This is the first installment from a three-part series from the GNR residency in Las Vegas. In part 2, we delve into the concerts and in part 3, we talk musical passion with Richard Fortus.
Her name is Katie. And she is nine years old. She has made a sign for guitar player Dj Ashba because tonight is his birthday. It is hand-written with bright markers and a small cake has been drawn at the bottom. She holds up the sign to show me before Saturday night’s show with all the innocent excitement only a pure soul can emit. Her eyes are bright and her smile is wide. When I ask her if she likes Ashba a lot, she shakes her head no. “I super love him.” Five minutes later, a security guard tells Katie that she cannot bring in her sign because they are allowing no signs tonight. Katie’s face breaks into a million pieces and she starts to quietly cry. Everyone is heartbroken. But I have a secret that I whisper into Katie’s ear and a few minutes later I am headed backstage to meet with Ashba, sign in hand. When I sit down with him, I tell him about Katie and with no hesitation, no pre-thought-out-silent-agenda, Ashba asks that Katie be brought upstairs immediately.
Following our interview, he slides behind the door, as Katie and her father are led into the green room. Katie runs up to me crying. When I ask her why, she quietly says that she is so nervous and so happy. I ease her around and there stands Ashba, smiling down at her. And she grabs him with all the love a child can have in their heart. It is touching beyond words and I slip out quietly. If you only know Dj Ashba as a rock star with both Guns N Roses and Sixx: AM, then you are missing probably the most important part of this man.
His actions on Saturday night were above and beyond his duties as a public personality. It was his birthday, he had friends and family waiting in the next room to give him a crazy cool cake, he had a Meet & Greet to do within minutes, he had to warm-up. He didn’t have to do anything for Katie. Yet he did. And for ten minutes, she was the only thing that mattered.
Dj Ashba was born and raised in Indiana. He began playing music at an early age, starting with piano when he was about three years old. He was also a bit mischievous, as he told me in an interview we did earlier this year: “I was the kid that was always kind of the neighborhood terror, just always in trouble. Cops were always over at the house. I was just ornery, I guess. I was probably more bored of being in a little tiny town than anything so to keep my mind busy I was always just a menace, I guess.” (laughs)
Ashba has come a long way from egging his principal’s house and detasseling corn.
Building his reputation playing guitar – he now plays alongside Axl Rose and Nikki Sixx in two of the most popular bands in rock & roll – Ashba is now making his name on the other side of plucking chords: as a businessman. I sat down this past weekend with Ashba during GNR’s current Vegas residency and talked to him about this part of his life … after I asked him about those crows that decorate his chest.
You know what’s funny is there has always been a weird fascination with crows with me. My dad left when I was three or four and it was one of those things where I moved away when I was sixteen. I left everybody I’d ever known to come out and pursue my dream, which was THE hardest thing I ever had to do. I dated the same girl from sixth grade till I moved, so it was a really hard thing. I remember spending the first Christmases alone in my little crappy one room apartment in a really bad part of LA and just sitting there in tears, thinking did I make a huge mistake? But it was always this calming thing, cause the one thing that was always there was crows. I always felt like I had someone watching over me. It was just this weird fascination with crows and that’s kind of it. There’s no real big story to any of my tattoos.
But it was strong enough to you that you put it on your body. And you don’t just have one you have a circle of them.
Yeah, I have five of them and it’s just one of those things where I always felt safe. Like when things get pretty tense or I’m feeling a little like, ugh, I think they’re always there. They’re everywhere I look. I’ll look out my window and I remember waking up and they’d just be lined up on my fence.
Like they’re watching over you
Yeah. I just always felt like it’s kind of my guardian angel in a weird way and I have a great guardian angel. To live in LA for twenty years, moving out there from a little small town and not knowing a soul.
Have you ever figured out who it might be?
No, I really don’t know but it’s a good one (laughs) I really don’t know who it is but whoever it is I trust with all my heart because they’ve never steered me wrong. Every decision I make, I just go by my gut. I never make a decision based on money or anything else. It’s, “Hey, does this feel right inside?” “Can I sleep good tonight?”
When did you realize that you wanted to become a business person behind what you wanted to do?
A couple different things. When people ask me who were my influences, it was never guitar players, it was never, so to speak, musicians. I’ve always looked up to certain people but my true influences in life were people like Walt Disney, people like Steve Jobs, people that really came and changed the world in a much bigger way than just a dream. They’ve changed the world in a massive way. And I always felt like I was put here to do something great, like really beyond music. I still to this day don’t think I’ve found the real reason why I’m here, you know. People are like, “But you’re in the biggest band in the world” and I go, yeah, but there is something inside that I keep searching for and I think before I go there is going to be something, I’m pretty confident, that is going to be kind of the reason I’m known for. And I don’t think it’s going to be music-related, which is weird.
You’ve always been very artistic to begin with and then you took that and made it into something.
Ever since I was young, I would draw on everything there was: paper plates, blah, blah, blah. I started working for a newspaper when I was really young, like in seventh grade, I believe, seventh or eighth grade, and I noticed they didn’t have a cartoon in the newspaper. And I worked down in the crappy, folding the papers that come out of the press, and our boss was scary, like this old scary guy that everyone was afraid of. So I remember going up to the third floor of this small, little, tiny town rickety building and knocking on the big boss’s door and walking in and he looked at me like, what balls do you have? (laughs). And I tried to tell him, “I know how to make your paper better.” And he was just like, “What?” And I’m in like seventh or eighth grade and I go, “Your paper doesn’t have a cartoon and everybody loves cartoons. I would love to do a cartoon for the newspaper.” And he kicked me out of his office but about a week later he came down and everybody got all tense and he goes, “I need to see you in my office,” and I was like, crap, he’s going to fire me. And it went from that to him going, “I thought about what you were saying, bring me in some ideas.” I actually stayed up all night drawing and drawing. And I went from that to he gave me my own office. So I think that kind of showed me something from an early age. It’s like, wow, I believed in something I really strongly believed in and I, as hard as it was, approached it and it worked out. And I think that’s kind of what was the start of everything else.
What was your biggest challenge into the business world?
I think in a big way it’s the clothing. The clothing I’ve been trying to do for fifteen years and I could never get it right, cause clothing is a really tough thing to get into. You’ve got to really know what you’re doing and I’ve made a lot of mistakes and I learned from them but I never gave up. And I think that’s half of it, you know. I’ve always said it’s never hard to do anything you wanted to achieve your dreams; it’s hard not to give up. So if you don’t give up on your dream, you will succeed and you will get to your ultimate goal. I come from a place where it’s like you can have anything in life you wanted as long as you wanted it bad enough and you’re willing to work as hard as it takes to get it. And I’m a hard worker and when I get focused on a goal, no one can detour me from it. And I love it. It’s fun.
Are you constantly creating new ideas?
Constantly. A lot of people go to the movies and a lot of people do this, but the fun I have, what brings me the most joy, is sitting down and wracking my brain 24/7. It’s constantly spinning on, what can I do just a little different or how can I make this just a little better. That’s kind of how my brain works. I owe a lot to actually Nikki Sixx because he took me under his wing and he taught me about the business side of music. And that really helped to kind of put a lot of puzzle pieces together and I saw what he was doing. He made me look at, you can be a guitar player but you don’t have to be JUST a guitar player, which was cool cause I never saw myself as just a guitar player. It’s just something I did for fun. I just happen to have a really good gig, you know (laughs). But still to this day I don’t see myself as a guitar player. I see myself as a businessman and I love business.
One of your latest ventures is car design. How did that come about?
That’s just another prime example of kind of thinking outside the box and doing things. I’m real big on cross-marketing things. If it makes sense in the big scheme of things, it makes sense. But I designed the car and I met Ryan [Friedlinghaus] from West Coast Customs and we started a company called Ashba Auto and he saw the car I was doing. At the time it wasn’t like, I want to put out my own car. It had nothing to do with that. I just saw the car a certain way. So when I bought one, before I even drove it, I had it dropped off and I said, do this and this and this and this and this to it. And they did that and I walked in and I said, ok, now change this and this and this and this and now it’s perfect. I had to go back to the dealership and their mouths dropped. They were like, “That is the coolest Challenger we have ever seen. Would you mind if we duplicate it and make five of them? We have five stores and we can put your signature on it” and blah, blah, blah. Then I ran into Ryan. And everything happens for a reason and we’re right where we’re supposed to be, there’s no mistakes in this life. So I ran into Ryan and I told him, “You know a lot about cars and this is what they kind of approached me with.” And he goes, “No, no, no, let’s do this on a big scale. I want to build your cars out.” So he took my car and ripped the wrap off and painted it for real, like we patented the paint color, and we did it for real. And now Dodge is getting involved in and it became a much bigger thing than I even expected. So sometimes accidents can happen (laughs)
I also hear that you’re going to be on Sons Of Anarchy?
I’m on it but I’m not on it. Like I went down cause I heard they are big fans. I became friends with Charlie, who plays Jax, and Dayton Callie, the sheriff on the show. Great people down there and Katey Sagal and Kurt Sutter. And what I did was I went down there and I’m sitting there and they threw me just in the background of a club scene. But they were like, we wanted you to be in a club scene because we want to bring you back on the show maybe and if you’re in the club scene that means you’re under family protection so you’re part of the family. So I don’t know what the future is but I would absolutely love nothing more than to go on and do another something for them. Then Charlie came out to the show and we hung out for a few days. They are great guys and it’s just a fantastic show.
Last question: Let’s talk about your studio. The last time we talked you had just moved everything here to Vegas from LA. So how is the studio doing?
It’s awesome. I finally got it all up and running and then I went on tour for three and a half months in Europe with Guns. I got home and then I got approached with a really interesting project to do some scary music for Eli Roth’s Goretorium. I’ve always wanted to get into movie scoring because I just love scores and that kind of stuff and I love writing sixty piece orchestra parts. It’s fun for me. I got my first taste of it when I produced and wrote the Neil Diamond Christmas album and I just loved watching a real orchestra recreate what I had done on a keyboard. It was just fascinating. So when I got approached, and how my brain works, I was like, uh, well, I don’t want to do just creepy music. But then I got the storyline of the Delmont Hotel and how Mr & Mrs Delmont chopped up their guests and served them to the people. Then I sat down and said, I have two weeks to do something really special here and I love Eli Roth’s work. So I wrote a story within his story. I go, what would it have been like if the last honeymoon couple are staying at the Delmont and realizing they’re in the hotel by watching the news. “Holy crap, this is going on in the house, how do we get out?” So I thought that was a really cool twist so I started writing all the dialogue and script and stuff. And I have three movie scripts right now written. So it was one of those things that I had to throw it together really quick. It has ten music interludes with nine scenes and it’s awesome. It’s available right now on www.ashbaswag.com and Eli Roth came over and listened to it and he’s like, “You need to be directing movies.” (laughs) I have a lot of things going on.