The one-time Mountain guitarist set about inviting a heap of famous guitarists to play on his album, little knowing by the time it was released his world would have changed forever. Interview by Michael Heatley
Exactly 10 years ago, Mountain guitarist Leslie West looked across the Hudson from his New Jersey home at the unfolding horror of 9/11. Now he faces a much more personal yet devastating crisis, having lost a leg to diabetes. But with an all-star album to promote, West, 65, has all the incentive in the world to play live again.
‘It’s like putting your dick in the mouth of the devil,’ he cackles in typically upbeat fashion. ‘I don’t think I have a choice. I did the album before all this happened; I’m sure I wouldn’t have had any desire to go and record after it happened – but I’m really proud of it and it sounds pretty good. Maybe God looks out for us in strange ways.’
If all goes according to plan, West will be touring the US this autumn in the company of Michael Schenker and Uli Jon Roth. ‘I might have a prosthetic [limb] by then. It’s supposed to be mid-October, but you’ve got to learn to walk with it and I don’t want to play on stage standing if my balance isn’t right. But I do have this great chair I can play on – we’ll work it out.’
His new album, Unusual Suspects, features a number of special guests. Toto’s Steve Lukather is a friend of producer Fabrizio Grossi and, much to West’s delight, showed up at the California studio by chance. ‘I said “Steve, there’s a part on one song – One More Drink For The Road, an acoustic boogie – that I cannot play in time and keep it smooth”. He licked it in two seconds.’
Obtaining the services of Zakk Wilde was simple as he shares the same manager as Leslie, whom he affectionately calls ‘Dad’. He plays on two tracks, the first being Nothin’s Changed. ‘When it comes to the first solo,’ purrs a paternal West, ‘I play it with a lot of air and space in between my notes. Zakk plays so fucking fast – fast but clean, there’s no sloppiness in there – so when his comes in after me, my wife says it reminds her of a husband and wife arguing…. but we let each other finish before we interrupt!’
West had never met Slash, ‘even though on the Guns N’Roses box set he’d thanked me for something. But he came to the studio, heard Mud Flap Mama and then said: “I don’t know why you’d really need me on that track!” I told him I’d be the judge of that! I had the slide riff, we took the track down and the first solo is me. Then Slash comes right on my tail and I swear to God it sounds like a harmonica! It worked out really well.
‘He called from Hollywood, where he was rehearsing, and said “I finish at six, I can go in the studio at seven or eight.” I didn’t want him driving all the way up to the Valley so we rented a studio a couple of blocks from where he was. I feel a tap on my shoulder, I turn around and there he is! A Les Paul, no entourage, no road crew, no groupies, just him. I was so impressed. His logo is that big hat and the mud flap girl: on the big lorries there are mud flaps behind the tyres, and usually they’ve got an incredible-looking girl on them. There’s one on the new Leslie West Mississippi Queen guitar that Dean makes – it’s supposed to be my wife, she looks like that. So that’s what a mud flap girl is, and that was Slash’s logo… I didn’t even know.’
Billy Gibbons brought the idea for Standing On Higher Ground into the studio with him.
Gibbons’ band got its big break opening for Mountain in the early ’70s, but the pair trade licks here as equals and the ZZ Top man is right behind West’s efforts to continue his live career. ‘Leslie will, no doubt, bounce back with his unusually bionic blitz of guitarosciousness,’ said Gibbons, adding: ‘He will always be playing and standing on higher ground.’
The next knock on the studio door came from Joe Bonamassa. Leslie had played on of one of his early albums, so it was time to call in the favour. ‘He said, “You know, one of my favourite tracks of all time is [Eddie Boyd and Willie Dixon’s] Third Degree by West, Bruce and Laing. So if you ever want to re-cut it…” It was just me and Joe, sitting in a control room singing and playing. The guy sounds to me like he was born black – his voice and his playing – so that worked out great.’
Zakk and Slash play acoustic on the album’s last cut, The Party’s Over, Turn Out The Lights, a Willie Nelson song. ‘We’re all on that,’ West reveals, ‘but we did it at different times. Sometimes at the end of the show I’d break into that song myself, so I thought it would be a good track to put as the closing number.’
Apart from hiring in a Marshall combo, Leslie used a Budda 30W amp and 4×12" set-up. ‘The head is so efficient that I can’t turn the master past 3,’ he enthuses. ‘It’s like having a car that runs well on a small engine and uses less fuel than a Cadillac that gets two miles to the gallon.’
Three electric guitars made it into the studio, but only two came out in West’s hands; he gave Slash a white two-pickup Dean as a thank you. The others were a 40th anniversary Leslie West made in honour of his iconic appearance at Woodstock and a Leslie West Flying V ‘with the action up really high’ he used for the rhythm slide part on Mud Flap Mama.
Leslie’s unsure if he will be operating the effects live with his good left foot, or from a desk-mounted set-up. The late John Martyn, a fellow amputee, chose to play seated, but West has yet to take that decision. ‘I think I can play just as good sitting. I may have to get up on a riser, so I’m at least equal to the height of the others!’
But he draws the line at Schenker’s idea. ‘He wanted me to sit there like Mahavishnu with robes on… I ain’t doin’ that!’ Another devilish cackle rings across the phone lines. It’s clear Mountain’s main man is determined to scale this particular peak, with a little help from those unusual suspects.