“I love a challenge. I love walking into a new form of music that I haven’t really immersed myself in, and really exploring that.” - Richard Fortus - guitarist, Guns N’ Roses
ON EPISODE 22:
On Science this week, learn about a new Mastodon skeleton discovery that could potentially re-write human history as we know it. Then get inspired during What Fuels You as the hosts discuss making your weaknesses your strengths. Plus, birthday and community shoutouts, the death of an Academy award winning director, and some exciting news and new merchandise from Death Wish Coffee.
ABOUT RICHARD FORTUS:
Richard Fortus has been a professional musician for many years and has lent his talents to a lot of different projects and musical styles. On this episode he talks about joining Guns N' Roses in 2002, working with acts like The Psychedelic Furs, Rihanna and more, and the return of original GNR members and the upcoming Not In this Lifetime tour.
Jeff: What got you started in music? What made you ... I always love the story, because everybody has one. What made you pick up the guitar?
Richard: Well, I actually started on violin. I started when I was about four or five years old.
Jeff: That's awesome! I'm a violinist too, actually.
Richard: There you go! Great minds.
Richard: When it was first offered to me, at that age you're like yeah sure I'll try anything. I was also playing the drums at that point. I got into both of them at the same time and it filled two different roles. I was doing violin at school, I was studying drums with a private teacher and that, as my tastes started to lean more towards rock n' roll and less towards classical I then later gravitate towards the guitar. Probably around the age of 11 or 12.
Dustin: That's cool. Were your parent's musicians?
Richard: No, no no no. My mother actually was into vocal music and played piano and sang with different choirs and things like that, but my father actually worked for, he was part owners of a company that made musical instruments. They made guitars and they made amplifiers. That exposed me to that world.
Richard: Of rock n' roll. I really became obsessed with rock probably around the age of seven or eight and just fell head over heels in love with it and really obsessed over it for, yeah. It's funny, I really spent every waking hour, it seemed, immersing myself in music and rock and rock n' roll history. Classical as well.
Jeff: That's cool, man. I gotta ask: do you still play the violin?
Richard: I do! I also play the cello.
Jeff: That's awesome.
Richard: Which I've picked up later on.
Jeff: Actually, you've done a couple recordings with cello, I believe I saw. Right?
Richard: Sure, sure. I've done quite a few recordings with cello and violin, but I actually played cello live with a few different projects ... with the psychedelic furs.
Richard: Which, a lot of their early stuff has the cello in it. I played a six-string electric cello.
Jeff: So cool!
Richard: Yeah, it was really cool. It's actually a midi cello. I had the high e string and a low f. It goes lower than a cello, higher than a violin actually. It was really cool. For using it electrically I had it mounted on a stand so I could just walk up to it and play. It was really cool. I also used it with an electronic artist named BT when I toured with him. That was a lot of fun.
Jeff: That's awesome. I actually play an electric violin myself. It's a five string. It's an NS design. I have that low viola string on it, which is really cool. When I perform live with it I get to play the low notes and high notes on it. It's great to be someone in your line of work who's not just ... it's hard enough to master an instrument but it's really great to push that boundary and to ... Like you said, you started out playing violin so it's something that you kept in your wheelhouse and you have a cello and you have all these other different instruments in your wheelhouse. That just makes it, in my mind that makes it more fun as a musician.
Richard: Yeah. Absolutely. I'm more of a hack on the cello and the violin, honestly. That's not ... I never feel as comfortable walking into a session with a violin or a cello. It's definitely a lot of fun for me. When I'm doing composing, when I'm doing film scoring or commercials, things like that. It's really great to have. I always add my own violin and cello parts in conjunction with samples and normal orchestrating sample libraries. Just because it adds that even how a few different live instruments really makes those parts come to life.
Jeff: That's awesome. When did your career as a rock musician start to take off for you?
Richard: I guess I was about 15 years old. I went to a, left my regular public school and went to an Arts school that was a magnet school downtown where I grew up in St. Louis. I went to this art school and started meeting like-minded musicians. Which was a tremendous opportunity just to be around those people and have ... that's the hardest thing when you're a kid is about getting into music is finding like-minded musicians. That was a really cool thing about that school. I was around a ton of different people that were into completely different things. It was also a great experience for me, as far as expanding my horizons and getting into other types of music. It was a city school so I was really at that, at an early age exposed to the parliament funkadelic stuff and all the funk stuff that was going on at that time. Also, the early hip-hop stuff gave me a well rounded musical background. I started playing, I found some guys when I was about 14, 15 started at the school and we were into older music. We were into more of the art rock, yes and Genesis and Pink Floyd. More of the arty stuff. Bowie. And then not so much the contemporary stuff. Not like Poison and Def Leopard and-
Dustin: And Guns n' Roses.
Richard: No, it was actually before Guns n' Roses, but yeah. I wasn't. It wasn't my thing. I was into stuff like Sabbath, the older rock. Classic stuff like The Who. The Kinks. We were into that stuff as well as the typical musician school nerdy stuff like Mehwish Orchestra and what was going on in the whole jazz fusion period. Being musos. Then I heard The Clash and we all naturally progressed from listening to that stuff into The Clash and The Beat and The Damned and Sex Pistols and Ramones and all that. At that point, it became about trying to pretend like we couldn't play our instruments. It was this weird decodomy where you go from one extreme to the other. With the art stuff and the jazz stuff, it's all so masturbatory and then going to the other extreme of just serving the song and really not trying to show your chops but the opposite.
Jeff: Yeah. I mean, you're talking about a period of music. Music, like you said, it had this huge shift at that point because it was going from this idea of performance and chops, I guess you could call it, to not playing your instrument right. You're coming up in bands at this point. You're in bands at this point?
Richard: Yeah, I was in a band.
Jeff: Is that changing your, as you're forming bands and you're playing is that changing your actual style?
Richard: Absolutely. We were listening to a lot of bands like The Police. What's interesting is that the group of guys I was playing with, we all shifted. It was a natural shift to somehow go from this one extreme to the other. For whatever reason. I don't know why that was. Bands like The Police and U2 were just coming out. That was ... I don't know. We all gravitated towards that direction.
Dustin: Do you think it might have been you hit that rebellious age and then you just end up getting into that rebellious, fuck you, fuck the world? Really just thrashing. At that time in your life. It just happened to be at the same time that that music started to get popular, too.
Richard: Yeah. Maybe. It was definitely that age. It was definitely something new and exciting. Also when you look at Mehwish New Orchestra. That was equally as rebellious.
Jeff: Oh, totally.
Richard: That was a big fuck you to Miles.
Jeff: Oh, totally.
Richard: All those country ... fuck you, we're going to-
Jeff: This is jazz!
Richard: We're going to make something completely unique. I guess you're right. I guess that was ... it was so niched at that time. Especially where we were coming from in the Midwest. It was like wow, this is really exotic. This is totally different than what we're hearing on the radio. That was what was, I think, so attractive. Attractive to our rebellious nature at that age.
Jeff: That's awesome. Jumping ahead a little bit, you are known in your early career for your work that you did with Pale Divine and Love Spit Love and Psychedelic Furs like you had mentioned. And then you shifted to Guns n' Roses, which we'll talk about-
Richard: I don't know how that happened!
Jeff: I kind of want to get into that because not only do you have that shift but you also touched upon earlier that you do a lot for soundtrack stuff, movie, television, that kind of thing. Do you think what you were just talking on with this, growing up in a musical shift like that and being open to all these different types of music? Do you think that's why you continually put yourself out there to do these different types of projects? I mean what's cool about a guitarist like yourself is you can find you anywhere it seems. Your span of recording spans all different types of genres. Do you think that comes from your youth or is that something-
Richard: I think it definitely does come from my mouth but it also comes from just a generation love and obsession with music. It's really ... we started talking about it earlier. That really has just driven me and inspired me. I love a challenge. I love walking into a new form of music that I haven't really immersed myself in and really exploring that. If you look at my phone it's just, or my music library, it's just such a wide range in collection. I think what I'm really attracted to is anything I don't ... anything unexpected. Anything that is going to somehow inspire me. That's not going to be anything that's formulaic in my mind. I don't find anything appealing or interesting in a band or artist that I find formulaic. When I know what's going to come next. You know what I mean? Pop music is not really attractive to me because of that. Because it follows a formula. Now that I don't admire it. There's definitely a lot there.
Dustin: It's almost too easy. It's predictable, almost.
Richard: Right. It is formulaic and predictable.
Dustin: It's not stimulating anymore. I've definitely felt that even with physical activities. I just think of rock climbing and when I first started I was like, I can't do this shit at all. That made me work that much harder to get good at it. Finding myself bad at things makes me just want to get good at it even more. Do you feel that way, too?
Dustin: That's cool, man.
Richard: Once you've conquered that wall you don't want to keep going back to it. You want to go to bigger, more challenging things, you know?
Richard: That's what's going to inspire you. For me, I guess when I would always look for opportunities to do ... I was always obsessed with country guitar playing. I always loved ... not a huge fan of country music per say, until later, but I was always really intrigued by country guitar. It's just so damn incredible. These guys are just ridiculously talented players. I was always very intrigued by that and started studying it. Being able to do some country stuff was, I think is really inspiring for me. Like I said, it's not ... now, there seems to be a lot more going on in that genre that I find appealing. With guys like Sturgill Simpson.
Jeff: Sturgill Simpson!
Dustin: I think he's incredible.
Richard: It seems like it's gone from ... the pendulum always swings, doesn't it?
Richard: It's gone from this formulaic rock pop country hybrid ...
Dustin: Almost like hip hop beats in the background, too. It's really weird.
Richard: It's totally hip-hop influenced. I don't know. That bro country I don't find much in there for me. Guys like Sturgill. That's incredible.
Dustin: We had a guest earlier on a gentleman by the name of Rob Fenn, really great photographer, he called Sturgill Simpson the last Johnny Cash.
Richard: Yeah, but it seems like there's more of that going on now.
Jeff: It's definitely opened up a little bit more in that music genre which is nice. Speaking on your career, even more, you have gotten this incredible reputation, I guess you can call it, for being a gun for hire. For people who want you on recordings, whether it's soundtracks or albums or stuff or live tours and performing. Do you gravitate to one or the other more?
Richard: No, I don't. I really enjoy both equally.
Richard: There was a time in my life when I was living in New York and I was with the Furs and with Love Spit Love and I was doing a lot of session work. That's when there was a lot of session work. I couldn't afford to go on the road! I would get offers and it was like, ah man. Unless it was something I really loved I couldn't justify it because financially I was making more money just doing sessions all the time. I was booked. As you get more and more booked you get more and more expensive.
Jeff: Which is a good thing.
Richard: It was at a point where I just couldn't afford a tour. And then the bottom fill out of that slowly but surely I moved to Los Angeles and I had joined GNR ...
Dustin: Was that your first tour, was GNR? When did you first start touring?
Richard: I started touring when I was 15.
Richard: I had toured with ... I had done some pop tours. I'd done tours with the Furs and with Love Spit Love and some other bands.
Dustin: Is there a big difference between your pop tours and your Guns n' Roses tour?
Jeff: I know you've done big production stuff. I know you a couple years back toured with Rihanna on a bunch of dates and then obviously now you've been touring with GNR for a long time. They both seem like huge productions. Is there any difference in that? Other than the music, obviously.
Richard: Yeah. Obviously, the music is a different thing though it's all, it's always a learning experience. There's always something you can learn. You're always going to be working with great musicians. You know? But different types. A lot of the guys in the Rihanna camp came out of the whole Gospel chop scene. That was cool. To play with guys like that. If your eyes are open, your ears are open, you're always going to walk away a better musician.
Jeff: That's awesome. You're right in that respect. Not just in music, but in anything. You keep your eyes and ears open, you can learn pretty much doing whatever you're doing and that's a great outlook to have.
Richard: Yeah. Really at the end of the day, it's pretty incredible to be able to make a living playing music.
Dustin: And you get to do something that you obviously love deeply.
Richard: Oh, yeah.
Jeff: That's awesome.
Richard: My father used to always say to me that ... he's like, "you're blessed because you'd be doing this for free if you weren't getting paid for it." Which is absolutely true.
Jeff: Let's go. You moved out to LA and ...
Richard: I lived in New York most of my life.
Jeff: Right and then you said you moved out to LA when you joined up with Guns n' Roses, right?
Richard: I actually had joined Guns n' Roses, I had been in the band for a few years before I did move to LA.
Jeff: I know you-
Richard: That's alright. I thought I'd be able to continue my ... I had a company in New York that was doing TV and film and commercial work and video games. I had a studio there. I thought well, I can do the same thing from LA and I had a partner and New York and figured, we'll keep that open and I'll be able to work remotely. That didn't really work so well. Yeah. You have to be there. Anyways. I was only in LA for four or five years.
Jeff: That's not bad. You joined up with Guns n' Roses in 2001. Correct, I believe?
Richard: I think it was the end of 2001, beginning of 2002.
Jeff: 2002? Around there? Can you talk a little bit about the difference of when you came into the band to what the band is experiencing now? Either tour wise or production wise.
Richard: It's morphed through several different incarnations since I've been in it. And some pretty big changes. When I came in I was really drawn to it because originally it was Josh Freese and Tommy Stinson and Robin Fink and Buckethead. I wasn't that familiar with Bucket Head, but also Brain came in. Those were all guys that I had worked with before and was really excited to play with.
Jeff: That's cool.
Richard: I was a huge Replacements fan. Obviously a big Nails fan. Working with those guys was, that was really intriguing to me. I wasn't that familiar with, obviously, I knew Guns n' Roses. I knew Appetite and I knew all the big hits but I never really owned a record. It just wasn't my genre.
Jeff: Right, you were in almost a completely different genre at that time.
Jeff: Was that a learning curve for you when you joined the band?
Richard: No because it makes total sense. They were ... Guns n' Roses really was separated from that LA hair metal scene which is who I lumped them in with, initially. Once you get into it you realize it's much more akin to classic rock and punk rock. It makes perfect sense that I would relate to it. Once I got into it it's like it fit really well for me. Because that's my background. Equal parts Black Flag and Rolling Stones.
Jeff: It's the best. It's a great combination. When you got into it, it was that one thing. Obviously now it's morphed into the older members coming back and doing the tour that you did last year. Now you guys are, you guys just finished it up, your tour? Or you guys are just about to go out on a tour? Right?
Richard: No. We just finished another leg of Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Dubai.
Richard: Now we're off for a couple of months.
Dustin: That's nice.
Richard: Then we start up in Europe and we'll be doing Europe and then the states and Canada again.
Jeff: That's great. When you're off from Guns n' Roses, I can't imagine you, Richard, are off from anything. You probably have projects going on right now, don't you?
Richard: Yeah. Yeah, I do have some things I'm working on. I'm working on a couple of different movie projects and hoping to, I'm also writing stuff.
Jeff: That's awesome. Is there anything out there in the business that you still want to try? It seems like you've been everywhere and done everything and I know that's not the case but are there any bands out there or any types of music that you still haven't gotten a chance to do that you want to check off your list?
Richard: Not ... I don't really have a list.
Jeff: Good. That's a good thing.
Richard: When I was in New York I also did a lot of hip-hop stuff, I played in a band. I have done a lot of different types of things. It's not so much, there's nothing that I necessarily want to try but I have been itching to do something more experimental and less classic rock. More towards the ... Love Spit Love Furs stuff that I've done and do something more in that Indie type of direction.
Jeff: Cool. I hope that happens.
Richard: But, I have nothing lined up.
Jeff: I'm sure. I have faith in you that you'll put something together someday.
Richard: Yeah. When I find myself when I listen to new music I'm always listening to bands of that sort rather than rock bands.
Jeff: Okay cool.
Dustin: So you're playing like tour after tour after tour and then even when you're home you're busy and I'm sure you have family and everything. I know you probably even have bad days. What keeps you fueled to keep on going through the tours? Keep on starting new projects? Keep on writing new songs? What keeps you fueled, man?
Richard: Really honestly right now it's my life is primarily focused around my kids.
Jeff: That's awesome.
Richard: That's like really my first priority.
Jeff: That's awesome. There's no better priority than your children, you know?
Richard: Yeah. I guess it just happens naturally but that's definitely my primary focus.
Dustin: That's awesome. When you do get a free moment to yourself, what do you like to do for fun? Other than play guitar. Do you have any hobbies outside of being a kick-ass rock n' roll star?
Richard: I really enjoy riding motorcycles. Then I ... not being a ... not spending time with drugs or alcohol anymore I really have shifted my attention to things like running and being in the gym. That's stuff that I do every day. When I'm on the road and when I'm home.
Jeff: It's gotta be tough to stay in shape, especially when you're touring so much.
Richard: No, it's not. Because that's what I do during the day, you know?
Dustin: You got a system down now when you're on the road to ...
Dustin: That's awesome. What's that like? How do you stay in shape?
Richard: I wake up and run and I run between 6-10 miles generally when I'm on the road. Then I'll come back to the hotel, eat breakfast and then go to the gym.
Dustin: That's awesome.
Richard: That's the start of my day every day.
Dustin: That's a damn good way to start the day, man.
Jeff: That's awesome.
Richard: That and Death Wish Coffee.
Jeff: Aw shucks!
Richard: That's usually before the running.
Dustin: Nice, nice. Is there anything new that you're working on that you want to plug for our listeners?
Richard: No, not really. The movie stuff doesn't, it's not pluggable yet. No really the focus of my life for the last year and a half has been GNR which is pretty exciting, really. Of all the incarnations this one is really the most inspirational to me. The most healthy.
Dustin: Do you think that's what kept you so interested in staying and Guns n' Roses for so long? Because it just constantly changes so it stays stimulating?
Richard: Maybe. I really enjoy ... there's a sense of freedom and exploration, really, when working with Axl where he ... Now, really much more with Duff and Slash, they really strive to do something better and different and keeping things fresh and it's really a concerted effort. That is really appealing to me.
Jeff: That's awesome. What was it like at the beginning on the onset of this return of Slash and Duff? Obviously, the media got the rumblings when it was announced but being in the band you guys must have had stuff in place and really started to put the work in. Was it a world wind or did it creep up and happen?
Richard: It sorta crept up. It all happened very organically. We didn't have a bass player. Tommy had left to go to the Mets stuff. We didn't have another guitar player. They said, "Well ... we know a couple of guys." It just sort of happened in that way.
Jeff: That's great to hear that it was something that organically just happened.
Richard: Duff and I knew each other. I don't know how much Slash was familiar with me or with Frank but we all got together and felt out how it would be and how it was to play with each other and it really ... some things click, some things don't. With the three of us definitely clicked, I think, we all agree clicked instantly. Frank maybe took a little bit for them to get used to playing with him because he had a different drummer than Matt who they'd been playing with. It really just seems to come together well. Everybody is pretty psyched about it.
Jeff: As a fan of the band seeing you guys perform all together for those first couple shows it just looked like you'd been doing it for years. It seemed so natural. Especially, like you said, for the three of you. It just seemed like it was natural.
Richard: The first couple of shows ... it was everyone feeling their way around.
Richard: But now it's killer. It's just really ... it just gets better every show.
Jeff: That's awesome. That makes you excited to keep going out there and doing it. You said this summer you guys are going to Europe and then you're doing the states after that, right? In the fall?
Jeff: That's incredible. That's exciting.
Richard: It is exciting.
Jeff: Awesome, man.
Richard: Then I think we go back to South America right after. It's going to be the next ... after this two months, it's going to be pretty full on for a while. There's not much time off.
Jeff: You've been everywhere. I always love to ask this question. What's your favorite place to play? It can be a country or a venue or whatever but do you have a favorite? Do you ever think of a place fondly?
Dustin: Or get pumped about, oh shit, we're going there! I'm so psyched!
Richard: I get excited about placed like Thailand. We were just in Bangkok. It was the first time I'd ever played Bangkok. I've spent plenty of time in Thailand because I used to go there every year and it's my favorite place in the world. To play Bangkok was a big deal for me. It was a lot of fun.
Jeff: That's awesome.
Richard: There are certain audiences that make it great. In South America, you can't beat the passion of those audiences.
Jeff: I've heard that from many musicians, that South America is just ... they're so rabid for live music.
Richard: Brazil and Argentina. Man, it's ... all of South America but it seems like those two places, in particular, are just so full on.
Dustin: And they have damn good coffee down there. Can't hate that.
Richard: They do have good coffee. Like Nicaragua. Columbia. That's ... we were just in [foreign 00:34:42] and I was telling you I bought a bunch of coffee there. Honestly, Death Wish really is right there with it. You buy these, we went to the Juan Valdez which the high-end Juan Valdez stuff has always been one of the best coffees. It really is incredibly smooth. I told you when I got home I compared it with the Death Wish beans and it was shocking how you guys stuck up right against it.
Dustin: Thanks, man. That's some really, really high-quality fair trade organic Peruvian beans. That's, we take really good care of the roast, too. We watch that ourselves. We've got some really grade A roasters in-house. We're really proud of our product, man. Thank you very much.
Richard: Yeah, you should be.
Dustin: Thank you very much, brother.
Richard: Like I said, it was shocking to me because when you first see the skull and crossbones you're like yeah this is the strongest coffee, this is sorta gimmicky, but man. It's incredibly smooth. Really, really impressive.
Dustin: Thanks. Truly honored. Thank you very much for joining us on the podcast, man. Really appreciate that. Really big fan of you and a big fan of your work.
Richard: I'm a big fan of yours, too.
Jeff: We're going to hopefully keep you caffeinated through your next couple tours and ...
Richard: Awesome, yeah.
Jeff: We wish you the best of luck with everything that you're doing, man. It's inspirational to talk to someone who not only is good at what they do but who genuinely loves what they do.
Dustin: I like a dude who likes a challenge. I definitely can relate to that. It's like, aw shit! I don't know how that works. Let's fucking figure it out. Definitely respect, man.