The Project

This is from my new book, Last Of The Giants, The True Story of Guns N’ Roses – out now, hardback, kindle, and discount from amazon, click to your right.

Chapter 14

The Project

I had first met – and championed – Scott Weiland when the Stone Temple Pilots toured Britain in 1994. Every day of the tour I was told to get ready for my interview with him, but come the appointed hour, come the bullshit excuse from the band’s manager, Steve Stewart. Scott had a cold; Scott was busy; Scott’s head was ‘not in the right place’. What really made it weird, though, was that I was staying in the adjoining room to Weiland at one hotel and I could hear him through the walls, yelling and cursing, followed by what sounded like loud weeping. Jeez, I thought, what’s up with this guy?

Then, when we got back to London, I got a call at home asking me to meet up with Scott at his hotel. He was finally ready to talk, they said. Having been there so many times before, though, I turned up later that day with zero expectation that he would actually keep his word this time and sit down with me. Except he did. Turning up in an ankle-length black leather trench coat he told me he’d just bought that afternoon from Kensington Market, he added that he’d have to be ‘kinda quick’ as he was meeting his wife, who’d just flown in from LA, to take her to a movie. ‘Which movie?’ I asked nosily. ‘The new Quentin Tarantino,’ he said, ‘Pulp Fiction.’ Oh, I said, that’s cool. I heard it was quite good. ‘Yeah,’ he said.

So we sat together in the coffee shop of his hotel, where other nearby guests bothered us not at all. STP may have sold three million copies of their latest album, Purple, but that didn’t mean shit, daddy, in the UK. This, though, was something he seemed to enjoy. Weiland did not fetishise fame the way most rock stars did. Money was also not his deal. ‘Money isn’t really an issue; that’s all relative,’ he told me. ‘There’s security in the fact that we can own a home, but that’s it. I spend more money eating out than I used to, but I still buy pants and shirts for $1.25. There’s other elements of success that are far more confusing, like the idea of celebrity. That’s such a misconception. Unfortunately, people think that a public person is always a public person, and that you have these responsibilities to other people because you influence them. But the only thing we feel ultimately responsible to is music.’

A few days after our interview, Weiland shaved his head completely bald. Interesting, I thought. R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe had just unveiled his own newly shaved pate in the then current ‘What’s the Frequency Kenneth?’ video. Three months later, I had also shaved my head completely bald. Like Stipe’s, my hair was already thinning, shaving it off was the only way I could see to keep some dignity. Unlike Michael and me, Scott shaved his off because he wanted to make some sort of statement. About what I could only guess – pressures of fame, insistence on private personal concerns over public perception and popularity? Just feeling, you know, fucked up? ‘I just, uh, felt like it,’ he told me when I asked. ‘So I did it.’

As a young man he’d been through the tragedy of seeing his younger brother die. ‘We thought [it] was an overdose,’ he said, ‘but it was cardiomyopathy, due to just years of substance abuse. But he died in his sleep and at such a young age. There’s a part of me that still grieves for him every day. He and I were so close, losing a person that’s your brother and your best friend – we were creative partners as well . . . it was just beyond anything . . . you never quite get over it.’

In 2011, he would write in his autobiography, Not Dead & Not for Sale, of being raped by ‘a big muscular guy, a high school senior’, an incident so traumatic he had suppressed it ‘until only a few years ago when, in rehab, it came flooding back’.

In a phone interview we did at the time, I asked him about that. ‘I’ve always been a very driven person and I kind of look at it like, every time you falter and fall you have to pick yourself back up again, and every time you do it just gives you a further sort of a belief that you don’t have to quit. Just take an experience that is bad and turn it into something positive. Take a good experience and turn it into something ever better. That’s sort of overall my philosophy.’

I asked if he had been able to bring that philosophy to bear when he’d been sentenced to jail for six months in 2009 after admitting to using heroin while on probation. ‘Yeah, definitely. I was in this part where everyone was a drug addict so we had groups every day and did a lot of work. It wasn’t pleasant at all being in jail. I don’t think the jailing of people that are just users is neces- sarily the right way to go. But at that time there was a programme within the system that allowed me to deal with the issues.’

He’d first heard about The Project when ‘I ran into Duff at the gym,’ Weiland later recalled in the Washington Post, ‘and he told me they were forming a new band and that I should check it out and see if it’s something I’d be into. They gave me two different CDs with about forty to fifty songs. The first CD was basically atrocious. It was stuff they’d also written with Izzy, and it sounded like Bad Company gone wrong. I told them I was busy and wasn’t really interested in the idea.’

In his autobiography, Duff relates how he’d been introduced by his wife, Susan, to Scott Weiland and his first wife, Mary, who was a friend of Susan’s. ‘Scott and Mary had kids, too, and our families had gotten together for dinner on a few occasions. Scott was having problems with his band, Stone Temple Pilots, and he had been through trouble with addiction – on those occasions when our families met up, we had a lot to talk about. But I didn’t consider him for the new band because he had a band.’

By 2003, The Project had leaked into the hive mind of social media and Guns N’ Roses fans were frothing at the mouth for a taste of that iconic Appetite-era sound, as Axl stood mired in the sludgy morass of writing Chinese Democracy. Slash announced that the band would release an album that year, yet while he boasted, ‘We got the baddest fucking be-all, end-all rock’n’roll band’, he confessed that the sort of vocalist they vaguely had in mind continued to elude them. ‘There are no rock’n’roll singers out there right now . . . except Billy Idol.’

In October, Slash sat in with LA’s rotating all-star cover band, Camp Freddy, featuring Matt Sorum and Dave Navarro. Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach joined in for ‘Time Warp’, from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and ‘Paradise City’, also featuring Ronnie Wood. The club erupted and Slash began to wonder if the former Skid Row frontman might just be the guy The Project were looking for. Duff was less convinced. So Slash gave Bach five instrumental tracks, asking him to throw some vocals on top of them, but the collaboration ended there.

Early in 2003, seeking to capitalise on the cheap appeal of reality television, VH1 sent over a film crew to capture the process of the still unnamed band trying to find a singer, which they would later release as a documentary. Once again, for a group of musicians who had literally put their lives on the line to taste success to invite the distractions of a television crew, not to mention opening such a public window into band business, underscored how badly they lacked the internal force to push them ahead. If the guys grew frustrated with having nothing to show after a ten-month search, they missed the point; it wasn’t that the world lacked great vocalists, more that their selection process was bereft of real urgency. Accustomed to letting others pilot their ships, not one of them possessed the Jagger-like ambition to take control, to push others and to act decisively. Thrust into the roles of co-pilots, The Project were in danger of failing badly when Slash put in his call to Alan Niven. But Alan had other mountains to climb. He couldn’t afford to look back any more.

Meanwhile, audition tapes and CDs arrived by the hundreds; try-out invitations were extended to a broad spectrum of vocalists, seemingly without regard to genre, range or style. They auditioned Neurotica’s Kelly Schaefer and Josh Todd, though neither slipped smoothly into the chemistry generated by the other four. They would also audition Steve Ludwin, of Carrie and Little Hell, and Travis Meeks, the frontman from Days of the New, whose business partner, Jonathan Hay, was only too happy to publicly comment on the audition. In one of the most comically absurd displays of putting the cart before the horse, Hay declared, ‘Slash, Izzy, Duff and Matt have all been working on new material that I have been blessed with the opportunity to hear and witness . . . This is the best rock music I have heard since Appetite for Destruction. Guns N’ Roses fans and Days of the New fans will not be disappointed. They will be ecstatic! The new material has that vintage GN’R feel that millions craved and loved in the late- Eighties and early-Nineties. I can honestly say that as a witness, this band is back and better then ever [sic]. Travis Meeks and the remaining members sound completely natural, comfortable, and astoundingly incredible. Travis, like Axl [Rose], is from Indiana. Both diverged from their original bands. This is a match made among the stars with a sound that is out of this world.’

After such an appalling breach of band etiquette, nothing ever came of Meeks’s audition and his next brush with fame would be a tragic appearance on an addiction-centred American television show called Intervention, chronicling his grim spiral into meth addiction. He reportedly has since gotten clean.

A Canadian bassist, Todd Kerns, would also audition for the role, offering a substantially more grounded take on the process. The tall, good-natured musician, whose collaboration with Slash would eventually come about a few years later, remarked, ‘I was sent three songs to work on. Every singer on the planet has been sent three songs to work on. I am to write lyrics and record vocals to three instrumental tracks that the guys recorded . . . Appetite for Destruction is still in my Top 3 greatest rock records of all time, so I do find the entire thing amusingly surreal.’

The band took a pass. Ian Astbury of The Cult. Mike Patton of Faith No More and Myles Kennedy of Alter Bridge would also receive invitations to audition, but each would decline. Kennedy, like Kerns, would eventually secure a spot in a future Slash project, but it too would be a few years down the road. By April, just as the audition process appeared hopelessly stalled, word arrived that Scott Weiland had just split from Stone Temple Pilots.

‘What ended up happening was, my wife and I separated. She was with the kids in LA and I was living in our apartment in Hollywood, doing a lot of drugs. And those guys were clean at that time. I said that if I did get into this band, it might be an opportunity to hook up with some guys who aren’t using and had gone down the same sort of path that I had. Right around that time, their manager called me and said there were two soundtrack opportunities on the table for a lot of money. Do the songs, get a big pay-cheque and if you find out you work well together, just take it from there. I didn’t show up the first day because I was loaded and couldn’t make it. But I came the next day and we got together and started working out Pink Floyd’s “Money” and writing a new song, “Set Me Free”. And I joined.’

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