IZZY FOR REAL
Stradlin & Rick Richards Unleash the Hounds
BY JAMES ROTONDI
GUITAR PLAYER; MAY 1993
In my book, Izzy Stradlin was the coolest guy in Guns N' Roses. Sure, the other members may have come off as brooding, self-destructive rock and roll rebels, but only Izzy truly understood the mythiccool. It was in the way the cigarette hung from his mouth, the way he cradled those Les Pauls and ES-175s, his funky vests and poor boy's caps, his mod haircut, and his steely expression. Rarely interviewed and rumored to be a reclusive junkie, Izzy was the mystery man behind the world's biggest hard rock group. Until one day he left.
A little more than a year later, the rhythm guitarist and singer/songwriter has returned, clean and sober, with Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds [Geffen], an infectious, promising collection of Stonesy, rootsy rock and roll songs named after his crack new band. When it comes to rock feel, the Ju Ju Hounds are something of an all-star team. Izzy originally asked bassist Jimmy Ashhurst, formerly of L.A.'s critically acclaimed Broken Homes, to help him flesh out some songs he demoed in his basement, Ashhurst, in turn, contacted former Cruzados and Bob Dylan drummer Charlie "Chalo" Quintana, who ironically, had been trying in vain to reach Stradlin about the gig.
Izzy's not the only one who's come into his own on this record. Ashhurst and Stradlin also tracked down guitarist Rick Richards, who'd been pounding the Atlanta club circuit since the 1990 breakup of his band, the Georgia Satellites. Richards, whose bluesy, Southern feel was inspired by Duane Allman, Ry Cooder, Johnny Winter, country music, and Delta blues (with a little Johnny Ramone thrown in) fit perfectly. While Izzy stitches fat, rhythmic chord grooves, Richards deftly knits gnarly slide riffs and gorgeous passing phrases into the raw fabric of Izzy's songs.
They mix it up too, from the sweet country-blues of "Time Gone By" to the sucker-punch punk-panic of "Bucket O' Trouble" to the smoking, Stones-on-Rebel Yell boogie of "Train Tracks." The LP features the Faces' Ian McLagan on Hammond B-3 organ and piano, legendary session pianist Nicky Hopkins on "Come On Now Inside," and Rolling Stone RonWood on a remake of his own "Take A Look At The Guy." Pretty, clucking mandolins played by co-producer Eddie Ashworth grace three cuts, including the stirring "How Will It Go."
Though he's been spending most of his time on the road, Izzy owns a house in his hometown of Lafayette, Indiana, where he likes to listen to reggae, ride dirtbikes in the woods, and hang out with his dog, Treader. Both he and Rick were down-to-earth and friendly when we spoke before their U.S. tour. Yeah, Izzy's cool.
When did you realize you had to leave Guns N' Roses?
Stradlin: During the last three months I spent on tour with them, it was growing increasingly tough for us to get onstage on time and finish a gig without some sort of interruption. Things were just out of control. In the early days I had some sort of balancing factor in the band, and we'd discuss things. But towards the end, I was less and less spoken to about decisions. I'm sure a lot of it's my own doing, because those last few months were so chaotic that I took a sideline position. I didn't want to be wrapped up in all the madness.
Was there much creative tension between you and Slash?
Stradlin: On the last record I wasn't around for the mixes, and when they finished them you really don't hear my guitar at all. It was just a big Les Paul through a Marshall sound on most of the songs. Live, it got to the point where I didn't even know if the audience could hear my guitar. I was playing, and my amp was on about 8 or 9 to keep up with everybody else. We were a really loud band; so loud you can't imagine - even at rehearsals.
It finally came to this. After the tour, we'd taken a break, and they did a video for "Don't Cry," but I didn't make it to the video shoot. It just kind of fizzled out from there. This was November '91. I felt a lot of relief once I got out of the band. I was going, "What am I going to do now?" I'd made some money, and I could do just about whatever I wanted to do. It only took a few weeks, and I was back digging the 8-track out of the basement and setting up mikes and drums. I said, "Shit, I've got songs."
There seems to be a great musical chemistry at work here.
Richards: When I first got out here, I was asking the guys, "I appreciate you asking me to come out, but aren't there a million guitar players in Los Angeles that could've done the gig?" And they said, "Not really." There's not that many people who play the kind of music that we play. Me and Izzy have a real nice chemistry. We bounce off each other quite well and our rhythm styles are real similar. What gaps I don't fill, he fills, and vice versa.
I'd met Izzy previously during his Guns N' Roses days, and we'd talked and found out that we had similar roots. When the time came, Jimmy Ashhurst called me to come out and play on the recording session. I just walked in, we rehearsed a bit, jammed a little bit, and started rolling tape. It's actually a very stress-free environment. There's not the scrutiny that I thought would be there. Izzy being out there for the first time as a frontman, singing, and writing - he definitely rises to the occasion every gig, and you can see the band get better. We're all coming from the same place basically. I'm just over the moon about it.
Stradlin: Me and Rick started right off the bat with acoustic guitars, and within 10 seconds you know if someone's going to work together with you and complement. Rick knows what the two-guitar thing is all about. I mostly play rhythm, so when I play a chord he comes back with something right away--there's no delay. We did an acoustic thing on Rockline [the nationally syndicated radio show] the other night, an old Willie Dixon song called "Spoonful." It was live with acoustic guitars, and I heard the tape the next day. The stuff he was playing amazed me. He's from Georgia - good people.
Izzy, critics frequently compare you to the Rolling Stones, and Keith Richards in particular. What's your take on that influence?
Stradlin: I've been listening to the Stones for probably 20 years. It's always been part of the music that I like. I love the two-guitar thing, that's a big factor, and they pulled a lot from Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. I was turned on to the Stones before I was turned on to any of the Muddy Waters stuff, but I guess you get turned on be something, and if you're interested, you try to figure out where they got it from and what inspired them. Inasmuch as the Stones' music influenced us, the punk thing - the Ramones and Sex Pistols - did too. When I heard that for the first time, I thought, "Wow, this is really cool, and I can probably play some of this stuff." [Laughs.] You can hear that on "Bucket O' Trouble." I had to get some of that out of my system. There's always that point in a rehearsal when you want to get through a song really fast just for the hell of it.
You played hollowbodies with Guns N' Roses. Are you still using them?
Stradlin: I switch around. The Gibson ES-175s were a big favorite of mine when we first started. I could get them for $300 or $400. I like Les Pauls, but the hollowbodies are great because I can play them in hotel rooms or anywhere without an amp. I just love the look, the feel, and the sound those things get. Especially those old soap-bar pickups--I've yet to find anything that can match that. I have a couple of Gibson Byrdlands with the Florentine cutaway, a half-dozen Les Pauls, a couple triple-pickup Les Paul Customs, a couple '70s Telecasters, a couple 335s, and a few ES-175s. The last few months I've been using a Gibson 355 with a walnut finish. I haven't been able to put it down since I got hold of it.
I play through old Fender Bassman heads with a Mesa Boogie 4x12 cabinet with EV speakers in the bottom. It gets a real thick, warm sound. My preference is EVs on the bottom and Celestions on top. The Bassmans are the '60s blackface models, and I run everything on around five.
On the recordings I used early-'60s Les Paul Specials, with the double cutaway. They've got those old soap-bar pickups and no binding, and I like the necks on them. In general, I prefer a bigger neck. My hands are a little too big for those real small necks. I like the neck on a 335 or a Les Paul. I had no luck with the Specials live because those old pickups were kind of noisy. But on the record that's about all I was playing, 'cause I had me a good sound going. On "Pressure Drop," I took one of those Marshall battery-powered amps, put it on distortion mode, and put the volume all the way up. Then I ran the line out into the Bassman, and put that on seven. It was this ungodlyfuzz. [Laughs.] It was so thick, man.
Richards: I just started using a Kendrick amp. I blew all my Hiwatts up from the Satellites days, and you can't regain the sound once you've blown the transformer. I went through a plethora of amps, and my guitar tech, Steven Winstead, who worked with Tom Petty, had been reading about these Kendrick amps. He got one for me, and it's worked out quite nicely. I'm also going to start using a Vox AC30. On the record I'm mainly using a Mesa Boogie Mark III.
Are you still using the Plexiglas Dan Armstong guitar?
Richards: Just for slide and maybe some rhythm. I've had to raise its action because I use a very heavy brass slide.
Is weight the advantage of the brass slide?
Richards: Yeah, and the brass gives a different tone than glass or a thinner metal slide. It's more full and midrangey, less metallic, but not quite as clean as glass. I push the amp pretty heavy too, so you have to be subtle in the way you use the slide if you don't want to fret out or get that metallic edge.
How about guitars?
I've still got that '57 Les Paul Junior and a '59 Special, and I'm still looking for the ultimate Strat and the ultimate Tele. I've got a couple at home, and I had a nice Paul Reed Smith, but I tend to lean towards those Juniors. It's just part of my sound.
Is there any gear made after 1968 that turns you on?
I don't know. I can pretty much make any guitar sound like shit!