Todd 'Dammitt' Kerns - Las Vegas, Summer 2016

Todd Kerns

It's 11.30am in Las Vegas and as you would expect it is a gorgeous, sunny day. Famous for its casinos, shopping, fine dining and nightlife, Las Vegas as the cultural centre for Southern Nevada has much to sway our attention. Surprisingly, even for ourselves, we won't allow ourselves to be distracted by the delights Sin City has to offer. Today we are focused only on one thing: catching up with Todd ‘Dammitt’ Kerns. With his long black haired draped over his almost trademark Ramones T shirt, Slash’s bassist and Conspirator looks every inch the rock star as he greets us with a sincere and heart-warming welcome, and it's with a big smile that we enjoy this animated reception. Todd has a lot to be excited about. Of course, being part of Slash Featuring Myles Kennedy and The Conspirators would undoubtedly deny anyone from leaving cloud 9, but this diverse artist has another reason to be happy: he has just released TKO, his new solo album. Todd’s previous solo release was 2013’s Borrowing Trouble, an acoustic record that without question demonstrated the sheer power that one man and a guitar can bring. It even inspired this writer to compose a handful of songs himself and to drag his Yamaha CPX5 guitar around the UK’s open mic venues, such was its impact. Fast forward to May 2016 and TKO is a completely different affair. A record of high energy rock and punk infused tracks that keep you gripped throughout. It's a very high standard body of work but perhaps that exactly what we should expect given that it was 15 years in the making. It's time to get the full story…

You've just released TKO, your fantastic new solo album filled with high energy, driving tracks. You took a very interesting approach to creating this record in that it contained 2 polar opposite strategies: some songs have been nurtured over 15 years while others were written and recorded in a single day - yet the result is an incredibly cohesive record. Why did you take this approach and how did it all come together?


Well actually the whole thing is the same strategy, it just happens to have been in pieces over that long period of time. It seems like insanity to keep doing it for that long. We would literally walk in the studios. I have so many friends in bands that just sort of sit in the basement for forever. For years they'll be  like "we're not quite ready yet" and I was the guy who said "the songs are kind of together, let's go play, let's go record, let's get onstage" you know. And that's where I kinda come from. I prefer the idea of just getting in there and getting your hands dirty. But this particular project was that times a thousand. The first time we did it, I was sitting in my friends living room and we came up with a riff and a couple of things, and arrangements started coming together. It was just me and my best friend Reed playing guitar and then we thought "this is sounding pretty cool" and he said "let's call over my friends studio". I was thinking this was never going to happen – this is insanity – but within the hour we were over at a studio and just went out and got whichever session drummer happened to be around and recorded this song called Globally Delayed. Usually you write a song, you go in and record the drums, then you record the bass and guitar. Everything gets recorded separately, but on this particular recording we just went in in the afternoon and by that night the song was completely recorded: the lead vocal, the harmonies, the guitars. So you can sit around and think about it and talk about it or you can just go in and do it, and that’s what we did. Every single song except for a couple were completed in that fashion. I think the only song that had something to begin with was a song called Wide Awake In The American Dream. I had this riff I used to noodle around on and I just came in and went "what about this?" and we just put it together right there and then. Everything else was completely written from scratch. We would go in at noon and be jamming until 9 o’ clock at night, still not having found anything, you know, because your kind of chipping away at a piece of stone trying to find that's structure within it, and then all of sudden someone would stumble upon something and it would just roll out. The hard part was going from having recorded the bed tracks to me being forced to now go write some lyrics and come up with a melody. And I'd be like ‘Oh, God!’ because I'm the kind of person that takes it pretty seriously what I'm going to say and how I'm going to say it. You try to come up with something clever and unique, but there's something real awesome about not being allowed to second guess yourself. Just come up with something. As I've been revisiting these songs and writing quick little write-ups about each song, I'm always pretty surprised not just about coming up with something kind of catchy but also something I feel like mildly clever – or at least mildly clever with a gun to your head! Like, "write a song!" you know. Red, White, Black and Blue was one of the songs that was reworked a couple of times. Other than that, everything came in over a 15 year span of locking ourselves in a studio and writing 3 songs, locking ourselves in a studio writing 2 songs. So it just kind of went in chapters like that. And because geographically we were even in the same city, we would get together whenever we could to do this, so technically it's the same strategy, it just so happens to be over a very long period of time. 

Todd Kerns, Slash & Frank Sidoris

Clearly many people will know you as bass player and Conspirator with Slash featuring Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators. What have you specifically learnt from your time with Slash and how will fans recognise this in the TKO album?


That's a good question actually. I think I've learned a great deal from Slash. I think Slash is one of those people who's accomplished most things that most of us will never have an opportunity to, so he could very easily have just shown up, put a top hat on and played and said "here's your money, here's your cheque" and off he goes, but I've never known anybody more driven. He just sits there with a guitar all day long just playing and playing and playing. In my opinion he's playing better today than he ever has. If he's a martial artist he's at the nth degree of black belt as far as guitar playing goes. I think that if there's  anything I've learned, it's that nothing comes easy. I suppose anything you really want should be bit of a challenge, so he's continually challenging himself and I think that he’s also very solid to the thing I was just talking about: music isn't supposed to be over-analysed, or super pulled apart. If something feels like it's the right way to go you've got to follow your instincts and go with it. That's mostly what I've learned from those guys. Myles is a whole other subject because Myles is an amazing singer, lyricist and performer in his own right. I think that's part of the fun of being part of someone else's crew. I've always equate it to like having my own ship once in a while and being the captain of my own ship. You always learn something being part of someone else's crew. You kind of go "ok, yeah, that’s how he does this" and you come back with your new experience. Just the other day I was talking to Slash about how I'm doing this thing with my old band Age Of Electric from 20 years ago and he's doing Guns n Roses from 20 years ago, so there's this parallel that kind of happens, and the experiences that both of us will bring back to our combined effort will be very interesting indeed.

As well as playing bass in Slash's band over the years you have taken lead vocals on an increasing number of tracks, starting with Doctor Alibi on the early tours through to covering many Guns n roses tracks. This very quickly became a highlight of the Slash featuring Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators shows. How did it make you feel to take centre stage and to feel the love from the crowd night after night?


It's really interesting that you say that because at first it was just sort of like Slash had that solo album out and he had Iggy Pop and Lemmy, God rest his soul, and there's a few songs that weren't really in Myles’ sort of wheelhouse. So it was sort of like "why don't you sing it?" kind of thing, and I was like "Ok!". Initially, I don't know whether it was all that welcome of a break from the steady flow of what was happening during the show (laughs) and I'm sure a lot people were like ‘who the hell is this guy and where did Myles go?’ but over time it became kind of a thing and people came to really identify Doctor Alibi with myself as much as Lemmy in a funny way, although it will always be Lemmy’s work. It became our own version of the song and became its own thing. It's surreal to look back on it now because I don't remember questioning it in any fashion because I'm such a musician who when someone says something like "Let's try this, let's try that" I’m usually the one that goes "Let's do it!". I don't  really think of the repercussions. It's just like diving into a cold pool without thinking what's underneath the water? Is this contaminated? Is this 3 feet deep? Am I going to break my head? It became a lot more serious when Slash said "why don't you sing Welcome To The Jungle". That's when I said of course, I know that song. I've been singing it in bands since I was a kid. It wasn't until later that I thought to myself ‘Jeez! That's like singing the national anthem or something’. There's some seriousness behind certain songs. Sweet Child O’Mine, Welcome To The Jungle – they really belong to another person entirely really, Axl Rose essentially. To me it's you do your tribute to it, you do your thing, you put your spin on it and that's kind of that.


With Slash having commitments to Guns n roses, does this afford you the opportunity to extensively tour TKO and can we expect you to visit the UK?


I would love to come to the UK. It's funny because as I mentioned before, Age of Electric, my old band from Canada, split up in 1998. Out there we are a sort of beloved, if I may say so, kind of act that fell by the wayside, and a lot of us have gone on to do other things, but in reconvening last year we did a one off show that opened up a whole door of activity that kind of just rolls on to this day. So that's taken over a lot of my attention at the moment. The TKO record, it's weird because I was saying the other day how I'm starting to feel like Jack White where he has the White Stripes and the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather and solo stuff. You kind of feel that you have all these projects on the go but I've always been a bit sort of schizophrenic in that I like that ‘this project is about this, this project is about that, I play bass with Slash, I play guitar with this’. So to me I find it challenging and a lot of fun. So the TKO thing I think will be one-offs here and there. Age Of Electric will tour throughout the year and probably release new music sometime 2016/17. We’ll see what happens, as well as some other projects I have on the go. I even have a film script sitting on my desk that someone has sent for me to look at. Obviously with the Guns n Roses thing, and Alter Bridge was a factor in this as well, a lot of people were like ‘what are you going to do, oh my God!’ but I immediately fired up a lot of different projects that have been on the back burner because of my commitments to Slash. The one thing about the Slash camp is that you do not have a lot of free time. You are 100% in that camp, which I am perfectly cool with, so as soon I got an opportunity to breath with that a whole load of other things came flooding through and I've been really thankful that that kind of stuff has presented themselves. Some things presents themselves, some things you chase down, some things you make happen, but 2016 has been a really fun year to just kind of let things happen.

As our conversation draws to a close, we reflect on what a hugely versatile artist Todd actually is and the fact that strength of material he is delivering must surely direct that 2016 will prove to be yet another great year.


For more information, check out www.toddkerns.com. In the meantime, enjoy this video of Todd taking lead vocals on Doctor Alibi.