Duff McKagan Exclusive Interview



BY STEVEN ROSEN- First published here January 6, 2014

How sobriety raised his guitar playing to a higher level.

Source: Steven Rosen Archives, March 2011

There was a point in time during the Guns N’ Roses days when it seemed like a pretty sure thing that Duff McKagan was headed for a fall. He and bandmate Slash were a disaster waiting to happen. But they pulled it together and cleaned themselves up and rose to the occasion of becoming some truly inspired musicians.

On Sick, Duff’s newest album with band Loaded, he shows off that sobriety by bringing in musical influences as far a field as the Rolling Stones and horns and punk and straight up rock. Behind the microphone, Duff sounds confident and angry and passionate. And on guitar, he is bashing out some very innovative rhythm phrases

There is much more to Duff McKagan than most people might know. Here he lets us inside his head for a little while.

How much is Loaded different in comparison with Velvet Revolver or Guns N’ Roses? I’m referring to the emotional aspects rather than the actual music. Does it feed your soul in bigger ways than the other projects?

Maybe it does, in that amazing way you just put it. It’s healthier for my soul. I’m not saying that Slash isn’t healthy for my soul, but it is a thing that happened during the journey thus far. There was just a ton of drama, things I couldn’t contain or put my finger on. So you become a little lost. For me, being a sober guy, it’s either me sober or me six-feet underground. I become lost and I start swimming around, and that’s not healthy for me. This is something that, number one, is containable. Number two, there is a lot of humor in this band. VR is very serious. When things started getting heavy with Scott, things became more serious. There was no joking. We would get on tour buses and it would be silent. So I really needed this to happen. I didn’t try to make Loaded happen – it just did happen again. We would play a couple times every year during the whole VR time anyhow, and we always knew we were going to make a second record after Dark Days. We didn’t think it was going to take eight years, but things happen for a reason. I think last summer we started writing new songs for this record and just kept hanging out together back home in Seattle. We would come up here every summer, and if I’m on tour then my family is here anyhow. That makes me feel better. I think it’s a better place for my daughter. I feel more secure up here in Seattle. I feel smarter in Seattle. It’s a more intellectual and cultural town than Los Angeles by far. In a coffee shop here, people are talking about books. They read, for example. It’s just being with these guys. It’s funny all the time. Mike Squires, the guitar player, he has an IQ of something like 160. He’s an extremely smart guy. We talk about politics and the economy and discovery and esoteric things, and it’s great. We do crossword puzzles. We’re nerds, man! But I like being a nerd, and it’s really who I’ve always sort of been. I think maybe I’m kind of a cool nerd. I grew up in punk rock being here in Seattle, and that really nurtured forward thinking. It’s okay to think differently, and you don’t have to do what everybody else is doing. You don’t have to play Journey songs in a bar. You can write your own songs.

Does Loaded have the same kind of energy that Guns N’ Roses did in the early days – without the drugs and alcohol? Is there still an organic type of feel to it, in that you don’t have to push to make the music happen?

Well, it started it with that, and then we decided to make our second record. “Let’s do it.” That was two Christmases ago when we played that charity show in Seattle. By Spring of ’08, I knew that the VR tour was going to come to an end. So last summer, we simply got into a room to start hashing out some songs. Out of nowhere, out of left field, inspiration happened within the band. It became really exciting and really great. We wrote melodies and these really hard songs and really heartfelt songs like “Mothers Day” and “Wasted Heart,” and kick-ass rock songs like “I See Through You,” “Sleaze Factory,” and “Flatline.” It was just like, “Wow, all this stuff is happening and it’s really great.” We did a little record deal, and we just thought we would make a little record and go to the UK and play some gigs in the States and go back to Japan. Loaded is actually big in Japan. We were big in Japan from the Dark Days record. We’ve gone over to play there a bunch of times. It got up to where we were selling out every place we played. It was great. So we really thought small, though. We did a little record deal. We made this record for 20 grand. We didn’t need anything more to make it. We were ready to go and went into the studio. We just went in. The record sounds more urgent, I think, as a result. We don’t got time to fuck around. We don’t even have time to have lunch. We don’t! We’ve got to get this drum track and everything down that day. I think that the record is healthier because of that limited budget. We decided to put out the EP in Europe and go tour there last fall. The tour was just amazing. We sold out and did our own club tour and small theater tour in the UK. I wanted to go to the UK because that’s where Guns broke first and where Velvet broke first. I thought, “Well, if they like those two things, then they’ll like this thing. We can get solid ground underneath us.” It’s hard to break in the States as your first thing, simply because you’ve got to travel so far between cities, number one. Radio here – well, you know the politics of radio. It’s so tough. So we decided to start over there, and we went back to Japan in October. It was great. The record is coming out now, and it seems like things are picking up. There’s really, really, really good reviews on the record. It’s like, “Wow, no shit? Q Magazine likes it? They hate everything in rock.” It’s pretty great. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen, but we’re playing Download. We’re playing Rock-am-Ring and Rock-im-Park. We’re playing some great radio festivals here in the States. The things we have booked so far have been really great. People want us on their festivals, and it’s so cool.

Did most of the musical ideas form in the studio? Did you have anything ready to go from past projects?

YWell, no, no, no. “Sick” was a song we wrote back in 2002. “Wasted Heart” was a song I wrote in 2006 or ’07. I wrote the whole song. “Forgive Me” was something I had written outside of the band. I brought it into the band. I wrote it on acoustic guitar. Once we started talking about making this record two winters ago was when we started. The great thing about GarageBand and MP3 is you can have this riff. Then you send it to everybody. So everybody starts going, “Well, okay. Shit.” Then Jeff Rouse will send me something back. “Well, I like that riff, but what if you changed it to this?” All of the sudden, you can write a record by doing this. I was in L.A., and these guys were up here. Or I was on the road, and one of those guys would be on the road. You can still contact them. So by the time we got into the rehearsal space The Brewery here in town, it’s a crappy little room that smells like rat poo. We got in there, and we kind of had an idea of where we were going. GarageBand has been a killer, killer tool.

“Wasted Heart” is one of the ballads on the record, and I sense that it has almost a Stones type of feel. Is that accurate or did the influence come from somewhere else?

know I’m influenced by everything I’ve heard. Whenever I’ve written a song, it’s not because I’ve been listening to the Stones for two weeks solid. “Wasted Heart” just happened. I try a lot of different tunings. Some of the tunings I don’t know if they’re legitimate or not! I’ll just tune a guitar to G Sharp Minor with a suspended something and write a song. Tunings, to me, lend to opening up a guitar. “Wow, what’s this? If I lay my finger over here and put my pinky here, listen to that.” “Wasted Heart” was one of those songs. I forgot what I tune the guitar to. Open A or something? The melody of the verse came right away. It does sound like a Stones thing. I wrote it about a kind of difficult time. The riff dictated what the melody was. The melody dictated to me what the song was going to be about. That’s how it always happens.

“Flatline” is the first single off the record. Was that how you wanted to introduce Loaded 2009 to an audience again? Would you say that particular song best represents the band at this point? Was it because it’s a good radio song?

I think it’s because it’s a good radio song. I don’t know. You would think I would know what good radio is, but I don’t know what it is anymore. I don’t know what anything means. I do songwriting for other artists. In the past couple years, I’ve gone to Nashville a couple times with some guys. People request me to come and write. This guy, Brian Howes, he’s from

Vancouver, B.C. He wrote the whole Hinder record and produced it. They’re bands that I don’t know much about like Nickelback and stuff like that. He’s like the godfather up there in Vancouver. He had asked if I’d be interested in coming up there and writing for some artists he had. I went up, and sometimes you can sit down with a guy and it’s not going to work. Sometimes it will. We wrote a couple songs, and then I heard him play this riff. I’m like, “Whoa, what’s that riff, dude?” “What riff? I was just fucking around.” “No, that riff.” He goes, “This?” We started writing, and it was the only song on there that I wrote with somebody else outside of the band. I wrote it after the record was done. I’m like, “Dude, this song has got to be a Loaded song.” I brought the song down and asked the guys in the band if it was cool. “Great. Let’s record and cut it.” Wewent back into the studio and cut it, and it was like, “Well, this could be our first single.” It kind of worked like that. My manager heard it and was like, “Yeah, this is definitely good for radio.” Then it will get somebody’s ears trained to sort of the minor-ness that is Loaded. It’s kind of off of left of center. Maybe they’ll open themselves up to “I See Through You” or “Sleaze Factory.”

Are there horns on “Blind Date Girl”?

There is, yeah.

Does that come from your Stax influences?

There is a band from Australia called The Saints. Yeah, I love the Stax shit, by the way. There was this punk rock band from Australia in 1977 that were called The Saints. They influenced a lot of bands. They were an influence of Guns. There was this song called “Move To The City” on our first EP. My brother played the horns on it. Guns would always have horn stuff on “Live Or Let Die” or something. My brother always played the horn stuff. So we were up here in Seattle, and that song “Blind Date Girl,” I heard horns in it. It all comes from The Saints, man. It stems from The Saints. My brother wasn’t up here in Seattle. He lives down in L.A. He came into the studio, and I couldn’t pay him much! Those horns turned out great.

Did you know from the beginning that you would be playing the guitar rather than the bass?

Every song I’ve ever written was on guitar, whether for Guns or VR or punk rock bands. I used to play guitar and sing in bands. I used to play drums in bands, too. I made a record on my own in ’93 and I played everything. I was playing drums and I played bass and guitar. Then I went and toured that record right after. I went to Europe, and I played rhythm guitar then. The Neurotic Outsiders was my first band in 1995 after sobriety. I was playing rhythm guitar, and Steve Jones was the lead guitar player. I sang a bunch in that band, and it’s way easier for me to sing and play rhythm guitar than it is to play bass. It’s like a million times easier. Then the idea of Loaded started. It was like, “Okay, I’m going to sing and play guitar.” So Jeff Rouse, the bass player for Loaded, I think is a better bass player than me. He’s really creative and really solid. I lucked out there, finding one of the best rock bass players who is unknown – until maybe now, hopefully. It’s just easier for me to play rhythm guitar. I have a rhythm guitar style that I think lends itself to the band.

Did you know there was going to be a second guitar player? I mean, did you know that you wouldn’t be taking on the lead guitar duties?

Mike Squires has been the lead guitar since 2001.

Did you learn how to get a good rhythm guitar sound from watching Slash or learn how to step up to a mic watching Scott? Did any of that rub off or was it more subliminal?

I think anybody would be lying if they said they weren’t influenced by the people they played with. In saying that, I certainly haven’t tried to mimic anything. I probably have learned the most about rhythm guitar playing from Izzy. He was probably the ultimate rhythm guitar player. I probably learned most of my guitar playing from my earliest influences. My style is more Steve Jones from The Pistols and Johnny Thunder. That’s what I gravitate towards. I don’t even know what Slash does on the guitar. He and I warm up together before gigs. We’ll play the different songs or whatever. We’ll play riffs. So I’ve seen him play for years and I know how he plays, but it’s all what comes from his brain. God knows what goes on in there. Slash, when I met him we were 19 years old. He already had this old soul to playing guitar. He’s a freak of nature, that dude. He’s so talented. He’s one of those guys that is good at anything he does. If he decided to play basketball tomorrow, he’d be good. I don’t know. Squires is definitely a different guitar player than Slash, but Squires is 36. He grew up playing to Slash and George Lynch. Those were his idols. So he comes from a different place than I do. I’m like, “Really? George Lynch was your idol?” I mean, I get it.

Do you have any specific equipment that you use to get that perfect rhythm guitar sound?

I go straight. I don’t have any effects. I don’t want to play any effects in the studio because I don’t want to use any effects when I play live. I don’t want to have to think about hitting pedals. So right there, I know where my box is. I have this Marshall head that I bought in ’92. It was modded by Bogner, hot-rodded by Bogner. I guess it’s comparable to when I go to Europe, where I rent the JCM 2000. It’s comparable to that, but nothing is like this head that I have up here in Seattle. I use an old, beat-up Marshall cabinet that I’ve had since 1990 or something. I think it was Slash’s that he used on Appetite. So that’s my sound. I have a couple Les Pauls that I use in the studio. I have two Bernie guitars. I got them in Japan. It’s a Les Paul, but in Japan they can copy this stuff like exactly. These Bernies, you can’t get them here because they’re illegal. But I swear, they sound better. I have this…I don’t want to say this. These Bernies accomplish my sound better than any other guitar. So I used the same guitar for the whole record. I only messed with the volume knob on my guitar.

In a perfect world, what happens now? What happens if the record takes off and they’re clamoring for you to fill stadiums?

I don’t know. One thing that I’ve learned is that I don’t know what is going to happen. I know in the next three months, I’ve got dates booked that I’ll be playing. Where am I going to be at six months from now? I couldn’t tell you. I don’t try to figure it out anymore. I’m secure enough in my own skin now that I can let things happen. I know I have to take care of my daughters and my wife. Other than that, musically I let it happen. I’m really, really happy now musically. I’m having one of the best times that I’ve had in a long time with my music in Loaded. I don’t want to wait another eight years to make a record. I want us to make a record every couple years now. I hope this is a band that I go into my 60’s or 70’s with. You can’t say that’s too old anymore because you’ve got the Stones and Iggy leading the way.

Do you keep in contact with Slash and the guys in VR?

Oh, sure, sure. Yeah, yeah, yeah. We haven’t made our best record yet. We wrote a bunch of new material last summer, and it’s far and above our best material. I think because we were back in that place, up again the wall. That’s when we perform the best. So we’re actively looking for a singer. The guy has got to be not just good, but great and have greatness. That will happen when it’s meant to happen. I’m not sweating it, but we haven’t made our best record yet. We all know we have to do that.

Have you heard Chinese Democracy? Do you have any comments on it?

I heard it. Axl’s voice sounds great. The rest of it, people have asked me, “Is it weird for you to have a Guns N’ Roses come out?” It’s not that at all. Maybe if I would have gotten kicked out of the band and then this record came out, then I probably would have felt hurt. But you’ve got to remember, I left in 1995. I left because the thing that we created in ’85 was over, and it had been over probably since 1989. We were just kind of chasing out tails trying to get that back. It wasn’t meant to be. So for this record to come out now some 21 years after we made Appetite, for it to have any sort of effect like “Oh shit,” it’s not like. It’s been Axl’s thing, and it always has. That will never change. As far as the band or the songs, they’re completely unfamiliar to me. There are some good songs that I really like, and there are some songs that I don’t. That could be any record we’re talking about.

I’m really glad to see that you’re not a casualty of rock and that some guys are able to pull back from the edge to lead a good life.

I really appreciate you saying that.


Photo credit: Photo by Neil Zlozower

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