Rock advocates may only recognize Gilby Clarke from his work in Guns N’ Roses, but that body of work just scratches the surface of his musical accomplishments. Outside of the band, Gilby has established himself as a prominent guitarist, songwriter and producer while spending time of the latter side in his personal studio.
Gilby is one to stand up for his beliefs, despite where the music industry currently lies. He’s comfortable in his own skin while pursuing multiple genres, which is a testament to his great passion for music.
Riki Ratchman, founder of the iconic Cathouse club on the Sunset Strip, shares these high praises of Gilby when it comes to the history of the Cathouse. Riki has stated that it was Gilby who was there from night one, playing at a drop of hat for any shows that were organized. It seems only fitting that Riki has put Gilby in charge of the anticipated All-Star Jam at the first annual Cathouse Live! festival.
Music Enthusiast had the honor of sitting down with Gilby Clarke at the Rainbow Bar & Grill in Hollywood, California to discuss his time with Guns N’ Roses, his solo career, his admiration for the Gibson Les Paul and the mutual excitement for the Cathouse Live! festival at Irvine Meadows on August 15.
Music Enthusiast: You became the rhythm guitarist for Guns N’ Roses during the ‘Use Your Illusion’ tour in 1991, replacing Izzy Stradlin. I believe this transition was quick, how much time did you have to prepare for the tour?
Gilby Clarke: That’s right. You want to honestly know?
About 3 days. That’s true. Slash had called me. I might have the dates wrong, but let’s say it was a Monday. He goes, “Can you come down and jam with us tomorrow? Just pick three songs. We’ll play them.” I did. I came down and played with them the next day. I played a couple songs. It went really well. “Okay, pick three more and come back the next day.” I did. I picked it and I came back and I played three more. Then I didn’t hear from him until the next week at all. I had heard that they were going to try out some other guitar players in town. One of them was a friend of mine that I actually knew. He even said, “Hey, I got a call to go try out with Guns N’ Roses.” At that time, I didn’t tell anybody I was doing it. I go, “Ah, OK.” I thought, “Oh, I didn’t get it because they’re still trying people out.” To find out, they didn’t try out anybody else. They only tried out me. The next week, Slash called and he said, “You got the gig. We’re leaving a week from today so learn the whole catalog.” I had to learn the whole GnR catalog on my own. The only time I’ve played the songs was live with them at the very first show. Yeah, a matter of 3 days.
You also appeared on the band’s 1993 studio album ‘The Spaghetti Incident.’ That was also the only new record you played on with Gn’R. What were those sessions like?
It was a little bit mixed because some of the record was already recorded. I had to just go in and record my parts. Sometimes Izzy [Stradlin] had recorded with them and I had to re-record over Izzy’s parts. Some of the songs, like half of it, we actually did start over. It was easy. For as much trouble that followed the band, we all knew our place. I knew what I did. Slash knew what he did. Matt, Duff, we all knew our place. It was actually very easy and very natural. We weren’t recording. Really, it was just a matter of remembering the songs. It was pretty effortless I got to tell you. I’d like to say it was hard but it wasn’t. It was very natural.
There is plenty controversy surrounding those days of the band. Looking back, are there any positive experiences you take away from Guns n Roses?
It was all positive. Hopefully, you’re the kind of person in life that… Look, we all go through our ups and downs in life. You got to get to a point where you can take negatives and turn them positives, turn them into a learning experience. That’s what I did.
Were there a lot of things that I disagreed with? Absolutely. Sometimes it was like hitting your head against the wall because you’re trying to be rational about it and there’s wasn’t a rational answer. I always try to take a positive from it. Look, we played some great shows. We recorded some great music. We made a difference in music, as far as the sound of the band and what the band stood for. We did all those things. I take the positive. When I hear about the negatives, I try not to think about them and stuff. In reality, a lot of the negatives were out of my control. There’s really nothing I could’ve done. I tried to turn it into a positive.
Compared to the wealth of material you’ve released as a solo artist, your work with GnR would seem miniscule. What do you enjoy about putting out standalone titles?
What I enjoy about it is the freedom, there’s really no one to answer to but that’s also a little scary because you have no one to answer to. When you stand, you’ve got to stand on your work. You’ve got to able to be brave and to go into it and say, “There’s no excuses.” I don’t have a record and then go, “Here’s my record but oh, I didn’t do this…” I don’t, when it’s done it’s done. I stand by it. That’s what’s great about doing your own music, that freedom to be able to make the record that you wanted to make. Like I said, you’ve got to be brave because it’s hard.
You have released seven albums as a solo artist from 1994 to 2007. I would like to run through each album and get your take on the highlights, or what stands out to you about each album.
1994’s ‘Pawnshop Guitars’
I think ‘Pawnshop Guitars,’ what was really great about that record was that was my only record that it wasn’t something that I wrote like a year or two years before. I had been writing that record for a long time. At that point, I was in another band. When I got the opportunity to record that record that was my best of material. That was my strongest record. It really encompassed everything for me as a musician and an artist for me in that record. The collaborating on it was fantastic. I got all the guys from Guns n’ Roses on the record, plus Frank Black from the Pixies was on that record. I think the collaborations were really really good.
1995’s ‘Blooze E.P.’
The ‘Blooze E.P.’ was done during the ‘Pawnshop’ recordings. It was kind of like, not the B-sides; some of it was songs that didn’t make the record. The live show was getting really strong. We had done over a year and a half of touring. We put some of the live songs on that. It was kind of a little bit of leftovers and little bit of live music.
1997’s ‘The Hangover’
‘The Hangover’ was, when I started that record it was a major label record by the time I was done with it, it went out on an independent. That’s when I learned a lot about the music industry. Music was really changing at that time. Rock really wasn’t very popular when that record was coming out. I knew that. When I was on that major label, they wanted me to change. They wanted me to get more into grunge music and D- tuning and stuff like that. I really kind of made a statement to myself that I want to be who I am. I don’t want to be afraid to make changes but only if the changes come from me. That’s what that record was all about. It was really kind of sticking to my guns.
‘Rubber’ was probably my least favorite record. That was a matter of I needed to put a record out to tour. As an artist, we all do that. I just really feel like the songs were underdone. I think there was three or four really good songs on the record but I don’t think they really get to be fruitful. They really didn’t get to be worked out in the studio. We were on limited time and things like that. A lot of times I produce my own records. That was a record that would have been a better record if I didn’t produce it. I was wearing too many hats at that time and it was a little taxing. I didn’t know it until it was done.
1999’s ‘99 Live’
The reason we did a live record was that was pretty much when my touring band was at its best. I had Tracey Guns from L.A. Guns on guitar. I had Eric Singer, who plays in KISS on drums. The band was really strong. We recorded a show that we had done, actually in Santa Monica, a very, very small place. We recorded it. When I listened back to it, I went, “You know, this is pretty good.” That’s why we put it out.
Swag was kind of like ‘Pawnshop.’ It’s like my second best record, where I had a little time to go back and write some songs, really spend time with it and be creative. I was also making a record with a band called Col. Parker at the exact same time. It was really like two days of doing my record and two days of doing another record. It was a very, very busy period. It was a very creative period. I do think that the record shows a creativity part of it.
2007’s Self-Titled ‘Gilby Clarke’
That was really just a greatest hits record. Greatest hits, but none of those songs were really hits. It’s kind of like the most well-known songs. I had just done the Rock Star Supernova television show which was on CBS. We kind of needed something to put out. That’s why we did that record.
Did I miss anything?
No, no. You’ve got very good research. As far as my solo albums, those are all of them.
Is there anything new currently in the works?
I’m always working on new material, but I always said I would do a record when I feel that I have a record ready, a record that I would buy. Is this record good in the sense that I would go and buy this record? That’s what’s been happening in the last year. I’ve been working on these songs but it’s not done. I don’t want to have what happened with ‘Rubber’ where I really felt it was unfinished. That’s where I’m at right now. It’s unfinished. It’s not ready.
Turning towards a few of your previous collaborations, you joined Heart for their 2003 tour and a handful of television appearances. Were you a fan of Heart before this opportunity presented itself?
Absolutely. I was a fan of 70’s rock. When I was a kid, Heart, Foghat, Ted Nugent, besides Aerosmith, Kiss, I liked a lot of bands. I really loved the guitar work in those Heart records. When Nancy had called me to see if I’d be interested in joining the band, I was like, “I have a question for you.” She was like, “What’s that?” I go, “When you guys play live, is it more 70’s Heart or the 80’s Heart?” I wasn’t a big fan of the 80’s Heart, I loved the 70’s Heart. She says, “Most of the 80’s Heart we actually play acoustically,” her and her sister. I was like, “I’m in!”
That kind of answers my next question. I was going to ask, is it more of an agent to agent phone call or is it personal, musician to musician, discussing what the band would like to see once adding you to the mix?
It’s more people to people. When I joined the band, it came from Mike Inez. Mike is the bass player in Alice in Chains. He had been playing with Heart for quite a few years. We had done a Slash’s Snakepit record together so he had suggested me to do it. He brought me in. I think myself and Mike, we kind of rocked the band out again, not like metal rock, just classic rock. Just made the band a little bit louder. I thought it was fun. I actually really enjoyed it. I don’t know if the girls enjoyed it, but I know we enjoyed it.
You did a television show with Tommy Lee, the drummer from Motley Crue, called Rock Star Supernova in 2006. That was centered around the search of a lead singer. Was this a reality show?
Yes and no. It’s a Mark Burnett show. I guess it is but it was more like… Is American Idol like a reality show?
I’m not sure.
That’s what it is. It was more of a singer competition, is what it was. Myself, Tommy and Jason Newsted from Metallica were starting a new band. We used the show to find a new singer, rather than just pulling somebody. We decided to use the show and find somebody, thousands of people. That’s what it was all about.
It wasn’t a reality show. It was more like a music show. What was nice about it, the singers… I think there were 12 singers that competed. They actually play their own songs. They didn’t have to just do cover songs. They got to play their own songs, which I thought was really great about the show was being able to showcase the creative part as well as the singing.
Ah, an opportunity to showcase themselves.
Exactly. Absolutely. Even if they’re not the right singer for the band, they got the opportunity to show what they do.
Rock Star Supernova later went on to do a full US tour and released a self-titled album the same year. Did you enjoy working in that project?
Oh, yeah, yeah. It was fun. It was kind of a two-part thing because there was the TV show, which I really wasn’t so keen on. I mean, we’re musicians. We’re not TV people. It was a good experience. Mark Burnett, for me was great. He’s an extremely bright person. He knows how to do his show. He knew how to let us be who we are as well as getting ratings. It’s really hard, sometimes you have to compromise. He was really good at seeing what was good about each person and really making the show watchable. It was fun. It was fun doing the show. Doing the tour was just like doing another rock tour. Tommy and I went on automatic. It was fun. It was a different audience for us. It wasn’t really like a rock audience. It was almost like a TV kind of audience, which is hard to explain.
I’m a “Paul” girl, love the Gibson Les Pauls. You frequently play a Les Paul in your live performances. Why is this your choice of weapon?
Right on… Nice woman. There’s some things that have a natural fit. When I was kid, my favorite guitar players were Jimmy Page, Ace Frehley, Peter Frampton even. Those were the guys I looked up to. It was natural I played it. Then over the years, it was just really how I played.
Nuno Bettencourt: They’re are all lies, lies. (laughs)
Gilby: Shh, don’t give it away. (laughs) It was just the way I play. My rhythm pickup is my clean sound. Down is my rock sound. It just fits me. It’s my sound. It’s always been my guitar.
What models do you currently possess in your arsenal?
I play the Les Paul Classic, 60’s classic. That’s pretty much what I play all the time.
I understand you don’t care for them shiny, why is that?
I hate them shiny. I’m just not one of those guys. I like road-worn things. If you look, all my motorcycles are ’41, ’47, ’65. My car’s a ’69 and ’65. Even if I get a new guitar, Gibson beats them up for me. They relic them for me. I just don’t like the shine. I’m not a shiny guy.
You’ve been part of Matt Sorum’s ‘Kings of Chaos’ tour, formerly known as the ‘Rock N’ Roll All-Stars’ tour since it was formed in 2012. This band isn’t meant to have a permanent lineup, but the core members are yourself, Matt Sorum and Duff McKagan. Was is the draw for this to be a South American tour each year?
We have been working on that. More than anything, in South America rock is really as popular as pop music is. It’s very big. When bands play down there, we play big places. Things about Kings of Chaos, it’s a very expensive show. To get Steven Tyler, to get Corey Taylor, to get Nuno, to get Slash, they’re pricey, you know. What happens is in America, rock is just not that popular right now. There’s really not enough money to make that show happen. We just did two shows. We did a casino in Florida. We did a casino in Connecticut, just a couple of months ago and actually went really, really well. We’re playing the Philmore July 29th of this month with Sammy Hagar and Slash is in the band. We are trying. We just haven’t got it to a point where we can do a whole tour yet.
It seems like European tours are more popular. All the bands go there.
Yeah, I know, because rock is popular there. America gets everything. We get every RnB artist, every hip hop artist, and every country artist. There’s so much to choose from. In places like South America, they don’t have all that. They don’t get everything. Country music is not that popular. Hip hop is popular. House music is popular but rock is still very popular. More than anything, the young kids are buying it. When I do a show down there, those first 4 rows are all kids. They’re all teenagers. That’s the difference. Here, it’s not all teenagers. It’s just a matter of getting some young bands to carry the torch.
Let’s talk Cathouse Live! Festivities on August 15 at Irvine Meadows. Riki Rachtman put you in charge of the ‘All-Star Jam’ for Cathouse Live. What was that process like and where did you possibly start?
I’ve already started. I’m not revealing a lineup because Number 1, we don’t have it all yet. We’re kind of doing it the way we’ve always done it which really is … It’s going to be a lot of guys from the lineup but I want to get a special core band together. Right now, I’m still waiting on a couple of people getting back to me. It’s really that. We wanted to keep that in the vein of when we did the Cathouse shows. We always did these jam nights and stuff. It was really about the moment, of making that moment just really spectacular of seeing someone like Nuno, playing with someone from a smashing box band. It’s really going to be a little of both.
I’m sure there are plenty of surprises for this festival?
What part of this festival are you especially looking forward to?
I’m really just looking forward to just being a part of it. Just being a part of and being able to see all these great bands on one stage. I want to see how we can make this more than just the one show, maybe turn it into a tour, at least a once a year thing. It’s really just about getting rock n roll back into the community. We really need to do that. I think this is a great lineup. It’s almost like those very first Lollapalooza shows, where you take a little bit of all this. I really think if you’re someone that doesn’t want to spend 15 bucks then you got a freaking problem. You shouldn’t be listening to the music.
Music of our generation.
Also the younger generation. My daughter is 21 years old and she listens to rock, but she hasn’t had the opportunity to see the Bulletboys, see Faster Pussycat or Dangerous Toys. This is an opportunity to go see these bands.
Thank you very much.
You got it. Great to meet you.