Words: TK Smith ©2011
Leslie West it a tougher-than-nails New Yorker that just so happened to pick up a guitar one day and play the hell out of it. Through his 45-year career he has become just as famous for his signature guitar tone as the music he has created with it. When West plugs in, he rattles the roof and shakes the floorboard. It was his thunderous playing that gave rise to the mighty Mountain, one of the all time greats in heavy rock. Hits like “Mississippi Queen”, “Theme for an Imaginary Western” and “Nantucket Sleighride” are favorites to guys like Eddie Van Halen, Slash, Zakk Wylde, George Lynch and Michael Schenker. Not only has West recorded over two dozen albums, he is an innovator working with Dean guitars to create a signature model guitar that retains its explosive sound and vitality no matter what the cost. Over the past six years West has been writing his 14th solo record, playing only his signature Dean guitars and developing some of his best work yet, all at the young age of 66. When he started this project his friends came knocking wanting to join in on the fun, but just as they finished recording the unthinkable happened. West lost his lower right leg, just above the knee, due to complications from diabetes.
West is a guy that takes lemons and turns them into lemonade. Without missing a beat, he jumped on the promotional trail and started working Unusual Suspect his current 12-track long-player that’s packed with all that makes West such a great performer - classic songs, classic playing and that mountainous guitar tone. West was kind enough to call in from his home in Jersey; his spirits were high and his humor razor-sharp. “I gotta tell ya,” starts West with a laugh, “I’m use to being on the cover of Custom Guitar magazine, now I’m on the cover of Prosthetics In Motion, an amputee coalition magazine. I’m entering a whole other life that’s got its challenges but also some great people.” West tells a story, “So the kind of leg I need is a C-Leg - computerized leg, costs about $60 grand, right. Well, this guy goes to see his doctor and he fits him for one of these legs. He stands up and for five minutes, he’s just standing there. The doctor says, ‘Aren’t you gonna walk?’ The guy turns to the doctor and says, ‘For $60,000 I thought it was gonna walk for me’.” West roars with laughter.
West goes on to explain why he had to cancel his autumn tour with Michael Schenker and Uli Jon Roth. “It came down to the buses,” says the guitarist. “There are no tour buses in the United States with a wheelchair lift. Can you believe it? Not in the whole country. ‘There’s no need,’ they told me. Music City Coach in Nashville was going to take a bus and redesign it for a wheelchair. Going forward they could see that there will be a need in the future. Not just for me, but for others. They needed to change the bathrooms, put in a lift, widen the hallway, fix the bunkbeds. There just wasn’t enough time to build it before the tour.” West agrees it was for the better. “I need more time to learn to walk on my new leg. I’ve been practicing but there’s no way I can play the guitar, perform, sing and still keep my balance. I don’t want to go hopping all around. God forbid; I break an arm, then I’m really in trouble.”
When it comes to talking about his new album Unusual Suspect West is brimming with enthusiasm. “I had a really good producer in Fabrizio Grossi. He did a great job, he’s worked with Steve Vai and Billy Gibbons, we really hit it off. He had me do a lot of pre-production work, sending ideas back and forth. I never really did per-production before on albums. Working out the layout of a song, what we were going to be doing. I was so use to doing it the other way - go into the studio and see what happens.” One of the key components to the new disc was the quality of the individual songs. “I started writing these song six years ago but one song in particular is 30 years old. I went to high school with a guy named Joe Pizza, you’d think he’d have a band called ‘Slice” right?, well he wrote “Legend” all those years ago. We’ve stayed in touch and I just loved the lyrics. I re-did everything on the demo except for the solo. That was the one I kept because I knew there was no way I was going to do a better solo than the one I did originally. There’s a lot of emotion in that song. There’s a line that says, ‘the guitar player’s dead or alive,’ man, that really hit me. In the song, I don’t come in with the guitar until I sing the line, ‘the wailing guitars’. I don’t play a note until a minute and a half into the song. It’s powerful.”
Leslie’s wife Jenni contributed the lyrics for “Mad Flap Momma”. I didn’t really want to bring in my wife into the whole album thing. I had a bad taste in my mouth from Felix working with his old lady. But I read the lyrics and they were really good. I started playing slide and I came up with the riff. I asked Slash to play with me and when he heard it he said, ‘I don’t know why you need me’. But he came down to the studio in Hollywood, all by himself carrying his guitar. No entourage, no road crew. He told me what time he’d be there (Americana studios). He was doing auditions with Velvet Revolver all that day - full day of playing and rehearsing. He said he was going to come after that. I was thinking, ‘if he doesn’t come I’ll do something else’, but sure enough he walks in, taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘Here I am’. After we cut the song he stuck around. He told me how he met me once at Hollywood high (school) when I’d done this benefit for the homeless with Ginger Backer and Edgar Winter.”
As the album came together so did the guest wanting to play with The Legend. “The president of the label suggested some blues players like Buddy Guy but I wanted people that I really loved,” says West. “Joe Bonamassa told me if I ever re-did ‘Third Degree’ from West Bruce and Laing he’d love to do it, so we did. Zakk Wylde calls me Father West, we had the same manager and have been friends for a long time, he came down and did ‘Nothing’s Changed’. Steve Lukather showed up and I said, ‘Steve I have this acoustic boogie part I want you to do on ‘One More Drink For The Road’, I know you could do it better than me,’ so I showed him the part and he slayed it. ZZ Top opened for Mountain on their first tour, so Billy Gibbons was working with my producer and he told him about ‘Standing On Higher Ground’. Billy played it for me, we finished writing it and cut it that day. Just everything fell into place and that’s good because I would not want to be going into a studio and recording right now.”
West opens up about his deal with Dean Guitars. “It’s funny, I’ve played a Gibson all my life. They finally decided to come out with a Leslie West signature guitar. I’m like, ‘What? You had 40 years’. I didn’t want to come out with a Leslie West Les Paul Jr. How many Leslie’s can you have on a guitar? The Dean guitars all have a great sound from the expensive ones to the inexpensive ones. The Mississippi Queen model sells for $600 on the street. It’s a credible guitar then there’s the $4,300 USA Custom - they play the same. One is made of Mahogany and Maple and one is a laminate. I wish they had a guitar like that when I was starting out. I had to play a piece of shit.” The other factor in West’s signature sound was his amp set up. “Sam Ash sponsored my first group The Vagrants. They had their own Sam Ash amplifiers, which sounded ok. Later my manager at the time did a deal with Sunn amps. The Coliseum 880 had four mic inputs and a master volume. That’s where I got the sound I used for ‘Nantucket Sleighride’. Now I use the mother of all amps, Marshalls.”
Unusual Suspect gains it vibrancy from its diversity. “We have organ, Mellotron and piano, lots of different sounds and writers,” says West. “Jon Tiven and I wrote “My Gravity” a few years ago. My favorite line in the song is, “All my friends stop knocking at my door / When they couldn’t get no more from me’. That was in my little book of lyrics for a long time. Kenny (Aronoff) put his drums in there, Fabrizio added bass and vocals. As a musician and producer Fabrizio had that insight, that intuition. From the first day it just clicked with us. He figured out how to broaden my sound.” West finishes the record with the hysterical “I Don’t Know (The Beetlejuice Song)”. “Anyone that knows the Howard Stern show knows the character Beetlejuice. They took a recording of him singing and I played guitar over it. The song’s been around for three or four years. I thought it would be funny to put it on as a bonus track. Some idiot in Europe wrote a bad review thinking it was my voice. Howard knows my sense of humor, and two hours after my amputation surgery he called to ask for the leg. When I came by his studio last month I brought him my right shoe. I’m not gonna need it.”
Website: Leslie West