‘With the first record, Contraband, we had to establish ourselves as a new band,” says Duff McKagan of Velvet Revolver, the band that brings together three former members of Guns N’ Roses — guitar player Slash, bassist McKagan and drummer Matt Sorum — together with one of rock’s most charismatic frontmen Scott Weiland, formerly of Stone Temple Pilots, and guitarist Dave Kushner, formerly of Wasted Youth. The band’s newest album, “Libertad,” is Spanish for both liberty and freedom.
“We’ve actually figured out who we are as a band, so there’s been room for musical growth. These songs have more space; they breathe. Scott is writing about much broader issues than on ‘Contraband’; he’s looking outward more,” says McKagan in a press statement.
Velvet Revolver’s Re-Evolution tour comes to the Sovereign Bank Arena on Saturday, December 29. The opening band, Sick Puppies, hail from Sydney, Australia, and hit it huge with their YouTube video, “Free Hugs,” which has been seen over 11 million times.
“The songs (on Libertad) started out being very personal,” says Weiland, “but they took on a more universal truth as they were nurtured by the five-headed beast that is Velvet Revolver. I want to tell stories about the world I see and how it affects all of us. With this album I was making the microcosmic macrocosmic. Libertad has soul. These songs took on a life of their own in pursuit of groove.”
This direction particularly reflects Dave Kushner’s past and present musical idols, the former including Stevie Wonder, The Commodores and Earth, Wind & Fire. Of the latter he says, “When I was writing the music for ‘Get Out the Door,’ I wanted to do something that sounded simple and modern, and then I thought, ‘What would (Outkast’s) Andre 3000 do?’”
Says McKagan: “We had more freedom to explore our musical ideas because we were confident in the chemistry. It wasn’t so much knowing where each other’s musical boundaries are; it was finding out where they aren’t. Sometimes you’re hesitant to break out that part you’ve been playing around with because you think someone on the other side of the room might say, ‘Aw, dude, what is that?’ I don’t care who you talk to — every musician has felt it. We were just more comfortable trying things we might not have tried before.”
“Libertad has a lot of different textures,” says Weiland, “and everyone really raised the bar on their skills. It just goes places the first record doesn’t.”
The singer’s own instrument, one of the defining voices of alternative rock, is more nimble than ever in calibrating the emotional nuances of the material and exploring the outer reaches of his range. At times his voice recalls the romantic gravitas of Jim Morrison; in other moments he pays homage to Sting or Elvis Costello. Clean and sober for more than three years, Weiland said in Rolling Stone: “If you’re shooting dope, it fucks up your voice completely. You have no range …[and] without drugs, I have a direct link to my emotions. I can feel them.”
One of those feelings, the thrill of inspiration, overtook Weiland when he spotted McKagan wearing a Day of the Dead shirt with the word “libertad” emblazoned on it. He recognized it immediately as the title of the band’s forthcoming record. For the members of Velvet Revolver, the word resonates beyond being liberated from preconceived notions of what kind of band they should be, beyond being confined, as individuals, to playing a certain style or a certain way.
“To me, it has a lot to do with freedom of speech,” says Kushner. “We all have very strong opinions. Scott, for instance, has been adamant about various things throughout his career in the spotlight, and he’s taken heat for it, but I respect him for not holding back.”
Weiland did not hold back when he confided his feelings about his brother, Michael, who died of an overdose in early 2007. “Michael’s death played a big part in the writing of this record," he told Q magazine’s Dan Stubbs, “but the way I see it, he’s finally free from pain. He’s achieved final liberty.” (Sorum’s younger brother died around the same time, succumbing to cancer.)
According to Slash, Velvet Revolver did not start living and breathing as a band until well after Contraband debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 and the radio track “Slither” won a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance.
“When we started, we dove right in,” says Slash. “We did the record pretty quickly and were on the road before it even came out. There was a lot to learn. We had to learn about Scott; we had to learn about Dave; I had to learn about Duff and Matt in this band. As we went along, I noticed onstage that we were learning each other’s styles, picking up on each other’s dynamics. There was a point at the end of the tour where we felt pretty seasoned; we’d actually started to set.”
After a hiatus in which each member worked on new material, Kushner says, “we all showed each other what we did at summer camp.” Says McKagan: "Everybody’s always got riffs and bits and pieces. Some of us demoed whole songs and brought them to the band. What happens a lot is that one of us will say, ‘Hey, I like that bit you just played. Play it again.’ Then the rest of us will tear it apart and put it back together again. We write really well that way; it’s how we bring the best out of each other.”
A highlight of Libertad, “She Mine,” was sketched out when McKagan and Sorum were being videotaped during a photo shoot: “We hate standing around during those things so we started jamming,” the bassist says. “At the very end of the recording sessions, I said, ‘Let’s check out the video from that photo shoot.’”
At some point during the recording sessions, Slash ran into the band’s production manager. “She had this Chilean coin on a chain around her neck. It showed a woman breaking free of chains and it said Libertad. Seeing that felt like fate, like this album was absolutely meant to be called ‘Libertad,’” he says. “Scott’s intuition was dead-on.”
Velvet Revolver, Saturday, December 29, 7:30 p.m., Sovereign Bank Arena. Sick Puppies from Sydney, Australia, opens. $35, $45, and $55. 800-298-4200 or ComcastTIX.com.