Check any recent interview given by Velvet Revolver's Scott Weiland, and you'll get exactly what you expect. He's a demon-haunted man in a scandal-hungry world, a two-legged nerve ending whose exhausting feud with life itself is written into every public statement he makes.
That's just one of the reasons that Velvet Revolver is so difficult to judge on its own merits. A so-so debut in 2004 and continual rumours of internecine turmoil within the supergroup haven't helped. Does onetime Stone Temple Pilot Weiland really travel on a separate bus? Why did Axl Rose's lawyers claim in 2005 that Slash paid a surprise visit to their client, allegedly in order to defame his Velvet Revolver bandmates? And what are we to make of drummer Matt Sorum's recent comment in Rolling Stone that "I don't think the world's fucking biding their time, waiting for Stone Temple Pilots to reform"?
The impression that Velvet Revolver is little more than an aggregate of formerly dissipated Sunset Boulevard egos impossibly larger than life and ready to tear each other's throats out is a seductive one. Until, that is, you get Slash on the phone.
Despite experiences that would make Caligula blush, the 42-year-old icon perhaps the very last guitar hero, if you wanna get all mythical about it comes across as a remarkably grounded man, easing himself into the interview like an old school friend.
"Everything's good," he says languidly, calling the Georgia Straight from Minneapolis. "The tour's been really fucking great, and everything's been really well received, but more importantly, the band's been getting along."
Slash might be amiably preempting any inquiry into Velvet Revolver's health when he says this. To his mind, the public's hunger for dirt is nearing critical mass, and it makes sense that dirt is precisely what people expect from the outfit he started with two other Guns N' Roses survivors in 2002. Last month's newsstands provided an ample reminder of all that historic melodrama with a Rolling Stone cover story commemorating the 20th anniversary of Appetite for Destruction. Slash's view of the piece?
"I think it was just a typical G N' R article," he says, half laughing. "The same fucking shit that the band was famous for, mediawise, back in the day”¦ No real depth at all, but whatever”¦
"That's the sign of the times these days," he continues. "People always want drama, controversy, to make it interesting and get people's attention. The media knows that's how to sell publications or get ratings. But nowadays, the whole development of reality shows, all the magazines that have turned into gossip rags that's what the public is really saturated with and what it seems to have an appetite for."
So, contrary to expectation, Slash would like people to know that Velvet Revolver has become a "family". "I don't want to sound clichéd," he says, "but everybody's very tight. It's not as volatile as everyone makes it out to be. It's still dysfunctional, but we all love each other."
Taken as evidence, Libertad would suggest that he isn't just blowing smoke. It's a considerably more coherent album than the 2004 debut, Contraband, and more adventurous. It points to a unit that has finally married its multiple interests: unwavering rock in the case of Slash, guitarist Dave Kushner, and the rhythm section of bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Sorum; and the more mercurial, confessional, and often colourful contributions of its lead singer.
Slash maintains that the band got things "back ass ward" at first. "We made a record and went out and tested the band in front of a live audience after the album was out," he explains. "I think we've evolved just because we've had time at this point to jell."
Moreover, unlike Contraband, Libertad doesn't sound like a record made by an underachieving supergroup whose members hate each other, and the album's bonus track, "Don't Drop That Dime", offers a case in point. It started with Slash absently bashing out chords on an acoustic guitar during a photo shoot. Weiland loved what he was hearing, and it was subsequently worked up into a corny but irresistible shit-kicker sing-along that brings to mind the Faces at their most merrily sodden.
It's not the only three minutes on Libertad that gleefully look backward for inspiration. "Pills, Demons, and Etc." gives Slash the chance to exorcise a long-standing obsession, with a guitar-woven intro redolent of Draw the Line vintage Aerosmith, while "Mary Mary" nicks its chorus from the Stones' "Little T&A". "American Man" even brings the Stranglers to mind for a keyboard-inflated moment or two.
Not that Libertad should be viewed as a collection of references. The single "She Builds Quick Machines" is too digitally buffed to come from anywhere but the here and now, but on the whole the second album feels like a potent manifesto from the last stadium-rock band out there.
"It's really such an organic record," says Slash. "The way it was written and recorded, all the ideas that came up were very spontaneous, so I think we were all wearing our influences on our sleeves. I love the first record and I stand by it, but I didn't think that we'd really gotten to know each other, and you got some really talented people all trying to figure out what their niche is. It's all there, but it's not quite there, yet."
Further indicating the growing strength of the band's working relationship is a luminous cover of ELO's "Can't Get It Out of My Head". Slash was against it at first, reasoning there was nothing wrong with the original. Producer Brendan O'Brien gently cajoled the guitarist into performing a basic scratch track.
"Good producers know how to manipulate the artist," Slash says with a laugh. "And I said, 'Okay' trying not to be difficult, you know? And we did it, and then Scott put the vocal on, and the vocal was great. I was like, 'Fuck, now I gotta figure out what the guitar is supposed to do.'"
Slash ended up digging the results but adds, "The thing for me was I played it for Jeff Lynne, and he loved it."
While the man makes lighthearted references to his own obsolescence, Slash's fame and stature were cemented again in modern terms recently, when he was turned into an avatar for the upcoming Guitar Hero III.
"That really tripped me out," he offers with a chuckle. "I was really enthusiastic about the game, because it's the coolest. There's something very perfect about Guitar Hero. But I wasn't really prepared for what I had to do, and I spent six hours moving around in this huge warehouse, with this mo-cap [motion-capture] suit on, doing different guitar moves with the top hat. I was way out of my comfort zone for that."
So he's not unflappable. Slash managed to spend 12 years in a band with Axl Rose, but a leotard with light bulbs on it makes him break into a sweat.
Velvet Revolver plays the Pacific Coliseum on Friday (September 7).