|Velvet Revolver The Ego Has Landed
They're clean, sober, and ready to rock. So of curse former GN'R members Slash, Duff, and Matt Sorum picked the biggest fuckup of them all to front their new band: ex-Stone Temple Pilot Scott Weiland.
Appetite for Dysfunction
by Andy Langer
Scott Weiland is in a playful mood today. Sitting behind a studio console at his Burbank rehearsal space, he's commandeered my tape recorder. "Ever fucked an animal?" he asks himself. "No," he answers. "But I've hand my dick licked by a dog!"
It's clear this impromptu Q&A session is Weiland's attempt to avoid the inevitable. For the singer knows full well where the interview is headed.
"I know people immediately associate me with drugs," he finally says. Today, Weiland, who has had a long much-publicized battle with drug addiction, is enjoying a day pass from a court-ordered stay in a Malibu sober-living facility. "They look at me and think, bad-boy junkie rock star. That's something I don't know if I'll ever be able to outlive. It's not necessarily who I really am. But it is what it is. It's part of my story."
The latest chapter in this story is called, rather appropriately, Contraband. It's the much anticipated debut, on RCA, from Velvet Revolver, Weiland's high-profile outing with ex-Guns N' Roses members Slash (guitar), Duff McKagan (bass), and Matt Sorum (drums), and former Wasted Youth guitarist Dave Kushner. The record is a fiery and remarkably vital introduction to a group that may prove to be more than the sum of its venerable parts.
Contraband is also giving those members who were once the core of Guns N' Roses the chance to show they can still be part of an edgy rock and roll band, without the drug and alcohol excess that cemented GN'R's reputation as one of rock's most unpredictable bands ever. So it's a bit ironic that for their frontman the reformed party boys chose Scott Weiland. After all, during the past year, the former Stone Temple Pilots singer has clocked much more face time on Celebrity Justice than he has on Total Request Live: First there was his fourth arrest on drug charges, followed by a DUI stemming from him slamming his Beamer into a parked car. Velvet Revolver state that their aim is to make rock and roll dangerous again. And yet Scott Weiland might be a little too dangerous, even for them.
"I'll always be the wild card," Weiland says. "I'm sort of used to it."
He takes a long drag off his cigarette, then follows it with an even longer pause.
"You know, Evil Knievel sold a lot of tickets," he says. "And people didn't come to see him make the jump."
Ask any member of Velvet Revolver what makes the new band work and one word comes up time and again: "chemistry." In fact, their overuse of the word borders on comical. But considering that three-fifths of the band lived through Guns N' Roses' heyday, "chemistry" might be as good a description as any to describe what's at the heart of Velvet Revolver.
"There's obviously something to be said for Duff, Matt, and I being together," says Slash. "Together, there is a sense of power. It's the walk-around-the-room-like-you're-a-fucking-tough-guy power. And it only happens when there is a certain chemistry. We have that. And when Scott came walking into the room the first time, it was like he'd been in this band 10 years."
"The beauty of the chemistry is how their emotional intensity matches their sonic intensity," Weiland says. "And the way they play their instruments matches the same intensity I have. They provide a soundtrack to the way I perform onstage - the way I fucking contort my body, the way I'll sweat blood and smash myself. It's perfect."
Despite their unspoken connection, the members of Velvet Revolver agreed that when it came to recording Contraband, guidelines would have to be spelled out. For starters, songs that sounded too much like Guns N' Roses or Stone Temple Pilots were immediately discarded. And, at Weiland's urging, the band agreed that any member could veto any song he wasn't wholeheartedly enamored of.
"With STP, there were times I'd made that mistake of including songs I wasn't completely behind, because certain bandmates were," Weiland says. "I sort of took it as, it's a band, you have to do that. But you don't. And I knew as long as everyone agreed to raising the bar, we could make the record we wanted to make. And this is the best rock and roll album I've ever made."
Although there are bound to be Stone Temple Pilots fans that disagree with Weiland, Contraband does live up to the supersize expectations that surround it. Its introductory single, "Slither," is appropriately aggressive and instantly memorable - "a perfect marriage of STP and GN'R," Weiland says. Tunes like "Illegal," "Headspace," and "Spectacle" push the envelope even further toward a new brand of swaggering rock. But the album's most memorable moments are its ballads, "You Got No Right" and "Fall to Pieces," both of which feature gorgeously complex, Beatlesque melodies.
Because "Fall to Pieces" closely adheres to a classic power-ballad formula, it's hard not to recall Guns N' Roses, particularly since the song's centerpiece Slash solo is every bit as fluid and lyrical as his memorable lead break on GN'R's "November Rain." And yet the song - like the rest of the record - sounds nothing like the plug'n'play nostalgia of other post - GN'R outfits, like Slash's Snakepit of McKagan's Neurotic Outsiders. Contraband sounds like a product of 2004 - if for no other reason than Kushner's splashes of odd tones and textures. "He's the secret weapon," says McKagan, who had enlisted Kushner for his most recent post-GN'R outing, the Seattle-based Loaded.
Indeed, Kushner's lush, electronics-inspired soundscapes provide a necessary counter-balance to one of the most instantly recognizable guitar players of all time. "When I get a guitar solo, you're gonna recognize it," Slash says. "And that's okay, as long as the whole band doesn't sound like GN'R. And it doesn't. Everything has been tweaked in too many directions."
Of course, even if Velvet Revolver had wound up sounding like GN'R Mach II, it's not lost on the band that its album is being released - while the actual Guns N' Roses, kept on life support by singer Axl Rose, still haven't finished Chinese Democracy, the album Rose has been promising for years.
"We put this band together and started an album two weeks later," Sorum says. "It's not fucking brain surgery. It's verse, chorus, guitar solo, verse, chorus, and you're done."
I don't know what he's fucking doing over there," he continues, "but I hope it's a 72-piece classically composed masterpiece. Dude, come on!"
Guns N' Roses' story is the kind Behind the Music producers can only dream of. Full of drug-fueled excesses and personality clashes, it's a tale of a band that started off playing seedy Hollywood dives and ended up being flown in chartered jets to headline stadium shows. The group's 1987 debut, Appetite for Destruction, spat in the face of hair metal, proving melody and grit didn't have to be mutually exclusive. It also sold 15 million copies.
"I got to share stages with Elton John, Iggy Pop, and Brian May," says Sorum, who replaced the group's original drummer, Steven Adler, in 1990, about his time with Guns N' Roses. "When I was done with GN'R, I figured I'd done it all."
So, it seems, did the rest of the band. After continual clashes with the volatile Rose led to his departure from Guns N' Roses, Slash kept busy with session work and his band Snakepit; he says he enjoyed Snakepit, which was basically an excuse for him to jam with friends (including, for a time, Sorum), specifically because the stakes were low. McKagan, meanwhile, gigged and recorded occasionally with Loaded, spending the bulk of his time studying for a finance degree at Seattle University.
Then in 2002, Slash, McKagan, and Sorum regrouped for the first time in six years to play a memorial concert for the late Randy Castillo, who had drummed for Ozzy Osbourne and Motley Crue. Thrilled to discover they still shared their old musical connection, the trio decided the very next day to form a new band.
"There wasn't really a plan or a strategy when we started," Sorum says. "But in the back of our minds I think it was like this: If we put the right guys together and get a great deal, we can go out and rock the world. And if we don't get the right guys, we play some fuckin' shitholes for fun and pretty much suck. Our options were really pretty simple."
Getting the right guys proved to be easier said than done. Kushner was a no-brainer: He went to junior high with Slash and knew McKagan from Loaded. Finding a singer, however, was much harder. Slash, Sorum, and McKagan spent nearly a year listening to demos and inviting singers to auditions. "I was the hardest on them," Sorum says. "Guys would walk into the room and I'd be like, 'Out!' They wouldn't even get to open their mouths."
The shortlist of candidates eventually included Days of the New's Travis Meeks, singer/songwriter Beth Hart, and Skid Row's Sebastian Bach. But no one was the right fit - not even Bach. "I love Sebastian," McKagan says. "But even though the songs weren't anything close, we sounded like Skid Row. We were looking at each other like, We can't do this. He can sing like a motherfucker, but you hear his voice and you think Skid Row. We didn't want that."
The embryonic band had known from the start that it wanted Weiland as a frontman. Not only was he a viable option as a singer for a modern rock band but all the members had connections to him: Slash's and Weiland's wives are friends, Sorum and Weiland had met during a stint in the same rehab facility, and Kushner's Electric Love Hogs had shared bills with Weiland's Mighty Joe Young in L.A. dives back in the late Eighties. But Weiland, when he was first contacted by the band, was still committed to the Stone Temple Pilots. By February 2003, however, Weiland's relationship with STP had deteriorated to the point that, when Velvet Revolver reinvited the singer to their rehearsal studio, he felt he could accept.
The plan at the time was just to have Weiland join the others for two songs that were slated to appear on soundtracks: a Velvet Revolver original that became "Set Me Free" and that was used for the Hulk soundtrack, and a cover of Pink Floyd's "Money," which landed on the soundtrack to The Italian Job. Pleased with what Weiland had done on "Set Me Free" - the song was an instrumental demo when he first heard it - the band decided to make the invitation permanent.
But signing on with Weiland meant signing on with his baggage - most notably, a heroin addiction that, Weiland admits, had gotten away from him between the end of Stone Temple Pilots and the beginning of Velvet Revolver. On May 18, just days after most of the music industry got wind of Weiland officially joining the band, the singer was arrested after officers allegedly found cocaine and heroin in his car. And yet, McKagan says, Velvet Revolver moved forward entirely undeterred.
"We're not gonna deny Scott's drug problem," he says. "But we've all had them. One time, we met the director of a rehab Scott was in - a crotchety old fuck - and he says, 'You guys are all in recovery. Why would you get a guy like this in your band?' Number one, it told me he didn't really support Scott very much. And number two, we don't have dirty water under the bridge with the guy. We didn't have the past history with him the STP guys may have. What we have is the knowledge. We've been way worse off than him. To us, this is nothing. It's all relative."
That McKagan is so open about his own history with drug addiction isn't surprising: Drugs played prominently into the GN'R mystique. "Even after I'd quit the band, the GN'R party wagon still followed me around," says Slash. "I'm just lucky I didn't get caught or hurt anyone."
"We all are," says Sorum, who replaced Adler specifically because Adler's own drug addiction had rendered him unable to perform. "There was awhile I thought I was Al Pacino. I did a lot of cocaine and drinking. And it's easy to think you can control it. But before you know it, it's, Oh shit! I'm a drug addict. I didn't intend to be doing an eight ball a day."
Now clean and sober, the members of Velvet Revolver have been incredibly patient with Weiland while he completes his court-ordered rehab. In fact, the very day Weiland was released from jail last May, McKagan and Kushner picked up the singer, flew him to Seattle, and enrolled him in the same martial arts retreat McKagan had used to kick his own heroin addiction. It was just the first step in what Weiland says has been close to a year of support.
"They traveled to hell with a squirt gun to break me out of jail down there," Weiland says. "And I'm indebted to them for that. And they knew how to find their way down there because they've been there themselves. They knew the escape route. And that kind of camaraderie wasn't something I experienced with my own band. There's a brotherhood - I guess I could liken it to shipwreck survivors or plane-crash survivors. There's a commonality you have when you've survived something like that.
"Drugs. Multiple overdoses. We share that whole experience. And having a really successful band crash and burn is also something we share. When you survive that stuff, you have a common bond. We've lived the same life. And we have each other's backs. We've said before that it's like a gang. But that's not a cliché. It is what it is.
Fronting a group composed of the majority of one of rock's most legendary and successful bands seems like an intimidating proposition. And yet, when he's asked if he's apprehensive about singing for Velvet Revolver, Weiland's answer is remarkably straightforward - and a little cocky: "I've sold a few albums too."
He had indeed. Although the Stone Temple Pilots started as a critically reviled band pinned as grunge-come-latelies, the group, across five albums, proved itself as one of the most consistently commercially viable and artistically adventurous acts in modern rock. The question now is, are STP a dead issue?
"You never know, but it's definitely just not happening," Weiland says. "This is happening. My heart is in this."
"With STP," he continues, "there was never anything said. It ended with a fist-fight. But God works in funny ways. The recording studio where we cut drums for Contraband was where (STP's) Dean and Robert (DeLeo) were producing a band in the room next door. I passed across a long letter and we spoke the next day. I gave them a copy of Velvet Revolver's demo. And I haven't spoken to them since. But there were hugs and kisses. We spoke about everything. The air is clear."
Things are more complicated for the former Guns N' Roses mates. Slash, who left the band in 1996, remains knee-deep in what seems like a never-ending stream of GN'R-related paper-work. And, despite his work since, he's still know more as "Slash from Guns N' Roses" than he is as just "Slash." "Don't get me wrong, "he says, "I'm proud to have helped establish one of the coolest, most genuine, kick-ass, in-your-face rock and roll bands ever. It's a legacy. I'm proud to be 'Slash, who used to be in GN'R.' But I don't want to be the guy who can't do anything else. 'Slash from Velvet Revolver' will take time."
Sorum, for his part, is less concerned with people associating him with his Guns N' Roses glory days. "I'm still boning 18-year-old chicks because I was in Guns N' Roses," says the drummer, who is the band's only bachelor. "It happens every day to me. So I'll fucking take it as far as I can. If I wasn't in GN'R, who knows where I'd be? It's given me a whole life of pleasure and fun."
The walls of Scott Weiland's rehearsal space are lined with plaques commemorating different sales plateaus for each of the five Stone Temple Pilots albums. Weiland says the plaques remind him of not just what he's accomplished but also what he should take away from the Velvet Revolver experience.
"We will take nothing for granted," Weiland says. "Because STP taught me you get to a place where it's about everything other than the music. Except for the rare moments when you're making records or are actually onstage, it's about everything else. Right now, it's about the thing we have with us - the chemistry. And I fucking realize that you have to cherish this time now, because it's gonna change."
"We're all up for it," insists Sorum. "We're not a bunch of rich, jaded fucks. I've been in bands where they don't want to do the work - where they'd rather sit at the hotel than do a meet-and-greet or drive to a radio station. We're gonna work our asses off."
Obviously, it's too soon to tell how well that work will pay off. Slash is too smart and has seen too much to make predictions, and the rest of the band isn't much more forthcoming. "I don't know if we're the next big thing," Slash says. "I don't know if it's gonna last 20 years. All I can tell you is we did the record. That alone is a big thing. There was a lot of negativity. Close friends of mine said, 'You'll never find a singer.' We did. And we hung in there through some serious shit. This is a band built of sheer desire. We're here doing it because we like it. This is the second chance we never thought would happen."