Duff McKagan Interview: ‘Tenderness’ Album, Guns N’ Roses, Axl Rose – Rolling Stone
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How Duff McKagan Got Woke

The Guns N’ Roses bassist on making a “healing” statement with new solo LP ‘Tenderness’ and moving on from “One in a Million”

duff mckagan

Guns N' Roses' Duff McKagan discusses why he wanted to make a "healing" statement with his new solo album, 'Tenderness.'

Albert Sanchez

Duff McKagan doesn’t consider himself much of an activist. “I give to charity,” he says, “but I do it in a silent way that I think is righteous.” Lately, he’s starting to feel more comfortable talking openly about how he makes a difference in the world.

Recently, the Guns N’ Roses bassist visited “the Jungle,” a homeless encampment in his hometown of Seattle that he describes as “postapocalyptic.” It was estimated in 2016 that nearly 400 people live in some 200 tents under and around I-5 near the city’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. “A guy walked past, he was high, lit up,” McKagan recalls. “And he nodded at me and then he nodded off. It’s just needles everywhere.” His voice drops and he looks somber as he recalls the state of things.

“If I’m going to write about homelessness, I have to go there first, right?” he says. After the visit, he penned a twangy, country rocker, “Cold Outside,” about homelessness, and sang, “I should have known that this could be me on the street, lost, wet, hungry.” He very well could have headed in that direction himself — if GN’R hadn’t taken off. It was only 25 years ago that he suffered a scary bout of acute pancreatitis, brought on by years of excessive drinking, forcing him to sober up. Since his recent visit to the Jungle, he has partnered with Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, among other charities, to try to encourage his fans to help the less fortunate. “I’ve realized I’m going to get somewhat active now, active in a way that’s people helping other people,” he says.

It’s late April, and McKagan is sitting at a table in midtown Manhattan’s tony, five-star St. Regis Hotel, located two blocks from Tiffany & Co. and Trump Tower. The bassist sticks out like a sore thumb amid the velvet couches and posh clientele dressed in the restaurant’s prescribed “smart casual” attire, thanks to his long, stringy blond hair, black jeans and cut-off Shooter Jennings muscle tee. “I’m the type of guy who’ll get a shirt, and that’s my shirt for the next two weeks,” he says. His demeanor is a far cry from the wild rocker image Guns N’ Roses cultivated three decades ago; he’s genuine, easy tempered and the type of person to offer you half of his lunch. When he wants to make a point, he nudges you gently with his hand. He’s the picture of sincerity.

Although he laughs at being called “woke” — “I’m hip to the lingo, man,” he says — McKagan has drawn from experiences, like his trip to the homeless camp, to make an album with a conscience. Tenderness, his second official solo offering, contains songs that rail against a litany of social ills: school shootings, domestic violence and opioid addiction, among others. Overall, the album feels like the antithesis of “One in a Million,” the GN’R song that got him and his bandmates branded as racist, xenophobic bigots 30 years ago, and the shift in perspective suits McKagan, now age 55, well. The gentle, country-rock arrangements of Tenderness — made with producer Shooter Jennings, the son of country legend Waylon who records his own country-rock and has worked with rockers like Tom Morello and Marilyn Manson — allow him to show a more mature side, as well as a little grit. The album’s sound is a good fit for McKagan’s rough, nasally voice, which remains largely underused in Guns N’ Roses other than on deep cuts like “So Fine” and some Spaghetti Incident covers. But mostly, Tenderness is a platform for him to preach togetherness as a solution to what he sees as a fractured nation.

“Do I need to put more noise out there? No,” he says. “I’m playing in a big fucking rock band, the best rock band in the world, right? I didn’t need to make a record at all, but I chose to. I want to do something that’s healing.”

The roots of Tenderness begin in 2016, around when McKagan reunited with Guns N’ Roses and became obsessed with the presidential election. “We’d rehearse for eight hours and then talk about politics,” he says. “Then I’d go home and watch cable news. For the three months we were doing rehearsals, I was checking my Twitter and getting really fired up. My wife’s like, ‘Fucking chill out. Turn off the news.'” Eventually he decided he’d been suckered and unfollowed all the political accounts he’d discovered. “The reason I got on Twitter in the first place was the Seahawks and sports stuff,” he says with a laugh.

When the band got out on the road, McKagan started trying to see the world firsthand. He ventured onto swamp boats and took tours of cities in carriages. As he met people all around the U.S., he gained what he feels was a deeper understanding of the state of things. “I’m sure I was in places that people call ‘Red States,’ but I didn’t talk about politics to anybody,” he says. “We talked about how alligators like marshmallows.”

In his time away from Guns N’ Roses and in between stints with Velvet Revolver, McKagan had gone back to school and eventually started moonlighting as a columnist for Seattle Weekly and Playboy. As he met new people and got fresh perspectives, he considered writing columns or a book about his life on the road. So he started writing the beginnings of essays about everything from homelessness to the #MeToo movement. But that changed when he picked up an acoustic guitar he travels with and sang the words, “Everybody’s lyin’, I need some truth,” over an E-major chord. “It was kind of a Porter Wagoner song,” he says, referring to the late country hitmaker who often teamed with Dolly Parton. He ended up writing the rest of Tenderness’ “It’s Not Too Late,” which pleads that people should “meet your fellow man,” and the experience of writing that song inspired him to write music instead of musings.

He sings about the opioid epidemic on “Falling Down” and his own addictions on “Wasted Heart,” a song he previously recorded with his band Loaded, presenting both from a compassionate perspective. On the gospel-tinged “Feel,” though, he sings about his friends and people he looked up to, including his onetime Velvet Revolver bandmate Scott Weiland, Prince and Chris Cornell, who have died in recent years. McKagan had been close to Cornell. Since his wife and Cornell’s widow had both given birth around the same time, the two new dads grew closer. “I had this hangover still from Scott, not processing it,” he says. “I went to two different funerals for him, both quiet, and I just didn’t know how to process it. It was one of those things, like, you could see it coming, but when it happens, it still fucking hurts. That sense of loss.”

Chris Cornell’s death, though, resonated with him in a different way. “We had rehearsed that night, and Axl came into rehearsal and goes, ‘What do you guys think about doing “Black Hole Sun”? I’ve just been singing it for the last two weeks.’ Axl has a fucking sixth sense like that,” he says. “I don’t know if we tried it that night, but we talked about it. I drove home and [GN’R guitarist Richard] Fortus calls me at, like, 2 a.m. and is like, ‘Turn on the radio. Cornell’s dead.’ Axl was pretty freaked out by it. But then Prince died a few months later, and to me, Prince was everything. I fucking cried. And then Chester [Bennington].”

Bennington’s death reminds McKagan of how he too dealt with what doctors first told him was depression but he later learned was a chemical imbalance. After suffering a panic attack at the movies with his wife (“I couldn’t move,” he says) he sought help and got medications. “I call it brain vitamins,” he says. “It keeps everything moving and it’s not an addictive drug and thank fucking God for that. But for Chester and Chris, experiencing addiction and depression, I know that if it’s depression like I had, when you can’t breathe and there’s no way out, then all bets are kind of off.”

“Duff made a record that people can relate to and find meaning in their own experiences,” producer Shooter Jennings says on a call from Angels Camp, California, about a week before the album’s release. “He only wants people to be happy, and that is what comes across to me. So if you take a risk, it’s different if you’re preaching. He’s offering a solution, and I think that’s the difference.”

What makes Tenderness interesting is how many of the problems McKagan addresses are left with open-ended solutions. The message throughout is that people should try to make more of an effort to get to understand one another, and McKagan is never too preachy. That’s because he’s hyper self-aware. At one point in our interview, he says he was surprised when a buddy told him that he was a “coastal elite.” “We live in Seattle, we make over $200,000 a year and we read books,” the friend said. And he also recognized his privilege, saying that the only way the Trump administration was affecting him was by making it harder for him to get some Italian marble to remodel his house because it had passed through China. But that didn’t stop him from wanting to look beyond his front porch. Since the record is more about the world at large, he hopes people can feel a shared empathy about the problems he presents on Tenderness.

One day, when he was writing songs, a recording engineer burst into his room and said, “Oh, shit. Have you heard about Parkland?” It was February 14th of last year and a shooter had killed 17 students and staffers at a high school in Parkland, Florida. McKagan turned on the TV, guitar still in hand and started playing plodding chord changes. He repeated what the engineer said and turned it into a mantra — “Oh shit. Have you heard about Parkland?” — calling out Columbine, Charleston, Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech along the way. “Do we have to watch another mother cry once again?” he asks in the song “Parkland.” “Do we gotta watch another school kid die? No, not again.”

“That song is really trying to pay respect, but it’s a funeral dirge,” he says. “And I don’t come to a conclusion in the song, if you notice. I privately have my own solutions; there’s too many voices out there right now saying what is what. But you could be the hardest-core gun advocate or Second Amendment advocate or NRA member — nobody like school shootings across the board. So instead of saying ‘Here’s my solution, ban all guns forever,’ there is no solution. It’s a prayer. It’s just meditation. If somebody hears that song and reaches out to a Columbine foundation or family, it would be good. There are no macro answers right now; there are one-on-one answers.”

McKagan isn’t the only Guns N’ Roses member to get pegged as “woke” lately. Since even before the reunion, Axl Rose has supported a number of left-wing causes on Twitter and in the occasional open letter. He tweeted about how the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi appeared to be covered up, gave his take on Trump’s statements about forest fires and, last year, he tweeted, “We have an individual in the WH that will say n’ do anything w/no regard for truth, ethics, morals or empathy of any kind, who says what’s real is fake n’ what’s fake is real.” At the St. Regis, between bites of his oversized wrap, McKagan laughs at the notion of “woke Axl.”

“I love that,” he says. “I’m going to talk about that with him when I get back home. ‘Are you aware that you’re being called “Woke Axl?” He probably is.

“But don’t get it twisted,” he continues, “if he says something on Twitter, he’s thought about it. He knows the backup stories from every angle, and if somebody chose to debate him, I don’t care who it is, you’re going to be fucked. He’s a well-spoken and well-read dude who has experienced a lot. I believe he’s concerned about his country, so ‘Woke Axl’ it is.”

He defends Rose, too, when the subject of “One in a Million” comes up. In the song, which closed out the group’s Lies EP, the singer rails against police, African Americans, immigrants, gays and Middle Easterners, using slurs and dismissive language. When the band reissued their Appetite for Destruction album last year and included the Lies tracks on it, “One in a Million” didn’t make the cut. McKagan insists the song was misinterpreted, but his head is still spinning from the fallout associated with that song.

“We got kicked off an AIDS benefit,” he recalls. “I remember taking a plane and an African American flight attendant sees the seat next to me was open, so she sat down. ‘Are you with Guns N’ Roses? Are you really racist about black people?’ And then there’s what Slash [who is biracial] went through, and part of my family is African American. I had to explain it to them.

“One thing about Axl is if you’re going to try to compete with him intellectually, you’ve lost, because he’s a super smart guy,” he continues. “He’s a super sensitive dude who does his studies. When we did that song, I was still drinking but he was way ahead of us with his vision of, ‘Something’s gotta be said.’ That was the most hardcore way to say it. So flash-forward to now. So many people have misinterpreted that song that song that we [removed it]. … Nobody got it.”

He likens the track now to Appetite’s “It’s So Easy,” a song with lyrics bragging about driving drunk and the band’s womanizing. “It was a piss-take,” McKagan says. “Our audience was, like, three people when we wrote it. It was a joke on how it was really the opposite of that. And when we played it, with the people there around us, it was fun.”

Things are different now. The band is at its biggest point in decades, and only time will tell if Rose and McKagan’s wokeness will spill over into new GN’R music. The group has lined up several festival headlining slots for the fall and McKagan won’t rule out the possibility of a new album. “There’s things happening, some of it positive,” he says. “Everything is moving in a great direction. So I am really looking forward to phase two of this thing. I’d hate to say something in the press to fuck it up, so I just have to say, ‘It’s going great.’ In true Guns N’ Roses fashion, people are in the dark, and that’s kind of cool. It’ll happen when it happens.”

Shooter Jennings and Duff McKagan.

Shooter Jennings and Duff McKagan. Photo credit: Scott Dudelson

For now, McKagan is touring solo with a little help from Shooter Jennings. At a recent New York City gig, Jennings’ band played about an hour’s worth of country music, capped with a David Bowie cover, after which McKagan joined them. Dressed fully in black, like a skinny Johnny Cash, McKagan opened with Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion deep cut “You Ain’t the First” and played the entirety of Tenderness with some added fiddle, steel guitar and organ. Even though McKagan’s music was a little more country than what the crowd of middle-aged GN’R fans would likely see on a Monday night, the audience cheered on the musicianship.

“Some of the shows aren’t selling out,” Jennings says. “People don’t know what to fucking expect from this. I know that the people at the shows are gonna leave there and be like, ‘Fuck, dude. I’m so glad we saw that, because it’s such a cool gift.’ … And I feel like that in the back with the keys the whole time.”

McKagan and Jennings have known each other for years. Jennings is a GN’R superfan and found himself playing in a band on some of the same bills as Loaded nearly 20 years ago when he moved to L.A. “Duff has always been really, really nice to me, and I was a dumbass 20-something–year-old when he first met me,” Jennings says. But the pair didn’t realize they could work together until McKagan auditioned the country scion to be his producer on Tenderness. They clicked immediately when they got in the room together; Jennings wrote new turnarounds in McKagan’s songs and dug into their shared reference points, including the late New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders and an uncirculated version of Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli’s “Deepest Shade” — the latter of which, McKagan says, made Jennings teary-eyed. They’re now closing their shows with the song. Meanwhile, Jennings turned McKagan on to Willie Nelson’s Phases and Stages concept album as inspiration for how to pace Tenderness. “Shooter is just a perfect guy, and he’s kind of like a Phil Spector without the cocaine and the guns in the studio,” McKagan says. “He directs the band.”

Jennings, ever deferential, sees their partnership differently. “My favorite shit is when Bowie produced ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ and Transformer for Lou Reed,” he says. “Lou Reed was very resistant but once he got in there and Bowie has this clear vision and path, I think it’s one of the coolest records of all time. I felt my job was like that a little bit. I had to be the Bowie to his Lou Reed.” (Similarly, he says that when they play live, he feels like Bowie playing keys for Iggy Pop on The Idiot tour; he really likes Bowie.)

Regardless of how people take to the record, though, Jennings is excited to work with McKagan again on another album. “He has already sent me, like, a record’s worth of material,” Jennings says. “He and I are invested in our musical legacy with these records.”

McKagan, too, is dedicated to staying the course. At the New York show, he spelled out the themes of the album. When introducing “Parkland,” he dedicated it to the victims of the recent Virginia Beach mass shooting, and during the domestic-violence–themed “It Happened Last September,” he raised a middle finger while singing “His mama didn’t raise a man” to cheers from the crowd.

Ultimately, McKagan is unconcerned if he upsets or loses fans for speaking his mind on the album. “If someone on social media named ‘Al1234’ says something, is it going to affect me? Am I actually going to read it? No,” he says. “I don’t care about social media. I learned that from my experience of getting all caught up in it. I fell into the trap; Twitter is not very punk rock.

“So my music is pure art in its purest form,” he says. “I’ll know [how people receive it] if they come to my shows or don’t.”

 

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