Incredibly, it's already been a decade since Slash, Featuring Myles Kennedy, and Conspirators released their debut album—the landmark Apocalyptic Love.' Ever since, the band—which, in addition to Slash and singer Myles Kennedy also includes bassist Todd Kerns, drummer Brent Fitz and rhythm guitarist Frank Sidoris—has been on one of the more impressive and unrelenting tears in rock 'n' roll of recent times. Back with the equally impressive '4,' we catch up with one of the most iconic and recognisable guitar players of all time, as Jonathan Graham talks to Slash.
For Slash, Featuring Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators, Living the Dream is much more than just a catchy album title. From multiple highly-acclaimed records to rocking sold-out venues all over the world, this act can clearly do no wrong. However, for all they've achieved and everywhere they've gone, when it comes to this band, there are always new musical boundaries to push and fresh creative avenues to explore. Enter '4,' the brand-new and highly anticipated studio effort from SMKC. True to the band's expanding legacy, it's everything you've come to expect from Slash, Myles, Todd, Brent and Frank... but also unlike anything you've heard from them yet.
This time out, Slash says, they captured a certain "magic" –the sound of five musicians and bandmates listening to and playing off one another in the spirit of live, in-the-moment collaboration. "It has a very spontaneous, fun kind of thing to it, and I love that," Slash says of '4.' "That's really the major difference on this record –we did it more or less live, and the mistakes are all in there. It's the sound of the five of us just jamming together in one room." Of course, he continues, "you can make an amazing album by recording the bass and drums and putting the guitars on later and all that. But when you can capture that live rock 'n' roll spirit?It makes the whole thing really special." And make no mistake: '4' is special.
The album kicks off with the six-string clarion call of Slash's Gibson Les Paul, which cuts through the mix like a siren forewarning what's to come–in this case, opening track "The River is Rising," one of the band's toughest and most dynamic compositions to date. Unravelling via a menacing, tightly coiled riffs and deep-in-the-pocket groove, the song builds to a trademark SMKC widescreen chorus, featuring Kennedy's vocals riding over waves of guitar melody before stopping on a dime to break into a furious double-time instrumental sprint—with Slash's frenzied, nimble solo racing above, around, alongside and within his bandmates' full-throttle rhythm gallop.
"It grabs you right out of the gate," Slash says. And from the chunky, deliberate stomp of "Whatever Gets You By" to the slinky grooves and talk box-drenched guitar hooks of "C'est La Vie," the anthemic swell of "The Path Less Followed" to the cowbell-inflected boogie-shake of "Actions Speak Louder Than Words," and the grimy Aerosmith-Esque funk of "April Fool" to the rampaging attack of "Call Off the Dogs," '4' never let's go.
To be sure, this is SMKC like you've never heard them before. Need more evidence? See, for starters, the exotica-tinged "Spirit Love," which is introduced by a snaky Slash single-note theme played on an electric sitar (but don't worry –it's still run through "a Marshall at full blast," Slash assures) and then erupts into a psychedelic fever dream fueled by a crushing, circular riff. Says Kennedy, "Every time I hear the song, I see, like, a cobra dancing in front of a snake charmer."
Or, on the other end of the sonic spectrum, the bright-toned pop-rocker "Fill My World," a heart-on-sleeve love song –even if, Kennedy admits, it's a love song about his dog –that blooms with irresistible major-key melodies and one of Slash's most liquid and expressive solos to date. Or album closer "Fall Back to Earth," a six-minute "epic," to use Slash's word, awash in cinematic soundscapes and dramatic tonal shifts and anchored by an indelible, at this point practically trademark, Slash guitar hook.
Throughout, '4' hits on a wide range of sounds, styles and moods and does it all with laser-sharp musical focus and a lightning-in-a-bottle sense of immediacy. "Everybody went into with the mindset of, 'Okay, the red button's being pressed, the tape machine is rolling. Just do your best and don't screw up!'" Kennedy says with a laugh. He likens the process to creating a sonic snapshot: "You're documenting a moment in time and letting things kind of fall where they may. It's a different approach, but a very human one." That "different approach" is just one of several ways SMKC changed things up this time out. Whereas the band recorded their previous two records in L.A. with Michael "Elvis" Baskette, for '4', they opted to relocate to Nashville to work with Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb, known for helming rock and country projects from the likes of Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Rival Sons, and Shooter Jennings, among others.
"Dave and I had this great conversation where we talked about (famed producer and engineer) Glyn Johns, recording live, spontaneity and first and second takes —all this stuff that's right up my alley," Slash says. "Based on that conversation, I said, 'Let's do this.'" The experience was, Slash continues, "really unique." For starters, he says, "we had to get to Nashville during the pandemic, and safely. So, I figured, 'Well, we'll just take a tour bus.' Which was an adventure unto itself." Kennedy picks up the story. "We were trying to be really careful given that things were still pretty risky. So, we met up in Las Vegas, and before we got on the bus, we all got tested. Then when we got off the bus in Nashville, we tested again. Before we stepped through the studio doors, we tested again. We had all these protocols in place."
The sessions for '4,' which took place in Nashville's legendary RCA Studio A—"it's this huge, historical room that used to be Chet Atkins' studio," Slash says, "I remember the day before we went in, one of Dave Cobb's assistant engineers said, "Oh, you guys will be recording by tomorrow night,'" Kennedy recalls. "And I was like, really?" Really. "That first day, we came in, lined the backline up with a couple of baffles and started recording live, just like that," Slash says. "We recorded two songs a day –vocals, guitars, bass and drums–and we kept everything. Dave, just let us do our thing." Within a week, the band had roughly 90% of the music recorded. But everything came to a screeching halt when Kennedy tested positive for Covid-19.
"I was the first to go down," the singer says. In short order, Kerns, Fitz and one of the house engineers followed suit. "We were staying in an Airbnb in Nashville, and everybody had to go into quarantine," Slash recalls. "And I was sitting there going, 'Maybe I should check into a hotel?' But I wasn't going to abandon my band just because they got sick." Instead, they simply moved the sessions to the Airbnb. "I ended up having to finish three of the vocals – 'Spirit Love,' 'Whatever Gets You By', and 'Fall Back to Earth' in the pool house," Kennedy says. "I tracked my vocals on my laptop, and then Todd came in and did all the backing vocals there, too. Then we sent the files to Dave at the studio."
Slash, for his part, finished up guitar overdubs at RCA Studio. And despite his best efforts, he eventually tested positive for Covid as well. In fact, Sidoris was the only Conspirator who managed to escape infection. "So, I sent him home," Slash says, then laughs. "I was like, 'You don't have anything else to do anyway; get out of here. Stay away from this godforsaken place!'" He continues, "It really was this whole crisis period. But we all went through it together, so in a way, it was also a great bonding experience." That experience is reflected, quite forthrightly, in the sound of '4.' "When I listen to a song like 'The River is Rising,' by that point I was starting to get pretty sick," Kennedy says. "You can hear it in my voice, how congested I was. But that's part of what I think is really interesting about this record. We just let those imperfections lay. Because it's all part of the story." It's a story that, ten years in, only continues to progress. "The thing about this group is it started out in one place, and it's evolved ever since," Slash says. "And just when it seems like it's reaching a certain place, without really giving it much thought, we'll get together and naturally move on to another place from there."
This is certainly evident with '4.' "I feel like in a lot of ways it's a continuation of what we do, but because of the way that it was recorded, it's also a progression," Kennedy says. "The songs were being captured and viewed through a different prism that helped redefine the sound." And keep going; they will. "I think we're all kind of amazed and pleasantly surprised that after a decade, we're still making records, and we're all still in it," Kennedy continues. "But that's because we do love what we're doing, and we really do like each other." He laughs. "It may not be as exciting as watching people fistfight onstage, but it's certainly something where people know that we're in it for the long haul."
Slash concurs. "The Conspirators is just such a simple, easy band, and it's been like that from its inception. It's a band where everybody just wants to get together and play, and there's really not a lot of other stuff that gets in the way. We get the material together, and we go for it, and once a run's over, then we go and do other things."
"But we always come back to it," Slash continues, "because we love making these records and doing the tours and going out and having a really good time. And as low pressure as that is, it's also super, super important to have that. We do it, and it's fun. And that's why we'll continue to do it."
Slash breaks down '4' track by track.
"The River is Rising"
SLASH: There are two or three songs on the record that were written during the pandemic; everything else was written before. "The River is Rising" was one of the last songs I wrote before we started pre-production, and because it was just so fresh and it had a certain groove and energy to it, it was the first thing we really attacked. It's actually the newest song on the record. As for the double-time part, that was something that I came up with and tagged onto the end of the arrangement. Then when we were over at RCA, Dave Cobb suggested we do it right after the breakdown. So, we went straight into the fast part, and I just started doing the guitar solo over it. It was one of those things where we were jamming around, trying to fish out the arrangement, and it just happened.
"Whatever Gets You By"
SLASH: I love the riff –it's one of my favourite things on the record. And the arrangements are really very simple. I had the riff, and I kept playing it and playing it, and when I went in to record a demo, the next change spontaneously came out, and that's what the chorus ended up being. Just making it up on the spot and going, "Oh, that works." But it was really all about the groove and getting that sort of greasy, heavy stomp thing going. And that was it. It came together super-fast after that.
"C'est La Vie"
SLASH: "C'est La Vie" is one that I remember from soundchecks–it might have been in Australia, I'm not sure. But I had that main opening riff, and it all came together –the verse, the chord changes, the bridge part –just jamming for an hour at soundchecks before every gig. When it came time to do the demo, it really followed the lines of what the arrangement was out on the road. Then when we actually went in to record it, I'd had this idea of doing the opening riff with a talkbox, although I hadn't actually ever done it that way. But when we started pre-production, I just put it on there, and that's what you hear on the record.
"The Path Less Followed."
SLASH: It's the oldest piece of music on the record. We must have started playing that riff at some point during World on Fire–at least, I was playing it. The chord progression is really three chords that are transposed differently, but it allows for a certain kind of melody even though it's the same three chords repeating over and over again. I had that part forever, and I wouldn't let it go, but I never really got past those three chords. Finally, at some point during the last Conspirators tour, we developed the verses, and then during the pandemic, sitting around at home, I started to put together a real arrangement. I made a demo, sent it to Myles, and we got the song done.
"Actions Speak Louder Than Words"
SLASH: It's a pretty simple, straight-ahead rock 'n' roll song, but the bridge is totally left field. The song is something that was written at soundcheck, with all of us just sort of jamming and me coming up with stuff by playing off the other guys. On the record, it's one of two songs I didn't play on a Les Paul –I used a Gibson '69 Reissue Flying V that I got for Christmas one year. I also used that guitar with the talkbox on "C'est La Vie." The guitar sounds really, really good, and it's a little bit cleaner than my regular Les Pauls. I love the way it sounds on the solo on this one.
SLASH: That's one of the newer pandemic songs. The riff itself was just a direct result of the frustration of being stuck and not being able to do anything for an extended period of time. And the intro was influenced by the main riff as well. It has almost a Middle Eastern kind of feel or flavour to it. I wrote it on guitar, but when I went in to record it, I pulled out an electric sitar to play it at the beginning. Normally I don't pull out that sitar because it can be very cliché sounding, but it seemed appropriate for this one. And we put it through a Marshall at full blast, so it sounds a little like it's almost dying.
"Fill My World"
SLASH: Musically, I came up with it at my studio. It was just the opening riff, and then the underlying chord changes started to come out in my mind. I wasn't really sure if I was going to pursue it or not, but I had to record it and make a demo. I thought I didn't know what the guys were gonna think... Because it has a certain sentimental kind of feel to it. But I sent it to Myles, and he came back with this really heartfelt lyric. I thought it was about all the loss we've been suffering during this dark period, and then he told me it was about his dog. [laughs] I said, "Well, you know, everybody has had somebody that they love affected by this, so..."
SLASH: Another one that I think goes back to the Living the Dream album tour. It's a cool riff, but it took a while to put together. I've got a lot of tapes of us jamming it at soundchecks without knowing where to go after a certain point. But then, when I got home and put together an arrangement, it was actually pretty easy. And it really came together when we went into the studio. This is one of the songs that DaveCobbhad a definite impact on. Certain key elements were missing in the demo, arrangement-wise, and he just went, "We'll connect that right there..." And I was like, "Oh, yeah, that's a good idea!" [laughs] Sometimes, you just need that other person that you can trust musically. And if they have an idea, you can't be too precious to try it.
"Call Off the Dogs"
SLASH: This one was written pretty much on the fly and in the spirit of the energy of the whole project. You can't overthink something like this because it kills the spirit. When we got into pre-production, it came together fairly quickly –just jam it, and that's basically it. And I think it was probably the last thing that we recorded in the studio.
"Fall Back to Earth"
SLASH: After one of the Guns tour legs was over, I went on safari in South Africa. I took a guitar with me, and one night I came up with the opening melody to this one. So, the lick came first, but I had to figure out where to go with it from there. Then during the Living the Dreamtourthat we had after that, I came up with the verse, and Myles had some great ideas for that. There was also a guitar melody part, which initially was going to be an instrumental part, but it ended up being the chorus. There were all these different pieces, but they seemed to relate to the same thing. The song really came together in Nashville. We fleshed it out, and there were harmony parts and things that just happened spontaneously in the studio. I hadn't actually planned them, and they weren't on the demo, but I did them while Dave Cobb was in the bathroom.[laughs] He came back. And I'd worked out this whole harmony and everything. So, it took me a minute to figure out where the song was going to go, but I'm really happy with the way it came out.
Slash feat. Myles Kennedy and The Conspirators '4' Tracklist:
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