Interview: Mountain Lead Guitar and Vocalist Leslie West
Thursday, October 13th, 2011 at 1:17 pm
Legendary Mountain frontman Leslie West has been in the news a lot over the last few months. Due to some serious health issues he had his lower right leg removed to save his life. Thankfully back in relatively good shape now, West has been busy promoting his new album, the truly excellent Unusual Suspects featuring guest musicians Zakk Wylde, Slash, Billy Gibbons, Steve Lukather, and Joe Bonamassa.
I spoke to the man whose enormous stature (both physically and musically) in the world of rock has never been in question just as he is about to embark on his latest tour, albeit with some adjustments.
Geeks of Doom: You’ve had some well publicized health issues recently. How are you?
Leslie West: I’m pretty good. I’m doing quite better. Got fitted for my prosthetic the other day and…it’s not as easy as one would think, [you don’t] just snap it on and, “˜Hey, yeah, there we go!’ But I’ll get it eventually. I’ll get it quickly I hope! [laughs]
Geeks of Doom: What did your doctors say when you told them you were going out on tour less than four months after the surgery?
Leslie West: Well first of all I just can’t be sitting for that long. I have to be able to get up, stretch, I guess a little bit. We have an RV that we had to get besides a tour bus that the group will use. It’s wheelchair friendly; you can roll the chair into the bathroom, into the shower, and it’s got a lift on the outside. There are no tour buses believe it or not in the United States that have wheelchair lifts…the bus companies were shocked and I called a few of them, but they couldn’t believe it.
Geeks of Doom: That’s unreal. I wanted to say congratulations on Unusual Suspects, I think it’s a fantastic album. Are you pleased with it?
Leslie West: I appreciate that, you don’t know. Thank you very much. I was very happy with the way it came out.
Geeks of Doom: How did you get the special guests on board?
Leslie West: Well I did a lot of pre-production here on the east coast in New Jersey and I sort of knew Zakk would be on there because we’re good friends, we have the same manager. I called Joe Bonamassa, I played on a cut of his on one of his early solo albums a song called “If Heartaches Were Nickels” that Warren Haynes wrote. Gregg Allman and I sang with Joe…so I called Joe: “˜I’d really love you to play on the album!’ He said one of his favorite cuts was a version of “Third Degree” which West, Bruce and Laing did. He says, “˜If you ever want to recut it I’d love to do it.’ I said, “˜Consider it done.’
Geeks of Doom: It turned out great I think you and Bonamassa complement each other, especially your voices.
Leslie West: Oh yeah. I had a lot of fun.
Geeks of Doom: What has the reaction to the album been like so far for you?
Leslie West: Well, all the people I talk to, the interviewers, everybody seems to love it. I’m really flattered by that, you know. Usually you get, “˜Ah, he sucks, he can’t play anymore.’ I guess you put a lot of time into something and it pays off so I’m really glad that people enjoy it…made me feel really good.
Geeks of Doom: Good. I think my favorite song on the album is “Love You Forever” which is personal to you.
Leslie West: Yeah I wrote it about my wife. I wrote it actually in Florida I think a couple years ago before I got married…I was playing around with an acoustic guitar and started writing it and then when the album came up to actually record it I said, “˜Ok I’m going to put it down.’ It turned into something much more than I expected. I didn’t think it was going to be as heavy as it is in the middle. It started off as a sweet love song.
Geeks of Doom: Would you ever release acoustic versions of the songs on the album?
Leslie West: I have them somewhere, maybe we’ll put them out as bonus tracks or something.
Geeks of Doom: When you go on your tour, which is early next month, are you going to take any of the special guests from the album with you?
Leslie West: Not taking anybody with me but if they show up (then I’d love them to play). If Slash happens to be in LA when we’re playing I’d love to have him come down and play with us. We’re certainly game for that idea. Besides the guys that are on the album we have other guests play with us, I’m looking forward to that. Especially playing with Uli (John Roth) and Micheal (Schenker). I’ve known them for years. Never got to play with Uli but Michael and I got to play with a couple times and he told me that the first solo that he learned was the solo I did on “Theme For An Imaginary Western” when he was 16 years old.
Geeks of Doom: Excellent! Back to the album again – how did you decide on the cover versions?
Leslie West: “I Feel Fine” I used to play around [with] by myself onstage as part of a guitar solo. Then I was fooling around in the studio and my producer said, “˜Why don’t you put it down? We’ll put a bass and drums on it and you can sing it see how it comes out.’ I didn’t expect that to go on there. The Willie Nelson song “The Party’s Over” I used to do that at the end of a show once in a while with Mountain”¦I was playing [it on an] acoustic guitar in the studio and my producer heard it and he said, “˜Why don’t you try to record that with your acoustic guitar and you can sing it, we’ll get Zakk and Slash to play and then we’ll get handclaps and bass?’ So it built itself. It wasn’t originally intended to be on the album but I love it.
Geeks of Doom: Me too and the solos on there are unbelievable.
Leslie West: Yeah, you can tell how different we are, me and Zakk and Slash. And Joe…that’s why I call it Unusual Suspects; it’s not the same guys that play on everyone’s albums. I mean the label at first they wanted me to get Buddy Guy to play on it. I don’t even know Buddy Guy, I have absolutely no relationship with Buddy Guy at all. I know he’s a great player but that wasn’t who I had in mind. I wanted the guys that I really listen to now that are current. And Billy Gibbons, it was a trip the song that he wrote. [He had] started writing “Standing On A Higher Ground” and he came to the studio and I started putting my two cents into it and my producer and all of a sudden I feel like im in ZZ Top when I hear that song! I told Billy, I said, “˜Listen man, I’m just copying you!’…what a character this guy is, man. Really an unbelievable character.
Geeks of Doom: And unbelievable player too!
Leslie West: Oh yeah, man. First of all in order to give a shit about your character you better play good, you know what I’m saying? I used to see guys walking around New York City, we have a street called 48th Street where all the music stores are, and I would see guys walking around 48th Street with these big high-heeled English boots with velvet pants. I would look at them and my reaction would be “˜You ought to play really fucking good to walk around looking like that!’ [laughs] That’s what I used to think. Some guys they got everything but they can’t fucking tune up.
It was almost like in Hollywood, you see them all over the place, but on 48th Street there’s only one block in New York City where all the music stores are. I know that there’s a street in England too where you have all these music stores I think it’s in Piccadilly Circus [London] or near there somewhere but…
Geeks of Doom: Carnaby Street?
Leslie West: Carnaby Street, there you go! [Imitates my English accent] Carnaby Street. You see so many guys (and I think), “˜What are you, Paul McCartney or something?!’ At the end of the day, you got to play.
There’s a song on the album called “Legend” my friend Joe wrote. I went to High School with him, he wrote it 30 years ago…he owns a gigantic pharmaceutical company and my wife works for him but he’s a musician first. There’s a recording studio in their office, a big one where I did all the pre-production. A big studio. They used to have to do CDs and DVDs to explain the pharmaceuticals to some companies that would be buying them…when he played me it, “Legend”, I looked at the words. Originally it was “˜just call me legend.’ I said, “˜There’s no way I’m singing a song and telling someone to call me legend. I can say “˜Don’t call me legend, just listen to me play.’ That’s basically why the words in that song really hit me good because that’s what im concerned with.
Geeks of Doom: That’s a beautiful song too, it’s one of the slower ones.
Leslie West: He wrote it 30 years ago, man. It’s like “˜wow!’…I loved the piano changes. That makes me play differently when I hear piano because I write on guitar, I don’t play the piano. It reminds me of “Theme For An Imaginary Western” that Mountain did that Jack Bruce wrote. Piano chord changes make you play a certain different way so that was a real treat. And also the first song “One More Drink For The Road” he wrote that on piano, Joe. I didn’t think it was going to be like a blues shuffle like the way it came out. When he first played it to me it came out different and I put a couple of changes in it, a little middle eight section, and we’re a good writing team. And his real name is Pizza believe it or not! A great guy.
Geeks of Doom: You mentioned Mountain – are you on hiatus?
Leslie West: Yeah we’re putting that to rest for a while. I was down in Mississippi, we were doing a Mountain show [which was] going to be the last Mountain show for a while and I had my leg amputated, had to go to the emergency room. I got a blood clot from flying down there, it was a long flight. I know you’re supposed to get up and walk around a lot, not sit…I was on a blood thinner so my blood got so thin it just spread through me like crazy and it was like toxic.
Geeks of Doom: I’m really sorry to hear that. When you feel better are you planning to go back to Mountain with Corky Laing?
Leslie West: I have no plans right now I’m just concentrating on learning how to walk again and my solo album and the tour. I can’t do that many things at once! [laughs] When I was younger, maybe. When I was 20 years old, sure. I’ll do 40 things and only one of them will come out good.
Geeks of Doom: Well, I think you’re doing very well right now.
Leslie West: Aww, thank you I appreciate that, man. I really do. I appreciate you taking the time to do this interview also.
Geeks of Doom: It is my pleasure. The last thing I wanted to ask you was you appear to be so positive, you’re so positive right now, you tell a lot of jokes on your Facebook page…
Leslie West: You know what? My wife helps me with that, believe it or not. Some of the jokes I say, “˜Wow, this one’s really funny!’ and then people send us [jokes back]. It’s amazing, Facebook. That’s how I got to meet Slash, believe it or not.
Geeks of Doom: Really?
Leslie West: On Facebook, yeah. His tour manager sent me a request on Facebook and my wife says, “˜Listen, Slash’s tour manager Peter sent you his phone number and his email, wants you to friend him.’ I say, “˜Well how do we know it’s Slash’s tour manager?’ “˜Well you don’t unless you call or email.’ So I did…he wanted me to come see Slash playing in New York. I never met him before, Slash, but I said I couldn’t make the show because I had surgery on my leg, this was last year, but I said, “˜Listen Peter, I have this track “Mud Flap Momma” you could send it to Slash, let him listen to it, see if he would be so kind to play on it.’ About a week later he wrote me back and says Slash loves the track but he doesn’t see where you would need him to play [laughs]. I said I know exactly where I want him to play…I rented a studio in Hollywood because I was out there recording in Los Angeles, but I was way out of the city, and… there’s Slash with his guitar…and he played “Mud Flap Momma.”
After the session I ended up giving Slash one of my white Leslie West signature guitars that Dean guitars make…he tweeted right away, “˜Man, played on Leslie West’s album last night, he gave me one of his fucking guitars! How cool is that?!’…it’s amazing, like no matter how famous you are you still have people that influenced you that you know, or you’d like to know, so it was fascinating let’s put it that way. I still can’t get used to Facebook. The guy that started that, oh my god! I don’t think he could imagine what it turned into.
Geeks of Doom: No, I don’t think so, but I bet he’s glad! Leslie, thank you for your time.