|Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal: All I've got is precious time
After seven years as a member of Guns N' Roses, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal sits down and gives an exclusive and extensive insight into his time with the band and the workings of his mind. There is also time to cover everything from the US government shutdown to having more look-a-likes than most people, as well as topics such as the rowdyness of British audiences and all the great things about getting older.
By Mikkel Elbech
I had done two extensive interviews with Ron previously. One in the fall of 2007, another one in the fall of 2010. Out of what I imagine was sheer coincidence, Ron would make his way to my hometown of Copenhagen after almost exactly three years had passed once again. I asked him beforehand if he was up for yet another interview, and he was.
Ron's reason to go to Denmark in October was the Copenhagen Guitar Show, during which he would do two clinics over two days. And if the meaning of that term is unclear, in Ron's case it means sharing stories from the road, giving some personal insights into playing and recording, as well as performing a bunch of songs on his beloved Vigier double-neck guitar - backed by a lead-guitar-less soundtrack coming off of his amped-up iPhone.
I met up with Ron after his second clinic, which he had ended by playing two requests from the audience. First his instrumental version of “Don't Cry”, followed by a particularly neat version of “Paradise City”, which was equal parts impressive and entertaining, not least due to his high-pitched vocal impression of a certain red-headed singer.
Ron told me he had all the time for the interview that I wanted. I was thinking 30 minutes might be enough. But the interview took on a life of its own and ended up lasting almost an hour and a half.
We naturally started off by talking about guitars, then went on to some obligatory Guns N' Roses questions and talked about touring and how travel truly broadens the mind. Then, after having asked Ron about how he views his role in the band, he told me about how rough it had actually been to be part of the band for the first three years. He continued on to describe the gruesome aftermath of his 2011 car accident and his battle to recover from it.
Then we returned to the questions I had prepared, covering topics such as rowdy Brits, looking like Lionel Messi, charity work, the US government shutdown, all the great things about getting older, the necessity of a duet between Chris Cornell and Axl, Os Mutantes and the wonder of The Shaggs.
The rules of sensationalist journalism only apply if you want them to. So, here is the full interview with the questions and responses in the exact same order they happened between Ron and myself.
What makes a guitar great
We're at a guitar show, so let's start off by talking about guitars. I assume there are of course some guitars you like more than others. When you have them in your hands, what's the main difference between an awesome guitar and a not-so-fantastic one?
- Very good question! With an awesome guitar, you don't have to fight it to play it. There are some guitars, where your fingers feel like they are fighting the guitar to do what you wanna do. Sometimes it's just the action - the way the guitar is set up.
What specifically? The strings, or the frets, or...?
- Could be a combination. I'm sure you've picked up a guitar and thought, “ah, this just doesn't feel good in my hands”, where other guitars just feel like an extension of you. There's your shoulder, your elbow, your wrist, your knuckles, your fingertips - and there's your guitar! It's just like the next part of your limb, and it seems to just work with you. With a good guitar, you feel free.
In the same vein - if we're just talking regular six-string electric guitars, to the non-guitarist they might all seem very similar. To you, what are the most important components that make up a great guitar?
- Definitely the neck. The feel of the neck, and how the strings lie on that neck. That's number one. Are we talking just physically, or the sound as well?
- Okay, definitely the sound, of course - that's more important than anything. What you're giving the people! You're not giving them what you feel in your hands - you're giving them the sound it makes. And it has to be expressive. When you hit a note, and you're giving it what you got, you have to have inconsistent harmonic overtones that make it sound like a human voice. It needs that openness and imperfection, so that it's human. You want the guitar to sing and scream. You'll get that from the amp, from the pickups, from the guitar itself, and ultimately you get it from your fingers. But the guitar could take something away, if you're not matched to it.
How many guitars do you own personally?
- Not that many. For the amount of years, I've been playing I should have a room with a hundred guitars in it! But the thing is - every guitar I have is one that I play. Or, if I stop playing it, I just hang on to it, keep it and put it in a safe, happy place. Under 20.
If you could ever only play one of them, which one would it be?
- It would be the double-neck. The Vigier double-neck I was playing today. And if it wasn't that, the second choice would be the flying foot guitar - the one that's a foot with the wings on it - ‘cause that's a very unusual guitar. For a small body, it actually has a lot of tone in the middle. And talk about a guitar that you just fly on and feel so comfortable with - it's a very comfortable guitar to play.
How to pick the perfect beginner's guitar
If somebody's reading this and wanting to start out playing electric guitar, and you had to pick the perfect beginner's guitar, which one would it be?
- One that's inexpensive. One that they think looks cool. Basically it's about the most primary, simple aspects. So one that is comfortable on the hands. One that is light, so it's comfortable on their back. Something that is not cumbersome or a pain to carry around. Something that is as effortless as possible for them. That's what I would start with.
So not a specific guitar, but more go by those parameters?
- Yeah, ‘cause it's gonna be different for everyone. A 9-year-old girl might pick a Daisy Rock flower-shaped guitar and say, “mommy, I want that one!”, and some introverted, about-to-blow-up-his-school kind of kid that is just feeling really angry, you know, he's gonna go for something a little different. The one they look at and say, “I like how that one looks” - that's the one they may pick up to see how it feels and sounds.
That goes along with what you said about how it has to be an extension of yourself.
- Yes, of your personality. It has to be comfortable in your hands, and it's different for everybody.
I know you probably never have to, but if you had to pick between a crappy amp and a great guitar or a great amp and a crappy guitar, which combo would you pick?
- I might pick the great amp and the crappy guitar. On a crappy guitar, you can accommodate for the crappiness and work around it. You can play a little differently. It's kind of like figuring out how to dance with a bad partner. You figure out what the quirks are and make it work. So having a great amp would make a crappy guitar sound better than having a great guitar and a crappy amp, where you can play your ass off, and the end-result will still sound like crap.
You're famous for some of your spectacular custom-made guitars, like the Bumblefoot one and the Swiss cheese one.
- A lot of times with custom-made guitars, it's a guessing game, and you don't know what you're gonna lose or what you're gonna gain by carving and hacking up the body of a guitar. If you have a really dense Les Paul, it's gonna sound a lot different from a Swiss cheese guitar that you drilled a million holes in! You don't know what it's gonna sound like until you hack it up. But sometimes that's the best thing - you'll have a guitar that sounds unique. Look at Brian May's guitar. There's no guitar that sounds like it. You know just from one note who that is. Sometimes things like that happen. You can chop up a guitar, and in the end, it's not gonna sound bad. It's just gonna sound different, and it's gonna have different things that are added and taken away that you can balance out with everything else.
I know you can play a bunch of other instruments, too. If we say your guitar skills are at a 10, how are your bass skills?
- 7.613! (laughs)
Nice. How about your piano skills?
Just 3? Okay, and finally, the harp?
- The harp? 3.01!
Taking a guess when the next Guns N' Roses album will be out
You told me during our last interview that the atmosphere in Guns N' Roses changed dramatically after “Chinese Democracy” finally came out - that it was like wandering in the desert for forty years and finally crossing the border. What's the atmosphere in the Guns N' Roses camp these days?
- It's a lot better. I mean, we've been stable and consistent, and when you have that, you can grow and develop more. When you're in the trenches for so many years with the same people - the same group - it solidifies. You get to know each other musically, personality-wise, and you start playing on that more. You know how it is when you play with someone for years, and you just know where they're gonna go musically, and you're on it with them - or you just know what accents they're gonna gravitate toward, and you just fall into this groove with them. Things like that. I feel that we have that a lot more now, and I hear it from people that go to shows. They say, “you guys are just so much more of a band now”.
That's musically. How about personally?
- Same. They say the same thing. “You guys have fun on stage!” They sense the unity. You can't fake it. It's there or it isn't.
So, it's been five years since the release of “Chinese Democracy”.
- God, wow.
It was fifteen years between that and “The Spaghetti Incident?”. Does that mean we're only ten years away from the next Guns N' Roses album?
- Hopefully! Ten years, give or take nine! It's hard to say, because anything can happen in life. It's easy to joke about it and say “2019! Here we come!”, but honestly, you don't know what's gonna happen. You don't know what set of circumstances are gonna motivate or take away from a process. People can get sick. People can die. People can lose a limb. Or people can have the road completely cleared in front of them where there is nothing distracting the focus of making it happen. Or anything in between.
- Sure, if you look at the past, you can start making predictions and assumptions on what might happen, or how long it might take to happen - but that's an impossible question. And I don't have the answer. Even for my own music, I don't have the answer. Every year, I wanna do an album, but I know that I'll probably not be able to get more than a song done. And even then, I can't even get the ball rolling to get the song recorded, because too many things get in the way. It's tough, and it gets tougher.
To what extent do you do songwriting when you're on tour, in between shows and rehearsals and such?
- On tour, I can never write. For some reason, I dry out on tour. It's like I need to be away from things and just living a normal life to get inspired and have music start coming out. I really should try and force it, but I just never can. I have very few songs that I have been able to write with all the touring.
Travel truly broadens the mind
Guns N' Roses played two shows in March in The United Arab Emirates and Lebanon. How did it feel to play there?
- It wasn't the first time we did Emirates, and I've been there myself. So it's starting to feel kind of at home. Lebanon was something I was definitely looking forward to, ‘cause that was my first time, and our first time together. You don't know what to expect, and people always fill your head with ideas - their own ideas - and it's always the people with the least experience that have the strongest opinions. Always. And the harshest opinions.
What kind of people are you talking about here?
- Anybody. Every human being in all walks of your life. Whether it's family, friends, strangers, people in the business, or people that have nothing to do with anything. They will all have the strongest opinions to give you about the things that they have the least experience with. They'll tell you what it's gonna be like there and what to watch out for. Yet they've never been there. They only go by what they see on the news. And if it's on the news, it's because the out-of-the-ordinary, most extreme situation is going on. I go to Israel, and people say, “don't go, everybody's just throwing rocks at each other all the time!”, and then I'm gonna go to Lebanon, and they're gonna say, “don't go, they're gonna shoot you on sight because, you know, you're you - you're an American jew, they're gonna kill you!”.
So, how was it?
- I couldn't have been treated more lovingly and more welcome - in both places. The funny thing I've noticed about Lebanon and Israel is that they're so close to each other, you can walk from one to the other, and the people are so similar. And what's in everybody's hearts is all the same. The only thing that separates them is a line on a map - and a lot of things that have nothing to do with the human spirit. It could be issues with history, issues with politics - and these are legitimate issues that people can have. But when you strip everything away, and you're just looking at the core of a human being, they're brothers and sisters. They really are. For the month before playing Lebanon, I was getting a lot of hateful messages from a small group that had their own agenda, that didn't want me to go because I had played the Israeli national anthem in Israel. It's not like I played it in Lebanon! And they were just looking for any reason that they could attack me, so that if I responded, it would bring more attention to their group. So we all just ignored it. We just didn't respond. And it turns out it's something they're doing to everybody that's visiting. That's their agenda - they're just trying to gain attention for themselves and for their own politics.
How was Abu Dhabi?
- We were there for a couple of days, and I remember we would go to this bar that was by the hotel. We made a lot of friends with other people that were there - some really nice, wonderful people. One of the women there was from Lebanon, and she didn't know anything about me, and I didn't know anything about her. We all had a wonderful time, just hanging out. Just being people, just being normal. She started talking to me and told me she was from Lebanon, and she'd never actually met a Jewish person before. And she was not young. She had to be in her 30's or 40's. And I was the first Jewish person she met. She said, “you know what, if you're an example of a Jewish person, then I like Jews”.
That's quite a thing to hear.
- Yeah. And you realize it's not about being a Jewish person. It's about being a person. We're all people first, and everything else is just a label that really does not define who we are. We are defined by the person we are. The more I travel, the more I tour, and the more people I meet in different parts of the world, the more I realize that we all have a common spirit. And it tends to be complicated by so many outside things. There are so many things that bring us together, and it's really a shame when we look at the things that separate us, or the things that make us different and look at them as something bad. Everybody's different, yet everybody's the same at the same time. There are the things that make us unique, there are the things that make us individual, yet they're the things that make us all part of this one entire web of humanity that is truly one being. It's good to acknowledge and accept all of that. Probably the greatest thing I've gotten out of touring is going to places where people tell you that you're not welcome. You realize that everybody has the same things in their spirit that they want and need, just as human beings. And it's consistent. It's something that's part of our genetics, part of our makeup, part of everything, and it's with everybody. And we tend to lose sight of it with all this other stuff, but if you take away the bullshit, all the little things, all the day-to-day crap, everything that we're told for some other reason, you will see that we're a common existence. Everyone's kind of tied together.
Do you think it's possible to gain that realization without traveling?
- It is, but you really need to see and experience it. You need to see it for yourself. And I'm not saying that people are all angels and saints everywhere, and I'm not idealistic about it. If anything, I'm saying the opposite. Wherever you go in the world, you will meet the same amount of assholes. The same amount of good people. The same amount of close-minded and open-minded people. People who want love. People that push hate. And that is part of humanity, and it's really the same everywhere. We just act like one group is different from the other, but it's not.
To what extent do you feel obliged to read up on the countries you visit that you might not know too much about beforehand?
- I try to find out things. Even coming here, I was figuring out what the weather is. I made myself little daysheets of the highs and lows of the weather and how much rain is expected. Just little things. I read up on the history of the places, and we usually have that in the tour books - it'll tell you the history of a city, places to see, what to do, what's nearby, traditional foods to eat. Things like that. We try and really get the most out of it. Richard will always go to all the local museums, and he'll go jogging around the city. He'll tell me about some beautiful park he found and things like that.
What do you do?
- What do I do? I sleep! (laughs) I sleep when I can, shame on me - I miss out on everything! No, I get out when I can. But I find that it takes multiple trips to really get a sense of a place. I like when you start going to the same place over and over, and it reaches a point where you have a map of the city visualized in your head. You can picture the streets, you know where to go and what's where. And it starts feeling like a second home. It's good when that starts to happen.
How many cities like that do you have across the world?
- It becomes more and more.
But a ballpark figure? Five or twenty or...?
- I'm gonna say a good two dozen. Dubai has gotten more like that. Moscow has gotten like that. Even spending some time in Dublin, it got like that. Many places in the US. Toronto. I think of Toronto, and I can picture walking down the street with the university on the right, heading over to all the bars, and then you get to this one street on the left... You get to really know a place and start to feel the vibe of it.
- Yonkers!! There you go, sure! (laughs)
Is Yonkers a second home to you?
- Not a second home, but I've spend enough time up there, just heading up 87, going past the Bronx.
What's missing between the Guns N' Roses tours
It has been a few months since the last Guns N' Roses show. What do you miss the most about playing with them, when you haven't for a while?
- I miss the crew. I miss the band. I miss a lot of the fans that come out to every show and that I get to see at every show. The familiar faces. A lot of time they're in the same hotel as us, and we'll grab a little bite and hang out at the bar in the lobby.
They're stalking you in a friendly way?
- Yeah, after a certain point it feels like they're part of the whole traveling group. You know, they're friends with my wife. We're all hanging out, and it's nice.
I remember you told me six years ago that you liked to play “Chinese Democracy”, ‘cause you got to play it on the fretless. So, these days what's the one song you're looking forward to playing live again?
- There's a lot. Honestly, I've grown to really like playing the “Chinese Democracy” songs. I think, having the double-neck, I'm able to do everything that I like to do. I can grab slide parts on the old stuff. Things in “Rocket Queen”, “You Could Be Mine”, “Jungle” - even just grabbing the slide right before the solo, just jump on the neck and hit that. But definitely “Better” and “Shackler's Revenge”.
I know you hang out with the other guys outside of touring, too. Have you gotten up to any fun side-project stuff with any of them over the past months?
- Chris was my very first friend in the band - from before I was even in the band. From 2004. We were talking back then, and he was the first hug I ever got in Guns N' Roses! He's my bro. He is a very artistic guy, a great painter, great artist. Very interesting with electronic music. Great singer, too, and songwriter. His band, SexTapes - I don't know if you've heard that album, but it's fucking fantastic. The only way I can describe it is Tool meets David Bowie. That's what I get out of it when I hear it. It's really cool. So, I have something with Frank and Chris. It's Chris' brainchild - his baby. It's this electronic music where he brings in all these rock elements. I play live guitar, Frank plays live drums, and Chris is making all the crazy sounds and he's like the dj. We throw in some vocals, and it's called Blowout. We did a show down in Brazil, and it was fun as hell. I'm hoping we can get to do more of that. That was a great time, just the three of us having fun.
The first three difficult years
So, when we did our first interview, you'd been in the band for a year. The second interview was three years ago, when you told me that you were “not the new guy anymore”. Now you've been in the band for over 7 years. How do you view yourself now?
- So, I went from the new guy, to not-the-new-guy, so I guess now that would make me the old guy! (laughs)
But I guess you're still the “youngest” member of the band.
- DJ's younger.
Oh yeah, of course. Sorry.
- So I guess I'm second-youngest. We're the two babies of the band.
Does that play a part anymore, after seven years? Like Tommy would go, “pfff, you're a kid!”.
- I've always just felt like me in the band. But now I think that the other guys in the band feel like I'm actually part of the band and not the outsider-new-guy. Whether they would admit it or not, or agree or not, you know, I wasn't made. I was Morrie in “Goodfellas”. They were all made. I could have been as nice as possible and gone along with the business - but I was never gonna be made. I think now, at this point, I'm more accepted. I don't think I'll ever fully be accepted, honestly.
- I don't think so. The way I came into the thing, the way I was brought into it, and the things that transpired in the beginning - and even previous relationships that I inherited - everything about it... If I'm gonna be completely honest - and maybe it's not them, maybe it's me, maybe it's how I feel about it, and maybe it's just me passing that onto them and saying this is how they feel - but in my opinion, my thought is that, I don't know if I'll ever fully be part of it. I don't think I'm a guy they're gonna call and say, “hey, you wanna hang out?”, or “hey, I'm working on my solo stuff - you wanna lay a track?”, or “hey, I'm going out to dinner - you wanna join?”, or “hey, I'm coming to town, let's get together!”. I don't think I'm ever gonna be the first guy in the band that they call. And you know what? Maybe it's because I've been such a pain in the ass in the band! Maybe if it was the other way around, I wouldn't call me either. Because I haven't been the easiest.
In what way?
- Well, when I first joined the band, they did not want me in the band. And it's not me - they just didn't want a third guitar player. ‘Cause at the time they had worked it out for two guitar players. Then suddenly the old manager at the time hits them up one day, and the tour was, like, two weeks away. He said, “your new guitar player is coming down”. And they're like, “what the hell - who the fuck is this?”, and I showed up, and they wouldn't even look at me. For that first tour, you know, I was treated like shit. Like absolute shit. They wouldn't really talk to me. If I spoke, they'd roll their eyes and walk out of the room. I was made to feel as unwelcome as possible. Until, finally, I had to get a little violent. And then they started realizing that I'm not gonna leave. They're gonna get hurt.
In what way?
- Yeah. Then they realized that they couldn't bully me, and that I was gonna fight at a level they weren't prepared for. And then they started loosening up how nasty they were. It was about three years before they would really start warming up and start talking to me. Even about things back then. ‘Cause I didn't know why they were so cold to me, and I realized that they would have treated anybody that way. It was a set of circumstances, a lack of communication from the management that was there at the time, that set it up so it was almost like a stranger thrown into a crowded cage.
If you don't mind me asking, what was Axl's part in all this, the first three years?
- I think Axl liked that I was a fighter. I think so. Because even before I joined the band, I was kind of in a fight with management back in 2004, and I was swinging. And he told me that he liked that. I think the exact words he said were that “my balls go clang” - that they're brass! (laughs) But at the same time, I think Axl didn't realize the extent of it. And I told him, I said, “look, if I have a problem with people, I'm not gonna come to you with it - I'm gonna take care of it myself, and I'm not gonna bother you with it - it's between me and them”.
So he wasn't part of the bullying?
- No, he was really nice to me from the first time we were in a room jamming together. He was always good to me.
The aftermath of the car accident
So... Yeah. That was the non-scripted part.
- I could even continue. As to why they might not wanna call me. You know, so there's all of that baggage, and there's awkwardness from all that. And then when I had the car accident (in 2011, ed.), and I was drugged up for a good year, loaded with steroids and pain pills and alcohol and every combination you can come up with. I was in constant pain and a little damaged from the concussion, and I really wasn't myself. I was very sick and I was very angry and very resentful that I had to tour and kinda keep the band together when I needed to heal. Because they couldn't - wouldn't - do it without me, all of it.
You were forced to tour?
- Well, it's not that I was forced. I had to make the decision of either keeping Guns N' Roses going or taking care of my body. And I have nerve damage in both arms, and I'm gonna be in pain for the rest of my life... But I kept Guns N' Roses alive. And that was the trade-off.
How do you feel about this whole situation, looking back on it two years later?
- Well, after a year I had to go through a 112-day, very strict cleanse to get all the drugs and residue and everything out of my body. And I had to start reading, as part of that cleanse, a lot of books from Indian gurus, and Richard would actually recommend lots of books for me and all kinds of things to help. Just to get my mind in the right place, and to get past all that, to kinda get sane again. ‘Cause, I mean, when you torture yourself for a year - post traumatic stress is a real thing, and to have been completely disassociated and becoming very reckless and destructive - getting past that was a really tough time. And I did try and commit suicide on tour in 2011.
- Didn't work! (laughs) Obviously.
What did you do?
- Uh... I'm not a drinker, but I tried to drink myself to death. Yeah. In the hotel room in New York. And, just... Didn't tell anybody that my goal was to die. I just drank as much as I could as fast as I could. I laid on the bed, crossed my legs, put my hands on my chest and waited to die. Just waiting for the alcohol poisoning to kick in. And to black out. Didn't quite work. And it was a very difficult week after that. And this is all ‘cause of that fucking car accident.
- I mean, even after the car accident, I couldn't raise my arms. I had to re-learn how to move my whole body. I had to re-learn how to pick things up. How to sleep. How to walk, how to get out of a chair. I had to change every single thing. You have to relax this muscle, you have to pull your shoulders back and tuck your neck. I had to re-learn how to move - otherwise it just pops the wound again, and then you're in pain for a month. So, imagine that, and then putting on a 30-pound double-neck and trying to run around a stage for three hours. All I can say is that - and I say it all the time, when people say, “if you had one wish in life, what was it?” - it's that the woman drove faster. And finished the fucking job. If I had the choice, I would rather never have lived through that.
- Abso-fucking-lutely. If I had one wish, it was that I had died in that accident. But, I didn't. And I'm here now. And that part of it is done. So now it's about making peace with the world, with yourself, accepting it and just doing what you can. You know, acknowledging that your time is short.
Good food is better than medicine
How do you feel now?
- Right now?
- Um... With it is always good days and bad days. Like right now, my neck hurts, but you don't think about it. Now it's just more constantly annoying as opposed to mind-bending. But you learn to put mind over matter. You learn to just not even think about it. If we weren't talking about it, I wouldn't be thinking about it.
- And you just have to change your whole damn life. And make it work. Now, the only thing that keeps me functioning is food. A specific diet of things that I can eat and can't eat to keep inflammation down. And that change of diet is not what you'd expect. I would eat piles of steak and lose tons of weight from it - by not eating other things. A lot of blood work, balancing the hormones and vitamin deficiencies - through food. And it is the only thing that worked. Food did what medicine couldn't. And I realized that food is the best medicine. When you eat the right things for your body - and everybody's different, but when you do that - it'll make more of a difference than any medication could ever do. I never felt like that. To me, that was like hippie bullshit. You know, fuck that. Go eat a hamburger and go work out, and you're fine. But the funny thing is that by just changing what I eat, I lost 40 pounds and put on muscle without even exercising. It made my body healthier and stronger on its own. Just from food.
That's pretty good.
- It's strange, but it makes sense now.
You look great, by the way. You look really healthy.
- Thanks! And that is just from changing what I eat.
You should write a cookbook.
- I should! But it's all about keeping away from pesticides and meat with hormones in it. And I found that a big part of it is that you want your food to have lived a better life than you have. You want happy cows that ate what they wanted and lived how they did. You don't want a caged animal that was force-fed all kinds of shit and forced to grow too fast and was all stressed-out. That's not what you wanna put in your body. And for me as a meat-eater, I wanna know that the animal was respected and lived well. So yeah, food has made all the difference. Actually, it has saved my fucking life.
Yeah. My next questions will seem so light-hearted now. So forgive me.
- (laughs) You weren't expecting all of this, were you?
- I wasn't expecting to say it!
Big shows versus small shows
We were talking about traveling all over the world and stuff like that. Which country or city that you haven't played in with Guns N' Roses would you most like to play in?
- I'd like to go to the Philippines, ‘cause I know we have fans there, and we haven't played there. Where else? There's a lot of areas in Eastern Europe that we haven't hit that we should. Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia. Ukraine. The Balkans. I was in Albania and fell in love with the place. The people. The food. The gorgeous mountains and beaches. That is somewhere I would love for GN'R to play. And all the countries surrounding it, you know. I would love to get over there and play in that area as well. I would like if we could start opening up other places in Europe and start doing that. I would like to play in Pakistan, Kazakhstan. Where else? Africa! We need to play in Africa. We need to go to Morocco. We need to go to Tunisia. We should play in Egypt. We need to play in South Africa.
You were supposed to play in South Africa, right?
- In 2007, yeah.
You did the club tour in the US. Would you ever consider doing that across Europe?
- With Guns?
Yeah, like small places?
- I would love to! Personally, I love the small shows, because it's personal. I can reach out, hold out my guitar, and people can strum it. You can't do that from a big stage with a barricade twenty feet away. And I like the connection. I like when the audience and the band feel like we're just one ball of energy together.
Do you know Take That, one of the old British boybands?
- I know the name, yeah!
I interviewed them a few years ago, and they do these massive shows where everything is choreographed and the stage production is insane.
- Like a huge pop production with the dancers and the screens and everything.
Yeah, and I talked to them about doing those kinds of shows versus doing a club show with a hundred people there. And they told me how they were more nervous about playing in front of a hundred people than playing in front of a hundred thousand. Is that similar to how you feel?
- You know, I guess so, yeah. I don't get nervous, really. It's not about that. It's just that when you're doing something like that for a hundred people, it's real. And you're really there. And I think if all you do is play for a hundred thousand people, you forget what it's like. And then when you do it again, you feel like, “oh wait, this is very real now”. But that doesn't scare me. Bring it the fuck on! Let's do this! Even when I do solo shows, I bring people on stage right from the audience and have them all around a mic and sing and just make it all one thing.
Playing for rowdy Brits
I saw you guys at the O2 Arena in London last year, and it was probably the roughest crowd I've ever experienced.
- The UK - they are some aggressive motherfuckers!
There were fights breaking out in the audience, and sadly I had to spent a lot of the show, worrying about...
- Dodging people and things being thrown?
Exactly. How does that affect you, both emotionally and performance-wise, when you're on stage?
- I don't like seeing the audience fighting with each other. Definitely not. But a rowdy, aggressive crowd makes me want to jump off the stage and into the crowd sometimes. It's almost like I like the energy - bring it the fuck on. Sometimes it makes you dig in even harder and be more aggressive. I remember, yeah - May 31st and then June 1st, with Izzy?
Yeah, I saw the second one.
I've seen you five times, and it was a stand-out show in terms of how rowdy the crowd was, definitely. I've also seen you in Norway and Paris and then Denmark, of course. A very different crowd in the UK, for sure. But I guess it's a general thing with UK crowds?
- They are the ballsiest and rowdiest.
Why do you think that is?
- They would need to tell me why it is. You know, I think that's just how it is there and what they do when they go to a show. They get filled with energy, and that's how they let it out. There's a lot of places that are super-energetic. South America.
That's with a more positive spirit, right?
- Yeah, they'll surprise you by making a banner that's a hundred feet wide with some beautiful message on it and things like that. They have a different type of energy.
It sounds nicer.
- Well, you know what? It's different. It's just different. But with both of them, you feel like you're getting a lot from the audience. That doesn't scare me! Bring it the fuck on, UK! Bring it! Bring it! Get rowdy!
I think I'll go back to Norway the next time and see you there. Or stay in Denmark for that matter.
- (laughs) But it is tough. If you're in the audience, it can get a little dangerous. You might come home with some black n' blues. But if that is the reputation of the UK crowds, you guys certainly live up to your reputation, God bless you. Good for you! But there's a lot of love at the same time. There's more, “we just pillaged!”. There's a more testosterone-kind of love.
It's funny, ‘cause it's the Scandinavians and the Danes not least that have the Viking heritage, and they would be proud of the pillaging, but they're a little bit more mellow.
- Well, I think that's ‘cause you guys already did it! You're like, “yeah, been there, done that, we already pillaged!”.
Yeah, we got it out of our system a thousand years ago. It's actually exactly a thousand years ago this year that Denmark conquered England. Maybe the Viking blood remained over there or something.
- I don't know if a lot of people realized just how vast the empire of Denmark is. I mean, Greenland - you guys have got the biggest fucking chunk of land! You guys touched a lot of this planet.
Not so much anymore though. Except for Greenland. And the Faroe Islands. Have you gone there?
- Never been, no.
Have you heard of them before?
Music, charities, and serving a greater purpose
Anyway, a bunch of random questions. Has anybody ever told you that you look a bit like Lionel Messi?
- People tell me that I look like a lot of people.
- Let's see. Let's make a list. Rasputin. The Geico caveman. I don't know if you've seen those commercials, but Geico's an insurance company and they used to have this caveman. When I was clean-shaven - Scott Ian. I've gotten... Who else? There's a show on tv where there's a guy with a big beard, and we have a similar face.
“Orange County Choppers”?
- It's not “OC Choppers”! They're good dudes - I've been there! I went up to their place once or twice and jammed with them, and they did and album called “OCC Rocks”, and I played a long solo on one of the songs!
Oh really? That's random. That's awesome.
- They're great dudes, and they make amazing stuff. Speaking of Yonkers, they're about, what - half an hour north of that? Yeah. Who else? I'm trying to remember that show. I can picture the guy, and I even sent him an e-mail saying, “everyone's says we look alike!”. But there's a few.
- Maybe. There's been so many! Basically everybody with a beard. Anybody with a big beard and a big nose.
Actually, it's more your face. You both have a really kind face.
- Oh alright, cool. Thanks!
Would you oppose to being labeled as the Messi of Guitar Players?
- No, I've been called much worse things than that!
I would assume.
- Sometimes I do actually play rather messy... Ba-dum-cha!
A totally different question. I know you have put a lot of work into the Multiple Sclerosis Research Foundation. How closely have you monitored the research results?
- When we were doing it, we would go to the labs, and we would look through microscopes and see the actual cells they were trying to decode, trying to break the stages of genetic code to get to reprogram the cells, so they would do something different that would help them self-repair. The MSRF actually shut its doors, because, the head of it, it was just too much for him. His disease got too far along where it was too much for him to keep it going. And he just wanted to lay it to rest. But in the ten years it was happening, we accomplished a lot. We raised good funds and did a lot of good things.
What charities do you support now then?
- I spread out and do what I can. I've done things for the MS Society. I just did something for Operation Smile. Did a fundraiser and donated to pay for an operation for a kid. A lot of different stuff. A lot more on the way, too. There's one thing I have in the works, where I'm gonna auction myself off for a whole day. Someone's gonna come hang out for a day, and we'll just do everything. Living a full day of doing a whole bunch of stuff. We'll hit the studio, and there's a long list of things to do they can choose from. And what else... I'll auction off a Skype guitar lesson, or a face-to-face guitar lesson for different organizations. For kids' charities and things like that.
- I do what I can. I started working with a group with a programme called Rock2Live. They do pay-per-view concerts, and the money from the tickets sold goes to campaigns to help schools and fund schools. A lot of good things. That's what it's about. Music reaches a point in people's lives where just doing it isn't enough. It has to serve a greater purpose. Or it just feels like you're sort of wasting the potential of it. If you're gonna make music just for the sake of making music... I mean, that's nice, and no one has to do more than that, but music has so much more potential to do things for the world. It doesn't take much to take that next step to make it happen.
A friend of mine, she just got diagnosed with MS. I know the cause became personal for you in 1997 when your friend was diagnosed. From the friend perspective, what's the best thing you can say to or do for someone in that situation?
- Don't change. Don't change. When my friend Ralph (who was the head of the MSRF, ed.) got sick, a lot of people changed. Certain friends acted like they were gonna catch it, and they just disappeared. Some people started treating him like he was sick. And that's not good either. Treat your friend like the person your friend is. Because their spirit isn't gonna change. Or their personality. They're still the same person. It's just that the messages from the brain have to take more detours to get from point A to point B in their body and the nervous system, and that's gonna continue. But it's the same person. And just be the same friend that you are. Don't change.
That's good advice, I like it. So again, a completely different line of questioning. Your government is currently shut down. How does that affect you as an American?
- Politics... We can spend hours talking about that stuff. Even down to the role of how local politics compare to federal. How it affects your own life.
But the government shutdown specifically, is that something that's on your mind?
- I think if the government gets shut down, the government should not be getting a paycheck. That's number one. And especially if they're gonna be denying services to what we the people are paying them to provide. If they can't figure out how to do their job, either figure it out fast or be replaced by people who can. But during that time it's not a fucking vacation. You shouldn't be getting paid. You should feel what it is to not be working, just like people all over the world know what it feels like. So that's how I feel about it. If you're gonna shut down and gonna stop doing your job, then you should be considered unemployed and not be receiving a paycheck and know what it's like for the real people you serve. We don't serve you, you serve us. And do not fucking forget that.
Do you vote?
In both federal and state elections?
- And local, yeah. When I can!
The good things about getting older
What book are you currently reading?
- Uh, the TC Helicon VoiceLive 2 user's manual.
How's that coming along?
- Good! It's an amazing piece of gear!
What's the best book you've ever read? Or the best manual, even.
- I think one of the books I really enjoyed was called “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid”. It was about the music of M.C. Escher, the music of Bach and the mathematical principles proposed by Gödel - and how they all related to each other in their own ways.
Why was that so great?
- ‘Cause I'm dumb, and it made me feel smart! (laughs) It was just fascinating. It was interesting, and mostly just ‘cause I always loved the art of M.C. Escher. The impossibilities that would be created in two dimensions that couldn't possibly happen in three, yet it would make it seem like it could happen. Or that it was real, that it's something probable. It seemed to defy the laws of the impossible.
That's always nice.
Luke Haines, the British singer-songwriter from the Auteurs and Black Box Recorder - do you know him by any chance?
- Not personally, no, but... (laughs)
Fair enough. He has talked about developing as a middle-aged artist. He's from '67, and you're from '69. He's talking about embracing the fact that you get older - and mentions Nick Cave as someone who has done that, and Morissey as someone who hasn't.
- Interesting. Yeah.
To what extent is that important to you - being an artist who is, so to speak, appropriate for your age?
- I don't know if it's being appropriate for your age, or just being true to who you really are. That's the whole thing. For me, I'm not gonna dye any of my grey hairs, ‘cause I earned every fucking one of them. I'm proud of them. I don't mind getting older, ‘cause I feel like I'm getting smarter, in a way. And I also realize how much I don't know.
That's part of it, usually, right?
- Yeah, I'm open to the fact that there are more things I don't know than I do, and I'm willing to listen and learn and to know the mistakes I've made and learn from those. And know that I'm gonna make more of them, and that I'm gonna try and learn from those. So there's a certain humility. A certain cockiness that hopefully you lose, and you realize that you're not the center of the fucking universe. That you are a guest in this world, and you should be a gracious one and appreciate any of the luxuries and liberties that you have as a blessing - and not as an entitlement. The best thing you can do is earn what you have. And to appreciate what you have. Don't bitch about what you don't. Use what you have. There are no have-nots. That's a mentality. And a very unhealthy one. Everybody's a have. If you're here, you're a have. You have something. And you need to figure out or embrace what that is - and find out what a joy it is to share what you have, as opposed to bitching like a have-not. As far as getting older and being “appropriate”...
It's a silly word. It wasn't the original Luke Haines quote either - that was my way of phrasing it. It's more embracing the fact that you get older.
- Yeah... Do it. I would never wanna be twenty again. No part of me. I know there might be people that say, “oh, to be young again”, and I know what they mean as far as aches and pains and feeling like you're having the whole world in front of you. But no. You know what? You always have something in front of you. You don't need to look behind you and start measuring. Because even that measurement is in your mind. It's not a real thing. It's all perception. You can pity yourself, or you can see whatever set of possibilities you have - and look at the ones you do have, not the ones you don't - and work with that. And you can have a very satisfying present and future with that.
I interviewed him, too, and he talked about his 20's and said that his 30's were definitely better than his 20's, and his 40's were better than his 30's. And he's in his 40‘s now, so I asked him if he was looking forward to turning 50, and he laughed and said it was getting a bit “on the wrong side of”.
- So your 40's is like the top of the hill, where you're just teetering? Which is funny, ‘cause I have friends in their 50's that are just living more now - they are doing all the things they didn't have the opportunity or the situation in their life to do, and they're having so much fun in their 50's - they're living like a kid! Not in an immature way, though. They're doing everything that they always wanted to do, and they're enjoying it.
In terms of work or travel or...?
- Everything. So, again it becomes a question of, you know - your life is yours, and nobody guaranteed you any part of it. You just have to look at what you have and not what you don't. Take what you have and say, “alright, what can I do with this - how much enjoyment can I get out of it?”. There will always be more things you don't have than you do, ‘cause that is an infinite realm, so if you're gonna look at that, you're never gonna be happy. And there's no point. There's nothing you could do with what you don't have. And there's everything you can do with what you do have.
Guns N' Roses featuring Chris Cornell or Soundgarden featuring Axl
I know you're a huge Soundgarden fan. Have you gotten to see them on any of their reunion tours?
- Sadly, no. But I have friends that did, and they loved it.
How come you didn't go? Just your schedule?
- Schedule. Yeah.
I actually assumed that you'd gone, but anyway. Which Guns N' Roses song would you most like to hear Chris Cornell sing?
- That's a good question, let me think about that! If he was gonna sing a Guns song... (thinks for a long time) You know, I think we need to write one and do a duet. That's what needs to happen.
Between Axl and Chris?
- Yeah! That'd be pretty amazing! I'm thinking of all the different songs that could match his voice... You know what's actually popping into my head is “If The World”. I could hear Cornell singing that one and it sounding like a match to his voice.
I was thinking the high part in “Shackler's Revenge” with Axl doing the low part.
- That'd be cool. There's a lot of stuff... Let's flip it! What Soundgarden song would you like to hear Axl sing?
Are you asking me?
- Mm-hmm! (laughs)
Um, let me think... First one that pops into my head would be “Spoonman”.
- That'd be cool. What about “Slaves And Bulldozers”?
I don't know that one... I'm actually not a huge Soundgarden fan. I mainly know “Superunknown”... Ironically.
- “The Day I Tried To Live”? Or, um... Let's see. “Pretty Noose”. Could be interesting.
You should work on that. Do you know Chris personally?
- No. I know people that have played with him. But yeah... Great singer. Oh my god.
Os Mutantes and the wonder of The Shaggs
So, final question. What's the song you just can't get out of your head these days?
- You know, that tends to change.
Yeah, but right now.
- There just was one I was singing for two days straight, and I could not get it out of my head. I have to try not to think of it, ‘cause then I'll have that song stuck in my head! (thinks for a long time) Well, at home on the local radio stations, when I'm driving, there's a charity where you donate your car. It's called Kars4Kids, and they have this song. “1-877-Kars-4-Kids, 1-877-Kars-4-Kids, donate your car today!” And everytime it comes on, I have to change it, ‘cause if I hear it, I'm gonna have that resonating in my head! Fucking Kars4Kids commercial! I get that stuck in my head, and I go crazy for, like, three days, and I go, “stoooooop, cut it out!” - and I actually donated my car to them, thinking that it might help, but it's still stuck in my head! (laughs)
So it's not “Bat Macumba”?
- Wow! I was just listening to that!! A week ago! I played that whole Os Mutantes album for some friends of mine in Houston, and I was talking about that song! “Bat Macumba ê ê! Bat macumba oba! Bat macum! Bat ma!” You know, it goes through it until it just says “Ba!”, and then back the other way! That's so funny that you mention that!
Well, you mentioned it in a previous interview - that's why I know it.
- Yeah! But it was just like a week ago! I said, “I've got this album that you gotta hear”, and we just sat around all day listening to stuff. I played them a group for the first time - The Shaggs.
I don't know them. Are they great?
- Amazing. They're these three daughters of this dude. A psychic (his mother actually, ed.) had told him three things, and two of them came true, so he wanted to pursue the third one. Which was that his daughters would from a pop group. So he brought his daughters into the studio and had them start writing songs, but on the original stuff they did in the beginning, they really couldn't play. They were just working with the minimal skills they just had starting out. But it had a sound that nobody could ever in a million years replicate. It was the most unique thing. The drummer would play her own beat where the hi-hat would sort of be in its own world. (demonstrates, through hands and voice, a very unstructured beat). And the guitar player would be strumming chords, a three-string simple one-finger C-chord to G7 to C, and not in time, really, with the drums. The singer would sing words that would go along with whatever notes she was playing on the guitar - and it was almost like little finger exercises on three strings. Just the most unusual thing you will ever hear, and the first time you hear it, you don't know what to make of it. And then after you finish with it, you're like, “I wanna hear another song!” - you just wanna hear what it all sounds like! There was an innocence to it and a charm, because it was so... And I don't wanna say the word “bad”, but you could say it was so bad it was good, but I wouldn't even call it bad. ‘Cause it's something that you get a reaction from, and you smile, and you wanna share it and play it for other people - and it does what music is supposed to do. You know, it entertains you and it moves you in a way. And it leaves a lasting impression. And after I played it for my friends for the first time down in Houston, one of them actually reached out to them to see what was going on, and one of them is doing a solo album and is gonna be doing some shows and stuff. So we were playing The Shaggs and Os Mutantes. For hours. And I'm talking every day, for hours, listening to The Shaggs!
It sounds like something that's hard to have stuck in your head, if it's so much all over the place.
- It had a very interesting accent when they sang.
Where are they from?
- New Hampshire. But I don't know if they were originally from there. It almost sounded like they had an accent from somewhere in Western Europe possibly - that might have mixed with the North East accent. It was a strong accent. (sings with an accent) “My companion goes with me wherever I go!” And she's playing the same thing on the guitar, so you have that going on while someone's strumming, and the drummer's just going (repeats the unstructured beat). I guarantee you will have an easier time playing a Dream Theater song note-for-note than you would playing Shaggs and getting it right note-for-note - with the same tuning and the same placement of things within the beats!