2001 - Interview w. Bill Price
Oh, God, this is a long one. Originally, I was headhunted by Tom Zutaut, Guns N' Roses' A&R man, to make Appetite for Destruction, their first record. Negotiations were well under way to record at Wessex, in London, and I was really looking forward to doing it. I'd heard demos that sounded great. Then, all of a sudden, Geffen got cold feet. Guns N' Roses was growing a reputation for being quite wild in Los Angeles, and, probably quite rightly, Geffen didn't want them out of their sight. David Geffen himself insisted that the record was made in Los Angeles. Geffen asked me to go to Los Angeles to make it, and I turned him down. I had a young family at the time and also responsibilities at Wessex, and c'est la vie, mate.
But they came back to you how many albums later?
After Appetite for Destruction they had a 50 percent live record, a bit of a stopgap record, because they hadn't done very much work. Then they started work on their huge Use Your Illusion project with the same producer/engineer, Mike Clink, that had done Appetite for Destruction. This involved about 40 songs, and it was going over budget, overtime, pretty much over everything, really, and Geffen wanted it finished. They got Bob Clearmountain to mix it in one studio whilst Axl was still doing vocals in another studio and Slash doing guitars in a third. Which was, quite obviously, a recipe for chaos. I think Bob mixed about 20 songs, but he had absolutely no contact with the band, because they were recording other stuff in other studios. And basically what happened, if Axl liked the mix, Slash didn't, and if Slash liked the mix, Axl didn't. So Bob never really had the chance to work with the band. Geffen was pressuring to get the album finished, so Tom Zutaut persuaded me to come out to L.A. and mix it. Not even actually to mix it, but to audition for mixing it.
How does that work?
Geffen pays my flight and my hotel, and I do a mix of something and wait and see if anybody likes it or not, to find out whether I'm hired. So I did my "audition" on "Right Next Door to Hell." I think it opens the first CD of Use Your Illusion. It's a very straightforward, up-front rocker, so I did a loud, in-your-face, heavily compressed mix of the backing track and then added Axl's vocal on top, post the compressors, so that you could hear what he was singing. Everybody loved it, so they hired me. I then embarked on a very long period in Los Angeles working my way through this huge amount of material. I had fantastic help from Mike Clink, who'd produced the original backing tracks, and day-to-day support from Jim Mitchell, his engineer, who was very helpful. I had alternate visits from Slash, Axl and various other members of the band and sent everybody else DATs for approval. I happily worked my way through 20 or 30 songs.
Which were all finished, or were there still vocals coming in?
What happened was, having got my way through about 20 songs, I was then in the position of waiting for the next song to be finished. For example, on "November Rain," which was a bit of a baby of Axl's, I had Mike Clink's original 24-track master, which had just drums and maybe a bit of bass on it. I had a 24-track slave that had a load of vocal ideas on it and a 24-track slave that had a lot of guitar ideas on it and a Sony 48-track slave that had a hell of a lot of vocal and keyboard work that Axl had been doing in his studio. I had another 48-track slave that Slash had been recording on in his studio. I tried a telephonic method of working out which tracks should be used and couldn't get anybody to agree on what of this huge amount was going to be used. I decided that the only way would be to run them all together. We were in Skip Saylor's studio in Los Angeles, which had, if I remember rightly, an 82- or 84-channel SSL. It was a pretty big desk. So we hired a bunch of tape machines in, and, of course, they didn't run in sync, but the Los Angeles hire companies have got some very good technical engineers, and some hairy bloke in shorts arrived with a homemade interface and managed to plug all the machines together and get them to run in sync. Then I could play every track that everybody had recorded on.
Then I decided that the only way to find out which tracks to use would be to get the entire band in the studio at the same time, which seemed like quite a normal thing to me. When I mentioned this to the band's management, they were totally horrified. The thought of Guns N' Roses all being in the same room at the same time was too much for them to bear. [Laughs.] They warned me against it, but I couldn't think of any other way of doing it. So they all arrived, and we got down to a mix. They were very gentlemanly. Axl walked in and said, "Good afternoon, Slash. I know it's your guitar, and obviously you have the main say in it, but I do love that lick there. Do you think we could have it a bit louder?" Total gentlemen. We finally got the mix done.
It must have taken many, many hours, if not days or weeks?
It was a very long process. That mix was on the board for a good week, ten days. DATs were going backwards and forth, and harmony lines were being changed and different guitar licks were being put in. You name it. That's about the most complicated mix, both musically, technically and people-wise, I've ever done in my life. But what impressed the band when they walked in was that to get all of these machines synched - Saylor Recording had a separate machine room, which was just full of tape machines, and obviously there weren't enough tielines to get them all onto the desk - there was this elephant trunk of cable coming through the door and wending its way to the desk. Everybody just went, "Oh, my God. What's that?" It looked like something out of a science fiction movie where the machines take over.
So you mixed it all at once, but it was released as two albums [Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II]?
It was released as a two-album set, although they were packaged separately and sold separately for whatever reason. You could buy just one or the other, or both, whichever you wanted. But it was everything that they'd been working on and thinking about for the previous three years tied up into one huge project, in answer to the record company saying, "You haven't been doing very much for three years."
To continue the story a little longer, they still hadn't finished the album when their massive 18-month world tour started. So the last half a dozen songs were recorded, overdubbed, vocal'ed and guitar'ed, what have you'ed, in random recording studios dotted about America when they had a day off between gigs. My mixing mode then switched into flying around America with pocketfuls of DATs, playing it to the band backstage. Which was great fun, actually. I enjoyed that.
So you wouldn't actually do the recording sessions?
No. Mike Clink was on the road with the band, trying to get them in a recording studio wherever he could and whenever he could, and I was back in L.A. at the desk waiting for DHL to bring my next tape through the door.
Sounds like a lot of waiting around.
It was great fun. We were kept quite busy."