Monday, October 7, 2013

Leslie West - Still Climbing - The Rock Guitar Daily Interview

October 28th sees the release of Leslie West's Still Climbing on Mascot Records, and indeed, he's doing just that, singing and playing as well, if not better than ever. Following the template of his Grammy nominated 2011 release, Unusual Suspects, Still Climbing features a stellar group of six stringers displaying their wares in cameo appearances. Mark Tremonti, Johnny Winter, Jonny Lang solo next to Leslie and he's joined vocally by Dee Snider on one track.

Produced by West and drummer Mike 'Metal' Goldberg, the disc was mixed by the legendary Mike Fraser (Metallica, Joe Satriani, Aerosmith) Still Climbing will certainly satisfy West's loyal fan base, and pick up new listeners as well.

It's always a pleasure to chat with Leslie West - he's not nearly as enamored with his own legend as others may be, and he's always good for a laugh or two. I recently had a chance to connect again with the ex-Mountain man to talk about his new album, and some other historic moments.

Leslie West: "Hey, how are you Tony, good to talk to you, man! 
"I was just looking at your review from the last album, I have that in my favorites - what a great review! I sure hope you like the new one, I thought it was the next step to take after Unusual Suspects, and we're really thrilled with how it turned out. 
"We sent it to Mike Fraser for mixing - Mike's incredible, he's worked with Metallica, done all of Joe Satriani's albums, so it was great to send it to someone with a fresh set of ears, someone who wasn't there for the day to day grind. The record took me over a year to finish, and I'm thrilled - the songs, the playing, yeah, I couldn't be happier!"

He'd be the last to say it, but what continues to impress me the most is the fact that with each album, it's West's voice that keeps getting better and better, stronger and stronger. His tone is great, and his phrasing is more nuanced with each year, and I told him so:

Leslie West: "Well, I appreciate that. I stopped smoking a while ago, and I guess it just keeps clearing up more and more. It lets me do some things, and I still need to scream louder than the guitars!"

West is joined creatively by his wife Jenny on this record, after penning the lyrics to Mudflap Mama on Unusual Suspects. Recalling the misadventures of his old friend and band mate Felix Pappalardi in this area, I asked if he approached this collaboration with any reservations:

Leslie West: "Yeah! A lot of reservations, haha! 
"But she had written the lyrics to Mudflap Mama on the last record, and she'd been writing more lyrics. I opened my iPad, and I'd see these lyrics from our iCloud, they'd appear in my notes section, and I'd say, 'Where did these come from?' 
"So, she was sending them to me, and I was able to pick and choose, to say, 'This will work with this piece of music really well.' 
"There's one song on the album, Not Over You At All, it's my favorite track on the album - it's the one with a sax solo by my friend Arnold Heck from The Uptown Horns. The riff itself is one of my favorites, and that set of lyrics seemed to work very well - it fits."
Jamming this summer with Peter Frampton
Speaking of guests, I asked how it felt to have some of the best guitarists on the planet standing in line to play on the new record. West remains his usual, humble self:

Leslie West:  "Well, they're not standing in line, I went and I asked! 
"Having Jonny Lang on When A Man Loves A Woman - I don't know what made me want to do that song, it's a great song, and I thought if I could do it and still sound like myself - sure enough, Jonny was coming to New Jersey to do a show, and we picked him up at the airport, he came here, and did it! I remember interviewing him for a guitar magazine once when he was about eighteen - he's grown up a little bit, huh? 
"Mark Tremonti, he plays great on the first track, Dyin' Since The Day I Was Born - I can't play like that! He plays so fast, but he's melodic! That's the difference between him and a lot of guys, he plays melodic within all that speed. He plays the solo on the ride out, and I did all the other guitars. He did a great job! 
"Johnny Winter, well, we toured together last summer, and we had talked about it. I did a cut on his upcoming record, I think it's coming out soon - it's a covers album with a lot of guest guitar players. 
"I asked his manager, Paul Nelson, if Johnny would like to play on the album, and he said, 'Sure, why don't you play on Johnny's?' So that really worked out good - On Busted, Disgusted, and Dead you can hear Johnny - he played on the middle solo, and his style and mine are so different. We're both playing slide on that."

With Long Red, West goes back deep into his catalog to 1969, and the album Mountain - the track is one of the most sampled in the history of hip-hop, being used on tracks by Jay-Z, Kanye West, and more recently on the smash, Born To Die by Lana Del Rey:

Leslie West: "The reason I re-did it - I mean, if you were to look it up on Wikipedia, look up that song. 
"There's a map - it's one of the most sampled hip-hop songs of all time. You will not believe it - I couldn't believe how many platinum albums there are. Kanye West, Jay-Z, so many people have sampled that song, there's a girl named Lana Del Rey - a heavy metal chick that raps, 4 million copies of this album, Born To Die, and she sampled my song on the title cut. 
"So, I thought it was a good time to re-do this song that I had written back in 1969. People are always wanting me to do it live - my brother Larry plays bass on it. It was just time to do it. It's different from the original version from that first album. 
"Everybody's been sampling it, and I found out why - it's a hip-hop beat! 
"In 1969, I was writing hip-hop, you know what I mean, hahaha!"

Sticking with 1969, I had to ask how it felt to be onstage at Woodstock:

Leslie West: "Haha, I can't fucking remember, hahaha! 
"I was so nervous to go onstage, and see almost a half a million people that night. We went on just as it had gotten dark, just after The Grateful Dead. I was shocked. 
"You know, on the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, we got married onstage! 
"40 years after the day - that was really something. The reason I was nervous that night was because I was getting married onstage! 
"Going back 40 years, I only vaguely remember going on. In fact, somebody just sent me a Life Magazine that came out a week after the festival - I was looking through it yesterday, and I saw a few pictures of me, and I knew I was at that show, but I barely remember it. Very wild times."

West with Jonny Lang

I wondered if West could have envisioned such a long and illustrious career as a fourteen year old, just learning his craft:

Leslie West: "No, I never would have even thought of that at the time, who thinks like that? 
"I don't think Barack would have thought he'd be the president of the United States when he was fourteen. 
"I still love playing the guitar, working on the sound of my guitar. 
"I used different amps in the studio this time - I used the Blackstars. I didn't use any overdrive pedals, nothing. I love the sound of a big amp - maybe a little bit of delay and reverb in the mixing, but as far as the sound of my guitar, that's the sound that got recorded. I'm always working on bettering the sound of my guitars."

West's legend is not built only upon the sound of his guitars, but also on how he plays them - his vibrato is considered to be one of the most distinct and copied in the history of rock, alongside those of players such as Eric Clapton, Dave Gilmour, and Paul Kossoff. I asked about the development of his vibrato, and his answer resulted in both my being educated and entertained:

Leslie West: "Well, Tony - believe it or not, when someone asks about that - it's like jerking off. 
"The motion of my hand, it's very.... 
"It's different than I see when other guitar players use vibrato. They think you just have to make the string quiver - but when I stretch a string into vibrato, it's like an opera singer. You start slow and build it up - each time, you have to bring it back down to where you started. You don't just stretch it up, you've got to bring it back and make it talk to get that really true quiver that an opera singer or a violin player would do. 
"The idea of the vibrato came from the fact that I couldn't play fast, but I wanted to develop something that sounded silky smooth, I used it when it was necessary, and not just for the hell of it. Not every note."

Remaining in the past for another moment - I asked West what became of his original and iconic Gibson Les Paul Junior guitars, that he brought to such acclaim:

Leslie West: "The original one broke. I had two at Woodstock - one I traded to one of my friends, and Pete Townshend has one that I had given him when I was working with them on Who's Next in New York. 
"I think I have one left. That's why I designed my Dean Leslie West Signature series! 
"The Deans - we have a two pickup model now, but the single pickup models sound just like the Les Paul Juniors. That P90 pickup - I designed the Dean's pickup as a humbucker to reduce the noise. Those old P90s made a lot of noise! We really emulated the old Juniors, but we put some modern twists to it. 
"Now we have one that's going to be lower priced, so everybody that wants one can get one. The biggest difference is that they're not hand built. We have 4 or 5 models, and now we'll have an import that still has my LW logo, like on the Unusual Suspects album, and it'll be black. We're working to get that out really soon! 
"You know, I couldn't be happier with the way everything is working out. Tony, I appreciate talking with you, you're a good man!"

As are you, Mr. West, as are you.

Still Climbing is out on October 28 on the Mascot Records label.

Thanks to Leslie, Steve Karas at SKH Music, and Peter Noble at Noble PR.


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