“The road of excess,” wrote Blake, “leads to the palace of wisdom.” James Jackson meets what must be the wisest band on Earth
The guitar god Slash is sitting backstage at Detroit’s elegant State Theatre in mirrored pilot shades, a Marlboro protruding from behind his long curly mop, looking as though he hasn’t aged a day since his Guns N’ Roses glory days 12 or 15 years ago. “I spend all my waking and probably sleeping hours playing, writing, or thinking about music. That’s all I do. I’m gonna be like Keith Richards or B. B. King, doing this in my eighties.” Taking a sip of chilled chardonnay, he adds: “With Guns, we hardly got recognised for being that great a band, more for the extremists that we were. With this new band, it seems like we’re being recognised as the second coming of rock’n’roll, which is a hell of a better label.”
Welcome to the hyperbolic, post-rehab, second-chance rock world of Velvet Revolver — or, as one music magazine has dubbed them, “The most damaged band on the planet.” The group is the most high-profile example yet of the trend for divorced early-1990s rock bands to interbreed, seeing as it does the re-marriage of three members of the estranged Guns N’ Roses line-up (guitarist Slash, bassist Duff McKagan, drummer Matt Sorum) alongside the lead singer of the US grunge superstars Stone Temple Pilots, Scott Weiland, and the respected Los Angeles guitarist Dave Kuschner.
Second coming or not, this new rock monster hybrid is already creating a buzz in America — the current 15-date tour sold out in ten minutes and had to be extended by a further six dates, while their first single, Slither, has been riding high in the US charts. “It’s a f****** rock’n’roll band. It’s dirty, raunchy, it’s wild, it’s loud. Everything a rock’n’roll band should be,” says Weiland. Except, that is, without the (extramarital) sex and drugs.
What these battle-scarred veterans have been through would fill several chapters in a compendium of rock’n’roll excess. At their screaming peak, Guns N’ Roses, whose albums still sell by the million, were heroically bombastic, inciting stadium riots during the longest live tour in history (192 dates in 27 countries in front of more than seven million people). The main line-up imploded in the mid-1990s when the lead singer Axl Rose’s ego became too much for the others. Slash has remained estranged from Rose, who hung on to the band’s name. “The last time I talked to him was at rehearsal the day before we quit the band, and then I got a lot of nasty messages on my answer machine. I haven’t tried to rekindle anything ’cos he really rubbed me the wrong way.”
Stone Temple Pilots, meanwhile, were one of the five or six bands at the forefront of the grunge explosion. During the 1990s they sold 25 million records worldwide, but never really made it in Britain, where they were largely dismissed by the music press as bandwagon-hoppers or Pearl Jam clones.
Off-stage excess litters both of their pasts and, whether they like it or not, forms an intrinsic part of their “f***-you” rock image. You want examples? Take your pick: how about the time Slash fell on a hotel maid as he “died” from an overdose just before a G N’ R show in San Francisco (he was revived in hospital, checked out and still made the show on time). Or when he was party to a grand piano being pushed off a hotel balcony (a step up from TV sets).
Or when he collapsed with alcohol poisoning before a show in Pittsburgh in 2000, which landed him in hospital for four weeks. The bassist Duff drank two litres of vodka a day, before “cutting down” — too little, too late — to 20 bottles of wine a day. His pancreas exploded in 1994 and he hasn’t had a drink since. The drummer Sorum came down from G N’ R madness by checking into rehab. And then there is Weiland, who confesses that, preposterously, he once sold his crack pipe to get money for crack. His notorious junk habit takes in five arrests, a stint in jail in 1999, and an insatiable appetite for rehab — the latest stay ended in April (he insists to THE EYE that he’s now clean for good).
The new band came together, minus Weiland, two years ago when they played a one-off gig at the funeral of a fellow rock musician. Musical chemistry duly resurrected, they embarked on an eight-month search for a vocalist; when Stone Temple Pilots broke up in a backstage fight, Weiland became available. “We got two offers for movies (they provided songs to The Italian Job and The Hulk, including a cover of Pink Floyd’s Money) and it just fell together,” says Slash.
Their first album, Contraband, to be released on Monday, almost wallops you over the head with its “we’re back” sense of urgency. A police siren heralds the first track in a blatant signal that danger is on the cards. One song after another kicks in with aggressive verses and huge choruses — melodic, confessional accounts of frustration and emotional breakdown. While hints of both G N’ R and STP poke through, Velvet Revolver has its own identity: a slick, modern punk-metal machine that may prove too furious, too American, for British fans of G N’ R’s more MOR-ish output. It’s not until track six (Fall to Pieces) that you reach a truly radio-friendly single, a soft-rock power ballad built for arenas, complete with a clifftop guitar solo from Slash. (“That’s going to be our big one,” says Weiland.) For an album imbued with such a punk spirit, it feels curiously solid and professional.
“To me, this is the first dangerous band to come around in a while. We’re pretty hyped-up, pretty aggressive,” says a toned but frazzled Duff in a hospitality room backstage. The first VR tour is only five dates in, and spirits are on a (natural) high. Spread out on the table are health foods and bottles of mineral water. Outside stands his pneumatic blonde wife with their two beautiful daughters, who wave sweetly to daddy. Daddy waves back, besotted. It’s quite touching, and Duff admits: “I sometimes cry with happiness when I see them.” But danger? Aggression? Where’s the rock’n’roll, Duff?
He explains patiently: “I saw the Clash in 1979 in Seattle and some security guy broke a guy’s nose. There was this old wooden barricade, and bassist Paul Simonon went back in the wings, got an axe and chopped the barricade down. The band and crowd were as one. I was 13 years old — it was my snapshot. And that stays in my gut; that’s what’s at the core of this band, the pure energy of what it was about. It’s not about strippers and drugs. I went through it all — I resigned myself to the fact that I’d live till I was 30 or 31. I wasn’t bummed out about it. It was just like that’s the way it was. But now it’s a pure energy band. I’m sure when I saw the Clash, they weren’t all f***** up; they were like we are now, just a cool, pure energy band.”
Later Slash invites THE EYE past the fans at the backstage door and on to the tour bus. Far from being an eight-wheeled chariot of chaos, this is the sleek equivalent of first-class deluxe. When we reach the air-conditioned, mirror-walled “meeting room” at the back (complete with a “meeting in progress” sign), it’s like entering the band’s inner sanctum. Informed of Duff’s theory, Slash — who has a knack of making you feel like a best buddy within minutes of meeting him — nods in agreement: “There’s nothing more poignant than delivering the kind of music that still has that flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants spontaneity. That’s what we’re still all about. In the case of a band like this being a little bit older and a little bit wiser, well, it’s almost lunacy to think that, for example, Duff’s bloated, stumbling-around-out-of-it look from back in the day is going to excite anyone more than him being together and a better bass player.”
Indeed, in the late 1990s, Duff depressurised from G N’ R madness by moving to Seattle and doing a finance degree, which led to job offers from Microsoft, no less. He was considering a career move to Wall Street until VR came along. If accountants have ever dreamt of an exciting life as a rock star, this might well be the first rock star to have contemplated life as an accountant.
So what happened to rock’n’roll being one prolonged adolescence? “Domesticity is something I didn’t welcome too easily,” Slash says. “I fought it real hard. But I love my wife and having a kid came at just about the right time. When he came along it sort of straightened my wife and I out, ’cos we were still partying pretty hard — actually harder and more consistently than I was in the Gunners days.”
Growing up is hard to do in a business that feeds a teenage audience’s need for instant gratification, an audience wanting a new train wreck story from their rock idols every week.Which brings us to the singer Weiland. “I was trapped in a Peter Pan time-loop for a long time,” the 36-year-old admits (the rest of the band are knocking on 40’s door, if not already through it). “It’s so easy being in the world of rock’n’roll to get trapped into the perpetual world of being a kid. I remember when I was kicking my heroin habit last June on an island in the West Indies — when I was puking and sweating and shaking — thinking that I had to ‘man up’. Duff has been my inspiration for showing me what a man acts like. I admire the way he is with his wife — he still manages to be a punk rocker, a good musician and a rock star.”
But, as Slash says: “There’s still that sense of unpredictability going on with Scott.” Since his last court hearing in January, Weiland claims he is now clean for good. But he remains hugely suspicious of the media. Having snubbed other interviews all week, this particular one looks ready to fall apart when he apparently goes Awol on the afternoon of the concert. Finally, an hour before the gig, he turns up, explaining ominously: “This is the last interview I’m doing for a long time. I’m sick of talking about drugs, about arrests. Journalists kiss my ass and then, when they get a safe distance away, they type up whatever they like. If I ever run into one of them and I’m outside the state of California (where he’s on probation), I’ll f****** bitch-slap them in the face.”
Unlike Slash and Duff, who couldn’t be more amiable, Weiland radiates edginess and neurosis. In the past ten years, he has played with his look, taking in goateed grunge clone, cross-dressing Bowie whore and heavy-bearded 1970s troubadour. Today, his dyed-black hair is cropped short, his face older and more drawn, and a faded Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt is stretched over his wiry frame. He slouches moodily low in his chair and speaks in a veerry sloow Californian drawl, his theorising worthy of Jim Morrison.
“People never used to buy tickets for an Evel Knievel performance to see him jump. People went to see him f****** eat shit. It is the same thing for me. There needs to be danger in rock’n’roll, but it doesn’t mean you have to use drugs. For real rock’n’roll there has to be reckless abandon in it, that chaotic element to it. There’s kind of an artform in learning how to wander on the edge of that without falling off the precipice. ” Several of his high-profile peers, including Kurt Cobain of Nirvana and Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, failed to stay up there. He nearly followed them.
“The lowest point in the past few years would definitely be the nine months previous to kicking my heroin habit, a year ago. Before getting arrested in May, which I look at as God intervening in the shape of a black-and-white police car, I was suicidal. My wife kicked me out of the house and left with my children. I stopped taking my psychiatric medication, so I was really crashing hard. I convinced myself that the most unselfish thing to do would be to take myself out of the equation.
Then somebody explained to me that I would be leaving my children a horrible legacy of shame, and they would forever have to carry that burden. So having looked at it differently, I pulled myself away from that obsession.”
Soon afterwards, on stage, Weiland is a man possessed (“There’s another character which takes over, another ego more akin to the person I am when I’m having sex with my wife,” he says); wheeling, weaving and writhing in suitably narcissistic fashion around the stage. Both Slash and Duff reckon “he’s the last great genuine rock’n’roll singer”. Slash duckwalks Chuck Berry-style across the stage, less of the cool, faceless guitar-noodler of old, more a euphoric individual who has rediscovered his purpose in life and can hardly believe his luck. Indifferent songs from the album become riff thrillers, but soon enough there’s a series of G N’ R and STP covers which receive the barmiest crowd reaction (the VR album has yet to be released). By the time it ends amid a furore of tattooed bare torsos and the white noise chaos of Nirvana’s Negative Creep, it has all become a bit best-of- 1990s rock, complete with the presence of Slash’s trademark top hat. A conspicuous feeling of nostalgia charges the auditorium. But afterwards, of the 60 or so fans milling around outside the stage door, not one of them looks more than 21.
In a bar somewhere in the hazy early hours, a party is taking shape; a well-lubricated Slash props up the bar wearing a Led Zeppelin II T-shirt and drinking JD and coke. He could be 19 years old. Shots of JD are clinked and downed — it seems booze isn’t off the menu, after all — and everything starts to come a bit unstuck. “I’m a touring guy through and through,” he beams, “and I don’t feel complete when I’m not. With everything I ’ve been through, this has the same feeling of going out there and doing it for the first time.” Then the harried tour manager enters and bundles out the errant guitarist back to the tour bus. Some rockers just aren’t designed to fade away.
Note: In the above quotes, the expletives that appeared every other word have been removed. The album Contraband is out on Monday on RCA. The single Slither is out on July 5