Amid a surprisingly drama-free reunion tour, Guns N' Roses made one of their most controversial choices for their Houston show in early August, choosing superstar DJ and electronic musician Skrillex to open for them at NRG Stadium. Purists were up in arms over the choice of an EDM act opening for the hard rock group, even though the band has long had a history of supporting non-rock genres, including Axl Rose's early appreciation for hip-hop acts like N.W.A.
"I've always been a polarizing artist, so I don't really pay attention to what anybody says," Skrillex tells Rolling Stone nearly a week after his gig. "It's so strange because I grew up playing rock music and punk music, and I'm a forever-evolving artist. When I first started making electronic music after I left [Skrillex's former rock band] From First to Last, all my band's fans hated that. 'Where's the old Sonny?' When I started working with Jack Ü, the Skrillex fans were like, 'What's that?'"
The musician was aware of the negative backlash surrounding the GNR gig and realized that it fueled him even more to pursue the set. "It gave me a challenge to see what I could do under those circumstances," the musician says.
Prior to becoming Skrillex, Sonny Moore fronted the metalcore group From First to Last. He had been a guitar player since he was a kid as well as an avid metal fan, having mastered riffs by bands like Metallica as he learned the instrument. "'Welcome to the Jungle' is one of the songs I never got to learn front-to-back," he admits. "As much as I want to say I was the biggest Guns N' Roses fan, I didn't know them as much as I did metal bands until the last couple years. My appreciation has been greater [more recently] just because of how life goes. You go in and out of different phases of what you listen to."
Guns N' Roses personally requested the DJ-producer to open for them, a decision Moore says was a shock, but not new, as he had been asked to open for bands like Nine Inch Nails in the past. "At the time, it just wasn't right for my career to do it," he says.
For the Houston show, Skrillex spent a week making new remixes and edits for this single set that channeled his history as a metal fan, the expectations of the Guns N' Roses crowd and his own oeuvre. "I wanted to warm up the crowd and entertain them so that by the time Guns N' Roses came on they were semi-turnt," he explains. "I put in my big songs and of course remixed them and did mash-ups. I threw in a bunch of old metal songs, as well. That was my preparation: throwing in Iron Maiden, Metallica, Pantera. On 'Purple Lamborghini,' I threw the Lemmy a cappella from 'Ace of Spades' on the instrumental, so it had a little bit of Rick Ross and a little bit of Lemmy."
Still, it took some time to build up the stadium's enthusiasm for his show. "I'm not gonna lie — and this is what I expected too — when I stepped onstage, people were sitting down and were like, 'What the fuck?' After a few songs, I started throwing in some of the metal remixes and pitched them all to be in the same key as the ones I was mixing them with so it felt like a really smooth set," he says. "There was definitely moments when I threw in Queen or threw in the first Metallica sample, and people were like 'Oh shit.' It became a big sing-a-long."
To better fit into the show's vibe, he admits that parts of his regular sets were omitted and replaced with more vocals and songs that would prepare the fans for GNR. "I wanted to entertain people," he says. "It wasn't a selfish thing. I didn't want to make a statement or do the opposite and be like, 'Fuck you.' I wanted to create something for the fans that they could remember."
Mixing rock with hip-hop, EDM and classic tracks is not new for Skrillex, however, who recalls using System of a Down's "Chop Suey!" in many other shows, though for the GNR gig, he overlaid the a cappella over the instrumental from his remix of GTA's "Red Lips."
Given his one-off appearance as an opening act, Skrillex surprisingly didn't get to meet or speak with most of the band that day — though he met Slash a few years back when the guitarist showed up at the music festival Ultra. Only Duff McKagan stopped by to thank him for performing at the show before his set, and Skrillex had to leave the stadium before the band's finale to make another show later that night.
Still, he used the opportunity to soak in the band's performance with a crew of his Los Angeles friends. "It doesn't matter who you are, but when you see them, it's so beautiful," he says. "It's like watching a freestyle rapper when Slash solos. He keeps dropping bar after bar. It's really entertaining."