Duff McKagan was just a fresh faced kid from Seattle, Washington when he started out on his musical journey. Little did he know when striking out on his journey to Los Angeles in the early eighties that it would be a ride that would propel him to superstardom. It was in Los Angeles where the stars would align and Duff, along with his band mates, would spawn the world’s most notorious rock ‘n’ roll band, Guns N’ Roses. The rise and fall of Guns N’ Roses is well documented but its members have carried on and continue to leave their marks on the music scene. McKagan is no exception to this rule and his formation of Velvet Revolver with GNR pal, Slash, certainly proved that lightning can strike twice! At 47 years old, he is experiencing one of his most creative periods as an artist and shows no signs of slowing down. With their third release, Duff McKagan’s LOADED is ready to solidify a powerful third act to his already legendary career! Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with the infamous bassist to discuss his band’s latest album ‘The Taking,’ his thoughts on his longevity, his upcoming autobiography ‘It’s So East (And Other Lies)’ and much more!
You have influenced so many with your musical projects. I was curious about how music first came into your life?
Really it was just being the last of eight kids! There was a record player in the living room. There were records at my disposal and I was not discouraged from playing them. I think that FM radio had just hit, so it was ‘68 or ‘69, those are my first memories of music, being around 5 or 6. The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Sly and The Family Stone are the bands that I really have such great memories of being in the house. There were also guitars around the house. So, for me, I don’t think that there was one ultimate moment, music was just always there and it was a part of growing up. Then of course, I wanted to break apart from my older sisters and brothers music. When I was about 12 or 13 rock hit, at least up in Seattle. It hit in a very small way but, being the last of eight kids, you grow up a little faster. I identified right away with punk being something that could be my own. I heard a Dead Boys record, The Stooges and a Sex Pistols record, all in about the same week! Suddenly, I was completely charmed!
With so many years under your belt in the music industry and so many iconic projects, to what do you owe your longevity?
Well, you just can’t do the same old thing. I think, being a punk rock kid, I have my basic roots, like Sly and The Family Stone, Led Zeppelin, and punk rock. I don’t want to say all punk rock but bands like The Germs and The Stooges, if you call The Stooges punk rock, and The Dead Boys and whatever else. I could go on forever! Motorhead was a new twist on all of that. It was a twist on metal and The Damned. I listen to new music, I suppose, and I don’t sit static and think that my way is the best way. I think that Guns N’ Roses and that first record, ‘Appetite For Destruction,’ was ahead of its time. People really didn’t get us at first, for that first year the album just sat there and people scratched their heads like, “What the fuck are these guys?” Then suddenly, the thing took off. Velvet Revolver was kind of re-inventing the thing. I am sure Slash and I were looked at in certain circles as “really old school” but were only 39 years old at the time and were thinking, “I don’t feel really old school!” Ya know what I mean? Even now, I am 47 and I feel younger and fresher musically than I ever have.
What keeps you inspired musically?
Everything! Ya know, sometimes it is an amp or a different room that I am playing in or how that amp and everything sounds through it. Sometimes it is going and playing with somebody different. It might be a new record. I just heard the Foo Fighters new album, I downloaded it on the plane when I was coming up to Seattle a few days ago. It is just a great record. I saw them play on ‘Saturday Night Live’ and thought that “Rope” is the best song I have heard in a couple of years. So, that will keep me going for a little while! So, it can be a new record by an old artist like Dave Grohl or it can be the newest thing that my 13 year old daughter turns me on to.
You have a new album titled ‘The Taking.’ What can you tell us about the writing process of this record?
We wrote a lot of the record on tour for our last record ‘Sick’. We kinda knew that we were going to go almost straight into the studio with it. We didn’t go straight into the studio but we went in and made the demos for this record in our drummer Isaac Carpenter’s garage. You know, a lot of those licks and those lyrics still have a lot of that testosterone, adrenaline and caffeine hangover from the tour. Coming in and doing the record with Terry Date, he really gave us a brutal, dry and great perspective on our thing. This is our third record and we have been together on and off for 10 years. It’s the same guys. It just feels like we are really moving forward, especially in regard to songwriting. I just really like some of the clever changes from a verse to a chorus into a bridge or whatever. I am very satisfied with this record. We are a band that has done well in the UK, Europe and South America. In the United States, we are a little left of center. I don’t know if this record is going to help us do anything more there but we are going to try more this time. We are going to tour the States and see what happens.
What was the biggest challenge for you in making the new album?
I don’t know if there was a challenge. I always try to be a better singer than I was on my previous records. I learn a lot along the way. I go out and tour and learn a ton about my own voice, my range, keys that I sing well in and different vowels that I sing well or should not use. I think that being a singer that it is as important to know what you shouldn’t do as it is to know what you can do. That is really what I have been learning, the areas not to get into where my voice will sound too thin or coming off of a high note into long vowel sounds. These are things that you only know if you go out and do it!
You have been working with filmmaker Jamie Burton Chamberlin on a film that focuses on “The Taking”. What can you tell us about how it came about and what we can expect?
We hooked up through our management, who manages ZZ Top. Jamie did their recent DVD. He also lives in Seattle. We aren’t a band with deep pockets by any means, so what it really came down to is getting very inventive. We have a really keen and different sense of humor. Jamie seemed to get the whole thing! That made it quite easy for us to work with him. We filmed some really funny shit and some dark stuff too. The movie is really a mad-capped situation. It is one day, 24 hours, where our drummer has been kidnapped and we are raising a ransom to get him back. It turned out very cool.
You are sharing the proceeds from two of LOADED’s new songs, “Fight On” and “We Win”, to benefit the general patient fund at the addiction treatment center Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Healthcare System. How did that relationship come about? It seems like a cause that is close to your heart.
Yeah, thanks! It is kind of a long story. I have written a column for Seattle Weekly for about two-and-a-half years. I also climb. I climb with a guy by the name of Tim Medvetz who was on the show called ‘Everest’ on the Discovery Channel. The show follows a team as they take on Mount Everest. He got into a really bad motorcycle accident back in 2001. The doctors told him that he would lose his foot and that physical activity was a thing of the past. He is a big guy and he told the surgeon to not remove his foot. He said, “If you remove my foot, I will remove your foot!” So they kept the foot on and Tim sat in the hospital bed for quite a few months. One of the things that he did while he was there was read ‘Into Thin Air’ about the Mount Everest tragedy. He said, “I am going to climb Mount Everest!” So he did it! He fucking climbed Mount Everest! He has climbed a bunch of other big mountains since then. On his way back from Europe, he met a kid who is a veteran when he was coming back from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Germany. The kid was missing a leg and Tim talked to him the whole flight home on the way to the Walter Reed in Washington, D.C. This meeting really inspired him. Tim is one of my really good friends and we climb together all the time. He has been taking these veterans up the mountain and telling me all about these kids. They leave home after high school and go to boot camp, straight from their Mom’s living room and end up in Iraq or someplace like that. One week into it, Boom! They lose a leg and their lives have been changed. They end up in Walter Reed, they give them a prosthetic and they end up back in their Mom’s living room saying, “What the fuck just happened?” They are probably sitting there thinking, “My life is over. No one cares.” Tim, through his stories, got me to think about it and care about the cause. We went down to the VA in Seattle as a band. One of the guys in LOADED, the lead guitar player, Mike Squires, was a Marine. I had written about Tim and this story in the Seattle Weekly. Ken LeBlond, who is basically public relations for the VA, got a hold of me through the column. We went out there and ended up playing the Veteran’s Appreciation Day at Qwest Field in October. We have been up to the VA a few times and made the song “Fight On.” That song was inspired by Tim’s story. I made it so the proceeds for that song would go to the VA, the Puget Sound Healthcare System and that’s it! We are tied in!
You mentioned your column. Most people are familiar with Duff the musician. You’re an accomplished writer and even writing an autobiography at this point …
I finished it!
What spawned your literary side and if it is something that you have always been drawn to?
I wasn’t always drawn to writing. It just kinda came out of nowhere! Someone from Men’s Italian Vogue asked me to write an article for them about three years ago. One thing lead to another. I wrote another article for Playboy and then they asked me to write a weekly column at the same time that Seattle Weekly asked me. So it was a trial by fire! I just started there and now I am also writing for ESPN. I feel like I have found my voice in writing and I am very comfortable writing. I can express myself much better writing than I can by talking. The book deal basically came from my Seattle Weekly column.
As for the autobiography, I kinda write in my column voice. It is my story as I would tell it in my writing, not as I would sit down and tell you my story because I wouldn’t really know how to tell you my story. I can write it and get into the bleaker, darker things a lot easier and the more joyful things that have happened, especially after I got sober.
It is basically a story of “How did a guy like me get from Seattle to addiction, totally, fully addicted — How did that happen?” Because the most common question that I get asked in private is “How did you get sober?” I get asked that a ton by people that are still out there using. So, I wrote about it. I wrote about how I got into that place. [laughs] It is also my story of playing in punk rock bands up here and going down to L.A. and the first band that formed was Guns N’ Roses. That band wasn’t the reason that I got addicted. It was just the situation that I was in. Drinking, drugs and whatnot was completely condoned, especially by our band. I am not blaming anyone else. I take my part in my life. I take accountability for myself. I think that too often we go through life and if something like that happens in your life, you are quick to point a finger and say, “Well those motherfuckers …” or “That guy …” or “Us going on late was that guys fault …” or “it was management.”
I just took accountability for things that I probably could have done differently. Going all the way into the addiction part was gnarly to write about. I really hadn’t figured that to happen but I went through a couple of months of really saying, “Whoa! Fuck! I never even thought about this stuff. It is in my past.” I think it is a good book [pauses] because I wrote it! [laughs] I am editing it so I have written and read the words, different edits, about eight to 10 times! I think it is good, I can’t tell anymore!
Was there something in particular that made you say, “OK, now it is time to sit down and chronicle my journey?”
No. Just because I am writing so much and I was offered a book deal from my columns, which interested me more. I have no burning need to tell my Guns N’ Roses story. Ya know, book deals are not that lucrative after you split off money from your agent, pay your taxes and all that kind of stuff. It’s not like it is going to change the way I live. It is not a case of “OK, great! I will cash in on my writing!” It is just a challenge. That is the way that I look at life. I try to challenge myself and it keeps life pretty fun and exciting for me! It was really a challenge to write a book. It is not like a thousand word column. I wrote 130,000 words! [laughs] That is a lot more than a fuckin’ column! I wrote it in thousand word spurts because I am comfortable doing that. Piecing it all together was a challenge as well. I brought in the Senior Editor to help me do that.
Did you have any reservations about telling your story?
Well, here’s the deal. I wrote the book myself. You write alone. You don’t write with someone else sitting there. I was sitting there like, “I’m not going to sit here and throw someone under the bus.” No one else that is part of my story asked me to write about them here, ya know? In making that sort of my mantra, I started to discover my part in things.
I had reservations about confidences of old band mates and friends. If you are a band mate or a friend of someone, you don’t leave that band or friendship and start telling everyone things. That is sorta like gossiping! Kinda like “chick shit.” But whatever, that isn’t the point. I wouldn’t do that. I think that my story is interesting enough and will have relevance to the people. I think that “rock people” will like the book. You know, I’m a dad and I think that parents will like the book. The book starts off at my daughter’s 13th birthday and then unravels to the past and comes forward again. I don’t know if you have read any of my Seattle Weekly columns but, like I said, it is told in that voice, from now.
My reservations were, “What does the book company want? Do they want a Guns N’ Roses book?” because if they want that, there are enough of those out there. I don’t need to write another one of those and I don’t have a burning desire to unleash and I don’t have some burning secret that I need to tell.
Obviously, you are part of some of the most iconic musical projects in rock history. Does your past success in band’s like Guns N’ Roses or Velvet Revolver ever become a bit of a burden when you are trying to move forward with some of your other musical endeavors?
No! Not at all. I totally understand the question. I know that if Guns N’ Roses wouldn’t have happened, I would have done something else. I know that. I would have been just as happy as I am now had I done something else. I know that about myself. But as far a music career, I can go ahead and have a band called LOADED in 2011 and be able to go and play. I can reach a wider audience than some band that might be rehearsing next door to us here in Seattle. So that is great! If there was no Guns N’ Roses, there would have been no Velvet Revolver. Same thing applies. Slash is out touring right now. He is “Slash from Guns N’ Roses” and he probably has to put up with that every day but he is out playing and doing what he loves. People love him and come to see him because he is that guy, “Slash from Guns N’ Roses” or “Slash from Velvet Revolver.” You are always “from” something! [laughs] You’re one of us now! [laughs] There’s a quote!
No, I don’t! Especially after looking back during the process of writing this book. My career or in being a father, which is the more important one to me. But in regard to my career, no I don’t have any regrets. Do I wish I wasn’t as fucked up during ‘91 to ‘93? Yeah, but I think I probably became a stronger person because of it. I wouldn’t have learned the hard lessons that I did and probably wouldn’t be as clear as I am now.
What is the best piece of advice that you would give to an individual or young band that are looking to make their mark in today’s music industry?
Just be smart about the whole business of the thing and be wary. Know what your deals are if you are doing deals. Cut your deals up front and know what is in the contracts. It is kinda the same as it ever was. But if you have a choice of a “career” and a “music career” as your money maker, I don’t know if music is as lucrative as something else. Ya know, maybe just play music for fun! [laughs]
Where should we be on the lookout for you in the near future?
We are playing the Golden God Awards, which will be on VH1. Then we are headed back to Seattle to play our Seattle record release at a place called Neumos. Then we go off to Europe to play a shit-ton of the huge festivals like Download, Rock AM Ring, Sweden Rock and Hellfest in France. Then we are coming back to the States. We will probably tour the states in August and September. Those dates will be on www.duff-loaded.com when they are confirmed.
We certainly encourage everyone to check out all of your work. A lot of us here have been fans since you first hit the scene and you can really feel the momentum with each project you are a part of.
Yeah, thanks! That is the key! If it stops having that momentum, I should probably do something else!
Thanks for your time, Duff!
Cheers! Thanks you!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.