I've got a really good feeling about Guns N’ Roses' SA show, says Slash

The legendary rock band's lead guitarist on what he loves about South Africa, the origins of his iconic top hat and his favourite collaborations of all time

29 November 2018 - 00:00
By David Devo Oosthuizen
Slash says he doesn't know how he does it, but his signature top hat just always stays on when he's rocking out on stage.
Image: Francesco Castaldo/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images Slash says he doesn't know how he does it, but his signature top hat just always stays on when he's rocking out on stage.

When Big Concerts announced the first South African tour by renowned American rockers Guns N’ Roses earlier this year, fans went into a frenzy. For many of us, their iconic songs and catchy riffs formed a key part of the soundtrack to our youth.

Given the split of the classic line-up in the mid 90s, few of us thought we would ever see them live … well not in this lifetime. Once dubbed “the most dangerous band in the world”, they now traverse the globe delivering their rock to millions of adoring fans, so we do get to see them on the Not in This Lifetime Tour.

We had the exclusive opportunity to chat to Slash, Guns N’ Roses' legendary lead guitarist, ahead of the band's concert at FNB Stadium in Joburg tonight.

You last visited SA when touring with Kings of Chaos. This time you're back to rock Mzansi with the mighty Guns N’ Roses. 

Yeah, we just arrived and it is great to be back in South Africa! The food here is amazing and what really stood out for us last time with Kings of Chaos was the energetic audience. I really look forward to seeing the crowd’s reaction now that we are playing for the first time as Guns N’ Roses … I think it is just going to be one amazing night!

Being an expert in reptiles and an avid collector of snakes you must love Africa?

Yeah, I am very fond of the snakes found in South Africa and Africa as a whole. I am, in fact, heading into the bush in a couple of days and I look forward to seeing what I can find … and what finds me!

South Africans are delighted that the illness that forced Axl Rose to cut the Abu Dhabi concert short did not result in the first local show being cancelled. In fact, you managed to get through 20 songs, which is more than most bands play in an entire set – well done!

Yeah, Axl really got a serious case of stomach flu that day. There is little you can do when you get it that bad. It was hard on him, and I really felt for him, but we managed to get though as much of the set as we could. He is, however, feeling much better now, so we will be in top form tonight.

Do you realise that tonight, when you walk out into FNB Stadium, you will tick off a bucket list item for a capacity audience who have been waiting three decades to see you live?

Yeah, I really, really have a good feeling about this show!

Your latest solo album with The Conspirators was recently released. How has it been received?

My latest album indeed came out in September and I just did a little tour in the US to support it before coming on this latest leg of the Guns N’ Roses tour. The record is called Living the Dream and it has been really well received so far. We will, in fact, be heading back out on the road with The Conspirators in January 2019.

WATCH | The music video for Driving Rain from Living the Dream 

Your mother was a costume designer for David Bowie and your father created album covers for musicians like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. Creativity clearly runs richly in your genes. There is something magical about classic album cover design that is lacking today. The album cover for new Conspirators album is striking - how did you decide on this visual treatment?

When I started with The Conspirators, the first album cover I did was with Ron English. He is just a terrific pop artist and I really like his stuff. I went to him and asked if he would design my cover and it came out great. I subsequently did three covers with him and I love the way he keeps it simple. He does not overthink things and it has a certain dynamic to it.

The cover art for 'Living The Dream' was created by Ron English.
Image: Slashonline.com The cover art for 'Living The Dream' was created by Ron English.

Our latest record Living the Dream has a strong political connotation, given all that is going on state-side. There is a lot of griping about the state our country is in so, when it came to the cover, it was a challenge. I originally wanted something aligned to the meaning but this quickly became too complicated. I eventually decided to just go simple and colourful with “less is more”, rather than some complex and deep statement.

As one of the greatest rock guitarists inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, simplicity also looks to be the driver behind your acclaimed guitar riffs for songs like Sweet Child o' Mine?

Simplicity is great, until you overthink it. The secret is not to be so insecure that you keep messing with it until you eventually mess it up. I feel if the initial idea is good enough, then just let it be. That is, of course, way easier said than done, though.

There were several artists I got exposed to early on that had a massive impact on me and where I was going. This included artists like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Jeff Beck and Cream, who subconsciously helped create the backbone of my own personality.   

Since the start of your career you have been known for your black top hat. It has become as recognisable as, for example, John Lennon’s glasses. Where did you and your top hat meet and how on earth does it stay on your head when you rock out on stage?

I do not really know how I do it but my hat just always stays on, yeah. I realise it has become a very recognisable look, yet it was never planned. 

My hat has also become something I can hide behind, as even though I love performing, I have never been good at looking into the eyes of the audience who are watching me

Early in my career, I was always on the lookout for a cool hat to complete my stage wardrobe. In 1985, we were playing the Whisky a Go Go (in West Hollywood) and I went to Melrose Boulevard in Los Angeles, where I spotted this top hat in the window of a store called Retail Slut. I went inside and checked it out and thought it looked really cool, so I got it. In the vintage shop right next door, called Leathers & Treasures, I got a concert belt that I cut up and put around the hat. That became my hat and I wore it that night for the first time at that gig.

From that night on, my hat became something that I feel comfortable in. It has also become something I can hide behind, as even though I love performing, I have never been good at looking into the eyes of the audience who are watching me. So, my hat and my hair in my face has just been my thing ever since.

You are synonymous with the famed brands Gibson and Marshall and own a mammoth guitar collection. Is it possible to have a favourite?

I indeed have a lot of guitars and I love them all for different reasons. But I have one guitar that I have pretty much used my entire professional career. I use it now as my main guitar in the studio and I would say this is likely my favourite.

I, however, have several guitars I love that I have been using live for a really long time now, like my 1987 Les Paul Standard that has been part of my live rig forever. I also have a B.C. Rich Mockingbird that, albeit not a Gibson, is one of my favourites to take out on the road since probably around 1991.

Slash says The Conspirators is primarily a road band.
Image: Gene Kirkland Slash says The Conspirators is primarily a road band.

I also have several great guitars I have been using with The Conspirators that are simply killer live guitars. So, I would consider these on the top of my favourite list, but I love all my guitars, and each has its own personality.

As an iconic axe man, you have worked with some of the top vocalists of our time. Looking at all your collaborations, what stands out in retrospect?

Like my guitars, each collaboration has been unique and special to me. I have indeed been fortunate to work with many great artists and my work with Michael Jackson is one that stands out.

Also, my collaborations with Iggy Pop over the years have been exceptional. He is just an enigmatic talent that made a huge impact on me since growing up. Getting to work with him, seeing how he works and experiencing the spontaneous and true rock’n’roll individual that he is, has just been amazing!

WATCH | Slash perform Give In To Me with Michael Jackson

I also loved working with Alice Cooper and Lenny Kravitz and, during my solo record Apocalyptic Love, I got to meet Myles Kennedy. I had such an amazing experience making that record and working with all those great artists was special.

To add a proverbial feather in your top hat, you seem to have remained very humble, despite your icon status.

Thank you. I really have a hard time with that whole icon thing.

The music industry is at a point where most bands have to tour almost non-stop, given revenue from other traditional channels is no longer sustainable. Whereas video killed the radio star, it seems streaming killed music sales, so touring has to pay the bills. Does the endless touring take its toll on you?

I love being on the road and it is just something that really resonates with me. I have always toured a lot and I probably tour now twice as much as before given all the opportunities I have to cover as much of the globe as possible with Guns N’ Roses, The Conspirators and other people I jam with.

I am just very comfortable being on the road and I like it as I get to play every night. I enjoy playing live a lot more than playing in the studio. I see the studio as a way to get back on the road. This is one of the big reasons why Myles Kennedy and I get along so well, given he is also an extreme road hog. In fact … The Conspirators is primarily a road band. We only use the studio as a means to get back out there again.

I look forward to touring a lot next year, as everybody seems to really like our new material and that means we can play most of it, if not all of it, live. I hope we can come back to South Africa next year as The Conspirators to play a couple of shows here.

In recent years we lost several iconic artists due to depression and substance abuse. After years of substance abuse, you managed to get clean and sober in 2005. You have also been able to maintain this. What inspiration can you offer the many others battling this demon daily?

Everybody has their own story and their own battles. In some shape or form, everyone goes through this. It is not easy, not easy at all, but you have to find some way to pull yourself out of that. If you can do that then, eventually, you will turn a new leaf and look back at it, stronger. But you have to work hard to survive it and continue on. You must stay focused on what you really want to do and then keep driving that. Again, this is easier said than done!