Greg Prato (Songfacts)
In a perfect world, Guns N' Roses would have followed up their Use Your Illusion
double set sometime in the mid-'90s. After all, they certainly had an overabundance of potential material floating around - as evidenced by solo albums and/or side projects issued by Duff McKagan, Slash, and Gilby Clarke. But as we all know, Axl opted to become a one-man show, and took many years to craft Chinese Democracy
Gilby was a member of G n' R from 1991 through 1994 (replacing original member Izzy Stradlin), during which time he played arenas and stadiums throughout the world in support of the group's epic Use Your Illusion
set. Although Clarke doesn't appear on Illusion
, he played on their 1993 covers album The Spaghetti Incident?
and appears on some compilations and greatest hits packages.
After leaving Guns N' Roses during their "black void era," Clarke has issued several solo albums (his best-known being 1994's Pawnshop Guitars
), guested on various recordings by other artists (Slash's Snakepit, Nancy Sinatra), and even appeared on Rock Star: Supernova
- a foray into reality TV that has left him with mixed feelings.
Always a friendly chap (I first interviewed Clarke for a book of mine, A Devil on One Shoulder and an Angel on the Other: The Story of Shannon Hoon and Blind Melon
), the singer/guitarist talked to Songfacts about his G n' R daze, the stories behind some of his best-known solo tunes, and the takeaways from his Supernova
: What are you currently up to musically?
: Well, musically, I'm touring a lot right now. I have two projects I'm currently doing. One is, I have a solo band that's just my name, Gilby Clarke. I go out and do live dates. It's songs from solo records I've done, a little bit of Guns N' Roses, Slash's Snakepit... any kind of music I've always liked to play.
And then I have another band called Kings of Chaos, and that's with myself, Matt Sorum and Duff [McKagan] from G n' R, with Steve Stevens, Joe Elliott, Glenn Hughes, Ed Roland - it's like an all-star cast of musicians. We go out and do shows and basically play the greatest hits. Whoever's in the band, we play songs from their catalog. So that's basically what has been keeping me busy over the last year.
: Are there any plans for a solo album at some point?
: There are always plans for a solo album, Greg. Finishing it is the hard part. I always want to sit down; I actually have about a half a record done so far. I've just been busy traveling so much I haven't had a chance to write some new songs and get a chance to finish it. But yes, there are always plans to do that.
: When it comes to songwriting, how would you say that you write your best songs? Is it with collaboration or is it you just sitting down by yourself?
: Some of my best songs have not been a collaboration, and that's because I don't collaborate that often. Not to say that I don't like to - I actually love to collaborate. It just hasn't really been in the cards over the last five or six years.
I always start with guitar, being that I'm a guitar player. As I sit around, whether it's in a dressing room or just sitting around the house watching television, I have a guitar in my hand, and I'm playing. I'm always looking for that riff that I never wrote or just some new kind of a twist on something.
So it starts with the guitar and coming up with a good riff or chord progression that I haven't heard before. That always starts my songwriting process. Lyric and hook always come after that for me.
: I was looking at some of the albums that you've played on throughout the years, and I noticed that you collaborated on Slash's first solo album [the 1995 Slash's Snakepit release It's Five O'Clock Somewhere
], on a song called "Dime Store Rock."
: Absolutely. Yep.
: And you also wrote I think several other tracks on that album.
: Yeah. On that record, that period was when we were writing songs for what we were hoping was going to be the new Guns N' Roses record. It just didn't turn out that way, so it became the Slash's Snakepit record. I was getting riffs ready for another Guns N' Roses record; just compiling riffs. I played Slash the main riff of "Dime Store Rock" and he liked it, so we collaborated - that was Matt and Eric Dover on that track. So it was just a matter of hearing a cool riff that we got together and saying, "Hey, this is what I'm going to play, what do you want to add to it?" And that's how that kind of progressed into the song that it came to be.
And Eric Dover, too, was a fantastic person to collaborate with, because Eric always thinks outside of the box. That's what I love about songwriting: people bringing something to the table that you can't think of. They're sitting on the outside looking in and going, "Oh, that needs to make a left turn here, and key change." And even with that song, there's a pre-chorus where it actually just stays on one note. Slash fought me on that. He's going, "No, we've got to change that." I go, "No, no, no. Just stay on the one note, just stay, just stay, just stay." And that actually worked, I thought.
: Who are some of your favorite songwriters?
: My favorite songwriters are some of the classics. I'm a big John Lennon fan. I mean, to me that's the ultimate goal. John Lennon could take the simplest thought and make it mean so much. He could take some thought that you had a million times and you don't think twice about, and just make you cry when you hear it. So John Lennon is a big influence for me.
Jagger/Richards. Every record there are always two or three songs that I just think are fantastic. So I'm definitely in that kind of classic rock fold with songwriting.
: Are there any more uncommon songwriters that maybe people wouldn't think that you appreciate?
: Let me think about that for a second. Let me see. Carole King. She's just fantastic. It's music that I heard on the radio as a child. But even when I'm writing a new song currently, I'm writing something and I'll go, "Man, I may have heard that before." And sometimes it'll turn out that it's a Carole King song. [Laughing]
: You were saying that with that first Slash solo album, a lot of those songs were written because you were hoping they'd be on the next Guns N' Roses album. Is that also the same with the material that comprised the Pawnshop Guitars
: Yes and no. The Pawnshop Guitars
record was mainly songs that I had written before I was in the band. It's songs that I had written, and when it was time - we thought - to make the next Guns N' Roses record, I did show Axl and Slash those songs. I said, "Hey, guys, these are some of my songs. These are already done. But check them out. If you hear something, I don't care, you can tear them apart, whatever you want to do with them." So yes, those were pre-Guns songs. I think the only one that I wrote while I was still there was "Cure Me or Kill Me," which was the first song on the record. That was actually a brand new song that came right as the record was being made.
: What do you remember about the writing and recording of "Cure Me or Kill Me"?
: This was the early '90s. When I was making that record, we had just finished the mammoth Guns N' Roses tour that was two-and-a-half years long. We were all back in LA, and went from being on the road all the time to being home, so it didn't hit all of us hard. We all needed something to do, so being that I was making my first solo record, everybody was down there all the time. Slash was down at the studio; Matt was down at the studio. Duff was here and there. But there was a strip club across the street called Crazy Girls, so it gave a place for all of us to hang out between the strip club and the studio when I was making the record.
So it was kind of cool, because I had all these songs and I had a great selection of friends that were helping me with it, as far as Matt Sorum playing drums or Marc Danzeisen, who was the drummer in what turned out to be the touring band. People that were just there that were willing to help and take a simple song that I wrote to take it to a whole 'nother level. And for me, that's what I loved about writing a song or making a record: that part where you can go, "Look, here's my song. Here's what I'm going to play on guitar and here's what I'm going to sing." And then the bass player comes in, takes it to another level. The drummer comes in, puts in a groove, takes it to another level. Then singing solo, all that kind of stuff. So it was a very good creative period coming off a tour where our fingers still had blisters on them from playing live, but we were still fresh - our ears were still ringing. It was just a really great creative period and a really good group of people to be around.
And also Waddy Wachtel, who produced the record, was a genius guitarist and musician. He put everything together and was strong enough to be able to talk with guys like Slash, guys like Axl, and all the guys that were helping record that record. I mean, that's not an easy job to do. Waddy was an incredible help.
I don't even know if I answered your question. [Laughing]
: If you want to talk a little bit about that specific song, "Cure Me or Kill Me." Because I remember that was a pretty big radio hit.
: Oh, yeah. I'm sorry, you did ask that. When we were on the road, there was a night where we were playing, and it was just one of those rough ones where the show wasn't going well, I was tired and all that. I was backstage with my guitar and Duff and I were about to walk out on stage. I looked at him and I said, "Man, somebody has got to cure me or kill me." We were walking out and it just suddenly came out of my head. Duff looked at me and he goes, "You know, that's a good song title." And as I'm walking out on stage, I'm going, "Hey, you know, that is."
So that title I would have just let go by, wouldn't have even thought twice about it, but thank God Duff had mentioned it to me.
I had had the riff lying around, and I wrote a song around that title. You need a good title, and that was it. Basically, I was just saying "put me out of my misery." I was beat up, my brain was fried, I was tortured. But I knew I had something to live for. It was just at that time where I needed a pick-me-up. I was saying, "just put me out of my misery right now, I am beaten down. But I do want to live." So that's what "Cure Me or Kill Me" was about.
: And what about the writing and recording of "Tijuana Jail"? That was another song that Slash played on from that album.
: Yeah. "Tijuana Jail" was a fun one. That was a song I had before that. I was playing in my band Kill for Thrills before I joined Guns N' Roses. I hadn't made any record or anything, but I had it at that time.
That song was about a time when a bunch of us went down to Mexico for a party week, and it got a little bit too drunk. We actually got thrown in jail.
The ending I embellished a little bit, but it was a surreal experience down there. We didn't know what was going to happen when we went down there - we were just doing what everybody does when they go down to Tijuana, just getting drunk. I don't even remember a single thing that we did to get thrown in jail, but we did.
And the saying, "Send my love to my home, my mail to the Tijuana jail" actually came from when I was watching a baseball game and a guy hit a home run, and the announcer said, "Send my mail to the Tijuana jail!" as the home run went out. I went, "Oh, my God, that's really good," and I wrote that down as I was writing that song.
: Looking back, what would you say is your favorite out of all the solo albums that you've released?
: Pawnshop Guitars
. It was a record that was in
me. Very rarely do you get to make a record where it comes out the way you thought it was going to, where what you heard in your head is what you end up with. If somebody ever asked me, "Gilby, what kind of musician are you? What do you do? I don't understand what you do," I would just give them that record and go, "This is me, these are my songs. It's the way my guitar sounds, it's the way I sing, it's the way I write." That record for me is very complete.
I've made lots of records in my day, but that was the one that I'm very proud of. It just kind of all rolled together.
: Fans who were clamoring for a Guns N' Roses album in the mid to-late '90s, they could listen to Pawnshop Guitars
and also the first Slash album, and get that experience.
: You're right. I mean, as far as my perception and Slash's perception. [Laughing] Those two records were as close to the direction we were going. But, Greg, I also always said, "Look, there are things out there where people have said, you know, Axl didn't like my songwriting ability." But I could always say, "Look, dude, this is just my version of the song." You put Slash and Axl and Duff and all those people into those songs and they can go to a whole 'nother level. That's just my contribution.
: What are some memories of the recording of The Spaghetti Incident?
: The Spaghetti Incident?
, some of it was recorded while we were on the road, so they booked a studio and sometimes we'd go into the studio not even knowing what song we were recording until we were on our way. When we recorded "Since I Don't Have You," I didn't know we were recording that song until I got to the studio. We jammed that song a couple of times at soundchecks, and I was like, "Well, if we're going to do it slow like that, my contribution is acoustic guitar." I'm all the acoustics on it, because I liked what Slash was doing and I didn't want to get in his way putting an electric guitar just for the sake of putting a rhythm guitar on it. I wanted to complement it. That's why a song like that I played acoustic: because I didn't want to mess around with that melody.
A lot of the stuff also was recorded when they were doing the Illusion
records, which I had no part of. They recorded some of them before I got there.
A lot of people think I erased Izzy's parts. That's actually not true. Izzy didn't play on a lot of them, so I got to just put my parts on songs that were recorded. So it was a little bit of both. It was a little bit working with Mike Clink [The Spaghetti Incident?
co-producer], just myself and him, and then some of it was the whole band in there recording together.
Which, by the way, was very easy. At that point we had been playing live for a long time and we were definitely clicking. One of the things about a band is knowing your part, knowing what you do. Everybody had their gig in that band: Slash was lead, I played rhythm, Duff and Matt knew what to do. We knew how it would work with each other, so it actually was fairly easy to record with those guys. There were never click tracks - Matt was always on time. It was a lot easier than one would think.
: And with those covers, did you have a hand in picking out any of those songs or were they selected prior to you coming aboard?
: Well, yeah. I actually did. I suggested a T. Rex song. When we were first doing it, it was supposed to be like a punk rock covers record. That was what I was told. But then it just kind of became a covers record, and I did suggest T. Rex. Back then I was wearing a T. Rex T-shirt, like, every single day. Matt used to joke, "Okay, we got it, we got it. You've worn the shirt every day."
I didn't pick the song that we did, I just suggested doing a T. Rex song. I wanted to do "20th Century Boy" or "Children of the Revolution" or something. I don't know who came up with the song that we did ["Buick Mackane"]. And I did make the comment about the Nazareth tune ["Hair of the Dog
"], because I always thought Axl sounded like the singer of Nazareth. Not even knowing that the band actually played that song way before I got in the band. It was a unanimous choice to do the Nazareth tune.
: It's funny that you talk about that song by T. Rex, because I'm a huge T. Rex fan. I totally agree with you - I don't think that's T. Rex's best song.
: Yeah. It wouldn't have been my choice. I think it was the only song that Slash ever actually sang on. He did a lot of background vocals. He was very excited about that.
: Would you agree that T. Rex's Marc Bolan was also a great songwriter in his day, as well?
: I 100 percent agree. He was one of my personal guitar heroes. When I was young and just getting my chops together and seeing what kind of music I liked, I first heard a T. Rex song, I honestly don't remember what it was, but I'm pretty sure it was "Slider." I had never used the word "sexy" with a man before, and when I heard his voice and his guitar playing, I was just like, "That is who I want to be and that's what I want to sound like." It was like blues bass guitar playing, but he had his own original sound, which is so impossible to come up with. And his voice, I mean, you hear a T. Rex/Marc Bolan song and you immediately know it's him playing guitar and singing. And to me, getting an identity as a musician is one of the hardest things to do. That's what makes him so special.
: What do you remember about G n' R's recording of "Sympathy for the Devil
"? I remember hearing somewhere that band members said they could sense that that was the ending for the band. Did you have a sense that that was either the ending or the beginning of the end for the band right there?
: I might say yes and no on that. I wasn't that involved with the "Sympathy for the Devil" recording - they did that while I was on the road touring for my solo record.
I knew that that was the ending because nobody told me about it. Officially I was in the band at that time, and they did that song without me. That was one of the last straws for me, because nobody had said anything to me and they recorded a song by one of my favorite bands. It was pretty clear I'm a big Stones fan, and they recorded the song without me. So I knew that was it.
My official end was actually at the last show of the last tour. Axl was jokingly saying "Bye" to everybody, but he was really saying "Bye" to everybody. He even came up to me and said, "Hey, enjoy your last show." At that point I thought he was being funny, but he wasn't being funny. He knows what he's doing. He's a smart guy. So I knew it was the end at the last show.
For two seasons (2005-2006), TV viewers tuned in to the program Rock Star to see the ongoing "tryout process" of a suitable singer for two different bands. Season one saw INXS looking for a replacement for the late Michael Hutchence, while season two featured the formation of an all-star band (comprised of Gilby, Jason Newsted, and Tommy Lee), who were searching for a worthy front person. INXS wound up enlisting a chap by the name of J.D. Fortune, while Gilby's group (named Rock Star: Supernova - the same as the show) gave the nod to a gentleman by the name of Lukas Rossi. However, both unions proved to be short-lived, lasting only one album each.
: Now that it's been a few years since your Rock Star: Supernova
experience, what exactly are your thoughts on that and also the album?
: Well, I still stick with how I felt back then. When I got involved with it, I got involved for all the right reasons: I actually wanted to get in a new band. I wanted to start a new project with people that I respected. And seeing what Slash, Duff, and Matt went through to find a new singer for their project... I don't know if they remember this, but it was years they were looking for a singer before they found Scott [Weiland] for Velvet Revolver. When this idea came up, I was all gung ho. I was like, "Wow, maybe we can find a new young singer out there." Look, like most rock & roll guys, I'm not a fan of American Idol
. But to me this was a chance for these young singers to get up there and sing their own song. You don't have to do a cover song, you have the opportunity to sing your own song if you want to. So I was very supportive of that.
I do realize that rock & roll and TV aren't the best mix out there, and I really am old-school about stuff like that. So I knew that we were taking some chances. But yes, years later, I do think it was worth it. Of course, it didn't go the way I was hoping it should go. The record is okay; I did try to make a really good record. There were just so many forces against me, fighting me to make a really good record. It was an experience. I am glad that I went through it, but it certainly didn't turn out the way I hoped it would.
: Okay. And lastly, what are your thoughts on the Chinese Democracy
: I think it's a very good record. I don't think it's a great record. Here's what I think is very good about it: I still think that there's a lot of creativity on it. I think there's some really good songwriting. I think Axl delivered some incredible vocal performances. There's great lyrics, there's great performances.
What I missed about that being called a Guns N' Roses record is the identity. You hear Slash play guitar, it doesn't matter if he was playing a Stratocaster and a Vox, you can tell that's Slash. And that's what I miss on this record is that consistent identity with Axl, that guitar, that one guitar that really complements him. There's some great guitar playing on the record, it's just a little hard to concentrate on it. It's almost like a pinball machine: there's just so much going on. You can't say it's bad, because it's all very good, it's just there's a lot going on on that record, and it's kind of hard to concentrate.
October 9, 2013. Get more at gilbyclarke.com.