Given their pedigrees — former members of Guns N' Roses andStone Temple Pilots — it would be easy to label Velvet Revolveras either the next rock 'n' roll supergroup or a potential knockoff oftheir previous incarnations. (Stone Temple Roses, anyone?) Instead, VRmembers Slash (guitar), Duff McKagan (bass), Matt Sorum (drums), DaveKushner (guitar) and Scott Weiland (vocals) are adamant that theirdebut album, Contraband, should stand on its own merits whiletheir past is left behind.
“Of course, there are elements of GNR and STP,” saysMcKagan. “By that I mean the raw emotion of each song, whetherit's fast screamers or beautiful ballads. We don't need 15 guitars,synths or tons of effects. We just need a raw, in-your-face,in-your-gut sound. We're not 22-year-olds. If we came out with a slickproduced record, it would be a death knell. You can be a follower or aleader, and our previous bands were leaders, so we're just doing whatwe've always done.”
The roots of Velvet Revolver were planted when former GNR membersMcKagan, Sorum and Slash joined forces at a benefit concert followingthe death of fellow musician Randy Castillo (drummer with Ozzy Osbourneand Mötley Crüe) to raise funds for his burial. “In theback of my mind,” says Sorum, “I thought it would be greatto play with these guys again. There was chemistry between us thatwasn't about financial gain. [At the benefit] it was obvious that wewere still contenders wanting to show the world that we have somethingto offer. It took a year to make this band happen because we werewaiting for Scott [Weiland, who was still battling his well-publicizeddrug addiction and undergoing rehab]. It required a lot of hard workand dedication and not knowing where we were going. But we wanted tomake a great record with the best singer for the job.”
According to McKagan, Velvet Revolver is a comprehensivecollaboration that borrows from some elements of its members' historieswhile reflecting the maturity that has come with time, age andsobriety. “The biggest change for me is that I remembereverything now,” he states candidly. “I don't need lines ofcoke and downers, and a half-a-gallon of vodka to get through a gig.But we play with the same intensity. In fact, it's probably up a ton. Iknow that I've changed mentally and physically to where I can focus andbecome a lot more aggressive than I was ever able to be withGuns.”
To capture the raw sound that McKagan refers to — a sound thatis being called modern rock by their record label, but which alsobrings to the table an unmistakable hard rock edge — the bandbrought in Josh Abraham to co-produce and Ryan Williams to engineer.Both men agree that Contraband moved quickly and with littledisruption, thanks in large part to the amount of pre-production theband had done prior to the Abraham/Williams team entering thepicture.
“Drums and bass were cut in 10 days at NRG Studios,”says Abraham. “We did vocals at the same time as guitars, fourweeks at the most, with two studios going: Pulse Recording, which is mystudio, and Scott's home studio in Burbank [Calif.].”
“Scott's studio has a good selection of gear,” saysWilliams. “For his vocals, we had a Neumann U47 tube mic and aTeletronix LA-2A compressor. He has a Soundcraft board and ProTools.
“Josh used Shure SM57s on the guitars at his studio and we hada pretty big selection of amps. Each guy had his main rig. Slash usesLes Pauls and Marshalls, his signature tone that guitar players canidentify. Dave uses Marshalls with a lot of effects that he throws intothe chain for ambient textures. We used an SSL G Series board for that.Everything at NRG was recorded on a modified Neve 8078 with 24 channelsof 1073 modules.
“My drum setup is Sennheiser 421s and Shure 57s,”Williams continues. “I use Coles ribbon mics for the room. Theyhave good low end and I compress them a lot, which keeps the cymbalsfrom being too overbearing — it's a lot smoother-sounding. Peoplealways ask what I do for drums and how I mike them up, as if there's asecret to drum sounds, but every engineer can use the same mics in thesame position and it sounds different. There's no secret. You set themup, get them in place, turn them up and it sounds like your sound.
“Knowing when something sounds good — drums, guitar orbass — if the source sounds really good, a good mic with a goodmic pre, that's most of the work right there. It's just being musicalabout it and not having a purely technical approach.”
Abraham and Williams have been a production team for more than threeyears. “I need someone with my ear that I can rely on and sitwith and understand, and Ryan is that perfect person,” saysAbraham. “We get a sound up and it's the sound I want to hear.Ryan engineered everything on this album except for the vocals that Idid at Scott's studio — the mics, compression and vocalchain.”
“In general,” says Williams, “the role of theengineer is to make things really easy on everybody, and almost, in asense, to make the process invisible to where the artists can becreative and just do their thing. Obviously, these are very seasonedplayers who know what they're doing, so it's very flattering to beinvolved with them.
“I worked on three STP records,” he continues. “Istarted at the studio where they did Tiny Music, and I becamehouse engineer and worked on their fourth and fifth records —their last, Shangri-La Dee Da — so I'm familiar with theirmusic and what's inside the songs. It's all about healthy balance. Anelement of what these musicians are known for comes through naturally.At the same time, they don't limit themselves to that. They're willingto try new things and take a step forward.”
A seasoned studio and touring musician and producer/engineer, Sorumwas hands-on in the making of the album. “We cut a lot of it onthe fly,” the drummer says. “I found tempos I liked and Iwas adamant about recording to tape with a Neve console. There issomething lacking in music today, although I'm not sure what —tape, live performance, lots of things. We come from that school of LedZeppelin, Queen, Black Sabbath, Cream — they were bands,they played together, there was great chemistry between them. So Isaid, ‘Let's do it like they used to and cut with all four of usin the room and Scott singing.’
“Neve is the warmest, fattest console there is,” Sorumcontinues. “It sounds great and has great depth. We did edit onPro Tools, but a lot of our tracks were cut from beginning to end withno major editing.
“The guys in the band have seen what I've done since Gunssplit up. They've always respected me as an arranger and a drummer, butI'm more outspoken this time because this is my band. I'm not‘the guy who replaced the guy.’ I had an idea, sonically,of what I wanted to do on this record — big rock. I did stuff atNRG in Studio B. It's nice and ambient, with a wood floor, great mics:Coles ribbon mics, a 47 on the kick drum and Schoeps for overheads. Onthe rock 'n' roll stuff, we baffled the kit for a tighter sound, and onsome tracks, we opened it up to let the room breathe. We used somecompression, but it's very clean through the board to the tapemachine.”
Working with such seasoned professionals made the job infinitelyeasier for the production team. Says Williams, “They had recordedpretty good demos of the songs and we were all able to sit and figureout what worked and what needed a second look in terms of approach.Sometimes doing an album can be a nightmare because everyone getsdemo-itis. Luckily, we didn't go through that with this group. Theypracticed for hours every day like a brand-new band. They're reallycommitted to do the work and do it well.”
“Making a record doesn't really move faster than this onedid,” says Abraham. “I could have actually recorded itfaster, but I think because we were trying to create a masterpiece,there were days when I preferred to take my time and revisit certainthings. We could have recorded live with a couple of overdubs and beendone — that's how good these guys are — but that's not theway I envisioned it sounding.
“A lot of it was cut live, which not many bands can do, and wejust added textures,” he says. “Occasionally, there was avocal comp, but Scott has one of the greatest voices in rock and wedidn't want it to be too perfect. He'll sing something four times andif I comp, I comp big pieces: a verse, a chorus. I like capturing thehonesty of the vocals, and people could misuse the meaning of comp withPro Tools. You lose the honesty of the songs when you dissect them. Icaptured as much of the vocals as I possibly could.”