Rock Stalwart Gilby Clarke Talks New LP ‘The Gospel Truth,’ Time Spent With Guns N’ Roses & Choppers (INTERVEW)

He’s a motorcycle riding, leather jacket wearing, guitar playing true blue rock & roller, who has remained true to his roots from day one. Teasing us since last year about an upcoming album, Gilby Clarke began by releasing a single here and a single there. Now he’s unleashed the whole shebang, The Gospel Truth, this past Friday, April 23, 2021. It contains ten songs steady and rocking all the way through, featuring shades of his musical past: from his short time in Guns N Roses to his earlier days in Candy and Kill For Thrills to his spot on debut solo album, Pawnshop Guitars, to even a little extra sass he picked up from working with Nancy Sinatra. All these elements, along with a dash of teenage rebellious punk rock, have infiltrated into what makes Clarke the rocker he is and has brought to delightful rascally fruition on his latest record.

The Gospel Truth has been ready since before the pandemic but when covid reared it’s scary head a lot of things went on hold, including new albums. So Clarke waited. But with spring in full bloom and vaccinations being given frequently, the world is inching ever closer to getting bands back on the road and with that we’re starting to see those sitting-on-the-shelves albums gradually coming out. Clarke has released three singles so far: “Rock N Roll Is Getting Louder,” the title track and “Tightwad,” featuring old friend Nikki Sixx on bass. “Nikki found a cool bass groove that accentuates the feel I was looking for,” Clarke said upon the song’s debut. “Lyrically, I was inspired by deceit, treachery and the creative extremes people will go through to get ahead. I tried to get my message through with humor, but if it hits too close to home, maybe we all should take a closer look at ourselves and make improvements.” 

Clarke produced his new album, which also features drummers Kenny Aronoff and Stephen Perkins. Not a newbie behind the glass by any means, he has produced albums by LA Guns as well as his solo albums beginning with his second record, 1997’s The Hangover. He was a part of Slash’s Snakepit, Tommy Lee’s Supernova and Col Parker with Slim Jim Phantom. And through every endeavor, Clarke remained true to his rock & roll soul.

I caught up with Clarke recently to chat about his new album, his love for the acoustic guitar, playing on “Come Together” with Lzzy Hale and his former GNR mates Slash and Matt Sorum, and what song he’d have loved to have played more live with them on the Illusion tour.

What kicked you in the butt and finally got you started making a new album?

(laughs) Well, okay, so the answer is a couple of answers and it is a little bit long. But the first answer is, I never set out to be a solo artist so it was never really important to me to put a record out every two or three years. In the beginning, when I released my first record in 1994, just the timing was working well and I was in a very creative period where I was putting a record out every couple of years.

The last solo record I put out was in 2001 [Swag]. I kind of got into a groove after that where I was doing a lot of producing, I was playing with a couple different bands, so I was writing and creating. But then I did kind of get into a little bit of a mindset of why do I need to make a record, which really is how I felt at that time. You know, traditional record companies didn’t exist, the marketing and promoting, everybody seemed all over the map. My live dates were doing fine as a solo artist without making a record. So I had that mindset.

Then one day I sat down with a friend of mine and we were just talking and he brought it up, “Why haven’t you put out a solo record since 2001?” And I just gave him that same line and he goes, “You know, you’re full of shit.” (laughs) And I go, “What?” And he goes, “Do you consider yourself an artist?” And I said, “Yeah, I do.” He goes, “Well, what are you creating?” And I started making excuses and he said, “Look, it’s your job, you need to be creative, challenge yourself, write, record. Whether your fans buy it or not, you never did it for that anyway.” 

So he made me really think about that. And you know what, he was right and I was wrong. I should be creating. And once I did start that process, it was incredible. It felt so good and I’m not saying it was easy, it was hard, it was hard trying to write songs again. After you’ve made a few records you’re going, what do I have to write about, I’ve already covered it, you know. So there were challenges BUT I was extremely happy that I did take on the challenge.

When did you record these songs?

It actually started probably about five years ago and the process took a little over a year, just because of schedules and things like that. But it actually has been done for almost two years, which is a little while.

That’s good that you didn’t have to deal with the pandemic lockdowns and were able to have your guys there in the studio with you, which is what I understand you like to do. You like to have everybody there with you playing.

I do. I’m the guy that likes to be in the room with the drummer and bass player and looking at them and playing for each other. I do believe in that. But yeah, we held the record up because of the pandemic and then it just got to a point of we got to get it out. I don’t think anybody foresaw this going on for as long as it did.

Do you think you’re going to be able to play some live shows by the end of the year?

We actually have two shows coming up in St Louis [April 23 & 24]. One is a private show, one is a public show. They are limited capacity but I don’t honestly know the answer, if there is going to be more. You know, I have been getting offers, just these two shows are kind of a unique circumstance. But I don’t honestly know if we’re going to do anymore shows. We’re just going to have to take a look at every offer and see if it’s feasible.

On The Gospel Truth, which of these songs would you say changed the most from its original conception to its final recorded version?

Oh, that’s a very, very good question. Let me think about that for a second. When I make a record, most of the time I’m actually one of those guys that I actually see it in my head ahead of time. Like, I know what the drum part’s going to be, I know what the bass part’s going to be, I know the guitar, the vocals. I have it done in my head and I always say, what I like the most about a record when it’s finished is the things I DIDN’T think of. It’s the stuff like the drummer brought in and goes, “How about we play it more like this.” And I love those surprises, cause I definitely kind of see things, and then we go through the process of completing those things. So it’s almost like a checklist in my head.

But what changed most … Oh I know! There is a song on the record called “Rusted N Busted” and that song actually was something that I had worked on I think ten years ago, where I had two Canadians, Sean Kelly and Dave Langguth, playing in my band for some dates and we got together in LA and we started working on songs. I think we tracked about six songs and from what that song started as and what it ended up is completely different. It started off as like an Alice Cooper type song and it definitely didn’t end up that way (laughs). So I think “Rusted N Busted” is something that, like I said, started one thing and became different.

What originally sparked the song “Dangerous Sin”?

It was a riff. My songs almost 90% of the time start with a guitar riff and that song started with a guitar riff. I write a lot of times while I’m watching a Lakers game (laughs). They’re usually a couple hours long and I stand up, like I’m doing right now, and I kind of pace and I’m playing guitar – sometimes I’m playing electric, sometimes I’m playing acoustic – and I watch the Lakers game and I just play. And that riff was when I was playing electric and it just kind of had this, to me, a haunting overtone. Because I’m a half-step down, it’s an A-flat, but it had this droning overtone and it was kind of hard to keep that going. So it was a little bit of a challenge but yeah, I wrote that song while I was watching a Lakers game.

You are such a true rock & roll guy, Gilby, but I’m hearing some shades of punk in these songs. 

Oh, always. I mean, when I was younger and I first got into music, it was all the bands that were popular for me, like Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, KISS, Alice Cooper. Then as you start playing guitar and you start getting better, you go through a phase of like Rush and UK and you want to be a better musician. Then right when I was making that turn, I had an English girlfriend and she turned me on to the Clash. And my world was rocked, because I loved the Clash. From the Clash I discovered Generation X, the Sex Pistols, maybe some stuff that wasn’t as punk rock but like The Pretenders and Elvis Costello. I went through that phase for quite a long time. So I always have the punk roots in me, not so much on this record but I think if you listen to like my second record, The Hangover, there is definitely a little bit more on the punk rock side on that record.

Am I hearing an actual organ on “Wayfarer”? 

(laughs) I fight to not put too much keyboards on the record, because keyboards for me, they do what the guitar can’t do and I always try to make a guitar-based record. But sometimes you just need it for the tone, you have to have the organ. But that organ on there was Teddy Zig Zag [Andreadis] and what’s weird is that organ is really the groove of the song. Because he did such a great job, and as I started putting more guitars on it I started going, wait, we’re getting away from the groove. So there is NOT a lot of guitars on it. It really is the organ carrying that song and I just thought, you know, sometimes you have to honor a good performance.

Which guitars did you use the most on this record?

I actually have a process and what it is is, the whole record you’ll hear my Marshall amp on the left side and on the right side is my Vox AC30. I probably used about eight guitars on this record and I know some people will think, oh they all kind of sound the same. But they don’t to me. They all add a tonal thing that really makes a difference to me. I’ve had this black Les Paul that I’ve had since the early eighties. I actually bought it when I worked at a gas station. Isn’t that odd? (laughs) But I use that black Les Paul a lot. I have a 1959 Les Paul Junior in fantastic condition and I use that a lot. I have a Goldtop Les Paul and that’s actually kind of new. It’s in the 2008 range. I have my black 1968 Telecaster and I used a Duesenberg, which is like a Gretsch, and my Zemaitis. Those were the main guitars that I used.

When you first started learning to play, what was the hardest thing for you to get the hang of?

When I first started playing guitar, I wasn’t one of those guys that sat with records and listened to them and tried to emulate people. I never did that. I learned the guitar by playing live. I had a band when I was sixteen years old and I went to high school and we were playing at the high school dances and playing in Hollywood on weekends. So I learned by playing live. I took the very simple structures that I learned and I just got better as I went along. 

I was more of a visual learner. Like, I would go to the Starwood and watch bands play and go, “Oh wow, that’s great!” and then I’d have to remember it and come home and try to figure it out. But I never even thought about putting on a record and listening to it and figuring it out. It just wasn’t in my wheelhouse. I was much more of a visual kind of learner.

I definitely made a lot of mistakes. I thought for the longest time in the beginning, like my intonation wasn’t good, like in the soloing. My rhythm playing was always strong but the lead playing, I didn’t feel like I really had an identity until much later on and I think that that was really important, having an identity as a guitar player. There is nothing harder than hearing a record and knowing who the guitar player is without actually looking at the title or something. That is so hard to do.

You also play acoustic guitar and I saw a video of you playing “Tijuana Jail” with this big beautiful red acoustic and the song seems to have a more kinetic energy to it than the rocked-out version and I think it’s because of that acoustic. 

Yeah, I love playing acoustic and I’ve always loved playing acoustic and I do write a lot of my songs on acoustic. I like that connection of songs that you can just play with one instrument, like say “Imagine” by John Lennon. He just plays piano and sings and you get the vibe of the song. Any John Cougar Mellencamp song you can really just play with an acoustic guitar and it’s still a pretty great song, you know. Even “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N Roses, you can play with just an acoustic guitar and sing it and it’s a great song. So I’ve always liked that process of songwriting. 

So for me, playing acoustic guitar is an art and it’s not easy. I know a lot of really great guitar players that I’ve seen that really can’t play acoustic guitar, because there is a certain touch that you have to learn with acoustic guitar. It’s about consistency, the right pressure and the right strength. It’s not about hitting it too hard or too soft. There’s just a way of doing it and I personally spent a lot of time figuring out how to play acoustic right and most of the times, like when I’m in sessions with bands, where I’m just producing a record, I end up cutting the acoustic tracks for them.

You were in Kill For Thrills. Why didn’t that band last, because there were some good songs – “My Addiction,” “Paisley Killers” 

Well, that was the first record that I was the primary songwriter, singer and guitar player. So that was a huge record for me because it was a lot of work. I came from another band that was doing pretty well and started that band because I had an idea and when that band wasn’t a success, that was definitely hard on me. But there are so many things that come into play with successes and failures in bands. It’s not always about making a good record. You have to have the right team, you have to have the right manager, you have to have the right agent, the right record company. And I think even though Kill For Thrills, we actually had our choices of record companies, we chose the label that we thought was right but I think we probably chose the wrong one. It’s like sometimes you need a little luck on your side too. There is so many things that go into success but that one definitely hit home for me because that was a hard pill to swallow because, like I said, I put a lot of work into that band.

When you joined Guns N Roses and you had to learn all those songs to play live, which one gave you the most fits to get right like you wanted it?

“Estranged.” It’s a very long ballad-type song. All those Illusion songs I’d never heard before and this was the first time I was hearing them, when I was learning them. Most of Guns N Roses songs are very two guitar dominant but “Estranged” is really kind of a one guitar song and there really isn’t an Izzy part on that song. So when I listened to it, I really couldn’t find my place without getting in Slash’s way. So I reached out to Dizzy and I said, “Hey, do you mind sitting down with me with ‘Estranged’? I just kind of want to go through it cause I’m kind of having a hard time getting a grasp of what I should do.” And he handed me the music book. And I looked at him and go, “There’s a music book?!” (laughs) “I just spent a week glued to fucking headphones learning all these songs and you just handed me a music book!” (laughs) It’s like, I didn’t know if I wanted to kick him for not telling me or kick me for not asking that question.

Is there one song you would have liked them to have played more than they did when you were in the band?

Oh wow, that’s interesting. I love that song “Garden Of Eden,” the really fast song. Sometimes I get it mixed up with the other one that’s titled “The Garden.” (laughs) But “Garden Of Eden,” the really fast one, I loved that song. When I first heard Guns N Roses, oddly enough, when I first heard Appetite, my favorite song was “It’s So Easy.” That is such a great song and Duff wrote that song and I really connected with that song. But then when I heard the Illusion records, “Garden Of Eden” was the one I really, really connected with. So I definitely wished we’d played that more.

Who was the first real rock star you ever met?

Wow, that’s a very good question. Let me think about that for a second. Oh, Elton John! I played his birthday party, jeez, we’re probably talking like 1980. When we were in Candy, we lived in what’s classified as Boy’s Town in West Hollywood and a lot of our neighbors were gay. We never had any issue with it and it’s just where we lived. We lived in West Hollywood with most of the other bands. And we got a call to play at a party and they said it was for a celebrity but they didn’t tell us who it was. Then we got there and it was Elton John! (laughs). And this is like 1980 Elton John so it was a very decadent party. We played and I don’t even know if they really got what we were doing, you know. But I remember meeting him and when I did meet him later in the Guns N Roses years, I did bring it up but he looked at me like I was speaking French (laughs). He obviously didn’t remember.

What can you tell us about “Come Together” that you did with Lzzy Hale, Matt Sorum and Slash?

Oh, that was really fun! That was at the beginning of the pandemic, when everybody was doing these streaming videos, and it was a charity drive that we did. Matt had called me and said, “What songs can we do?” and “Come Together” just kind of came up because of the name of the song and the charity and everything. We actually did that one by sending the files back and forth, which is fairly common. You know, you cut your guitar track and do your video and then you send it to the next guy and everything. But when I heard what Lzzy did on vocals, look, I’ve always known she was talented – I’ve played with her, I’ve seen her play and she’s incredibly talented – but it’s incredible what someone like her can do to a song you know we’ve all heard a million times. And it’s her performance that really makes that thing something unique and special.

Is your daughter still singing?

Yeah, my daughter has a band called Frankie & The Studs and she just got signed to a label right before the pandemic and they released one song called “Victim” and she’s about to release her second single. So yes, she’s still doing it.

Did you see that coming, her wanting to be a rocker?

No, to be honest. I mean, I saw that she enjoyed it. She was ten years old and playing guitar and singing but to do it from a professional level, I mean, she actually went to college and graduated and has a degree in English Literature and Media Marketing. So when she went to college, I really thought that she was going to go in a different direction. So when she came home from college when she was done and she really wanted to focus on her music, it was a bit of a surprise for me.

What was it like working with Waddy Wachtel as the producer on Pawnshop Guitars?

When I had the deal with Virgin, the songs were really already done and ready to go but they said they did not want me to produce my own record. I mean, as much as I was disappointed in that decision, I did understand it. Their reasoning was, you can’t be the writer, the singer, the guitar player and the producer (laughs). Which, by the way, is what I do now! But you know what, they were right. And more than anything, I don’t think they were going to trust a couple hundred thousand dollars to my band (laughs). 

But they kept reading people off to me and it was all people that were making successful records at that time and I kept saying, nah, nah, nah. Then they said Waddy. We had just worked with him on the Keith Richards record and I said, “That’s the guy!” He’s such a great guitar player, he understands song structure, all those great Linda Ronstadt hits, all those Warren Zevon songs, he’s got a big finger in all those songs. I also thought by bringing Waddy along, it was like a fellow guitar player, I have somebody on my side (laughs). Even though I had a great relationship with the label, sometimes you need some people on your side when you’re trying to get things done. And by the way, I thought it was a great relationship but even though I’d made many records by that point, I learned so much from Waddy. He really has a tremendous ear.

What is something you learned that you use when you’re producing today?

You know what, okay, there’s a song on Pawnship Guitars that Waddy did one of the solos on and I really watched his process. I’m a little more aggressive, I’m one of those guys where I hear it and I just go in and I just start playing. I am not really a thinker when it comes to that, I’m more reactionary. Well, Waddy really listened to the song. I mean, I know Waddy has the ability and he could have knocked it out in two takes. But he took quite a few takes to really get the feel of the song. So he really taught me the listening aspect of the song. And that song was “Dead Flowers,” by the way. That’s Waddy’s solo on that. Axl sang and played piano on that song too.

You have a longtime love of motorcycles. What are you riding nowadays?

Well, I actually bought a brand new 2019 Road King Special. It’s like a dark midnight blue and black. I’ve always been a vintage bike guy. Like, I have a 1941 Knuckle, I have a 1960 Pan and I have a 1970 Shovelhead and they’re all rigid, suicide shift. I’ve always been a Chopper guy but I finally went down and bought a big bike. I bought it in 2019 and I already have almost 30,000 miles on it. I go to Sturgis every year and we go to Mexico, I go to Phoenix a couple times, San Francisco, Vegas – I’ve been to Vegas five times on it so far. It’s good riding out here.

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