|In his first interview in six years, Axl Rose talks about rebuilding Guns n' Roses for the new century
It is 2 a.m. in a dimly lit recording studio deep in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. Sitting back on a couch in the control room is a once omnipresent rock figure who has been out of public view for most of the last decade. The music he's been playing on this long night has been the focus of his obsessive perfectionism since 1991, when Guns n' Roses last released an album of new material. But in late November, Axl Rose played nearly a dozen tracks from the long-in-the-works Guns n' Roses album for Rolling Stone and gave his first substantial interview in more than six years.
Rose comes across as intense but hardly humorless as he speaks at length about his music and the fate of his former band mates. At thirty-six, Rose looks a bit older and more solidly built than the lean rock god of his "Sweet Child o' Mine" days, the result perhaps not just of the passage of time but of his kickboxing regimen and a lifestyle that's said to still be largely nocturnal but zealously healthy. He's dressed tonight in Abercrombie & Fitch, with his reddish hair intact and cut to a Prince Valiant-ish midlength. Having failed to deliver a new album by the end of the twentieth century, is Rose ready to commit to releasing a record sometime during the twenty-first? "Yes, I think that would definitely be the right time," he answers, a slight grin coming to his face.
The new Guns n' Roses album is tentatively titled Chinese Democracy and loosely scheduled for summer 2000. From time to time, Rose gets up to pace the studio where he has spent the last year recording and rerecording material (his workday tends to start around midnight and run through the early daylight hours). "What we're trying to do is build Guns n' Roses back into something," Rose explains quietly as he stands in front of a sunken isolation booth. "This wasn't Guns n' Roses, but I feel it is Guns n' Roses now."
Throughout the night, Rose seems anxious to finally have his say but wishes he could wait until the new album is released and can "speak for itself." Addressing the absence of his old band members, Rose suggests he simply needed to take control to survive. "It is the old story that you are told when you're a kid: 'Don't buy a car with your friends,' " he says with his eyes straight ahead. "Nobody could get the wheel. Everybody had the wheel. And when you have a bunch of guys, I'm telling you, you are driving the car off the cliff. The reality is, go buy those guys' solo records. There are neat ideas and parts there, but they wouldn't have worked for a Guns n' Roses record."
Slash's name pops up repeatedly, invoked in a way that suggests a shellshocked husband speaking of an ex-wife after a particularly horrific divorce. "It is a divorce," Rose says with a sad stare. In retrospect, Rose sees the band's massive success as part of its undoing. "The poverty is what kept us together," he says. "That was how we became Guns n' Roses. Once that changed . . ." He turns momentarily quiet. "Guns n' Roses was like the old Stones or whatever," he says. "Not necessarily the friendliest bunch of guys."
By 1996, Slash was gone; Izzy Stradlin was long gone. Duff McKagen officially quit in '98. They were replaced by a shifting group of collaborators, who've helped Rose create music that plays to his old strengths while also playing catch-up. "Oh My God" - the industrial-flavored track that surfaced on the End of Days soundtrack - is only one hint of what's to come. Imagine Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti remixed by Beck and Trent Reznor, and you'll have some sense of Axl's new sound. Song after song combines the edgy hard-rock force and pop smarts of vintage Guns n' Roses with surprisingly modern and ambitious musical textures.
Rose repeatedly speaks of "building something." In his construction process, he's been joined by keyboardist Dizzy Reed (who played on Guns' Use Your Illusion I and II), producer Sean Beavan (Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails), former Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson, former Vandals drummer Josh Freese, and longtime friend and guitarist Paul Huge. While admitting that "no one loved the old band more than me," Rose sounds convinced he cannot work with his old band mates. Furthermore, he insists that - with the exception of the drummer Steven Adler and his replacement, Matt Sorum - the Gunners walked away and that they were not fired.
Rose confesses to being stung by skeptics who doubt what he can do. "There is the desire definitely to do it, to get over some of the hump of the people that are trying to keep you in the past," he says. "There are people that I thought I was friends with who are all of a sudden in the magazines, going, 'They'll never get anywhere without Slash.' Thanks a lot. Like I made this happen, you know. I basically figured out a way to save my own ass. There was only one way out, and I found it. Otherwise, you know, I believe my career was just going down the toilet. I figured out how to save my ass and then tried to bring everybody with me."
The rebuilding - and ongoing reinvention - of Guns n' Roses has been a difficult and, quite obviously, slow and expensive process. Rose does point out that the expense will be less glaring if, as he expects, he gets another record out of the hours and hours of material he's committed to tape, possibly one that's even more industrial and electronica-influenced than Chinese Democracy. "I'd like to take some of the old Guns fans along with me gradually into the twenty-first century," he says.
As for his reputation as a recluse locked away mysteriously at his Malibu estate, Rose says, "The reality is that I'm not clubbing because I don't find it's in my best interest to be out there. I am building something slowly, and it doesn't seem to be so much out there as in here, in the studio and in my home. So many times, I have come down here and I had no idea that I was going to be able to. If you are working with issues that depressed the crap out of you, how do you know you can express it? At the time, you are just like, 'Life sucks.' Then you come down and you express 'Life sucks,' but in this really beautiful way."
Excerpted from RS 833, on newsstands this week.
(January 10, 2000)