NOTE: As you have likely heard by now, the Guns N’ Roses concert that was scheduled to take place tonight at the Times Union Center in Albany has been cancelled due to “production issues.” As the band posted at 8pm on Tuesday night on its Facebook page, “Regrettably we are unable to perform tomorrow evening at the Times Union Center and the show has been cancelled. Refunds are available at the point of purchase. We’ll be live on Friday in Worcester at the DCU Center.”
“Axl Rose has become this thing, but he’s not,” says Guns N’ Roses’ latest lead guitarist Dj Ashba. “He’s human. And I think the thing that bothers me is he literally has a heart of gold. To the people that really know him, he is the nicest, probably one of the fun, nicest people I’ve ever met in my life, and I mean he treats this band like absolute gold. I can never say enough good things about the guy, and I can only speak from my experience.”
As the latest new kid on the block for “the most dangerous rock band in the world,” Ashba has a job akin to transporting nitroglycerin through the streets of Cairo in the middle of a riot. Adored by millions of rock fans and reviled by the press, Guns first played the Palace in Albany in the mid-’80s, drawing only a couple of hundred people. Within months, however, their debut album, “Appetite for Destruction,” became the highest selling debut LP of all time with 28 million copies sold.
Their first single, “Welcome to The Jungle” appeared in the popular Clint Eastwood film “The Dead Pool.” “Sweet Child of Mine,” their second single, was written by band leader Axl Rose as a poem to his girlfriend. By the time “Paradise City” hit, the band had overtaken the Rolling Stones as the most hedonistic, rebellious and punk-driven rock machine on the planet, earning their most dangerous rock band title after two fans were trampled to death in 1988 at the Monsters of Rock Festival at Castle Donington in Leicestershire, England.
“The last thing I even think about when I’m on stage is what notes (I’m going to play)” says Ashba about the current lineup. “It’s such an instinct thing at that point to where you can run, jump, do a cartwheel, jump off a metal railing and still be playing. That’s like second nature to you.”
Brought on board in 2009 by Axl Rose, the only remaining original member of the band, Ashba has the dubious distinction of revitalizing a “brand name” that was seriously eroded by a decade of missteps between their 1998 “Use Your Illusion” LPs and their most recent LP “Chinese Democracy,” finally released in 2008. I asked him if he sees his role as similar to that of Warren Haynes, who in 1988 was added to the Allman Brothers Band to revitalize their sound.
“I would never say I’m revitalizing anybody’s career. I believe that I can bring things to the table. I’ll get involved in the project, and that was kind of my point with Guns. I cut my teeth on people like Slash and people like Eddie Van Halen and Stevie Ray Vaughan and so many different guitarists out there. So it wasn’t a far stretch for me. We have very similar styles. Obviously, over the many years of playing guitar I’ve kind of learned from this guy and learned from that guy, and you mold into your own thing and create your own sound for yourself, but it wasn’t a far stretch to fall in and play those old Guns song at all.”
Ashba’s resume reads like much more than a hired Gun. This hard rock Renaissance man co-founded Beautiful Creatures band in 2001, co-produced and co-wrote Motley Crue’s Grammy nominated “Saints of Los Angeles” LP in 2007 and created the band Sixx A.M. with Nikki Sixx and James Michaels, scoring a number one Billboard Hot Mainstream Rock hit with “Life Is Beautiful” in 2007. His production company has written and produced for artists as diverse as Neil Diamond, Run-DMC and Drowning Pool.
As if that weren’t enough, he owns Ashba Media, Inc., a design firm that has counted Virgin Megastores and Ovation Guitars among its clients. One has to wonder why he agreed to fly into the hornet’s nest that is Guns N’ Roses. “The one thing I worry about is time ’cause I do have a lot of things going, and I never want to do anything half-assed, so to speak. So I always want to give my all when I get into something. It’s just really allowing the amount of time it’s gonna take for each individual thing that I’m doing.
“I didn’t look at it like I’m coming in to replace Slash. In my mind I’ve been very successful up until I joined Guns. So, in my mind, I didn’t get involved in any project unless I feel honestly in my heart I can bring something to the table as a songwriter and a producer. And with Guns, I’m being a fan, just like I was when I sat down and I co-wrote and co-produced the Motley Crue album. I was a fan.
“So as a fan, it was easy for me to sit there and go, ‘This is what I’d love to hear from this band that I’m working with or this band,’ and it’s kind of easy to take myself out of the shoes, and kind of, I guess, write from a fan point of view and say this is what I would absolutely love to hear from this band.
“I actually am super surprised (at the freedom I have in Guns). It’s unbelievable because most people in Axl’s shoes – I mean, the guy lets everybody shine. I have two solo pieces. I do one one night and one the other that I wrote from scratch that he absolutely loves. I wrote the first one called “Ballad of Death,” and it was my solo piece before I go into “Sweet Child,” and he just gives everybody the spotlight, and he liked it so much, he asked if I would – ‘Hey, can you write something else so you can alternate them because I just really love it.’ So I wrote a song called “Mi Amour.’ It’s a very Latin kind of vibe which is really cool, but yeah, he just gives – he’s definitely a team player, and he wants your opinion, and he’s quite the opposite of the way people actually portray him, which is kind of funny. He’s actually one of the funniest guys I know. That’s the funny part.”
With his understanding of marketing, Ashba takes the drubbing the media has handed the band in stride. “The media has been – I’ve always (been) outside this. I’ve always had amazing, incredible support by the media, thank God, but in this you know you’re walking into the lion’s den a little bit, but it comes with the gig.
“From being in this for three years now, there are absolutely a lot of misconceptions about Axl and the band. Axl is the real deal. I mean, like him, love him, hate him, whatever. He’s like anyone else. I think the negative stuff really affects him, as it would you or me. I mean, I hate seeing negative stuff out there, especially when you’re out there three hours a night giving all you have, and you love the positive stuff. He’s starting to do some interviews. He’s starting to do some stuff. So hopefully people will see that side of him.”
So, is the 2011 version of Guns N’ Roses with Dj Ashba as lead guitarist, songwriter and potential producer still the world’s most dangerous band?
“It’s pretty dangerous. It is pretty dangerous, but I think in a good way. I don’t think Axl’s getting arrested as much anymore, which is good. I’m happy about that. It’s dangerous in a really cool way, and we go out here and the shows are just unbelievable – like just tons of fire, rockets and bombs, and it’s just high energy from song one until the end, and we’re playing the entire catalog from the old stuff, anything from Appetite (for Destruction, 1987) to Chinese (Democracy). I think people are going to be really blown away by it.”
Interview and story by Don Wilcock