The Chinese Democracy Years – 1998: Putting Together The New Band
The Chinese Democracy Years – 1998: Putting Together The New Band
In early 1998, Geffen Records dispatched A&R man James Barber to work with the band. “Nothing else had worked, so Geffen figured they’d send me in to talk to Axl,” Barber said in 2005. “No expense was spared;
they were the biggest band in the history of the label and, even though everyone except Axl was gone, Geffen Records lived and breathed for another GN’R album… We desperately wanted the new album for
Christmas 1998 and I had a year to get it finished.”
In March, Axl went to see Tool at the Hollywood Palladium, before recruiting Billy Howerdel, Tool’s guitar tech and Pro Tools technician. Howerdel later told Blabbermouth:
“I came in there initially to program some guitar sounds, and then wound up hitting it off with Axl, and then my job kind of migrated into the computer guy. I don’t know what you would call me exactly. I kind of was there all night with Axl as he would work. The band came in during the day with a producer and would work most of the day, and then I would come in ten o’clock at night, say goodbye to those guys, Axl would show up later on, and then we’d do our thing all night and then do it the next day.”
Howerdel in turn introduced Axl to Chris Pitman – a multi-instrumentalist who’d toured with Tool – who was tasked with bringing some “modern sounds to the mix”. The band relocated to Rumbo Recorders in San Fernando – where some of Appetite For Destruction had been recorded – and Axl began to round up a proper band.
Top LA session drummer Josh Freese later recalled: “I went down and auditioned for them, sick as a dog – I had eaten some dodgy seafood in London right before that, gotten on a plane and auditioned that night. I was vomiting all the way to the rehearsal. Axl was totally cool though, and very open-minded about music. He said: ‘I hear you played with Devo; I really liked Devo and when I liked them, you got beat up for liking them.’ “I thought, ‘This guy is really cool’. It became obvious that he really listens to music – he was talking about artists all over the map. They invited me back again and from the beginning Axl was so nice and we got along and had a good time. He was completely open, so I decided to join.”
Freese in turn, brought a friend: former Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson: “I was doing a session with [Josh Freese]. He was joking about [GN’R] needing a new bass player. I laughed and said I’d play bass. The next day, they called.”
On May Day 1998, Geffen Records officially acknowledged the departure of Slash and Duff from GN’R and Axl made a deal with Geffen “to deliver that new studio LP… no later than March 1, 1999” for which he would receive a substantial advance from Geffen in return.”
Axl was looking into breaking his silence by releasing This I Love (a song he’d first mentioned in 1993) on a film soundtrack: What Dreams May Come, a Robin Williams movie.
GN’R site Sp1at commented: “Dawn Soler, the musical supervisor for the film What Dreams May Come… assured me that Axl ‘was really into the film’ and rather interestingly suggested that he ‘wrote the song for it’. This contradicts an interview from 1994 where Axl said he had already written the song, which many fans speculated was about Dylan, the son of Axl’s one-time partner, Stephanie Seymour.”
The track never appeared. The band were busy anyway – re-recording Appetite For Destruction. Axl told MTV the following year, “I have re-recorded Appetite [with] Josh Freese on drums, Tommy Stinson on bass, Paul Tobias on guitar… and Robin Finck was on lead guitar… with the exception of two songs [Anything Goes and You’re Crazy], because we replaced those with You Could Be Mine, and Patience, and why do that? Well, we had to rehearse them anyway to be able to perform them live again, and there were a lot of recording techniques and certain subtle styles and drum fills and things like that that are kind of 80s signatures that subtly could use a little sprucing up… a little less reverb and a little less double bass and things like that.”
Axl saw the re-recording of Appetite as a sort of ‘dress rehearsal’ for writing a new GN’R album with the lineup he’d only recently secured. “At the beginning [the new band] didn’t want to play [the old songs],” he told Rock & Pop FM. “They didn’t want to play [them] that much, because they are musicians in themselves. They had a punk attitude like the old Guns N’Roses. But later it became fun for them, they began to appreciate the songs and enjoy playing them.
“We hadn’t written songs or recorded for many years. There were band changes and there were many changes in the record company… When we tried writing songs in the old style of Guns N’Roses, they sounded too old, they didn’t sound so alive. We could not make that. And I think that that also passed with the old Guns N’Roses. The songs composed by the boys for another album many years ago, everything sounded old. Then we tried to explore to keep the band alive.”
New producer Youth (the former Killing Joke bassist, riding high after producing U2 and the Verve) tried to focus Axl on making new music, jamming in Axl’s kitchen on acoustic guitars, just to get him to sing again: “He hadn’t been singing for around 18 months,” Youth said later. “I think the record had turned into a real labour. He was stuck and didn’t know how to proceed, so he was avoiding it.”
“He had some brilliant ideas, but they really were just sketches. He really wanted to leave the past behind and make a hugely ambitious album, like Led Zeppelin’s Physical Grafitti crossed with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon,” Youth told The Times in 2005.
Judging by Chinese Democracy’s liner notes, one of these sketches was a track that would eventually become Madagascar. This was also around the time Chris Pitman, the track’s co-writer, began working with the band.
Dave Dominguez, then a staff engineer at Rumbo, remembered a few other song titles from that time: “Oklahoma was pretty much written by the time they got to the studio. Axl wrote that with inspiration from the Oklahoma City bombing (more as a tribute to those who died, if I’m not mistaken). Ides Of March was a working title of one of the songs that came from a loop name that Dizzy came up with…”
Geffen offered Youth extra royalties if he got the album finished by March 1999. But when he pushed, Axl resisted.
Youth: “Axl was deeply unhappy. I sensed he was depressed because he only worked from 9pm to 9am. He was living a hermit lifestyle. In the end, he told me he wasn’t ready. He was trying to get to some spiritual level that would make him happy.”
Youth gave up and a new producer was recommended by Robin and Billy Howerdel, Sean Beavan (producer of Marilyn Manson and NIN), while recording and programming was taken over by Critter [aka Ministry
collaborator Jeff Newell].
All this activity nevertheless meant that A&R man James Barber saw his one-year working relationship with the band come to an end without an album, although he maintains one existed by then: “The Robin Finck/Josh Freese/Tommy Stinson/Billy Howerdel/Dizzy Reed version of the album that existed in 1998 was pretty incredible,” he said later. “It still sounded like GN’R but there were elements of Zeppelin, Nine Inch Nails and Pink Floyd mixed in.
“The record just needed a lead vocal and a mix… If Axl had recorded vocals, it would have been an absolutely contemporary record in 1999.”