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Exclusive: Axl Rose Talks Guns N' Roses, "Chinese Democracy"
Axl Rose has never been a talker. Since Guns N’ Roses emerged during the mid’80s, the band’s enigmatic and iconoclastic frontman — now its unquestioned leader and sole remaining original member — has kept his own counsel and has kept quiet and out of the public eye. And, he acknowledges, it’s cost him.
“I didn’t talk forever,” the 47-year-old Indiana native, born William Rose Jr., notes. “If I talk I need to ‘shut the f--- up.’ If I don’t talk, it’s much worse.”
But these days there’s much to talk about with Guns N’ Roses — as if there weren’t before.
In November, Rose and his latest group of musical cohorts released “Chinese Democracy,” an album that’s been in the making since the early ’90s and has been the subject of considerable speculation and reportage of massive costs (reportedly more than $13 million), release dates and in-fighting that saw band members drop away one by one — including guitarist Slash, bassist Duff McKagen and drummer Matt Sorum, who went on to form Velvet Revolver.
Nevertheless, interest in GN’R remained high. Chalk some of that up to multiplatinum albums such as 1987’s “Appetite For Destruction” and the two volumes of “Use Your Illusion” that came out in 1991. Rose took incarnations of GN’R — including longtime keyboardist Dizzy Reed and former Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson — on the road at periodic intervals, previewing the new songs and enduring a few Internet leaks of the material.
At this point, three months after its release, there were hopes that “Chinese Democracy” would be a much bigger deal than its proven to be. The album — a sweeping exposition of epic, richly produced rock, which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart — has sold less than 600,000 copies in the U.S. though 2.6 million copies worldwide. The domestic number is a disappointment, and it has set fingers pointing. Rose feels his record company, Interscope, did not put enough muscle behind it. Some feel Best Buy, where it’s been sold exclusively, did not put forth enough of an effort — and certainly nothing close to what Wal-Mart did for AC/DC’s “Black Ice.” And let’s not talk about Dr. Pepper’s botched promotion to distribute free soft drinks to celebrate the release.
Still others blamed Rose for not being willing to do interviews — though he did trade comments with fans on the Internet — and didn’t have the band ready to tour to support the album’s release.
He’s talking now — sort of. What follows are excerpts from a lengthy e-mail interview solicited prior to the release of “Chinese Democracy” and updated afterward. Whether “Chi nese Democracy” is ultimately deemed a success or failure, its long gestation guarantees it a place in rock lore forever, and Rose’s insights only add to that status.
How does it feel finally having “Chinese Democracy” out? Was the gap between albums frustrating for you or was the process of making of the album its own kind of reward?
Rose: “Ha! Last thing anyone wants to read about are MY frustrations! It feels great!! There were rewards, of course, mainly in meeting and working with the players involved that — no offense to anyone — you could only wish you’d met sooner in life. But no (frustrations with) recording or with those involved but with whatever else was going on around (it). It was pretty ugly for the better part of the duration. That said, being a part of the material personally and with these people means a lot to me.
How much of the past 13 years of making the album was focused on creative concerns vs. distribution/release/commercial concerns?
Rose: This is the closest to the real issues of the record I’ve seen from anyone over this entire time. The reality is that most of my creative energy was used in any area other than music ... just navigating through the mine fields — which so far we’ve managed, maybe not so pretty, but an album that many said would never be released by a guy that was either supposed to be dead or kill himself at this level’s not so bad. And (the music is) not as horrific as many predicted, in our opinion, which is a bonus.
What was the overall creative mission or goal that you felt in making these songs?
Rose: No. 1 was just to be involved in what I felt was a good record that I could stand behind with confidence, with no shame artistically, to know that I gave the public our best efforts with no compromise and no holding back. To have the material not be as selfdestructive as I have tended to be but still have power. To deal with real and personal issues that may be a bit uncomfortable to embrace ... in an effort to help anyone who might benefit. To push the envelope with guitars working together. To not be quite as dated as some predicted or expected. To have an album for Guns fans (who) may have gotten past or are dealing with destructive influences in their lives could enjoy as a positive progression. For the music not to feel worn down, so as to be somewhat giving rather than taking. To be a bit different and its own thing in some way as other Guns albums were, at least to some extent.
What’s the overall impact you want the album to have on its listeners?
Rose: I would just like people to feel a bit better or refreshed and that maybe some feel a perhaps much-needed release in whatever area it may affect them and maybe some are even inspired. The list goes on, and I feel that I achieved a lot of these things to some degree or other. Whether anyone likes it or not, it’s an extremely special guitar record in that so many influences styles and players creating this tapestry is fairly hard to come by, the same with the various drum and rhythm approaches or styles.
What kind of impact did time make on the album we’re hearing now? Are there specific songs or parts of songs you can point to that benefited from the years spent on the album?
Rose: There’s not a song that didn’t gain something from the time and elements that happened in recording as things progressed — different players, new gear, new ideas, lots of things. Regardless of what nonsense was going on both behind the scenes and publicly, the album ... continued forward.
What were your thoughts and emotions as you changed personnel throughout the course of the making of “Chinese Democracy” — especially as Slash, Duff and Matt stopped being part of GN’R? Could that older lineup of the band have stayed together and, if so, under what conditions?
Rose: The question seems to incorrectly and perhaps unintentionally imply ... that I was changing or attempting to change the musical approach of old Guns. Part of that, I feel, may have come from Slash painting a rather distorted picture publicly, both back then and since, of what our studio was like during his trial period. Contrary to his accounts, there weren’t tons of computers, keyboards and endless, useless gear around that anyone was paying insane prices for. What in my opinion are Slash’s aversion and fears have been greatly amplified and exaggerated and often in complete juxtaposition to and a subversion of reality to support his case publicly at both ours and the fans’ expense.
I know that I wasn’t opposed to anyone from then ... and tried anything I could, or that anyone else could think of, to allow that to happen at the time. ... The end of each relationship was devastating and terrifying, (but) ... no, there wasn’t any way I’m aware of, then or in hindsight, to have kept the old lineup together, at least (by) myself or anyone involved in our camp at the time. In regard to those who came and went in Guns since, and were a part of “Chinese,” some left amicably, some in other ways that had differ- ent effects on everyone involved. I think with the album’s release we made it through a good number of those, and what were hard feelings in some areas are water under the bridge now.
When did you actually know, or feel, the album was finished, and what told you that it was?
Rose: Working with Bumble’s (guitarist Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal) fills, (drummer Frank Ferrer)’s additions and various intro bits etc., a lot happened in our final month of mixing as well as in mastering. Thank God for (mastering engineer) Bob Ludwig and his patience.
A line like “Why would I choose to prostitute myself to live with fortune and fame?” (from the song “Prostitute”) sounds like a pretty direct and explanatory statement about your attitude. True?
Rose: In this business, someone is always telling you why to compromise on every issue imaginable. Generally ... it’s just personal interests as opposed to what’s best for the music or anyone involved, and least of all the fans, regardless of their preferences. It’s about money in the short term. However you can be used to make whatever anyone can for whatever reason is important to them for the quick buck that’s what you deal with 24/7.
Ultimately, did you have a mostly good time making the album? And how close does it come to the initial vision you had for it?
Rose: No, not really, but I like the people (involved) and what we were able to accomplish. It was much better than previous lineups, and if not for the ugliness around us and the circumstances I’m sure it would’ve been much more fun. I’m very happy with the album, looking forward to audiophile and Blu-Ray mixes at some point if we’re lucky, as that’s really what it was designed for since first hearing about Blu-Ray.
What is your sense of how the world at large views GN’R at this point?
Rose: I think there’s a lot of things to clear up and I wouldn’t presume all that much. ... I’m not so sure the world at large cares one way or the other. It’s a big place with a lot of people into different things, but some would like a good show from us, so if we can get there, we’ll do our best to bring it.
How do you feel about selling the album exclusively at one place?
Rose: Fine. It’s not like we had that many options — get f----- by Interscope or wait till next year with another retailer.
Are you happy with the way Best Buy has handled things?
Rose: In many ways, yes. In many areas, they’ve been great. I’m not clear how much the record company has helped them yet, though.
“Chinese Democracy” is very much an album. Are you at all concerned that in an iTunes era, people aren’t interested in entire albums anymore?
Rose: “Chinese” doesn’t have a pretty road in front of it, but it was never going to. It is an album. That’s how it was crafted and meant to be. I tried to deliver something I felt was good ... and let others find out if there’s anything there for them. There’s a lot there, so there might be something. I was always the one who liked the albums (that) bands made that weren’t necessarily their most publicly acclaimed (or) their bigger commercial hits — meaning that I enjoyed other approaches than what a band’s mainstream fans felt defined them. “Appetite” was influenced by a number of (those); it took a good while to catch on. It’s ... possible to make something that works better as an album and not so much as singles.
Is the measure of “success” for “Chinese Democracy” purely creative, or are there external and commercial measures as well?
Rose: I think that’s a great question. I would say it has more than one life or is a bit multitasked or faceted. The creative comes first or ... should be the deepest, then there’s getting it across as you put it. And if you can have some fun it’s even better. Those are elements that have been part of Guns. We had some great times touring in ’06-’07, and it looked like others did as well. As long as the music and performance come first then, anything that contributes to that is great.
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