“Alan Niven came along, thank God he came along because he took us on. He probably looked at us and said ‘Well, they’re a mess’ but I think he’d been there maybe himself and saw potential. He worked with us and kinda, whether anybody says it or not, became like the sixth silent member”–Izzy Stradlin
There’s a LOT more to Alan Niven and his partner Heather’s life than his very well publicized stint as the manager of Guns N’ Roses. Alan came to America from New Zealand and not only signed Motley Crue to their first distribution deal but in the process saved their indie label Greenland from financial distress. He produced, co-wrote and managed Great White to their own gold and platinum before/during the GNR reign and he and Heather have since moved on to form their own label, enjoying a bit more freedom and peace these days. Still, we figure, it had to be a trip being in charge of “THE WORLD’S MOST DANGEROUS BAND”. Before the GNR guys get inducted into the Hall of Fame we caught up with Mr. Niven who provided not only a little insight on Izzy and company but also on all the aforementioned topics. Read on…..
Legendary Rock Interviews: Thanks so much for talking to us sir. I’ve gotten a few tracks of new things you are working on and none of it is boring! Can you start by telling us a bit about your label and some of the projects you are excited about including the young guitar player you’ve found who is so tuneful he impressed your old pal Slash?
Alan Niven: Heather and I are launching Tru-B-Dor for a multiple of reasons … firstly, a passion for music is like malaria. Its always in the bloodstream. The only variable is the degree of the fever one has. We have a fever at this time. Secondly we both got to a point of being bored with sitting on our deck, admiring the view we have of mountain Arizona, and complaining about the state of the music business and grumbling about the obvious mistakes being made. It was time we made an effort to not just illuminate those mistakes, but more importantly, make some contribution to making the business healthier. The more of us who do that the better. The industry has been ravaged by greed, superficiality and stupidity. And Steve Jobs – who destroyed infrastructure without contributing a replacement. The damage he did will one day be recognized as enormous. But, every season has it’s purpose and we believe the business will rebound after this long hard winter, just as it did from the commercial winter of 1979/80/81. One of the reasons for our outlook is that although the business is sick, we still get turned on to some truly excellent talent and music.
Being a small start-up we can only take on so much. We have two acts we are currently prepping for release, Storm Of Perception and Chris Buck. Had we the means we would be prepping seven acts … and we hope to get to them all eventually because they are great artists and deserve to be given the support to connect to a following.
Storm Of Perception is a powerful rock band – we are so tired of the overuse of the word metal, and all that micro genre silliness – it’s far cooler and definitely more relevant to connect to a significant number of hearts and souls than it is to have a minor following that lives off exclusion rather than inclusion. Comparisons are odious by their very nature, and the use of any well-known name can seem to be hyperbole and challenging to those who love those names, but if you insist, we would suggest that if you dropped Metallica and Queen into a blender then you would get something similar to Storm. Its epic. Its heavy. It has melodic guitarscapes. It has dynamics. It has real drum performances. It’s a genuine band rather than an engineer’s Pro Tooled idea of a band. They have a communal intelligence. They are about something. It’s not just negative cookie monster grumbling for posture and sensation’s sake.
Chris Buck is the most interesting guitar player I have worked with. Heather found him on the internet when he was only 16. She immediately noted the personality of his feel and articulation – exceptional for anyone of any age, but at his age most extraordinary. Couple that with a purist’s determination to never cut and paste, to always play his part in one take, couple that with his tremendous innate sense of construction and dynamic and you have a truly amazing talent. He’ll be around for decades, and like both Slash and E.C. he will probably play in lots of different formats.
LRI: At this stage in your career and given the state of the industry is it safe to say that you and Heather are most driven by things other than business acumen? I know you also feel passionate about your Japan benefit organization.
AN: I take it by ‘business acumen’ you mean the desire to make money … we all know that if you want to make money you go into the financial world via something like real estate and then position yourself to fleece as many people as possible like a good little Wall Street Warrior. Business acumen in America these days sadly means exercise anti-social greed as deviously as possible within our fear based, war driven, fossil fuel economy. It’s a Republican and corporate “I, Me, Mine” world and screw any trickle down. Attempting to make money in the music business has always been a huge risk endeavor … but the emotional, spiritual and psychological rewards of success can be absolutely life affirming. Lets get a couple of issues straight here …. there is entertainment and then there is artistry. Now entertainment can be fun, but its candy floss – you ain’t going to survive long off that diet. Artistry nourishes our souls. At its highest point, music brings people together by their own consent, and that’s the key. We live in a world of coercions – Federal laws, local laws, tax laws, speeding laws – all kinds of religious and social peer pressures. However, when we respond to something in someone’s music we do it willingly. We obviously see the performer is different from us – I don’t play like Neil Young for example – but when we feel an instinctive connection to something someone has played or sung, then we are recognizing, and appreciating, our mutual humanity. When Neil plays “Rockin’ In The Free World” I turn it right up and holler “Hell yeah!”
Of course we need to pay our bills and feed our kids, but Heather and I would like to have a legacy greater than a box of receipts for the accountants. And you don’t see no hearses with luggage racks.
Artists Support Japan was our very small way of trying to contribute to a terrible circumstance. The idea was simple – when these things happen there are one-off benefit shows – we thought it might be worthwhile to see if we could construct a form of permanent benefit show by using the internet … something that will be there over the long period. Paul and Cynthia Rodgers understood our concept immediately and were the first to contribute along with The Tom Hollister Trio. The site would direct those wishing to contribute financially to above-board organizations, like the Japanese Red Cross – so the whole thing was utterly efficient and pure – we had next to no expense and we did not handle any money whatsoever. Nice idea … and perhaps in the future, if needed, it will truly take off.
LRI: You are gracious enough to do these interviews where people like me pummel you with questions about the past. Feel free to draw any modern-day observances into our conversation or thoughts on what you have going on musically now. Do you at least understand the need to obsess over the details of your career legacy from a media or public stance?
AN: Of course I do … and we all are looking at, and talking about, a different land, another time, a past life experience … I can be objective about it now because I am not having to live it’s its helter skelter chaos every day. I greatly appreciate and value my time spent in making rock n roll … not just for the obvious and superficial – the freedom from drudgery, the travel, the shows, the endless parade of wonderful and absurd characters, but because it was also profound. Again, at its best, rock n roll honors the significance and value of each and every living soul. It can be the raging voice of the disenfranchised railing against the deviant elite who run our world. Good God. Look at old Newt … he wears his hypocrisies, greed and ambition on his jowls and we’re supposed to take him seriously as a leader who can represent the finest qualities of this nation. I’d vote for Joe Walsh in a heart beat rather than the vacuous stiffs who are marketed to us in the most cynical way. I’d suggest Lennon be made Pope if he still lived … Bob Marley for Ministry of Defense – “de fence comin’ down maan’. We gonna plant some weed where it stood.” Pink Floyd to run a better model of education system. Just keep Axl off the ballot …. there’s a rule about people in government – those who want to rule should not, and those who don’t want to rule should.
As regards my past, I have tried to learn from it. I am not as trusting as I used to be. Which is sad, but healthier and there was a definite high wave crest in the late 80s, which in some tiny way I contributed to. There hasn’t been much to get excited about for far too long, so I understand how that period, and the bands that made it, have a contemporary fascination.
But as you infer, today’s today. There are things to be addressed in the mediums of music and film. George Clooney is on it. There should be more in the music world who are on it. Back in the 80’s the superficial party atmosphere might be seen to be a repudiation of the Reagans – Nancy dancing with hoodlum darling Frank Sinatra at the Inaugural and admonishing us children to just ‘say no.’ But the serious issues of our lives are becoming even more unavoidable and we need to demolish the “Us and Them” concepts …. and Come Together. Choose co-operation over competition. Get boots off people’s throats and heads and not get distracted, seduced and fucked over by a disco coke mentality in whatever sly form it takes.
At its best, GnR espoused the worth of the soul of even an urchin from under the street. That’s a vibe we intend to stay close to. One Love. Love all. Jah-men!
LRI: You were involved in a business deal and project called Greenworld and were there for the beginning of one of my favorite bands. A band that we simply CANNOT nail down for an interview, so if I may…..What were your impressions personally and professionally of Mick, Vince, Tommy and Nikki and their level of dedication to the early Crue?
AN: Draw a line from Arthur Brown to Alice Cooper through Gene Simmons and you have Frank and Blackie Lawless. American rock n roll vaudeville – the sizzle of the spectacle and the fascination of the outrage. The question is how much steak goes with the sizzle. As far as I was concerned, I thought ‘Piece Of Your Action’ was a fair enough statement and a rockin’ track – enough to get me to persuade Mark Wesley and Steve Boudreau that they should sign the band and do whatever it took. At that company at that time we desperately needed something to counter the sterile taste of the Hein brothers.
The record itself, as has been said, is a glorious trainwreck of an album … not great playing but great attitude. And that was Motley then. The Flock of Duran Haircuts business considered them a joke, but believe me, in those early days, the little girls understood. Professional things got organized once we had them signed over to Elektra, which Tom Zutaut and I effected. Tom brought in Doc McGhee, with his colorful past and even more colorful means, and the rest is history. It was cool to be driving Nikki to KMET and see a JAL 747 fly over us. “Do you think we’ll ever go there?” he asked. “Undoubtedly.” I said. The look of hopeful disbelief in Nikki’s eyes was priceless. Nikki was the brains, Vince the pretty boy, Tommy and Mick the players. I heard a story that a legendary producer working with Motley for the first time called Doc in a panic in the middle of the night. “Nikki can’t play bass,” he complained. “He doesn’t have to,” was Doc’s reply. Motley is rock n roll sizzle deluxe.
LRI: I had the pleasure of meeting Nikki and Tommy once out of the kindness of Tommy’s heart back in the late 90s and found him to be so incredibly honest and kind to his fans. We talked for a while about the TOO FAST album and Tommy mentioned it pained him to hear all of the mistakes whereas Mr. Wagener told us he felt that was some of what makes it so special. Did you feel that the album had something magical to it back when you heard the final mixes and did you feel Elektra lost some of that in “their” translation?
AN: You cannot manufacture personality, and striving for perfection tends to compromise character and conviction in a performance. This was a great ‘indie’ record. Now, Tommy is a drummer, so he will feel the recording indiscretions keenly … but he should see the whole, and accept that in its time and place it was fun and cool record … a breath of fresh air in its own fetid way. And it got them on their way.
LRI: Were you managing Great White around that same time? Jack told us you were instrumental in getting the band to the level they got at Capitol and that his happiest days were those very early days well BEFORE “Twice Shy” , was it ever too daunting of a task or taxing on you personally to see that band to success?
AN: Having started Enigma and signed Berlin, and got ’em on KROQ, I left that to manage Great White. Nice of Jack to say I played a part … getting them signed for the first time to EMI was hard enough, but getting them resigned after the less than stellar debut album was very very difficult … it took me a year and a half and a complete re-invention of the band. No more wannabe Halen Priest. Kendall is a truly great blues rock guitar player, most under-rated for his playing, and Jack had a voice that could embrace that idiom wonderfully … so I got Jack to hear ‘Face The Day’ and I used that as a bridging template to get to a better place. I self financed and self promoted the album Shot In The Dark, and got KMET to do what they never did – put an indy record into regular and then hard rotation – Judy McNutt was a believer, bless her heart – KLOS followed suit and we got an offer from one label – the one that had already dropped the band once. Most ironic. Getting thru 85 was tough – our other South Bay bands Dokken and Ratt were out on the road, and buying new cars. Motley had gone mega. Kendall and I were sitting on the beach with a six pack, envious, broke and depressed. Yeah, imagine sitting on a California beach and complaining. But we wanted to be touring too. It was a dark period in which all of the band members came to me individually and privately at some point and said “if you say we’re done then I’m gone. I’ll stay as long as you stay.” That’s stressful, but then there always must be someone keeping faith in the vision.
LRI: It’s been mentioned that Guns had a particular disdain for the fact that you were managing Great White and was even “embarrassed” by the association. In some folks’ opinions though Great White were as good a live group as GNR was at many points in the timeline. They certainly cared about their craft much more than lots of their peers did as did Guns. Is this all conjecture about their disdain or was any of that actually verbalized to you while you were working for GNR?
AN: There was no disdain from GnR in the early days when Great White could help them, but it was a palpable discomfort the more prominent Guns became. Poor Jack, in particular, hated living under the shadow of Axl, and it appears he is trying to be Axl Russell these days, with his interesting public statements. Or should that be Axl Gollum and Jack Gollum grabbing at their ring of a name – “MY Precious.” Ironically, I think the seeds of that dislike were sown when Axl first came to LA, well before GnR … he told me he went up to Jack at the bar at The Troubadour to tell him he thought the band were cool and Jack made an arrogant drunken boob of himself. Odd. I’ve never known Jack to be that way. But Red sure can harbour a grudge.
LRI: There has been much mention of how Vicky Hamilton really put herself out there as a manager and I’ve talked at length with Marc Canter about the various people who formed a little helping family around the early GNR. Marc said you were the catalyst to them getting major success and called you the modern-day Peter Grant. Did you find their little support system to be beneficial to you or was it just simply keeping their wheels spinning on a local level?
AN: I took over from the Randy Phillips management people, who were desperate to get rid of the band. I didn’t really know Vicki except from when she worked at Licorice Pizza on Sunset as a sales clerk and she very kindly allowed me to pin some Too Fast For Love posters at the very back of the store … when I got involved there was just disorganization, debauchery and the disaster of the day.
LRI: I seem to remember reading several accounts of how both Live Recovery and Live Like A Suicide were nothing but elaborate studio falsifications brought on by record company request….is that accurate? Given the fact that my beloved KISS has made a career out of alternate performers playing bass and using studio “live” tracks, is that really so shocking?
AN: Recovery was my method of getting Shot In The Dark back from Enigma distribution so as I could sign it to a major label. Enigma were printing and selling Shot In The Dark in the LA area for me, to support the KMET and KLOS airplay. The deal I struck was that once I needed Shot back I would replace it with an album of equal number of tracks so as Enigma would still have an album to work and I could get the one I wanted back free clear and with no over-ride …. Recovery was only supposed to ever be an indie record that would never see national distribution. A reasonable means to a great end.
Having worked Too Fast, Out Of The Night, Pleasure Victim and Shot as indie records I well knew the value of the base one could build independently before a major released a debut signing. I wanted to do the same for Guns … so although they were signed we put out Suicide as an indie. There was another aspect to this. I needed money to finance the first trip to the UK, step one in my strategy to break the band. Every dime from Suicide went into that first UK trip …. there was a bit of method to the compromising madness.
LRI: You’ve said that Geffen wanted to pull support back when Guns was starting to make an underground rumble and reaching club headline status. What was their rationale and do you think that bringing the momentum to a halt would have kept them on a more cult level or even kept the band together?
AN: Undoubtedly and very perceptive! Guns had been only a nightmare to the label. $365,000 spent on recording. Rape allegations. Slash throwing a hammer through the company window. Death in New York. You name it …. and then President Eddy Rosenblatt had threatened to drop the band even before Appetite was recorded … so when we had, by December 87, actually toured, and on the back of the touring, sold almost 250,000 records, Eddy was recouped, and in the relief he felt at that moment he told me it was time to bring the band off the road and prep another record. I felt otherwise. If we could sell to that point with no radio airplay or MTV support I rather wondered what might happen if we got those things in place. Well. We found out, didn’t we?
LRI: I was a little bummed reading Slash’s and Nikki’s books simply because there was often more discussion of heroin than the music I love. Lonn Friend told us he’s friends with Slash but even he has issues with some of the many books written about the band. I find Marc Canter’s book to be the most interesting personally, simply because it’s so documentary in nature. What is your take on these books and would you ever write one?
AN: Just as I never did press back in the day I don’t read the books now … its funny enough to be sitting in a car with Duff n’ Slash on the way to a Jimmy Kimmel Show, reminiscing about a particular event, and have them both turn round and say “Is that what happened Niv?” – when they were both present at the event I am recalling! Whats the old saying about the Sixties? If you remember them you weren’t there? Same deal with GnR it seems! Marc’s is a great book for the very reason you state … I thumbed through it in Borders. I also thumbed through Duff’s and that’s all I will say about that.
The only reason I would do a book is to balance out some of the more outlandish and self-serving recall of others …. but as I have something of a private social obligation to entertain with stories, and sometimes I do feel like an old jukebox, I have in so doing been made aware that there are some stories that are worth being noted for posterity. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t … and may be it would just be a chore.
LRI: You have seen so many of your artists and friends live a way more “rock and roll” lifestyle than Gene Simmons who is one of my personal heroes. Granted some great music has come out of Motley, Great White and Guns but do you feel that lifestyle gives way to all the finger-pointing, break-ups and legal struggles all three of those bands have endured?
AN: Maybe if Gene were not sober there might have been some great KISS music.
LRI: I’ve been told or read everything about your being fired from Guns N’ Roses. Everything from “Axl didn’t want to do the Illusions tour yet” to it was an inside conspiracy between Doug Goldstein and Axl to the fact that someone let Axl know about your offer to continue on with them and a new singer…is it possible that all of those theories are correct simultaneously?
AN: The only time there was ever any discussion about Axl being replaced was in early 1988 when he failed to show for a gig at the Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix. A riot ensued. At that point, listening to Izzy and Slash complain about his persistent ability to make every one miserable on a daily basis I told them both I would support them if they chose to get rid of Axl, even if that meant they got dropped by Geffen. We were having coffee together in Sky Harbour when this conversation occurred.
LRI: I recently did an interview with Steven where I asked him about the upcoming Hall Of Fame ceremony and he said he is torn because Axl will either not show or show up with his “band of hacks”. I was asked to strike the comment about the band of hacks but then saw that he said the same thing to another reporter who then ran the comment anyway. Marc Canter talks to Slash on a very regular basis and I know you keep in touch as well. Marc seemed to disagree with Stevens assumption that a reunion was impossible and mentioned that it’s just a huge misunderstanding between two very proud men in Axl and Slash and perhaps Duff could broker a meeting of the minds. His opinion was that it was more likely to happen without Steven due to Axl’s distrust and that Izzy is sort of a wild card as far as his participation. Sorry for being long-winded but what I want to know is….. are you of the opinion like I am that Steven and Izzy are absolutely critical to the feel (Steven) and the songwriting (Izzy) of that band? I feel the moment Steven was sacked, of course partially due to his inability to keep up with Axl’s new musical leanings, the band’s sound changed for the worst and when Izzy left it was effectively OVER.
AN: My sentiments entirely. Izzy was the heart of the soul of the band … and the ebullience of Steven’s playing has never been superceded by better techniques. By the way Iz and I were closest … born exactly ten years apart when you factor in the date line … he was also the most consistent person to discuss things with … I always thought of it as his band …the best and coolest composer in the band … great groove and deft lyrics … he’s a chip off the Keef block as regards rhythm playing and general presence.
LRI: So much of what you are trying to do then and still today in terms of creating success as a label owner or a manager or producer has a lot to do with outside factors like radio or press or whatnot. I think once again, Gene Simmons or Alice comes to mind in terms of shock factor also being an ingredient. In 1987 Guns and Roses and the rap group N.W.A. made my teenage ears stand on end with lyrics that would best be described as misogynistic. Do you feel that the lyrics to those classic tracks from GNR has SOMETHING to do with the attention generated towards then compared to say Great White or other acts?
AN: Axl’s muse is predominantly driven by conflict and hate … but, genderwise he is an equal opportunity junkyard dog … and then again, how sweet is Sweet Child. Or Rocket Queen. That is Axl as an angel. Maybe even a bi-sexual one. Who is the Rocket Queen really? Lets talk about those feathers, those little white leather shorts …. But yes, you’re quite right. And we all knew it, but I did not consider Axl’s statements to be gratuitous, so I could endorse them as sincere. On Your Knees was gratuitous.
LRI: Last question…thanks for putting up with us. It’s been said that the video shot for “Its So Easy” was a live location shoot but you also hinted that Axl and Erin shot some less than G rated footage and that’s why it will never be seen. For a band that had a rape scene t shirt, lyrics like “Turn around bitch I’ve got a use for you” and a practically naked woman on the cover of “Lies” this career move doesn’t seem to make sense to the outside observer. Do you agree?
AN: Given the nature of the footage, and the tone of Axl’s divorce from Erin Everly, it was an ass saving act of brilliance to shelve it.
We recently ran a new interview with Jack Russell in response to this interview with Mr. Niven…..