"I'm an outlaw at heart!" — A conversation with GILBY CLARKE
Updated: May 10, 2021
Gilby Clarke is back with his first solo album in twenty years. On "The Gospel Truth", Clarke is delivering the goods that fans have loved since his first solo effort "Pawnshop Guitars": precise and meaty guitar riffs, a great sense for hooks and melodies, his signature raspy vocals and certainly no shortage of outlaw rock'n'roll vibes.
Originally from Cleveland, Clarke has been around the Hollywood rock scene since the late 1970s. The first time he stepped out in public was with the band Candy (with whom he released his first album "Whatever Happened To Fun"). He then went on to form Kill For Thrills and achieved worldwide success when he got hired as Guns N' Roses second guitar player (which he was from 1991-1995).
Since then, Clarke has released several solo albums and played with a variety of acts such as MC5 and Nancy Sinatra. He was part of the all-star band Rock Star Supernova (an all-star band consisting of Clarke, Mötley Crüe’s Tommy Lee and former Metallica bassist Jason Newsted that looked for a singer via a casting show of the same name) and also played with Col. Parker as well as several other all-star projects.
I spoke to Gilby Clarke via Zoom to discuss his solo career, guitars and amps, his time with Guns N' Roses, the current state of rock as well as many other things.
"The Gospel Truth" is your first solo album in twenty years. How come it took so long?
What was the recording process like?
I have my own studio. I'm not talking about a bedroom studio. I have a tracking room and a live room. I have some fantastic old microphones and a Neve board. Having that is very convenient. I usually approach it one or two songs at a time. Let's take "Rock'n'Roll Is Getting Louder" as an example. I had the idea and thought: "Kenny Aronoff would be great on drums". So I called Kenny, and I showed him the ideas. I usually start with guitar and drums. Sometimes I'll put a scratch bass on there until I can get a bass player. I don't really do it anymore in a way where we're all together in the room. Usually it's just me and the drummer. We work it up and then the bass comes after and then I finish the guitars and the vocals. That's usually the process.
Let's talk about equipment. First of all, how is the black Les Paul doing?
How do you choose which guitars you'll use for recording?
Number one, they have to sound good. Number two, they have to stay in tune and they have to play well. They have to be easy to play. That black Les Paul has been staying with me forever and for some reason it always stays in tune and it always sounds good. I can pick it up anytime and even with old strings on it, it plays great.
Are you a guitar collector?
Not really. I mean, I have some nice guitars, but I can't honestly say I'm a collector. I probably have about a hundred and some of them are pretty valuable, but I can't say that I collect. Every guitar I own, I play.
Which amps did you use?
Is it true that when you started using Vox AC 30s with Guns N' Roses, you weren't quite satisfied with the sound — until Brian May gave you a box for them?
You have Nikki Sixx playing bass on "Tightwad".
Yeah, Nikki kicks butt on it. Nikki was supposed to play on "Pawnshop Guitars". I made that record at A&M Studios in Los Angeles. At that time, Mötley Crüe were making the record with John Corabi. Nikki and I were often talking, riding motorcycles, had drinks afterwards. I told him: "You really need to play bass on this record". It just somehow never happened. But it's always been on my mind all these years. And when it came up this time, he came over and it was the perfect track and I think he did a fantastic job. It's not like anything you would hear Nikki Sixx play like on a Mötley Crüe record.
How do you write? Does the riff come first — or do you write on acoustic?
It's a little bit of both. You know, there are days and weeks when I walk around with my acoustic guitar strapped on. I just walk around the house and play. I watch the Lakers game and play. I have a little Vox amp and a Les Paul in my bedroom. That's how it starts, I'm just doodling around until I get something I like. Usually, the riff always comes first. Or it's just some idea. I try not to repeat myself. It's really important for me to write songs you haven't heard from me before.
When you aspired to become a guitar player — what kind of player did you want to be? The guy who plays the ten-minute solos or the solid rhythm guy?
What was it like to move to Hollywood in the 80s, which was an epicenter for rock'n'roll back then?
There were so many great bands. I mean, the local talent would blow you away. I never saw Van Halen back then, but I saw Randy Rhoads with Quiet Riot. I saw George Lynch play. There were so many bands that just didn't look like local talents but like the acts playing the arenas at that time. For me as a young guitar player, that made me up my game. We didn't play shows until we were ready to play shows. I have a funny story of a friend of mine I met when we were both working at a warehouse. He had moved from New York to LA to become a guitar player. This was before the 80s. The first night he said: "Let's go and see the local talent". The first night, he saw Randy Rhoads playing with Quiet Riot. The second night he saw Eddie Van Halen with Van Halen. He said: "This is the LOCAL talent? I've got to practise. And he went to New York.
So you could walk down the Sunset Strip and there'd be great bands everywhere?
Absolutely. Although, if one of the bands was headlining the Troubadour or something, there wouldn't be competition at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go that night. They were pretty cool about that. These bands, Mötley Crüe, Ratt or Poison weren't signed by majors, but indie labels. Rock was dead in many places at that time, but in Los Angeles it wasn't. It was really big there!
And then at some point the bands became so big that the major labels couldn't ignore them anymore?
Yes. Usually what happened was, you got signed by a small label. Then you got bought by a major. The same thing happened to my band. We got bought, we got signed to a sub-label of MCA - and they were taking forever. We waited forever for a producer. And finally Polygram/Mercury bought us out.
That was with your first band Candy, right?
Exactly. We spent years waiting for producers. But at least we were playing live. In 1985 the first record came out, but we had been together since 1981. And as I said, we had been on two major labels before that. That was a different time.
What do you remember most about the time with Candy?
What came after that?
I went to form Kills For Thrills, where I sang and played guitar. With Candy, we had a major label deal, but it wasn't going anywhere. So I started my own band. I wanted to go in a harder rock direction, I wanted the guitars to be really loud.
In the early nineties, you went from playing clubs to stadiums with Guns N' Roses. How did you experience that?
When I joined Guns, I hadn't played in stadiums before, but I had played clubs and arenas. When people ask, how did you go from that to that … it just happened so fast. From the day I went to jam with them to the day I stood on stage, it was just two weeks. I got the gig on a weekend, I had one week to learn 50 songs. I had to learn the whole catalogue, because they didn't have a setlist. All I was thinking about was remembering the songs. Every day I sat there with a cassette player and headphones, learning Izzy's parts. I didn't want to disappoint the guys. So the only thing that was important to me was to learn these songs. That's all I cared about.
There are a lot of myths about the "Use Your Illusions" tour, as it's one of the most legendary tours in rock history. What was it really like to be part of it?
You've played in many bands, had different roles. You were the bandleader, the guitar player, the front man, a hired gun. What was the most important lesson about being in a band?
To listen to your surroundings. Whether you're the only guitar player or the second one, you've got to listen. You can't just be the bull in the china shop and go "This is what I am, I play like this and fuck them if they don't like it". Sure, you've got to have a bit of arrogance and rock'n'roll in you, but listen to your surroundings! Are you overplaying on that song? Sometimes you have to sit out a verse, let the bass or the keyboard carry it. If you're playing with a second player, are you accentuating what he or she is playing? Do you play well together? That's what I learned, you've really got to listen.
What was it like to do the Rock Star Supernova thing? You, Tommy Lee and Jason Newsted did a casting show, looking for a singer.
Rock Star Supernova really was an experiment more than anything. Television had such a big influence over music in general, whether it was American Idol, or whatever was happening at that time. It was an idea that was formed out of real integrity. Mark Burnett was the producer. He said: "Rock'n'roll has never been shown well on TV. It's always some fake version of rock'n'roll. You three are the real deal. I'm never going to edit what you're saying. If you have something to say, say it. I'm not going to tell you what to say." And that's what we did. All those singers sang live, there were no tracks behind them. They sang in front of a live band, whether it was the house band or us. To me that was rock'n'roll getting represented right.
What do you think about the band in retrospect?
There were good things about the band, there are bad things about the band. It was so new, it would have taken a few years to develop. But at that time, everybody had their fingers in so many different things. It was really hard to keep it together.
Your music and image always had this outlaw vibe to it.
That image of the rock star that you embodied with Guns N' Roses — could that type of rock star still exist nowadays?
You mean because of political correctness and the cancel culture thing? Yeah, that's difficult. There used to be real rock stars with this outlaw attitude. Today, they don't exist anymore. We need younger generations of rock stars, but no one wants to commit public suicide and say something stupid. The cancel culture thing is really difficult. When you give interviews these days, you have to be careful what you say. Even if you're honest and you don't say anything wrong, people take everything way too seriously.
Rock'n'Roll's longevity is a recurring topic on "The Gospel Truth", especially on the song "Rock'n'Roll Is Getting Louder".
For me, this song was important because I'm getting tired of hearing that rock is dead. Even from some of our heroes. It's not dead, it's still around. Rock'n'roll is just maybe a little underground right now. So what? Jazz has always been underground, but it's still there. And it's still important. There are still great musicians doing jazz and there are still great musicians doing rock'n'roll. I don't know R it should be dead. Some of the biggest touring acts are AC/DC and U2 - they're all rock'n'roll bands. Bon Jovi are still huge, Guns N' Roses play stadiums. Sure, we could use some younger artists again. But the "rock 'n' roll is dead" talk just gets on my nerves. That's why I wanted to send a signal that rock'n'roll is not dead, but that it is getting louder, that we're getting better and better. The song is not just about rock'n'roll though, it's a little bit about everything. It's also about my personal journey, about not giving up.
What's the thing you hate most about the music business?
Lawyers. In the early GNR years, that really bothered me. When I think about the amount of money that I was paying to my lawyers: I never thought I'd even earn that much in a year. People'd just come out of the woodworks and sue you, for fucking nothing. That's what I always hated. Why do you need to have three lawyers to play guitar in a rock'n'roll band? That's insane.
One last question: What do you think about the current state of the guitar world?
Gilby Clarke's new album "The Gospel Truth" is out now. More information about the artist on his official website.