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Todd Kerns talks about the new Slash Featuring Myles Kennedy & The Conspirators record 4, the US tour & Record Store Day release

Todd Kerns
Todd Kerns

February this year saw Slash Featuring Myles Kennedy & The Conspirators released their fourth studio album. Simply entitled 4, this was an album created in a very unusual way: all the band members playing and recording live in the same room. For reasons of efficiency and the desire to create a highly polished record, understandably this is a method most artists tend not to adopt. However, producer Dave Cobb’s vision to do just this was an approach hugely welcomed by Slash. The result is an album with a rawness and a live feel that brings the fans just that little bit closer to the band. With the supporting US tour having now concluded, we catch up with bass player Todd Kerns at his home in Las Vegas. It’s from a very relaxed Todd that we are, as ever, given the warmest of welcomes. Wearing a simple black T shirt and lots of stubble, it’s perhaps the vision of a man simply catching his breath after completing 28 incredible shows. Keen to get the full story of how the album and tour came together, we put our feet up and our conversation begins… 

The first thing I would like to talk to you about is the incredible new record from SMKC 4. It was released on 11th February and it went to number 5 here in the UK. I think most of the songs were perhaps written before the pandemic but of course the songs were recorded during the pandemic. It appears as though there was always that spirit of ‘we are going to make this happen’. What sort of band conversations took place at that time about actually getting the album recorded?

Well, it’s such a funny thing because on the previous Living The Dream tour, we were jamming at sound checks and coming up with stuff, the same as it’s always been really. That’s kind of how all the albums have come together. But you know how it goes, it’s got even more complicated since Guns N’ Roses got back together in 2016 only in that we already had the lead singer from Alter Bridge on loan. I don’t sit at home looking at the phone waiting for it to ring because I’ve got my own stuff going on and I keep myself very, very busy, but then all of a sudden you throw a pandemic into the middle of all that, it becomes even more complicated. It actually complicates things even until now. A lot of the dates that are happening for Guns N’ Roses right now are dates that are carried over from 2020, so there’s a very good chance we would probably still be out on the road now even though when we first started touring it seemed like America was the only place we could go. We had trouble even getting into Canada. It’s just one of those things where when the pandemic happened Brent (Fitz – drummer) immediately goes to Canada to be with his family and then everybody else is just sort of spread out. Slash and I are the only 2 who saw each other during the pandemic. I was spending a lot of time in Los Angeles where I did a lot of other session work so we would get together. The way we used to do it was that we would just get in a room together, especially the 3 of us: usually we’d start with Brent, myself and Slash and we would just kind of knock ideas around. Because that wasn’t an option, we actually sat there and tried to demo things up with loops and drum things just to create a foundation to build upon, and that stuff get sent to Myles and Myles turns them into songs. It was challenging during the pandemic, even just to try and get out of my work mode… and then get back into my work mode! So I find myself in some weird position now where I’ve come off the road and I feel like I should be doing something… it’s very confusing! (Laughs!)

I think what’s quite interesting about the pandemic is that for you personally, Todd, this has seen you recording at extreme ends of the spectrum. For example, with Minefield everything was recorded remotely and there were band members that you never actually met.

I still haven’t! I’m actually going to meet the guitar player (Brandon Fields) who I co-wrote songs with - we are going to see each other at the end of this month for the first time!

Absolutely! And then of course with SMKC the band were all together in the studio playing and recording live in the room, and living together. What sort of things were going through your mind as those SMKC recording plans were beginning to emerge? Were you welcoming of the approach of ‘being back in the room’?

Oh, yeah! For me my initial visits to Los Angeles were under a very heavy fear of the pandemic. Even going to visit Slash in his studio, I was thinking ‘Is this cool?’. We had to get tested and it was that whole thing. Even now, you never really know what to expect. People ask me ‘Do you think there’s going to be more music?’ I think so! It starts almost like some weird kind of booty call! (Laughs!) It’s never ‘Let’s to get together on these dates…’ it’s more like ‘How are you doing?... What’s going on?...’ and that slowly turns into windows of opportunity that can become ‘Well, let’s get together’. Even with SMKC 4 the chance of getting together always seemed like it would happen eventually. You have something on your calendar with all these question marks which just suggests ‘Somewhere around here maybe?’. But Slash to his credit, he when he gets a notion he follows it up. I think it drives him crazy to not to do so. It really kind of plagues if he cannot get out there and get these things out of his head. He’s a very creative guy. I don’t know what he’s doing right now but he’s probably playing guitar! And whenever he plays guitar he comes up with a riff which turns into an idea and the next thing you know he’s got the fragments of a song. Gathering the tribe together and travelling east to Nashville during a time when that wasn’t necessarily advised is kind of a crazy idea but that’s what it took to make this record. Otherwise it would have to have been made remotely and Slash is not going to make a record remotely. That would never, ever happen! (Laughs!)

I think there were some complications though as people succumbed to the virus, and I know that the band took every precaution – you even went to the doctors together to get tested. To what extent did that scupper the whole recording schedule?

It’s funny because it had been pretty much a year afterwards and it seemed like ‘what are the chances of getting it now?’ It seemed kind of ridiculous but of course there was always the chance that anything can happen as a result of what people were doing prior to us getting together. Initially Slash had travelled on a tour bus out to Las Vegas and then everybody met there. Myles drove from Washington up north where he lives down to Vegas. So that transaction of travelling and stopping at rest stops for a soda or a bag of crisps – as we say in your neck of the woods! (Laughs!) – who knows what door knob you touched? And then you have to take into account the same thing is happening from Las Vegas to Nashville because we stopped at gas stations and it’s just that random chance. Unfortunately it was Myles, and I always feel like I’m giving him a hard time, but it’s funny because he is one of those people who if there’s a cold going around Myles is going to get it. Myles knows that too and he just hates it! Going in to make this record was very strange anyway because in the standard world of making records you’re always focused on the drum performances. You get the drum performances right and then you can start stacking on everything else. We’ll do the bass, we’ll do the guitars, we’ll do the vocals. This was a time where we came across a guy – and as soon as I got there I realised ‘Oh, this is what Slash’s romance with Dave Cobb is all about’ because Cobb says “We will just get in a room and just play”. I can imagine Slash’s reaction being “Where have you been all my life?”. So we literally got in the room and there are amps. Usually the amps are in other rooms so they’re not bleeding into the drum mics, and it felt we were like jamming or just rehearsing for a live show. There’s a lot to be said about over cooking things and sitting there stroking your beard about say that snare drum sound. Making a record like (Def Leppard’s) Hysteria, after a while my perspective would be so slanted I wouldn’t know what was good or bad. I would start thinking about that snare drum sound and questioning whether it was good enough, but when you look at Black Sabbath‘s first album apparently they just loaded in, recorded and left! It took maybe a day or something like that! They just played the songs that they knew and they left. And you kind of ask yourself ‘Is there anything we would’ve done to that record to adjust it to make it better?’ No. It’s perfect the way it is. So with 4 it was just a matter of we had worked up some ideas, Dave came into the room with us and worked out some changes and away we went!

I think the wonderful thing is that SMKC managed to hit the road in February and March for 28 massively successful dates across the US. That’s a hugely extensive tour in itself yet it seemed particularly extensive and ambitious in the face of a pandemic and at a time when things were only just starting to return to any sense of normality. As someone who lives there life on stage, how did it feel to be back playing live on this wonderful tour?

Oddly enough it felt very normal. It seems like a weird thing to say. Obviously there’s parameters and all sorts of protocols. No matter where you are you want to go to that cool place that you like and go and look at the record shop or go to the coffee shop or call in to your friends who live in that town, but all that went out of the window immediately and that sort of became the hardest part of it. But for whatever reason, as soon as we just stepped on stage it felt pretty normal. You’re still thinking ‘I sure hope these people are okay’ because up to this point none of us have been in the same room together. Now we are all in the same room together! It’s like riding a bike – you just get up there and do your thing. People keep saying to us ‘this is the best you guys have ever played, you guys sound tighter and better and have more energy than ever’. If that’s true I think a lot of that has to do with our own exuberance that we get to do this, because it’s amazing, but I think there’s also a certain amount of what’s going on in the audience as far as their perspective of the joy of finally just being able to be at the show. I think that makes a big difference.

Something very exciting is happening on the 18th of June. SMKC are releasing a double vinyl record Live At Studios 60 as part of a Record Store Day exclusive. Limited to 2250 copies this is something very special indeed. There has been a massive resurgence in demand for vinyl and lots of bands are having to delay releases due to that demand, which is a wonderful problem to have! Are you a vinyl guy?

I am! I’m not religious about it, like I have friends who are just out of their minds. But I’ve not been to a Record Store Day which is kind of a funny thing to say for a guy who really loves it. I’m a man who has too many things! (Laughs!) I’m trying to have less things! If something is coming out that I really want to get, I just go and get it. But when it comes to vinyl, especially old vinyl, I want to go and get the original copy of it and not the new print of it. But I’m amazed because even back when we started doing Apocalyptic Love or even the first Slash solo album, they came out on vinyl and it seemed such a novelty! It was cool to open up Apocalyptic Love and I see your picture in a record like it’s 1975! But back then it just seemed like kind of a cool thing rather than for example by today’s standards where for Record Store Day, the store opens at 9am and there’s a line up at like 6 or 7 in the morning or something! I was fascinated because when I went to the local shop here that I hang around and loiter in (laughs!) they told me that Record Store Day used to casually happen but now there are literally line ups down the street waiting to get in. That’s so exciting to me. It’s always an eye-opener as a kid when you love music as much as I do because it’s just everything, and then you meet people and realise that not everybody feels the same way as you do. They don’t know who the names of the members are and they don’t need to know all stuff. It’s like ‘What!?’ - almost shocking – ‘How is this not the most important thing in the world to you?!’ But with the advent of downloading it sort of changed the game and left everybody in a position of real confusion. With vinyl having made this comeback, it has really made it sort of exciting again, that there’s lineups of people going to pick up the new record. So June 18 for our record is very exciting. We talked about doing a Record Store Day exclusive a long time ago. So we did that live performance at Studios 60, which was more of a promo EPK type of thing, for Record Store Day for 4. There’s also extra songs on there and it’s been really fun to do that stuff. Seeing it on vinyl always makes it feel so much more official.

Was 4 written with vinyl in mind? 10 tracks with that live feel really lends itself to a turntable experience. It’s interesting that you mentioned the 70s because some of the best sounding vinyl records for me are the ones made in the 70s because you really here the nuances in the instruments. Also, I know with Living The Dream the number of tracks were perhaps designed to fit with a vinyl release. Was that a consideration or simply coincidence?

I think it was a bit of both. We’ve talked about that for a long time. In the 90s and in the early 2000s when people really understood how much information you could put on a compact disc it became 16 or 18 songs on the record or sometimes longer. I was always kind of thought that people didn’t listen past song 10. Slash was always saying things like Apocalyptic Love had two extra songs that basically ended up on a CD release, but he wants so much to reign it in, because when you think of, for example, Van Halen I, there’s probably 11 songs on that record. It’s hard to miss when you only have 11 songs that all make that statement. Every one of those songs is a keeper. It’s all killer, no filler. When we made World On Fire, it was a real flex with 17 songs. In retrospect, it’s still one my favourite things we’ve ever done because I felt that it was very ambitious to some degree. I think in my mind I was expecting some of the songs to end up on a Japanese import but the response was a clear “No, that’s the record!”. “Oh, Okay!”. It’s one of the things I always admire about a Slash: not that he doesn’t care, it’s more like ‘This is the music we’ve made and this is what we’re going to release’. I think for Living The Dream we were taking about making a smaller record or at least just making it more concise and to the point. Within that, because we recorded it analogue, a 10 song record recorded analog will translate better to vinyl than anything else we’ve done.

Well this record is the band playing the new album 4 live in its entirety plus 4 bonus songs which were Top 5 rock radio hits (You’re A Lie, World On Fire, Anastasia, Driving Rain). This was the show that was recorded on the 28th of May last year and was streamed on the 11th of February this year. The live video footage is fantastic and it’s almost as if the fans are on stage with the band. Tell me about your Studio 60 experience.

We had a lot of fun! There is something weird about playing without an audience there. You just looked out and it’s a lot of camera guys and production crew but I love it all so much! The whole idea of playing music and especially playing with those guys, there was a part of me that thought ‘I don’t know if I’m gonna get a chance to do this again!’ But the fact that we were actually able to get together under very tight stipulations and everything, it was very exciting and we had a blast! One thing that was a challenge was how when we get together to rehearse and to put a show together we don’t usually play the entire album live right away. We always do, and we did on the last run, we played every single song. But for this it was like we recorded it and we are now going to play the entire thing live. It was really fun and always really great to get the guys together and get the crew together. Our wives were there too! It was like this really great hippy commune of just hanging out and making music!

There have been hints that there may be some more SMKC activity next year. Are there things bubbling away for SMKC ?

It’s certainly still bubbling! I think ever since Covid presented itself I’m always like ‘I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it’ but I have a lot of faith. If Slash says to me tomorrow “I’m going to make a bluegrass record”, then he’s going to make a bluegrass record. He’s just that kind of guy! So when he says ‘I want to go on the road’ I think he will do. I don’t know what that means between now and next year – who knows what the hell could be happening. I assume by then we might even be thinking about at least working towards new music. Who knows? It’s such an interesting thing that we are all going to look back on that particular Covid period. In 10 years from now I’m going to look back at that chronological thing of all the different records I’ve made and I’m going to go ‘4 – Oh, yeah! That was crazy!’. It was crazy to make it and it was crazy to tour it! (Laughs!)

As our conversation draws to a close, we reflect what a great album 4 is and but how five guys went on an amazing journey to make this happen. To find out more head over to www.slashonline.com and in the meantime enjoy the full streaming of the Live At Studios 60 below.

Fans will be pleased to know there are so many amazing opportunities to see Todd performing live this summer: Vamp’d in Vegas www.vampdvegas.com, with Bruce Kulick at Creatures Fest www.creaturesfest.com and at the incredible Raiding The Rock Vault, voted “Best Of Las Vegas” 8 years in a row www.raidingtherockvault.com. Highly recommended!