to be moving around and there's something about being able to be up there moving around during it that's actually a present, a gift or something. Being able to dance and rejoice in a song. That came from situations and emotions that were killing me. You know, we pretty much mean everything we say. We don't put anything down that we're not willing to stand behind or attempt to stand by for the duration.
John Hiatt, who's a real well-known songwriter and performer, wrote a song about his ex-wife committing suicide. She hung herself. But he never recorded it and I understand, has rarely performed it. Have you written anything that was just too personal to turn into the band?
No, no, but it is really hard and you have to calm yourself down and work on being able to do that. With our video for "Don't Cry," and the fight that Stephanie (Seymour, Axl's current flame) and I had over the gun, you don't necessarily know what's going on. But in real life that happened with Erin (Everly, Axl's ex-wife) and myself. I was going to shoot myself. We fought over the gun and I finally let her win. I was kind of mentally crippled after that. Before shooting our documentary, I said, "This seems really hard, 'cause it really happened." And the night we wrote the scene, my friend Josh said, "Okay, how are you going to play that?" He wanted to rehearse and I was like, "Look, leave me alone." But he kept pushing until, finally, I stood up. I had this cigarette lighter that looked like a real gun and I said, "Look, I'm gonna do it like this." And I just went over and slammed around in the hallway a bit and threw the gun and said, "Is that good enough for you?"
And he said, "Yes!" 'Cause I knew what I was going to do and from that point on he knew that I would be able to play the parts that we were writing.
But it was a very painful process doing that and it's even weird now to be involved in a relationship where the person I'm involved with is actually playing parts that are written about the two of us, about fictional characters, about things in my past relationships. It's a very touchy thing to do.
Talk about filming the drowning scene in "Don't Cry."
One of the hardest things I've ever done was to film the drowning scene in "Don't Cry." We had four guys in scuba-gear and we were in a swimming pool, camera and crew everywhere, bubble machines, and the camera comes swinging overhead and they would say, "Go!" And they'd pull out the floater and all of a sudden I'd have to go into drowning, and I'm drowning.
Then I'd flash the peace sign and they'd come in and rescue me and pull me to the side of the pool, and after three takes I was done. I couldn't do it again because I was so exhausted. But, it was a real mind trip because that's how my life had felt for I don't know how many years, especially in my last relationship. I've always felt like I was drowning and being pulled down. Trying to save us both, being pulled down and everything.
When I went back to my trailer all of a sudden, I broke down for a bit because I was experiencing that "Okay, now that's over, and you've expressed it, got it out of yourself."
But the closeness to the reality, that was just a metaphoric scene of how I really felt. It was so close to how I really felt, it was really disturbing and hard to do, but by doing it, it helped and something for me and helped me heal and get over certain things.
A few years ago, Ray West, the singer with Spread Eagle, told me a funny story about running into you in a men's room. I believe the two of you sort of compared notes on how you get in the proper mood to record your vocals & you said something to the effect of, "When I'm singing, I close my eyes and pretend I'm painting a masterpiece." Do you remember that?
(Laughs) I don't think about painting a masterpiece, but I do put myself wholly into the song, into whatever line I'm singing. Whatever the line makes me think of, I go there. If it's a tear-jerker thing, maybe that situation was written, and I'm thinking about being in a park or something. Or I think about the emotions I had as a child that those lines relate to and I go there while I'm singing it. That way I can get the best out of me because it's getting in touch with the base emotion, the base feeling and the base environment inside my head.
Do you have any favorite childhood memories at all?
As in a good time? Wow! I guess it would be when the three of us kids were playing and getting along with my step-father, wrestling around, kind of getting away from whatever was going on and all relating and having fun as little kids.
The press has liked to show pictures of us as children, kind of where we started, but they also did it with an attitude to hurt us or something. That's why in the video for "Live And Let Die," we show pictures of us all as children in the background, coming in now and then - some of our favorite shots of us as children - to confront that.
What was it like for you having to relive all those memories while sorting through the early pictures to use in the video?
My step-father had shot a video of our entire family and of his entire family, all the way back to great-great-grandfathers, and he compiled this video. Through doing certain work with my family, with understanding what was going on there now, it was very strange, very surreal, and very disturbing.
I use a shot in the beginning of the video from when I was about three or four years old. I come in the door with a toy gun and my dad happened to film it. That went on the video. He sent it to me with some sound effects over it and a comment, kind of putting me down, letting me know he's still on top of things or whatever. But that's not the fact and I don't accept it, so it's like, "No, I'm using it my way, and that's me, and don't forget it."
Have you ever thought about other groups you'd like to hear cover some Guns tunes?
I haven't even thought of that. But off the top of my head... I don't know. That's a hard one. I'd like to hear Nirvana do "Welcome To The Jungle." That's what I'd like to hear. I'd like to hear Nirvana do "Jungle" their way, however that is. And maybe Nine Inch Nails do anything, do "Estranged."
A tribute to Elton John & Bernie Taupin was released not too long ago, featuring other artists covering their favorite Elton songs. You're a big fan of his. What would you have covered?
We would do "Ballad Of A Well-Known Gun" if we did an Elton John thing. And we may even do that with this show coming up.
A great song from his Tumbleweed Connection album. Why would you pick that one?
It just fits us. I'm tired of hearing, "There goes a well-known gun..."
Thanks to Laura for this article.