- 07 Mar 22
Back with the incendiary 4, his latest album with Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators, Guns N’ Roses’ iconic guitarist Slash talks outlaw spirit, the state of rock, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and more.
Guns N’ Roses have just finished an epic, career-spanning set in October 2018 – the second of two nights – at the sold-out Asia World Arena. It’s one of the final dates on their blockbuster Not In This Lifetime… Tour, which ultimately becomes the third-highest grossing tour in history, ahead of The Rolling Stones and just behind U2 and Ed Sheeran, with grosses of well over half-a-billion dollars.
The band take a bow to deafening cheers, then slowly make their way offstage. A group of us on the balcony hang around to clap off GNR’s iconic guitarist, Slash, who’s resplendent in his trademark top hat. He pauses right below us to wave, and before exiting the stage, also – utterly unexpectedly – does a handstand.
It’s only later, shattered and slumped in the departure lounge of the airport not far from the venue, that it occurs to me Slash’s hat remained in place even whilst he was upside down. Truly, major league rock stars remain untouchably cool no matter what.
Fast forward just over three years, and on a cold January evening in the Irish countryside, I’m awaiting a call from Slash’s management. The guitarist is on the promotional trail for 4, his latest album with Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators. It’s another exhilarating collection of hard rock, boasting some characteristically virtuoso guitar work from Slash, masterfully incorporating elements of blues and metal.
Like all of Slash’s work, it’s also imbued with a raw punk spirit, providing a welcome edge in an increasingly sanitised musical landscape. Meanwhile, GNR have been back on the road with a brand new tour – due to hit Marlay Park in June – and have just released a fine new EP, Hard Skool. Understandably, though, Slash wants to keep the focus today primarily on 4.
It’s fair to say since November 2018, we’ve been through an exceptionally trying couple of years. Some of the turmoil is reflected on 4’s opening track, ‘River Is Rising’, with Kennedy howling about a world in chaos. Has Slash been feeling apocalyptic tremors in recent times?
“I wouldn’t say apocalyptic, but there’s definitely mention in that song of some of the social and political events,” says the affable guitarist in his familiar LA drawl, over Zoom from LA. “Or at least, the feelings we’ve had from the last few years, with all of it culminating in 2020. So yeah, there is that feeling in the song for sure.”
Did Slash have any lyrical input on the record?
“I don’t have any lyrical input if I can help it!” he replies. “I just know what the song’s about, but all things considered, I try to stay away from contributing to lyrics if I can.”
When writing with Kennedy and the Conspirators, does the process start with Slash bringing in musical ideas?
“Yeah, I put together ideas and bring it to him” he nods. “I say, ‘See if anything catches your ear’, and he comes up with melodies and lyrics. That’s the way we’ve been doing it ever since 2009.”
Kennedy first appeared on Slash’s self-titled solo debut in 2010, though 2012’s Apocalyptic Love was the first LP credited to both Slash and Kennedy and the Conspirators. There were also two more albums before 4, World On Fire and Living The Dream. Clearly, it seems to be a collaboration Slash gets a lot of satisfaction from.
“We fell into a nice groove in the very beginning,” he reflects. “There was definitely a creative synergy right at the onset, and it’s been a through-line all the way up until now. It’s been very seamless, a lot of fun, and a very no-pressure kind of gig; everyone just wants to play. So, it’s one of the reasons we’ve been together this long – I didn’t even know we’d been together this long until someone reminded me! It’s been what I would consider painless, and really enjoyable.”
The punk attitude evident on 4 has been ingrained in Slash since his earliest days with Guns N’ Roses, who revelled in an outlaw image right from their immortal 1987 debut, Appetite For Destruction. Their hard-partying lifestyle was extensively documented in autobiographies by both bassist Duff McKagan and Slash himself, two of the great rock memoirs.
Infamously, McKagan’s breaking point came when his pancreas exploded. As detailed in Slash’s book, meanwhile, he at one point sought to scale back on his own excess by checking into a retreat in Arizona. Alas, it was only a modest success: suffering from coke hallucinations, and convinced he was being pursued by creatures resembling the alien from Predator, the guitarist crashed through the glass door in his shower.
The police ended up being called after Slash, naked and bleeding, was spotted fleeing through the resort’s golf course. Ultimately, he was found hiding behind a lawnmower (“I’d caused quite a bit of commotion by then,” he notes). But GNR’s subversive streak wasn’t all about intense hedonism, not by a long shot.
Their sophisticated grasp of the power of imagery in rock rivals that of The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and the Sex Pistols. A series of classic album covers, videos and concert posters – not to mention Axl Rose’s onstage t-shirts – have contributed heavily to the mythology surrounding the band.
Remarkably, the sense of mystique around them is perhaps more intense than ever. It is noticeable that in the six years since the trio of Slash, McKagan and Rose reunited, the frontman has more or less stopped doing interviews, though he does occasionally offered considered political views on Twitter – a complete 180 from the wild-man image of yore.
Still, the kind of rebellious spirit that infuses both GNR and 4 is chronically lacking in today’s mainstream rock. What does Slash make of the current state of the genre?
“Wow, that’s a loaded question!” he responds to my Paxman-esque query. “One thing about this record is that it was recorded live in a room. It was just us playing – we kept everything as is and did very little to embellish that. So, I think the attitude comes across. One of the things about recording live is that you capture that; it doesn’t get sucked out in a studio recording process. When you do a lot of editing and layering, and Pro-Tooling stuff to death, it takes all that out.
“That’s what is missing in rock and roll now: we’ve become so dependent on technology to make records, that we’ve taken all of that personality, attitude and realism out. That’s what turned on me on to music – all these records that had this real energy and human element. I think producers, especially, forgot about that when they started leaning heavily on all the conveniences we now have in the studio.
“It’s a thing about a record that you don’t see, and you don’t necessarily know it’s there, but you feel it. You don’t think about it, but it’s fun, and it’s been sucked out of a lot of the records being released.”
It is a spirit, though, that Slash has impressively maintained to the present day.
“You know, sometimes it sounds clichéd when you say, ‘That’s rock and roll’,” he considers. “That is an inherent thing in rock and roll across the board. In every type of band from the ’50s to the ’80s and beyond, there is that freedom. There’s a spirit of, ‘I don’t give a shit what you think – this is my song and fuck you!’ (laughs). That’s always been a really important part of the rock and roll personality. Regardless of the style, it’s really just a way of looking at things.”
THE STONES & LED ZEP
One of the tracks on 4, ‘Spirit Love’, has a sitar groove reminiscent of the Stones’ classic ‘Paint It Black’. Did Slash have that track in mind whilst recording?
“There is a pseudo-Middle Eastern vibe to it,” he acknowledges, “especially with the sitar. That’s really what makes you think of ‘Paint It Black’ more than anything. It’s funny, I used the sitar on this song because the intro screamed for it. Throughout my career, I’ve always been wary of using a sitar, because I didn’t want to it be a ’60s cliché, like I was trying to sound like The Beatles or the Stones or whoever. But on this particular song, it felt like it needed it.”
Speaking of the Stones, would Keith Richards in particular have been one of Slash’s biggest influences?
“Yeah, Keith Richards and Ronnie, Mick Taylor and even Brian Jones – I grew up with those guitarist combos. I probably have to say that the Stones, hands down, are the biggest influence throughout my life. I was very much inspired by AC/DC and Aerosmith when I got to be 14 or 15. The attitude and volume of those bands was something that had a huge influence – and the very immature distorted approach (laughs). I guess most adults would call it that.
“It steered me in the direction I went, but the Stones are the through-line with all that. Ever since I was a little kid, all the way up to the present, they’ve really had the blanket influence on me.”
In October ’89, GNR actually supported the Stones at four dates in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and over the years, Slash has also played with various members of the group in different capacities.
“Funnily enough, I’ve known Ronnie Wood since I was around 14 or 15,” he says. “I’ve maintained a relationship with him over the years; I visited his home in Ireland a few times. But I also got to know Mick and Keith, so I’m very honoured to say I’ve hung out with them, and we have done gigs together and so on. It’s very cool to meet up with your heroes, and they’re really great people, so it’s nice that’s how it turned out.”
In terms of Slash’s influences, would Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page be a close second to Richards?
“He definitely had a big influence,” he affirms. “In terms of lead guitarists, I was talking about Mick Taylor. But then you had Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Clapton, Hendrix, Mike Bloomfield and Johnny Winter – all those guys were big influences. But I think Jimmy has a style that was very reminiscent of BB King, and I was always in love with BB King’s style of playing. Jimmy’s just one of those guys, he’s a great blues player. There’s something about his playing that, above all others, personifies rock and roll guitar to me. So yeah, he had a bit impact.”
For Slash’s money, which is the better Page riff: ‘Whole Lotta Love’ or ‘Heartbreaker’?
“For me, it was ‘Whole Lotta Love’,” he says. “I remember hearing it when it came out, when I was a kid. I had no aspirations of being a musician at that time, but that song spoke to me. It was years later, when I did pick up the guitar, that I realised what an influence that riff, and that little guitar solo, had on me. Because that’s what I designed my guitar sound around. It was sort of subconscious, but I was definitely thinking in those terms.”
ESSENCE OF ROCK AND ROLL
To go back to 4, was it a pleasure for Slash to let rip without overthinking things?
“Yeah, it was important for me to do it,” he says. “I’ve wanted to do a record in this fashion ever since I first started. I’ve always played live in the studio, but I always went back and re-did the guitars in the control room, cos I hate headphones. But we would do it all together to capture the energy, to get that feel. Of course, as well as the guitars, we’d do the vocals later as well. But I always wanted to set up the back-line in a room, and just play and record that.
It’s a very Glyn Johns way of doing things, and most producers I met wouldn’t do it. But the guy who we just worked with, Dave Cobb, was very into the idea, and actually a big fan of Glyn Johns. And it was very liberating for me. Because you just go in and play live, and everything in that take is what’s going to be heard by the listener. For me, that is really the essence of rock and roll. It’s not to say that overdubs and all that kind of stuff don’t work.
“You can capture and keep the bulk of it, and then add some stuff later, to embellish harmonies and whatnot. But to capture the essence of what happened in the moment is really important.”
How did Slash end up working with Cobb?
“Well, when I was looking for a producer for this record, I asked a couple of reliable sources,” he says. “He was suggested to me by somebody, and so I checked out his discography, and he had done some really cool country artists. And he also did Rival Sons, a band I really like. So I called him and we had a really exciting conversation about recording live, Glyn Johns, capturing everything and not over-rehearsing. I went, ‘Cool – this is the guy I wanna work with.’”
At this point, I’m about to ask Slash my final question, about that Guns N’ Roses gig in Hong Kong in 2018. But throughout the interview, the audio has been a bit jumpy, and at this juncture a delay on the line sets in. As a result, the concluding part of our conversation resembles the classic Two Ronnies Mastermind sketch, where Ronnie Barker provides the answer to the previous question. It’s a bona fide Spinal Tap scenario.
No matter, the time we’ve spent in Slash’s company is enough – it’s clear that, all these years later, his appetite to record and perform great music remains undiminished.
• 4 is out now.