Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan doesn’t just rock. He is rock. Ben Cooper meets the maestro
Images: Tina Korhonen
Few bassists sum up the rock’n’roll ideal more than Duff McKagan. Propelled to fame as the low end groover in rock legends Guns N’ Roses, he travelled the world, bass slung low, consuming enough alcohol and drugs to kill an elephant several times over. In fact it nearly killed him in 1994 when his pancreas burst, calling time on a period of excess which had seen him drinking 10 bottles of wine a day. That’s a whole lot of chardonnay.
But Duff was always more than the dude pounding out the groove. An accomplished songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, he’s also a decent singer and served as the band’s default musical director. And he was blessed with more smarts than most of the LA glam metal bands put together, as evidenced by the sobriety he achieved and maintained thanks to a punishing fitness and martial arts schedule and a career as a prolific writer and musician in several post-Guns bands.
After cleaning up his act, a story painfully but skilfully told in his 2012 autobiography It’s So Easy (And Other Lies), and the biopic based on the book which came out this year, Duff rebuilt himself from the ground up. Along with further musical success in the form of his band Loaded and supergroup Velvet Revolver, as well as many side projects and sessions with artists such as Iggy Pop, Duff undertook a degree in finance at Seattle University and discovered a love, and no little talent for, writing.
Guns N’ Roses, who are currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity since their near-complete reformation and American tour dates, are at the top of every rocker’s must-see list as we go to press. We caught up with Duff before the reformation news broke to ask him about his recent EP and book (both titled How To Be A Man) as well as his memories of his unique life and work.
“When you have a family I think things don’t settle down, they stir up,” he tells us. “You have to deal with things and rise up to levels you never knew you were capable of. And you beat yourself up, because you think you failed five million times. And when you have girls, they judge men based on their dad’s behaviour. I’m pulling for my girls and I want them to be strong women. It’s made me much more aware of girls and what they do. They’re cool, and I wasn’t really aware of it before.”
It’s this and other insights that led him to pen a second book last year, How To Be A Man (And Other Illusions). “You know, what does it mean to be a man in this day and age, when you can send a picture of your cock to anyone if you feel like it?” he explains, in relaxed fashion. “In life we always say, ‘Oh I learned a lesson’, but the test is, did you apply that lesson going forward?”
The inspiration for the book hit as he approached a major milestone. “I started getting wind-up texts from people a few months before I turned 50. I hadn’t even thought about it until then,” he tells us. “And at the same time, my football team, the Seattle Seahawks, made it to the Superbowl. I went to the game and we fucking won! Then I turned 50 and it was the best birthday ever. I didn’t care. The Seahawks had just won.”
Having honed his writing chops with some heavyweight newspapers and magazines, he began to bounce ideas and drafts off his former editor at Seattle Weekly, Chris Kornelis. Encouraged by the positive feedback, he continued his work. Writing a book, for Duff at least, is very much like recording an album.
“A good editor is like a good record producer. It was almost like a riff-by-riff, song-by-song process, where the producer is listening and giving their notes. Chris would send me suggestions. What did that look like? What did that feel like? He’d help with the ordering of things too.”
With the similarity between writing a book and recording an album evident to the man himself, it’s surprising that the idea to simultaneously release an EP with the book didn’t come from Duff. “It was not a pre-planned thing. It was suggested to me that maybe a companion song for the book would help in promotion.”
It was something that didn’t sit comfortably at first, although as Duff points out, these days with people absorbed by the internet, social media and other distractions, and with ever-dwindling attention spans and willingness to part with hard cash, you need to have put a lot of feelers out to get people’s attention.
“I wasn’t sure about it all, but then I hit on this riff and the opening line for the lyric to ‘How To Be A Man’ and, for me, that really summed up the book. So I sent that and a few other bits to Izzy [Stradlin, Duff’s erstwhile Guns N’ Roses bandmate] and he sent me back this perfect bridge and a guitar part, as he always does. Then we got together in the studio and recorded it.”
Duff has always been able to maintain good relationships with his Guns N’ Roses bandmates over the years, despite the volatility surrounding the band. He’s played in Velvet Revolver with guitarist Slash and drummer Matt Sorum, and graced the stage with frontman Axl Rose long before the current reunion, so the collaboration with Izzy Stradlin was, in his words, “natural, easy and cool.”
The three tracks on the EP, which also features the legendary Jerry Cantrell of Alice In Chains, are solid, driving rock with hooky choruses and muscular riffs. The bass, as always, is doing more than just support the songs with some nice flourishes and a typically gritty tone. And the writing came easily.
“I was really in book mode to be honest, and I thought it was kind of cheesy to put out an EP to promote a book, but once the riffs started coming then it felt natural. I still really feel like I’m delving into my musical life, you know. I look at bands like Aerosmith and the Stones and think, I gotta play catch-up.”
Duff’s children are now following in his own footsteps, he tells us. “My eldest daughter is starting to play gigs now and she finally gets it. You know the reality of it is, having been in a lot of touring bands, not just the guy from Guns N’ Roses, for a lot of bands the question is ‘How the fuck do we make this work?’ I wish I had the answers, but I really don’t.”
With bands now doing paid meet and greets, licensing their songs for commercials, and relying on merchandise sales at shows, the game has changed. But there’s a feeling that the fans are trying to support the bands they love, believes Duff. “Fifteen years ago they’d have called bullshit on that,” he reflects. “But now they won’t, because they know that bands have to find some way to monetise if they’re going to
As a successful musician and someone who has taken charge of his business affairs, his advice to young musicians is both frank and back to basics. “Really it’s the same as it’s always been. If you believe in it, and can’t live without doing it, you’ve got to do it, and who gives a fuck about anything else? Guys like us can discuss the finer points of it, but when you’re young it’s not a business, just do it.”
I wonder if the process of writing the book, reflecting on lessons learned the hard way, has changed how he is as both a bandmember and bandleader. He pauses for thought. “I think the book is really asking questions. Am I applying the things I’ve learned? I always try to do that in bands now, I sure do. I listen more, and I’ll admit when I’m wrong. When I was younger I spent a lot of time insisting that I was right. All the time. You do need some of that when you’re younger to get you where you’re gonna go, for sure.”
At the heart of it, Duff’s main piece of advice to younger musicians, and one he wished he’d applied more himself in the past, is just this: “Don’t miss the opportunity to keep your mouth shut. It’s important to be able to say ‘Shit, I was wrong’. You know, I’m right when I’m right, and wrong when I’m wrong.”