Izzy Stradlin wrote 12 of the 14 songs on his new album, 117 Degrees (Geffen Records), produced or co-produced the entire disc, and even co-mixed the tracks. Of course, he also sang and played guitar. Asked if
he's got control issues, he says: "I've been down that road, and it's just a lot of aggravation. It's not worth it. At the end of the day, if it sounds good, don't screw with it." |
This no-bullshit attitude is a constant for Stradlin. He says he picked up the guitar in 1983 - after having played drums since he was a kid - so he could write songs. What motivated him to write? "I wanted to make money," he laughs. "Songwriters make more money than drummers." He displayed similar cut-to-the-chase resolve in 1991 when he walked away from Guns N' Roses, which he'd co-founded six years earlier and for which he'd co-written numerous hits. Life in the biggest rock band on the planet had just gotten too complicated.
A year later, he resurfaced with Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds. Rolling Stone called it "a ragged, blues-drenched and thoroughly winning solo debut" (Oct. 10, 1992). Words like "simple," "intuitive" and "raw" appeared consistently in reviews of the album. Several years have passed since then (during which Stradlin essentially returned to "normal" life), but his approach to making music remains rough and ready. He says of recording 117 Degrees (released March 10, 1998): "The sessions were real casual. I had the songs worked out on cassette, basic acoustic recordings. We'd jam through 'em a little bit, get the feel right, work on the arrangements. Nothing was written down and there was no strict style of playing. We just did whatever worked."
And though the disc has a cohesive band feel, Stradlin was equally relaxed about personnel, calling on Guns colleague Duff McKagan, former Reverend Horton Heat drummer Taz Bentley, and Ju Ju Hound Rick Richards (who initially made his mark as guitarist for the Georgia Satellites). With typical modesty, Stradlin calls Richards - whose distinctive leads, solos, slide and backup vocals are all over the album - "the real six-string maestro" on the project.
117 Degrees is a no-nonsense rock and roll record that draws from many styles - metal, punk, rockabilly, blues, country, surf. Despite Stradlin's lengthy visits to Europe, the Caribbean and Central America while the album was gestating, the songs reflect life in the decidedly unpretentious locale of Lafayette, Indiana, where he was raised and still lives.
"It was cool growing up there," he says. "There's a courthouse and a college [Purdue University], a river and railroad tracks. It's a small town, so there wasn't much to do. We rode bikes, smoked pot, got into trouble - it was pretty 'Beavis and Butt-Head,' actually."
His folks and neighbors had extensive record collections. By third grade Stradlin had discovered Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd. Radio exposed him to Alice Cooper and Led Zeppelin, though he says the first record he bought was Vanity Fair's 1970 AM pop hit "Hitchin' a Ride."
The biggest musical factor in Stradlin's young life, however, was his grandmother: "My dad's mother played drums. She had a band with her friends - these old ladies who'd play swing and jazz at parties. I knew by second grade that I wanted to play drums, too, and the idea of being in a band seemed pretty great. I'd watch 'The Partridge Family' and think, 'That looks good. I'll do that.'"
Stradlin talked his folks into buying him a drum kit. He didn't take to lessons, but he taught himself enough to show his parents he was serious. They soon upgraded his "$20, piece of shit" kit to something more respectable. His father, it turns out, saw other uses for the new drum set as well.
Stradlin recalls: "My dad built a bar in our basement. He sold insurance, and on the weekends all his work buddies would come over to get drunk and party. There would always be a band, and while I was working the keg, they'd use my drum kit. The guy who played drums would teach me stuff. I had a guitar, too, at one point, and I dicked around with it, but I always went back to drums."
In high school, Stradlin and some friends began playing in his garage. Axl Rose was the singer. "I met Axl in drivers' ed," Stradlin relates. "We were long-haired guys in high school. You were either a jock or a stoner. We weren't jocks, so we ended up hanging out together. We'd play covers in the garage. There were no clubs to play at, so we never made it out of the garage. Axl was really shy about singing back then. But I always knew he was a singer."
By senior year Stradlin was set on a career in music. "When I wasn't in school, I was practicing," he says. "I was trying real hard to put together a solid band in Lafayette, but it wasn't working out. After graduation, I just said, 'Fuck it - I'm going to L.A., because the weather's better and that's where everything is.'" In 1980 he loaded his kit and "this little-bitty P.A. system some nutbag had stolen from a church and left in my garage" into his Chevy Impala and headed for Hollywood.
He immediately hooked up with an Orange County three-chord punk band called the Naughty Women. "They were kinda like the Stooges," he recalls. "The guitarist looked like Gene Simmons. He had this apartment covered in rock posters, with a ton of records. And to me, straight from Indiana, I thought, 'He's really got it goin' on!' I had a car, a kit and a P.A., so they figured, 'This guy came from Heaven!'
"I played my first gig with them in downtown L.A. The audience was like the angry guys in 'The Decline of Western Civilization.' I'm sitting there waiting for the rest of the band to come onstage, and they finally get out there - and they're all in drag. The singer's wearing pink spandex and this big afro. I'd never thought twice about the name Naughty Women. The crowd hated us. They were throwing beer bottles and jumping onstage. Finally, they started beating the shit out of the singer. They knocked over the guitar player's amps, and he got his hand busted. I just grabbed a cymbal stand and stood on the side trying to fend them off, yelling, 'Get the fuck away from me, man!' That was my introduction to the rock scene in L.A. I was like, 'Wow, this is exciting!'"
His two-month tenure in the Naughty Women gave way to a stint with the Atoms, which had more of a Johnny Thunders/Rolling Stones cast. Then, one fateful day, part of Stradlin's kit was stolen out of his car, which died shortly thereafter. Undaunted, he decided to ditch the rest of his drums, buy a bus pass and start playing bass. He joined a Scorpions-ish group called Shire, but by 1983 he'd left that band, sold his bass and gotten a guitar. He remembers: "A friend from Indy had lent me his guitar for three months. I had this little amp and just taught myself to play. It seemed cooler to play guitar, and easier to write songs on it."
Ted Nugent was one of his early guitar heroes, as were the Stones' Keith Richards and Ron Wood and Aerosmith's Joe Perry and Brad Whitford. Later it was Johnny Ramone and Sex Pistol Steve Jones. The first band Stradlin played guitar in also included Axl Rose. He recollects: "I was living in Huntington Beach, and Axl came out with a backpack. He stayed for about a week. But he came back a year later and we started a band called Hollywood Rose.
"Our first gig was at Raji's, in Hollywood. We realized that if you wanted to get a club gig, you had to say, 'Oh, man, we're huge in Orange County. We play these keggers, and they're massive. We can probably get 500 people.' Then seven people would show up, but we got to play." At some point, Rose quit and Stradlin joined a band called London. But, he recounts:
Reflecting on his ultimate departure from Guns, Stradlin expresses no regrets or ill will toward anyone in the band. "There was the riot in St. Louis - when stuff like that happens, you start wondering what you're doing," he confides. "Plus, I'd gotten sober around the time the Use Your Illusions albums came out. The machinery was working, the planes were flying, the shows were happening just like always. But once I quit drugs, I couldn't help looking around and asking myself, 'Is this all there is?' I was just tired of it; I needed to get out."
He went back to Lafayette, set up an eight-track studio and started writing the songs that would appear on Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds. Two of these, "Shuffle It All" and "Somebody Knockin'," went on to become Top 10 Album Rock hits. In a second article on the record, Rolling Stone dubbed it "an infectious, '70s-flavored groove-fest that rocks like a three-way pileup of Exile on Main Street, Aerosmith ‡ la Rocks and punked-up Desire-era Bob Dylan" (Oct. 29, 1992). Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds traversed the globe twice in support of the critically acclaimed album, finally returning home in late 1993.
After this extended road trip, Stradlin certainly could have been forgiven for logging some serious couch time back in Lafayette. But, he explains, "From 1985 to 1991 I traveled constantly, spending most of my time in hotels. Then we went all over the U.S., Europe, Japan and Australia with the Ju Ju Hounds. It becomes a lifestyle. You feel this forward movement, and you gotta keep it going."
For the next several years, Stradlin kept up the momentum with extended stays in England, Trinidad, Costa Rica, Spain, Denmark and Sweden. The Ju Ju Hounds were along for the first two stops, laying down tracks at London's Matrix studios, where the Sex Pistols recorded Never Mind the Bullocks, and Trinidad's Caribbean Sound Basin. "We did nine songs at Matrix, which is this old church that's been converted into a studio, and ten in Trinidad. That was a killer studio, too. It's a state-of-the-art complex, with the same rates you'd pay in the U.S., but there you get fresh papaya for breakfast and see iguanas running around."
After these jaunts, Stradlin narrates, "I went back to Indiana. At that point I was absolutely fed up with the whole music thing. I was just bored. I had to do something else. So I went over to Madrid and started looking for a place." He spent several months in Spain, at a rented house with no phone. "That was a little tough," he admits. "It got to where I had this uncontrollable urge to send a fax or something."
He stayed abroad a few more months, however, before returning to Indiana. Once there, Stradlin resumed one of his consuming passions - racing. Between stints overseas, he'd managed to build a quarter-mile oval track in a field near his house. "We bought this old road grader over the phone - sight unseen," he says. "It had no brakes and leaked, but it had the big blade and we just went around in circles and made the track. We started out racing bikes, these specialized models. But then we moved on to cars. It was generally a 'run what ya brung' setup. I started getting into the old BMW 2002s and Alfa Romeo GTVs. They're from the '70s. You can pick 'em up pretty cheaply, maybe $1,500 for the beaters, and they run real well. They were endurance races, just for fun. I've always been into anything motorized. Racing is a great tension release."
In late 1995 Stradlin took a trip to L.A., where he spent some time with his old pal Duff McKagan. Not surprisingly, the two soon found themselves in a studio with a couple of musician friends. "We recorded ten songs in eight days," Stradlin says. "It got me excited about music again. I realized how easy the whole process could be. Those sessions were fun and painless. We just had a great time and didn't think too much about it."
Around that time, Stradlin heard drummer Taz Bentley had left the Reverend Horton Heat. A huge fan of Bentley's work, Stradlin tracked him down and asked if he wanted to come to L.A. and write some songs. (Stradlin had taken similar initiative back in 1992 when he recruited Rick Richards for the Ju Ju Hounds.) Bentley took him up on the offer and the two quickly became friends. Richards, whom Stradlin calls "the real six-string maestro" on 117 Degrees, signed back on, and with a buddy filling in on bass, Stradlin turned out a third batch of songs: "We went to the Complex, in Santa Monica [Calif.], and recorded this really aggro stuff, all thrashers. Then Duff came in and re-recorded all the bass parts. The songs sounded amazing."
"In the beginning, I'd really wanted to put out a screamin'-fast, 100-mile-an-hour record," he continues. "But after Duff got involved, we decided to work on some slower stuff to give the album more depth and variety. So we went to Rumbo [Recorders, in Canoga Park, Calif.], where Guns did Appetite for Destruction, and cut a few more tracks." Producer Bill Price, known for his work with the Sex Pistols and the Clash, lent a hand on some of the early recordings, while Ju Ju Hounds (and Sublime) producer Eddie Ashworth pitched in on the songs tracked later.
Recorded in fits and starts, 117 Degrees never conformed to any grand scheme - and Stradlin wouldn't have it any other way. "The album is totally random," he insists. "It's just about situations I've been in over the past few years, mostly in Lafayette. That's always how I've approached songwriting - no big statement, just telling it like it is. Otherwise, you take all the fun out of it." International stardom, worldwide travel and widely envied chops aside, Stradlin still seems to have one foot planted firmly - and happily - in the garage.