Latest release: The Gospel Truth (Golden Robot)Website: www.gilbyclarke.com
As a 29 year old session musician and songwriter, Gilby Clark was thrown into the worldwide spotlight as Izzy Stradlin’s replacement in Guns N Roses in 1991. Since then he has written, played and toured with his former Gunners bandmates, with Nancy Sinatra, Heart and the supergroup collectives Rock Star Supernova and Kings of Chaos. His latest solo album is his fifth studio effort and the first since 2001. We got Clarke on the phone to expand on the suitably enlightening music of The Gospel Truth.
The first track is the title track. The guitar riff has some great syncopation with the horns. Did it take a while to arrange that?
Actually, no. I’ve always been very conscious of arrangements and with parts, in the way that things fit together. I’ve produced a lot of artists over the years so things like grooves and balance of instrumentation is important to me. I built that song around the bass and drum groove which to me, reminded me of Cold Turkey by John Lennon but I didn’t want the accents to be on the one [beat], they are all on the two [beat]. For me, I do not want the listener to know what is going to happen next. I work hard on things like lyrics so that you don’t know what the rhyme is going to be. There are too many songs out there where you know the next word they are going to say and you know the next chord change. So I work on that stuff so I can put in a couple of surprises here and there. I am not trying to reinvent the wheel or make a technically perfect record. I am just saying that I want to leave the rock and roll in the record.
The lyrics for Tightwad are pretty funny.
They’re hilarious. It’s a song that is kind of about a lot of different situations that arose. Sometimes the guys will be at the bar on a motorcycle ride and we’ll all get a drink and it is time to ante up, and my line is, ‘Why do I always pay way more than everybody else?’ It is just tongue in cheek saying, ‘C’mon guys, ante up, that’s all we’ve got to do, ante up.
It has got a little bit of Radio Birdman and a Queens of the Stone Age feel to it.
Completely agree, besides the fact that I have really long hair and I came from a hard rock band, it really is not that far off from QOTSA or even the Eagles of Death Metal.
So, do you try not to listen to other bands when you go in to write?
No, I don’t. I don’t care because I kind of know what I’m doing before I go in. I make conscious decisions and you have to stick with them. In this new ways of recording, guitar players have so much gain on their amplifiers and low end. I made a conscious decision that for the guitars I wanted then to sound like those great seventies records that I like form people like Joe Walsh and Rick Derringer and Bad Company. That is where I wanted to go so I made decisions to clean things up like that so it didn’t sound like everybody else. I figured it works for the people that do well so let Slipknot make Slipknot records. They do a great job. I do not need to modernise.
It is funny you mentioned Joe Walsh because sonically, that was who I was thinking of for the track Wise Old Timer.
Actually, Wise Old Timer is a little bit about Billy Gibbons [ZZ Top]. He is a very good friend of mine and he is such a wonderful person. I was out at dinner one night with Billy Gibbons, Nikki Sixx and along with our wives, having a wonderful dinner and Billy was telling a story. As Billy was telling the story I was looking at Nikki saying, ‘You know, I’ve heard this story a couple of times and it is a little different every time.’ It just made me think about those guys on your street when you were young who would yell at you and go, ‘Hey, you, get off the lawn, you know, when I was in World War II…’ and so that’s what that song is really about. It was kind of like, yeah, it’s okay to respect your elders and give them a little leeway.
Production for the guitar sounds works well too. For Rock N’ Roll is Getting Louder, which reminds of the Stones, those twin guitars are panned hard left and right before joining up. Is that the kind of idea that happens once you’re in the studio?
Nope, that is planned out. I really wanted to have space on this record. Too many records now are so compressed and lack dimension. Believe me, it was hard not to double that bass riff on guitar. I kept going back to it thinking, ‘Man, should I double that riff or not?’ and I finally said to myself, ‘You’ve got to have a little space and let the song breathe a little bit.’ Let the bass be the bass, it is doing a great riff so just let them roll. But yeah, it is hard sometimes trying to hold it back a little.
One of the subtle things is the levels. For example, an opening riff might have a higher volume level than the next section guitar levels as the rhythm section kicks in. It’s a subtle technique to bring the listener in. Is that subconscious for you these days?
Yes, it is and all of those things are from years and years of making records. It is not always doing the right thing, it is also about making mistakes. There are some records that I have worked on where I knew what the right thing was but I didn’t do it. You know, like I was trying to make somebody else happy. I even do that on my solo records in that I trust that say the bass player has an idea and I’ll go, ‘You know, Mark [Dutton], he knows what he is talking about,’ so sometimes I’ve got to listen to him. Then later on I’ll go, ‘Fuck, I knew I shouldn’t have listened to him, I knew that my idea was the one that worked.’ So, like I said, those are conscious ideas that are from years of making mistakes and learning to do it in the right way.
In that light, as you’ve done a bunch of cover songs of artists such as The Stones, The Beatles, and David Bowie. Do you dissect the arrangements of other artists and think about the song construction when you’re covering their songs?
Well, the honest answer about doing cover songs is that when I go to make a record, I don’t go and write forty songs and then just pick ten for a record. If I have ten songs, it usually means that I wrote ten songs, ha-ha. I am just not prolific like that so sometimes I fall short a little bit and it’s like, ‘Argh, not all ten are great’ so I’ve got to put a couple of covers on the record. But I also try to do a cover the way that I would do it if I had written that song. For this record I thought, ‘You know what, let’s let all of these songs stand, let’s not do any covers on this record.’ We did record some covers, I just didn’t put them on the record.
The song Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me) is good and well done in the way that it goes from acoustic to electric so the solo section.
Yeah, once again, I did go back to influences, you know, early Ace Frehley on the Kiss records, Rick Derringer, Joe Walsh. If you listen to Hotel California, they’re not really doing anything that most guitar players couldn’t do but the originality is in writing those parts. That is the key stuff. In the modern guitar world you may get guys who slag off on an Ace Frehley because he is not Joe Satriani or Joe Bonamassa but Ace Frehley wrote all of that stuff and man, you can sing those solos. So, to me, give credit where credit is due but hopefully even as established artists we can say we are still learning and we can still take a step back and remember that rather than just going forward and making more noise.
Well, the ending with that chordal riff and the pickup selector toggle is pure Ace Frehley.
Oh absolutely and even with the Les Paul toggle switch, all guitar players with a toggle switch have done that at some point, you just don’t know whether you’ve recorded it or not, you know.
Where is the point when you can be original when so many say, Ace did this, Ritchie Blackmore did that?
That is a really hard question. I don’t think about that because I mean, at some point you have to recognise like when you heard Eddie Van Halen playing on a record you know that is Eddie Van Halen. It doesn’t matter whether it is his guitar or his amp, you know that is him. That is a very small table – the great guitar players sit at the table. That is hard, you know, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix. I just try to be the best that I can be and I have always felt that if you listen to my first record that I was ever on, and then you listen to this record, I really don’t sound that different. It is still pretty much the same tone but I mean, my ability has gotten better. I do have a sound but it’ll never be recognised like a Slash or a Zakk Wylde, you know, those guys – that is a rarefied table that they sit at.
Yeah, I was going to mention Slash and obviously your tenure in Guns N’ Roses. Were you ever tempted to play like him, in a sense?
No, never, and even when I got the Guns gig. I got that gig because I don’t play like Slash. I mean, he recognises that and he knows that. All guitar players have egos, don’t let them tell you differently. They all have egos and they all think that they are better than everybody else. No, I got that gig because I do play differently and in fact, if anything, I got it because I play more like Izzy and that rhythm thing, they cannot all do that. It is a different thing and rhythm guitar is 95% of a song, you know, a solo is only up to half a minute. So, I really appreciate what Slash does. Like I said, it is a rarefied era but it is just not for me. I am more impressed, like I said, with Rick Derringer.
It was an interesting time back then with the demise of hair metal and the massive grunge movement taking over, but Guns N’ Roses seemingly ploughed through.
Well they did and what made them plough through was because they were different and better. It is funny because we talk about this all the time with local guys who have been around for a while. We were all around back then – bands like Poison, Guns N’ Roses, Faster Pussycat, L.A. Guns – you know, they were all paying the same circuit. Guns were not better than them, they weren’t, I’m telling you those other bands were really good live bands. Guns were not the best but they made the best record [Appetite for Destruction] out of all of those bands and that is what set them apart. They made a great frigging record. That record sounded like nothing around and it still holds up today.
What would be your highlights from performing in Guns N’ Roses?
There are a couple of highlights. Doing The Freddy Mercury Tribute Concert in London was really special and it was the first time that I was televised with the band. It was a unique show and we were on the bill with the surviving members of Queen and David Bowie, and Mick Ronson, who is one of my favourite guitar players. That was definitely one of the highlights. I think also going to Buenos Aires in South America for the first time was really a highlight, I had never experienced anything in my life like that with the passion that South American fans have for rock and roll was just inspiring.
Huge bands like Metallica and Iron Maiden operate their live production and sound design like a military operation. Despite the madness, were Guns N’ Roses similar?
Not at all, Guns N’ Roses was not a military operation. Ha-ha, I would always joke that Guns N’ Roses was the luckiest band in the world. Look, don’t get me wrong, they are professionals – there is the professional management, security and agents, all those guys were top notch. But, the band, were, you know, they made a lot of trouble and it seems like the more trouble that the band got into, the bigger the band became, which doesn’t always work for bands. So, it was pretty incredible.
Do you know how Izzy regarded his guitar parts being re-recorded for The Spaghetti Incident?
Have I thought about that? Well, at that time, I did that at a lot of different sessions. Some of those songs, we did record together as a band, so it was all of us together. But there were some sessions that I had to re-record over Izzy’s parts. The only reason for that was because back then we were only using 24 track tape and you take off one track for synchronisation so it really is only 23 tracks. They didn’t have any channels left so there was nothing left to do but to erase Izzy’s part and put on my part. I mean, people talk about those things but man, for me, it was easy in that it fit, it was just natural. The way I played fit the recordings. If you listen to The Spaghetti Incident? and you listen to my guitar against Slash’s, it was extremely natural sounding.
What was the experience being in The MC5 like by comparison?
Well, actually, in an odd way, The MC5 and Guns kind of work the same way were the two guitar players are doing something completely different. There are bands that have two guitar players where the guitars really just sound like one big guitar. Guns and The MC5 wasn’t like that. When I first learned the MC5 material to go and play it live, it was really hard to pick out Fred Sonic Smith’s parts because the production was a little sloppy on those records. So, when I first sat down with Wayne to go over it, he kept saying, ‘Yeah, that’s not right,’ and I would say, ‘Well, show me what is right.’ He would show me and I would say, ‘Oh my God, Wayne, that is so much better.’ It blew me away how they thought of the guitar playing back then, in the late sixties and how they thought about complementing each other’s guitar parts. Back then, they didn’t really have a big back catalogue of people to rely on, that was just something unique that they did.
For Rock Star Supernova, did Tommy Lee and Jason Newsted embrace the freedom aspect to do what you like in this project?
Oh absolutely. In all honesty, with ever project I’ve ever had, when I came along, I’ve had freedom. I have never been in a band where people told me what to do or what to play. I think that is just a matter of respect, you know, but with Rock Star Supernova, most of the songs on the record were my songs. Tommy was really concerned about modernising the sound. He really didn’t want it to sound like Mötley Crüe, Metallica or Guns. We kept referencing Cheap Trick, that really was what we were listening to the most back then. We really wanted it to be accessible to the radio but to still be guitar driven. So that was it and I’m a fairly versatile guitar player where you can hear that and those guitars don’t sound like what just happened on my new record but there is a common thread in there.
Guitars wise, how many guitars did you bring in for your latest solo record?
To make this record, I probably played about six guitars in total. I have a little way, that I do it always. If you listen, it is really just a main left guitar and a main right guitar. They are never doubled. It is always just one on each side. The left side is my JMP 50 watt Marshall and the right side is a Vox AC30. So, I will change guitars sometimes, like for instance, Rock N’ Roll is Getting Louder, on the left side there is my 1959 Les Paul Junior and a Marshall, and on the right side, is my Zemaitis through an AC30. Sometimes I will switch those around like I used a Duesenberg which is kind of like a Gretsch Duo-sonic [Duo Jet]. I probably used three different Les Pauls. I have a Goldtop [Gibson Les Paul] that is really easy to play solos on. Some guitars are better for rhythm and some are better for solos. All those six guitars [three Les Pauls, a Junior, a Duesenberg and Zemaitis] are pretty much all the guitars that I used.
Does it amaze you that a Vox AC30 can get such a big, monstrous sound when so many guitarists are convinced that they need to use twin cabinet Marshall stacks?
I know, it blows me away. During my later years in Guns N’ Roses, I played through an AC30. If you look at those stages, I had nine AC30’s stacked up. But, yeah, people think of AC30s as a Beatle amplifier but let me tell you, turn the volume up to ten, turn the bass down to about four and man, you’ve got a pretty darn good saturated amplifier tone.
The last song on the album, She Don’t Fight Fair, reminded me a little bit of Rocky Burnett.
Oh, interesting, I never thought about that, ha-ha. But yeah, they were some great songs, I loved those songs.
For a song like that, do you find yourself thinking about making the overall vibe to be of a certain time period?
No, no, I really don’t. I mean, look, there are times on the record when I’ll think, ‘Oh, I really want the vocals to have a lot of slap echo on them’ or sometimes I want them really wide, with nothing [no effects] on them. But, I don’t think about time periods but I do think about, you know, old tricks, you know what I’m saying? I might say, ‘Oh, maybe we need to put the vocal through a flanger,’ and that’s just for different textures. I didn’t realise it, really, until I was on a motorcycle ride over the weekend and all the guys, we wanted to listen to the new record together and I didn’t even realise I had back to back songs that the drummer is playing the floor tom throughout the verse. That was an accident but sometimes accidents happen.
You’ve done a lot of production work including for L.A. Guns. What is it like working with that band given their legacy and your legacy?
Well, it has to start with respect. It has to and look, Tracii is a phenomenal guitar player. There is probably not much that I can teach Tracii as a guitar player. But I can teach Tracii about production such as how to separate the amplifiers. I showed Tracii how to use a Marshall on one side and a Vox on the other side. I used a Vox AC50 on a lot of one of the records that we did. So, it starts with that respect and you know, the guys have to trust you. But also, you have to know the band. With L.A. Guns, Steve Riley, the drummer [at the time of Shrinking Violet], he likes a Bonham sound. He likes the big bass drums and the openness. I don’t know if I would have gone for that but I have to trust him and do the drums the way that he likes them and then I’ve got to find everything else. So, it really is a mutual respect. I did The Bronx’ first record [The Bronx], I sat in that rehearsal room and said, ‘Guys, we have make this record live. It has got to be dirty, messy and it has got to be your first record. It cannot be polished.’ They had to have somewhere to go from that record and hey, if one mix is a little off, that’s okay. Listen to the Clash records, you know. It’s got to be dirty.
What is the line-up situation for both the album and potentially, for live shows?
Well, the only song that my actual live band played on was Wise Old Timer. That is my actual bass player and my drummer so that is the live band. The video we did for Rock N’ Roll is Getting Louder, is my bass player but my drummer couldn’t make it because he was getting married, that’s Jimmy D’Anda, who does play drums with me a lot. But E.J. Curse on bass and Troy Patrick Farrell on drums is my normal band. That is who normally plays with me.
Finally, of all your solo albums, what would be the one you’re most proud of, to date?
Well, I still think that Pawn Shop Guitars is my best record. But, I mean, I really think that this new record is really good. Swag was a really good record for me too. I thought that Rubber was my weakest. So, I don’t know but I still think Pawn Shop Guitars was pretty good just because it was so versatile. It had hard rock songs, it had a Beatles edge, it had a rootsier, Stones kind of vibe and a little bit of blues. It covered a lot of ground. But I think that with both Swag and with this record that I really found my groove, like, you know, this is who I am.
Certainly, and with Pawn Shop Guitars you also had Ryan Roxie who is a great player.
Yeah, Ryan is a great friend and a hell of a guitar player. When I do play live, I do like having two guitars but I really like having Ryan.