Let's be frank: If only a few years ago MTV announced a meeting between Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland and three former Guns N' Roses members, Gideon Yago would probably report live from a methadone clinic to break the story. But Weiland, guitarist Slash, bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Matt Sorum aren't hanging out in rehab--they're blazing charts and headlining arenas as Velvet Revolver and are already being pegged as the biggest rock supergroup in the world.
"'Supergroup' is a name that makes you want to go down like a sinking ship," Sorum says, but with a platinum debut album and a wiser, more sober outlook on life and music, the band (with ex-Wasted Youth guitarist Dave Kushner) isn't looking to disappoint fans with a GNR-style meltdown anytime soon.
"We plan on backing that supergroup hype," Sorum says. "We're all very passionate about what we do. We still care, we're not out here trying to squeeze a couple of bucks out of people. Slash eats, sleeps and breathes the electric guitar. That dude is the most real musician I've ever met, and I have to say that about Duff McKagan, too."
Velvet Revolver performs as part of Ozzfest at Smirnoff Music Centre on Thursday, August 25.
Slash (born Saul Hudson), McKagan and Sorum left Guns N' Roses in the mid-'90s after singer Axl Rose insisted the band depart from its rock roots and experiment with a more industrial sound.
"Axl lost his footing," Sorum says. "He started to look at other bands that were newer as influences. We really didn't see it that way. We thought we should continue with the GNR sound."
The well-documented drug problems in the band didn't help.
"Guns just got so big, and we were so young and we didn't know any of the pitfalls, both on the physical level and on an ego level," says McKagan, who almost died in 1994 when his pancreas exploded after yet another binge.
Retaining legal control of the GNR name after the original members departed, Rose hired and fired musicians, trying to record his perfect album in the long-awaited Chinese Democracy. He went on an ill-fated tour in 2002 that was cancelled after Rose failed to show up for a gig in Philadelphia. No one knows when Democracy will be released, if ever.
Meanwhile, other Gunners took some time off from the spotlight. Slash toured small clubs with his band, Slash's Snakepit. McKagan got a degree in finance from Seattle University. Sorum scored films. In 2002, the trio chipped in a performance at a benefit concert for former Ozzy Osbourne drummer Randy Castillo. Post-rehab, the high of playing together again got to their heads. It was time for a new band.
"When Guns broke up, the timing would've been rather tacky for Slash, Matt and me to start a new band," McKagan says. "It's not about playing huge places or going to the A-list parties or getting some hot chick. I do absolutely still have the appetite for being a pure musician."
Sorum sounds almost giddy about their rock rebirth. "We've cleaned up our act to a point where we're all in great shape and we're ready to present ourselves to the world again. It feels very fresh, youthful and vibrant," he says.
Since former GNR rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin no longer wanted to play in a touring band, the three co-opted Kushner to provide rhythm guitar texture under Slash's solos. All they needed was a singer.
When auditions with Sebastian Bach (Skid Row), Travis Meeks (Days of the New) and Josh Todd (Buckcherry) came up short, the bands spent countless hours reviewing demos of questionable quality from an open call for singers ("It was brutal," McKagan says). After finding nothing useful, the guys realized the singer they wanted was right in their backyard all along--STP's Scott Weiland, whose wife was friends with McKagan's.
"The minute he walked into the room and started singing, we knew this was the guy," McKagan says.
"He's one of the great rock 'n' roll frontmen," Sorum adds. "I can say that because I played with great frontmen and they don't make them anymore. If there is a guy out there that thinks he's as great as Axl Rose mixed with early David Lee Roth, Bonn Scott and Robert Plant, please present yourself. I would love to see a band come out that rocked like that, but I haven't seen it yet."
But before they could rock, they had to help Weiland overcome his heroin addiction. McKagan took Weiland up to a secluded cabin on a mountain near Seattle and had him train with the martial arts instructor who helped the bassist kick his own addictions. The regimen worked for Weiland, too, and in the process, the two became better friends, realizing that everyone in the band had been through the same drug problems.
"Regardless of whatever anybody wants to say about the troubles Scott had, you know what, we're a rock 'n' roll band, it was never supposed to be safe," Sorum says.
The lesson is not lost on McKagan. "Scott has seen it too with STP, so I think we all come better armed for this thing," he said. "We come with tools for situations that we've seen before. There still isn't really a plan. We're just following the path that's laid out before us. Hopefully this time, if there are any landmines, we'll step over them instead of right on top of them."
Velvet Revolver's first song was "Set Me Free," written for the Hulk movie soundtrack. The contract offers came soon after, and the band signed on with RCA, whose boss Clive Davis courted them personally.
Feeling again like underdogs needing to stake their turf in the rock scene, they set out to make an aggressive record that reflects their energy and abrasiveness. The result was Contraband, a record laden with radio hits that betray GNR and STP undertones.
"This is the most punk rock major label record I've been involved with," McKagan says. "I think since I left GNR, music has come full circle. People are really hungry for pure, unadulterated rock 'n' roll."
Slash is a fan of the album title because he believes VR is smuggling a new sound into the music industry. "It's a rarity that a rock 'n' roll band does what we do," he says. "There's nobody else I can play with to get a sicker sound."
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Slash might be wrong about the band's originality--arena rock has certainly been done before--but give him credit for VR's gusto. Contraband has the energy and raw power of Appetite for Destruction, and it's matched with a take-no-prisoners live show headed by a charismatic frontman and a leather-clad guitar god.
"These songs are meant to be played live," Sorum says. "It's really manic. The vibe is good, and the reaction is very positive and overwhelming to us."
The reaction has definitely been good on the road, where the band plays mostly songs off their new record but doesn't forget to tip its hat to the past, doing a few GNR and STP songs. Weiland still uses a megaphone and Slash still wears his trademark top hat, at least for the encores.
"We're not trying to recreate Appetite, but we're coming out very energized and very youthful and powerful," Sorum says. "This is a new band. We're out playing a lot of new material. We don't try to rest on our laurels and play a bunch of old stuff. There isn't gonna be anybody that can touch us--I guarantee it."