Slash is not hard to miss. Not because of his fondness for flamboyant headgear and penchant for wearing aviator sunglasses, but because he is simply the coolest dude in the room.
This becomes apparent when I meet the 53-year-old rocker in a hotel suite, a day before he strapped on his guitar for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix After-race Concert to a capacity crowd of 40,000 with Guns N' Roses. He is kitted out in the rock uniform of black shirt and jeans. The signature top hat has been replaced by a baseball cap which does just enough to contain his flowing curls. His shades successfully hide the weariness of his two-year touring schedule. The creases on his face tell the tale of a body on the mend after being pushed to its limit.
Funnily enough, as we sit down to chat it appears there is one thing that needs to be taken care of before we get down to business.
"Where is the coffee?" Slash asks pointedly. When it arrives his first sip indicates that our chat can now begin. With that, his manager and Polynesian bodyguard Kimo quietly leave the room – a rarity for a star of this magnitude. As Slash explains it, whether it is working with mercurial musicians such as Guns N' Roses frontman Axl Rose and the late Michael Jackson or chatting with journalists like me, the rocker prefers everyone to be comfortable. "I don't take myself all that seriously … if anybody I start to work with has a preconceived notion or some sort of idea in their mind about where I'm coming from because of what they read about me, I just sort of break all that down," he says.
“It’s not what I would call a conscious effort, but I definitely don’t want to make an error in that I’m anything bigger than the other person I’m with. You know what I mean?”
'I just love what I do'
Absolutely, but the man is still Slash and I wasn't about to invite him for a card game on his day off, so it's ultra professional all the way. Slash is a workaholic, which is just as well because despite making his way to the rock summit when it comes to record sales – he's sold more than 100 million albums with Guns N' Roses alone – and his rock legend status undisputed, he still has a lot to say but there is a stipulation that the questions for our interview focus on his solo career. You can't blame him because amid the band's present record-breaking stadium tour, Slash released the riff-tastic album, Living the Dream, with Myles Kennedy and The Conspirators.
Led by the swaggering single Driving Rain, the September release had Slash once again teaming up with vocalist Kennedy (of Alter Bridge fame) for another, seductive dose of dark and driving rock 'n' roll.
Although Slash admits the album's title is more a sardonic reflection on the world today, it is worth asking if, three decades on, he feels his career has plateaued from a dream come true to what is now just a lucrative job?
“I am one of the rare people you’ll meet that’s been doing this for as long as I have that loves it as wholeheartedly and as deeply as I did when I first picked up the guitar,” he says. “I just love what I do, and I continue to do it to the hilt, because I love being on the road. I love being in the studio. I love playing every night.”
That work ethic, he says, has held him in good stead throughout his career. After acrimoniously quitting Guns N' Roses back in 1996 – only to return to the fold two decades later – Slash didn't succumb to any creative block. He simply got on with it and formed a new band, Slash's Snakepit, before finding chart success with Velvet Revolver. The disillusion of the latter group, partly due to singer Scott Weiland's spiralling substance abuse that eventually took his life, led Slash to waste no time in setting up his next project with Myles Kennedy and The Conspirators.
“I’m sort of a busybody,” he says. “I’m a little bit of a workaholic where I love to be busy, absorbed in whatever it is that I’m doing, and I get into a lot of different stuff.”
Yet, despite the various projects and singers enlisted to deliver his songwriting talents, Slash says the creative process hasn't changed over the years.
He has worked with an eclectic array of vocal talents. From Axl's howling style for Guns N' Roses and Weiland's elastic voice for Velvet Revolver, to Kennedy's soaring takes with The Conspirators, Slash says he doesn't write with a particular voice in mind. Instead, he focuses on recording riffs while on the road before fleshing them out with his various bands upon his return.
When it comes to Kennedy, it is the singer’s melodic nous that gets Slash excited. “He always comes up with something that’s uniquely different to what I might have imagined for a particular part,” he says. “So, I don’t even bother doing that any more. I just let him run with it.”
Indeed, Kennedy's expansive vocals – equally at home on the ferocious rocker The Call of the Wild to the gothic blues of Lost Inside the Girl – allow the album to be one of Slash's most dynamic offerings yet.
Rock music is in a healthy place
More important to Slash than its strong sales – the album topped the United States rock charts upon its release – is that it was created solely for the love of the craft.
With rock 'n' roll not being part of the musical mainstream any more, Slash says it has allowed him and a new generation of bands to focus on creating music without the disruption of fame and subsequent excesses. Slash knows all about the latter. A once chronic drinker and substance abuser, he has been sober since 2005 after surviving a harrowing battle with congestive heart failure, which resulted in him having a defibrillator fitted.
“I think rock ’n’ roll has become a place that is really healthy. Young artists that are coming out now have to get rid of the whole myth of the rock star thing – the money, and the limousines. All that used to be a huge lure to kids,” he says.
“And it’s not like that now. It’s like you really have to be super-passionate. You have to work really hard for it, and you have to build up an audience, and even then you don’t know if you’re ever going to be able to get a record deal, because it’s just the way the business is now.”
Although Slash joined a rock band in an era when record sales mattered and labels had lavish budgets to fund recording sessions, you get the sense that this was a merely a fortunate coincidence.
Born Saul Hudson, Slash was brought into the world in north London to an African-American mother, Ola, a costume designer for the likes of David Bowie and Joni Mitchell, and English artist father Anthony Hudson. His dad designed album art for records by Crosby, Stills & Nash and Neil Young. Slash grew up in a creatively fertile atmosphere but was hampered by his parents' divorce when he was 9 years old. He was in his fourth year of living in Los Angeles at the time, and it was this period that saw Slash bandied around from his mother to his grandmother's house if his mother was working.
A "reserved child", Slash says he handled the instability by riding his bike and eventually learning to play the guitar. "When you put on a guitar, that is the biggest form of expression for me. So, without that, I'm not much of a thrill, or an outspoken type of individual. But with a guitar, I can say a lot of stuff," he says. "I'm still not real good with the interface kind of thing."
That shy streak is there for all to see during Slash’s live performances. He often stands right of stage, with his face shrouded in a top hat and sunglasses – something he describes as a psychological curtain drawn between him and the crowd.
Abu Dhabi Grand Prix:
"I'm definitely in my own space. When I'm playing, that's when I feel probably the most comfortable and probably the most myself," he says. "While there is the energy that you're feeding off of the audience, I do have a real problem actually looking into the audience. So I do find myself playing in a kind of private little world."
It is for this reason that Slash will probably never retire. With the guitar being his preferred mode of communication, coupled with good health and his aversion to small talk, we can expect those riffs to keep coming for a while yet. I ask him if there is anything more he can actually say after a celebrated career that has had him conjure all sorts of memorable sounds from six strings.
“The guitar is the kind of thing that’s just a never-ending journey,” he says. “It’s definitely something that knows no boundaries. It’s only limited by the user’s limitations. You know what I’m saying? There are endless possibilities on it. So, it’ll always be a source of fascination for me.”
Living the Dream by Slash, featuring Myles Kennedy and The Conspirators, is out now through Warner Music Middle East