Guitar World Cover Story: Slash

Guitar World speaks to Slash on his new upcoming album 4 with Myles Kennedy & The Conspirators released exclusively on Gibson Records

For some artists, this quick turnaround might engender a bit of musical whiplash. For Slash, it's just standard operating procedure. "I think I've gotten pretty used to sort of living in both worlds at the same time" he says, then laughs. “You have to, in order to be able to do it. "It also doesn't hurt that Slash genuinely loves to play guitar, in particular in a live situation When the feeling is right and the energy is right and everything's firing on all cylinders, it's the fucking best", he acknowledges. Which is perhaps why, when it came time to record the new and fourth SMKC album - titled, aptly, - he wanted to create as much of a live experience as possible.

Which meant changing things up from how Slash has made any previous Conspirators record (and, to go one further, how most bands make most records in general)."I've wanted to do records like this ever since we first started," he says. "Ever since Guns N' Roses first started. It's just, I could never get a producer to actually do it." That "it" involved packing the entire SMKC band (which, in addition to Slash, includes singer Myles Kennedy, bassist Todd Kerns, drummer Brent Fitz and rhythm guitarist Frank Sidoris) along with all the guitars, amps, drums and the rest of the gear, into one room - in this case, Nashville's historic RCA Studio with producer Dave Cobb- hitting the record button and blasting through a set of high-energy, hard-driving, riff-roaring rock ‘n’  roll tunes.

How did it go? The results speak for themselves. From the insistent churn of the opening track and first single, "The River Is Rising", to the slippery funk rhythms of "April Fool", the dinosaur-sized stomp of "Whatever Gets You By" to the off-to-the-races sprint of "Call Off the Dogs", hits with the immediacy and impact of, well, a great live show, where the band is locked in tight as a unit, the energy is peaking and the volume is cranked to ear-shattering levels.

But it’s not all full speed ahead on the record, Slash & Co. colour outside the lines on tracks like the slinky, Eastern-tinged “Spirit Love” and the uncharacteristic major-ley pop-rock workout “Fill My World”, as well as the widescreen, epic ballad, “Fall Back to the Earth”, which closes the record in dramatic fashion. Overall, it’s a cleaner harder and more expansive take on the SMKC Sound (the band’s approach to recording isn’t the that’s different - 4 is also the first release on the newly formed Gibson Records label. And it’s captured in a way that, Slash says. “Knowing what I can do it again”.

Which isn’t to say that making 4 didn’t come without its challenges – Covid being one of them. In an exclusive talk with Guitar World Slash’s first major interview about the album – the guitar great tells us how it all went down.

You opted to go for a more “live” approach on 4.  How was the overall experience for you?

It was great for me because I’ve always thought I don’t understand whit its impossible to do a live record with live guitars and everybody in the same room. And now I’ve found that it is possible to do, and I’ll probably strive to do the next one the same way.

But all things considered, I have to give credit where credit is due: studio that we did it in, which is the RCA studio A, that old Chet Atkins studio, that room is one of the only rooms you could actually get away with doing something like that, just because of the way its set up. Even Dave Cobb will tell you that. A lot of these rooms don’t lend themselves to that. Its just not that really that possible. The bleed would be too much. So, a lot of it had to do with this particular room.

Also, Dave had tons of really great analog gear in the studio, and we used all of it. So, its one of the records that’s got a really pure kind of old-school sound. And not because we were trying to be old-school or trying to be retro – its just that tonally, all that analog gear tends to sound really good. So, this worked for us, but in each case it depends on your situation. If you go into the studio and you’re making the material up on spot, maybe doing the whole thing live doesn’t necessarily work, because you’re still learning the material. But if you can do the whole record with everybody playing live, and you’re forced to be able to perform in them moment and try not to fuck it up [Laughs] I think that’s the way to do it.

Dave Cobb is known for producing artists like Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and Brandi Charlie. How did you wind up working with him on 4?

Well Elvis (producer Michael “Elvis” Baskette) who’s done our last two records, has been doing so much stuff with Myles otherwise (Baskette is the longtime producer for the Kennedy-fronted Alter Bridge and also helmed Kennedy’s 2021 solo effort, The Ides of March) that I thought we should probably find somebody else this time. Because at the end of the day the vocals are the most important thing on the record, and I didn’t want to have Mules spread so thin on so many different records and sounding the same. It was nothing against Elvis – Elvis is amazing. I just wanted a different approach, a fresh approach. So, I’m going “what producers are talking about a live record?” And at a time, I wasn’t talking about a live record, I was talking about a rock ‘n’ roll record. I was given a list of very short list of names, and Dave Cobb was on that list. So, I got on the phone with him, and we hit it off right away because we both live Glyn Jones [ the famed producer and engineer who has worked with the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Faces, Humble Pire and many others], and we love the sort of spontaneous, sort of live vibe of his records, and also the way it sounds like everybody just playing off of each other. That’s always been such a big thing for me. SO that was the key moment in the conversation that made me think, yeah, I want to work with guy…

Once you got into studio with Dave, how quickly did the recording sessions move?

We did all 10 songs in five days. And I say that meaning, from the first day forward. Two songs on the first day, two songs the second day, like that.

It was basically drums, bass and rhythm guitars being cut together?

Drums, bass, rhythm guitars, lead guitars and vocals. So even the solos are live. The only overdubs, really, are the harmonies, and maybe some riff doubles and things like that. But everything else was just recorded in the moment. It's weird to even imagine because people just don’t do that anymore.

Did working in that way affect how you approached your solos?

Probably. I mean, in general, when I did the demos, the first solo that I played the first time I recorded a demo was always the best one. And I tended to stick with that idea. So when we cut it live in the studio would have basic idea because of that demo. But then because of the way we were doing things it was all very much flying by the seat of your pants. There's really not what you would call any totally "set" notes, except for maybe the first note of the solo, or the idea about where the melody is supposed to go. But there's a range. On a song like’ ‘Fill My World," that's a pretty melodic solo, and what you hear is what was the basic idea of the first take of the first demo. And then "April Fool,"! sort of had an idea about what that was going to be, and when we were rehearsing and playing it over and over again I just started to fall into a pattern. "The Path Less Followed" was similar, but then the solo that came out on the record was completely different from what I originally planned on doing. And then songs like “Spirit Love, “Call Off the Dogs", "Actions Speak Louder Than Words “and "C'est La Vie”, those are all really sort of off-the-cuff improv.

You mentioned that "Fill My World" has a very melodic solo. It’s also just a very melodic song overall - much poppier in approach than what we're used to hearing for the Conspirators. Where did that idea come from?

I just made up the riff and the chord progression sort of followed. It came together really quickly. It wasn't a complicated song to write. At the same time, because of the nature of it, I was actually a little apprehensive about sending it to the guys. I think sent it to Myles before I sent it to anybody else, and he put a really great vocal melody on it. And I said, ''You know what? Let's just go with it and not worry about what anybody might think." But it turned out really great.

Another standout track on the record is "Spirit Love," which features an electric sitar. What led you to pull that instrument out?

When I originally wrote the music I was playing that part on guitar. But at some point in pre-production I had the idea for the sitar. I usually stayaway from sitars because they can be really cliche, but for this particular thing, I thought, you know, it might actually be pretty cool...And so I played the part on guitar when I recorded the song, and then I overdubbed the sitar and it worked. I just played it through the Marshall, the same way the Marshall was set up for guitar. When it came to writing these songs, did quarantining and social distancing have an effect on the way the material came together? Were you working in amore solitary manner than usual? I guess I was inclined to spend more time focusing on the demos this time around, because I couldn't get everybody into just jam. Like, I did keyboard drums for all the demos. But I did have Todd [Kerns] fly in from Vegas and put and put bass on, rather than me doing the bass. So all things considered, it really wasn't that much of a difference. I just think it was a little bit more laid back as far as the whole leadup to pre-production was concerned. But usually, Yeah, we just get into a room together, we work out some stuff and we just start jamming it out. This time around, it was a bit more about getting the songs prepped and sending them over and that kind of thing. And then we all took a tour bus together to the studio...

You guys drove a tour bus to Nashville to begin recording?

Well, a tour bus seemed like the safest way to travel across the country, as opposed to any kind of commercial flying possibilities. And I definitely wasn't going to rent a private plane. [Laughs] So I figured, "Okay, with a tour bus we can all stay insulated and just get there." So that's what we did. And we tested before we went, everybody tested negative, and we were off.

Myles has since said he actually contracted Covid during the recording process.

Yeah, most of us did. I think what happened was, the bus picked me up at my house in L.A. and then I took the bus to Vegas and met the other guys. Myles drove from Washington to Vegas, and he thinks he contracted it at a rest stop along the way. But the viral load hadn't peaked when he did the test so it didn't show up. And you know, looking back on it, on the bus ride to Nashville, Todd and Brent and Myles and Frank spent most of that drive just hanging out in the back lounge together. And so eventually Brent and Todd picked it up, too. How Frank got by on this whole fucking project without catching it is beyond me.

And after that, you were all staying at a house together in Nashville.

Well, that's definitely how I got it. This was already 2021, so everybody had been vaccinated. And even though we quarantined and sort of followed those protocols, we still shared the same kitchen, you know? I remember the day Myles told me he caught it, and then the other guys got tested and they had it. I was like, "Man, I should probably check into a hotel..." [Laughs] But then I was like, "I'm not going to abandon my band, so let's just try and be as cautious as possible. “And we did. But it just didn't pan out.

I think the lesson in there is that it's always the singer that messes everything up.

[Laughs] Well, I have to say, I'm glad it was Myles and not somebody else. Because you now, Myles is a little bit of a germaphobe. I think that had it been Todd or myself that caught it first, the course of the record might have changed a little bit. And also, Myles, when he was tracking the vocals- we did five days of tracking and he sang the songs- he had it and obviously just didn’t know it yet. If he had known, there's no way he would've sang.

Myles has said that when he listens to 4, he can hear himself getting sick in some of the songs, in particular "The River Is Rising," which was one of the last ones cut for the record. That's what he says. And I mean, he would know. Personally, I think he sounds great. But I think it's always that human "mortality'' that makes rock 'n' roll sound good. You know, those little cracks in the veneer.

What was your overall gear setup this time? I had a couple of [Marshall] Jubilee heads at my own studio, and there was one in partic­ular that I had been doing demos on. So I just used that and also brought a backup. And I brought a Slash model [Marshall] head, which I ended up never using. I think that was basically it. As for guitars, I brought my Derrig Les Paul [copy], which I used for most stuff, but I also had two [Gibson Les Paul] '59 reissues that sound really good, and I know I used one of them on "The Path Less Followed", and I used another one on "April Fool." Then for "Call Off the Dogs" I used a black Gibson Les Paul Custom '68 reissue. Actually, it was a two-pickup model, so maybe it was a '70 or '72 reissue. And for "Fill My World" I used one of the brand-new Slash Les Paul Gold­ tops. But maybe the biggest difference for me was that I played a [Gibson] Flying V, like a '69 or '68 reissue. I got it for Christmas, and it just sounds really great. I used that for "C'est La Vie" and "Actions Speak Louder Than Words," and you can tell it's a different guitar because the tone is cleaner than on the other songs.

And you know what else is funny? I didn't play any acoustic on the record, and all the electric guitars, there's no rhythm pickup, which for me is unusual. But it was just that every time I switched to the rhythm pickup it sounded too obvious. So I never used it.

How about pedals?

There's not too many. I had my gain pedal, which is an MXR that I've been using pretty much forever at this point. And then I had a [MXR] Phase 45 that I used for "Actions Speak Louder Than Words", a Dunlop voice box for "C'est LaVie" and a Rotovibe type of deal for the verses in "Fall Back to Earth". But that's about it.

Guns N' Roses recently released two new songs- "Absurd" and "Hard Skool" - your first with the band since the Nineties. Did you use a similar setup to record your parts on those songs?

I used different amps. I mean, they're the same amps - Jubilees- but different ones than the ones I used for my record. I think they were older ones. And I used the Derrig for those songs, too. Pretty much everything on the new Guns stuff is just the one guitar and the one amp.

As far as using the Derrig Les Paul on the Guns songs, was that done to make a connection with the earlier Guns material?

Not really. It's just always been my go-to recording guitar. It's familiar. I know what it does. I know its personality and it's just some­ thing I know I'm not experimenting with. And so I always use it. I don't think there's ever been a session with one of the bands that I'm actually in where I haven't had it with me.

"Absurd" and "Hard Skool" were both worked up from older Guns N' Roses songs. But now that we've had a taste of music from the current band, would it be safe to say that  we should prepare ourselves for new Guns tracks? Yeah, yeah. There's definitely more stuff coming.

When? At some far-off time in the future? Ahh... [Laughs] Sooner than later, actually. [Editor's note: In an interview with our sister magazine, Classic Rock, Slash added the following details: "There's new Guns material coming out as we speak, and we'll probably keep putting it out until the entire record's worth of stuff is done and then put it out solid. It's cool. I'm enjoying working on the stuff and having a good time doing it”.

Clearly, you're in a creatively fertile moment with the Conspirators, and it's looking that way for Guns N' Roses as well. As a musician playing riff-based rock 'n' roll in 2021and 2022, how do you continue to keep it fresh and exciting for you and for the audience?

Well, I mean, exciting for the audience is really secondary. The most important thing is keeping it exciting for you, because the audience is not going to dig it if you don't dig it. And rock 'n' roll, there's nothing that comes close to it, in my opinion, for something that's hard-hitting and fucking moves and is fun and has attitude and all that shit. It's just a matter of doing it right. And you know, a lot of people do it and have no clue why they're doing it, or what it's about or what it's supposed to feel like.

It doesn't move them. I don't think they know that they're supposed to be moved, you know?

But I also see a lot of people who really get it and play it because it comes from the

heart and they feel it and it has a thing. Then it's something that you want to do. It's like sex, you know? You want to do it all day long, everyday. [Laughs] So that's what keeps me doing it and keeps me inspired and looking for new ideas. It's sort of a never-ending quest.

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