Music Interviews
5:12 am
Sun May 20, 2012

Behind The Shades: Slash Tries To 'Figure This Thing Out'

Originally published on Mon May 21, 2012 7:33 am

Behind the opening notes of "Welcome to the Jungle" was a musician with a sound and look all his own. Slash was the lead guitarist of the legendary band Guns N' Roses. His new album is called Apocalyptic Love.

Slash's given name was Saul Hudson. When he was a teenager, his friend's dad dubbed him "Slash" and it stuck. With a name like that, he was destined for rock stardom.

For years, it's been hard to find a picture of him without shades and a hat on.

"Part of it is sort of sunlight, but the rest of it is being in the public all the time and you don't want to deal with the flashes and this and that, and they end up just not coming off," he tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin.

From Top Hat To 'Over The Top'

His signature top hat became a favorite as soon as he stole it from a store that no longer exists in Los Angeles. He grabbed it for a show, and hardly ever took it off after that.

"It was something I instantly took to. I just felt more comfortable. I would go on stage and just hide in that thing," he says. "I just wore it all the time. A lot more than I do now, because I've became somewhat of a cartoon character."

Guns N' Roses started out as a kind of cult band, making its way around the local L.A. club circuit, and for Slash, it felt nearly impossible to break out.

"But then we had one song, a year and a half after the album came out, that took us over the top," he says. That was "Sweet Child O' Mine" from the 1987 album Appetite for Destruction.

The change was quick and drastic, Slash says. They went from being on tour and not selling many copies to playing in a stadium, and that was just fine with him.

"It was a lot of fun," he says. "Unfortunately, we had a very volatile band, and so what should have been fun turned into something that was a lot more work than it needed to be."

Vodka Instead Of Coffee

A lot of work mixed with a lot of drugs. Slash says he started using heroin in the mid-'80s when he was still a teenager. But he says he didn't need drugs to get on stage and perform.

"My drug habits were always in between tours because there's this huge amount of movement and energy and activity that goes on when you're on the road that you get very much used to, and then it just stops," Slash says. "One thing would always lead to another, and that's how I would fill my time between tours."

Slash says he doesn't miss that chapter with the band.

"I used to drink vodka in the morning like people drink coffee. I did it to the hilt, and I'm sort of over it. ... No matter how good of a party it was, there's this invisible line it crosses where it becomes a major burden," he says. "And so eventually, you just get tired of all of it."

Slash says he was fortunate enough to motivate himself to escape those habits; his main drive was being a musician.

In 1996, Slash walked away from Guns N' Roses, in part because of his increasingly difficult relationship with lead singer Axl Rose. There were a lot of side projects over the years, including the group Velvet Revolver.

Still Figuring It Out

Slash says he's sober now. He and his wife have two sons, and he's still making music. Even after all his musical experience, Slash still considers himself "a work in progress."

"I'm really still like I was when I was 15, trying to figure this thing out," he says.

He continues to develop his technical skills, but now by feeling more than anything else. He doesn't read music. He figures it out by ear.

"If there was anything I wanted to do specifically, then I would sit there and do it until I could do it. But it's a lot more complex than that," Slash says. "It's really about hearing things in your head and your heart and being able to get them to your fingers to be able to express them as instantaneously as possible."

In The End

His new album, Apocalyptic Love, is a collaboration with Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators. Like the Guns N' Roses sound that made him famous, this album isn't exactly nuanced. It's not complicated, and it doesn't take itself too seriously.

"[The title track] itself was a tongue-in-cheek kind of statement about what would you want to be doing in the last hours of humanity on Earth," Slash says. "It was just a joke about — for want of a better word — romance at the dawn of the end."

So what would Slash do for his last day on Earth? Play a huge show, of course.

"I suppose you would want to do something that was the most fun you could possibly do," he says. "If you knew how many hours you had left, you would want to fill it with something positive."

And he wouldn't spend time fixing any grudges.

"Why waste my time with all that?"

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Can you place it? Do you know this riff? More than two decades ago, it helped redefine rock and roll.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE")

MARTIN: Behind those opening notes was a guitarist with a sound and a look all his own.

SLASH: I am Slash, a guitar player-musician-songwriter guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE")

MARTIN: We met up with Slash in Baltimore, where he was launching his new album called "Apocalyptic Love" and getting ready for the opening show of his new tour. As you might guess, Slash was not his given name. He was born Saul Hudson. And when he was a teenager, his friend's dad dubbed his Slash, and it stuck. And really when your name is Slash, are you going to be an insurance salesman or a software engineer? Of course not. You're going to be a rock star. Slash was the lead guitarist of the legendary band Guns N Roses. "Welcome to the Jungle" was the first track on their 1987 album "Appetite for Destruction." When we sat down with the musician, he left behind his signature top hat but he still looked the part - tattoos, a skull and crossbones hanging from a chain on his neck and a huge silver hoop in each ear and black sunglasses.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE")

GUNS N ROSES: (Singing) ...jungle, welcome to the jungle, it feels like...

MARTIN: There's always all this mystery around you, I'm sure you know. The sunglasses, the hat, I mean, for years and years it was hard to find a picture of you without the shades on.

SLASH: You know, I mean, part of it is sort of like sunlight, you know, the obvious reasons. But the rest of it is really just from being in the public all the time, and you just don't want to deal with the flashes and this, that and the other. And they ended up just not coming off.

MARTIN: So, the hair and the hat.

SLASH: Just sort of hide out, yeah. I remember when I first got the hat, it was something that I instantly took to and it just felt more comfortable. I would go on stage and just hide in that thing.

MARTIN: Where'd you find it?

SLASH: I found it at a store which doesn't exist anymore. It was on Melrose in Los Angeles. And I was looking for something to wear, 'cause we had a show at the Whiskey, the club, that night. And...

MARTIN: This is what year, or how old were you?

SLASH: This is like 1985, I think. And I was wandering around Melrose. I didn't have any money so this is the kind of shopping where you're looking for stuff that you can grab and conceal and take off with.

MARTIN: Steal, you're talking about stealing, Slash.

SLASH: Yeah. And I saw the hat through the window. And I tried it on and I thought this is cool. And then I managed to slip out of the store with it. And then I went next door and I found a concha belt in there and I got that and I went back to the flat and I cut up the belt to go around the hat and I wore it that night. And I swear to God, it just became that - that was just it. I just wore it all the time; a lot more than I do now 'cause now it's sort of like I've become sort of a cartoon character.

MARTIN: Guns N Roses started out as a kind of cult band, making its way around the local L.A. club circuit. And for Slash, it felt nearly impossible to break out.

SLASH: When we were on the road and the record had come out, it wasn't selling very many copies and the label wanted to get rid of us. But then we had one song a year and a half after the album came out that took us over the top.

MARTIN: What was that song?

SLASH: "Sweet Child O' Mine."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET CHILD O' MINE")

SLASH: We went from being sort of obscure in the general scheme of things to being really massive.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET CHILD O' MINE")

SLASH: And when that tour was over, the next thing that we did, we were playing stadiums. So, that was a drastic change.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

MARTIN: Were you comfortable with that, the first time you had to get into a situation where you were playing in front of 80,000 people?

SLASH: Well, I mean, I guess that's sort of the dream, you know, when you pick up a guitar, you sort of follow in the footsteps of rock bands, where, you know, the first thing - at least I did - was start a band. So, it was a lot of fun. Unfortunately, we had a very volatile band. And so what should have been a lot of fun turned into something that was a lot more work than it needed to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET CHILD O' MINE")

ROSES: (Singing) Where do we go, where do we go, where do we go now...

MARTIN: A lot of work mixed with a lot of drugs. Slash says he started using heroin in the mid-'80s when he still a teenager. But he says he didn't need drugs to get on stage and perform.

SLASH: No, I wasn't one of those artists that used drugs to be able to do what it was that I do. My drug habits were always in between tours, 'cause there's this huge amount of movement and energy and activity that goes on when you're on the road that you get very much used to and it just stops. And I've never been much of a domesticated kind of like homebody-type person. I wouldn't know what to do with myself. So, one thing would always lead to another and that's how I would fill my time between tours.

MARTIN: Despite this kind of self-destructive behavior that you talk about in connection with your experience in Guns N Roses, is there part of you that misses that chapter?

SLASH: No. I did it - I mean, I used to drink vodka in the morning like people drink coffee. I did it to the hilt and I'm sort of over it, you know. I think that's really what when you're going through all that, it becomes unpleasant. No matter how good of a party it was, there's this invisible line that crosses where it becomes a major burden. And so eventually you just get tired of all of it. And you're fortunate enough to be able to see any, get any clarity in the midst of all of that sort of haze, then you can sort of motivate yourself to do what you have to do to get out of it, if you're fortunate. And so I was lucky enough to be able to do that. But I'm a musician, which is my main driver, and that really helps.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: In 1996, Slash walked away from Guns N Roses, in part because of his increasingly difficult relationship with lead singer Axel Rose. There were a lot of side projects over the years, including the group Velvet Revolver. Slash says he's sober now. He and his wife have two sons, and he's still make music. Is there something that you do on the guitar that people in your world, like your musical peers, when they hear it, they're like, oh, that...

SLASH: I'm not really sure yet.

MARTIN: ...that's a Slash thing?

SLASH: I would love to tell you yes but I really don't know. I'm so much a work in progress it's not even funny. And I'm really still like I was when I was 15, trying to figure this thing out.

MARTIN: But technically, don't you know everything there is to know about playing the guitar?

SLASH: Technically, I don't know anything. It's all feel. I mean, you know, I don't read music. And technically, I'm not that proficient. It's really all about figuring out just by ear what you're doing and expanding on that.

MARTIN: Is it possible to give me an example of something you can't do on the guitar that you still want to do?

SLASH: That I still want to do?

MARTIN: I can't play an F chord, for example. I imagine you can play...

SLASH: If there was anything that I wanted to do specifically, then I would sit there and do it until I could do it. But it's a lot more complex than that. It's about, you know, I know how to play an F chord, but how well can you play an F chord? You know what I'm saying? And how many things can you say in an F chord? And it's really about hearing things in your head and your heart and being able to get them to your fingers to be able to express them as instantaneously as possible. As I'm been doing this longer and longer, I've gotten better at that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is the title track off the new album "Apocalyptic Love." It's a collaboration with the singer Miles Kennedy and the Conspirators. And like the Guns N Roses sound that made him famous, this album isn't exactly nuanced. It's not complicated, and it doesn't take itself too seriously.

SLASH: And the song itself was a tongue-in-cheek kind of statement about what would you want to be doing in the last hours of humanity on earth, right? And it was just a joke about, I guess, for want of a better word, romance at the dawn of the end, you know.

MARTIN: OK. So, the apocalypse. It's the last day of the world. What do you do? How do you spend it?

SLASH: Yeah, suppose you would want to, you know, do something that was the most fun you could possibly do. If you even knew how many hours you had left, you'd want to fill it with something positive. So, I think I would love to have a great show.

MARTIN: So, would you play a big arena or small?

SLASH: No. I think you'd want to reach as many people as possible, so you'd want to make this huge event out of it. And anybody who wanted to come, you know.

MARTIN: Any grudges you need to need to fix?

SLASH: Nah. No, why waste my time with all that?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Well, Slash, it's been a pleasure. Thanks so much for...

SLASH: Yes, it's been nice talking to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

MARTIN: You can hear tracks from Slash's new album at our website, npr.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.