By Brian Ives
After the slow dissolution of the original lineup of Guns N Roses, bassist Duff McKagan could have been headed for ‘Where are they now?’ territory. Instead, he’s stayed musically active—most notably with another mutli-platinum rock band, Velvet Revolver, but also a few lesser-known combos including Walking Papers, Loaded and a punk rock collective called Dead Men Walking.
During this interview, McKagan was excited about getting into the studio with his former GNR bandmate Izzy Stradlin’ and Alice In Chains‘ Jerry Cantrell; they’d just finished recording an EP together.
Outside of music, McKagan attended Seattle University’s Albers School of Business and Economics and later founded the wealth management firm Meridian Rock. He’s also a writer, having done columns for the Seattle Weekly, ESPN.com and Playboy.com. We spoke to him about his new book How To Be A Man (And Other Illusions), and he noted that he hopes to write at least 10 more.
He talked to us about all of the above, as well as how he nearly became a Fox News panelist. Seriously.
Radio.com: Before we get to the book, I wanted to ask about this punk rock band you’ve been working with, Dead Men Walking.
Duff McKagan: Dead Men Walking is all my punk-rock heroes. Captain Sensible [of the Damned]—I got to hold on to his bass in my house for the last five months or so, which was a cool thing for me. I played a show with them. Mike Peters [of the Alarm] is in the band, that guy is just a champion. He has leukemia. He goes and gets chemo and then goes out and plays a bunch of shows. Then he goes and hikes Mount Everest to raise money for leukemia research, and then he goes back for more treatment. Just being around that guy, his energy, is amazing. And Slim Jim Phantom [of the Stray Cats] is in the band, of course. At the gig I played, Fred Armisen and me were the special guests.
You seem to be able to cross between the worlds of metal and punk more than many of your peers.
Maybe that’s true. I came from a city [Seattle] at a specific period in music: the punk rock era. And Seattle was kooky! It still is. But the punk rockers, we had broad tastes. We liked ABBA and Cheap Trick and Motorhead and Prince and Cameo and Sly and the Family Stone and punk rock bands. So yeah, I love the Damned and I love ZZ Top and I don’t think there’s any sort of boundary between the two.
I’ve always thought metal and punk have a lot in common, but a lot of metal fans, for instance, don’t seem to like the Ramones.
I remember when Nirvana hit, there was this guy I knew, who wasn’t a very good musician. And he thought Nirvana gave him an excuse to not play well. And I said, “Dude? Have you picked apart a Nirvana song and tried to play that stuff? It’s difficult.” Some bands make it sound easy. And it isn’t easy. That combination of the Ramones, only one group of guys could have done that.
Like, I love Jeff Beck‘s Blow By Blow. I love that. But I also love the Ramones. I don’t think that you have to put down one or the other. Why?
It was raining, and we were going to play on their stage, which was made of metal. It was the Steel Wheels tour. He said, “Mate, you’re gonna fall on you’re a–, I’ve got some runners,” meaning “sneakers.” I was like, “How do I tell Mick Jagger ‘no?'” I was “cowboy boots guy” back then, I didn’t want to put on sneakers.
“What size are you?” he asked. “Size 11.” “So am I! Maybe we’ve got the same sized willy.” And I’m like, “Whoa, Mick Jagger just said I have the same size c— as he has!”
That must have been amazing: Mick Jagger, of the Rolling Stones, offering you his sneakers.
And it went straight to c— talk! It was totally surreal.
It seems like you’ve had a lot of these surreal experiences with artists you grew up listening to.
In 2005, Sharon Osbourne was putting together a tsunami relief record, it was a cover of Eric Clapton‘s “Tears in Heaven.” And she asked us—Velvet Revolver—to be the band on the record. And there were all these singers, Elton John, Rod Stewart. And Sir Elton John wanted to come in and record his parts live [in the studio] with us. And he comes in and walks up to me and says, “Duff, you look so good, man. I’m so happy for you.” And I said, “Thanks!” The band was blowing up at that time.
And then he says, “You don’t remember, do you?” And I thought, “OK, this could be interesting.”
So I say, “No, what?”
At the Freddie Mercury tribute concert at Wembley Stadium [in 1992], I was so hammered, he was holding me up at the side of the stage. He said that I went out and played [with Guns N Roses] and I played fine. And then I came off stage and fell down the stairs and he helped me out. You’d think you’d remember hanging with Sir Elton John! But some stuff, you just don’t remember.
The Seattle Symphony approached Mike McCready about doing the Mad Season record. Immediately, Cornell agreed to do it. He was [Mad Season/Alice In Chains singer] Layne [Staley]’s friend. And then they asked me, I was also Layne’s friend. Regrettably, I didn’t know [Mad Season bass player] Baker [aka John Saunders]. But I feel like I do now, because I listened to his bass playing inside and out.
We rehearsed at Pearl Jam‘s studios. For the last song, “All Alone,” we actually used Layne’s vocal recording. It was just us [McKagan, McCready and drummer Barrett Martin] and the sound guy in the studio, and it was so heavy. Then we rehearsed with the Seattle Symphony, and then Chris came in. That guy can sing! He didn’t even have to warm up. He just walked in from his car, got in front of the mic and this huge voice comes out. He’s not even pushing it! I don’t understand how his body works. But it was super-cool.
Let’s talk about your new book, How To Be a Man (And Other Illusions).
I hope this is my second book in a string of ten! I want to veer off into another direction. I hope to write the Alice In Chains book next, that would be cool. This one is based on a column I wrote for the Seattle Weekly. I had just come back from a European festival tour with Walking Papers. While we were there, we saw this metal band from Norway, I can’t pronounce their name. But they were going for it! The singer climbs up on top of the speakers, and it’s pretty high up. And he was going to jump [into the crowd], that was his thing. He’s probably been playing smaller places before this. But in the heat of the moment, he climbed all the way up there. You could tell he wasn’t used to climbing that high. He gets to the top, looks down and is like, “Uh-oh.” And the whole crowd can see it. So the poor guy had to back down off of those speakers, and the crowd is all chanting at him. So, the point is, don’t be that guy who has to climb down from the speakers. In the heat of the moment, take a look around. And that can apply to anything you do.
Also, I was in New York, the Seattle Seahawks had won the Super Bowl [at Metlife Stadium in New Jersey], I was turning 50 a few days later, and I had a plane flight back to Seattle. It’s a five and a half hour flight, and that’s when I do a lot of my writing anyway. I was out-of-my-mind happy about us winning our first Super Bowl, and I was like, “This is going to be the best way to turn 50.” Then I was thinking, “What does 50 mean? What have I learned? Have I learned anything? And who are we, as modern age men? What’s our deal? Do we have a deal?” I kind of researched that, and talked to a lot of friends, and I told all the stories through experiences from a couple of tours.
But the story was heartbreaking as well; you discuss seeing a well-known actor who was obviously in the throes of drug addiction, and who ultimately died that weekend [McKagan never mentions him by name in the book or in person; it was Phillip Seymour Hoffman]. And you were there with friends who were, like you, in recovery [including Jerry Cantrell of Alice In Chains].
It was poignant because of the three guys who were there, were there.
You discuss loyalty in a chapter where you talk about punk rock… and the Blackberry.
Am I really that loyal to Blackberry? I guess I am now, now that I’ve written about it in a book! But really, I just stick with the stuff I like. I experiment with new things, and I like to hear new music. I like to try new technology but the things I’m loyal to, I’m loyal to. I’m loyal to my wife. I think punk rock informed that; it helped me to be a more loyal husband to my wife. And be a better dad to my kids. Because it’s honest. The bands I first saw live were Black Flag and the Clash. Pre-London Calling! Bands of the people, for the people. It was so visceral and honest and in-your-face, you couldn’t imagine lying after you saw a Black Flag show. You were like, “I’m real! This is who I am!” And the Clash, in ’79! I saw them and a bouncer punched some guy in the face, and broke his nose. The Clash stopped the show, broke down the barrier (to the stage) and said, “There’s no difference between the audience and us.” And you see those gigs when you’re 14, 15 years old, and you say, “I want to be like that!”
Anyway, I don’t want a bunch of gadgets, I don’t want a bunch of apps. I don’t want to be in here [motions towards his hand as if he was holding a phone]. I know it’s important to a lot of people! My wife and kids love it! And that’s great for them. For me, I don’t want to be there [motions towards his hand], I want to be here [motions towards the rest of the room]. They can be there, as long as I’m here to keep an eye on them!
Even after reading your first book, I thought, “After all this guy has been though, Duff McKagan is kind of a role model!” And after reading this book, I really think you are.
I know I’m a role model for my daughters. They’re judging every male that they meet off of me. That’s huge! To me, that’s the biggest deal in the world. So that makes you lead a little bit more of an upright life.
I thought it was interesting in your book that you looked at the changing model of manhood. Maybe our fathers and grandfathers weren’t as sensitive to other people’s feelings as they could have been, but the current generation can change and do things differently. That’s hard to do; to create a more sensitive model of manhood.
I don’t know about “sensitive.” But it’s not like the man goes off to work and the woman stays home with the kids. Maybe that was a model that we saw from ’50s TV, and TV informs everything. Things have changed, [even though] there’s still not pay equality. But we have to grow up in a lot of ways here in America, regarding sexism and racism. Don’t be like, “Nope, I’m gonna be like my father and my grandfather.” F— that!
Knowing that you had taken a lot of classes in finance, I’d have to think you’ve had some interesting conversations with people who are a bit more conservative than you.
I went to school in a very liberal city. I don’t think that there’s a single Republican in Seattle. But I have done some stuff for a [proposed] Fox financial show. They were going to do this show. So they flew me out here [to New York] a bunch of times, it was before I really knew what Fox’s deal was. It was me, [sportscaster] Greg Anthony, [NASCAR driver] Kyle Petty… it was kind of cool, they kept switching out the panel, but they kept bringing me and flying me out here. We were going to do this weekly roundtable talk show about current events in the financial world. And then, they started pushing in their politics. They’d say, “You can’t take that stance, because we take this stance…” I’d say, “Who’s ‘We?’ Oh, I get it, it’s Fox.” So, I think that a lot of the financial shows that people watch are on Fox. I don’t know if finance is a politicized discipline, though.
I feel like it’s become that way in the past 8-12 years.
Yeah, I guess the real rich motherf—ers are the “one percent.” Ok.
I’d love to ask you about all 100 entires on your list of albums every man should own.
And that’s, of course, a very partial list.
But you wrote a lot about Prince’s 1999, What does that album mean to you?
Some of these albums were soundtracks to my life. 1999 was a changing time for me. that album came out, and I discovered this Prince guy. He plays everything on this [album], he recorded it [himself], he wrote all these songs. And the record was so all over the place, but it was a journey. And I went back and got Controversy, I got singles, I got the first two records. “My God, this guy’s amazing!” I’d broken up with my first love. I was in a punk rock band, and I didn’t know what I was going to do in life. Heroin was coming into Seattle. And this record just sort of saved me from all of that, it protected me from the heartache, and the heroin… for about a year, it was just a suit of armor. “Something in the Water” still takes me back, it still reminds me of some stuff. Brilliant.
Talk about how Cameo helped you and Steven Adler to find your groove.
If you listen to the backbeat on “Paradise City” or “[Mr.] Brownstone,” “Rocket Queen,” it’s all informed by Cameo and Sly and the Family Stone. Steven had a huge drum kit, a lot of cymbals, lots of tom-toms, double bass drums. Izzy [Stradlin’] and I stole lots of pieces of his drum kit as a joke – but not really [as a joke]! And all he had was a snare drum, a kick drum, no rack toms, a floor tom, a hi-hat, and so he had to become groove drummer. And he became one of the best small kit groove drummers ever, I think.
Speaking of Izzy, you just worked with him, right?
I did a three song EP for the book [How To Be a Man] with Izzy and Jerry Cantrell, we’re maybe gonna do a full record.
That guy, Slash, just tours so much! we have to wait until he’s back from tour. So, I don’t know. I don’t know what we’ll do with that. We’ll get back together and try out a singer. And the band is so good, we’ll be like, “F—, we’re just letting this thing go!” But it’s not a race, and we’re all better players than we were in 2004.
I read on the Walking Papers Facebook page that the new album is finished but you can’t decide on the cover. Any status update on that album?
I don’t know when it will come out. It’s done. It’s killer. It’s tough with that band. It’s a great band. It’s a man’s band. Barrett [Martin] is a hell of a drummer, he’s like John Bonham. And Jeff Angell is a one-of-kind frontman, he’s an American treasure, I think. But to make that thing work? You can’t go out and grind and tour and come back in the hole [financially]. We did six tours. Those guys [guitarist/singer Angell and keyboardist Benjamin Anderson] have jobs building houses. They can’t take the time away from their jobs to make the band work.
Jeff’s got to play catch-up, too, he has to work fourteen hour days when he gets back from tour. I can see what the loss of albums sales can do to a new band, first-hand, to guys who haven’t had success yet. It’s brutal. So I don’t know what the answer is. I’ve seen some really great bands die, because they can’t do it anymore. Middle Class Rut: great band. But they’re done. They just can’t afford to do it anymore. It’s an expensive hobby. But the Walking Papers record? Maybe it will be out really soon. It’s a really good record.