It is two a.m. in a dimly lit recording studio deep in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. Sitting back on a couch in the control room is a once omnipresent rock figure who has been out of public view for most of the last decade. The music he's been playing on this long night has been the focus of his obsessive perfectionism since 1991, when Guns n' Roses last released an album of new material. But in late November, Axl Rose played nearly a dozen tracks from the long-in-the-works Guns n' Roses album for Rolling Stone and gave his first substantial interview in more than six years. He was only an hour late to do so.
Occasionally getting up to whisper details about what still must be done to complete the tracks – "I gotta put some guitar here!" – Rose comes across as intense but hardly humorless as he speaks at length about his music and the fate of his former band mates. At 36, Rose looks a bit older and more solidly built than the lean rock god of his "Sweet Child o' Mine" days, the result perhaps not just of the passage of time but of his kickboxing regimen and a lifestyle that's said to still be largely nocturnal but zealously healthy. He's dressed tonight in Abercrombie & Fitch, with his reddish hair intact and cut to a Prince Valiant-ish midlength. Having failed to deliver a new album by the end of the 20th century, is Rose ready to commit to releasing a record sometime during the 21st? "Yes, I think that would definitely be the right time," he answers, a slight grin coming to his face.
The new Guns n' Roses album is tentatively titled Chinese Democracy and loosely scheduled for summer 2000. "As far as I can tell," says Guns n' Roses' manager, Doug Goldstein, "we are now 99 percent musically done and 80 percent vocals done. I see the record being done February or March for a summer release." But time is of little consequence in the world of Axl Rose. In passing, Rose mentions that he recently "canceled Thanksgiving," delaying his celebration a few days until it better suited his timetable. "I'm trying not to do that with Christmas," he adds, "since New Year's comes up right away."
From time to time, Rose gets up to pace the studio where he has spent the last year recording and rerecording material (his workday tends to start around midnight and run through the early daylight hours). "What we're trying to do is build Guns n' Roses back into something," Rose explains quietly as he stands in front of a sunken isolation booth. "This wasn't Guns n' Roses but I feel it is Guns n' Roses now."
Asked whether he ever considered going under his own name instead of keeping the Guns n' Roses tag, Rose says, "It is something I lived by before these guys were in it. And there were other people in Guns n' Roses before them, you know. I contemplated letting go of that, but it doesn't feel right in any way. I am not the person who chose to try to kill it and walked away." Furthermore, because the new material has been composed collaboratively with the new players, he insists, "It's not an Axl Rose album, even if it's what I wanted it to be. Everybody is putting everything they've got into singing and building. Maybe I'm helping steer it to what it should be built like."
Throughout the night, Rose seems anxious to finally have his say but wishes he could wait until the new album is released and can "speak for itself." Addressing the absence of his old band members, Rose suggests he simply needed to take control to survive. "It is the old story that you are told when you're a kid: 'Don't buy a car with your friends,'" he says with his eyes straight ahead. "Nobody could get the wheel. Everybody had the wheel. And when you have a bunch of guys, I'm telling you, you are driving the car off the cliff. The reality is, go buy those guys' solo records. There are neat ideas and parts there, but they wouldn't have worked for a Guns n' Roses record."
According to Rose, part of the delay in building the new model of Guns n' Roses has been "educating myself" about the technology that's come to define rock in the Nineties: "It's like from scratch, learning how to work with something, and not wanting it just to be something you did on a computer." At least one of his former band mates didn't really want any part of that process – "Slash told me, 'I don't want to work that hard,' " Rose recalls.
Slash's name pops up repeatedly, invoked in a way that suggests a shellshocked husband speaking of an ex-wife after a particularly horrific divorce. "It is a divorce," Rose says with a sad stare. In retrospect, Rose sees the band's massive success as part of its undoing. "The poverty is what kept us together," he says. "That was how we became Guns n' Roses. Once that changed ..." He turns momentarily quiet. "Guns n' Roses was like the old Stones or whatever," he says. "Not necessarily the friendliest bunch of guys."
By 1996, Slash was gone; Izzy Stradlin was long gone. Duff McKagan officially quit in '98. They were replaced by a shifting group of collaborators, who've helped Rose create music that plays to his old strengths while also playing catch-up. "Oh My God" – the industrial-flavored track that surfaced on the End of Days soundtrack – is only one hint of what's to come. Imagine Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti remixed by Beck and Trent Reznor, and you'll have some sense of Axl's new sound. Song after song combines the edgy hard-rock force and pop smarts of vintage Guns n' Roses with surprisingly modern and ambitious musical textures.
In addition to the album's almost grungy title track, tentative song titles include "Catcher in the Rye," "I.R.S.," "The Blues" and "TWAT," which he says stands for "there was a time." Another song, called "Oklahoma" – heard tonight only as an instrumental – was inspired by a court date with ex-wife Erin Everly. "I was sitting in my litigation with my ex-wife, and it was the day after the bombing," Rose remembers with a wince. "We had a break, and I'm sitting with my attorneys with a sort of smile on my face, more like a nervous thing – it was like, 'Forgive me, people, I'm having trouble taking this seriously.' It's just ironic that we're sitting there and this person is spewing all kinds of things and 168 people just got killed. And this person I'm sitting there with, she don't care. Obliterating me is their goal."
Rose repeatedly speaks of "building something." In his construction process, he's been joined by keyboardist Dizzy Reed (who played on Guns' Use Your Illusion I and II), producer Sean Beavan (Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails), former Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson, former Vandals drummer Josh Freese and longtime friend and guitarist Paul Huge. While admitting that "no one loved the old band more than me," Rose sounds convinced he cannot work with his old band mates. Furthermore, he insists that – with the exception of the drummer Steven Adler and his replacement, Matt Sorum – the Gunners walked away and that they were not fired.
Rose attributes some of the old band's problems to assorted drug addictions. Despite being the subject of numerous OD rumors over the years, he says that beyond some experimentation for "creative purposes," drug use "didn't hold my interest." He clearly believes there was some effort inside the band to destroy him, one born partly of the jealousy that followed fame singling him out. "When we were in airports and people are ignoring Duff and asking for my autograph, that didn't go over so well," Rose recalls. "The guys would say, you know, 'What am I? Linoleum? What am I? Wood?' " Things became progressively uglier. "There was an effort to bring me down," he says. "It was a king-of-the-mountain thing."
Rose seems estranged from many old associates – a scenario not helped much by the numerous lawsuits that have occupied his attention for a significant part of the last decade. He casually mentions that a while back his security camera caught an unannounced visit by Izzy Stradlin to his front gate, but he quickly adds that he had no interest in getting together with the old school buddy and former collaborator, whom he originally followed to Los Angeles from Indiana. "It wouldn't be healthy for me," Rose explains.
"Izzy went back to Indiana," Rose continues, shaking his head in disbelief. "That pretty much explains the absurdity of the whole goddamn thing. The fucking idea of going back to Indiana – I am not even bagging on Indiana, I just know how much Izzy hated it. I went to high school with this guy. It's pitiful. It was the fame and the heroin addiction and the fear of death. When Izzy woke up in New York with EKG pads all over his body and doesn't know how they got there, and knows, 'I think I OD'd last night and made it back home' – that was pretty much it. Before that he was pulling away, but that was the end. Then when he got straight ... I think it really has to do with what it takes to face that big of an audience. I wouldn't call it stage fright. It's something else, and to psyche yourself up for that, the old Guns doesn't seem to be able to do it without medication."
Even when it came to picking tracks for the recent Live Era '87-'93 retrospective, Rose and Slash – whom Rose describes as "negatively seductive" – communicated their song selections only through intermediaries. "I never said that I was bitter," Rose explains, characteristically concerned with making fine distinctions. "Hurt, yeah. Disappointed. I mean, with Slash, I remember crying about all kinds of things in my life, but I had never felt hot, burning tears … hot, burning tears of anger. Basically, to me, it was because I am watching this guy and I don't understand it. Playing with everyone from Space Ghost to Michael Jackson. I don't get it. I wanted the world to love and respect him. I just watched him throw it away."
Rose confesses to being stung by skeptics who doubt what he can do. "There is the desire definitely to do it, to get over some of the hump of the people that are trying to keep you in the past," he says. "There are people that I thought I was friends with who are all of a sudden in the magazines, going, 'They'll never get anywhere without Slash.' Thanks a lot. Like I made this happen, you know. I basically figured out a way to save my own ass. There was only one way out, and I found it. Otherwise, you know, I believe my career was just going down the toilet. I figured out how to save my ass and then tried to bring everybody with me."
"After years and years of trying to work it out with his old band mates, it's taken him quite some time to get the unit he now has together," says Goldstein. "Along the time we were trying to put it together with the other fellas, I certainly had my doubts. But now he has a group of guys that he appears to be friends with, and it's a very cohesive unit, which wasn't necessarily the case in the past. Everything I've heard is spectacular. It's exciting and diverse and – I think – absolutely well worth the wait."
The rebuilding – and ongoing reinvention – of Guns n' Roses has been a difficult and, quite obviously, slow and expensive process. Rose does point out that the expense will be less glaring if, as he expects, he gets another record out of the hours and hours of material he's committed to tape, possibly one that's even more industrial and electronica-influenced than Chinese Democracy. "I'd like to take some of the old Guns fans along with me gradually into the 21st century," he says.
Along the way, assorted producers – including Youth (the Verve) and the loose-lipped Moby ("I appreciate all the publicity he's been giving us, but shut up already!") – have come and gone, though Rose and Beavan appear to have struck up a productive partnership. Recently, though, Rose was stung again when former Nine Inch Nails guitarist Robin Finck, who's featured along with a barrage of guitar players – including Paul Huge; cult hero Buckethead; Dave Navarro; Rose's guitar teacher, Gary Sunshine; and Rose himself – left to rejoin NIN on tour.
Having stayed publicly silent so long, Rose appears to view the album as a final offering-up of his side of all his myriad battles – notably with his estranged band mates and, even more painful, with his one-time fiancée, supermodel Stephanie Seymour, with whom he had an ugly split. He speaks of his desire for Seymour's son to someday be able to come across the new record. "I hope he'll hear it when he grows up, if he ever wants to know the story, to hear the truth," Rose says a little quietly.
Rather than simply create a work that's negative and vengeful, though, Rose seems anxious to make something "positive." Along these lines, he recently decided to remove the two most controversial G n' R tracks, "One in a Million," from 1989's GN'R Lies – with its lyrics disparaging "faggots," "immigrants" and "niggers" – and the cover of Charles Manson's "Look at Your Game Girl," which ends 1993's The Spaghetti Incident?. While he's always been reluctant to explain or justify his art, Rose has come to believe that "they're too easily misinterpreted." Starting in February, the tracks will be deleted from future pressings.
As for his reputation as a recluse locked away mysteriously at his Malibu estate, Rose says, "The reality is that I'm not clubbing because I don't find it's in my best interest to be out there. I am building something slowly, and it doesn't seem to be so much out there as in here, in the studio and in my home. So many times, I have come down here and I had no idea that I was going to be able to. If you are working with issues that depressed the crap out of you, how do you know you can express it? At the time, you are just like, 'Life sucks.' Then you come down and you express 'Life sucks,' but in this really beautiful way."