Izzy Stradlin: Grand Prix

By Eric Dahan

Rock & Folk Magazine - Apr. 1998

Translated by myself

Edited by @hadnersson



Arriving on Ocean Drive, Marc parks the/his black Stratus in the shade of the palm trees, as to protect it from the huge mirror of the Pacific below. Nothing has changed in Santa Monica since the ‘80s, except the Third Street Promenade. The Ferris Wheel always turns towards the Pier and on the right, the cliffs still house the Getty Museum on the road to Malibu. On this Friday afternoon in February, the beach is deserted. It’s time to cross the street and meet up at the Sheraton, we think back to the insane impact that Guns N’ Roses had here in the late ‘80s until the fatal slip-up opening for the Rolling Stones at the Colosseum. But again, despite Axl’s pointless declarations and outbursts, something was producing invincible rock. A mixture of white-trash degenerates and Midwest melancholy. But there, the circus is good and over and ultimately wasn’t amusing for long. When we learned from the radio that Axl Rose had just made his way to Phoenix, we expect someone to cowardly ask at any moment: Axel who?


We waited for 5 minutes then he entered the hotel room he anonymously reserved for his interview. Then Izzy Stradlin surprises, as he settles into a beige sofa, the simplicity of the sixties. He plays a few country riffs of no song in general, just like the endearing record he just made, between Mexican Country (“Gotta Say”), traces of The Stones ("Bleedin’ ") in “No Expectations” and neo-Ramones punk (“Parasite”), with the everlasting virtuoso of boogie riffs.



ROCKABILLY


Is that a new addition, that guitar?
No, I’ve had it for a while. This is an old 1960s L7 Gibson, it’s easy to play, she sounds nice. There’s a guy in the Valley, his store is called Norms Rare Guitars… he has loads of cool stuff. I buy everything there, it’s good and cheap… I also use a Hummingbird, but this one is more convenient for me to write with, she doesn’t sound as good…


The fact that it sounds dry forces you to write more rigorously, perhaps conventional… So, this record sounds much more rockabilly than the first. Is this a mark of a new chapter or a desire to revisit the classics?
Last year I had delivered to my record company an album with ten songs of pure rock and two instrumentals. But they didn’t like it, so I had to start writing ballads like “Gotta Say” or “Bleedin’ “, but I kept them simple, no keyboards or anything like that.


We wonder if Izzy Stradlin is, in fact, a guitarist brought up on rockabilly that adapted the taste of 80s metal in order to play with Guns, or if he’s a kid from the 80s on a quest for the roots by making a pilgrimage to the source of rock…
In recent years, I have been listening to Reverend Horton Heat and I am really crazy about it. During one of my trips back from Indiana, I started playing it, then since I had to go through LA, I connected with Taz (PatrickTaz Bentley– NdA) who had quit Reverend Horton to come play with me. In rockabilly, I find the same simplicity in the blues, this simple and raw side.


By its minimalistic and repetitive nature, rockabilly is a good artistic expression that’s more modern than the Hard Rock you used to play with Guns N’ Roses…
Reverend Horton made it even more modern. Taz, the drummer, has only one bass drum but he uses two pedals. Today they all do that.



PIZZAS


About “Memphis” on this album, did you discover Chuck Berry while listening to the Stones or does it go back to when you were a child?
No, it’s more of a backwards journey. I went from Keith Richards and got to Gene Vincent.


The very look is almost from the 50s, however, I imagine you were born in the 60s…
Yes, April 8, 1962, in Lafayette… my grandma played the organ at home. She had also played the drums in a swing group. She played “Proud Mary”. My parents, they listened to the Fat Domino and other records… My dad sold insurance but, on the weekend, his pals would come over to listen to records and take shots in the basement. I served them beer and, since I had a drum kit, I asked Clay, a friend of my dad, to teach me Jazz rolls and rock beats. Lately, I’ve been coming back to the drums, I don’t play anymore… There was also a guy who came with a guitar and his amp and he also taught me a lot of stuff. It wasn’t until I arrived in Los Angeles that I switched from the drums to the guitar. When I returned to Indiana, my mom told me: “I have all these records I need to give you” and I said back: “But Mom, what do you want me to do about it? I don’t even have the platinum pick-up anymore” …


As a child, were you attracted to any particular singers or musicians?
I remember that I was fascinated with The Partridge Family on television. I thought it was great, this family who had a group and a van. Then when I was 10, my parents took me to see David Cassidy, as part of a big motorcycle and car race. David Cassidy arrived surrounded by 20 police who got him on stage and the girls began to scream. He had sung nice in playback, the girls raved so much over his sequins and his platform boots and everything he did. Me, I found it a little crazy that he didn’t play with a group and I quickly got into the Monkees. It must have been around the end of the 60s, television was like a drug in Indiana cities. The arrival of FM radio was a revolution, we started to hear music with new strength. In this remote place, who would have imagined tone day the emergence of rock TV like MTV? We discovered “No More Mr. Nice Guy” by Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin, and above all, if you wanted to do something with your life, you had to go to California...


Were you a good student at school?
No, I just excelled in drawing and painting. I always did little cartoons and I still like to copy Al Jaffee’s style, who did all the stuff on the back of MAD.


Did your parents force you to go to church?
Before their divorce, we went a little, but we spent our time watching the clock and humming. I found it so absurd.


And the dope?
I started smoking firecrackers when I was fifteen. At first, it didn’t do anything to me, then three pizzas devoured later, I took coke. I didn’t drink much and did a little acid during my time in high school. We took blue-birds, speed, I had spent all of my high school years completely loaded.


Did the first bands originate from this period of time?
I had a neighbor who played guitar and, since I played drums, we spent our afternoons in my mom’s garage. Anyways, there wasn’t a place to play rock at the time. We had to either play country or the pop hits of that time, not to mention the minimum age to enter clubs was 21 years old. We could’ve played in high schools, we even tried a little but I hated it, it was too depressing, it was a dead end...



MESS


How was the meeting with Axl? Who spotted who first?
When I first met him, I thought he was totally crazy. In fact, my first memory of him goes back to school, I saw him flying out of the classroom door with the teacher at his heels, chasing him down the hallway throwing books at his head. I had a cousin who was popular, a real redneck, who kept hacking on Axl and me because we had long hair. They then built a skateboard park in town which was a fucking event. We were there all the time with our boards. What was funny was that Axl had money and I was always on the street…


It seems like you immediately noticed his potential as a showman.
Yes, when I thought about making a band, I immediately realized that I needed a charismatic singer. He was cool, savage, he was expelled from school, he had plenty of personal problems… We started playing with our guitarist pals things like Ramones, Ted Nugent, and the Beatles, then with two Hungarian brothers, one of whom was totally psychotic and had a similar demeanor to Charles Manson. Axl played the bass. It was weird being together in a living room playing Robert Palmer’s and the Beatles’ songs… Do you want something to drink, water? (He takes a bottle of water from the bar) … Did you see that Axl got arrested in Phoenix?


What is he doing there?
I think he’s working on an album


A solo record?
Yeah, because he managed to be Guns N’ Roses all by himself. When I left the band, I told him: “If you ever need me to make a record, don’t hesitate to call.” Two years ago, I gave him a cassette with around 20 songs on it and without any reply, I received a fax from his lawyer...


What are some good and bad memories that remain from the madness of Guns?
I survived. I managed to get sober, we were so fucked up... otherwise, there weren’t any bad memories, we only had great moments.


Do you still think about it?
No, it’s done, I see Duff from time to time because he lives up there in LA. The others, I run into them… Slash, I see him once a month. We made a song called “Ocean” for his record, but it wasn’t kept. No, the only one I haven’t seen in ages is Axl, but he never calls anyone... who knows? Maybe one day.


Bitter?
No, I was paid and I had a good time.



SITAR


It still was your group, the one you founded…
Oh Axl owns everything, it’s his band now, why not… If only he’d release a record, maybe he’ll release a record, but we haven’t heard anything... Maybe one day he won’t have any more money and he’ll have to do something… At the time there wasn’t any stability, no money, no life. Then we had money, drugs... we went from a day to day existence to immense material comfort. It disturbed our vision for sure.


You seem to be a little bit apologetic in the song ‘Ain’t It A Bitch’, it seems you plunged back into old rock n' roll...

No, the song’s meaning is really more literal. I was pissed off because of a girl. And then there was the fact that I had to go back to the studio and record new songs for my record company... that pissed me off.


When you play “Memphis” today, do you realize that rock is now considered to be part of the fine arts? Even in Los Angeles, techno has taken over… 

It’s strange, my best shows with the Ju Ju Hounds were in Paris and Barcelona, and even in Amsterdam, rock seems to still arouse an incredible interest and passion. But on the other hand, when I come back to the hotel after these shows, I turn on the TV and it’s the tagada tagada tagada techno. It seems, in certain places, that Europe appreciates rock more than the United States. Just look at the success of the Stray Cats in your country, or the fact that Rick Richards is currently touring with the Satellites in Scandinavia... 


So, therefore, this new album isn’t an attempt to save a dying genre…
I hope not, I’m not nostalgic, this kind of music comes to me naturally.


On “Old Hat”, everything, from the highly protestant lyrics to the sound, reflects Dylan. Was this intentional?
No, that’s cool, I didn’t think about it but I’m a big fan of Bob. I loved him since I was a kid, my hippie neighbors listened to him all the time…


What do you especially like about Dylan?
I don’t know everything, but I remember “Isis” off of “Desire”, so hypnotic, it’s my favorite title. I also love his new stuff.


He’s never sounded so 60’s before.
I like his song “Pissed Off”, in which he says: “Ah I wish I had never met you”, and I also like “Everything is Broken”, but I listen to a little rock, I mostly listen to Indian music. I discovered a sitar record at an Indian restaurant where I ate. The guy from the restaurant told me he had bought this record from India four days before. We searched everywhere in LA and my wife finally found an importer in Boston on the internet that was able to get us a copy delivered. I also like Native American music, music with soul in general, like Marley’s albums. I often listen to Marley while driving in the desert. I discovered him after a long time, but I adore his live record with this very light groove... After I left Guns, I went and spent three weeks in Tortola, in the Virgin Islands, and I loved it so much that I even thought about moving there…



DESERT


The title “Grunt” on your latest album summarizes a generation’s fascination for instrumental rock, which seems to carry a certain American idea, that of eternal youth…
My favorite instrumental is “Frankenstein” by Edgar Winter, and there’s also this group… Focus… who played something called “Hocus Pocus”, real intense… “Grunt” is pure aggressive sound. I’ve always liked people like Edgar Winter, though after watching him onTV it made me freak out: fitted spandex, switching from synthesizers to the bass, it would’ve been better if I never saw that…I originally planned to have two instrumentals on this new album but Geffen didn’t want it. While on the first Reverend Horton Heat, there were three pure rockabilly surf instrumentals… Is it popular in France, Reverend Horton?


Fairly… What could make you happier today?
Going on a motorcycle trip with a friend to Mexico. Last week a friend of mine from Indiana came down to visit me and we went to the desert together. I love it, there’s nobody, it’s calm, it’s beautiful…


In a way, rock is nothing more than playing guitar, and riding your bike across the desert roads...
Yeah, though riding a motorcycle on the desert roads is enough for me. After the last Ju Ju Hounds tour, I put away my guitars and, for a year, I drove cars and rally motorcycles in races in Indiana. When I go back, I don’t miss a single race and, even on TV, I watch it religiously. Music is cool, but…