As a teenager, Slash cherished concert albums like Aerosmith’s Live! Bootleg, The Who’s Live at Leeds and Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, which sounded raw, urgent and energetic. And for over a decade, the guitar legend who first made a name for himself with Guns N’ Roses has wanted to capture the immediacy of such records in the studio. But his efforts have long been thwarted by producers and bandmates who opted for a more traditional, work-intensive method that involved recording drums along with scratch tracks of other instruments, then redoing all those other instruments separately, before polishing the release with overdubs.
“I feel like records have become so homogenized, especially as more advanced technology became available in the recording realm,” Slash says over a Zoom call. “It makes an album sound kind of flat. It could be great, but it’s missing that spark that bands deliver live. So that’s what I’ve always wanted to be able to try to capture.”
On 4, the fourth record by Slash Featuring Myles Kennedy & The Conspirators, he captured the mojo he was after by recording most of the album live in a mere 10 days at Nashville’s RCA Studio A in April 2021. Slash credits six-time Grammy-winning country music producer Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Travis Tritt) with supporting his unconventional vision for his latest project, which arrives Feb. 11 on Gibson Records.
“I always wanted to set up the back line in the studio like we would in a club or in a venue and mic everything up and just record,” explains Slash. “Dave Cobb was the only producer I’ve ever worked with who was OK with that. In fact, he said one of his aspirations was to record a rock’n’roll band live in the studio. I was like, ‘Eureka! I’ve been trying to do that my whole career.’ ”
“I love the way old Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who and all these classic rock bands sounded when they played together,” Cobb adds. “Slash was excited to record an album live. And I was excited about it because [my team] and I do it that way a lot.”
Recording live introduced a desired element of unpredictability that resonated throughout the short studio session. But Slash and the rest of the band could have done without many of the unpredictable circumstances they had to navigate between the time they headed to Nashville to record and the moment they returned home.
And while vocalist Kennedy knew the songs on 4 going in, even when he was in a vocal booth with a clear sightline of the rest of the band, he didn’t know about Slash’s live approach. “They were all playing at the same time, and I started singing what I assumed were going to be scratch tracks,” explains Kennedy. “So, as I’m singing, I’m adjusting my headphone volume, trying to get the right sound. We finished the take, and Dave goes, ‘That’s great. I think we can use a lot of that.’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean, use that? I was playing with my volume knob through the whole thing.’ ”
“Sometimes making records feels like you’re doing homework or studying for a test as opposed to getting in a room and playing,” Cobb adds. “Those guys are so good at just playing and having fun, so it was easy to work with them like that. With a less talented band, maybe it wouldn’t be possible, but everyone in that band is an incredible musician.”
For Slash, recording off the cuff was as liberating as he had hoped it would be, and not second-guessing himself contributed to the album’s eclecticism. There’s the heart-aching power ballad “Fall Back to Earth,” the glam-banging “Actions Speak Louder Than Words” and the euphoric first single, “The River Is Rising,” which features a surging main riff, dissonant hooks, an infectious chorus and a guitar solo that conjures images of a rowdy bar brawl. The song was released as a single in November and has since reached No. 8 on the Mainstream Rock Airplay chart. Even though the band does well on that list — it has tallied eight top 10 hits on it, and two of them reached No. 1 — that surprised Slash, who thought the track was too raucous to chart.
“I had no aspirations for mainstream acceptance with that song,” he says. “It wasn’t designed for commercial airplay because I know that what we do is so out of vogue with the industry standard right now. But at the same time, there’s a really healthy undercurrent of young kids that are into stripped-down, raw rock’n’roll — and you can see it on social networking. That song is kind of for them, and it really expresses the energy and attitude of that culture and what rock represented when I was a kid.”
Slash Featuring Myles Kennedy & The Conspirators have steadily connected with that audience. The group has hit No. 1 on the Top Hard Rock Albums chart with 2012’s Apocalyptic Love, 2014’s World on Fire and 2018’s Living the Dream; those sets also peaked at No. 4, No. 10 and No. 27, respectively, on the Billboard 200. The act has moved 556,000 equivalent album units in the United States, and its song catalog has amassed 114 million on-demand streams, according to MRC Data. In addition, Slash’s 2010 self-titled solo album hit No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and topped both the Top Hard Rock Albums and Top Rock Albums charts.
While “The River Is Rising” leads off 4 with a sonic boom, it was one of the last songs the band demoed. Slash wrote it during the beginning of the frustrating COVID-19 lockdown, which, he admits, brought out the louder side of his playing. (He wrote six of the album’s songs in 2019 when the band was touring behind 2018’s Living the Dream.) Kennedy matched the heaviness of the song with lyrics about charismatic cult leaders who manipulate their followers.
“I was watching a documentary about David Koresh” and the incident at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993, says Kennedy. “I like things like that from a psychological point of view. I’m really interested in how malleable humans can be.”
In addition to capturing their onstage power and chemistry, tracking live encouraged Slash to act on impulse. The guitarist had used a talk box (the trademark effect on Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On a Prayer”) on such previously released singles as “Watch This” and “Carolina,” but on 4’s “C’est la Vie,” he spontaneously switched from his regular guitar to the talk box for the entire main riff.
“It was one of those things that doesn’t seem to happen when you go in too well prepared,” Slash says. “I just felt like the song needed something to give it some personality. So I thought, ‘I know, I’ll just use the voice box.’ ”
Similarly, Slash decided to open the dark, celestial “Spirit Love” — the imaginative lyrics of which Kennedy wrote “about someone having a relationship with a ghost” — with a cosmic sitar passage that augments the mystical melody.
“It was definitely an afterthought because I wrote that part on the guitar, and it wasn’t until after I wrote it that I thought of using a sitar. I’ve had one since the ’90s, and I’ve never used it because sitar tends to sound very cliché in rock. But when we got to that song, I went back and redid it with the sitar, and it definitely gave it the right sound.”
Slash and his bandmates recorded 4 at a precarious time. Coronavirus was ubiquitous, and initially, vaccinations were only available for the elderly and high-risk groups, so no one in the band was vaccinated when they headed from Los Angeles to Music City. They took precautions: Kennedy, who lives in Washington State, drove to Las Vegas to meet up with the rest of the band; everyone was tested; and instead of risking catching the virus on a flight, they took a tour bus to RCA Studio A, where they met Cobb, who had been vaccinated
Everyone felt fine during the first five days of recording. On the sixth day, however, Kennedy was under the weather.
“Myles felt like he was coming down with something,” Slash says. “Then he called me and told me he was still sick, so he got a COVID test, and he tested positive. He must have stopped in a truck stop on his drive to Las Vegas and picked up COVID, but his viral load hadn’t peaked when he had his test, which was negative.”
“When we got to Nashville, I thought, ‘Oh man, my allergies are acting up worse than usual,’ ” recalls Kennedy. “But a few days later, I went, ‘No, something’s not right.’ Fortunately, most of the record had been tracked by that point.” He says his case was “moderate,” but that it “definitely got me pretty good there for a few days.”
Once Kennedy tested positive, the rest of the band went down like dominos. Bassist Todd Kerns, drummer Brent Fitz and one of the engineers all contracted COVID-19. By that time, Slash was able to get vaccinated — but it was too late. He, too, tested positive, though his symptoms were minor.
“It’s a good thing we recorded that album live in  days — because by the time I got sick, my guitars were done and so were most of the vocals,” Slash says. “When I was quarantined, the other guys started feeling better, so we had the equipment sent down from the studio to the Airbnb guesthouse, and they were able to finish.”
With 4, Slash took a leap of faith by hooking up with a predominantly country producer to record a hard-rockin’ album live, and the guitar hero took another chance by hooking up with Nashville-based guitar company Gibson to release it. He has a long history with Gibson, whose Les Paul model looks as natural on Slash as it did on Jimmy Page and Duane Allman, and he has designed multiple acoustic and electric guitars with the company for over 30 years.
4, which BMG is distributing, is the first album on Gibson Records, and the label has planned an extensive promotional campaign for it. While Slash is currently the only act on the roster, it plans to sign other artists. 4 is available in a variety of formats, including a limited-edition Slash Les Paul Standard 4 Album Edition package that features a guitar, a hard case and a vinyl copy of the record. Only 250 of them will be produced.
Gibson Brands president Cesar Gueikian is excited to launch the label with 4. “There’s no one else that represents the Gibson brand so completely and has been so synonymous with our guitars,” he says. “Slash is one of our most involved and engaged artists, so starting out our label with him was the obvious call to make.”
Slash self-released his first three albums with Kennedy & The Conspirators and was considering doing the same with 4. Then his manager told him that Gibson was launching a label and wanted Slash to be their first signed artist. “I’m pretty tight with Gibson, and I had no idea they had any interest in doing a label,” says Slash. “So I was kind of blindsided and thought about it for 30 seconds before I said, ‘Yeah, that would be f–king awesome!’ It just seemed too perfect to be true.”