|S. L. Duff
Ex-Guns N' Roses Guitarist Slash Discusses Diving Into The Snake Pit And Abusing Your Illusions
Compared to most pro musicians, even the most over-the-top showboats and chart-topping hitmakers, Slash - Saul Hudson to his parents - has had a most amazing career. Any one part of it would probably be the zenith of another player's work, but to Slash, it's all part of a continually unfolding saga. Joining Guns N' Roses as he was leaving his teens, Slash became part of one of the most successful rock groups in history. If you discount their Geffen-sponsored fake-indie record, Live?!*@Like A Suicide, Guns had, in Appetite for Destruction, the most successful debut of all time, having sold upwards of 15 million copies. Following the release of the simultaneously released twin double-sets, Use Your Illusion I & II, Guns mounted the longest tour in rock's history, a walloping 28 straight months. Along the way, they rattled the realistic portrait of the world from which they came, and by recording "Look at Your Game Girl," a number penned by incarcerated tunesmith Charlie Manson.
We could go on and on about the Gunners, damn, from the riots to the tour-gone-wrong with Metallica to opening for the Stones to the musical fantasy about their rise to fame, White Trash Wins Lotto, which Slash shrugs off with a "Who cares?" Suffice to say, for all of the infamy and notoriety they have generated, the band faded into oblivion by means of a self-inflicted fizzling out that was as unflattering as their accomplishments were astounding. Like watching a tree wither in late fall, one by one the musicians of Guns fell to the wayside, either fired, replaced, or resigned, until vocalist Axl Rose stood alone, clinging on to the brand name of Guns N' Roses.
It's apparent in talking to Slash that while the benefits of stardom are nice, the main thing of all things is to keep jamming. He is a man consumed with playing the guitar, and constantly honing and improving his craft. Even while GnR was going, Slash was stepping out and logging session time with a remarkable cast of world-class musicians, from Alice Cooper to Iggy Pop, Rod Stewart to Michael Jackson. He wrote "Always On The Run" with Lenny Kravitz, who seemed so appreciative that he yelped the guitarist's name to cue the fiery solo: "Slash!"
I met up with Slash on the patio outside the Los Angeles offices of Koch, the label who is releasing the latest from Slash's Snakepit, Ain't Life Grand. The absolute rock star, he emphasizes both his relaxed nature and star status by arriving an hour late and offering no apologies. Despite his packed day of interviews, he talks as long as I want about whatever I want. He's matter-of-fact and unaffected, friendly and, for a guy who has witnessed first hand rock excess beyond yours and my imaginations, very down to earth. Drinking from a bottle of water and more or less chain smoking, he's dressed in a casual gas station work shirt topped with a black leather backwards ball cap. He's up for talking about anything, but we kick it into gear with talk about Snakepit's tour opening for rock gods AC/DC.
"It's a good bill," says Slash, who speaks quietly and seems to keep an eye on the tape recorder once I mention that it's not always that reliable a machine. "There's definitely not that many rock n' roll bands around. I think as far as bands that are signed that have a record coming out, sort of the arrow going this way, we're just going to stick to this. This is how we do it," he says, referring to Ain't Life Grand's chiseled hard rock, music that sits comfortably alongside past work such as Guns' Illusion sets. "We happen to be coming out at a certain time when a whole big rock surge is going to happen. Everything's really fucked up right now, people are getting bored. I'm bored shitless with most everything that's come out since, since we started, since Guns started. I say 'we' because Guns is still family to me."
Slash sees a correlation between the present and a time some fifteen years ago when Guns N' Roses were the talk of Los Angeles, the flag bearers of a mid-'80s rock resurgence. "When we had to go up against whatever was going on at the time, there were no gritty rock bands, and we were sort of a break through rock band, sort of a fluke in a way. As far as Snakepit's concerned, I'm not kidding around, this is a band. It's called Slash's Snakepit because that's what the record company wanted way back when I was still at Geffen."
According to Slash, Snakepit is now his "primary focus," but it wasn't always that way. The first Snakepit developed as casually as music can possibly come about. "Originally, it was just to fill the gap between Guns last tour and the next record," he recalls. "Izzy was gone, me and Duff were hanging out a lot, Steven was gone. So, the band was not necessarily the same band anyway, towards the tail end, as far as Guns was concerned. So I was hanging out with the guys that I hired to fill the positions in Guns, which was Gilby Clarke (who replaced guitarist Izzy Stradlin) and Matt Sorum (who replaced drummer Steven Adler), and Mike Inez was just a good friend of mine, from Alice in Chains. Basically (we were) just writing and recording and digging having a studio in the house." The first Snakepit record, It's Five O'Clock Somewhere, grew out of these jams. "It was a demo, not even a demo, just a big 'cuz we can do it' record. The whole thing took two weeks"
While Slash grew tighter with his new crew, the chasm between himself and Rose widened. "Nothing was happening with Guns still, and me and Axl were getting further and further away from the primary fucking focus or goal, as far as Guns was concerned. I just wanted to get better at doing what we already did pretty good, and he wanted to do something else completely different. After we found a singer, I said, 'Well, shit, we can go on the road.' So we did 80 some odd shows, on four continents, in four months."
Upon returning from the first Snakebite tour, Slash found things had worsened still. "Me and Axl had grown so fucking far apart as far as what we thought we should be doing, that I inevitably ended up quitting. At that point, I quit my band and got divorced, one big clean sweep. So I started doing a lot of sessions and trying to reevaluate what it was I wanted to do."
Another detour presented itself in the form of Slash's Blues Ball, a band thrown together in haste to perform initially for a large festival in Hungary. The band only played covers, yet ended up being booked for a year. Returning from that extended outing, Slash was determined to get back that which he had lost, the feeling of being in a permanent, steady band.
"The (Snakepit) musicians were just guys that I knew from around town, the ones I hung out with and was cool with. Anybody you can hang out, smoke pot and cigarettes, and drink a lot of beer with, and they know what they're doing, have the same musical tastes, musicians get along. That part wasn't so hard. Finding a singer was hard. Turned out he (Snakepit belter Rod Jackson) lived more or less around the corner from me, friends of friends of mine. I went through 200 fucking guys before I hooked up with him. Once we got to that point, we got (producer) Jack Douglas involved, and that was it."
In the grandest of rockstar traditions, recording was as easy as going down to the basement. Slash built his dream studio in the basement of his Beverly Hills home. In an even more over the top twist, once the record was done, he simply sold the house. "Record's done, I don't have any use for the house. I (had) a Studer (24-track tape deck), and I actually sold the board to Billy Bob Thornton with the house. I sold some of the stuff with the house. It (was) an old Trident (board). It's one of the best studios in L.A. The only reason I left the house was because, being that I'm like a consummate bachelor, even though I have a girlfriend and I've been married, whatever, my life style's the same. I don't need a house. I just need a place to go jam and I need to have a bar, and a strip bar and Carl's Jr. and a Jack in the Box nearby. I need to be in the city. This place is in Beverly Hills, I just happened to buy it by a fluke because it had a basement in it." Indeed, a basement anywhere in sunny California is practically unheard of. Naturally, Mr. It's Five O'Clock Somewhere has a story connected to his basement. "It used to be connected to a fuckin' tunnel from the prohibition era that went all of the way from fuckin' Roxbury Drive to fuckin' Laurel Canyon. The only basements that were in Los Angeles were in that area. They built this tunnel and the basements were speakeasys. You'd walk Beverly Hills to Crescent Heights. The tunnel still exists but it's all blocked up."
Looking at Slash's recording resume, we had to ask a few questions. Of all the people he's sat in and recorded with, which was the biggest blast to do? Slash smiles and knows the answer instantly. "Probably the Lenny Kravitz one, because that was just such a spontaneous fuckin' thing. It was a song, a riff that I originally wrote. That 'Mama Said' song was a riff that I was playing hanging around with Lenny, talking about how we went to high school together. I played him that, and he called me up three months later: 'Let's go to Hoboken and do that track.' 'You serious?' So we went and did that together, and that was fun. We did it in this funky place on a Sunday in Hoboken, off license, no booze, nothing. Went out there and smoked a hell of a lot of cigarettes."
Slash has also had the honor of sitting in with the man who invented and developed the guitar he plays, Les Paul. Though just an informal jam at Paul's resident Tuesday night spot in Manhattan's Fat Tuesdays, it was obviously a more trying situation for the ax slinger than his Jersey jam with Kravitz. Slash retells the story without a blink. "Les Paul literally wiped the stage clean with me the first time I played with him. I swear to God. I went down to Fat Tuesdays one night, and I thought, 'I'll play some blues with him,' or whatever. It was like, 'Get up here kid, c'mon!' And he just kicked my fuckin' ass." Slash, however, is not a quitter. "I played with him four or five times at Fat Tuesdays after that, and I got better at it. I'm not a schooled musician, and Les Paul is one of those guys that wrote the book. He also plays traditional music, American traditional music, which is not your basic Stones shit, and it's not your basic American rhythm and blues. It's like Mary Ford shit, ya know? I don't even know... his rhythm guitar player blew my mind. I respect the shit out of that. And, just to be able to go up there and impromptu try and play along with those guys, I got better at doing it."
Whether jamming with his peers, recording as much as possible, or playing and touring with Snakepit, one thing's for sure: Slash will always be "Slash of Guns N' Roses." He was recently reacquainted with the music of GnR while helping prep the release of the recent live record, Live Era 1987-93. Was he happy with the results? "I had to be," he affirms. "I was there for the whole thing. A lot of people think (it's) over-produced, or over-mixed; that's what I heard. No, that's what the band sounded like. I was surprised, I didn't know the band was that good!"
A lot of us do remember the band being that good. The fact that the classic lineup is gone and Axl's new version remains unheard (save for the solitary selection on the End of Days soundtrack) is a sad reminder to fans of the lost glory days of Guns N' Roses. On Slash's amazingly in-depth website, the guitarist is quoted as saying he would play with Guns N' Roses again if it were to be a real Guns N' Roses recording. It would take, he claims, nothing more than a phone call. Is this accurate? "I can say that, because that's easier said then done. In order to get an original Guns N' Roses band together, it'd be almost impossible. But, if the situation happened to arise where we all just happened to magically come to a meeting of the minds and just wanted to do a show, or two shows, or something like thatů But doing a record, I'm not going to do drop what I'm doing now, it's been too fucking long. I had too much of a bad time with Guns at the tail end, anyway. We had offers to do so many shows that kids missed out on, we didn't do them because Axl didn't want to do them.
Well, might as well ask. Slash should know if anyone does. What the hell happened to Axl Rose? Slash has remained active and creative for the past five years solid. Why did Axl become so reclusive? "I have no idea. I have not talked to him in five years. Last time I talked to him was on the phone. I think he was going to sue me at the time."
That said, it must be a sore point that Axl's impending record, when and if it ever comes out, will use the brand name that carried all of it's members to superstardom; Guns N' Roses. How does Slash feel about that? "Everybody goes, 'Well, why didn't you take a percentage off the name? Or take part of the name, or whatever.' I'm not going to do a Guns N' Roses band without the band. And Axl wanted to do that. So I was like, 'Go ahead, see ya.' I think it's sort of dumb. I think one of the easier ways of looking at it would have been along the lines of what me and Izzy and Duff did. Obviously, we're not all playing together. Put together another name -- it's gonna draw attention based on the success of Guns anyway. If James Hetfield were to do a solo record, we'd all know about it, regardless of what it was called, it's James from Metallica. If Axl had fucking taken on another name, and just split his way and I went mine and so on and so forth, then Guns would have been sort of like, just, safe. Like Guns N' Roses was always there, and everybody just took off to do this that and the other, but the name wasn't tarnished. Now, the name's fucked up."