Ex-Guns’n’Roses drummer Steven Adler’s songwriters explain the “secret to songwriting” whilst surprisingly managing to avoid some of rock’n’roll’s clichéd excess
ack in 1990, drummer Steven Adler was well known for being the heartbeat of hard rock band Guns’n’Roses, co-writing their multi-platinum debut album Appetite For Destruction, and unfortunately also for being a heroin addict. Decades later, after several revival outfits such as Adler’s Appetite and with his darkest period firmly in the past, Adler’s name is being paired with a fresh new rock band. Steven’s still propelling the act along from behind his drumkit, but now with a completely new group of energetic musicians at the forefront and a powerful arsenal of original rock songs on the setlist.
As the principle writers in the band, Songwriting asked to chat with frontman Jacob Bunton and guitarist Lonny Paul. Both had been songwriters for years in their previous bands and we discovered Jacob also writes songs for outside artists in a wide array of different styles, from pop to country to rock to even hip hop, R&B and bluegrass. But before getting to that, we went right back to the beginning…Tell me the story behind Adler. How did you both meet Steven and get the band together?
Lonny Paul: “I joined up with Adler’s Appetite, Steven’s last band where they just played Guns’n’Roses songs, about a year and a half ago. We did a two month tour and when we got back Steven wanted to start a new project, so basically fired everybody and said let’s start a new band! The I happened to be out one night at a Jani Lane’s memorial at the Key Club in August and, as soon as I walked through the door, I saw Jacob and a mutual friend at the bar. I went up to them and shot some small-talk and he asked how the tour went. I said the tour went great but we want to start something new and we’re looking for a singer. He said I well think I’ve got the perfect guy and he’s here tonight. The second that I saw Jacob I said ‘this is the guy, man!’ and it snowballed from there. We went into the studio to start recording with Jeff Pilson [of Foreigner and Dokken fame]. We didn’t really have an eye on a bass player, so Jeff played the bass on all the tracks in the studio and, after we finished the record, we brought Johnny Martin on board.”
So when you started writing new songs with Steven, what did you come up with?
LP: “Honestly I didn’t know which direction he wanted to go in. I didn’t know what he liked outside of playing Guns’n’Roses songs. I knew he liked Queen but I wasn’t going to sit down and write a load of Queen-sounding songs! So I ended up writing 30 different songs until I got a feeling of what he liked. One of the songs was Waterfall and Good To Be Bad. They changed when Jacob and Jeff got hold of them – for the better of course! But what we did in the beginning stages, since Jacob was in Alabama and I was in California, was to set up a Dropbox account and we’d both write songs and put them in there. If we liked them then we’d start working on them when Jacob got into town to work on the record. If not, they’re probably still in that Dropbox!”
IF EVERYBODY’S BLOWING SMOKE THEN YOU’VE SAVED EVERYBODY’S EGO, BUT YOU TURN IN A SHITTY RECORD!
Some material ready for the second album maybe?
Jacob Bunton: “Yeah maybe. Out of all the songs that were picked, ultimately Steven picked which ones went on the record. Between myself of Lonny, we wrote 40 or 50 songs and different ideas. It went back and forth through email like that for a while, and then when we started recording the record
, I got out there and me and Lonny started writing face-to-face in his office in his house. And the very first song we wrote together was actually the first single The One That You Hated. I walked in and I picked up an acoustic guitar and said ‘hey I’ve got this song but I don’t have a chorus for it’. I started playing the riff and singing and by the time I got to the chorus Lonny just jumped in and said ‘the one that you hated’. We literally wrote the song in about 10 minutes! That’s the way the chemistry between he and I seems to be effortless and very fast. One of the agreements we made when we first met was that we’d put all our egos aside and spare all feelings, and if a song wasn’t good we’d be honest and say so. If everybody’s blowing smoke then you’ve saved everybody’s ego, but you turn in a shitty record! Our whole point was ‘it’s got to be all about the music, so if something can always been made better. We can’t be too precious with ths songs, we’ve got to be open to suggestions and changes. At least try it and make it better. We’re all blown away by the fans’ reception of the record and we’re all very proud of the record we’ve made.”
How were you producing those demos?
JB: “Lonny is actually an incredible engineer and he’d program the drums and play all the instruments himself. Whereas I’m a horrible engineer! I can’t get sounds to save my lifeSo some of my ideas would just be on the acoustic guitar or recorded on the iPad. I’d use the built-in drums and piano sounds and then I’d plug in my guitar. Mine sounded like demos, but Lonny’s demos sound better than some released records I’ve heard! And the interesting thing, even though we were using a lot of new technology, Lonny’s machine he uses to record on is very old school, so we didn’t have any auto-tune and we couldn’t record in sections, so even the demos were pretty much live takes all the way through.”
How about when you went into the studio to produce the record?
JB: “By the time we got in the room with Jeff Pilson, it was really important to Steven that we record the record organically, to have a feel and if we made mistakes, to leave them in there. Because he can point out so many mistakes on Appetite For Destruction that the rest of us would never have thought were mistakes. They didn’t even use a click-track – they would just have to keep an eye on Slash’s foot tapping to keep the time! So it was important to him that we were just playing through the song and not relying on so many things. Nowadays other bands will literally record in sections – in like a 4-bar or 8-bar take – we actually recorded this album by song and played through the whole song each time. I think we captured that organic feel of a live band.”
LP: “Jeff also didn’t beat-detect the drums. If you did ever put a click to the songs, you’d find the drums sway in and out of time. Of course that’s the magic of Steven’s drums – he’s got that swagger and feel.”
Did Jeff have any input with the songwriting?
JB: “Yeah he actually co-wrote two of the songs on the album – Back From The Dead and Another Version Of The Truth. He was absolutely like a fourth member of the band at that stage, especially as we didn’t have a bass player yet. He was such an important part of the record helping out with everything. He’s an amazing engineer and producer, and he can get great tones. He’s got all kinds of vintage equipment at his studio – old Marshall heads, old Les Pauls from 1955 with original 1959 pick-ups in it, there’s a ’58 Precision bass that he plays on and loads of cool stuff. And because of the fact he’s in Foreigner, he had some of Mick Jones’ equipment that were used on those massive Foreigner hits. We used Mick’s acoustic guitar on pretty much everything you hear acoustically on our album.”
LP: “And in fact that guitar was stolen recently from the back of the van while Foreigner were on the road. I bet that guy doesn’t even know what he’s got!”
Were you both influenced by the likes of Foreigner and Guns’n’Roses growing up?
JB: “I was influenced by all of those MTV hair bands. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama and there wasn’t a lot to do and when I’d turn on MTV and see these people that looked larger than life. Being a little kid they all looked like comic-book characters, like superheroes, and I latched on to that whole image. I loved Mötley Crüe because of the way that they looked and sounded. Even Duran Duran was one of my favourite bands. I didn’t even think those people were human! It was amazing to me.”
LP: “I kinda had the same story when I first started getting into music. It was the MTV, Poison and Mötley Crüe. I was like ‘I don’t know what they’re doing, but I want to do what they’re doing right there!’ Of course when you start getting into it you realise that ‘there are a lot of bands I really like!’. For me I started in the mid-80s and went backwards. I discovered Ozzy and Kiss and then went back and started looking at their early records. Ozzy’s one of my favourites – I got into the old Black Sabbath stuff later on, when everyone else had gone past it.”
What sort of music do you listen to now, when you’re on the road? Any new bands?
JB: “I listen to a lot of new bands. Like I said, I’m a songwriter for a lot of different artists so I tend to listen to a lot of different genres of music. I love a country band called Florida Georgia Line – I think they’re fantastic. They’re brand new. I like a lot of the stuff you’re hearing on Top 40 radio that actually cross over from the alternative, like Fun. As far as heavy bands go, I really love Endless Moment and the really aggressive bands. And of course I love Slash’s new record – I think it’s fantastic.”
So who else have you been writing for, Jacob?
JB: “I’ve written for a whole lot of people, a lot of the times when I’m working in LA I write as a ghost-writer. I’ve worked on some pretty amazing projects that I’m actually not allowed to talk about! Of the ones that I can talk about, there’s a band called Otherwise that have a single out right now called I Don’t Apologize and that’s a song I wrote with those guys. It’s moving up the charts every week and Top 30 right now. There’s some boy band stuff too! It’s literally all over the spectrum. I work some of the biggest producers and managers – the people that do Eminem, Backstreet Boys, Flo Rida and Lady Gaga, and I work with all those people.”
I’VE NEVER BEEN DRUNK IN MY LIFE AND I’VE NEVER DONE DRUGS, SO IT’S ALL NATURAL FOR ME
How do you mix the songwriting duties between you both? Do you each have a preference in terms of lyrics, riffs, melodies, etc?
JB: “It’s kinda like the Reese’s commercial – there’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s – there’s no wrong way to approach songwriting, if it works for you. Different methods work for different people. I don’t have any set thing. There are songs that sometimes I’ll just write lyrics in a notebook and later on I’ll put music to those lyrics. Other times I write music and melody and literally I’ll just go ‘daa-da-daa-daa-d-d-da-daa’ and just phonetically fill in words to fit the song. There are so many different ways that the songwriting process happens. There really is no set procedure for me.”
How about creatively? Is there anything you do to avoid writer’s block and fill the ‘well’ of new ideas?
JB: “I’ve never had writer’s block in the sense that you just can’t write a song. I’ve had moments where everything that I’ve written I feel like it’s just not very good! But I’m constantly writing. And then there are other times I’ll get inspired and really happy with something. But inspiration comes at different times. Sometimes I’ll literally be asleep and dream of a melody and I’ll wake up and I’ll write down the melody line. Other times maybe you’re watching a movie and somebody says or does something that’ll trigger something that you’ll elaborate on and write a song about it. A lot of the stuff that really inspires me is everyday life experiences I see people going through, or myself as well. A lot of songs I’ve written about friends and scenarios they’ve gone through. Inspiration can hit at any moment. However, I feel most creative either super-late at night – around midnight 1am or 2am, or first thing in the morning.”
Is that a case of the path of excess leading to the palace of songwriting wisdom?
JB: “Not at all. I’ve actually never been drunk in my life and I’ve never done drugs, so it’s all natural for me.”
Really?! One last quick question: what song do you wish you’d written?
JB: “As far as songwriting goes, my personal favourite song of all time is Doves Cry by Prince. Most people can’t tell you their favourite band or song in the world, but I know that’s mine. Although sometimes it’s not about the better lyric or melody. Sometimes songs are completely attached to a memory in someone’s life – maybe it reminds them of the day they got home from Vietnam, or the birth of their first child, or their college years, or whatever. But it’s not necessarily the song they love, it’s the memory of that song. So that’s something we always have to keep in mind when we’re talking about music.”
LP: “I’ve always loved that song Livin’ On A Prayer. That would’ve been something I wish that I’d written both the melody and lyrics. Of course that was written by Bon Jovi and Desmond Child, who I was fortunate enough to know. I asked Desmond once ‘How do you come up with all your ideas, what’s your secret to songwriting?’ and before I could finish the question, he said ‘Rewrites’. So that goes kinda back to what Jacob and I were saying about being open-minded and changing each other’s songs. I know with my ideas they could just be a good idea, and by the time Jeff or Jacob get hold of it and start suggesting things, I just let the reins go and it turns into something way better than I could’ve written on my own.”
Adler are playing Vamped in Las Vegas on 14 February for Valentines Day, then the Whisky in LA on 15 February, then they’ll be out on tour in Japan with fellow ex-Guns’n’Roses bassist Duff McKagan’s band Loaded from 7 March. Their album Better Off Dead is out now, along with lead single The One That You Hated (video below). To follow the band and find out more, go to www.adlerrocks.com