Velvet Revolver

May 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Elianne Halbersberg

Out of the Ashes of GNR and STP

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Given their pedigrees — former members of Guns N' Roses and Stone Temple Pilots — it would be easy to label Velvet Revolver as either the next rock 'n' roll supergroup or a potential knockoff of their previous incarnations. (Stone Temple Roses, anyone?) Instead, VR members Slash (guitar), Duff McKagan (bass), Matt Sorum (drums), Dave Kushner (guitar) and Scott Weiland (vocals) are adamant that their debut album, Contraband, should stand on its own merits while their past is left behind.

“Of course, there are elements of GNR and STP,” says McKagan. “By that I mean the raw emotion of each song, whether it's fast screamers or beautiful ballads. We don't need 15 guitars, synths or tons of effects. We just need a raw, in-your-face, in-your-gut sound. We're not 22-year-olds. If we came out with a slick produced record, it would be a death knell. You can be a follower or a leader, and our previous bands were leaders, so we're just doing what we've always done.”

The roots of Velvet Revolver were planted when former GNR members McKagan, Sorum and Slash joined forces at a benefit concert following the death of fellow musician Randy Castillo (drummer with Ozzy Osbourne and Mötley Crüe) to raise funds for his burial. “In the back of my mind,” says Sorum, “I thought it would be great to play with these guys again. There was chemistry between us that wasn't about financial gain. [At the benefit] it was obvious that we were still contenders wanting to show the world that we have something to offer. It took a year to make this band happen because we were waiting for Scott [Weiland, who was still battling his well-publicized drug addiction and undergoing rehab]. It required a lot of hard work and dedication and not knowing where we were going. But we wanted to make a great record with the best singer for the job.”

According to McKagan, Velvet Revolver is a comprehensive collaboration that borrows from some elements of its members' histories while reflecting the maturity that has come with time, age and sobriety. “The biggest change for me is that I remember everything now,” he states candidly. “I don't need lines of coke and downers, and a half-a-gallon of vodka to get through a gig. But we play with the same intensity. In fact, it's probably up a ton. I know that I've changed mentally and physically to where I can focus and become a lot more aggressive than I was ever able to be with Guns.”

To capture the raw sound that McKagan refers to — a sound that is being called modern rock by their record label, but which also brings to the table an unmistakable hard rock edge — the band brought in Josh Abraham to co-produce and Ryan Williams to engineer. Both men agree that Contraband moved quickly and with little disruption, thanks in large part to the amount of pre-production the band had done prior to the Abraham/Williams team entering the picture.

“Drums and bass were cut in 10 days at NRG Studios,” says Abraham. “We did vocals at the same time as guitars, four weeks at the most, with two studios going: Pulse Recording, which is my studio, and Scott's home studio in Burbank [Calif.].”

“Scott's studio has a good selection of gear,” says Williams. “For his vocals, we had a Neumann U47 tube mic and a Teletronix LA-2A compressor. He has a Soundcraft board and Pro Tools.

“Josh used Shure SM57s on the guitars at his studio and we had a pretty big selection of amps. Each guy had his main rig. Slash uses Les Pauls and Marshalls, his signature tone that guitar players can identify. Dave uses Marshalls with a lot of effects that he throws into the chain for ambient textures. We used an SSL G Series board for that. Everything at NRG was recorded on a modified Neve 8078 with 24 channels of 1073 modules.

“My drum setup is Sennheiser 421s and Shure 57s,” Williams continues. “I use Coles ribbon mics for the room. They have good low end and I compress them a lot, which keeps the cymbals from being too overbearing — it's a lot smoother-sounding. People always ask what I do for drums and how I mike them up, as if there's a secret to drum sounds, but every engineer can use the same mics in the same position and it sounds different. There's no secret. You set them up, get them in place, turn them up and it sounds like your sound.

“Knowing when something sounds good — drums, guitar or bass — if the source sounds really good, a good mic with a good mic pre, that's most of the work right there. It's just being musical about it and not having a purely technical approach.”

Abraham and Williams have been a production team for more than three years. “I need someone with my ear that I can rely on and sit with and understand, and Ryan is that perfect person,” says Abraham. “We get a sound up and it's the sound I want to hear. Ryan engineered everything on this album except for the vocals that I did at Scott's studio — the mics, compression and vocal chain.”

“In general,” says Williams, “the role of the engineer is to make things really easy on everybody, and almost, in a sense, to make the process invisible to where the artists can be creative and just do their thing. Obviously, these are very seasoned players who know what they're doing, so it's very flattering to be involved with them.

“I worked on three STP records,” he continues. “I started at the studio where they did Tiny Music, and I became house engineer and worked on their fourth and fifth records — their last, Shangri-La Dee Da — so I'm familiar with their music and what's inside the songs. It's all about healthy balance. An element of what these musicians are known for comes through naturally. At the same time, they don't limit themselves to that. They're willing to try new things and take a step forward.”

A seasoned studio and touring musician and producer/engineer, Sorum was hands-on in the making of the album. “We cut a lot of it on the fly,” the drummer says. “I found tempos I liked and I was adamant about recording to tape with a Neve console. There is something lacking in music today, although I'm not sure what — tape, live performance, lots of things. We come from that school of Led Zeppelin, Queen, Black Sabbath, Cream — they were bands, they played together, there was great chemistry between them. So I said, ‘Let's do it like they used to and cut with all four of us in the room and Scott singing.’

“Neve is the warmest, fattest console there is,” Sorum continues. “It sounds great and has great depth. We did edit on Pro Tools, but a lot of our tracks were cut from beginning to end with no major editing.

“The guys in the band have seen what I've done since Guns split up. They've always respected me as an arranger and a drummer, but I'm more outspoken this time because this is my band. I'm not ‘the guy who replaced the guy.’ I had an idea, sonically, of what I wanted to do on this record — big rock. I did stuff at NRG in Studio B. It's nice and ambient, with a wood floor, great mics: Coles ribbon mics, a 47 on the kick drum and Schoeps for overheads. On the rock 'n' roll stuff, we baffled the kit for a tighter sound, and on some tracks, we opened it up to let the room breathe. We used some compression, but it's very clean through the board to the tape machine.”

Working with such seasoned professionals made the job infinitely easier for the production team. Says Williams, “They had recorded pretty good demos of the songs and we were all able to sit and figure out what worked and what needed a second look in terms of approach. Sometimes doing an album can be a nightmare because everyone gets demo-itis. Luckily, we didn't go through that with this group. They practiced for hours every day like a brand-new band. They're really committed to do the work and do it well.”

“Making a record doesn't really move faster than this one did,” says Abraham. “I could have actually recorded it faster, but I think because we were trying to create a masterpiece, there were days when I preferred to take my time and revisit certain things. We could have recorded live with a couple of overdubs and been done — that's how good these guys are — but that's not the way I envisioned it sounding.

“A lot of it was cut live, which not many bands can do, and we just added textures,” he says. “Occasionally, there was a vocal comp, but Scott has one of the greatest voices in rock and we didn't want it to be too perfect. He'll sing something four times and if I comp, I comp big pieces: a verse, a chorus. I like capturing the honesty of the vocals, and people could misuse the meaning of comp with Pro Tools. You lose the honesty of the songs when you dissect them. I captured as much of the vocals as I possibly could.”






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