Slash: “Guns N’ Roses were a gang that walked into a room like, ‘You don’t want to f*ck with us’”

Guns N’ Roses legend Slash revisits the early days, Donington, Michael Jackson and the power of rock’n’roll…

Slash: “Guns N’ Roses were a gang that walked into a room like, ‘You don’t want to f*ck with us’”
Matt Allen

It's afternoon in London’s Gibson Guitars HQ, and Slash has been hemmed in by the hammers and tongs of his noisy craft. Office walls are decorated with guitars of various vintages and salary-crushing price tags. Stacks of Marshall amps act as eye candy decoration pieces. And perched upon a boardroom table sits a box containing the most recognisable top hat in the world.

Meanwhile, the man himself waits nearby, dressed in black jeans, T-shirt and mirrored shades, his look offset by a backwards baseball cap before swapping it for what’s in the box for the benefit of his latest Kerrang! photoshoot. Given these surroundings, our reunion with the Guns N’ Roses totem, platinum-selling solo force and one-time riffing foil to Michael Jackson seems reassuringly appropriate. It’s somewhat akin to strolling into London Zoo only to discover that David Attenborough is hanging out with the armadillos.

And there’s plenty to discuss, too. In his lifetime so far, the man born as Saul Hudson has rewritten the rulebook, first with the stadium-sized, hard rock hand grenade of Guns N’ Roses, before forming supergroup Velvet Revolver last decade. Then there’s his solo project, Slash Featuring Myles Kennedy And The Conspirators, which followed on the heels of a reunion tour with Axl Rose and co. Being a workaholic has come easily to him, he says, although the job has occasionally taken its toll.

“So, fame: yeah, I didn’t know how to process it,” he says. “I didn’t know what to do with it. I ended up being really secluded, and drinking and drugging myself to death. So it was time to go back to work…”

What were you like back in the days of Appetite For Destruction?

That bad, eh?
“The whole time from 1987 and all the way into the ’90s, and God knows when, there was a lot of drinking and a lot of craziness and partying, and just excessive… you know. You’ve heard stories, I’m sure. I don’t think I could say one particular party stands out. And I’ve never been one to go, ‘Oh, I’ve got a story about this person…’ I keep that stuff pretty close to the vest, but it was a very colourful time.”

Did anyone ever offer any helpful advice during that heavy time?
“David Bowie, once, when I was going through my serious hallucination phase. I talked to him about it because it was disturbing. Was this when I was seriously drinking? This was more drug-related. And he’d said, ‘No, you’re probably in a bad place right now and you have become vulnerable to a lot of outside interaction with things that people don’t normally see, and you’ve exposed yourself to this.’ And I was like, ‘Woah! That’s heavy…’ But that was a sound piece of advice. Or maybe an eye-opening clarification of the state of mind I was in.”

How close to drinking and drugging yourself to death did you really come?
“I had enough of those experiences where most people would go, ‘Okay, I’m done with this,’ but it didn’t put any fear into me whatsoever. I kept doing whatever it was I was doing. So all things considered, I managed to function and keep going. It didn’t really become an issue until 2005. There was a period in 2001 when I was really sick from alcohol poisoning and that slowed me down for a minute, and then it started back up again. 2004 and 2005 was pretty bad and finally, in 2006, I was like, ‘You know what? This isn’t fun anymore. You can’t recreate that initial fucking buzz you had back in 1980-something, it’s never going to get that good again.’ And I slowly and surely got out, but it was really hard to get out from underneath all that dependency.”

At your peak, Guns N’ Roses were one of the biggest bands in the world. How did all of that sudden attention and fame affect you?
“I didn’t have any aspirations to be famous, per se. You know a lot of people do this for different reasons, and a lot of people, even immensely talented, great songwriters and great musicians love that public adulation. But I didn’t give it much thought because I didn’t have any fantasies of what it was going to be like, or what I wanted it to be like, so when the time came it was hard; like the fact that I couldn’t go to [famous LA bar and rock hangout] The Rainbow anymore and just sit there and have a fucking drink…”

Lemmy could…
“Lemmy could. My first real Lemmy experience actually happened at The Rainbow. This was probably pre-Guns N’ Roses and I was there with a girlfriend. We’re sitting in this booth, and I’m not anybody, right? So I get up to take a piss and when I come back, Lemmy’s there. He’s on the outside seat, she’s on the inside, and I get on her other side. I’m so enamoured that Lemmy is there that I’m completely oblivious to the fact that he’s chatting up my girlfriend. And she’s in this weird state, thinking, ‘Who the fuck is this guy? And why aren’t you doing something about it?’ Lemmy finally realises that he’s become the third wheel in this situation and it’s not going anywhere for him, so he gets up. She was like, ‘Hey, I didn’t do anything…’ And I said, ‘Do you know who that was?’”

Can you remember how you felt when you first heard Axl Rose singing?
“The first time was on a cassette that Izzy [Stradlin, co-founding Guns N’ Roses guitarist] brought over to my house. There was all this noise and then there’s this really intense high voice over the top of it. My first impression was that it was very soulful. It had a bluesy, melodic thing to it, which was rare for that type of voice. You didn’t often hear somebody hold that melody together so naturally. Then I went to see him and Izzy play one time. I didn’t actually realise I was going to see the same person that was on that cassette. They were fucking hardcore onstage. Izzy was doing knee slides and Axl was bashing down. It was cool, like, ’Fuck…’”

What was the energy like when you first got in a rehearsal room together?
“The first time that we jammed together was at a rehearsal place in Hollywood and it was intense. We started working together at that point, we did some shows and it was always very unpredictable and wild. Like, ‘Okay, let’s see what happens.’ It was pretty surreal being back on the [reunion] tour because the first time that Axl, Duff [McKagan, Guns N’ Roses bassist] and I were back in the same room in person, there was this unquestionable, powerful chemistry that I hadn’t really thought about because it had been 20 years. I always knew that we had this thing. It just happened as soon as we plugged in and started playing, and it was really like an overwhelming feeling of, 'Oh yeah…’”

Did you have any expectations for Appetite For Destruction when it came out?
“I would say I was blindsided by the success. Realistically in doing a record – a cool record – we were that gang that walked into a room like, ‘You don’t want to fuck with us. We do our thing, and we do it better than everybody else, so don’t even fuck around.’ I don’t know how to explain it. So there was always that confidence in what it was that we did, but I didn’t have any big expectations for the first record. I was just happy to have done a first record. We went on the road as the opening band for God knows… everybody at the time, and when Sweet Child O’ Mine connected [in 1987], the whole thing blew wide open.”

How did you end up working with Michael Jackson on the Dangerous album in 1991?
“Initially, it was a phone call from my manager where he said, ‘Michael is trying to get in touch with you,’ and I was like, ‘Wow.’ So I called him back and he wanted me to play on Dangerous. We made a date and I went down to the Record Plant in Hollywood and he was there with [actor] Brooke Shields. That was very surreal. These were two people that I’d sort of grown up with, in a way. So we hung out for two minutes and they went off to dinner and left me with this song. I did my thing, he really dug it and afterwards he kept asking me if I’d be into doing this, or doing that. I’d do some shows here and there and it was fun because he was such a pro, and he was such a fucking talent from on high. That was the main thing: he was so amazingly musically fluid. Such a treat to be around.”

What was it like to hang out with him?
“Onstage, his whole professional thing was really where he clicked. When he wasn’t working, or in production or whatever, it was then you could see that he was sort of at the mercy of his own success. All the people he had around him, the tugging, and the yes people, you could tell that he knew 90 per cent of them were full of shit. I felt sorry for him in that sense. I did a couple of shows with Michael in Tokyo and saw how this whole massive fucking thing worked, and he was the centre of it. The only time I really felt like he was in any kind of comfort zone was when he was actually onstage. Right after that, Guns came to town and did our shows and our success was massive, but it wasn’t as overwhelming as what Michael was going through. It was just an interesting light, looking at the two things and being careful about what you wished for.”

What was it like playing in Britain for the first time, seeing as you were born here?
“Well, that was the first real road trip that we ever did, besides hitchhiking to Seattle in the very beginning. It meant a lot to me because I have family here, but also the music that I was really influenced by was from here. My beginnings of rock’n’roll started here as a kid, thanks to bands like The Who, The Yardbirds, and The Kinks, because that’s what my dad and my uncles were into. From the moment I can remember Stoke-on-Trent, where I lived, I was weaned on them all. Then when I moved to the States it really opened up. There was so much shit going on music-wise. When the record came out it was really well received in the UK, so it’s always been a special place in my heart.”

What was that infamous hitchhike to Seattle really like?
“When we first got together, Duff, being from the punk scene in Seattle, knew all these venues along the Pacific Northwest. So he set up a tour where we could play there, or I think go all the way up there playing all these dates, but when we headed up we had a friend of ours’ automobile and we had a fucking U-Haul trailer. All five of us, plus roadies, were stuffed in the back of that car. It was like something out of a cartoon and we made it as far as Bakersfield [California] when we broke down. We left the car, grabbed our guitars and hitchhiked to Seattle. We played one show on this band, the Fastbacks’ gear and got into a fight with the club owner because he didn’t want to pay us. Then we got a ride from some chick all the way back to Los Angeles. That was what really cemented us together.”

Your first Donington experience in 1988 was both incredible and tragic – when two fans died mid-show. What do you remember of that?
“I didn’t really know Monsters Of Rock, which was what they called the Donington event back then. We got the gig and helicoptered out to soundcheck and it didn’t sound all that great. So I remember not being all that into it. Then the next day we go up there and I didn’t really have any expectations, but there was a lot of fucking people. The reaction the second we walked out on stage was unbelievable. So we had this amazing 40-minute set, or whatever it was, and it was really a huge high point. Then afterwards, we went to this bar, drinking – this little hotel we were at – I don’t remember if we were sleeping there, or why we were there, but there were tons of kids there and it was a scene in itself. I ran into our tour manager at the bar and he was crying. That’s when I found out that two kids had been trampled to death when we were playing. There was a bizarre shift from complete euphoria to going to this depressed state. The positive memory of the gig got washed away. It was heavy.”

Did it take a toll on you?
“Yeah. How do you come back from that? How do you handle it? What’s your attitude going to be tomorrow, and the next day after, considering this just happened? Because it happened on our watch. It took a while to get over that.”

What was it like the first time you plugged a guitar into an amp?
“I remember that moment. It wasn’t just plugging into an amp, because I had a little Fender, but when I first got that mustard yellow distortion box and put that line into an amp and played [Ted Nugent song] Cat Scratch Fever it was like a eureka moment. That’s when I went, ‘Wow, okay, cool.’ This was in Los Angeles. I roughly started playing when I was 14, but I was maybe 16 when I had that amp, guitar, distortion box combo.”

Did you want to be in a rock’n’roll band from the start?
“I was a big fan of music from as far back as I can remember. I used to love going to gigs and seeing bands and I was totally mesmerised by it all, but it never clicked with me to go and do that myself until I picked up a guitar because [former Guns N’ Roses drummer and childhood friend] Steven Adler had one. I thought, ‘Well, he knows how to play guitar, so I should play bass to start a band.’ Then I found out from a local music school that it wasn’t the bass I wanted to do at all, it was lead guitar. All of a sudden that set me off in this direction. But the thing that excited me musically at that time? When you’re a teenager, regardless of how cool the music is that your parents are listening to, you start to discover your own. Aerosmith’s [1976 album] Rocks was the pivotal influence for me back then. The band’s attitude and that sloppy, hard rock thing made me go, ‘Woah!’ Every musician has their ‘Woah!’ artist or record that blew their mind. That was mine.”

Like Alice Cooper, you still believe in the power of rock’n’roll, don’t you?
“Alice is great. I hate to use the term role model, but that’s what he is. He’s been around for a long fucking time and he loves what he does. He’s doing it constantly and that to me is just the coolest. He never fucking stops, so yeah, that’s a great example to any kids reading this. That’s how you want to do it: just keep fucking going until you’re pushing daisies.”

This interview originally appeared in the September 5, 2018 issue of Kerrang!

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