The Slash Interviews: The Making Of World On Fire

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One morning – a very late morning probably, in April 2014, shortly before finishing his new album World On Fire – Slash woke up, feeling decidedly fragile.

It wasn’t a hangover – he’d given up booze and drugs years before. Instead, the guitarist was coming down with the flu. It was a minor inconvenience for a musician who’d famously survived three near-fatal heart attacks and more than a decade’s worth of high living back in the good old bad old 1980s and 90s. However, instead of staying in bed or shrouding himself in a blanket and vegetating in front of daytime TV like a regular human being, Slash decided to play a gig with Motörhead. After all, the show was local, at Club Nokia, a bijou venue on LA’s West Olympic Boulevard, and Motörhead are one of his favourite groups; still touring despite their dogged frontman Lemmy’s current health scares: a haematoma and heart issues at the time of writing.

In fact, having played one gig with Motörhead, a debilitated Slash decided to play a further two shows with the band. And so it was that the guitarist, felled by what he described as “the worst fucking flu”, ended up in the Colorado Desert 24 hours later playing on the encore of Motörhead’s performance at the annual Coachella Festival. To make his life even harder, Slash decided to drive back to Los Angeles and then back to Coachella a couple of days later for Motörhead’s second festival appearance.

At the show, a growling Lemmy introduced Slash as “your friend and ours”. Any indication that Slash might have crawled from his sickbed was immediately dispelled. Instead, it was business as usual. The brim of the omnipresent top hat was pulled down so low it was almost touching the bridge of the sunglasses; the shirt-tail was flapping over the black leather trousers, and the trusty Gibson Les Paul was slung just below the waist./o:p

Within seconds of his arrival on stage, Slash’s bracelet-wreathed wrist had become a blur as he helped spin out the riff to Motörhead’s calling card Ace Of Spades, quickly followed by their punk-metal anthem Overkill.

Playing live with his old-school heroes was clearly the best medicine money couldn’t buy. But in good health and bad, it’s always been this way for Slash. “I jam a lot with other people,” he says. “Why? Because it’s actually something I need to do.”

We’re talking a month after his Motörhead appearances. Classic Rock is holed up in rain-soaked London; Slash is in sunny Los Angeles, gearing up for the first wave of promotion for his latest album, World On Fire. The album has just been finished, but its creator shows little sign of slowing down.

Two days earlier, Slash had rocked up on stage at Club Nokia to make a guest appearance with Ozzy Osbourne. In fact, so far this year, as well as making the new album, Slash has also shown up to jam with – deep breath now – MC5’s Wayne Kramer, The Doors’ Robby Krieger, Kings X’s bassist Doug Pinnick, ex-Runaway Lita Ford, Los Angeleno singer-songwriter Beth Hart, his occasional covers ‘supergroup’ Kings Of Chaos (see page 21) and Slash Featuring Myles Kennedy & The Conspirators’ current touring partners Aerosmith.

What emerges from any encounter with Slash these days, or even back in the day, is how much of an unashamed rock fan he is, and how much he thrives on playing live with both his contemporaries and the musicians that inspired him in his youth. A similar enthusiasm and energy thrums throughout the 17 songs that make up new album World On Fire. /o:p

Forty-nine years old and arguably one of the most recognisable rock stars on the planet, Slash seems as hooked on music as he was when he first heard Aerosmith’s Rocks in his girlfriend’s bedroom – the day his 14-year-old world changed forever.

Do you ever stop, Slash?

Hah! No. I don’t have hobbies as such. I just jam a lot. I’m always getting asked to do this, that and the other, and I hate saying no.

What is it that you find so appealing about jamming?

It’s that thing of getting up on stage and flying by the seat of your pants. I’m not a practising guitar player, studiously working in a room. I’m friends with Lemmy, Ozzy, Lita Ford… So if there’s a jamming opportunity, I’ll get up and play.

On one level, World On Fire is your third ‘solo’ album, but really it’s a band effort, even more so than the second ‘solo’ album, Apocalyptic Love.

Completely. Initially, I put this band together to support Apocalyptic Love. The chemistry was pretty instantaneous so it started snowballing and turned into something different. We toured that second album for a year and the band kept evolving. Looking back, would it be fair to say you’re happier being part of a band than flying solo? Yes. Listen, I’m a band guy. I was raised on classic rock bands. That’s my influence. As a solo artist, I put a record together and put a band together to record an album. But as soon as I got into a situation with Brent [Fitz], Myles [Kennedy] and Todd [Kerns], it automatically turned into a band thing.

What appeals to you so much about working with these musicians?

The chemistry. The fact that we play together so cohesively. The thing about a great rock’n’roll band is the give and take between the players. That’s what happens and that’s what keeps it inspired. There’s camaraderie that comes from that, and I find that way more appealing than just working with a gathering of professional session musicians.

How did the songs for World On Fire come together?

Most of the initial ideas were written on the road. That’s a big change right there from how things used to be – writing on the road. I don’t spend my time in pubs any more when I’m not playing on stage.

There wasn’t much writing on the road when you were in Guns N’ Roses then?

It was incredibly hard to write on the road with Guns N’ Roses, so it didn’t really happen.

How does the process begin now?

This time around I decided to record any ideas or little riffs that came to me on the road on my phone.

So would you say World On Fire is your iPhone album?

No. I don’t have an iPhone [laughs]. I actually use a Samsung. But that’s the beginning of the demo, if you like. Little riffs and ideas recorded on my phone in dressing rooms and hotel rooms.

What happens after that?

When we did Apocalyptic Love, I wasn’t so sure about the process. I’d been recording ideas on the road, then I came home and started making demos with bass and drums and feeding the guys the material and asking Myles to come up with lyrics. They learnt bits from the demos, but the whole thing didn’t start coming together until we began jamming and rehearsing together. That’s when the songs really came together.

You really don’t like working on your own, do you?

No! I’ve got ProTools on my laptop at home, but it’s so painstaking and I just don’t feel like working that way. So this time around, when we came off the road, I called up the guys and said, “Look, why don’t you just come down and jam at my house?” We did it that way. I had all these riffs in my head, showed them to the others and they bounced off that.

The title track is the first song on the CD, and would have been the first song on the first side if we’re talking old-school vinyl. It sounds like a real statement of intent.

World On Fire instantly became a signature song because of the tempo and the aggression. It was also originally called I Wanna Pull Your Hair [see The Hot List, starting page 24]. I can’t speak on behalf of Myles – he’s terrifically capable of doing that – but the lyrics were all his. The riff, though, was something I came up with on the road and brought to the band. I had two separate ideas that morphed together into what’s now the arrangement on the record.

When you’re coming up with riffs, is it easy to end up repeating yourself? Do you ever think, “Oh, I’ve written Paradise City again”?

Oh yeah. The trick is to catch a familiar riff early on [laughs]. I’ve written many that are similar to someone else’s, but I realised it right away. But you can always do something positive to change it. The other thing to do is always play it to the other guys first in the dressing room or at soundcheck. They’ll tell me if they’ve heard it before.

How different is this band’s attitude from Guns N’ Roses or Velvet Revolver?

Completely different. It’s a breeze. I get to rehearsals and everyone is already there. Wow! I’m not used to that. They’re not excessive in any of the – how shall I put this? – chemical realms I used to have to deal with. Working with this band is painless.

SLASH AND THE Conspirators began pre-production on World On Fire in October 2013 at Mates Rehearsal Studios, a facility in North Hollywood. With Slash and the band in their natural habitat – a room with amps, instruments and no pressure – the songs began to take shape.

The first to develop were the title track, Withered Delilah (according to Myles Kennedy, inspired by the movie industry’s attitude towards ageing female actors) and Stone Blind, a song about what the singer calls “the power of beauty” and constructed around a riff Slash worked out while playing guitar stretched out on his couch at home.

In fact, World On Fire is full of what Slash calls “couch riffs”. The couch’s location was rarely the same, though. It could be at the family home, in a hotel suite or, in the case of the semi-ballad Bent To Fly, backstage at Conan O’Brien’s talk show. “Wherever inspiration strikes,” Slash explains, laughing.

So inspiring did Slash find these rehearsal jams that the guitarist considered having a studio constructed at Mates, right next to the room in which they’d been playing. However, when he realised it wouldn’t be finished in time, he looked at other options.

Eric Valentine produced Slash and Apocalyptic Love, but not World On Fire. Why did you change producers?

As great as Eric is, he was very involved with a new venture, building recording consoles, so I knew he would be too busy with that. I was happy to use someone else, but I like to record to tape and get the sound as live as possible. I had one guy I wanted to work with who was a digital guy, so it didn’t work, and also our schedules clashed.

How did you end up using producer Michael ‘Elvis’ Baskette?

From listening to Fortress, Myles’ last record with Alter Bridge. It was sonically hard-hitting and so punchy. Myles gave me Elvis’ phone number and we ended up talking on the phone for about an hour. It turned out he’d been a tape engineer at NRG [Recording Studios in North Hollywood], and although he’d moved to digital, he still loves working with tape. So we ended up cutting the basic tracks at NRG and then moving to Elvis’ own studio [Barbarosa Studios] in Orlando, Florida, to record the guitars and vocals.

Why record direct to tape?

It makes the music sound as live as possible. Unfortunately, not many contemporary producers know about tape.

In the past you’ve said, “I don’t like recording studios.” Has your opinion changed now?

No! [Laughs] I still don’t love being in the studio. I find it a sterile environment and it takes a lot of effort. What’s the problem? I hate pressing buttons! Also, as soon as that red light comes on, you’re aware of it. I actually find the studio quite intimidating. The challenge for me is to recreate that feeling I have playing live but in the recording studio.

Did Elvis make it easier?

Yes. It felt more natural. A month after our first conversation, we met up in LA and after a few minutes we were listening to the songs and talking about what we wanted to do with them. Unlike some producers, Elvis knows how to record guitars. The first time we spoke, I could tell he was excited about getting good guitar sounds.

Is it true you don’t like producers touching your guitars?

I don’t! But I’ll let Elvis do it. I’d come to the studio some mornings and he’d already spent hours working out how he wanted the guitar to sound that day. He’d been checking everything, all the levels. He also pushed me in the studio. He really pushed me. He always knows when I can play better, and he’s not afraid to ask me to do it again! I work hard, I push myself hard, but he pushed me even harder.

/o:p

/o:p

BY CHRISTMAS 2013, the band had completed the bulk of the album’s 17 songs, recording backing tracks at LA’s NRG Studios. Until now, it had been a collaborative effort between Slash, Kerns, Fitz and Elvis. “I’d been composing these riffs and bridges,” says Slash, “and I’d been sending them to Myles to see what caught his ear, and what worked.”

The first set of songs had now been joined by the likes of what would become Beneath The Savage Sun, Too Far Gone and Avalon. The last had morphed into an upbeat Celtic-tinged rocker, inspired by Rory Gallagher, the Ballyshannon blues-guitar hero who died aged just 47 in 1995. “Rory was a great, great guitarist,” offers Slash. “I really wanted to try and get the same feel he had into that song, the same understanding.”

In many cases, though, it wasn’t until Myles Kennedy joined Slash and his fellow Conspirators in the New Year that any of them knew what the songs were actually going to be about.

While Slash credits the band with what he calls “an instantaneous chemistry”, the musical chemistry between the guitarist and Myles Kennedy is obvious. After working with charismatic but ultimately self-destructive lead singers such as Axl Rose and Scott Weiland, collaborating with the talented but mild-mannered and clean-living Kennedy must seem like a walk in the park.

How would you describe Myles?

Myles is a complex and at the same time simple guy. I liked him the first time I met him. It was great to meet someone talented, but also someone I could get along with. He and I are a lot alike in temperament and the way we think about things. Maybe it’s because we’re both guitar players.

How does he compare to you as a guitarist?

He’s a brilliant guitar player. I mean, come on, he was a guitar teacher, doing things on a technical level that I can’t even begin to comprehend. Myles actually gives me lessons from time to time. Really! He’ll teach me some licks and exercises in the dressing room before a show. I might use them in a solo later the same night, but I have no idea what they are.

How about as a lyric writer?

I trust him completely. There were times on this record when we didn’t know exactly what he’d be singing about until he came down to the studio.

Tell us something about Myles that might surprise our readers.

He loves puppies! [Laughs] Dog puppies. I‘m serious! Particularly pugs. I think a lot of people will be surprised by his affinity for puppies.

That suits his sensitive image, though. He also seems like a modest man. He is.

He’s a great singer and a very sensitive guitar player. There’s a lot of blues in his playing. You know he’s recorded a great blues record? I actually played on it. He just hasn’t gotten around to releasing it yet.

Myles sings about the problems of being in a relationship in the new song Battleground. Is that something you can relate to?

If any song speaks to me directly, it’s that one [laughs]. Every time I hear it, I think about situations I have been in over time.

Do you think it’s particularly difficult for someone to be married to a rock star?

Yes, because once I pick up a guitar, there’s no communicating with me. That’s it. If I’m writing or working on a riff, I’ll sit and play guitar in front of the TV or anywhere.

Does [Slash’s wife] Perla ever tell you to put the guitar down?

[Emphatically] That would never happen. I don’t keep a guitar in the bedroom when she’s here, though. That would sort of turn her off. I used to keep a guitar in the bedroom, but we agreed that maybe that was a little too much. Where do you keep your guitars in the house then? I keep two in the living room. Maybe four sometimes. I just keep them all around the house because I like to know that I’m able to pick up and play at any time.

Do you really stop communicating when you pick up a guitar?

Yeah, I go into a sort of trance. We just shot some photos for this fanpack and as soon as I put a guitar on, I got lost in that and couldn’t think about having my picture taken. I have to consciously take my hands off the guitar and specifically not play so that I can focus on having my picture taken.

Is it true you play guitar every day?

I have this thing where if I don’t play in some shape or form for an extended period of time, I worry that I won’t get back to whatever point I was at in my playing.

Let’s talk about a couple of these new songs. Battleground seems to be the only conventional love song.

Battleground is the only real love song, but in a sort of off-kilter way. That one started out as a simple chord progression that I started playing with the band. When I came home from the last tour, I pulled out an acoustic and got the chord changes together. That big vamp-out section came after the song was written. We realised it needed a big, anthemic chorus, so Myles came up with the chords.

Which is your favourite song on the new album?

30 Years To Life is one of them. It came out of a riff I recorded on my phone in a dressing room or a hotel room somewhere. I took it to the band and we all came up with this driving, uptempo song. The lyrics were inspired by a story Myles read. The subject matter is about someone who makes a serious mistake in their life. One day you’re here, the next, you’re gone…

You’ve met and played with many of your own musical heroes. Do you ever turn back into a teenage rock fan?

I always shy away from grilling my musical heroes about their records because I don’t like kids doing that to me. So I always try to be a little more laid-back. I’m a big Stones fan and I’ve gotten to be friends with Ronnie Wood, and we’ve reached the stage where we’ve had some little conversations about certain Stones songs. But when we first met, I didn’t want to go up to him and start asking questions about all these songs and albums.

Your first solo album [2010’s Slash] featured guest singers and famous friends – Dave Grohl, Ozzy, Fergie… Could you see yourself making another album like that?

I decided that there would absolutely be no special guests on this new album. But that first album was fun and I might do something like that again.

Who would you like to work with next time around?

Paul Rodgers. He’s someone I adore as a singer and a person. [Cheap Trick’s] Robin Zander as well. I talked to Roger Daltrey on a plane once from Las Vegas to LA, and I’d love to do something with him, but there wasn’t a suitable song for him on the first album. I have to listen to the song and then decide who’d be good to sing it. I started to work with Steven Tyler on the first one, so I’d like to pursue that again.

Aerosmith’s Rocks was such a big album for you, so working with Tyler would be like coming full circle.

Yeah. Rocks was the catalyst for me picking up the guitar and going in the direction I went. When I first heard Aerosmith, I was completely blown away. It spoke to me as a teenager./o:p

IN MARCH 2014, the group met up at Mike Baskette’s Barbarosa Studios in Orlando, Florida, to apply the finishing touches to World On Fire: backing vocals, extra guitars, percussion, the final sprinkle of fairy dust.

World On Fire runs the gamut of influences: blues, half-ballads, howling heavy rock – all musical life is here. Asked how it differs from its predecessor, Apocalyptic Love, Slash ventures that it’s “even more of a band effort this time around… and a hard-hitting, energetic album”.

Controversially, he refused to leave any of the 17 songs mooted for inclusion on the cutting-room floor. “Last couple of times we did a 12-song record but put out a couple more as bonus tracks,” he explains. “But it confused people that there was a song in, say, Japan that they couldn’t get in the UK.”

Despite his studio phobia, Slash spent most of May with Baskette and Chief Mastering Engineer Ted Jensen at New York’s Sterling Sound studio, overseeing the album’s final mix and deliberating over the running order of the songs. Once that was complete, he needed to find an image for the album cover…

How did you decide on the cover art?

The artwork and even the album title didn’t present themselves until the mixing of the record. I had a few ideas. But what instantly came to mind was ‘chaos’ [laughs]. So I started looking at different artists to see if they had anything that represented the sound of the album we’d just made.

So you went back to Ron English, who designed the cover of your first solo album.

I follow Ron on Instagram and he always has these great chaotic ideas. So I called him up and asked if he had something even more chaotic. He sent me half a dozen pieces. One was called Road Story, which I liked. But in the end we went for a piece called Cerebral Celebration. It’s chaotic. There are so many things going on, you could sit there for an hour looking at it.

World On Fire is billed as ‘Slash, Featuring Myles Kennedy & The Conspirators’, but it’s your name in big letters on the cover. Do you like being the boss?

I don’t like to play the role of boss outwardly. I’m certainly not a dictator. I treat everybody how I’d like to be treated. When we started, I set the pace for that first tour. The band wanted to have some direction, but I realised everybody really just wanted to play. All I needed to do was say, “This is when we all need to show up. This is what we need to do.” /o:p

IT’S JUNE 4, and Slash and Myles Kennedy have just arrived at Team Rock Radio’s basement studio in south east London. It’s a punishingly hot English summer’s day, and everyone, bar Slash and Myles Kennedy, is quietly wilting in the oppressive heat.

The guitarist, in temperature-defying leather trousers, Baker Boy hat, sunglasses and Kvelertak T-shirt (they’re a Norwegian metal band, for those that don’t know), carries an acoustic guitar in one hand and an iced coffee in the other. Meanwhile, Kennedy exudes an almost Zen-like calm, despite the humidity. Nothing, it seems, is too much trouble for him: another question, another photograph… But then you remember he’s midway through European dates with Alter Bridge and, incredibly, is fitting this promo trip in on one of his so-called ‘days off ’.

The pair perch on stools and run through a couple of acoustic songs for an exclusive Team Rock Radio session. The moment Slash picks up the guitar, he seems almost oblivious to everything else around him. It’s a glimpse of the trance-like state he talked about weeks earlier.

Twenty minutes later, the pair are ushered into an adjacent studio for an interview with Team Rock’s Nicky Horne. The DJ mentions bassist Todd Kerns’ recent announcement on his blog that World On Fire is The Conspirators’ Physical Graffiti. “Since I got out here, I’ve been confronted by Todd quotes!” laughs Slash. “But it’s good.”

Later, Nicky points out that on the relationship-issues song Battleground, Kennedy hits an “E flat an octave above middle C” – a vocal feat the singer had no idea he’d achieved. Horne also leaves the pair lost for words, if delighted, by declaring World On Fire “mind-blowing”, and one of the finest rock albums of all time.

The pair take such compliments graciously, but not too seriously. You suspect that after some 28 years at the sharp end of the music business, Slash, for one, is cautious of appearing to embrace any hyperbole. Having survived the insanity of Guns N’ Roses and Velvet Revolver (a group he describes as currently “in a state of dormancy”), his focus is solely on the music he’s making now, and the uncomplicated joy of playing with gifted musicians that show up on time – and sober. “I try not to overthink it,” he offers. “Simplicity is what rock’n’roll is all about.”

In the meantime, the world’s biggest rock fan goes back to what he does best: playing guitar, whether that’s with Myles Kennedy & The Conspirators; his contemporaries, such as Kings Of Chaos; or his teenage heroes, such as Lemmy and Ozzy.

A month after his visit to the Team Rock studio, Slash and his band joined Aerosmith as special guests on their US arena tour. On July 16, Slash pitched up on stage at the 20,000-seat Xfinity Center in Mansfield, Massachusetts, to join the headliners on a spirited romp through Mama Kin. The 14-year-old Slash, spellbound at hearing Aerosmith’s Rocks in his girlfriend’s bedroom, would surely approve./o:p