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How Slash Got Back in Touch With the Blues

It might not be immediately apparent from songs like “Sweet Child o’ Mine” or “November Rain,” but Slash‘s roots are in the blues. “Everybody knows me as a rock & roll guitar player,” he tells Rolling Stone. “When I was a kid, though, I was exposed to great blues music from my family. So even though my intention was to be a rock musician when I picked up the guitar, it was always firmly rooted in the blues ideal.”

When he left Guns N’ Roses in the Nineties, Slash dedicated himself to the music with an ensemble he called Slash’s Blues Ball. The group performed songs originally written by blues and soul giants like Robert Johnson and Stevie Wonder, but never recorded any of them, since he sidelined the Blues Ball at the end of the decade to reignite his hard-rock band, Slash’s Snakepit.

In the years that followed, he joined Velvet Revolver, released a solo album, re-joined Guns N’ Roses, and put out several albums with Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators. In the past year or so, though, he wanted to play the blues standard “Key to the Highway,” a Blues Ball set-list staple, again. So he got in touch with two former Ballers — bassist Johnny Griparic and keyboardist Teddy Andreadis — and assembled a new band that also features guitarist-singer Tash Neal and drummer Michael Jerome.

All he needed were some vocals. So he phoned up Iggy Pop, AC/DC’s Brian Johnson, Demi Lovato, Paul Rodgers, Chris Robinson, Billy Gibbons, and Gary Clark Jr., among others, to sing on songs for an album that he’s titled Orgy of the Damned and releasing under his own name. He had to cold-call Chris Stapleton to sing Fleetwood Mac with him. The album comes out on Friday.

Slash enjoyed the experience so much he organized a blues-focused festival tour, S.E.R.P.E.N.T. (that’s “Solidarity, Engagement, Restore, Peace, Equality, N’ Tolerance”), which will feature the Warren Haynes Band, Keb’ ‘Mo, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Robert Randolph, among others.

On a late-February Zoom from Australia, where he was touring at the time with Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators, Slash tells Rolling Stone how the experience of making the album reshaped how he sees just about everything.

You could just as easily be recording albums with Guns N’ Roses or the Conspirators. Why was now the right time for a blues album?
I had a couple of weeks’ window between legs on the Guns tour, and I just decided that I was going to use that time to make this record. All of a sudden, I felt inspired to do it.

It wasn’t like we required a lot of forethought and time to go into it. We just got the musicians together and I made a list of songs, and we started rehearsing. In the back of my mind, I had the idea of having different singers on it. I had Gary Clark come in [for “Crossroads”] and I had Beth Hart come in [for “Stormy Monday”], and then I went back on the road with Guns N’ Roses. I started setting up sessions on days off where I could work with different singers wherever they were. That aspect of it took a little bit longer, but the main record only took about 10 days.

You’ve said you picked Brian Johnson for “Killing Floor” because you like when he sings in a lower register. Did you pick all the songs for each singer?
Well, almost everything. Iggy Pop wasn’t somebody that I originally had thought of. I found out from Johnny, our bass player, that Iggy had mentioned in an article that he’d always wanted to do a blues thing. I love Iggy. I’ve worked with him probably more than anybody else when it comes to outside artists over the years. I called him and said, “Well, is there something that you would be particularly keen to do?” And he said “Awful Dream” from Lightnin’ Hopkins. He sent me a link to the song, and I’d actually never heard it before.

It’s like a crazy outtake that just happened to make it on the record. It’s very loose and there’s no specific arrangement. It sounds like something they were jamming on after the session or whatnot because nobody’s even playing the same thing at the same time. So I said, “OK, cool.” And we made a date to meet over at my studio in L.A., and he showed up and we just recorded it live on a couple stools. It was very, very spontaneous.

Is Iggy meowing on that one?
Yeah. You know what it is? It’s him mimicking a harmonica. The funny thing about that was that at the time, I had no idea where that was coming from. I looked around me and then I looked in front of me and it was him.

Did you find yourself playing guitar differently on any of these songs?
My approach in this session was different from how I would do, say, a Conspirators record or a Guns record. I think my playing was a little bit more relaxed. I didn’t care about mistakes. I was just trying to go with the feel of things. We would do a take and the take would be good, and if the guitar wasn’t perfect, I would leave it like that.

A good example of that was when we did “Stormy Monday” with Beth Hart. That was the first time we ever played it with her. It was supposed to be a rehearsal, but she delivered such a hardcore performance that we just kept it as is. She put this crazy fucking really emotional vocal on it.

You can hear her say, “That was fucking awesome” at the end.
Well, she was — and we all were — reeling from the passing of Jeff Beck. She was wrecked from having just come back from his funeral. That vocal was her emotional homage to Jeff. She couldn’t do another take.

Do you hear Jeff Beck’s influence anywhere else on the album?
Yeah. Jeff’s influence on me is in my playing in general. I probably don’t sound like a lot of Jeff’s fusion stuff, but I’m an old school Jeff Beck fan from the Jeff Beck Group. There’s definitely a lot of his influence on “Living for the City,” the Stevie Wonder song, because I did that with a Tele and I had Jeff in mind when I was doing it for sure.

Your playing on “Killing Floor” is really crisp and note-y in a way I haven’t heard too much of from you before. Is that because the rest of the song is more of a boogie?
I just think that it’s coming from a different place, and I can’t really verbally put my finger on it, but there was definitely a difference from doing a Conspirators record to doing this. It’s definitely a more laidback approach … just doing what you’re doing in the moment. I was really enjoying it.

There was some forethought, though, since the arrangements of songs like “The Pusher” and “Crossroads” don’t sound like the originals.
We didn’t spend a lot of time listening to the originals. It wasn’t necessary, because you know the songs and you start to have a different interpretation of the arrangements within the context of the group that you’re playing in. Or maybe you just want to hear it go another way, and you just do that.

You have the license to take certain things in a different direction if you want. It was just the way things naturally fell. With “Key to the Highway,” if I remember correctly, it is the Freddie King arrangement, but it’s delivered at a little bit faster tempo, which I did naturally because I just liked it better faster.

Onstage at OVO Arena Wembley in London this spring.

Matthew Baker/Getty Images

“Living for the City” we truncated a bunch because I didn’t want to try and emulate the live-action street scene bit, as cool as that is and as much of an influence as that had on me as a kid. There are a lot of other very cool but indulgent parts of the Stevie Wonder version that worked perfectly for him but didn’t necessarily mean as much coming from us.

You added a coda to the “Crossroads” you recorded with Gary Clark Jr.
Originally, I was going to do “Cross Road Blues,” the Robert Johnson thing, but I didn’t want to make a “Blues Player’s Blues Record” where everybody was going to be looking at it from a purist point of view and take it too seriously. I thought, “It’d be more natural for me to do something a little bit more rocking than the Robert Johnson version.”

Gary seems like a perfect choice for you then.
One of my all-time favorite guitar moments on any record by anybody in recent memory is his guitar parts on this particular song. He was taking a break from recording his own album, and I could tell that he jumped at the chance to come to L.A. to do something else for a second. It was palpable in the moment that he was happy to be somewhere else and do something where all the focus wasn’t on him. It was fucking beautiful.

How did Demi Lovato come to sing “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”?
That was so left-field for everybody involved, because she’s from the pop world. But I had this very distinct idea in my mind of her voice delivering that lyric and the emotional content of that story. I know her background. She’s had her share of missteps in life, and we’ve known each other for a little while, so I called her up and I asked her about it. It turns out that that song really meant a lot to her. So she came in and delivered a powerhouse fucking vocal that I think will be a huge surprise to people that are familiar with her other stuff.

The album ends with “Metal Chestnut,” an instrumental, which seems unusual for you. What inspired you to record an instrumental?
We were, like, two days from going into the studio, and [our producer] Mike Clink goes, “Do you have any originals?” And it had never even crossed my mind. I was sort of dumbfounded. I was like, “No. Let me think of something.”

I went home and threw something together and showed up the next day. I was very nervous to play it in front of all these guys because I’d never made a real record or written original material with any of them before. So to start finger-picking this thing, I was nervous and playing it too fast. But they picked up on it right away, and Ted started playing the organ part and we went into the studio.

The version that’s on the record was maybe one of two takes we did. I’m actually pretty proud of it. The emotional content came from a real place.

Why did you call it “Metal Chestnut”?
I overheard somebody say those words in the cans [headphones] just before we were doing the take, and I said, “What did you say?” I thought they said, “Metal Chestnut,” which I thought was really funny. It’s not what they said but I decided to keep it anyway.

What did they say?
I forget. Whatever it was, it wasn’t as good as “Metal Chestnut.”

Now that you’ve made this album, how do you see the blues and soul music differently?
I don’t think I do. The thing for me is making this album has allowed me to know I can do a lot more of it, because I was really frustrated. I don’t have a lot of outlets for that really.


What do you mean? You’re in Guns N’ Roses and the Conspirators …
I’m in different bands and they all have a blues-oriented base, but it’s not traditional blues. I’m always looking for outlets where I can just jam on it. To work with some different guys and put this festival together was great. If the festival goes well, I’m going to do it every year. So it sort of opened up that door for me to be able to find people to do this with, and that’s exciting.

With the blues, you just get together and play and you don’t have the pressure of being a “super this” or fucking “Grammy-winning that” — you’re just jamming and having a good time. That’s something that I really relate to in music, and sometimes it can get away from you. So having this has opened up the idea that I can do that all the time.

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