Leslie West talks new album Unusual Suspects track-by-track
Leslie West's Unusual Suspects: full album preview
Don't call me legend," Leslie West sings on his forthcoming album, Unusual Suspects. But just try telling that to the guitar star's legions of fans across the globe, some of whom turn up on the new set to trade licks with the blues and hard rock pioneer.
A veritable who's who of six-string A-listers – Slash, Billy Gibbons, Zakk Wylde, Joe Bonamassa and Steve Lukather – bring their A games to the proceedings, shining on fiery originals and inspired covers. "But nobody's trying to outgun anybody else here," says West. "We're cheering each other on as we play."
According to West, the idea of guest stars was one presented to him by label execs, but rather than jamming with sax players and keyboardists, West opted to make Unusual Suspects a guitar player's dream project. "I wanted to have fun," he says. "The only way I was going to do something like this was to have a group of guitarists I admire on board."
After completing pre-production in New Jersey, West set about recording in LA with producer Fabrizio Grossi (who also played bass) and ace drummer Kenny Arnonoff. Along with a couple of his own originals, West was stoked to lay down several compositions penned by his longtime friend Joe Pizza. “He's a great writer," he says. "And that’s his name, too: Joe Pizza – like a pizza pie.”
Despite undergoing leg-amputation surgery last June after a diabetes-related blot clot, West is looking forward to playing a good chunk of Unusual Suspects on tour this fall. “I think the record shows off that I still have it,” he says. “My voice is strong, my tone is the best it’s been in years, and my playing has emotion. I just wish the record could grow me back a new leg. But hey, you can’t have everything.”
Unusual Suspects will be released on 19 September (20 September in the US). On the following pages, Leslie West walks us through the album track-by-track.
One More Drink For The Road (featuring Steve Lukather)
“Joe Pizza wrote this one a while ago. He played it for me, and I loved it. It’s a cool boogie, but it’s got its own kind of feel to it. It doesn’t sound like the same old thing. It swings and rocks.
“Joe wrote it on piano, which I really liked because I tend to play differently when I hear a song that was composed on the piano. I hear the spaces in the changes in a new way. When the guitar parts aren’t mapped out, I can go at them without any preconceived ideas.
“There’s an acoustic guitar part on the song that I originally played. I was happy with it, but not entirely. Then one day Steve Lukather came by the studio, and I told him, ‘Steve, you can play an acoustic boogie better than me. Why don’t you take this part?’ He did and he nailed it. He creates a neat pad in the song.”
Mudflap Mama (featuring Slash)
“It has the same kind of heavy rock feel of Mississippi Queen. There’s a cowbell in it, too. We weren’t trying to copy it or anything, but the two songs do sound like they can go together.
“I wrote the riff with a slide, and immediately I could tell there was something to it. Then I looked at my wife, Jenni, and you know, she’s beautiful - she looks like a mudflap girl. There was the title. Actually, Jenni wrote the lyrics, which is good because I couldn’t get away with the words if I did them. ‘My vertical position serves my intuition’ – I couldn’t write that!
“I knew I wanted Slash to play on the song, so I sent him the track. He really liked it, but he said, ‘Why do you need me? Where would I fit?’ I already had my guitar recorded. I told him, ‘You’ll fit in fine, Slash. Don’t you worry ‘bout a thing.’
“He came to the studio – no roadies, no handlers – and he played on these sections I picked out for him. Guy did a killer job. The only request he had was ‘Don’t Pro Tool me’ – he wanted his playing to sound honest.
“Man, he’s got some technique. I was watching him, trying to figure out how to steal his licks. He sounds like a harmonica or something. Incredible tone. When we were done, I gave him one of my Leslie West guitars as a gift.”
To The Moon
“I wrote this song five or six years ago. Lyrically, it’s about when I used to get high all the time. And I don’t mean a little high – I mean really fucking high! I used to get so high that I would try to go to the moon. Of course, I didn’t realize that I was already there. [laughs]
“I love the fact that I’m singing with the actual notes of the guitar. The words ‘Everything I tasted, I get so wasted’ are phrased exactly to what I’m playing. That’s what turned me on about the song in the first place. When it releases and goes to the open G chord, it gets really heavy in the middle.
“I think the solo is pretty rip-snortin’, if I do say so myself. It’s a well-constructed tune, so that helps. If the song is really there, then you have a good basis for a solo. Fabrizio did a great job at moving sections around and keeping things tight. And Kenny Aronoff…my God, what a player! The man writes out all of his drum parts. That’s a real drummer for you.”
Standing On Higher Ground (featuring Billy F Gibbons)
“Billy Gibbons was working with Fabrizio on a video project, and one day Fabrizio told me that Billy had a song for me called Standing On Higher Ground. That right there was good enough for me.
“It wasn’t totally written, so I kind of finished it with Billy in the studio. It’s such a great track. It’s down and dirty, a real grinder. We had a blast singing together on the chorus. It’s so ZZ Top. That chorus part reminds me of their videos when he and Dusty Hill dance with their guitars.
“Billy plays the intro guitar figure, I do the solo, and he plays the ride-out. He and I have a bit of a similar sound, the way we make our harmonics jump off the string. Billy uses a very hard pick – I think he’s even been known to use a peso at times – but I use the softest pick possible.
“Larry DiMarzio once told me that my tone was all in my right hand, that it had nothing to do with amps or effects or even what guitar I was playing. “You could pick up an acoustic and make it sound like you,” he said. The same holds true for Billy. He came in the studio with an SG that he just picked up, he plugged in, and he sounded like himself. The guy could play a broom and you’d know who it was.”
Third Degree (featuring Joe Bonamassa)
“Joe and I are great friends. Several years ago, I played on one of his albums, on a song called If Heartaches Were Nickels. So when I started this album, I knew I wanted Joe. He’s one of the most talented guitarists out there, and he’s a really nice guy, too.
“He told me right away that one of his favorite songs was my version of Third Degree. Willie Dixon and Eddie Boyd wrote it, and I cut it with West, Bruce and Lang. Joe asked me if I would consider recutting it, and I said, ‘Consider it done.’
“We sat in the control room of the studio and did the song live. A great night…great, great fucking night. On guitars and vocals, it’s like we’re having a total conversation. It’s not a guitar dual, it’s a give-and-take thing.
“Man, Joe’s singing is stunning. As tremendous a guitar player he is, he’s really becoming a fantastic vocalist.”
“I love this song. Funnily enough, Joe Pizza wrote it for me 30 years ago. What’s really special about the song is that it’s about me – I’m the guy singing it. It’s Joe’s idea of my story, me talking about fans changing over the years and players who aren’t here anymore. It's very moving.
“There was a line that bothered me, though: ‘You can call me legend.’ I told Joe I couldn’t sing that. I wasn’t going to refer to myself as a legend. So I changed the line to 'Don’t call me legend. I just came here to play.’ It sounds much better that way. Nobody should ever call himself a legend.
“I cut the solo in New Jersey during pre-production, and it turned out so good that I didn’t even want to mess around with trying to top it. We kept what I had. Actually, the chord changes are very important to this solo; they kind of help add drama to it. It’s like how the chords serve the solo in Theme From An Imaginary Western – same thing.”
Nothing's Changed (featuring Zakk Wylde)
“Joe Pizza wrote this one, too. I helped with some of the guitar chords, but it’s really his tune. It’s about being with the same girl for a while and how, well, nothing’s changed! [laughs] It sounds like something I might have written in my 20s or 30s.
“I knew Zakk should play on it, because when it came time for the solo, it needed something fast. I don’t play that way, so Zakk was the logical choice.
“I do play the first part of the solo, kind of setting it up, and then Zakk comes rip-roarin’ in and slams it down. At the end, we play together. I don’t think there’s any way of confusing our styles – I’ve got my thing, Zakk’s got his. We blend well.
“Zakk's quite a character. One of the funniest guys you could ever meet. [laughs] When I play, he looks at me with this big smile on his face. It’s beautiful. He even calls me ‘Dad.’ Isn’t that something? He always tells me what a big influence I’ve been on him. You can’t get tired of hearing that.”
I Feel Fine
“It’s a guitar solo that I’ve been doing live. I was going to play it that way on the record, but Fabrizio suggested that I cut the whole song. So I said, ‘Sure. I’ll sing it, we’ll put drums and bass on it and see how it turns out.’ What did I have to lose? The song is one of the all-time best, so I just had to let it happen.
“I talked to Waddy Wachtel the other day. He and I lived in the same apartment building when we were growing up. I remember when I Feel Fine came on the radio for the first time. I grabbed my guitar, ran to Waddy’s apartment, and guess what? He had heard it, too, and he already learned the whole song. He used to show me all the Beatles tunes.
“The Beatles songs with strong guitar intros and riffs, those are the ones I really love. Ticket To Ride is another one. I love playing the opening to that, with those big, open chords. I hopped up my version of I Feel Fine some. The original is kind of a bossa nova beat, whereas mine is a fast boogie. It jumps, it moves, it’s fun.”
Love You Forever
“This is a song for Jenni. It really rings true now. Everything she’s done for me, the love and support, how she’s looked after me – she’s something else.
“We rented a condo on the beach in Daytona, where she’s from, and I picked up an acoustic one morning and the song just started happening. It changed a little when I made it electric – it got faster, more intense.
“The song came out way better than I expected. It’s a sleeper. I love the intro and the chord changes. Suddenly, when you least expect it, it goes into this heavy riff. The solo reminds me of Clapton in early Cream.
“I wasn’t planning on playing that way. I didn’t have it worked out. I just responded to the moment. That’s what you have to do with music: be open to where the song wants to go.”
You And Me
“Originally, it had bass and drums. When I wrote it, however, I envisioned just guitars on it – basic guitars, no big effects sounds, straight out of the amp.
“So that’s where we ultimately went with the song. It’s me on the guitars and my voice. It’s another love song to my wife. Hey, I’m an old softie, I don’t mind saying it! [laughs]
“I wrote it on an acoustic. Even though I’m playing electrics on the song, it has a vibe and feel of acoustics. It’s very basic and honest.”
The Party's Over (featuring Slash and Zakk Wylde)
“I used to do this song live sometimes after Mississippi Queen. It's a Willie Nelson song, one of his many, many great ones. I played it for Fabrizio one day, and he said, ‘That’s terrific. Let’s cut it.’ So we laid it down with an acoustic, and then Kenny put in a bass drum and handclaps and fingersnaps.
“When Zakk was in the studio, he did a solo for the track. It’s not country and western, it’s something I can’t even define – it’s Zakk! [laughs] He brings his own style to anything he does. The only thing I told him was not to use the wah-wah; I wanted what was coming out of his fingers.
“After that, we had Slash put a solo on it. It’s a real treat, having me, Zakk and Slash playing together. The order of it is Zakk plays the first solo, then there’s me, and Slash does the last one.
“The song smokes. It’s a nice blast for all the guitar fans out there.”
Beetle Juice - I Don't Know
“I’ve been friends with Howard Stern for years. He always has me on his show. We have a riot together. Howard’s a true genius.
“If you know anything about Howard’s show, you know the character Beetle Juice. He’s this crazy guy, but Howard made him a star. One of the writers on the show, Richard Christy, sampled Beetle Juice doing kind of a singing thing. He sent it to me, and I turned it into a song.
“Richard’s a heavy metal freak, and he played the drums on the track. The fact that he was able to take these lines of Beetle Juice’s voice and make it sound like he’s singing is unbelievable to me. Beetle Juice…there’s something wrong with him. He can’t take direction at all. He's messed up.
“Anyway, we made a fun rock song out of it. Howard Stern fans will get a real kick out of it.”