LAS VEGAS — When DJ Ashba was but 9 years old he was already playing guitar in cover bands, small in stature if not aspiration.
“I remember trying to play Guns N’ Roses songs,” he says, recalling a bit of youthful prescience.
Today, Ashba sits in a backroom of The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel as one of the guitarists of the band whose locomotive riffs and finger-spraining solos challenged him as a kid.
It took close to three decades to get the gig, but here he is, reclining on a couch, talking about GNR’s upcoming “Appetite for Democracy” 12-show residency at the venue.
“We’re doing stuff that we’ve never done before at any shows,” he boasts, though boasting isn’t really his thing.
Ashba looks like an extrovert, someone comfortable being at the center of attention, with tattooed arms as brightly colored as macaw plumage sticking out of a sleeveless blue flannel shirt, matching lip and nose rings and the fashionably distressed cowboy hat of a range-riding goth.
He has the appearance of a rock star — and he certainly is — but he doesn’t always carry himself like one, a thoughtful, soft-spoken presence who’s gradually gone from outcast to insider.
“It was really tough as a kid,” Ashba recalls of growing up in the soybean country of central Illinois. “I would spend most of my time under our stairs in the basement. I felt so alone. I couldn’t really relate to anyone. I didn’t know why I felt like I did. I just knew I wasn’t in the right place. I knew that I didn’t belong there.”
As confusing as his childhood was at times, it would prepare Ashba well for eventually joining Guns N’ Roses, a band of misfits who made not fitting in both a visual and musical aesthetic.
The album that started it all for the band, that got Ashba and millions of others hooked, that continues to stand as a landmark of sleaze, danger and leather, 1987’s “Appetite for Destruction,” turned 25 this year and is still the heart that pumps the blood through the band’s veins, even though only singer Axl Rose remains from the lineup that recorded the album.
This has long been a sore spot for certain GNR loyalists, some of whom have gone so far as to show up to the band’s gigs sporting the signature top hat of former guitarist Slash in protest of his absence from the current incarnation of the group.
“If you’re coming out to see the old band, you’re going to be bummed,” Ashba says. “They haven’t been around for well over 15 years. If you’re coming out with an open mind, you’re going to get your ass kicked hard. That I can promise.”
Guns N’ Roses lived up to Ashba’s words the last time the band was in Las Vegas for a pair of shows New Year’s weekend, also at The Joint.
On the first night of the two-day stand, the band powered through a sweaty, completely over-the-top, three-hour demonstration of rock ‘n’ roll of button-bursting heft.
In a town of all-you-can-eat buffets, this was the hard rock equivalent.
In addition to Ashba, the band features two more guitarists (Ron “Bumblefoot” Thall and Richard Fortus), all of whom soloed at will, oblivious to concision.
Rose seldom stopped moving, and when he did, it was to plant his feet and send his voice hurtling up to the rafters in his trademark shriek that still hammers eardrums the way a blacksmith pounds his anvil.
Meanwhile, there was so much pyro going off that nostrils were stung by the acrid sent of sulfur that lingered in the air after the explosions.
It was spectacle served in corpulent portions, a thoroughly overstuffed performance — but that was the whole point.
From the outset, this band has been defined by excess, initially of a darker, drugs and booze variety, but this same too-much-is-never-enough spirit still propels the group forward.
For their extended Vegas stay, GNR is planning their most elaborate production yet.
“When you’re on the road, you can only do so much a night because the show has to be big, but it can’t be too big to where you can’t tear it down and get it to the next state,” says Ashba, who now lives in Las Vegas. “This is something where we can custom build a stage just for the venue, we can bring in the right lighting. You can do so many things and really cater to the venue that you’re playing in.”
Ashba also says that the band will mix things up songwise from night to night.
“We don’t want to play the same show 12 times in a row,” he explains. “We do know that there’s people who are going to see the show four or five times, and our main goal is to make sure that it’s a different experience every show.
“What Axl’s really good at doing is reading the crowd,” he continues. “We never follow a set list. Basically, we just kind of go from song to song and throw it out on the spot, in between every song, and that’s what makes every show so spontaneous and different. It makes it a little more nerve-racking, but it makes it fun and real. It doesn’t get stale.”
It’s hard to imagine life in this band ever growing old for Ashba, a music lifer who started playing piano at age 3 at his mother’s prompting.
All these years later, he’s still performing some of the same songs he did as a kid, handed the key to a “Paradise City” all his own.
“I never doubted what I was going to do,” Ashba says of a career in rock ‘n’ roll. “In fact, I dated a girl all through high school, and I remember telling her in the sixth grade, ‘I’m just letting you know, one day, I’m going to L.A. to become a rock star.’ As soon as I graduated, I went, ‘All right, I’m out.’
“She didn’t believe me,” he says, savoring the memory, “but I always knew.”
Jason Bracelin is an entertainment writer at the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org