Posted: April 6th, 2012 | Author: admin | Filed under: Feature story | No Comments »
Background note: I interviewed Slash on three separate occasions. By the third session I think he finally remembered we’d spoken before. In honor of Guns’ induction into the Rock Hall, here’s my favorite chat with the chill guitar hero, followed by an interview with Guns’ producer Mike Clink, who helped shore up Slash’s memory about the recording of Appetite For Destruction. I originally conducted the interviews for a Guitar One cover story in celebration of that album’s 15th anniversary. Ten years later the rock world still waits to see if the classic line-up that created it will share a stage again. Breath-holding is not recommended.
The Guns ‘N Roses legend is one filled with as many cautionary tales as it is rock-and-roll victories. There’s the time Duff McKagan’s pancreas exploded from prolonged over-indulgence. And the time Izzy Stradlin was arrested after relieving himself in an airplane’s galley. And the time Axl Rose incited a riot because an audience member took his photo.
But for a guitarist, there’s perhaps no story more gruesome and edifying than one recently revealed by the band’s longterm producer Mike Clink.
“When I first met the band, Slash was playing a Jackson guitar,” he recalls. “It was December, and it was cold in the rehearsal room at Hollywood’s S.I.R. Studios. And Slash hadn’t changed his strings in I don’t know how long.
“So I said, ‘You know, your strings are dead.’
“And he said, ‘Okay, I’ll change them.’
“So he goes off into a corner, and he cuts off all the strings at once–and the neck just tweaked. And from that moment on, that guitar never went into tune ever again. It was pretty horrendous.”
It’s difficult to believe that Slash was then a mere two months away from recording one of the landmark rock albums of the last fifteen years. But even incipient guitar heroes have to learn the ropes of guitar maintenance somehow–and Guns ‘N Roses always preferred to take their lessons from cold, hard experience rather than by example.
Fifteen years later, you can still hear that preference for often brutal experience ripping from the speakers whenever you spin Appetite For Destruction. It’s not the sound of a guitarist who would gingerly replace one string at a time–it’s the sound of two guitarists, actually, who would rather do what it takes to get back to playing sooner.
Coincidentally, Slash and the band’s underrated and unfortunately press-shy rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin were jamming together for the first time in years when we contacted Slash to reminisce about the making of Appetite For Destruction. Typically, he wasn’t dwelling on past successes, but his reunion with Izzy had rekindled an appreciation for, and analysis of, the rare chemistry captured on all too few albums.
In this exclusive interview, Slash jogs his memory about recording the first, and arguably best, Guns album, and details where it all went right–and then very wrong.
Congratulations on Appetite For Destruction‘s anniversary. Were you aware it had been fifteen years?
It was brought to my attention yesterday. I hadn’t been counting.
Is it safe to say that Appetite is your favorite Guns album?
I love playing, recording and touring so much that each record has its own whatever about it. I had a blast making that record, but I just didn’t realize how cool it was until way after the fact. When you make a record, it’s really of the moment. After it’s done, I never even listen to it again. I just enjoy the time that I’m in the studio. So really, the only reminder I have about any of the recordings is usually through somebody else.
But it was your debut album. Didn’t that make it special?
It was the first extended studio effort that we’d done collectively, so that in itself was a gas. At the same time, there was so much else going on–I was staying out ‘til four in the morning; getting to the studio at least by noon. And I wasn’t living anywhere, so I was a complete vagabond during the making of Appetite. There was a lot of craziness and partying going on–all of the stuff that comes with being a rock and roll band that has no idea where it’s going. We did everything we wanted to do, and got away with whatever it was we could get away with. So looking back on it now, it’s like, yeah, that was totally cool, I wouldn’t have missed a minute of it.
Were there any templates you were holding up back then, saying, “If I could make an album like this, I’d be happy”?
No. Everyone else might have a different story, but I’m only speaking on my behalf. From the time the band started, it’s always had a chemistry where everybody played what they thought needed to be incorporated into the music. The band had a very magical chemistry. I was thinking about this last night, because I was jamming with Izzy. Everybody always came up with their own ideas. Nobody really asked a lot of questions. We just had an unspoken chemistry–a natural feel for knowing where to put a part. There wasn’t a lot of sitting around and looking to the future as far as how big a hit this was going to be. We just incorporated what we each liked as individuals into the songs. And it just happened, there was no discussion.
Did the band feel unified at that point?
We were the only five guys who could have made up that band in the whole of L.A. Especially at that point in time, the ‘80s was probably one of the worst decades of all time for music [laughs].
Which is similar to the current climate–disposable pop and Xeroxed metal bands.
Exactly. We hated everything that was going on everywhere, so we ended up falling together. It was sort of a fluke how it happened, but it was inevitable because individually, we couldn’t pair up with anyone else–we each had our own personal direction. We eventually all got together, and that was the only combination that worked. Against all odds, we went head long into this thing. But it wasn’t preconceived–that’s just who we were. When we went in to do the album, we just wanted to make our album, and to be good at what we did.
But were you reacting against how plastic music had become?
No, it wasn’t that. It was just that, given the time period, what we did was very much against the grain. And we enjoyed the static. [Laughs.]
Your playing was more raw, melodic and bluesy than the fleet-fingered style that dominated the L.A. hair-metal scene back then. What were some of the reactions to your style?
I wasn’t riding anybody’s opinion. It wasn’t until way later that I got recognized as a half-decent guitar player. But in the Hollywood scene, we were such a brash band that the whole thing was overwhelming. I just liked to play what I liked to play. As long as I thought I was playing well, I didn’t really give a shit what anyone was thinking. But I’ve always been very paranoid about the quality of my playing. I’m one of those guys who always asks afterwards, “Did I play okay?” But I wasn’t judging my playing by anyone else’s standards but my own. I didn’t have any convoluted dreams about being a guitar hero.
But you became one anyway.
There was point when I started getting phone calls to do magazine interviews. And then at another level, me and Axl got the lead singer/lead guitarist combo thing going that was very recognizable. From that point on, I started to get recognized as a guitar player. Which was very flattering. I appreciate the fact that I’ve done pretty well for myself in the context of being one fifth of a cool rock and roll band.
How difficult was it to get the band’s sound on tape?
Capturing it properly was a hard thing to do because it was very raw, and we didn’t want to use a lot of effects and other stuff to embellish it too much. At the same time, we did have a certain amount of professional integrity, and we wanted it to sound tight. There are a lot of bands that try to sound unhinged. We were unhinged, but we also liked to tie it together enough to keep it from exploding all over the place. So it always had that sound where it was just about to fucking fall apart, but it was a little tight at the same time.
What was your daily routine like at that time?
My existence has always been that detached gypsy kind of thing–very focused around my music, but as far as everything else, very detached. So I’d work all night until 11 or 12 or whenever, and then hit the street, find a place to hang out, then find a place to sleep, and then find a way to get back to the studio the next morning. That was the making of the whole record.
Would you indulge at all when you were recording?
One of the most important things to know about how Guns worked, is even on our worst days, everything else would take a backseat to the band in order to do that properly. So there was a little of everything within reason [laughs], but it wasn’t as excessive during the actual recording process, because as soon as you couldn’t play well, then the whole point of being around ceased to exist. So in the studio, maybe a little Jack and coffee [laughs]. But after a day’s work, it was go-for-broke. And then the next day, you just showed up at the studio on time, and no one had anything to say, as long as it didn’t affect your performance.
So where did it start to go wrong?
First there was Steven [Adler, the band's first drummer who was let go for excessive drug abuse]. That was a big change, but we survived it. But that still had a big effect on the camaraderie of a bunch of guys who–I hate to sound cliche–really came from the gutter. But it was hard, because I was only 20 and Steven was only 21 when the band really started. We had professional ethics, but at the same time, we were a crazy bunch of kids. Trying to keep a tab on any one of us was difficult [laughs]. We just knew when we had to show up for work, but after work… god knows what was going on.
So when we buckled down to do Use Your Illusion, [former Cult drummer] Matt Sorum came in, and he was just like the rest of us, so that was cool. And then we’re doing this whole double-record thing because we had so much material. And then we had all these huge shows coming up, so it’s like we were touring during the making of the record. There was a lot going on. So we were out for two-plus years on those albums.
Then Izzy left, and a lot of that had to do with the excessive shit happening on the road, as far as going on late and riots and that kind of stuff. We were a really simple band from the start. We really looked forward to getting up and playing every night–that’s what we’re all about. But when that started to get complicated for reasons that didn’t have anything to do with the rest of us, it put a strain on the band.
It wasn’t a “success kills” kind of story, it was just that what Axl had originally planned all along, started to become something that none of knew anything about [laughs]. So when the tour was over, I looked at what was going on, and I realized I felt very estranged. What bound us together was really lacking as soon as we were missing a couple guys. You just can’t reinvent something like that.
We tried to hang in there as long as possible, but Axl was going in a musical direction that none of us could fathom. Eventually, it just wasn’t fun for me, and I finally left. And consequently Duff left, and Matt got fired. Now Axl is doing Guns on his own. I have no regrets about the whole thing, because it was a slow, systematic thing that went on. I’m just waiting for the new Guns album to come out so I can have something solid in my hands to explain where Axl was headed–just to clarify some things [laughs].
But musically, at least, something good came out of Axl’s temperamental side.
Oh yeah. He’s one of the most brilliant lyricists. He’s got so much going on, and he’s really an intelligent fucking, amazing fucking guy. It’s just… it depends how much of that [emotional baggage] you want to experience with him. A lot of it is stuff that not everyone in the band necessarily understands. So you try to understand, and you try to be a good friend and bandmate as you go through it. But when it negatively affects everything the band is doing, it’s really hard to stand by him.
I’m also interested to hear the new Guns record because so much has gone on since this whole thing started–I know he’s got a lot to say. Even a lot of his stage performance is fueled by angst. And it’s essential to have that sort of soul and energy for have the music come across as genuine; that’s an integral part of rock and roll. But it just depends on how far you want to take it. It’s like, if you can get it all out of your system in the two hours you’re onstage, great–as long as you’re onstage [laughs].
You’ve been jamming with Izzy again. Any new perspective on why your playing styles work so well together?
It’s the kind of thing where no matter who comes up with the initial idea, I never really have to go, “Izzy, play this part this way.” He just plays his thing his own way and we never really talk about it much. Last night, we went in and took two songs from scratch–just basic chord changes–and worked them into full songs. That’s one of the things about me and Izzy working together–he knows where I’m at, and I know where he’s at. And that’s the way it’s always been. I make up something that accompanies [his part], and at the same time accents it, and he does the same with my parts. We have that kind of chemistry. We’ve always been good friends, so for us to get in a room and play is a very easy thing to do.
What can we expect from you next?
I’m putting together another record with some stuff I’ve done with Izzy, and other stuff I’ve done on my own. I want to start writing with other people, as well, and put together an album with a lot of guests–a really cool rock and roll record with people you wouldn’t expect to hear together.
And finally, what’s the strongest impression you have of your time creating Appetite For Destruction?
You should probably ask the rental car companies who rented us the vans we used to drive from the Valley to Hollywood and back [laughs]. There were a few damaged vans–we must have dropped off about three or four in the middle of the night. So many rental places were pissed off and ready to sue–except there was no entity to sue really. That’s what that album was about–an appetite for destruction. It was us against the world. And it was a really cool time because we pulled it off.
Appetite For Construction: An Interview with Producer Mike Clink
“I absolutely love it. This is it. We start work right away.”
It was four a.m. when Mike Clink received that fateful call in the fall of 1986. The excited voice on the other end belonged to Axl Rose, who had just heard a rough mix of “Shadow Of Your Love,” a track Guns N’ Roses had demoed with the producer over the weekend.
For months prior to that weekend, the band had achieved disastrous results with numerous other producers, including Kiss’ Paul Stanley. Money and patience were growing thin.
“A lot of people came along that we didn’t like,” says Slash. “And we scared off a lot of other producers. Basically, everyone who worked with us from the very beginning had a very distinctive personality.”
The band were initially attracted to Clink through his work on UFO’s Strangers In The Night. But his skill at capturing a twin-guitar assault was only part of the equation that kept him behind the glass for Guns’ essential discs.
“They trusted me because I always told them how it was,” he says. “That’s the reason I stayed in that camp for so long–my brutal honesty.”
In this rare interview, Clink shares the truth behind Appetite‘s construction.
The band had a reputation for being difficult. Did you initially have reservations about working with them?
Absolutely not. I loved those guys. They were characters from the first day I met them. I went to S.I.R. Studios for a rehearsal, and they were telling me about themselves and asking me about some of the records I had worked on, and they were spitting over one another’s heads. It was very strange to me, because those guys were living on the street, and that was a whole different mentality. But by the time the record was over, I understood it completely.
So you would join in the fun.
Oh, absolutely. It was a lot of fun to go out with those guys. I couldn’t do it every night, because I was making the record. But on occasion, I definitely went out. Those were some wild times.
What language would they use to describe the sound they were after?
They wanted it to be raw, and they enjoyed the interplay of two guitarists, which is something that I’ve always loved. They would also talk about the records they liked, especially Axl. Axl came to rehearsals with cassettes–he listened to music constantly, and one of the bands he loved was Metallica. And Izzy was a Dixie Dregs guy. Slash was a Rolling Stones guy. Duff was a Misfits-style punk guy. And Steven enjoyed all of the above.
How many songs did you have to work with at the time?
A little over 20 tracks. After I became familiar with the tunes, we wrote down what we felt would comprise the best record. The one song that was a point of disagreement was “November Rain.” It was an epic, and the rest of the band felt it wasn’t right for the first Guns record–they wanted to keep it guitar-oriented. Obviously Axl felt it was his finest moment–and it was, it’s a great song. That was one of the tougher hurdles to get over on that record.
What was the biggest obstacle once you got into the studio?
The hardest part about recording Guns N’ Roses was getting five guys to do the same thing at the same time. They were extremely scattered, always wanting to do a thousand things at once and nothing at all. So just getting them in the studio and focused and playing was difficult. Another thing I excelled at was knowing when the band had peaked and when it was time to back off. I innately knew when they had given their best performance.
On average, how many takes would you need to get the basic tracks?
Some of them were quick, like five or six takes. And some we played as many as 10 times. But we never beat it into the ground. We were very well-rehearsed by then.
What would you shoot for on the basic tracks?
I come from the school of live performance, so I was going for as much as possible: drums, bass and Izzy’s guitar. I didn’t go for Slash’s guitar, because he just didn’t have a tone at that time.
How did you capture the guitar sound?
I used two Shure SM57s, a Pultec EQ and the old style DBX 160s for compression. Mostly it was just tweaking the amps. I would run out constantly to tweak the amps and move the mics around in the isolation booths. Both Izzy’s and Slash’s amps were close mic-ed. I got the effect of the distance and spaciousness with a Roland SRV2000 reverb. I had six of them, and I used them for the guitars. That was a big part of the tone on the record. We used chorusing and Lexicon delay on some songs, and an octave divider on one song.
So many albums from that era sound horribly dated. How did you achieve such a timeless sound?
I try to make every band sound like themselves. A trend in the ‘80s was for a band to use all of the producer’s gear. I wasn’t afraid to use whatever was right to make it work. I mean, Carvins were not my favorite amp, but they worked for Izzy. When I finished that record, I was really proud of it. The amazing thing was, I had so many people come up to me and say, “This is the biggest piece of crap I’ve ever heard.” And after it sold a million copies, those same people said, “I always loved that record.”
Did you have some sense at the time that you were creating a classic album?
We knew that what we were doing was right. It felt good the whole way through. I would put those rough mixes up, and they just sounded amazing. I don’t think I knew it would become a classic. But [Geffen A&R coordinator] Tom Zutaut came out to Take One Studios towards the end of the sessions for a playback, and he said, “Mike, what do you think this record is going to sell?” I said, “This record is going to sell two-million copies.” And I felt good about that. And he said, “You’re wrong. This is going to sell five-million records.” We were both wrong [laughs].
Do you still get people coming to you for that “Guns N’ Roses Sound”?
I’ve always had that. Being the producer of Guns N’ Roses has been a blessing and a curse at the same time. Because that album was bigger than life, everyone thinks that if I do a record with them, they’re going to sound like Guns N’ Roses. And I go, “Does your music sound like Guns ‘N Roses? If not, you really won’t.” It goes back to the fact that I try to make every band sound like themselves.
What is it about your approach that allowed you to succeed with the band when so many had failed?
I can work around a problem. Usually when people are insecure about themselves it’s because they’re afraid to make a mistake. I make them feel comfortable. And through my experience, I know shortcuts to make things work more easily. And I like to have a good time. When it gets to be a painstaking job, then it’s not fun for anybody. I want to be productive. Mostly, it’s understanding the insecurities of a drummer, a guitarist, and a singer. I get everybody feeling like they can conquer the world.