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The Billboard Q&A: Axl Rose
It was an arduous process, to say the least. Guns N' Roses haven't released a new song since 1999 or an album since a 1993 set of covers. Since then, Rose has toured sporadically, worked with a rotating cast of musicians -- he owns the Guns N' Roses name, according to his attorney, Laurie Soriano -- and recorded numerous versions of the same new songs. According to a 2005 article in the New York Times, Universal Music Group had spent $13 million on "Chinese Democracy" by then.
The album came out in the United States as a Best Buy retail exclusive and debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 with first-week sales of 261,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan. To date, it has sold 537,000 copies in the States, far fewer than the 1.3 million that Best Buy bought upfront, according to the Wall Street Journal. But the album has sold 2.6 million copies worldwide, according to Universal -- a number that counts only retail purchases -- and the company plans to start promoting another single soon.
Some industry executives have blamed the album's disappointing sales on Rose, who hasn't made a video, announced a tour or given interviews. Others point to Best Buy, claiming the chain didn't make the album as visible as last year's other major retail exclusive, AC/DC's "Black Ice," which was sold only at Wal-Mart. Until now, Rose himself has remained silent, except for a series of postings on some Guns N' Roses fan Web sites.
That doesn't mean he doesn't have plenty to say -- about his new album, his former bandmates and his label, Interscope, a subsidiary of Universal. (The label declined to comment.) Rose answered two series of questions via e-mail, in which he discussed for the first time the events surrounding the release of "Chinese Democracy" and his frustrations with Interscope.
In a separate phone interview, longtime Guns N' Roses (and former Replacements) bassist Tommy Stinson echoed Rose's sentiments. Rose's answers appear here almost exactly as he sent them, edited only for grammar, length and clarity.
The obvious question: Why talk now? Rose says he "felt it was a good time to address some of these issues publicly."
Some people thought "Chinese Democracy" would never come out. Were there times during the making of the album when you felt that way yourself?
Axl Rose: Not so much that it wouldn't come out but that we could in some way legally be forced to release it either incomplete or with so many business areas unresolved that the beginning would be the end as well.
Without sounding presumptuous, what took so long to get the album out?
And without sounding facetious, what didn't? There aren't too many issues of the hundreds [we ran into] that happened as quickly as anyone would have preferred, from building my studio; finding the right players; never did find a producer; still don't have real record company involvement or support; to getting it out and mixed and mastered.
All that aside, it's the right record and I couldn't ask for more in that regard. Could have been a more enjoyable journey, but it's there now. The art comes first. It dictates if not the course [then] the destination artistically. For me, once the real accompanying artwork is there with a few videos and some touring, the package was achieved and delivered.
And to do so at this level in terms of quality, both artistic and performance-wise, both on record and live, is something that's a miracle at minimum and something that wouldn't have happened, no matter how anyone tries to convince others, with old Guns, regardless of anyone's intentions. It was just as ugly in old Guns, regardless of our success.
What were your expectations in terms of what Best Buy would do to promote the album?
Best Buy has been great. Going with Best Buy was a way to work out a deal with Universal and we were fortunate enough to work with Irving [Azoff, as manager] and deal more directly with Universal. I've asked for information regarding their role in working the record but that hasn't come yet so I'm not able to tell what Universal has or hasn't done, although Zach [Horowitz, Universal Music Group president/COO], or whoever's behind the international efforts, is doing great. It's more than appreciated and a welcome relief.
Unfortunately [going with Best Buy] didn't change us having to rely on Interscope as much as we'd hoped. The opinions expressed or "jumped" on publicly regarding promotion seem to be [about] my or our involvement with mainstream media -- talk shows, rock magazines and dot-coms -- which have generally held negative public stances toward myself or the band for years, [and they] unfortunately have not been resolved. Efforts are being made to understand the relationships and evaluate how best to proceed.
Our focus was in getting the record deal done while finishing the album, which hit many an unexpected bump or sinkhole in the road right up until the actual release. We never intended a huge public rollout, especially without resolving certain issues, and no one ever suggested us doing so, though Interscope's communications with Best Buy in these areas may not have been as clear as anyone would have preferred.
Our approach, for better or worse, has always been to work the record over the course of the following tour cycles, with attempts to forge new or better and hopefully redefined relationships with the different forms of media that may be interested along the way. In regard to our promotion, it was based around certain agreements with Universal, Interscope, our management and legal [teams] that unfortunately never happened. I won't get into specifics but am beginning to address some of those issues in my own way as opposed to "working together," and we'll see how that plays out.
What are your thoughts on how Universal has handled the album?
Unfortunately I have no information for me to believe [that] there was any real involvement or effort from Interscope. I'm not saying there wasn't. But in my opinion, without [Interscope Geffen A&M chairman] Jimmy Iovine's involvement, it doesn't matter who anyone talks to or what they say -- virtually nothing will happen from their end.
I do know [that] I've been asking for a marketing plan for over five years and still haven't got anything. We've asked for a complete breakdown of promotion expenses and efforts from all parties but unfortunately I've received very little information, if anything, so far. On another note, the draft booklet leaking and, I believe, the early shipping of preorders and the inclusion of the early draft booklet for the release was through involvement with Interscope, which was a mess. That's not to say they don't work for other artists and make things happen. I feel they work very hard for whatever it is they truly want to sell, whether it's good or ...
I can say how the band feels, and that is that to a man they hate the record company other than Universal International with a passion. And that's with me talking with them about the record company negatively hardly ever, if at all. They're not blind: They hear the talk and see the results. Our involvement with Interscope has been more than frustrating for them. It's not like anyone here wants to have any negative views, impressions or opinions. They don't go around bitching about things all the time and they don't let it get in the way of whatever they're supposed to do here, but it is what it is.
Here's how things worked until they were no longer involved-that is, until recently. Jimmy [Iovine] and whoever would come down to the studio. Things would be good for a month. Then, according to whoever was involved at the time from their side, someone above Jimmy would start putting pressure regarding us on him, Jimmy would start pressuring others at his label [and they] would begin doing the same with us. We get that it's just how business -- and perhaps especially this business -- tends to work, but after a month of this the whole thing would get ugly and extensively interfere with getting anything productive done, and near the middle of the third month we'd arrange for Jimmy to come down again. They'd go away happy and the entire process would repeat itself over and over and over.
[Former Interscope Geffen A&M president] Tom Whalley brought in Roy Thomas Baker to produce and [A&R executive] Mark Williams suggested Marco Beltrami, among others, to play strings on the album. And Jimmy had an idea for low guitar in a track and the EQ on a drum part. That's it as far as I'm aware. They were all good things, but in all sincerity, that's it. Now, what efforts were made to help keep Universal or Vivendi off us for as long as possible could very well have been extensive, and in that regard either would have been or would be most appreciated. I like Jimmy, but I've never understood him in regard to us or this album. Everything's always been, "That's easy," or "We can fix that, no problem," but unfortunately rarely added up to any kind of reality for us until [he found] Bob Ludwig for mastering.
We'd love to have their and Jimmy's support after this. But to continue at this juncture feeling as we do, keeping things so behind the scenes, unfortunately feels like the same 'ol same 'ol for all of us and, at least momentarily, a bit much to digest. Jimmy did point us in the right direction for mastering, and I believe he's sincere in his appreciation of our record but still for whatever reasons gave up pretty early in those areas.
We feel that, unfortunately, we've never been really anything all that much more other than a throw it at the wall, see if it sticks, no real ground work, something to take advantage of, last quarter, cook the books, write-off, fuck this headache, hoping to get lucky scam. And, unfortunately, for all their nice words and assurances, nothing that's happened since the week or so before the release has shown us much of anything to the contrary. So at least in regard to the U.S., for the most part I don't look at it like we have a record company -- I look at it for the most part like we have friendly but otherwise cutthroat loan sharks, and we were lucky to get what we got but feel we could have done more if they were at least, especially with some of their backgrounds, a bit more involved creatively. So in light of pirating and the mess the major labels are in, I have no sympathy for the record companies, based on our experiences in the U.S.
The last time Guns N' Roses had a new album out, the Internet was barely a reality. What was your response to the nine-song leak this summer?
Having someone jeopardize your efforts so cavalierly is pretty much a nightmare. I don't know that it hurt us though, at least as one might think. Hard to say. That's not to imply leaks don't hurt artists, but that they were earlier roughs and the level of sound quality is much higher with the finals. That said, you have those who become emotionally attached to how the leaks sound, which, for better or worse, usually isn't so great to contend with. And it seems that those who often do so and complain publicly, oddly and coincidentally, have a history of basically being detractors as well even if they're somehow considered part of a "fan" base.
What's your take on the media response to the album?
It's been a mixed bag. Some has been great, others a blood bath. That said, most of the nonsense has been from the same or the latest batch of negative idiots, so it was to be expected and really doesn't mean much. [I] did see some jump ship, and that's always funny. Watching some douche waving a flag and then being the first punk in the water's always great.
Observers are interpreting some of the songs on "Chinese Democracy" as being about the process of making the album. Is this valid?
I'd say there's a lot in the lyrics regarding the journey to make the album, even if not in so many words.
Can you give an example of a song that the band nailed on an early take and didn't change that much?
The basic concept of most songs stayed the same. "Riad [N' the Bedouins]," "Sorry," "Better" and "Prostitute" are probably closer to their original demos in ways than others.
How many other songs were completed and considered for "Chinese Democracy"? There are rumors that there are two full albums done.
We'd like to get another album out at some point, but for now our focus is on "Chinese."
Some artists like to test out their new songs in their car stereos or invite friends to the studio to hear playbacks. How did you listen to the album when it was a work in progress?
My studio, car stereos, a CD Walkman, computers and different speaker setups, clubs, iPods. Actually, our first leaks were from using a sound system in a strip club in the early hours when it was basically empty. I went there to play the tracks for someone I was interested in working with. I'd gone there with a guy who worked band security, who was allegedly somehow related to the owners, feeling it was a bit more of a protected environment than it turned out to be.
Are you planning to tour?
No plans, but there's talk. Management and our promoters are really excited with the offers coming in both here and worldwide.
Are you planning to make videos?
We're finalizing a video for "Better" and writing a couple others now. Over time different ideas have been tossed around, written up or submitted but that was then. Nothing we had come up with -- or at least the approaches so far -- felt right. We have been discouraged from making a video all along by Interscope, up until Best Buy requested one after the release, and in a manner by Interscope then of, "So where's the video?," taking everyone more than off guard.
There was talk of a "Guitar Hero" or "Rock Band" download of "Chinese Democracy." Is either going to happen?
There is talk about a "Rock Band" release, and they felt the record-based on the nature and complexity of the depth of instrumentation-deserved a bit more attention and some more involved elements than they've generally dealt with. I have no idea what that means but it's my understanding they were very enthusiastic. We're looking at a Feb. 28 release, according to [executives at MTV responsible for] "Rock Band." ["Rock Band" has since changed the release date to spring.]
Is there any chance you'll work with the former members of Guns N' Roses in the future?
I could see doing a song or so on the side with Izzy [Stradlin] or having him out [on tour] again. I'm not so comfortable with doing anything having more than one of the alumni. Maybe something with Duff [McKagan], but that's it, and not something I'd have to really get down into, as I'd get left with sorting it out and then blamed on top of it. So, no, not me.
In regards to Slash, I read a desperate fan's message about, what if one of us were to die and looking back I had the possibility of a reunion now, blah blah blah. And my thoughts are, "Yeah, and while you're at the show your baby accidentally kicks a candle and burns your house down, killing himself and the rest of your family."
Give me a fucking break. What's clear is that one of the two of us will die before a reunion and however sad, ugly or unfortunate anyone views it, it is how it is. Those decisions were made a long time ago and reiterated year after year by one man.
There are acts that, once committed between individuals, they are what they are. To add insult to injury almost day after day, lapsing into year after year, for more than a decade, is a nightmare. Anyone putting his own personal entertainment above everything else is sickening.
This is the first interview you've done in a long time. Why have you been so reluctant to do press now that the album is out?
Lots of reasons I've gone into elsewhere, but I can say why I'm doing this one. First, because in all this time it's one of the first actually formally presented: I was asked to consider it, I liked the questions and I felt it was a good time to address some of these issues publicly. Also, because it's my understanding that these answers may be "considered" for use with Billboard.com and Reuters [with which Billboard has a syndication deal] and this seemed like a wonderful opportunity to express myself accordingly.
With Reuters, I get their reach. That said, they've been particularly ugly toward me and this band for years, with nearly everything they've written being condescending or negatively judgmental with the cute little press trick of using negative adjectives across the board whenever they've written anything. In our regard they're one of the media outlets that appear to continually attempt to set a tone for a negative mainstream public perception regarding either us or myself, at least in the United States, if not the world.
I get freedom of the press, but I'm not clear in regard to their writers or those who choose to run their spin, why someone who no one's ever heard of with so little "real" information is deemed qualified -- let alone allowed so much corporate backing -- to promote negative and often completely inaccurate and purely opinion-based (at best, if that) shots in forums with so much exposure at the public's and our expense.
Billboard.com has generally taken a pro-Slash and -old Guns position as well, and I don't recall having been particularly negative toward them previously either. In my opinion it seems a bit less professional than tabloid in nature. This is an attempt to begin sorting these things out when more than shots across the bow have been taken by both of these organizations -- but obviously much more so with Reuters -- if not a deliberate public stating of both position and intention, in my opinion.