For a man who has been out on the concert trail for a number of months, Richard Fortus is feeling surprisingly invigorated. The rhythm guitar player for Guns N' Roses and The Compulsions, has been rocking across the country but he is finally home in St Louis, happily surrounded by his family and far away from the lights, the fans and the long bus rides. And he is perfectly content being your everyday dad. “I’m so glad to be home,” Fortus exclaims happily. “I haven’t been home in so long, it’s great. I’m sort of taking over for now”, he laughs as he describes images of turning into Mr Mom while putting his rocker boots into hibernation for the few weeks he has away from his GNR duties.
“I’ve worked with a lot of different guitarists over the years,” Compulsions vocalist Rob Carlyle told me recently. “But Richard is in a league of his own. Seems like the guy can do pretty much anything on guitar, from straight up blues rock to shredding to totally out there, avant-garde-type stuff and everything in between. And as a live performer, he’s really fun to watch, right up there with legends like Jimmy Page, Keith Richards and Jeff Beck. Doesn’t get better than that”.
Those are some strong words for a musician who doesn’t seek out the spotlight. He is satisfied to simply play his guitar, taking a few moments here to fire out a mean James Bond theme solo with GNR and then to get down and dirty with punk/blues riffs with The Compulsions, who recently released an energetically raw new CD called Beat The Devil. Having kicked around in bands since his early teens, Fortus has also jammed with Thin Lizzy, the Psychedelic Furs and just last month backed the legendary Martha Reeves on Jimmy Kimmel.
But right now Richard Fortus is laughing. He recently called in to talk about his roots but at the moment he is enjoying telling a story about his oldest daughter, whom he just learned ranks in at 99.7% in the country for intelligence. “She is an amazing girl”, he says, his voice filled with pride. “She’s like a little genius”.
Then I bet she knows how to really get you. She can tell you stuff you don’t even know.
It’s a serious job to keep ahead of her. Seriously, she absorbs stuff so quickly that we’re constantly trying to keep a little bit ahead of her (laughs)
Just goes to show not all rock stars have lost all their brain cells (laughs)
Yeah, my wife and I have both lost a lot of brain cells (laughs). But things are great right now. It’s interesting cause I used to live to be on tour. I’d be home in New York, even in the middle of New York City, and I still couldn’t wait to get back out on the road. Now it’s the exact opposite. I feel like a tree in winter when I’m on the road and then when I get home I feel like I’m alive again.
You’ve been out a long time with GNR, haven’t you?
Yeah and I was out with Thin Lizzy last summer. Then I came back and did three months with them in Europe, came straight back and I’ve been out with Guns since then. We went straight in to rehearsals and recording and down to South America for six weeks and then started in the US and we’ve been gone the whole time. So I just got home.
Speaking of Thin Lizzy, how and when did you get involved with them? It must be exciting playing with such a legendary band.
I received a call from them around April of last year. They had been touring with Vivian Campbell and he was going back to Def Leppard. They asked if I'd be available to fill in for him for the summer. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity to play with one of my all-time favorite bands. Before we'd even done our first gig, they asked me to join as a full time member. Unfortunately, I couldn't do it because of conflicts with GNR's schedule. However, I've managed to have them open for us this summer! So hopefully I'll be able to play a song or two with them. Playing with Thin Lizzy was one of the greatest moments of my career. They are like family and it was an absolute honor and a pleasure to be a part of that rock n' roll lineage!
Where did you grow up?
In St Louis. It was very suburban and it’s actually where I am right now. I have a house here and we were always back and forth between New York. We still have our place in New York, in the lower East Side, and we also have a house in Los Angeles, but I think I’m going to get rid of that because my family seems to love it here. St Louis is very easy to get around compared to Los Angeles and New York.
Was your family musical?
Yep, my mother sang and played piano and my father was one of the owners of a company called St Louis Music, which made Crate and Ampeg and Alvarez, so I grew up in a musical environment. There were always a lot of musicians around and a lot of instruments so I was always around it.
When did you actually start playing?
I started playing violin when I was four, and drums as well. So that was always like my major passion. That and drugs (laughs).
Didn’t you also play cello? That is a very interesting choice.
Well, like I said, I started on violin when I was four and I played violin all through school. I also started playing cello in high school. I taught myself basically from my knowledge of violin, it’s not that far off; it’s pretty close just a different clef so it was easy to transition.
Were you in the band?
I played in youth symphonies and different orchestras. At Christmastime, from the time I was about twelve years old, I would do “Handel’s Messiah” at different churches around the city and you’d get fifty bucks per event and you’d go to all the different churches and play “The Messiah”. We’d do the gospel churches in East St Louis, which was a lot of fun because after you would play “The Messiah” they would then do gospel things and would always use the strings since we were there so we’d get to play these gospel bits too. It was a great learning experience and a lot of fun.
Being on stage doing classical music and being on a stage doing rock & roll, is there much of a difference or is it basically the same?
Oh no, there’s very few similarities (laughs). Look at the obvious differences between on stage in an orchestra where you are basically just a tool for somebody else’s vision compared to playing rock & roll or jazz where you’re actually composing spontaneously. Improvisation is that you’re composing spontaneously, it’s a true expression, whereas classical music is nothing more than interpretation. So there is a huge difference and I realized that at a young age and became much more intrigued by blues and jazz and rock & roll.
Were you ever nervous up there performing?
Yeah, I’m always nervous. I mean, before I go onstage I’m nervous. I’ve been doing it for so long, for my whole life. I feel more at home on stage than I do offstage (laughs). I feel more comfortable, you know, and more at ease.
When did you discover rock & roll?
I guess I was probably six or seven and had my mother order 8-tracks for me from like the Columbia Music Program or whatever it was, where you could pick out ten or you buy two and you get ten free, that type of deal. I remember getting the Beach Boys and Aerosmith’s Rocks and War and KISS Alive. Then I inherited my Aunt’s record collection because she discovered Jesus and decided that she was going to get rid of all of her secular music. So when she did that I inherited her amazing record collection, which was the complete Beatles and Rolling Stones, T Rex and Humble Pie, Black Sabbath, Peter Frampton. And that stuff, to me, was like finding a treasure chest. I lived in those records for a good solid year; just obsessed over that stuff. That was really, really formative.
So out of all those bands which one would you say had your most attention?
When I was a kid, Queen and Aerosmith were huge for me. Then David Bowie was also huge then Bob Dylan and obviously The Beatles and the Stones and Hendrix.
Why did you pick up the guitar after doing classical instruments for so long?
I was playing drums in bands and stuff when I was really young, like when I was ten or eleven. I was always hanging out with older kids and I was always intrigued by the guitar; it’s just that I was a bit intimidated by it. There were always guitars around my house because of what my father did but for me, I had my hands full with four strings. I was intimidated by the length of the neck on a guitar when I had a little neck on my violin and had a lot to deal with there (laughs). Then finally through seeing friends, watching guys in bands I was playing with, I started picking up things on it and I got really good quickly in a short period of time. I already had the finger strength from violin, so it was very easy for me to get good quickly.
Do you remember your first guitar?
There were always guitars around the house but I remember the first one that I bought. I got it from my father’s company. At that time they owned a guitar line called Electra and those were my first guitars. I sold drugs to buy it (laughs)
Are you serious?
Yeah, I was like twelve years old.
What is a twelve year old doing selling drugs?
I was trying to buy a guitar (laughs)
What were you selling?
I used to sell joints for the guys up the street and from there I was selling bags of weed and then from there I ended up buying water acid from Hell’s Angels. I used to also buy speed from these junkies that would break into pharmacies and they didn’t want the speed so I’d buy like black beauties and yellow jackets and speckled eggs, stuff like that, for like fifty bucks and then I’d sell them for a buck a piece. So I made a lot of money doing that.
And you were twelve?
Yeah, it was when I was in Junior High, so I would’ve been thirteen when I was selling speed.
Did your parents find out?
I think the first time I got busted by my parents I was twelve. I also got caught at school and they called the police and stuff.
What did they do to you?
My father told me, “I can’t tell you not to do drugs. You’re going to do what you want to do. All I can do is tell you about all of these guys that work for me that are all very talented musicians and have wasted their lives and are working in a warehouse because they chose drugs and it became more important to them than furthering their careers”.
Did that talk work?
Yeah, I think so. I had a lot of problems with drugs after that but I think that ultimately it really tempered my youth and really always made me focus more on what I was doing in my career. And when I say career, meaning like the quality of my art, really focusing and keeping that paramount in my life as opposed to putting drugs first. I don’t know if that was his intent when he told me that but it definitely had that effect on me.
It’s not something that I am embarrassed of because it’s something that happened and I came out of it and I am very fortunate. Really my daughter saved my life, and my wife. When we found out we were pregnant, we’d been trying to get clean for a long time and when we found out we were pregnant, we’d been sober for a little while and that was like, well that part of our lives are over and we were fine with that. It was like we had a reason and that’s all we really needed.
What was the first band you were in?
My first serious band was a band called The Eyes, which then became Pale Divine. I started with them when I was about fifteen and I put the band together with the singer who went to my high school. I went to an arts high school, a magnet school, because I was in a lot of trouble at the time and I remember I was very serious about music and I thought, well, I didn’t want to leave my school because I was well-established there, but since I was in trouble there I felt like I had to sort of make peace somehow with my parents, sort of appease them. So I went and checked out the school and for some reason I just went with it and it was the best decision I ever made. Not because of the education I got but because I was around so many like-minded kids that were just as passionate about music as I was.
I met the singer of this band there and through other friends there I met a couple of other guys and I played with them till I was like twenty-two and moved to New York. We were signed to Atlantic Records and we were a big deal in the mid-west, we had a big cult following. It was like very alternative music; well, what they called alternative at the time, like college rock. We played all over the mid-west and had a big following and signed with Atlantic and toured opening for the Psychedelic Furs. Then I ended up playing with the Furs while we were on tour with them. After that tour, I’d been having a lot of problems with the singer in my band, and Richard Butler, the singer for the Furs, asked if I’d come up to New York and write a record with him for a solo record. We ended up making it a band because he felt that it wouldn’t be fair to call it a solo project since what I did was an equal thing. So we ended up starting a band called Love Spit Love.
Were you a fan of the Psychedelic Furs before that?
I was a huge fan. They were one of my favorite bands, from the time I was fifteen. I never liked Ozzy Osbourne or Motley Crue, which was popular when I was a kid. I always liked older art-rock bands like Yes and Genesis and Pink Floyd. Even Zeppelin I didn’t like until years later. But when I heard the Clash, I was all about the Clash and the Psychedelic Furs and The Damned and the Dead Boys. Everything sort of changed at that point.
What was the first concert you went to?
I remember going to see Pink Floyd in Philadelphia with my father. I don’t know what tour it was but it was probably Animals. Then I also saw KISS and Funkadelic. It’s funny, in St Louis, and it was probably this way for you as well, but when I was a kid, you went to see everything. It didn’t matter if you liked the band or not. If it was a big show coming to town you went. I would go see Van Halen every time they came. I never liked Van Halen but I’d still go to see them (laughs). I went to see everybody. I went to see Styx and I hated Styx. I saw Journey and I hated Journey. I hated all that stuff but I would go see it because, well, because I could. Because of what my father did, I had access to tickets and stuff like that and I would get to go backstage so it was pretty cool. I also remember going to see Frampton on the Frampton Comes Alive tour when I was really young. It was like 1976 or 1977. He is one of my favorite guitar players ever. He was a huge influence on me. I mean, Humble Pie, I still love that stuff.
What do you think is so special about him?
He has a very unique voice. You can tell Peter Frampton is playing from the moment you hear it. I can always tell, just from his phrasing. He has a very unique style and nobody else was doing that and still nobody does it. It’s very melodic and he’s a really, really, really underrated guitarist. You never see him on the top 100 guitar players but he was phenomenal. It’s just he became a bit of a joke because he was a pin up boy. But fuck, he was in Humble Pie for fuck’s sake. He was a kid. He was in the Herd when he was fifteen.
Speaking of being backstage, do you remember the first rock star you ever met?
Leslie West used to hang out at my house and was friends with my dad. I remember meeting Alex Lifeson of Rush, which at the time was a big deal to me. I have a great picture of me that I just found recently. Check this out, he’s playing a double-neck acoustic guitar, one of my father’s guitars, and I’m playing the top neck and he’s playing the bottom. But the awesome thing about it is I’m like eleven years old or twelve years old in the picture and he has a huge canker sore on his lip (laughs). It’s so Spinal Tap, just perfect.
You ought to post that so your fans can see it.
Yeah, I should put that on Facebook. I’ve got to scan it. You know, I’ve got a ton of photos like that. I’ve got a great one I also found of Paul Stanley. I remember meeting him when I was a little kid too. He signed this picture for me, it’s just like this 8x10 glossy of him on stage, and it says, “Dear Richie, keep practicing and someday you’ll be playing with us, Paul Stanley, KISS”. It’s pretty funny. Thank God that didn’t happen (laughs)
So you weren’t one of the millions in the KISS Army?
Just thinking about being in KISS, you know, it’s so weird how soured I am on them because they just ran the thing in the ground, in my opinion. It’s become such a business and it always was for them. I guess it just didn’t seem so blatant when I was a kid. Watching Gene do his whole Gene thing and going to see a concert and they’re still trying to squeeze into the tights and, I don’t know, it’s just a bum out.
To play with KISS would be like a job, like punching a clock, in my opinion. That’s the vibe I get. It’d be like, ok, here we go, another day at the office and that is just soul destroying, you know. Even if you’re playing songs that you love, if you’re not making it your own and there’s no spontaneity, I mean, that’s what I love about Guns. It’s different every night and it’s definitely something that I am proud of. There are very few bands, especially at the level of playing arenas, that doesn’t have a set list and plays for three hours a night. I love that about GNR.
What would you say has been the most important thing that you have learned from working with Axl Rose?
You know, that guy has more integrity than any artist I have ever worked with, and I have played with a lot of people. But he has more integrity and that is really something that I find incredibly admirable. He is all about the music and that is all that matters to him, that’s what it’s about and that’s all it should be about. What matters is that it’s the best it can be. That is how Axl rolls. He’s not about the money. He is about the art of it and I think that is what I’ve learned more than anything.
And I’ll tell you what else, that guy listens more than any other singer I’ve ever worked with. He listens to musicians. When we’re onstage, and like I said the songs are different every night, so he’s listening to you for when you finish a phrase before he comes in. He totally pays attention and it’s really cool. It’s great to work with someone like that.
You mentioned before that you played in a zydeco band. That’s unique.
The band was called Loup Garou. I played with them from around 1998-2003 in New York City and I’ll tell you what, it did more for my rhythm playing than anything I’d ever done before. That was such a great learning experience and really a great opportunity and it got me into a lot of cool stuff. We were hanging around with these guys, the Meters crew, Gatemouth Brown and that whole scene. It was great, I loved it, and I did one record with them in 2002.
You also played with Martha Reeves on a recent Jimmy Kimmel.
My good friends, the Crystal Method, had done a track with Martha for the movie "Regeneration". They called and asked if I'd help them put a band together to play the Kimmel show. So I called some friends and ended up putting an amazing band together. So not only did I get to play with Martha, but I got to play with Darryl Jones and Brain Mantia and the guys from the Tower of Power horns. It was a total blast.
You and Frank Ferrer [GNR drummer] are also in The Compulsions with Rob Carlyle and Sami Yaffa and you have a new CD out, which is getting very good reviews.
I’ve been doing The Compulsions gig for a while now. My buddy Rob is the singer and I started doing it for fun in my down time. The songs are just fun rock songs. It’s a blast to do. Just good times jamming with friends. It just seems to have sort of taken off now with this new record we just put out. There are a lot of labels that want to sign the band now and lots of offers coming in for shows and festivals. The Beat The Devil record was a total blast to make. We recorded with my boy Hugh Pool at Excello Studios in Brooklyn. Hugh’s such a joy to work with and is an amazing musician.
So what else do you have going on for the rest of the year?
In May, I go back to Europe with Guns and luckily, Thin Lizzy is going to be out with us, which is going to be awesome. They’re going to be supporting us so I’ll be able to play a couple of songs with them every night. But I’ll be out with Guns in May, June and July and then we have to finish up some more recording and hopefully get the record out and be on tour in the fall in the States I’m hoping.