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Sunday 22 April 2018

Slash & Burn: The legendary guitarist pulls no punches

Eoin Butler chats to one of the greatest guitarists of all time about getting sober, growing wiser and gigging with more "stable" collaborators.

Illustration by Aisling Teevan
Illustration by Aisling Teevan
Axl Rose and Slash perform in their earlier incarnation as Hollywood Rose, L.A., 1984.
Slash performing on stage.
Slash and Michael Jackson.

'You know what's wrong with the whole f***in' entertainment business?" Slash's opening salvo is positively Dublin taxi driver-esque. "Kids these days just want to grab a bunch of cash, do as little work, with as little integrity as possible, and just f***ing retire, man."

It's the morning after his birthday. Not traditionally a date on which the former Guns n' Roses star would be expected to be at his most congenial. But while the iconic top hat and curls remain, at 49, the guitarist has long since kicked his legendary addictions.

Indeed the way he waxes nostalgic about the past, you'd hardly think sex n' drugs had even come into the equation. "You wanna know why I got into this business?" he asks. "Because I loved playing. I loved doing concerts. I loved recording. And that's still what I'm in it for today."

On paper, it reads like a curmudgeonly tirade. But he delivers it in such a laidback Californian drawl that he cannot help but exude a certain Lebowskian charm.

Last night Slash celebrated his birthday at a downtown Chicago steakhouse, where he shared a meal with his friend Steven Tyler of Aerosmith. ("Yeah, we had dinner across the street. How'd you know that?" The restaurant manager tweeted a picture, I tell him.)

Today he is up to talk about his excellent new album World On Fire, recorded with singer Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators, as well as to promote the group's forthcoming European tour, which opens at the 3 Arena [formerly the O2] in Dublin on November 10th. For a man who spent most of his career butting heads professionally with two of the maddest and most maddening front men in the annals of rock n' roll (Axl Rose in Guns n' Roses and Scott Wieland in Velvet Revolver), his relationship with Kennedy sounds remarkably civilised.

"Yeah, the way it works is, I write stuff. I record it on my phone. Then I send it to Myles when he's on with his band Alter Bridge so that he can adhere to whatever riff he digs. We get a tonne of preproduction work done that way. So once we get in the studio, we only have to play the songs a couple of times. The studio process is very, very fast."

Not to dredge up the past, but Axl Rose was a control freak whose tardiness and eccentricity justly earned him a reputation as the Howard Hughes of rock. Scott Weiland was a raging heroin addict for most of the time he was in Velvet Revolver. Was it a conscious decision to seek a more stable professional partnership?

"Not exactly," he replies. "When I was in Velvet Revolver, I really just wanted to do something on my own for a while. To get away from what that band had become, with Scott the way he was, and all of that. So I made the first solo album [Slash, released 2010] and then I figured I should tour it."

He then met Kennedy and quickly put a band together. "In the past, I'd worked with guys I'd known or had played with before in L.A. But this unit just came out of the blue. Even from our first rehearsal, we just had this magic synergy. And we've kept that and developed it ever since."

"And yes, it is stable. Mostly because everyone in the band wants to go out and play. In other bands I've been a part of in the past, I used to find that there were all sorts of internal obstacles that I could never understand with people. The instability in that group... I don't even know how to describe it."

He's talking about Guns n' Roses? "Yeah. We slaved to get to the point where we could make records. We sacrificed everything. We achieved success and then, suddenly, certain figures in the band just wanted to f*** it all up. I mean, I just wanted to work. But I never knew when, or where, or how that was going to be."

It's not a subject he seems to enjoy talking about. (In fact, over the course of our conversation, he never once refers to Axl Rose by name.) And having had to fend off questions about a reunion that's never going to happen for close on 20 years now, it's hard to blame him.

So I ask about another singular talent whose path he crossed several times in the course of his career: Michael Jackson. Although it's odd to imagine the soft voiced King of Pop and the whiskey-swilling metaller bonding over much, when they met during sessions for Jackson's Black or White single in 1991, the guitarist insists there was a genuine bond.

"The first time we met, it was probably for a total of 10 minutes. He left me in the studio, gave me free rein to do what I wanted with the track and just took off. But it was on the road that a relationship developed."

Slash toured with Jackson in the early 1990s. Altogether they played over 50 times together, including a performance at the MTV Awards in 1995. "At that point, Guns n' Roses were getting pretty big, and beginning to live in the bubble that massive artists live in.

"So it was interesting to see someone who was already entrenched in that world, albeit with three times the entourage. Everything just becomes bigger and bigger and less realistic. The amount of bullshit surrounding you. The amount of yes-people you have to deal with. And, you know, I felt for him. I really did. Because there was nobody in his entourage that he could 100% trust."

Word is that when Slash was recording his first solo album in the summer of 2009, he considered calling up his old friend and asking him to guest on the album. "Yes, that's true. The thought did cross my mind. And this was something he might have been interested to do."

Unfortunately, Jackson was in rehearsals for his ill-fated This Is It concert series in London at the time. So Slash never made the call. He put the idea on the long finger, figuring he could return to it at some later date. A couple of weeks later Jackson was dead.

After Michael Jackson's death, Slash went on record saying that he had been "hip to [Jackson's] issues". Does that mean he was aware of the singer's addictions? "Well, I don't really like to be too specific in talking about that kind of thing. It's none of my business. He and I certainly never discussed it. But I knew..."

He pauses.

"Let's just say I could get a sense of the alienation he was experiencing. And I knew the kinds of things he might be doing to combat that. I mean, I knew my own habits. So there was something there that was unsaid between us."

Considering the carnage this lifestyle has had on so many people around him, I ask, how would he feel if his own sons (aged 10 and 12) some day came to him and told him they'd like to be rock stars?

He laughs. "If my kids wanted to get into rock 'n' roll, I'd say 'Look, if you want to pick up an instrument, play it because you love the sound it makes. If you want to write songs and be in a band, that's fine too. Just know there's nothing to be gained from it except personal enjoyment.'

"The chance of getting anywhere with it are so slim that you really need to be doing it for the love of it and not have any expectations. But they're my kids, and I'm going to support them whatever they decide to do. Right now, I don't see them headed in that direction. But then it didn't click with me either 'til I was almost 15 years old."

I ask about Guns n' Roses famous headlining performance slot at Slane in 1992. But his memory of the day is less than photographic. "I definitely remember the gig, because of where it was and how big it was. But as for the actual performance itself, my recollections are hazy if nonexistent."

But he promises his Irish fans a night that even he will remember this November at the 3 Arena, with songs plucked from the entire span of his near 30-year career. "Our last gig at the Olympia was one of the best gigs we ever played. It was our last show of the European tour and it was awesome.

"The Irish crowd is one that I feel very much at home playing to. So I'm really looking forward to this next visit. It's going to be f***ing awesome. I promise you!"

World On Fire is out now. Slash featuring Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators play the 3 Arena on November 10th.

Irish Independent

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