Guns N' Roses guitarist Dj Ashba on that time his pal Neil Diamond urged him to join GNR
Guns N' Roses (due Sunday, December 11 at 1STBANK Center) is a household name at this point and hardly needs an introduction. During the late 1980s, Guns proved that you could come out of L.A. and not have songs that were just thinly disguised paeans to sexual conquest.
Guns didn't go for the glam look of the era, either, and the band's gritty music was more in line with the kind of rock and roll made by Aerosmith and Hanoi Rocks. But with the stories that came out of singer Axl Rose's experiences coming to Los Angeles from Indiana came with a dark edge and a surprising hopefulness.
The Guns N' Roses story itself is full of ups and downs, numerous lineup changes and rumors of Axl Rose's mercurial personality and melodramatic outbursts within the band. But to Rose's credit, he kept a band together long enough to release Chinese Democracy nearly two decades after the band's last full batch of original material.
This time around, he's touring with a handpicked group of musicians who can fulfill his musical vision -- whether the critics and fair-weather fans approve of what he's done or not. We had a chance to speak with GNR guitarist Dj Ashba about his first impressions of Los Angeles, meeting Nikki Sixx and becoming friends with Neil Diamond. Page down for the full interview.
Westword:You started playing music from a very early age growing up in rural Illinois. What did you expect to find when you moved to Los Angeles and what were the biggest moments of culture shock for you?
Dj Ashba: I just remember flying in for the first time over Los Angeles. I'm from a really small country town. I just remember it never ended and thinking, "Wow, this is just L.A." and "How am I supposed to go down in that and make a name for myself. This is impossible. This is going to be a big chore ahead of me." I don't even know why I remember that. I remember it being very overwhelming, and I was just like, "Man there are millions of people down there. How does a small country kid..." -- you know? It was cool but I look back now and think, "Wow, that took a lot longer than I thought it would.
You saved up to buy your first guitar. What did you get, and did you get any guidance from anyone on what sorts of gear to acquire early on?
No, because being in the country, there was no internet back then. We had magazines and stuff, and obviously the bands in the magazines had really cool, expensive guitars, and I was just a little kid in the country. So I remember detasseling corn all summer in order to buy my first guitar out of the Sears catalog. I had no idea what was cool and what was not. I just knew that was the only guitar I could afford, and it was a white, Flying V Harmony. The reason I got that was because I loved Randy Rhoads, and it was the closest thing that kind of resembled something that he would be playing on.
Your first concert was Motley Crue, and then you wrote music for Nikki Sixx's book, and then wrote music for their most recent album: What about seeing that band live was inspirational to you immediately, and how did you meet and come to work with Nikki?
My dad took me when I was sixteen to the Girls Girls Girls concert, and I think that night changed my life. I knew I wanted to play music for a living, that's all I really knew since I was little. But up until then, it was kind of like a dream, and you'd see these people in magazines, and they just didn't seem real, kind of. Then, I guess being in the same room with them, watching them do it, something clicked that night. I was like, "Wow, it can be done. It's not a dream, they're up there doing it so there's no reason I can't." It made this thing in my head that was like a dream and turned it into a reality for me. After that, I was so determined. I was like, "I will be on that stage one day.
I didn't realize I was going to be on stage with that guy on stage, but I met Nikki eight or nine years ago at Randy Castillo's funeral, and we talked a bit there. He didn't know me from Adam, I don't think, but it was cool, because I just kept plugging away in L.A. trying to make a name for myself. I guess word got around about me, and then eventually, I got a phone call from him. We had run into each other here and there. I got the call to join Brides of Destruction, but at the time, I was working on my own thing, so I turned it down. Which he'll never let me live down.
Everything happens for a reason, and a few years later, he called me again, and we started hanging out. He invited me up to his house, and I remember the first time we sat down at a piano with an acoustic guitar, we wrote four songs in like half an hour, and we were like, "Whoa, we've got something here." He wanted to know if I wanted to team up with him as a songwriter and producer out at Funny Farm. I was about ready to sign another deal with Atlantic Records, and I actually turned down the record deal to team up with him. Then, through that, we created Sixx: A.M. without realizing it.
How is it that you know Neil Diamond enough for him to have encouraged you into joining of Guns N Roses?
Well, I've been a big fan of Neil for forever. But it was cool because we have the same manager. What was cool about it was that I got the opportunity to work with him, and I produced and wrote some stuff for him on his Christmas record, and we just became really good friends. He would send me birthday cards -- like, he'd go out and pick a birthday gift and hand write the cards and send them to my house. He was just a really big believer in me and always has been since.
I was in New York on tour, and he called me up... well back up the story a bit. When I got the call to join Guns, I got a phone call from Neil. It was kind of a big career move, and he encouraged me and said, "You have to do this. This is going to be really big for your career, and it's going to open up a lot of doors. I personally think they couldn't have picked a better guy for this." So he gave me really good words of encouragement, kind of like my dad, you know? When I joined, he sent me over a ukulele signed to congratulate me. When I was in New York, he invited me over to his house for Thanksgiving dinner and stuff. I played his birthday party. Tons of fun. He's always been the most down to earth guy you'll ever meet.
You went through an audition process before joining GNR. Did Axl ever tell you why he picked you, and what was that first practice with the band like for you?
He didn't tell me why he picked me. What happened is that I got a call, basically saying -- I got a call at Sixx: A.M., and we had a number one hit at the time, and it said: "Listen, Guns has been auditioning guitar players for about a year and a half on the down low. They can't seem to find the right guy." Then they asked if I would be interested in coming down and checking it out. And I said, "Yeah, I'll definitely come down." I guess Axl got wind that I was going to come down, and he called management and said, "If he even shows up in the room, he has the gig." So it was kind of that easy.
The first time I sat down with him after joining the band, he had known about my entire career. It blew my mind. He remembered meeting me ten years ago, probably even longer than that now, when Sharon Osborne introduced us, while I was making The Beautiful Creatures album. He said, "If I knew you would have been up for this, I would've came after you years ago." I didn't even know I was on his radar, so it was pretty flattering.
You guys play a lot of jokes with each other on tour. What's one of the worst and funniest prank someone played on you, and the worst and funniest you played on someone else?
We oil spot each other a lot. Like when we stop at truck stops and we know somebody is in there, we purposely take off. It's always fun to do stuff like that. Just buying crazy stuff and planting them in people's bunks like just whatever -- dildos or funny stuff. I remember probably one of the funniest times, and Axl actually reminded me of this, is when I got so wasted one night on tour that I woke up in my closet in my suitcase, which was kind of funny. Not really. But I guess it's a prank I played on myself. It looked comfy at the time, I guess. We have a great time and it's a lot of fun being out here.
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