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Welcome to Appetite for Discussion -- a Guns N' Roses fan forum!

Please feel free to look around the forum as a guest, I hope you will find something of interest. If you want to join the discussions or contribute in other ways then you need to become a member. We especially welcome anyone who wants to share documents for our archive or would be interested in translating or transcribing articles and interviews.

Registering is free and easy.


2011.05.20 - Ultimate Guitar - Interview with DJ

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2011.05.20 - Ultimate Guitar - Interview with DJ Empty 2011.05.20 - Ultimate Guitar - Interview with DJ

Post by Soulmonster Fri May 20, 2011 6:55 pm

DJ Ashba: Unrecorded Axl's Songs Could 'Blow People's Minds'

DJ Ashba is a man wearing many hats. Not only is he the guitarist/writer in Nikki Sixx’s side project, Sixx: A.M. but he is also the touring guitar player in Guns N' Roses. He produces, writes, scores, and is a successful entrepreneur who oversees a business empire that includes a clothing line, recording studio, graphic design company, signature guitars, and musical gear. But it is his guitar playing first and foremost that brings him the most attention. On This Is Gonna Hurt, the new Sixx: A.M. record and the follow-up to The Heroin Diaries Soundtrack, Ashba runs the gamut from clean, Hendrix-styled tones on "Smile" and "Sure Feels Right" to monster walls of orchestrated guitars on "This Is Gonna Hurt" and "Live Forever."

It’s no surprise that both Nikki Sixx and Axl Rose wanted Ashba in their band—he’s fluent in every style from classic rock and shred to country picking and his sense of harmony and composition is both unique and daring. He not only co-wrote most of the songs on the new Sixx: A.M. album but programmed drums and co-produced.

For all of those accomplishments, you’d think that DJ Ashba would have a big head. He doesn’t. He’s about as down to earth as anyone you’d ever want to meet and in this wonderful discussion you get a sense of his modesty and his love for all things musical.

UG: Your first rock show was Motley Crue during the Girls, Girls, Girls tour. What did that mean to you when you saw them?

DJ Ashba: When you’re a kid you watch all these rock stars on TV and it seems kinda like untouchable and kind of a dream; like they don’t even seem real to me. I don’t think it had anything to do with Motley so to speak; I think it just had to do with being in the same building and watching it live. Because that night I remember, it wasn’t so much the band; it was the feeling I had. And going, “You know what? This isn’t impossible. There it is right in front of me and they’re doing it and there’s no reason I can’t be doing this.”

Most struggling musicians would have thought, “I’ll never be able to do this.”

It kind of was a reality check more than anything. I knew long before then what I wanted to do; I never had a doubt of what I was gonna do for a living but that just made it very tangible to me. I was like, “Wow, OK, this can be done.” So it was just kind of one of those things; it was more of a wakeup call and going, “Wow, if they can do it, I definitely can do this.” And it didn’t seem like a dream after that night.

You knew you were always going to be a guitar player and you sort of came to it by releasing your first album, Addiction to the Friction album. That was an all-instrumental album

That was actually a mistake. I got out to Los Angeles and I had just been demoing a bunch of songs on my own. I had a little 4-track recorder, a Tascam PortaOne that I brought out, and I was just sitting at home demoing up a bunch of stuff. I obviously didn’t have a singer and I didn’t know anyone out here.

Did you work with any bands before recording the Addiction to the Friction album?

When I first got out here, I toured with a band called Barracuda. They were actually a band from Chicago [Ashba was from Fairbury, Illinois] and they had a video on MTV and they were kind of ‘the thing’ back home at the time that I came out. But they were just doing cover songs so I went out and just tried to get in front of as many people and playing in as many bars as I could. And just trying to turn as many heads as I could to get noticed.

Were you making a living?

It didn’t pay anything really so I got a job doing construction. I remember I was at this job and I was playing my boss some of my crappy little demos in his truck. The guy we were doing some work for happened to own a really tiny independent record label [Straight Edge Entertainment] and I had no idea. He overheard the music in the truck and asked who it was and stuff and I told him it was me; I still had no idea who he was.

You signed with his label?

He signed me to an independent deal and put out Addiction to Friction. I think they only printed like 2,500 copies; it was very small. But it was kind of my start.

You can really hear a lot of your current style of guitar playing on the new Sixx: A.M. album on the Addiction to the Friction record. There is the heavy stuff and the cleaner tones and there’s everything that you’re doing on the This Is Gonna Hurt CD.

Yeah; absolutely. And you can kind of tell my style really hasn’t [changed]. I’ve played so many different styles my whole life but when I really sit back and go, “This is really who I am,” you’re gonna hear that in Sixx: A.M. Because I can be me and I can be myself and I’m not trying to be anything else. That’s what I love about Sixx: A.M. If you listen to a lot of the solos on Addiction to the Friction and kinda compare ‘em 15 years later or whatever it is to This Is Gonna Hurt, it’s very similar.

How would you describe your guitar style?

I have a very melodic and almost a Randy Rhoads classical influence because my mom was a classical piano teacher. I started out on piano when I was three so classical music has always been a big part of my life. I think that just kind of pops through just in my natural playing.

Nikki was supportive of you in terms of experimenting with guitar styles on the This Is Gonna Hurt record?

We’re all three our own individuals and we’re all three best friends and songwriters and producers. So we all have so much respect for each other that we try everything. It’s never, “Hey, why don’t you play it this way or play it that way.” We all have ideas we bring to the table and we’re all so open to trying everything and anything. Sixx: A.M. is basically an open canvas and we each get a paintbrush and we have every color in the rainbow and we can paint outside the lines and there are no rules. ‘Cause we’re not writing for radio; we’re not writing for anybody.

You do want to sell records.

It’s one of those projects where artistically it allows us to be free with our art. So the fact that we’ve created something where we can paint outside the lines and people actually accepted it and get it is just awesome. Because the sky’s the limit for Sixx: A.M.

Was This Is Gonna Hurt a little more comfortable for you than the first record, The Heroin Diaries?

Yeah, I believe so. We still to this day don’t really look at this as a band. We’ve always looked at it like kind of a side project; we get together and we just have a lot of fun. The fans have kind of turned it into a band because the song, “Life Is Beautiful” took off. We still to this day don’t have a drummer and we never will get a drummer; me and James do all the programming for all the drums. It’s kind of funny because we get to work with a lot of different drummers when we do things like videos or maybe play shows. We pull in different people left and right and it’s just a lot of fun; it keeps things interesting.

That positive energy you talk about comes through in the music.

We don’t take it too serious. It’s a project where we have a lot of fun doing it and I think if it ever got to that point we probably wouldn’t do it anymore. It’s one of those things where it’s kind of an escape for us to just be as free and have as much fun as we can. We laugh so much doing Sixx: A.M; we just laugh our way through these records. It’s probably because we’re touching on really heavy, deep issues that not many people want to talk about. And so it’s kind of our way of making light of the situation to get through some of these heavy issues that we are writing about. Yeah, it’s been a blast doing it.

“Lies Of the Beautiful People” is the first single from This Is Gonna Hurt. Is it sort of the follow-up to “Life Is Beautiful” from The Heroin Diaries record?

I guess you can look at it that way. The Heroin Diaries was a whole thing in itself. I did all the quirky orchestra stuff like “Intermission” and I love doing orchestra pieces. I’m getting heavily into scoring music, which probably comes from my classical background growing up. So it was really fun on Heroin Diaries to dive into some of that quirky Danny Elfman-styled stuff. When I started writing this album, I actually wrote three or four of those type pieces, which were just mind blowing. And then I had Nikki come in my studio and do a little narration over it and we kind of stopped the tape and we’re like, “You know what? We’ve done this. Let The Heroin Diaries be what it was because it was so special and let’s not go back down that same road.” So we kind of put all those things to the side.

You didn’t want to repeat yourself.

It’s hard as a writer but it’s the smart thing to do as a producer. So you’ve gotta kind of be smart when you’re writing something and you’ve gotta also take off your writing hat and be able to put on the producer hat. And go, “You know what? This song, as much as I love it, I gotta edit two minutes off of it.” Or, “This song is great but you know what? Let’s put it aside and not put it on this record.”

That’s a difficult thing to do for a musician.

That’s probably the hardest thing to do but I think this record was a little easier because we weren’t searching for a Sixx: A.M. sound. Like the first album, we didn’t know what us three were gonna sound like. We just knew we had magic when we were writing songs together. On The Heroin Diaries we definitely created a sound for Sixx: A.M. So I think this time we focused more on the songwriting, the lyrical content and the message and tried to up everybody’s antes. We focused more on the songs than searching for what Sixx: A.M. is gonna sound like.

Did you want to improve on the guitar playing on The Heroin Diaries? What about the guitar on “Lies Of the Beautiful People”?

I really tried to step up the guitar end and just bring it up to a whole new level. I use a wah and a slide and then I do a harmony, an octave low with the slide. So it’s basically two slides going with a wah on each slide and they’re doing a harmony of each other.

Is this the freedom you were talking about earlier to be able to experiment and try different things on the guitar?

Yeah; absolutely. By far, I know for a fact in my heart, I can go to bed at night smiling because I know when people get this record they’re not gonna be disappointed. It’s something I’m always gonna be proud of and the guitars, I really feel like it’s some of my best work to date. That’s kind of what it’s all about: you’re only as good as your last thing. As long as I can sit back and go, “OK, I know the songs, I know the lyrical content, I know the overall message and I know my playing on this record definitely outperformed The Heroin Diaries.” In my heart I know that; then I know we did our job.

This Is Gonna Hurt definitely took a big step forward from The Heroin Diaries.

We set the bar really high on Heroin Diaries. But I absolutely know in my heart when people get this album and listen to it from beginning to end, I think everybody’s gonna agree this album stands on its own.

“Live Forever” was a pretty complex song harmonically. You can’t tell where the chords were going to go.

I think the hardest part when you are trying to step it up as a player is to overplay. I think when it comes down to being a great songwriter is knowing when to kind of chill and let other instruments breathe. There’s a time to shine and there’s a time to really support the track and other members in the band. I think Sixx:A.M. is really good at doing that; shining when we have to and holding back when we have to. That’s what’s neat about Sixx:A.M. because you typically think where the song would go, and we always usually take it the opposite way. That’s way it’s something new and something fresh and to go where the obvious is, it just gets boring at that point and it becomes just another typical band.

You consciously were looking for different harmonic progressions and different ways to approach the songs?

I think this is the part where we push ourselves as songwriters. It’s like, “Yeah, we could easily go here” or “That makes sense.” But “How can we make even more sense going here even though it doesn’t sound as good? Let’s go here and make it sound even better somehow.”

How does a song like “Live Forever” get put together?

It’s happened so many different ways. On “Life Is Beautiful” I basically was out at Funny Farm (Sixx’s recording studio) and demoed up pretty much all the music; I did all the drums and just everything. I did a quick demo of everything and then I sent it to James and I think James went in and tweaked all the drums and really made ‘em slam. And then he would send it back to me at that point and then we’d do editing and then all three of us would sit around and write lyrics. Once all the lyrics were pretty much in place, I would have to go back and maybe replay any chord changes that we might change by the melody of the lyric. So then I’d go back and recut all the guitars and then we’d go in and cut bass and then send it back to James and he’d sing it and send it back to us. It’s kind of that type of thing.

Everybody has their own studio?

Me and James have both of our studios rolling constantly; he has a studio in Nashville and I have Ashbaland Studios here in Woodland Hills. We basically just have two studios; he’ll send me stems of songs. There are times when he’ll throw down a scratch guitar with just the drums done and send it to me and then I’ll go in and cut the guitars on it and send it back to him. Every song is kind of done differently.

Are the three of you in the studio together when you’re cutting tracks?

During the writing we’re always together. If Motley’s on tour or whatever the case is, we’ll go out and sit in a hotel room and we just write and write and write and we record everything we do. We get together as much as we can and start putting all the songs together and really turning it into something. And once we feel we have the song where we want it, we’ll do little scratch [demos]; we’ll hold up a cellphone and play acoustically through ‘em and get the song kind of arranged to where we want it. Then me and James will dive in and start programming drums and doing it for real and that’s kind of the process. When we’re tracking, there are times where I’m in my studio tracking all the guitars by myself with nobody in there. And there are times where James and Nikki are both in there going, “Hey, let’s get weird on this; let’s try this and try that.” We’re all capable at working alone but we’re all great at working together, too.

"We focused more on the songs than searching for what Sixx: A.M. is gonna sound like."
Nikki must have a lot of faith in you to put the songs together when he’s not there.

It comes down to having so much trust and respect for each other; we know everybody knows what they’re doing. So when we get the stems or tracks, it’s not even a question of, “Oh, I didn’t think it was gonna sound like that.” It’s always like, “Fuck, that’s killer.”

On “Sure Feels Right,” you’ve dialed up that clean guitar gone you used back on the song “Cry For Freedom” from the Addiction to the Friction album. You’ve played a beautiful solo and it almost sounds like a country thing.

That song was weird because we in a hotel room in Atlanta, Georgia and we were talking about wanting to come up with a summertime, feel good sounding type thing. It was bizarre because that particular riff was something I had written when I was 16 years old and I’d forgotten all about it. The minute I started playing it – I don’t know what made me think of it because I hadn’t played it in years – James turned his head and said, “Holy shit, what’s that?” And I was like, “Oh, just some old, old idea I used to play a long time ago” and he immediately started singing that melody over it; it was just instant. That song was written literally in five minutes so it happens very quickly.

What about “Skin”?

“Skin” was a song James wrote by himself. The record at that point was already done in our eyes; we had all the songs. He watched a documentary about Amy who had lost her legs in a skiing accident and he got so emotionally wrapped up with her whole story that he actually sat down on the piano and started doing that. He literally wrote it and sent us a copy and I was just blown away by it. I was like, “Holy shit, this has to go on this record.”

What was your amplifier setup on This Is Gonna Hurt?

Believe it or not we didn’t plug into one amp on the record. And it was the same thing when I co-produced and co-write the Motley Crue record, Saints of Los Angeles: we didn’t plug in one amp. We used [Avid] Eleven, which is an amazing piece of software. I did Neil Diamond’s album [Cherry Cherry Christmas] and all but the acoustics on his record were done on Eleven and it’s just an amazing program. I was gonna say I thought we used some other things but we didn’t actually.

Did you use Eleven on The Heroin Diaries?

We used a lot of PODs on it ‘cause I have a lot of Line 6 stuff that was modified beyond belief and you wouldn’t believe the sound out of ‘em. You think Line 6 and you’re like, “Ehh” but these things just ripped your face off. I use ‘em on a lot of records and it has that tone and sound and it’s just great.

Do you use the PODs and Eleven because it’s so much easier to deal with than miking cabinets and dialing in amp sounds?

I think so but at the same time with Eleven we aren’t committing to a sound. I mean forget all the mic placements and all that. The problem with tube amps is you mike ‘em down and you come in the next day and they just never sound the same. So I think the consistency of Eleven is why we probably tend to lean on it. It’s awesome; you go in and it always sounds the same and the great thing is you’re not committing to a tone. At the end of the day when mixing time comes, it’s all direct signal so we can change any sound, any type of amp we want at the last second.

Have you changed guitar sounds at the 11th hour?

That’s happened quite a bit where we’re like, “Ah, this is a little too heavy in this part” and we’ll switch the amps [on the software] and then it’s like, “That’s it right there.”

What about guitars?

On this album I used all Les Pauls. The cool thing is we used the same guitar that Bob Rock gave to Nikki. But I used a bunch of mine that I use for Guns N’ Roses but a lot of the rhythms were done on this black Custom Les Paul that was used on the Black album [Metallica]. Bob Rock gave it to Nikki and Nikki brought it over and it just sounds awesome so we just ended up using it on a bunch of rhythm stuff.

What was that experience like working on the Saints of Los Angeles album?

I’ve been working with Motley and have been friends with ‘em for a long, long time. So to me they’re just four of my really good friends or whatever. Me and Mick had a lot of fun and it actually took a lot of convincing to convince Mick to use Eleven in the beginning ‘cause he’s like, “No, man, I need to bring in eight stacks.” I’m like, “Trust me and just plug into this; this is something brand new and it’s gonna blow your mind.” And as soon as he plugged in, it sounded like eight stacks in the next room cranked. Once he played through it, he was like, “How do I get this in my live rig?”

A lot of musicians get set in their ways and have to plug a guitar into an amp. So it was kinda one of those things where it was just breaking the old school way of thinking. I think that’s half the battle. It’s kinda like when people went from analog to digital they were like, “Ahh, I dunno about it” but technology at the end of the day always will conquer.

You working with Neil Diamond on his holiday album, Cherry Cherry Christmas, seems like an odd pairing.

My manager, Katie McNeil, manages Neil and over the years he’s always been a big supporter of what I’ve done and stuff. He was actually the first guy to call me to congratulate me when I got the Guns N’ Roses gig. He sent me a signed ukulele as a present and every year he sends me a birthday present and he’s just always been such a great guy. He invited me up to his house to play “Star Spangled Banner” at his birthday party and things like that are just kind of mindblowing if you sit back and think about it. And fortunately, thank god, I never really do; I don’t sit back and go, “Holy shit, I’m at Neil Diamond’s house playing ‘Star Spangled Banner.’ Because these people have always treated me like friends and they’re very down-to-earth and very real so I’ve never looked at ‘em for anything other than that.

And you knew you’d be comfortable working with someone like Neil Diamond?

Yeah, I’m always up for a challenge and we got in there and he was such a joy to work with. We’d meet at his house and me and him would sit in his kitchen with acoustics and a pad of paper and sit there and write and write and work on lyrics and just sit there with two acoustics and strum. We did that for weeks and then I went in and started programming all the drums and got most of the music side kind of done on my own. Then we’d do all the vocals and stuff at his studio and I did the orchestra stuff at my place; wrote and arranged it. Then we had a real orchestra come in and recreate what I did and it was just mindblowing to watch a real orchestra. He brought somebody in who transposed all the music I had written onto paper and it was just a cool experience and something I’ll never forget.

Is it a totally different experience working with GNR as opposed to working with Sixx: A.M.?

They’re very much completely two totally different beasts. I know Axl tends to get a bad rap because people believe what the media force feeds them and they believe what they wanna believe. ‘Cause I think when anybody gets that big, it’s the media’s job, they feel, if we don’t tear ‘em down then we’re not doing our jobs. The media loves to build people up just to tear ‘em down. I’ll never get that because if you actually sit down and get to know Axl, he is very intelligent, very talented, and probably one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met in my life. He’s constantly cracking jokes left and right; he’s really just a good-hearted person.

Nobody could have survived all of these years without a lot of talent.

He’s like anybody else; the thing I like about Axl is he’s the real deal. He gives you the option—you can either be his friend or fuck him over. So I think he’s like anybody only he doesn’t pussyfoot around the subject. If you do him wrong, he’s gonna call you out on it. But he gives everybody the opportunity to be cool; he treats you like you treat him. He’s just a cool fuckin’ guy and I can’t really say enough nice things about him. He’s got more talent in his pinkie than most people out there. It’s sickening to sit there and watch this guy play piano in his hotel room and he’s singing shit equally as great as “November Rain” that has never been recorded. I just sit there with my mouth open and I’m like, “Holy fuck.” He’s like, “This is just stuff I’m tinkering around on” and I’m like, “Dude, you gotta get this out to the public. This is sick.” So he has a lot of great songs up his sleeve that I pray to god the world could hear one day ‘cause it’s gonna blow people’s minds.

Do you bring a different guitar personality to the Guns songs than you do to the Sixx: A.M. songs?

Yeah; I approach ‘em both completely different. Obviously I grew up a fan of Guns N’ Roses and I respect what they’ve done for the world of music. I always look at it like, “Listen, I’m joining something that has been around for many, many years that is already huge” and is one of the biggest bands in the world. I’m stepping in the shoes of legendary guitar player so it’s like separating yourself from the song as a producer. I could come into this and go, “You know what? I wanna play my own solos and do my own thing in ‘Sweet Child ‘O Mine.” But me as a fan, if I were to show up and see some new guy on stage, what would I really want to hear? Well you’d want to hear somebody staying as true to what you grew up listening to. So for me with all the songs that have already been recorded, of course I’m bringing my own flair and style to ‘em but I’m trying to do ‘em justice by staying as true to these songs as I possibly can. Because I just feel like they deserve that; they’re so classic that you can’t really vary off of them too much because at that point it becomes over-playing and showing off.

You were a fan of Guns back in the day?

Guns have been a big influence on my life. It’s easy for me to fall into that because it’s part of my style too so it’s very natural for me to play similar to the stuff Slash plays. He has a very blues-based thing and I grew up heavily on that. It isn’t like I’m playing some foreign style that I’m not used to.

You were playing that bluesy type of guitar in Beautiful Creatures.

Yeah, if you pick up the Beautiful Creatures record you’ll hear more of that side of my playing; more of that Guns ‘N Roses style of playing. If you listen to the song “New Orleans” it’s very kind of a Guns sound. The stuff I’m excited about is the new stuff and try to stay true to the sound of Guns and bringing in a lot more of my influence into it.

Did you enjoy working on the Beautiful Creatures record?

Absolutely. Sean [Beavan; producer] was amazing. Beautiful Creatures to this day, I don’t think it got its fair shot. Whether it was ahead of its time or whatever it was, to this day it’s another record that I’ll always be proud of. I think there are some amazing songs on there and I think it’s just a great rock and roll record and we really showcased the guitars on that album. It did well but I really believe in my heart it should have done a lot better.

You’re also involved in a number of business ventures including Ashba Media and Ashbaland Studios.

I don’t look at myself as a rock star; I look at myself as a businessman and an entrepreneur. I love to create and I’m very artistic. I have a great clothing line called Ashba Swag; I’m bringing my stage clothing to the fans. Ashba Media is a graphic design agency and we’re creating a lot of cool products. We have the Demented Collection of guitars and we’re working on a signature Les Paul. We have the Ashba Tuner on iTunes, which is a professional guitar tuner. And of course Ashbaland Studios is where I create all the music: produce, write and I’m starting to get into scoring. I’m signing on to do a really cool horror movie and it’s just a lot of fun. I love creating.

Do you think that Nikki is more fulfilled in Sixx:A.M. than he is in Motley Crue?

I think he has a love for both; I think it’s two completely different animals. Obviously he grew up with Motley and they grew up as kids and they’re best friends. I think Sixx:A.M. is fresh and it’s new and it’s fun and exciting and it allows him—just like me—to be artistically free. It’s hard to find a project that actually does well in this world that people accept when you’re being this artsy with it. So I think, yeah, we’re all getting huge pleasure out of being able to really be just free and true to our art. I think Nikki is able to do things in Motley that obviously Sixx:A.M. would never do. So I think it’s just two totally different things and thank god they’re both very successful. And the same with Guns; I get to do stuff in Guns N’ Roses that I would never be able to get away with in Sixx:A.M. and vice versa. It’s a great headspace to go from the Sixx:A.M. world to jumping out on tour and writing Guns N’ Roses songs. It’s awesome as an artist to be able to change it up and switch gears and go, “OK, now we’re in Guns N’ Roses land and let’s focus in on really kickass, sleazy, dirty rock and roll.” I just love it.

Interview by Steven Rosen
Ultimate-Guitar.Com © 2011

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