At this point, it's easy for the surprisingly soft-spoken guitar god to muster optimism. His combustible group, Velvet Revolver (featuring his former Guns N' Roses bandmates Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum as well as guitarist Dave Kushner and ex-Stone Temple Pilot singer Scott Weiland) just completed its first year on the road, and Contraband, its debut disc, is still spinning off singles, most recently "Dirty Little Thing."
Three years ago, though, Slash was sifting through hundreds of fetid demo-tape auditions, looking for a singer worthy of the serpentine tunes he was writing. Some of the contenders bettered Buckcherry frontman Josh Todd, the F-minus Axl Rose imitator with whom the embryonic Velvet Revolver briefly flirted, but none communicated the grit and emotional gravity these songs demanded. These guys partied themselves into a shallow grave, then emerged alive, their faces still dirtied by a shovelful of topsoil. They needed a world-weary vocalist who shared their hell-and-back itinerary.
Weiland fitted the description perfectly, but he still had a few months left on his lease in Hades. Five days after signing up with Velvet Revolver in May 2003, he was arrested for narcotics possession.
"There was this crazy driving force that kept us at it," Slash says, recalling the group's early trials. "Everyone learned a lot about patience and perseverance."
When Weiland returned, he set lyrics to a lighters-in-the-air number that Slash originally wrote for a short-lived pre-Revolver project. The song became "Fall to Pieces," and Weiland's soaring vocals and redemptive lines cling to Slash's ringing riffs so tightly that it feels like a close creative collaboration instead of a parts-assembled-separately experiment. Weiland worked with the band on 6 of the album's 13 tracks, and it's impossible to tell which evolved organically and which were fused together.
"You Got No Right," a recent addition to Velvet Revolver's set list, might be Contraband's best track. Slash's crystalline guitar tone sets the melancholy mood for Weiland's most intense, anguished vocal performance. In their previous bands, both artists did their best work on slow songs (Slash's transcendent "November Rain" solo, Weiland's morose turns during "Big Empty" and "Creep"), and they still know how to make ballads burn.
The record's fast-paced material, on the other hand, conjures sleazy images, with every driving guitar line simulating a dancer's stripper-pole slide and every bass line soundtracking a groupie's seductive shimmy. Weiland often summons the low-pitched leering persona he popularized in the creepy Stone Temple Pilots hit "Sex Type Thing," which Velvet Revolver occasionally covers live. Lyrically, he ranges from obtusely crude ("Somebody raped my tapeworm abortion/Come on motherfuckers and deliver the cow") to bluntly boorish ("I wanna be your manchild/Let's all go it hog-wild").
Sorum, the only Revolver member who's not sober and faithful to a family, plays with a reckless abandon that reflects his lascivious lifestyle. (He sets up a porno-style party room called "The Velvet Lounge" at every tour stop.) The other members of the group can draw upon their own encyclopedic experience of debauchery, allowing it to sound seedy even in a sterile setting.
"That's just the way we play," Slash says. "It doesn't matter where we are. But we do preproduction in a small studio in Burbank, which is pretty sleazy in itself. There's a definite vibe to it."
Slash eagerly awaits the start of the next Velvet Revolver album, which will begin after the current tour ends in September. He's also looking forward to getting back to the people he poignantly thanks in Contraband's liner notes: his "beautiful and courageous wife," Perla; his "awesome little man," London Emilio; and his "newest little boy," Cash Anthony.
"Whenever I get a chance to see them, I'm always excited," he says. "I look forward to being based out of my house and with them all the time."
Right before Slash's reunion with his family, Velvet Revolver will play a string of August Ozzfest dates. Slash shares his long-haired look and virtuosic flair with the metal heroes of Iron Maiden (which Velvet Revolver will be replacing on the tour for a slew of West Coast dates), but the band operates in a different sphere from those Brit longhairs as well as most of the other hard-and-heavy headbangers on the bill.
"I don't think we've played in front of that kind of audience," he says. " That makes it intriguing. I never feel like I don't fit in, because I'm so used to not fitting in."
Besides, Slash shared a stage earlier this year with Norah Jones, Brian Wilson, and Stevie Wonder, a lineup too bizarre for any festival bill to match. This was during a Grammys performance of the Beatles' "Across the Universe," available the next morning as a charity fund-raiser for tsunami relief. Velvet Revolver won a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance the same evening, but for Slash, "Across the Universe" was the real highlight.
"It was such an overwhelming experience," he says. "It's nice to be recognized, but when we were nominated, that was enough for me."
There's no trophy presentation for the Band That Saved Rock, but plenty of critics have christened Velvet Revolver with that informal title. Slash shrugs off the savior label.
"People say we brought rock and roll back, which is a pretty bold statement," Slash says. "As musicians, we've always been embedded in that kind of music. Hooking up with four other guys who wanted to play genuine, from-the-heart rock and roll was a huge accomplishment, considering the nature of this industry at this point in time. It's amazing to be able to pull this off and open up a lot of kids' minds to a great genre."