Why Guns N’ Roses Put Out Both ‘Use Your Illusion’ Albums at Once
Fans spent years eagerly awaiting the follow-up to Guns N' Roses's multi-platinum Appetite for Destruction. They would get more than they ever anticipated when Axl Rose decided to release two and a half hours of new music.
The two volumes of Use Your Illusion were released simultaneously in September 1991, providing the expanded soundtrack for a seemingly endless tour cycle which begun prior to their arrival.
In fact, Guns N' Roses had circled the globe multiple times before they finished playing these shows, as drummer Matt Sorum recalls during a conversation with UCR. He chronicles that experience and many others from his career in the new memoir, Double Talkin' Jive: True Rock 'N' Roll Stories From the Drummer of Guns N' Roses, the Cult and Velvet Revolver, which is set for release on May 10.
Sorum says he relieved the book is finally hitting the shelves, after first being announced more than two years ago. "You’re just always tweaking, you know," he admits. "You could edit it forever. You go back and you read it and then you think, 'I could make that feel a little bit better, a little different' or whatever. Since I had the time, we went in and just had some fun getting it feeling a little bit better and stuff."
He also shared memories of working on the Use Your Illusion albums, and his thoughts on whether it was the right move to release all of the songs at the same time.
What was the weirdest GNR song to be in the middle of as a collaborator? Those Illusion albums are such an eclectic set of records. I would think that each day at the studio would bring new adventures.
Probably the most interesting one was the song “Breakdown.” That was the most challenging because Axl wanted to record it, and it had a lot of weird time changes. For Guns N’ Roses, it was a lot of movement. You know, it wasn’t a straight rock song. I grew up in marching band, so if you listen to the end of “November Rain,” I go into this marching cadence kind of thing. I did the same thing on “Breakdown.” I used a lot of snare rolls. It wasn’t like a rock beat. Me and Axl recorded the song, just the two of us. I remember we sat in the studio all night. It was really the most challenging song that we recorded. When people read the book, I kind of illustrate that collaborative moment that we had – because Slash and Duff [McKagan] came back and did their overdubs, but they were very confused with that particular song. When it got done, it was a sort of epic, eclectic number.
I appreciate everything that happened in that particular time, even though I wasn’t expecting it when I joined GNR. Here, I came out of a band, the Cult, that was pretty straight-forward rock 'n' roll [and] into a band that had just toured Appetite for Destruction. You know, Axl wanted to explore new territory, with the piano and horns. He looked up to bands like the [Rolling] Stones that tried country music and reggae. I remember him talking about it: “We need to branch out now. We can’t just make Appetite again.” He wanted to go and try some more epic stuff. We had finished “November Rain” and then I remember I was at El Compadre. We used to go over there and drink, because it was about three blocks from the studio. Axl pulled up, he came in and he goes, “Come outside.” I sat in his car and he had a killer stereo. He played me the string overdubs on “November Rain,” which he did with synthesizers. They didn’t use real strings. He’d gone and sat in the studio for a couple of days working on it. He was so happy with it. I remember him playing it for me, going, “What do you think?” I’m like, “Fuck!” I looked over at him and I go, “That’s epic!” It was so epic. That’s what he wanted.
He had the vision for it, so we made these epic records – which were to some of the fans, it was like, “Whoa, what the hell?” We were a bit obsessive maybe, but at the same time, it was what it was at the time. Looking back, we were initially going in to make one album. Out of all of those songs, we were going to make one record. It ended up being the two volumes. As I explain in the book, Axl wanted those records to be separated on Volume I and Volume II, based on somebody being able to purchase them at the record store and then being able to go buy it without having to ask for the box set or whatever. In his mind, that’s what he thought about – which I’ve always said, in retrospect, it was kind of a genius thing. I would have never thought of that. None of us were in the scope of how you would even think of that. He used to work at the record store; he used to work at Tower Records. He remembered [and] he wanted fans to be able to touch the album. It’s crazy, when you think about it, that he thought that.
Watch Guns N' Roses' Video for 'November Rain'
Ultimately, do you think it was the right decision to put it all out at once? Or was it too much?
We bit off a lot. [Rose] had a plan for us to be out on the road for three and a half years. I remember when he said it. He said, “You know, we can keep putting out songs and we can keep touring.” We had this longevity. Traditionally, in the old days, you had what was called an album cycle. You would put out a record, the band would go out on the road for nine months to a year, and then you’d go back and make another record. Well, Axl was like, “We’ve got two records. So we can go around the fuckin’ – you know, we went around the world four times. I think we went through Europe at least two or three times, and we went to Australia twice. We went to Japan a couple of times, and went through the states like four times. The tour was endless, and it was legendary. I think it was one of the longest tours ever, at that time.
So his theory, another thought that he had, was: “We have a really long cycle on these double albums.” Obviously, he was the first to do it and we entered the charts at No. 2 and No. 3, right behind Garth Brooks, which pissed us all off. We’re like, “Who’s Garth Brooks?” Then, the second week, we were No. 1 and No. 2. So we had two albums on the charts. We went to Brazil and we were No. 1 through 6 on the [singles] charts. Every song was [ours]. We had this massive catalog of stuff to go out and play. I don’t know, I mean, it just was the time. It was the early ‘90s and he wanted to be in stadiums. If you remember the end of that stadium tour, we had horn players, background singers. We brought in some additional musicians, pyro and it was all about the most amount of entertainment value – to put on the greatest show. I was right in the middle of it, going, “Well, cool. Alright, let’s do it!” I don’t think any of us back then had a problem with it. In those days, we rolled with it.
We always changed up the set list. I think if you go back and look at the shows we did, obviously, we played all of the big hits – but even in those days, we didn’t use much of a set list. We’d start the show differently on most nights. I remember in the book, I describe one night at Giants Stadium where I came out and I didn’t know what we were playing first. [Laughs.] I had a little run-in on stage with Axl, because I thought he said another song and I went into a different one and ended up having a kind of embarrassing moment in front of 50,000 people. But that’s the way that band operated in those days. In retrospect, looking back, it kept everyone sort of on their toes. There was no punching time clocks. It was, “what’s next; what’s happening?” Even with the legendary lateness and all of the kind of stuff that happened around the band, we were all just edgy. That brought a great rock show. Sometimes, you’d go up there and be a bit pissed off. You go back and watch some of the videos, it was fiery! It wasn’t the same thing all of the time, over and over again. You never knew what you were going to get, and that’s why people came to see the band. You know, what’s Axl going to do tonight? What are they going to do tonight?
The drums on the records you did with GNR, it’s almost like you’re playing lead drums on a song like “You Could Be Mine.” How did it feel in the moment when you were recording those records?
It’s funny, because Bill Price mixed that record, right? He had done the Clash and the first Pretenders records. I think we were looking for the guy that was going to bring the punk back into the band a little bit. When he mixed the record, we went to listen to it. I was surprised on how much reverb and shit was on the drums. You know, for a guy that came from the Clash and the Pretenders – but you’ve got to remember, it was the early ‘90s. So there was an element of, “Oh, we’re going to make this big rock [sound].”
When I recorded “You Could Be Mine,” we were all set up in the studio live. We were always recorded live. There was no click track. Old school band setup. Izzy [Stradlin] was in one room, Slash and Duff were right in front of me. Izzy had his own iso booth. We just laid it down. I think that was the third take. I did that big drum fill as an added feature. That ended up being the version that we kept, based on that lead fill. I remember the band kind of looking at me, going, “What was that?” “Oh, I just thought I’d throw that in there!” [Laughs.] It’s one of those happy accidents, you know. It ended up being sort of a moment. A drum fill that would be sort of a signature thing of mine.
Listen to 'You Could Be Mine'
I know Bob Clearmountain did the initial mixes for the album. They didn’t get used and as you mentioned, you went to someone else to ultimately mix the final mixes for the record.
That was an interesting situation, because Bob Clearmountain had plugged in down at the Record Plant. We’d given him free rein. I think Axl liked him because he’d just done Bruce Springsteen, and some of the other stuff that he liked. Bob started on the record, but no one had gone down to the studio. So I remember, it’s probably 20 or 30 songs in. He was almost done with the album. Me and Slash went down and I remember Slash wasn’t happy with the guitar. We were sitting there and trying to figure out what happened with the drums. The drums were kind of small and didn’t sound anything like what we recorded. I remember I looked over, and there was this Bob Clearmountain sample CD. Drum samples. I asked Bob, “Bob, what’s happening with the drums?” He said, “Oh, I replaced a lot of them.” I said, “What?” He had gone in there – and in those days, they were sampling drums and they still do a lot of that now. It’s more normal now than ever. People do all kinds of that shit. But in those days, I’d never even heard of it.
I remember, I called up Axl. I called him. I go, “Axl, there’s something weird going on. You need to come down here.” [Laughs.] He said, “Why?” I said, “I think he’s replacing sounds on the records.” And before I knew it, basically, the next day, Bob was gone. He was fired by Axl. I don’t even remember if he came down. I think he might have, but he fired Bob and that was that. We moved on to Bill Price. You know, there’s that famous story about stealing Bill Price from the Nymphs. They were on Geffen. [Vocalist] Inger Lorre went and peed on his desk and everything, Tom Zutaut. She was so pissed off. Bill was doing their record and she went in and jumped up on Tom’s desk and said, “Fuck you, Tom!” She pulled up and basically pissed on his desk and walked out. [Laughs.] We stole her engineer/producer guy for our record.
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