|AN APPETITE FOR RECONSTRUCTION
The Inside Story Of VELVET REVOLVER
Returning The Glory To Rock ‘N’ Roll
By Paul Gargano
Given the events of the past year-and-a half, you might think Velvet Revolver’s biggest accomplishment is heir mere arrival, yet to hear them tell their story, it’s rock’n’roll’s survival that we really should have been worrying about. It’s been a decade since the demise of Guns N’ Roses, a musical superpower that lived as hard as they played, burning out long before they had the chance to fade away. And while their music forever changed the face of hard rock, it seems as though the past ten years have done everything they could to undo the band’s impact. “How neutered the music industry is is probably one of the reasons we exist today in the first place,” says Slash, Guns’ legendary guitarist, who along with former bandmates Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum, frontman Scott Weiland, and guitarist Dave Kushner, have emerged as Velvet Revolver, one of the brightest sports on a rock’n’roll landscape that’s been remarkable bleak as of late. “We went out on tour before the album came out, and that, in my mind, was the proper way to present a rock’n’roll band – On its own merit, without anyone knowing the album,” the guitarist continues, trademark cigarette in hand, reclining in the Hollywood loft that played host to this feature’s photo shoot. “We didn’t have a lot of expectations, we just threw ourselves in the pit to see what happens…”
What happened, was an album that not only debuted as the top-selling record in America, but also succeeded in rekindling a musical fire that’s been all but snuffed out in recent years, achieving platinum sales in merely a month’s time, and raising hopes that a rock’n’roll revival may be underway. In this, the first of a two part interview with Velvet Revolver, McKagan, Kushner and Slash examine the inner-dynamics of their band, an outfit many hope will return rock to its heralded glory days. Next month, in the interview’s conclusion, we sit down with drummer Matt Sorum, and former Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland, who ends his self-imposed months of silence in a Metal Edge exclusive…
METAL EDGE: The rumor mill was in motion really early with this project, but in reality, how long has Velvet Revolver been a serious band?
DUFF MCKAGAN: Yeah, the rumors really took over much before we got serious about this thing. There were a lot of nay-sayers, but we are really used to working under those sort of conditions.
ME: Given the nature of your past band, that’s understandable.
DM: Yeah, we kind of thrive on it… We got Dave in, and he was the perfect muse to Slash. I’ve seen different versions of Slash – with the other guitar players not adding anything to what Slash does – but, of course, I come from a point of view of seeing Izzy (Stradlin, former Guns N’ Roses guitarist) play with Slash, and they are like two different worlds. Well, that same thing happened with Dave, they had that. He was playing in my band, Loaded, but Slash has known him from junior high, and he has been around – he knew how Slash played, and he was a bit nervous, but he really brought cool and beautiful ideas, he’s kind of an unsung hero. Then, we had to look for a singer, and we thought word-of-mouth would do it, from people we know on the street. Scott has been there from the beginning because our wives are friends, and socially we would go out, but he was still in Stone Temple Pilots, and that’s not how we roll – We are not going to steal anybody from any band, it should just come naturally, because that’s the way we got together. Anyhow, we knew something was going to happen at some point – We are really hard workers, we believe in destiny, and we knew that if we got together, the right thing would come. We tried out some guys, got over a thousand CDs, and 99.9 percent of it was pure rubbish, it really got a little frustrating at times. Then we got offered to do the Hulk and Italian Job soundtracks, and right about the same time, Stone Temple Pilots ended, so it was really a simple call from me to Scott saying, “Hey, Scott, do you want to do soundtracks? You know, it’s easy money…” We gave him the first track, which was “Set Me Free” – I just gave him that sort of power riff, he came back the next day, and you could see it becoming a rock’n’roll band.
ME: Expectations were high, because the public is expecting the next Axl Rose…
DM: We don’t pay attention to that – The hype machine is what inevitably killed Guns, so we just kept on our own path. We have learned a few things from the past, and we just kept on it, we wanted to be true to our songs. We were focused on songs, we had like sixty, and we had to weed it down. Then we wrote two with Scott in the room, too. “Loving The Alien,” him and I were sitting in the studio with an acoustic guitar, nobody else was there, and I just started playing some C and some A-minor, and here comes “Loving The Alien.” In five minutes we had the song.
ME: So there was chemistry from the start – It wasn’t like a supergroup that initially struggled through writing together?
DM: Basically, that’s what all the hype and all the rap is about, but we knew what we were getting into… We were like, “Look, who runs in our circle?” We know guys like Scott Weiland and Chris Cornell, we are all pals. The supergroup tag… To me, a supergroup is like a record company putting everybody together, like Asia. (Laughing) We are not that, and we’ve all been through the same shit – Scott just happened to be going through it right then, and he came to us and he said, “Man, I want to stop.” He came to me, especially.
ME: Having been through it yourselves, does that make it easier dealing with the issues that have risen while Scott’s going through it?
DM: Well, he knows what we did, and we all got right behind him and really nipped it in the bud – He wanted his family back, he wanted to stop. He didn’t want to die, and he wanted to still be a man.
ME: Martial Arts are something that you’ve been doing for years, and you’ve turned him onto that, as well, right?
DM: Yeah, it’s not just a physical thing, obviously, it’s a mental thing, it’s a spiritual thing. They are all mixed together, and if you have a great teacher, like I have, (the drugs) become something you do not want to stay on. I swear to God, my bone structure is different now – You change through physical conditioning and eating right. Just knowing that I could change my insides – Realizing that your mind could tell your body what to do, as opposed to having your body tell your mind… Four years ago this doctor says, “You are the healthiest guy I know in L.A.” After everything I’ve been through? That’s how well it works, it can really change you. I really don’t know about rehab – I know that my friends have been through it, but Scott really grabbed onto the martial arts philosophy.
ME: I don’t think people who haven’t dealt with addiction can truly realize what someone’s going through as they battle their way through it – it’s not as easy as, “Just stop.” Or, “Just go to rehab…”
DM: I actually took a year off from even dating, because I had to focus on myself. I realized a lot of stuff about my world. It was a lonely year, but it was time well spent. I even went to college! I didn’t graduate from high school, and now I’m fucking hardcore, business school at Seattle University – a Jesuit university – taking classes with people who were Deans’ List and Provost’s List. I did things that I would have never normally done, because I was disciplined enough to do them. I didn’t graduate high school, but I was able to have study skills twelve years later – I started in like ’98, and was taking classes until about the beginning of this band.
ME: Did you get a degree?
DM: I’m one quarter short, because this thing started, but this is my dissertation. I want to write it on the business of this band, and it’s great, because I am taken very seriously at meetings with record company people and accountants.
ME: In my mind, Guns N’ Roses were largely responsible for ushering in a lot of the grunge movement – Things go so decadent, so over the top, that becoming the anti-Guns N’ Roses became the natural evolution. You’re a decade older now, sober, and have a new energy – Can you still maintain those creative fires that fueled you in GN’R?
DM: Well, we are what we are, and we never changed. I mean, I have early points in my life that made me who I am, specific moments – I saw the Clash in ’79, and Paul Strummer came out with an ax and broke down the wooden barrier so people could get closer. Then there was Iggy Pop a year later – Those unbridled, “fuck you,” types of bands, those living, breathing machines that are just a gang, you know? So those are all those things that will never leave me, and that’s who I am. People say, “Have you lost your motivations because you have money?” That has nothing to do with it at all. We are pure musicians, and Slash and I are not any different the way we approach music now, then we were when we met.
ME: One of the biggest criticisms about rock’n’roll these days is that it’s not dangerous anymore. Do you think rock’n’roll needs to be dangerous?
DM: I would fuckin’ hope so!
ME: Can it still be dangerous for you now, being older, wiser and sober?
DM: Well, I think being dangerous… When I saw the Clash, I knew those guys were all fucked up, but dangerous doesn’t have to mean shooting drugs and getting fucked up. You take a group like us, who are very dedicated to what we do, and when we get up onstage it’s like warfare. The audiences are pretty rowdy, balls to the wall, and we breathe it, and take all their energy – Anything could happen at any time, it’s not like a recycled show that we go through. I have two kids, and we have an au pair that came over from Poland, and she’s really into like Nickelback and Creed, so she was like, “Can we go to this club and go see Nickelback?” So I got tickets and went with her, and I was done, I was like, “Is this what it’s come to?” I gave her cab fare and said, “I gotta go, man, I can’t take this…” In my band Loaded, we were playing gigs with more underground bands like Fu Manchu, Fireball Ministry, fuckin’ cool, underground bands – Then I’d go see Creed and Nickelback, and I was like, “So this is what mainstream rock is? There’s no danger.” I went and saw Jerry Cantrell last night, and I came out of the show and there’s like 12-year-old girls and a 38-year-old man, and this girl was looking at me like they look at Justin Timberlake, crying and stuff. So that just goes to show you that they haven’t experienced real rock’n’roll yet. I learned that in college, too, because the kids I was going to college with said they got ripped off, because they don’t have rock’n’roll today.
ME: I was lucky enough to experience the last great wave of rock’n’roll first hand, and there hasn’t been much like it in the past decade. Yet I saw you both nights when you played L.A., and I thought the second night was better than the first – It’s really tough to not get let down the second night, because it’s not new… That says a lot, to me, about how great a band Velvet Revolver is.
DM: It’s just a lot of fun, and we’re starting to feel it and really starting to click as a band. I think one of the greatest moments so far wasn’t at a live gig – Matt and I went to the gym in Manhattan, which was about twelve blocks from the hotel, and we’re walking back and these two guys come up out of the subway, and they’re like, “Hey! Matt and Duff from Velvet Revolver!” That was like, “Okay, now we’re starting to get identified with our band…” We’re hoping that the next video is going to be a big single, “Fall To Pieces.” It’s a very emotional song, it’s not a power ballad just to be a power ballad – I don’t even know if it is a power ballad, it just is what it is.
ME: Scott wrote those lyrics after he was arrested the last time, right?
DM: Yeah, right at the beginning of the band, when he got busted for drinking – The next morning he got out of jail and came in and said, “I gotta do this song…” I forget, but we had a name for it, a working title, and he just sang the first couple of lines, and didn’t even have enough time to finish it, Matt had to ProTool the end of the tape for our demo. It was very emotional. Rock’n’roll doesn’t always have to be in your face and give you a bloody nose, it can be cerebral. Rock’n’roll should be inspiring people, and giving them hope and giving them an outlet. We’re not curing any of the world’s problems, but I remember growing up and listening to records – You’re working your ass off at the restaurant doing dishes or whatever, but you always had this record you could go to. You could tell your boss to fuck off through that record, then go back to work and be you…
ME: Were there initial growing pains?
DM: When Scott came in, he was in, and it was solved – The overused word “chemistry” was there. That’s when we decided to do the press conference, because we knew we were just sick. We worked so good with Scott, and Scott worked so good with us, and all the pieces fit. It was almost as if the rock’n’roll gods were up there waiting for him – “Okay, this guy is the one for them, this has to happen…” The songwriting and chemistry with us up on the stage is just unbelievable, and here we are!
METAL EDGE: You may not be familiar to fans of Guns N’ Roses or Stone Temple Pilots, but you’ve been friends with these guys for a while, right?
DAVE KUSHNER: Yeah, I’ve known Scott for about fifteen years, Matt and Duff for maybe seven, and Slash and I went to junior high together – Actually, right around the corner from here, at the end of the block.
ME: You’ve got a different style than Slash…
DK: He’s got hair, and I don’t – Totally different style… (Laughing)
ME: In terms of playing, too (laughing) – Was there any concern as to how your playing styles would mesh?
DK: I guess that’s why it works. I don’t know if there was ever a concern… Maybe in the very beginning, me trying to find out what’s okay and what’s not okay, and Duff was very supportive in that sense, because I had already been playing with him, and he knew my thing with my pedals and all that kind of stuff. He was like, “Dude, just do your thing…” And I did it, and it just happened to work.
ME: So, you’re kind of supplementing and filling out Slash’s sound, rather than trying to compete with him.
DK: Yeah – It’s not, “Hey, check me out, I got these cool pedals…” That’s always been my kind of thing – I’ve mostly been in two-guitar bands, so to play some octave part by itself sounds cool, but to play some octave part with a wah-wah on it, or a phaser pedal or a flanger pedal, to me, just sounds more interesting.
ME: How does writing come into play with everybody? You’ve known these guys for years, does that make it easier?
DK: Well, I never played with Slash, but it was kind of easy, because we didn’t have a singer for like a year, the four of us just played together and just all threw out ideas. At times it was a little strange, just throwing my shit out there and being like, “Hey guys, what about this?” In all honesty, it definitely wasn’t easy, but everything was listened to equally.
ME: That had to be a little weird – Three guys from Guns, and you.
DK: It was even weirder when Izzy (Stradlin) came in, because then there were four guys from Guns.
ME: That must have been a little stressful, no?
DK: He said, “If you guys are gonna write, I’ve got some songs if you need them.” That was when we first were writing, then he came down, and then he came down like once a week… Obviously, it was unsettling to me, because I wanted this gig, I like playing here, but it all worked itself out without having to do anything. I think that it would have been a lot harder if didn’t know those guys for so long. After the first couple of months, I knew that I was still here for a reason – I would just throw my two-cents out, and sometimes it would get used, and sometimes not, just like everyone else.
ME: How did it develop as a live band?
DK: It just happened, everyone just does their thing. Before I had started playing with these guys, Slash had seen me play with Loaded and, before that, I was playing in this band in Japan – It only toured in Japan, and Duff’s band opened for us, and Matt came up guested on some shit with that band, so everybody knew each other.
ME: You’re coming from a slightly different perspective, because you’re not coming from the same celebrity as the rest of the band. Was it easy for you to keep a level head about it?
DK: Yeah, because we spent so long looking for singers, that we didn’t even know it was gonna happen – That took all the wind out of it. Realistically, from when we started the band, it took a-year-and-a-half before we got a deal. There were times when I was on unemployment, doing work at the studio where we rehearsed for $13 an hour just to pay rent. It wasn’t like this whirlwind thing that happened. The expectations are obvious, and in that way I feel very fortunate, because I’m like the unknown guy – I can do my own thing without expectations. Maybe there is, “Oh, who’s the new guy?” Or, “Hey, that’s not Izzy…” It’s easy to get caught up in it – especially with the Internet, and when fans start making comparisons of which guy is better – but you’ve just got to do your thing, and I kind of ignore it.
ME: Having not been through the same trials and tribulations as Guns N’ Roses, how have you reacted to the drama surrounding Scott?
DK: It was stressful, but I don’t know what was more stressful, that, or looking for a singer for a year and feeling like you’re never going to find one. I’ve been through drugs, drinking problems, my own recovery, so I’ve been around it forever, and I’ve seen those guys go through it, and I’ve seen the before and after of a couple of the most messed-up guys in the band, because I’ve known them for so long. It is what it is. Like Duff’s said before – It could of happened to any of us, and it still could. It’s totally true – It might not have happened on a public level, like the others did, but I had the same experience, and that makes it a little easier to understand – It’s not like I don’t get why that guy just can’t stop drinking or doing drugs, because, especially if you were the same kind of addict, you remember what that was like.
ME: What has been the biggest highlight so far? Finding Scott? The album’s No. 1 debut?
DK: The definite highlight for me was my first big check, which was basically my first check from The Italian Job, which was like $12,000. That was a huge deal for me – I’ve made more since then, but none of them have been a bigger deal than that first check, where I just kept calling the automated service of the bank to hear it say that my checking account balance is $12,000. Also, the Weenie Roast show, because that was probably the biggest show that I’ve played in L.A., which was like 12,000 people, and my wife was there and I got a little choked up. It seemed right around the same week that the record came out, and it all kind of culminated in that moment, just the way it was set up.
ME: Musically, you don’t come from the same background as the other guys, right?
DK: Yeah. I come from punk rock, too, but more like skate parks, and old bands. All that old kind of stuff like Suicidal Tendencies, Slayer, old Metallica, Pantera – That’s where I really get a big nut for music.
ME: Those are definitely the heaviest tastes in the band – Do everyone else’s tastes in the band affect the way you play?
DK: I think it definitely shape shifts. For me, the goal is to find the balance between putting my thing on it, and being a part of a group, being a part of this as a whole. I’m doing it disservice if I’m selfishly wanting to do this and that, just because my own ego wants me to do it because there is not a lot of metal going on.
ME: Are there power struggles in Velvet Revolver, or are you still in your honeymoon period as a new band?
DK: It’s definitely very real. There’s not so much a power struggle, but it’s just real – Day-to-day, you go home frustrated or scared that this might happen, or unsure that this might happen. That’s a reality that a lot of people don’t get, they just go, “Oh, you have the No. 1 record.”
METAL EDGE: Velvet Revolver seems to go hand-in-hand with Guns N’ Roses in a lot of people’s minds, yet I think there’s more to it than that – Historically speaking, Guns N’ Roses side projects haven’t sold exceptionally well. Why do you think Velvet Revolver has been so successful?
SLASH: In my experience, when I did the Snakepit thing, the only thing that really did anything for me was when we had a single. If that went really well and we sold a lot of records, half of it was do to with GN’R, and the other half had to do with the single we had out. I went out and did Snakepit for the fun of it, and it was really a good, healthy thing for me to do, because I was so bogged down in where GN’R was at that point. That was an outlet in my life for me to sort of rediscover why I do what I do, and when I went back to GN’R, I had no intention of a solo career – What happened is the result of having a real fucking good time, seeing where Guns was at, and I had to just quit. From that point on, I didn’t know what to do I didn’t expect to be anything big just because I was Slash, and I don’t think anybody in the band did. The band, as a whole with the original lineup, was a magic thing all around. Everything that happened to that band was like, poof! Going into something like this was just the five of us wanting to be a real rock’n’roll band, which, let me tell ya’, most people don’t have any clue as to what that is. I think we just gravitated towards each other thinking that we were the only ones around the town here that seemed to have an idea of what that was. We were sort of brought together by chance, so there was no master plan. We just went on writing what we thought were collectively good songs that sounded like a good time.
ME: The chemistry just seems magical. Were there growing pains at all?
S: There were growing pains – There were actually the last however many years it took for us to get together with Scott, and everything that went on with us individually, a lot of growing up, there was a lot of getting straight and coping with your demons and surviving. Then, finally, after this whole fucking mountainous trek of a hike, we all of a sudden had this thing happening for us, but it was hard doing it. Scott was hard to find, Dave came out of nowhere… It would never have happened if it weren’t for Randy (Castillo), in a sense, because that’s how me and Matt decided to come together and started talking about doing something and calling Duff up in the first place (to perform at Castillo’s memorial service). That was sort of weird, but once we all got together, we were total, pure, artistic drive, and we just started writing – It was just a very real, organic process. You gotta understand, we auditioned guys for eight or nine months totally innocently, not trying to compare apples to oranges or make oranges into apples. When Scott came in, he brought, out of all the singers, something completely unique, unpredictable and original, and his personality just topped it off.
ME: It seems that only the right band could take all the controversy and media attention on Scott’s issues and not implode. Do your pasts make it easier for you guys to do?
S: Well, we’ve been through a lot, and I think one thing that we realize is how to survive, and how to keep the band together.
ME: There have been so many bands that people have thought would “bring back rock” over the past few years, and now the same is being said about Velvet Revolver. Do you feel that responsibility, knowing how neutered the music industry is right now?
S: How neutered the music industry is is probably one of the reasons we exist today in the first place. It was just getting to be really tough, but for me, I never really changed throughout the years. I refused to conform to any of the industry’s standards, and when anybody tells me what I should or shouldn’t do, ever since I was fifteen and played guitar, I’ve learned to not listen. This band is definitely the intensity of what the music business is about at this particular point in time – Funny enough, GN’R was that band in the mid ‘80s. It’s not really a pressure to bring back rock’n’roll, but I definitely say that we’re the real deal. When this thing happened, it was like some sort of magnet in the cosmos drew us all together. The fact that we’re coming back around to do, from an attitude point of view, something similar to maybe what GN’R was rock’n’roll-wise, the same kind of “us against them” kind of thing, just makes you think of the old cliché that rock’n’roll never dies, it just goes through these periods of ups and down. It’s all how you look at it.
ME: The irony is, everyone looks at rock’n’roll as though it has to be dangerous, yet despite your pasts, you’re a band that’s mostly sober.
S: I think everybody in this band has a story that’s a little different. I’m definitely the last guy in the band to be on the AA brigade, so I still hold a few things dear to me… I think I just grew out of the fucking constant excess of bars and drinking. There comes a point when you’ve just done it so hard that the drugs aren’t that good anymore, and it’s just a pain in the ass. The thing that’s held me together this whole time has been the actual desire to play – Whenever I felt like I was losing that, I would calm down. As far as I was concerned, I could party as much as I want as long as I could play, and that was the truth. There comes a point where one thing in your life is gonna take over, so I chose to play hard to keep myself in checks and balances. Scott has tried to hang on to whatever he was doing, but it just took him on a downward spiral, so all things considered, he is just a lot happier keeping away from it. Duff actually, he almost didn’t make it. He had to straighten out, he had to feel bitter about it. He dragged himself through it a lot longer than he actually wanted to, because Guns were still on the road and he was just keeping it going until he could find the time to just dry out. Matt just found out he wasn’t good at it any more, he wasn’t having a good time, and Dave, he was another crazy one that just said, “You know what? I just saw things from a different perspective and just fuckin’ cleaned up…” Now, here they are – No one pays any attention for god knows how many years, because we’re not in the limelight, and then, there they are again.
ME: Through it all, none of you lost your edge.
S: The edge is in the music. I learned a lot of things when I was a kid, watching other bands go through it, and my parents and their friends. I took a route where if we weren’t working, I didn’t know what to do with myself – If we were working, it was all about playing. So, now, at this point, it’s all about playing. The edge is there because everything that got me into this in the first place was still very impressionable.
ME: How does the band work in terms of a hierarchy? Is anyone at the top of the decision-making process?
S: No, no, no, everybody’s got their own thing. I think, in a band like this, it’s just everybody being into music.
ME: That should make for a good fight when you have one.
S: Because everybody’s strong-willed and every opinionated, and everybody has a wealth of experience, everybody runs the band like any one leader would. Everybody steps up to the fucking plate and says, “Okay, we don’t need to fight, because there is a lot of respect for each other.”
ME: Was there ever a chance, with Scott’s problems, that you thought, “Oh shit, we’ve made it this far, but the band might not make it…”?
S: I think that the way it appeared on the surface, through the media, was a lot different than the way it was actually going. The thing abut the media is, it only picks up the highlights – But we are living it. The legal ramifications are two of Scott’s bad decisions that we were dealing with the whole time, so nothing came as a surprise. The main thing that was cool about it all, was that during that whole legal fucking hodgepodge, Scott was getting to that point where he was really fucking turning a new leaf. Then, at the tail end of him going through that, he was fucking around and got busted on something that wasn’t even drug related.
ME: Looking at the music industry, is anything out there encouraging to you?
S: Over the last ten years there have been a bunch of bands that have come out… A long time ago I made a long list of them – Faith No More, Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Sublime, Alice In Chains, there was a bunch of really fucking good bands – then it sort of went sour, and there was nothing going on. Then Queens Of The Stone Age, which has always been around, finally happened… At this point in time, Radiohead are like the equivalent to Pink Floyd, and that was sort of my lifeblood in rock’n’roll over the years… Jet’s pretty cool – I still think it’s fucking diluted AC/DC, but it’s still going in that direction. The Strokes are okay… Of all the bands coming out, I thought the one that has the best guitar sound are The Donnas… As far as what I’m into, I can’t help but still be drawn to Led Zeppelin – I sort of go back to music that I grew up with, that I really have the utmost respect for, which is, to me, like this beautiful music mosaic that’s gone on for so many years.