Velvet Revolver: A pair of guns for hire

Velvet Revolver are better than Guns N' Roses. Who says? Slash and Duff McKagan, for starters. They talk to Fiona Sturges
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The Independent Culture

Three battle-scarred veterans of the Eighties rock group Guns N' Roses, an ex-Stone Temple Pilot and a former member of Suicidal Tendencies, now known to a whole new generation of fans as Velvet Revolver, are standing outside the Athenaeum Hotel, in Piccadilly, central London, flanked by an ever-expanding retinue of wives, girlfriends, managers and photographers.

The singer Scott Weiland, the drummer Matt Sorum, the bassist Duff McKagan and the guitarists Slash and Dave Kushner are running 45 minutes late for their hotly awaited appearance at the Kerrang! awards, where they are due to pick up a prize for the best international act. As passing tourists pull out cameras and autograph-hunters go in for the kill, the band strike the kind of rock'n'roll poses that would make Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel blush. It takes another 15 minutes for their manager to drag them into the gleaming-white Rolls-Royces that will take them to the show.

They seem every inch debauched rock stars, although in the past decade the members of Velvet Revolver have undergone some radical lifestyle-changes. After long periods in rehab, the ex-Gunners Sorum, McKagan and Slash have kicked their drug habits (of the band, Slash is the only one who still drinks) and, with two children each, are avowed family men. Only Weiland, who walked out of the 25 million-selling Stone Temple Pilots after a backstage scrap two years ago, remains a potential cause for concern. His heroin addiction has already led to five arrests and a spell in jail; a more recent charge of driving under the influence led a Los Angeles judge to sentence him to six months of drug counselling and three years' probation.

Perhaps understandably, Weiland has taken a vow of silence when it comes to journalists (the only time he speaks in my presence is to ask if anyone has seen his eyeliner). So it's left to Slash and McKagan to speak for the band, which they do with a kindliness and warmth rare among musicians, particularly the leather-clad, hard-rocking, millionaire kind.

Blond and hollow-cheeked, with pipe-cleaner legs, the 40-year-old McKagan looks like a cartoonist's idea of a rock star. The dark circles under his eyes speak of the years of abuse that culminated in his pancreas "exploding" on 10 May 1994. "That was not a good day," he says, swigging non-alcoholic lager. "I came very close to dying and I saw the things you see when that happens. I was floating above my body, looking down at myself in hospital. My mom, who had Parkinson's, was there with me. To see her sitting there in a wheelchair and seeing all these tubes coming out of me, it was like, 'What the hell have you done?' I felt ashamed. The doctors said to me, 'If you drink or take drugs again, you're going to die.'"

In contrast, the 39-year-old Slash is the picture of health - something of a miracle, given that he has been taken to hospital to be revived on at least three occasions. He, too, is disarmingly forthcoming about his past. "Sure, I died," he shrugs. "It was pretty stupid. I've done a lot of stupid things, but I've gotten away with a lot, too. Whatever's happened, I always wake up, so I figure someone's up there looking out for me.

"Obviously I'm a lot more aware of the consequences of my actions now, especially now I've got kids. You won't find me down in the basement with a needle hanging out of my arm any more. I'm prepared to admit I'm still a heavy drinker, but it's nothing compared with what I used to be."

Velvet Revolver came together in 2002 after Slash, Sorum and McKagan were asked to appear at a tribute concert at the Key Club in Hollywood for the recently deceased Mötley Crüe drummer Randy Castillo. When news of their brief reunion got out, the gig sold out in minutes.

On stage, the chemistry was "too powerful to ignore", McKagan says. The trio decided to start a band. Having been hired to write the song "Set Me Free" for the film The Hulk, they embarked on a search for a singer. After eight months of auditions, Slash says, he had all but given up. "Perhaps naively, we were waiting for that magical moment when the right person just walks in the door. At that point, Scott showed up. I hadn't met him before but, ridiculous as it sounds, I knew immediately he was what was missing. He was the first person we saw who had that genuine rock'n'roll voice."

Slash accepts that, to outsiders, Weiland seemed like a liability to a group of rehabilitated addicts. "We had to go through a lot with Scott. He was in the worst period of his life when this thing started, and he needed support from all of us. He was at a point where he'd lost his wife, he'd lost his kids, and he was completely strung out. But he managed to get through it. He was dedicated to writing and rehearsing and, on top of that, getting clean. When the dust cleared, we'd established a solid vibe. I don't see Scott going off the deep end. Right now he's doing really well and he's accomplished so much. He's also got a lot of things depending on his being present."

Certainly, Weiland brings an element of danger to a band that might have been viewed as a group of middle-aged rockers dining out on past glories. In true self-mythologising fashion, the video to "Falling to Pieces" documents Weiland's spectacular fall from grace and presents the band as his path to salvation.

"This band is salvation for all of us," Slash says. "I hate to sound clichéd, but we're the kind of people who sold our souls to this thing a long time ago, and there's no giving up. It's rare to have a chemistry like this. What we have is hard to find once, let alone a second time. We're very appreciative of that now, particularly after all the shit we've been through."

Both McKagan and Slash reject the notion that Velvet Revolver will always be compared with Guns N' Roses. "If we are, that's cool, because that's where we come from," Slash says. "But so far we've been standing up on our own pretty well. The more we've played live, the less we suffer from that. We've discovered from the guy that sells our T-shirts that our fans are pretty young; he says 95 per cent are kids who would never have seen Guns N' Roses. One bunch of kids I was signing autographs for didn't even know what Guns N' Roses was. Much as I'm proud of what we did before, that is pretty cool."

In the late Eighties, Guns N' Roses, led by the irascible singer Axl Rose, ruled rock. Their swaggering debut, Appetite for Destruction, confirmed them as the most deadly, dissolute band since the Stones. Riots often broke out at stadium shows, while the legends of their extracurricular activities were rivalled only by those of their fellow LA rockers Mötley Crüe in depravity.

The controlling and increasingly paranoid Rose proved the band's undoing. By 1996, he'd fired Sorum, Slash, McKagan and the guitarist Izzy Stradlin. Although Rose still tours under the Guns N' Roses moniker, with an ever-changing cast, and is reported to have spent millions on recording a third album, there has been no new material for a decade. Slash is reluctant to discuss his current relationship with Rose, although he will describe him as "irretrievably impossible. A lot of drinking ensued because of the way he behaved, especially during tours."

McKagan, who once subsisted on two litres of vodka a day, looks back at his years with Rose and company with a mix of pride and regret. "It was an amazing experience and I wouldn't have missed it for the world, but, let me tell you, the drugs is a sad goddam story. Your main focus besides the gig is calling some sleazeball in the next city, to make sure he scores for you.

"And you have to keep that up or you're gonna get sick. That's the position I was in for the last few years of Guns. Just panicking to get enough dope to get me through. I went into some fucked-up places. Here I was, in this band about to play a giant stadium in New York, and I was up in Harlem by myself scoring smack from some guy who, for all I knew, was getting ready to kill me."

In the mid-Nineties, Slash started his own band, Slash's Snakepit, in which he revealed his love of the Seventies rock bands Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin. McKagan made two solo albums: the first was released on Geffen, but the second was shelved in a record-company merger. In 1998, he and his wife moved to Seattle, where - to everyone's surprise, not least his own - he took a degree in finance.

"After I finished rehab, I needed to find ways to fill my time, so I started going through the financial statements of Guns from the previous four years," McKagan says. "I couldn't make sense of them, so I thought it might be a good idea to go back to school and learn how it all worked."

Then Microsoft offered McKagan a job. Was he tempted? "Sure I was," he replies. "You always want what you don't have, and I thought that would be very interesting. But then I got another opportunity, to be in a killer band with a bunch of old friends. In the end, it was no contest."

There were, of course, the naysayers who predicted that lightning couldn't strike twice, and that this collection of ex-junkies were too old and damaged to begin all over again. Certainly, few could have predicted that Velvet Revolver would have sold 250,000 copies of their album Contraband in its first week in the States, overtaking the combined sales of the recently released Guns N' Roses and Stone Temple Pilots greatest-hits compilations. The band have now sold two million worldwide, and their forthcoming single "Fall to Pieces" is predicted to top the UK charts despite little radio play.

"Since the day this thing started, we've heard a lot of people saying it wouldn't work. But they're falling by the wayside pretty quickly," McKagan says. "We didn't have these huge ambitions. It wasn't about trying to top what we did before. Nobody can top Guns N' Roses.

"That was an anomaly, it was a freakish thing that happened and the whole world caught on. It's a more talented band that we have now, much more talented than Guns ever was. There were Guns nights where it was magic, but we were fucked up half the time. No, 99 per cent of the time. As players we weren't really maximising our potential. So, as far as aggression and talent are concerned, this is a much better band. I don't know if another band will ever achieve the kind of world domination Guns N' Roses managed. But if they do, it's going to be us."

The album 'Contraband' is out now on BMG. The single 'Falling to Pieces' is out on 11 October

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