He’s approaching the tail-end of a rare day off, having spent the past two months pinballing between solo dates with his band the Conspirators (featuring vocalist Myles Kennedy), their support slots on Aerosmith’s arena tour, and an endless parade of promotional duties in service of his third solo album, World On Fire. The past few hours have been spent playing guitar and catching up on e-mails, and this evening he will head to the movies to watch French horror film As Above, So Below. Ultimately, though, a day off is a day away from the stage, and it is there that the man absolutely no-one calls Saul – deferring instead to Slash, the nickname given to him as a teen by family friend and film producer Seymour Cassel due to his inability to stand still for more than five minutes – is most at home. “That’s where I feel like I’m expressing myself as honestly as possible,” he reasons. “The rest of the time I’m just treading water, trying to get to the next gig.”
Born in Stoke-on-Trent, England, on July 23rd, 1965, to an artist father and a costume designer mother, Slash moved to Hollywood as a young child where his upbringing was, he readily admits, far from typical. With his mother designing clothes for artists such as John Lennon, Helen Reddy and James Taylor, and his father responsible for seminal album covers by the likes of Joni Mitchell, his younger years offered a bohemian glimpse of the inner workings of the entertainment industry as he accompanied his parents to gigs and recording studios, film and TV sets.
After meeting future Guns N’Roses bandmate Steven Adler at the age of 13, the duo began ditching school and walking the streets of West Hollywood, passing venues such as the Whisky, the Roxy and the Troubadour and dreaming of one day having a band that would play on their stages. That dream became a reality when, after joining Guns N’Roses in 1985, the five-piece commenced their rise through the ranks of the Sunset Strip scene. By 1987 they’d released their debut album, Appetite For Destruction, kickstarting a journey that would take Slash to the stratospheric heights of rock stardom, only to bring him crashing back to Earth in 1996 when, frustrated, disillusioned and plagued by suicidal thoughts over the way his band had lost its way, he handed in his notice.
Since then the guitarist has managed the rare feat of forging a successful follow-up career, to the point where his singular monicker is one of the most recognisable names in the mainstream entertainment world. His first post-Guns N’Roses album, 2000’s Ain’t Life Grand with Slash’s Snakepit, may not have sent cash registers ringing the way GN’R did, but he was returned to the top of the charts in 2004 when Velvet Revolver – the band he formed with former GN’R bandmates Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum, as well as ex-Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland – released their debut album, Contraband. And though that outfit has been on hiatus since Weiland’s sacking in 2008, the years since have seen the guitarist pursue a burgeoning solo career, starting with the release of his debut self-titled album in 2010.
For a man who has forged his identity in the image of elegantly wasted heroes such as the Stones’ Keith Richards and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, Slash’s work ethic speaks of someone clearly more focused and in control than his perma-laidback demeanour would suggest. In addition to his musical pursuits – which also include decades of session work with artists as diverse as Michael Jackson, Rihanna and Lenny Kravitz; various movie scores (as well as scoring a theme ride at Universal Studios, which was unveiled last month); and having his image immortalised in Guitar Hero III – he formed horror movie production company Slasher Films in 2010, the first release from which was 2013’s Nothing Left To Fear. A passionate supporter of animal rights he is also a trustee of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association.
The 49-year-old is also, by his own admission, “not that outspoken, and [doesn’t] talk that much”, something to which Kennedy will attest. “Slash definitely likes to keep his hand close to his chest,” he says. “He doesn’t lay it all out there.”
Have you ever seen him excited?
“You don’t see Slash get super excited, you don’t see him get super sad, he just keeps it chill. But occasionally, he has this very charming quality where he’ll kind of turn into a little kid – sometimes you’ll see him do it onstage, where he’ll just start dancing around. He puts his arms out kind of like he’s a plane, and it’s really quite endearing. And at those moments I know he’s happy with the show and crowd.”
Over the course of this interview the guitarist is enthusiastic and thoughtful, and clearly buzzed about his band’s new album and current run of shows which, in February, will bring him to Australia for Soundwave. As per Kennedy’s assessment, Slash does play his cards close, answering questions designed to dig beyond his public facade with a straight bat. He is also strangely ambivalent about his brushes with death, and seemingly unwilling to put too much stake in his accomplishments. The impression is of a man who’s continuously looking forward – perhaps because he doesn’t always like what’s in his rearview mirror.
You’ve had a long association with Aerosmith, from seeing them as a fan in 1979 to touring with them in Guns N’Roses in 1988 and again now. At what point did you start to feel like an equal?
You’re never going to feel like an equal to your heroes. You can’t be hanging out with guys that were basically responsible for you picking up the fucking guitar in the first place, and then suddenly feel [equal], that would be super arrogant. But it’s nice to be able to stand and have a conversation with Joe [Perry] and Steven [Tyler] and the rest of the guys, or people like Jimmy Page or Jeff Beck or Billy Gibbons. That for me is a wonderful feeling that I would have never thought I’d reach when I was 14 or 15 years old.
Back in the Seventies you also saw the likes of Van Halen, Ted Nugent and Randy Rhoads play. How did those experiences shape your attitude to what you do?
I’ve never really thought about that. You’re just really a sponge taking it all in. You’re really impressionable at that age; I was 14 in 1978. It’s sub conscious what happens after that – you pick up on all the things you like and disregard all the stuff that didn’t appeal to you. And you subconsciously apply it I suppose.
In an age where EPs and singles are becoming more common, World On Fire is a 17-song, near-80 minute album. Do you delight in being out of step?
I don’t do it on purpose, I don’t try to be the oddball just to be different. But at the same time I do things the way that I like to do them, and the way that I think seems the proper way to go about it. If it rubs everybody the wrong way I find some amusement in that. [Laughs]
Throughout your career you’ve walked a steadfastly rock & roll path despite the trends of the day. Have there been points along the way where you’ve really felt like you don’t fit in?
I’ve found that to be the case I suppose, but whatever the grain is at any given time in the commercial music business sucks anyway. You don’t want to be part of that. [Laughs] As an artist you just want to do what you want to do and you don’t want to be labelled as part of the mainstream anyway. When you finally do become mainstream you’re like, “God, get me outta here. I don’t want to be here.”
Myles has said he felt a real pressure coming up with lyrics to the song “30 Years To Life” because he knew from the outset it was special. Did you get that feeling too?
I knew when it was an instrumental that it was going to be a cool piece of rock & roll. I had no idea what Myles was going to bring. So when he came in with the lyrics and I heard the hook I was like, this is going to be really cool. But I never listen to a song and go, “This is it, this is going to be the whatever”, because that song is never the one. It’s some other one that you totally passed over and didn’t think was all that great.
The Conspirators have clearly gelled into a tight unit. What does it mean to you to be on this ride with Myles, Brent and Todd?
I’m really somebody who finds happiness in a band situation. Ever since I first picked up a guitar, the first thing I did was start a band. Only recently did I realise that I have to be in a situation where everybody has input in it and everybody can feel like they’re contributing. It’s definitely better if everyone has at least had a shot at having their input in there.
In the past you’ve said the fact that Guns N’Roses could break up at any second added to the excitement. Where does the excitement come from in a stable line-up such as the Conspirators?
I think at this particular point in time just having everybody on the same page, having a good time and all going through it at the same level at the same time is a great feeling. In other experiences, the volatility starts to snowball after a while and it’s hard to keep hold of the reins. And then all of a sudden when the end is near you’re like, oh shit! [Laughs] It’s like racing towards a cliff.
Did the inner-band volatility in Guns N’Roses or Velvet Revolver ever benefit the music?
There’s a couple of different ways of looking at it. If one of the things is the us-against-them mentality, where you are forced to bond together against all the other obstacles and conflicts that are out there and smash through those barriers, that’s great for a band. Internal conflict and turmoil and animosity, I don’t see any point. I don’t think it’s conducive to creativity. It’s really not conducive for me to actually feel like playing. I think that’s a rock & roll cliché that’s a myth.
You started out thinking you wanted to play bass. What happened?
I went to a local music school in the neighbourhood and went to the teacher and said, “I want to learn how to play bass.” And he said, “Do you have a bass?” “Uh, no.” [Laughs] So the teacher started trying to pick my brain to see who he was dealing with. And while we were having this conversation he had a steel string acoustic guitar and he was picking up licks off of the stereo – I think it was “Sunshine of Your Love” or “Spoonful” or something from Cream, and it was the solo bits – and I was like, “That’s what I want to do.” He goes, “Well that’s not bass, that’s electric lead guitar.” So the prospects for myself and bass guitar were very short lived. It gives you an idea of how ignorant I was when I went in there.
You’ve said the book “How To Play Rock Guitar” changed your life. Do you still have it?
There was a point when all my worldly possessions were reduced down to one trunk, and I had it in there. But over the years that trunk made its way to so many different living rooms and garages and I finally lost it all. But I had mentioned it in an interview, and it’s such an innocuous title, I don’t know how anybody would have thought that they knew that book, but a fan showed up at one of the gigs and gave me that fucking book. [Laughs] Which was unbelievable. And that was a moment, cos I had not seen that book in so many years, and it really was the origins of my learning anything technical about lead guitar. So he gave me the book, which I in turn managed to lose again, and then he turned up a year later and gave me another one! [Laughs] And that one I’ve managed to keep.
Has it been passed on to your kids?
No. At this point they’re really engrossed in American Football. It’s mostly sports with my oldest one. My youngest was playing piano by ear until we got him lessons, and that turned him off. That’s what happened to me when I was a kid, my mum tried to make me take piano lessons and I hated it, and I haven’t really played piano since.
Did guitar give you focus as a teen?
I didn’t have any particular focus on anything except for BMX at the time. I wanted to be a motocross racer. I always drew, I was an artist, but I just did it for the fun of it. When I started racing BMX is when I started to realise I had some sort of goal [laughs]. And when I picked up the guitar, I guess the ability to focus extremely all of a sudden presented itself.
What did your school reports say about you? Was there a recurring theme?
I had issues in school because I was on a different planet from everybody else. If I liked the teacher and found things to be interesting I could really excel, and if I thought the teacher or the subject was full of shit, then I would not make an effort whatsoever. I was really good at art and English and sometimes history depending on what we were studying. I was never good at math. I definitely walked to the beat of my own drum throughout school. And I went to a lot of different schools, so I never really adapted, I never really fit in.
What do you mean by being on a different planet?
I was on a different plane than everybody else. My head was always somewhere else, my way of thinking was definitely not in line with what anybody else in my class was thinking, from what I could tell.
Were your parents worried?
My mum, yeah! [Laughs] My mum, God rest her soul, she really tried to keep me in school and make sure I had a good education. But then when the guitar appeared, it made her job that much more difficult because I stopped caring about fitting in with anything and just became that much more insular, so rules no longer really mattered. And I ended up quitting school in the 11th grade.
You grew up around famous people – did that give you a mechanism for dealing with fame?
The only thing that I definitely retained from all that was a certain idea of how or how not to act [laughs]. I always hated being around artists who were basically rude or disrespectful to people, or had this fucked up sense of entitlement, thinking they were the centre of attention all the time. I hated that as a kid. I still do. But there were a lot of really brilliant, inspired, genius artists that I was raised around, that I admired. I used to love Joni Mitchell when I was a kid. We spent a lot of time with her. Minnie Riperton was great. So you sort of pick things up from people you like. And then you learn about what you really don’t like and it sticks with you.
Was there a moment you realised you were famous?
No. Not really. I never really aspired for the so-called famous guy thing, and the things that come along with that – being catered to, being recognised all the time, buying expensive jewellery, hot cars and a chick on each arm, and that whole illusion. And so when the time came when I finally reached that point where Guns N’Roses was really big and really well known, all I did was just get a lot of drugs and hide out. I hated it. I never really accepted fame the way that a lot of kids accept fame now, which is like what they get into it for.
But when I was introduced to heroin it was like the second coming, it was the best fucking shit ever. And I went through a big period of doing that just because I liked it. I don’t know what I was masking in my own personal issues. But then there was a period there where that particular drug became such a huge crutch that you didn’t really see the transition from it being fun to being a dependency. And so somewhere in there were a lot of personal issues that I was masking, that I really couldn’t have identified with at the time. I’m not someone who seeks out social activities and being around a lot of people. And in the music business when you’re out there like you are, booze and drugs for me were the best way to cope with being in that situation.
At 27 you OD’d and your heart stopped for eight minutes. In your autobiography you said you were pissed off you’d OD’d – that seems an odd reaction. You weren’t grateful you hadn’t died, just annoyed you’d OD’d. Can you explain that reaction?
Annoyed, that’s an interesting way of putting it. You usually get pissed off at yourself for OD’ing just because it’s such a pathetic thing to do. There’s nothing cool about overdosing [laughs]. Simple as that. I can’t think of any reasons that are much more complicated than that. That’s the ultimate loss of cool, when you literally die on someone’s living room floor and have to be resuscitated. And it’s really an inconvenience to have to call the paramedics.
During those eight minutes, did you see anything? A bright light?
No. But I was way too loaded. [Laughs] No, think about it. If you’re going to be dead for an amount of time, you need to be super lucid to see any signs of the after life to be able to retain when you wake up. That’s my theory.
Overall, have drugs been a good or bad force in your life?
Let’s put it this way: I don’t have any regrets. Fortunately I was very lucky. I didn’t hurt anybody, I didn’t kill anybody or kill myself. So I can say yeah, there were parts I enjoyed and parts I didn’t enjoy, but the whole sort of rollercoaster ride I look back on and I don’t have any regrets.
You’ve said that when you’re on stage you feel more at home in your skin than at any point in your life. That the rest of the time is like treading water. Is that what life feels like to you?
Something to that effect. From a psychological point of view we could probably get a more in-depth answer out of it, but I’m not going to attempt to go there. I just have to say that for the most part I’m always struggling towards the next gig or writing the next song. Basically to get to that place where you’re going to go out and perform. And for that couple of hours I’m definitely in my comfort zone.
You’re rarely seen in public without sunglasses. Is that a way of maintaining some semblance of privacy?
No, that just came from being in places with people with either bright lights or sunlight or flashes or whatever, to the point where you just get sick of taking them off. That’s all it is. It’s really as complicated as that.
I spoke with Myles last week, and he said the three big things in your life are horror films, reading and rock & roll. Is that a fair assessment?
I’m glad that he has such a broad perspective on me [laughs]. No, that’s what he sees me doing most of the time – I’m either watching horror movies on the bus or reading on the bus or I’m playing. I would like to think I’m not entirely that shallow, but I guess on the surface…
Do you still draw?
Yeah. I don’t spend as much time drawing as I used to, but I lean on those skills when it comes to designing stuff for whatever group I’m in, or fliers and T-shirts and posters. I draw my own tattoos.
Are you a doodler?
I doodle a lot. Ask any hotel maid who’s been confronted with tons of pads in the room that have doodles all over them. But fortunately I’ve passed that on to my youngest son, he’s a really great artist.
Do you have a go-to doodle?
[Laughs] Not specifically.
You’re perceived as being very laid back. What’s guaranteed to piss you off?
I’m not going to tell you. [Laughs] I don’t like to be agitated and angry, I don’t enjoy that headspace. And it takes a lot to get me really pissed off.
What scares you?
The dentist and public speaking. Walking into a moving freight train scares me like anyone else, but to talk about two things that probably don’t scare everybody? It’s those two.
What worries you?
There’s all sorts of things. You worry about whether your kids are going to make it through school. You worry about whether or not your guitar’s going to be in tune tomorrow. But I’m not a big worrying person. I don’t dwell on worry.
What makes you happy?
I’m happy when things are going well. I’m not going to give you really great, detailed answers on this. I think the same things that make a lot of people happy make me happy. I’m not complicated.
How much of your post-Guns N’Roses career has been driven by a determination to make sure that band isn’t the only thing you’re remembered for?
It’s not really like that. My motivation and drive are just something I innately have. The passion for what I do is the main catalyst, but the ability to be able to keep up with that is something that is more from on high or part of my DNA than something I consciously do.
But did you have any fears when you left Guns N’Roses that your career could have been over?
That was a survival thing at the time. So no, I wasn’t looking at it that way. I went through a bunch of years where I didn’t have any singular focus on what I was going to do next, and that went on for the better part of the rest of the Nineties. And a lot of that just stems from the fact that once I’d walked out the door of something that I’d been doing for so long, that was such an institution and so much in a bubble, that all of a sudden I was happy to be free and I was just out wandering for a long time.
You released the album Ain’t Life Grand with Slash’s Snakepit in 2000. Given that you’ve described 1999-2001 as the darkest period of your existence, there’s presumably a healthy degree of sarcasm in that title?
I remember there was a lot of political bullshit that I was involved with, having to do with record companies and management and lawyers and all kinds of crazy shit. The whole making of that record was surrounded by a lot of bureaucratic red tape having to do with the industry. So that’s what inspired the title.
After that album you were diagnosed with cardiomyopathy and given six weeks to live. What does news like that do to a person?
I don’t remember it having any profound effect on me. While everybody around me was in a state of panic, the only thing I really gave a shit about was just getting through that so I could make up these dates I had to cancel and figure out what I was going to do next. I had a lot of help from my then girlfriend, who’s my wife now, because I was also sort of out of it. My priority was this fantasy of making up these dates while everybody else was trying to figure out if I was going to croak or not.
In your book you wrote about having suicidal thoughts in 1996. How serious were they?
That was the catalyst for my leaving Guns N’Roses. I was like, I can’t do this anymore. I woke up in the middle of the night feeling those suicidal kind of thoughts and that was it. And then I went back to bed. But it was very defined, it was very real. So I went back to bed and got up the next morning and that’s when that phone call [to management] happened, and after that I was really relieved. But prior to that it was very suffocating and claustrophobic what was going on.
Do you think success killed the original Guns N’Roses? Had Appetite not exploded, would there have been more music?
I don’t know. I think success definitely made a monster out of it. But at the same time had it stopped and stalled and just stayed in one place it may not have been able to survive that either. So it’s hard to really say. It just went the way that it went, and I’m surprised it went as far as it did.
In Paul Stanley’s autobiography he says you spoke to him about their vacant guitar position around the time of the Creatures of the Night LP in 1983. What happened?
I never attempted or auditioned for Kiss. I don’t know what he’s talking about. The only thing Paul Stanley ever did that had any relation to Guns N’Roses or myself was when he offered to produce Guns N’Roses before we had made the Appetite For Destruction record. So unless he remembers something I don’t remember, I don’t know what all that’s about.
You turn 50 next year. Is that a weird concept?
When I was 19 I never would have fucking fathomed the possibility of that happening. At this point it’s really not taking up too much space in the overall thought process. We’ll see when we get there. I just turned 49, give it a break. [Laughs]
Do you think age has anything to do with your recent burst of productivity?
I don’t think it’s really a matter of age. After all this crazy stuff ended in 2008 when we fired Scott [Weiland from Velvet Revolver] I was like, I’ve gotta just do something on my own. I think this is the first period where I’ve finally grabbed the bull by the horns and said I’m gonna do this. I don’t have to listen to anybody else, I’m just gonna do it the way I’ve argued about doing it forever with everybody else. So it’s been good and it’s been fun and it’s been cathartic in its own way.
Bearing that in mind, the fact that you’ve built your solo career to a point where you’re now headlining Soundwave next year must be immensely satisfying.
The whole thing for me is not to achieve one ultimate goal, but it’s a matter of progressing, just taking one step after the other. And I think that’s always been it for me – the chase is better than the catch. So I like to keep it where it always has that feeling of urgency and that feeling of working towards something. I like to keep it humble and keep moving ahead, but not reaching that place where all of a sudden there’s nowhere else to go.
Do you ever allow yourself to celebrate your achievements?
Not really. I guess you have moments where as a collective you might stop and celebrate something. I remember when Velvet Revolver reached Number One in the States with that first record, we were in Vegas, so we celebrated [laughs]. That was the drunkest performance I did in front of an audience in recent memory. I think that you can collectively pat each other on the back, but I don’t think we spend too much time really dwelling on an achievement. You just wink at the other guy and keep moving ahead I suppose.
What’s next on your to-do list?
I don’t get too far into the future and I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the past, so right now it’s basically the rest of the gigs on this Aerosmith tour and the gigs in between, and then the record comes out and then starting up on our own tour. And I’ve got some movie stuff going on, so I’m looking to see that through. I’ve got enough stuff on my plate right in the moment without having to dwell on stuff that’s too far down the line.
This interview originally featured in Rolling Stone Australia (November, 2014, #756)