Guns N' Roses: The Making of Chinese Democracy

axl bucket

On October 12, 2001, a month after the September 11 attacks on America, and five days after the first coalition bombs dropped on Afghanistan, a group of musicians sat in front of a TV in a Los Angeles recording studio and watched the news.

“Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Pakistan, Indonesia and Iran today,” said the newscaster, “as the Islamic world continues to protest against the US-led bombardment of Afghanistan.”

The screen showed riot police firing tear gas, black smoke billowing out of burning cars, protestors hurling petrol bombs. “Thousands of Islamic militants fought with police in the Pakistani city of Karachi, setting fire to cars, buses and an outlet of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Let’s go over to our Foreign Affairs Correspondent…”

But one of the group was already on his feet. Buckethead wasn’t going to take it any more. “That’s fucking IT!” he was yelling, as the screen showed images of the Karachi KFC with flames licking out of its windows. “They’ve gone too far now! I’m joining the fucking army! They are not going to hit KFC, no fucking way! That’s it – I can’t record anymore. I’m joining the army – now we really are at war!”

And with that, he grabbed his KFC bucket hat, collected some things from the chicken coop that had been specially built for him in the studio, and left. Some of the other musicians and hired hands stayed on a while. Little work was done that day, but no one seemed to care. After all, what’s one more day when the album you’re recording is already seven years in the making, two years past deadline and millions of dollars over budget?

Welcome to Chinese Democracy, Guns N’ Roses’ most anticipated album to date. The album is legendary for all that it is, and for what it is not: finished. Chinese Democracy has been in the works since 1994 and will be the sixth studio album from Guns N’ Roses when, and if, it is released. It has been worked on by at least six producers and featured numerous musicians during its countless session hours, including guitarists Dave Navarro and Brian May and Skid Row singer Sebastian Bach. Most infamous among its credits is its production costs, which the New York Times placed at $13 million—in 2005—making it, according to the paper, “probably the most expensive recording never released.”

Guns N’ Roses had kicked off 2001 in style. A new line-up of the band – featuring guitarists Robin Finck, Buckethead and Paul Tobias, alongside long-time keyboard player Dizzy Reed, former Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson and drummer Brian ‘Brain’ Mantia – played their first ever gig on New Year’s Day at the House Of Blues in Las Vegas. Two weeks later they played in front of around 200,000 at Rock In Rio III in Brazil.

Doing press duties at that time, Axl told a Chilean radio station that “Hopefully we will put out a new single sometime this spring and then the record’s gonna be done in June or shortly thereafter”. For the first time since 1994 when work began on the follow-up to the Use Your Illusion albums – back when the band featured Slash, Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum – it looked like finally, after all the personnel changes, all the hirings and firings and record company wranglings, the band were getting somewhere. 

There had, after all, been a lot of water under the bridge. Slash had left in 1996; Duff and Sorum in ’97. Slash’s replacement, Robin Finck, joined, then went back to his old band Nine Inch Nails for two tours in 1999, before coming back again to GN’R in late 2000. Sorum’s replacment, drummer Josh Freese, had left by 2000. A second keyboard player, Chris Pittman, joined in 1998. A steady line of producers – Moby, Mike Clink, Youth (U2, The Verve) and Sean Beavan (Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails) – came and went, all seemingly unable to deliver a finished product.

But in January 2001 – buoyed by the reception his new three-guitar line-up had received in Brazil and Las Vegas, and in an LA studio with legendary Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker – Axl was positive. 

On 22 January he explained the record’s delay to Argentinian radio: “We hadn’t written songs or recorded for many years,” he said. “There were band changes and there were many changes in the record company. People in the record company had many opinions and they wanted to make the best possible record. Every time that we thought that we had the correct songs, somebody thought that we could make it better. We started over. We continued adding songs, continued recording and recording. I think that when we do release the album, it’s gonna be something thatI’m gonna be proud of and confident in.”

On March 12, Axl’s assistant Elizabeth ‘Beta’ Lebeis told a Brazilian newspaper that the album “will be amazing. It will be released in June or July. They already have 48 songs and the record company is selecting the material.” 

By July the album still hadn’t appeared. Beta’s son Fernando, Axl’s friend and aide, gave an interview, commenting on reasons behind the album’s delay. “It’s like every time he tries to do something, [it] goes wrong,” he said. “Suddenly the guy who’s responsible for some technical detail makes a mistake, for example. I can say it cos [I’ve been] with him in the studio and it’s unbelievable – it’s like something tries to bring him away from this project.”

You know the rest of the story: 2001 came and went and – save from half a dozen or so leaked songs – the album still wasn’t released and wouldn’t be for another seven years. Yet, by the end of 2001 – after a year that saw startling external events and intriguing events within its own inner circle – Guns N’ Roses had a version of Chinese Democracy finished and ready to go.

This is the story of that year.

Back To The Jungle

It’s February 2001 and, somewhere in New York city, Tom Zutaut’s phone is ringing. On the line is Jimmy Iovine, founder of Interscope and head of Geffen and A&M records and he’s asking Tom – a man that Geffen had sacked two years previously – the most unlikeliest of questions: if he’ll come back to work. For Guns N’ Roses.

“Look,” says Iovine, “since you left Geffen, no-one has been able to get a record out of Guns N’ Roses. Not only did you get records out of them, but you got extra records that weren’t even part of the contract. No-one can wrangle a fucking record out of ‘em but you! Would you do it?”

As the A&R man who discovered GN’R, Zutaut (pronounced ‘Zoo-tot’, he is sometimes called ‘Zoot’) had indeed steered the band through all of their releases so far: the era-defining Appetite For Destruction, the sprawling Use Your Illusion albums, and the stopgap releases: Live ?!*@ Like A Suicide, GN’R Lies and The Spaghetti Incident? But as the band broke down the relationship had soured, he’d gone to work for Polygram, and had spent the last two years on gardening leave after a fall out with the label boss. He’d moved to New York, used the time to get to know his daughter, even volunteering to work on the PTA at her school.

Things have changed, Zutaut tells Iovine. “I would do anything to help Axl,” he says, “but I’m not even sure he’ll speak to me. Plus my family are in New York and being on Guns N’ Roses watch is 24/7 When you’re working with Axl there’s no time schedule. It’s starting at 6am or 3am or 2am. It’ll probably rupture my marriage. I don’t know.”

The next day Guns manager Doug Goldstein calls. “I hear you talked to Jimmy,” he says. “We don’t know what else to do. We can’t seem to get the record finished and it’s great stuff – would you be willing to come back?”

The day after that, he gets a conference call from Iovine and Goldstein. “How about you just come out and have a meeting with Axl?” they ask.

“OK – just a meeting,” agrees Zoot. And so it was that Tom Zutaut found himself sucked back into the world of GN’R, sitting in a studio in LA a couple of days later for a meeting with Axl Rose.

“And the first thing he asked me,” remembers Tom, “He was sitting on a sofa in the studio and I was sitting in a chair and he looked at me and he said: ‘Before you and I can do anything, I have to know the truth about Erin Everly.’”

Erin Everly and Axl in the Sweet Child O'Mine video

Erin Everly and Axl in the Sweet Child O'Mine video

The Truth About Erin Everly

The daughter of The Everly Brothers’ Don Everly, Erin met Axl Rose in 1986. Soon after, Axl wrote his unusually tender and sentimental lyrics for Sweet Child O’Mine about her (‘She’s got eyes of the bluest skies/As if they thought of rain/I hate to look into those eyes/And see an ounce of pain’). 

There was a whole heap of pain in the relationship. Both Axl and Erin had dysfunctional family backgrounds, and tensions between them spilled over into public arguments and violent spats. They got married in April 1990 – Everly later claimed that she only accept his proposal after Axl came to her house at 4am, claiming he had a gun in his car and would kill himself if she didn’t marry him. The inevitable split came the following year, with Erin alleging that Axl severely abused her (she filed a lawsuit against him in 1994, but settled out of court).

As Guns N’ Roses’ A&R man, confidant and fixer, Tom Zutaut was often dragged into their domestic disputes. “I’d get a phone call from Axl basically saying, ‘I need your help, you’ve gotta come over here right now!’ So I would go over there and they’d be screaming at each other and I would take Erin back to my house with my pregnant wife and we would look after Erin, chill ‘em out, and a few hours later – or maybe the next day – Axl would ring and say ‘Okay, I’m good now: bring her back.’ Then I would take Erin back. This happened more times than you can imagine.”

In 1994, an anonymous friend of Axl Rose told People Magazine that “Erin portrays herself as a victim and him as the evil aggressor. From what I witnessed, she was the aggressor.” Zutaut certainly felt that sometimes Everly deliberately enraged Axl, and eventually confronted her about it.

“I said to her: ‘A lot of kids can’t help repeating what they grew up with. But we have to try and learn from our parents and do better. I’m not gonna sit here and have you blame everything on Axl anymore, because the truth is that if you wanted to get out of this cycle, you could. But it requires you to leave him or it requires you to stop blaming him. I mean, you guys need to go into therapy or something.’”

How did she take that advice? “She got really mad at me,” says Zutaut. “So her response was to go back to Axl and claim that I hit on her.”

Today, Everly has an unlikely ally in Beta Lebeis, Axl’s Personal Manager. Interviewed for this story, Beta says she believes Erin: “He did [make a pass at her],” she says. Whatever the truth, despite their antagonistic and abusive relationship, Axl believed Everly. “It put this personal distrust between Axl and I,” says Zutaut.

It wasn’t the only disintegrating relationship. During this same period Rose was slowly drifting apart from all the other members of the band. “During Appetite songwriting and recording was kind of more of a collaborative process that involved everybody, but from Use Your Illusions forward the band did their stuff and then Axl came in and put the frosting on the cake,” says Zutaut. “He worked in his own time and no one was really allowed to be in the studio when Axl was there.”

But when it came to finishing the records, Axl realised he couldn’t do everything by himself. “During the mixing of Use Your Illusions, I got a phone call from Axl,” says Zutaut. “I was in Hawaii on holiday and he actually apologised to me and said, ‘Look: in spite of this thing that happened with Erin – whether you did it or you didn’t – there’s no one I trust with the sound and the vibe of Guns N’ Roses more than you. Other than myself, no one gets it but you. I can’t finish this record without your help – I need you now.’”

Touched, Zutaut again tried to reassure Axl that he hadn’t propositioned his ex-wife. “And he was like, ‘I don’t know if I believe you – she’s a beautiful woman and I think you probably did hit on her. But,’ he goes, ‘I don’t care, I’m not with her anymore and I need your help.’”

Tom Zutaut (centre) with the original Guns N' Roses, August 30, 1986, Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, LA.

Tom Zutaut (centre) with the original Guns N' Roses, August 30, 1986, Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, LA. (Image credit: Marc Canter)

Understanding Axl

Ten years on, in 2001, Axl once again needed Zutaut’s help to finish a project. But not until Zoot tried again to explain what had happened between him and Axl’s ex-wife. “After I told him, he said: ‘Can I really truly believe that – do you swear to God?’ And I said, ‘Axl, I swear to God.’ I said, ‘She was a beautiful woman, but I had no physical attraction to her whatsoever.’ 

"I said, ‘The only reason that I took her into my home was because you asked me for my help. I had no interest in her. I was afraid that you would hurt her and she would call the cops and things would get fucked up for the band and for you. But I took her away when you called me because you were my friend. I never expected you and I to become friends. And it really tore me apart. We were inseparable for two years and I’m helping you, and then this woman bites me in the arse by lying to you and you still don’t believe the truth.’

“And he’s like, ‘I just can’t believe that fucking bitch lied to me’,” says Tom. “He finally looked at me and said, ‘Okay, we’ve got that out of the way – now we can move forward.’”

Having cleared the first hurdle, Zutaut then had to prove that he could help in the studio. “Here was the Axl that I met in 1985 again,” says Tom. “A guy that had a vision and wanted to make the best record that had ever been made. And we talked and he said, ‘I go to the studio I tell ’em what I want and they tell me that they’ve got what I want and then when I listen to it I’m bummed out’. He goes, ‘Nobody seems to understand my language.’”

The two men sat and talked for six hours straight as Axl filled him in on the state of Chinese Democracy. Fully briefed, the next day Zoot entered the studio without Axl. The first task set him by the singer was to help with the drum sound for the album’s title track. 

Axl had told the studio guys that he wanted the same drum sound as Dave Grohl on Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. The production crew would claim they had it, but Axl wouldn’t be satisfied. Zutaut asked Roy Thomas Baker and the engineer to play what they had, and found himself agreeing with Axl.

“I’m gonna take a break but I’ll be back,” Tom told them and then he did the only sensible thing: “I went and bought Nevermind at the local Tower Records.” Back in the studio, they compared the two and set to work making the GN’R drummer sound exactly like Grohl. “I guess maybe they heard the Nirvana hits on the radio and they just thought that they knew the sound, but none of them had thought to just go buy the album and listen to it.”

They sent the finished thing over the Axl who called Zutaut straight away: “I’ve only been asking for that for, like, six fucking months!” he said. “You don’t understand: I’ve been losing my fucking mind! I ask you for something, I get it. I’ve been asking other people and they can’t get it?!”

Zutaut had passed the test. “I wish I’d called you a couple of years ago,” Axl told him. ‘Can you come out here and do this?” Zutaut said he’d talk to Interscope/Geffen about it – he would, after all, be working for them, not Axl – and just two years previously he’d left them in less than amicable circumstances.

A week later, the two parties were still trying to agree on a fee when Axl phoned Zutaut: “He said, ‘I don’t give a fuck about the money, whatever it takes. I just know I need you here to move forward, ’cos I’ve been spinning my wheels for at least six months. I’m gonna tell ’em they have to give you the money if they want the record.’” He was true to his word.

“The only compromise I made,” says Zutaut, “was that I deferred some of the money to being able to deliver the record by a certain deadline – which of course I lost.

“But back then, I felt that I could get it done no problem. It was like Use Your Illusions and Appetite all over again. I know what Axl wants, I can get it out of the crew that are in there now, RTB [Roy Thomas Baker] and I worked at Elektra records for two years so – y’know – no problem!

“So by deferring some of the money to a trigger date on delivery of the record, Interscope saved some money and they got my services and everybody was happy.”

But before he could start work, there was the small matter of getting his aura approved by Yoda…

Clockwise from top left: Psychic adviser Sharon "Yoda" Maynard, Axl, guitarist Buckethead, manager Beta Lebeis and Axl at Rock In Rio, 2001.

Clockwise from top left: Psychic adviser Sharon "Yoda" Maynard, Axl, guitarist Buckethead, manager Beta Lebeis and Axl at Rock In Rio, 2001. (Image credit: Getty)

A Brief Visit To The Dagobah System

In February 2007, the newsletter of the Kelowna Buddhist Temple in British Columbia, Canada, was one of the few publications to acknowledge the death of one of the people closest to Axl Rose. 

In a piece headed ‘Sharon Moved Lives In A Beautiful Way’ the newsletter commented: ‘The memories of the love and the hearts she touched throughout her short life endure. An eloquent lady, the late Sharon Midori Tanemura Maynard – formerly of Kelowna – passed away in Sedona, Arizona, on January 18 2007’.

Yoda was dead.

Co-founder (with her husband, Elliot) of the Arcos Cielos Corporation, a non-profit-making research centre in Sedona, Arizona, ‘created for the development of New Paradigms in Science, Education, Fine Arts, Global Ecology, Human Potential Development, and Future-Science Technology’, Sharon Maynard – nicknamed ‘Yoda’ by cynics in the GN’R camp – came into Axl’s life in the early 1990s.

“Axl was sort of drawn to some people that were involved in psychic phenomena,” remembers Zutaut. “There was sort of like a medium/ therapist that did past life, regressive, transgressive therapy – whatever. And she took Axl on a journey through his past lives, if you believe in that kinda stuff. And then that led to Axl meeting Sharon Maynard, the infamous woman who looked at pictures of people and told Axl whether or not he should work with them…”

Back in 2000, Rolling Stone ran an article on Axl, commenting that “Doug Goldstein is said to gather photos at the singer’s instruction for psychic assessment. In Sedona, some think, Yoda would examine these photos.” 

Zutaut confirms that this happened: “You had to be vetted. You had to get a black and white picture and get it to Axl’s assistant and then you would be vetted and told whether or not you could work with him. She read auras and stuff. All I know is, she saw my photograph and she cleared me to work with him.”

Zutaut thinks the practice may not have been as crackpot or sinister as it could sound to some: “As hard as some of it is to believe, everything has some kind of energy. I mean, human beings have a divine spark of some kind: positive energy, negative energy, good, evil, Cain, Abel, however you want to put it. I know for myself that I can sit in a room with some people and feel totally energised, and I can sit in a room with other people and they drain me. I think we’ve all had experiences like that.

“So, Axl is one of the most sensitive human beings I’ve ever met. He’s almost so hypersensitive sometimes that it makes him fragile. Thus he likes to hide away a lot. Even when I first signed the band, Axl had his own room [in ‘the Hellhouse’ that he shared with the rest of GN’R] and he retreated to it and nobody bothered him. It was padlocked and the rest of the house could be in complete squalor – old Burger King wrappers and dirt, filth, I mean you name it – but Axl’s room was immaculate. It was his sanctuary.

“So he’s hypersensitive and I think, at its core he believed that this woman in Sedona could read peoples’ energy from a photograph and tell whether or not they were gonna drain him or energise him. And it sounds kinda wacky but maybe she could.”

So the process worked? People were vetted and he surrounded himself with good people? “Ironically, it didn’t work in the end,” admits Zutaut. “When you generate the millions of dollars that something like GN’R generates, you get surrounded by people that feed off you: sycophants, psychic vampires and all the rest of it. So on one hand I think that a lot of really bad people were filtered out – it’s not like there’s anyone malevolently evil around him – but you’ve got people whose livelihoods are totally dependent upon his moments of genius or insanity.”

Mid-way through Zutaut’s time there, Axl decided that they were surrounded by negative energy and should go to visit Sharon Maynard. “Axl felt it would be a good idea if we went to Sedona so Sharon could check on our physic energy health and cleanse us of any impurities that might be lingering on,” says Tom. “Axl was picking up negative energy and thought it might be attaching itself to us. This was actually quite perceptive on his part as the studio crew was making fun of him behind his back when he wasn’t there.”

The other new woman in Axl’s world also shared his spiritual beliefs. Elizabeth ‘Beta’ Lebeis joined him in 1993 as his assistant (she is now his Personal Manager). Asked if she believed in past lives by a Brazilian newspaper in 2001, Beta commented, “Yes, I do and Axl believes in them also. As a Brazilian I believe in this. I find it impossible for two persons who never met to get along so well. When I opened the door and he was there, I felt like I had known him for years.”

Axl made it clear how close they were at Rock In Rio III in January 2001. As the last notes of Paradise City rang out, Axl came onstage with Beta. She’d been translating for him all night and she began to interpret his closing speech to the massive crowd. “I would like to say that without the love and support of one person – above all others – I would not be here today,” said Axl and as he spoke Beta realised it was her he was talking about. 

“In America for the last seven years,” he said, breaking off to hug her, “I have been supported by and taken of and looked out for… The band has been taken care of… She has walked every step of the way, through rehearsals, recording, contracts and what a pain in the fucking ass I am.”

Beta translated, sobbing, as he continued: “I’ve been taken care of for the past seven years by a Brazilian family. This is Elizabeth Lebeis – Beta – my assistant, and her three amazing children, Alex, Vanessa and Fernando. She has been a mother to me, my manager, my other assistant… I thank her and I thank all of you for her.”

Beta Lebeis was nanny and housekeeper for model Stephanie Seymour when she and Axl started dating in mid-1991. When they split in 1993, Beta explained in an interview, “She moved to New York and Axl called me to work with him. And I accepted cos between Axl and her, I was always sure I wanted to be with him. He values me much more than her… Stephanie is very beautiful and sexy, she can have any man she wants. She uses men like toys. Have you seen a child with a new toy? She plays with it and then she doesn’t want to play anymore.”

“There was nothing Axl wouldn’t do for Stephanie Seymour,” says Tom Zutaut. “He really felt like they were soul mates and he was shattered when Stephanie left him. Axl is a very fragile human being anyway and at one of his most vulnerable moments, Beta from Brazil was there to get him through it. She mothered him and nurtured him and she probably did more for him than his real mother in a lot of senses because his real mother never protected him from the abusive stepfather…”

Axl’s real mother died in May 1996. Four years earlier, Axl explained to Rolling Stone how regressive therapy had helped him understand his feelings towards her. “I’ve been doing a lot of work and found out I’ve had a lot of hatred for women,” he said.

“Basically, I’ve been rejected by my mother since I was a baby. She’s picked my stepfather over me ever since he was around and watched me get beaten by him.”

“When I entered into his life he started realizing that someone cares about him and loves him,” Beta told the Brazilian press. “I’m a patient person. I trust him and he did not trust himself. I’m not a psychologist but he needs someone to listen to what he has to say and I’m here for him.”

Eight years of caring for Axl has given Beta a unique position in the singer’s life, according to some (Beta herself once said, “I don’t go out if he can’t he in touch with me 24 hours a day”).

“Beta – who started as his housekeeper – is now the gatekeeper,” claims Tom Zutaut. “Everything has to go through Beta. You can’t talk to him withoutcalling her and she has him call back from a blocked phone and she’s the one that gets everyone on the GN’R payroll paid – everything is running through Beta. Even Doug Goldstein, who’s the manager, doesn’t have access to his artist anymore – he has to go through Beta. She’s like the president of Axl Rose Incorporated.”

Beta herself claims this is ‘ridiculous’: “Do you think if you wanted to phone Madonna you get put right through to her?” she says. “Of course I take the calls. But if Axl wants to talk to someone, he talks to them. Merck [Mercuriadis, former manager] called him all the time – he talks to the band all the time. You know, before this I worked for a manager at Quaker as a PA. I took his calls too – there’s nothing sinister in that.”

So she’s not the President of Axl Incorporated?

“I wish!” she laughs. “No – no, I’m not.”

"If I had my own chicken coop," said Buckethead, "I could play a lot better."

"If I had my own chicken coop," said Buckethead, "I could play a lot better." (Image credit: Getty)

The return of Buckethead

Buckethead was born Brian Carroll in 1969 and, aged 13, moved to Claremont, California where he took guitar lessons from future Mr Big guitarist Paul Gilbert for a year. By the time he joined Guns N’ Roses in 2000, he’d already released five solo albums of dysfunctional funk metal and scorching shred guitar, building up a sizeable cult following, particularly among guitar players. 

With his blank white mask (redolent of Michael Myers from the movie Halloween) and signature KFC bucket hat, Buckethead was pretty much the polar opposite/ negative image of top-hatted, easy going Slash – and an inspired replacement for that very reason. (For a while the rumour among hopeful GN’R fans was that Buckethead was Slash in disguise. To this day Paul Gilbert still gets asked if he is Buckethead.)

By the time Zutaut joined the Chinese Democracy project, Buckethead had left, frustrated by what he saw as the band’s inactivity. Axl wanted him back. So Zutaut arranges a meeting with Brian/Bucket at a deli in LA and listens as the guitarist explains why he left: he doesn’t get on with Roy Thomas Baker, he’s frustrated at the whole situation – at coming in to the studio everyday when Axl’s not even there, playing the same parts over and over. Axl’s his hero, he tells him, but he just spent a year going nowhere. He doesn’t think the record will ever come out and he just has to move on with his life.

Tom leans in to him: “Look,” he says, “I got almost six albums out of GN’R. I’m talking to Axl everyday. I feel pretty good. I think I can get the record finished.

“You’re a genius,” he tells him, “I’d love to work with you. You’re one of the few people that can be in GN’R and make GN’R special the way Slash made it special. I promise you that I will be in the studio withyou everyday and I will help you get what you want done and I won’t tell you to be Slash.”

What, Zutaut asked, could he do to make the recording experience better for him? Suddenly, says Zutaut, Brian Carroll was transformed in front of his eyes. “He went into Buckethead mode,” says Tom. 

“I mean, I was talking to Brian, who was confiding in me, and suddenly he was Buckethead and he was telling me some story about how his parents were chickens and he was a chicken – how his mum was a hen and his dad was a rooster. I couldn’t tell whether it was fantasy or reality or who I was even talking to. But he believed it!

“Then it’s like Brian comes back and he’s kinda saying, ‘You know I’d really like to make a movie of my life story and how I was raised in a chicken coop – it’s the only place where I really feel comfortable’.”

Which is when Zoot has a brainwave. “Well, you’ve just told me how you don’t feel right in the studio,” he says. “What if we built you a chicken coop in the studio for you to record your guitar parts?’

Brian’s jaw drops: “Would you really do that?”

“Well,” says Tom, “it’s my job to find out whatever it is that will help you get the best creativity out of yourself.”

“If I could have my own chicken coop in the studio,” says Buckethead, “my own world to live in, I could play a lot better.”

Two days later, it was built. “It’s like an apartment within the studio that’s a chicken coop,” says Zutaut. “He’s got his chair to record and a little mini sofa in there, and there’s, like, a rubber chicken with its head cut off hanging from the ceiling and body parts. It’s totally Buckethead’s world. It’s like Halloween in the chicken coop: part chicken coop, part horror movie. We built the coop and then he brought in all his props and toys and put straw on the floor! You could almost smell the chickens.

“No one was allowed to go in there apart from the assistant engineers to adjust mics – you could not destroy the spirit and karmic vibe of the coop, his personal retreat. But – it’s chicken wire. You could stand outside and talk, looking through, but nobody was allowed in there with his hacked up dolls and rubber chickens and heads…”

With Buckethead back to work (Q: Does he come in with a mask on and a KFC bucket? Zutaut: “He’s got a bucket, but he doesn’t wear it always – just sometimes for inspiration”), once again Chinese Democracy is a work in progress, with a lead guitarist ensconced in a chicken coop, wailing away. (Q: Does everyone call him Brian or Buckethead? Zutaut: “Just Bucket. Like, ‘Whassup, Bucket?’”)

Interviewed for this story, Beta Lebeis stresses that the coop was just a bit of fun. “In every band, people have their own ways of being creative – their own things that are personal to them,” she says, “and Buckethead loved chicken coops. And he loved cemeteries – he just loved that shit. So it was just a fun thing to do… 

"It’s like Dizzy Reed – he loves drinking that drink, Jagermeister. So somebody made his this huge guitar and you open it up and there’s Jagermeister inside – just a fun thing. And [the coop] didn’t cost money or anything – think about it, it’s just wire. You buy wire and you do it yourself. People say ‘Oh my gosh, that’s part of the money we spent on the album.’ It has nothing to do with that. It’s something you do in three or four hours. Just for fun, to play a joke on somebody.”

As the weeks went by, the joke started to wear thin. “There was a bit of creative tension with Roy Thomas Baker,” says Zutaut. “Not because Roy is doing anything wrong or isn’t a great producer or anything like that – but you know some people have friction. It’s like oil and water. It might have been cultural differences.”

It could well have been, what with Roy being an eccentric, flamboyant, British rock god producer and Buckethead being, well, a chicken.

“So Bucket comes and says he needs a TV so he can sit in his chicken coop and watch porn,” says Tom. “And that seemed to really inspire him to record some great stuff. He comes armed with whatever DVDs he needs and he is doing really great stuff…”

Buckethead is knee-deep in hardcore chicken shack heaven when one evening Axl turns up for the session. Zutaut: “Axl sees that Bucket is running this porn – and it is pretty hard core stuff, it’s not soft porn by any stretch of the imagination – and Axl is really disturbed by it.”

Axl asks Zutaut how long this has been going on and why it was happening. He’d thought the idea of building the chicken coop was cool but this? “He said music is about energy and we are transferring a creative spirit and vibe within the music,” says Zutaut. “He said, ‘I really can’t have the vibe of dirty depraved porn being a part of my record – it is really not what this record is about, you know?’

“Axl is a firm believer that the energy or soul of everyone involved in the process comes through in the final artistic piece – so he works really hard to make sure what comes in and goes out is pure and right for his vision. Which is why Axl was always very disturbed about the former Gunners’ heroin use and what effect it had on their creativity.”

So – as no one’s allowed in the chicken coop, not even Axl – he takes Bucket outside for a talk about how it’s really not right to watch this kind of stuff. “Then Axl left and Bucket was pretty despondent,” says Zutaut. “He disappeared for a few days because he was pretty torn up about it. Not because he was angry or because he thought he should be able to watch what he wants. I think it was more because of the emotional implications that Axl brought up to him: that it wasn’t right to be inspired by shit like that.”

If that wasn’t weird enough, there was also an occasion where Buckethead appeared to be inspired by shit itself. Axl, says Zutaut, had a couple of wolf dogs – three quarters Timber wolf and one quarter dog – and during the recording the dogs had puppies. 

When Zutaut’s daugher came to the studio, Axl offered to give her a puppy as she’d recently lost her dog. A couple of days later he brings in a puppy. “It’s still on mother’s milk so it’s not like we can take it right away – it’s still got to spend another couple of months being nursed – and it’s the cutest little thing,” says Tom, “but it goes into the chicken coop and takes a dump. 

"And because no one is allowed in there, we wait for Bucket to come in so that we can get his permission to clean it up. So Bucket shows up later to work on his parts and he is mic-ed up so he can record and we hear through the speaker, ‘Oh I love the smell of dog poop…’

“So we’re like, ‘Okaaaaaay…’ Roy Thomas Baker or one of the engineers says, ‘Well, Bucket we will get it cleaned up’ and Bucket says ‘Don’t take it away. I love the smell of dog poop – leave it right here, don’t let anybody touch it.’ Three days later, the studio stinks to high heaven of dog poop, and finally the studio could not bear it and had it cleaned up. When Bucket came in the next day, he was like ‘Where is my dog poop, man? I told them not to clean it up.’ And was generally bummed out that it had been cleaned up… And in the meantime, the wolf puppy poop had inspired him for a few days to do some great work…”

Zutaut never did get the puppy – it had three months of weaning to go and he was off the project before then.

New Eyeballs In A Secret Club

Zutaut settled into the day to day work of trying to get the album made. Feeling like “the new eyeballs in a secret club” he saw how money and time were being squandered.

“One of the things that Interscope wanted me to do is was have a look at the budget,” he says, “and try to figure out where all of this money was going. So you know, it took me about a month. One area where there was an astronomical amount of money being spent was in rented gear. There was a lot of gear being rented that was not being really used. It’s a bit of a luxury to have a ’59 Les Paul at however many thousands dollar a month when it isn’t even being used. 

"Maybe one day three years ago they needed this piece of gear, but now the track it was used on isn’t even still being considered, the gear is still sitting there and the rental company is still making the money. We’d paid enough in rental for it that we could have bought it! My recollection is that we were able to shave around $75,000 a month off the budget…”

Axl’s irregular time-keeping was also causing its own problems. “He’d come to the studio once or twice a week,” says Zutaut, “and then we might be there for two weeks because he stays to work on stuff. Or he might come at four in the afternoon and work ’til midnight the next day. It didn’t bother me because this was how GN’R had always operated. Whether it’s Axl, Duff, Slash or Izzy or whoever – when these guys want to record, you record ’em. They are not on a calendar – this is not a 9-5 job for them.”

Used to Axl’s methods, Zutaut wasn’t too worried about that – more about the knock-on effect it had on everyone around him. “Musicians, engineers, Pro Tools guys, assistant engineers – in all honesty, these fucking people are getting paid shitloads of money and they’re sitting on their arse doing nothing because Axl’s not coming to the studio and they can’t get him on the phone. So you’ve got all these people sucking money out of him doing nothing. Spinning their wheels – they’re inventing ways to stay busy.”

The admin side apart, 95% of Zutaut’s job was to listen to all the songs. “There were probably 50 or 60 songs on four or five CDs with 12-15 songs a piece. I had to go through those songs and then sit with Axl and work with him directly to pick and choose which songs would be worth finishing.”

A noctural worker, Axl was sent a stack of tracks that they’d worked on during the day for him to listen to during the night. Then, when he got up at two or three in the afternoon, he would call Zutaut and RTB and go through what he liked and what he didn’t like.

Slowly, the album was coming together. “We were finishing tracks,” confirms Tom. “Doing overdubs with Buckethead and Robin Finck and some stuff with Tommy Stinson. I felt we had a well finished version of The Blues, Madagascar, Chinese Democracy. Atlas Shrugged was pretty good. 

"We replaced a lot of drums: because of Axl’s belief that the record is supposed to be the energy of the people involved in creating it, we had to replace Josh Freese’s drumming. And his drumming was spectacular . I would not have wanted to be in Brain’s shoes. Basically we were saying to him ‘We have got a brilliant performance of this and now we need you to recreate it’.”

Does he recognise some of the work he did on any of the leaked versions? “Some of it’s the same and some of it’s different. For instance I have heard a leaked version of Chinese Democracy that has some really weird keyboards in it and I don’t like the sound of that at all. The stuff that we worked on back in ’01 smoked its ass. But it’s pretty dicey to try compare what’s been leaked: we don’t know if it was intentional, we don’t know who leaked it. It could be a board mix that was meant for a keyboard player so he could learn his parts…”

One song causing problems was Madagascar, which samples Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech – a sample for which they didn’t have clearance during Zutaut’s time on the album. 

“Axl feels that particular speech is at the core of the message that he is putting across in that song,” says Zutaut, “and he told me that if the Martin Luther King estate would not give permission for that to come out on the final record that, that track would not be on it without it. 

"I subsequently found out that the recorded rights to that speech belong to Universal so I figure that – Coretta King [wife of Martin Luther King] is dead now – so unless her kids are violently opposed to him being associated with Axl Rose, Universal should be able to work that out.”

The New GN'R offered a re-recorded Welcome To The Jungle to Black Hawk Down. Clearance of a Martin Luther King speech may have led to delays.

The New GN'R offered a re-recorded Welcome To The Jungle to Black Hawk Down. Clearance of a Martin Luther King speech may have led to delays.

Black Hawk Down

A month later, Axl sacked Tom Zutaut at an advance screening of Ridley Scott’s movie Black Hawk Down. The director wanted to use Welcome To The Jungle in the movie, and negotiations started to see if the movie people would accept a re-recorded version by the new line-up.

An internal dispute centered around the wisdom of doing such a thing. Beta Lebeis claims Axl was reluctant to re-record, telling Zutaut, “‘Listen, we’re making the album – now we have to stop and do this, [it’s too difficult]’.” For his part, Zutaut claims that the song had already been re-recorded by the band: “Part of Axl’s induction process for his new band was that they re-recorded every song off of Appetite,” he says. “So we just had to spend a day mixing it.”

It’s difficult to explain why Zutaut was sacked, but it centres around the fact that Axl had requested a private screening of the movie (a standard request). When he turned up to find strangers there, he felt that Zutaut had misled him over the nature of the screening. 

"He said, ‘Who the fuck are all those people in there?’” says Tom. “‘I was told that this was my private screening and I don’t know who these fucking people are! I can’t believe you lied to me about this – you told me it was a private screening! You’re fired!’”

Zutaut, meanwhile, claims to have been set-up by someone looking to discredit him – an accusation denied by the Axl Rose camp. Whatever the truth, Zutaut was off the album. Roy Thomas Baker followed a few months later. 

Buckethead hung on until 2004. When he left, the band issued the following statement: ‘During his tenure with the band, Buckethead has been inconsistent and erratic in both his behaviour and his commitment, despite being under contract, creating uncertainty and confusion and making it virtually impossible to move forward with recording, rehearsals, and live plans with confidence. His transient lifestyle has made it near impossible for even his closest friends to have nearly any form of communications with him whatsoever.’

And the project rolled on, and on, and on… Some people now think that Chinese Democracy – with it’s very title – is intended as a never-ending project. Does Zutaut think Axl intend it as an in-joke, one of those things are never going to come to pass? “No,” he says.

“And let me put it this way: it would appear we would almost have democracy in China. Certainly in terms of capitalism they are right up front…”

Not only was there a clear intention to finish the album, but the vast majority had been finished, he claims: “By the time I left I felt that there were probably 11 or 12 tracks that just needed need final mixes. We could have had a record out for September 2002. I don’t think it would have been an issue. I would have given it another three months for a few more overdubs and three for mixing and worst case scenario out Spring of ’03.”

In February 2004, after yet another missed deadline, Geffen wrote to GN’R’s management: “Having exceeded all budgeted and approved recording costs by millions of dollars,” the label wrote, “it is Mr Rose’s obligation to fund and complete the album, not Geffen’s.”

By 2005, the New York Times was calling Chinese Democracy “the most expensive album ever made”, citing costs of over $13 million. At the time of writing, US rock DJ Eddie Trunk – one of the few people to have gotten an interview from Axl in recent years – has claimed that now the delay is coming from “not the band… but the label. There is so much money tied up in this record that in today’s business it will be virtually impossible [for it] to be profitable, meaning the label might want to sell it off but can not find a buyer since nobody buys CDs anymore. Problem might not be Axl this time around and [it] might keep this CD in limbo for more years to come.”

Beta Lebeis scoffs at the idea. “The album was finished before Christmas,” she says, “but everyone knows that. We’re in negotiations now with the record company…”

‘Negotiations’ could include the release date (Zutaut says that he’d release it at the end of the summer so that it would be a big Christmas album) or something more novel – in an age that sees Radiohead giving albums away free online, is it enough to launch an album like Chinese Democracy in the ‘traditional’ manner? And, even if they wanted to, does the album have the hit single it would need to get global airplay? (“It’s a great GN’R record,” says Zutaut, “but is there a hit single? Cos without the hit, you can’t sell 20 million.”)

In a press release dated 14 August, 2002, Axl advised: “If you’re waiting… don’t. Live your life. That’s your responsibility not mine. If it were not to happen you won’t have missed a thing. If in fact it does you might get something that works for you – in the end you could win on this either way. But if you’re really into waiting, try holding your breath for Jesus ’cause I hear the payoff may be that much greater.”

“This album is Axl’s life,” says Beta. “It’s his dime. Everything is invested in this album. So for people to say, ‘Oh Axl, just put it out’ – that’s not the way it is. I wish it was just dependent on us, but it isn’t. And one day he will tell the story…”

[Postscript: Significant portions of Chinese Democracy were leaked in June 2008 and the official album was released in November that year. It was the 55th best-selling album of 2008, according to Billboard.]

Guns N' Roses: "Y’know what I'm proud of? That they're all alive"

Guns N' Roses: The Louder Archives

Scott Rowley
Content Director, Music

Scott is the Content Director of Music at Future plc, responsible for the editorial strategy of online and print brands like Louder, Classic Rock, Metal Hammer, Prog, Guitarist, Guitar World, Guitar Player, Total Guitar etc. He was Editor in Chief of Classic Rock magazine for 10 years and Editor of Total Guitar for 4 years and has contributed to The Big Issue, Esquire and more. Scott wrote chapters for two of legendary sleeve designer Storm Thorgerson's books (For The Love Of Vinyl, 2009, and Gathering Storm, 2015). He regularly appears on Classic Rock’s podcast, The 20 Million Club, and was the writer/researcher on 2017’s Mick Ronson documentary Beside Bowie