Duff McKagan on GN'R, VR, Loaded and more
Duff McKagan is a busy man. His time with Guns N’ Roses ensured that he will forever be a rock legend, but he’s not a man to rest on his legacy.
He’s just hit the UK with his punk rock outfit Loaded; he’s an author, penning last year’s smash hit It’s So Easy and Other Lies; and he’s soon to become a film maker as a documentary based around said tome is set to go into production. He’s even gone all showbiz and presented the Classic Rock Awards earlier this month.
A very busy dude, indeed. In fact, he’s so busy that when we called him for our planned interview he was just about to perform with a fellow icon.
“I’m about to get up on stage and play School’s Out with Alice Cooper in about two minutes,” he tells us. “But hey, let’s do this now!”
And that’s exactly what we did, as we harked back to some of Duff’s finest moments, right up to the point where he was dragged away from the phone and onto the stage.
Appetite For Destruction
The world’s introduction to Duff, and an album that would change not only the lives of five punks skulking around the streets of Los Angeles, but also the musical landscape all around the world. As Duff recalls, it was an album honed in the clubs of Hollywood.
“That was maybe the only record I’ve ever made, probably that any of us have ever made, where you were out playing those songs in clubs and you were writing them and improving on them for a whole year and a half or whatever it was before we made the record. That probably runs common through every band’s first record. We were very confident, we knew those songs backwards and forwards and we had found the guy in Mike Clink that could really just capture our sound straight from our amps, simply from our amps onto tape. That’s just what we sounded like at that time, it was great.
“The songs were strong to us, we knew we had made the record that we wanted to make. But as far as knowing that it would do well on a huge scale, I don’t think anybody knew that. It goes to prove that you’ve got to write and record the songs that satisfy you first and on those songs we captured our thing, that’s our f***in’ thing.”
A year later, and while the world waited for the full follow-up to Appetite, GN’R dropped the Lies EP, which included four acoustic tracks recorded over a handful of stripped-back sessions. Duff tells us that the band’s writing style meant they were well prepared for putting out an acoustic collection.
“The thing is, a lot of songs like Nightrain, a lot of our songs from Appetite For Destruction we wrote on an acoustic first in the apartments we were living in. In our little rooms we’d sit and write on an acoustic guitar and then you’d carry them on to cranking them loud. But we were always playing on acoustic guitars and I think there was probably always a romance with that and Exile on Main Street and that kind of thing. We would play acoustics all the time on the road. We had our chops and were confident in the acoustic arena.”
Use Your Illusion
And here’s where things really got crazy. On 17 September 1991, Guns released Use Your Illusion I and II, a pair of huge, genre-spanning records that topped the charts around the globe and sent them on a mammoth world tour, a spirit-sapping jaunt that would ultimately blow the band to pieces.
“Again, we knew that we had a bunch of songs. I don’t think we felt pressure for commercial success, but I do remember a couple of times when we first started tracking and suddenly we were this huge band and I’d think, ‘Oh s***, a couple million people potentially will hear me hitting this next note on my bass. F***!’ You can’t let that get into your head.
“We were young dudes, probably 25 or 26 at that point. We did it with Mike Clink again so we were in a comfortable environment. We had a bunch of songs, obviously, we thought that we had got a really great strong album and then we just kept on recording and thought, ‘You know, maybe we’ve got two albums!’”
13 long years after the release of Use Your Illusion, and a decade on from the demise of GN’R, Duff reunited with Slash and Matt Sorum, linking up with Dave Kushner and Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland to form Velvet Revolver. The gang mentality that was key to Guns’ success was back in full force. Today, Duff acknowledges the importance of being a tight-knit fighting unit.
“It has worked for things that I do. I think if everybody believes in the thing together and has a part in it then it is going to make a much stronger unit and you do become more of a gang. You’ve got each other’s back and it’s a formidable presence. It’s not like you’re trying to be tough but it just comes off that way because you’re all on the same page.
“When it got out that Slash and I and Matt were playing together again, there was a lot of…we’d kind of put the blinders on because there was a lot of talk. ‘Oh, what are those guys doing? Did they get a singer?’ We had got used to just drowning everything out, so there wasn’t pressure, we knew that we had some great songs, we knew that we had a great band. By the time we got into the studio we were confident. We didn’t know if it was going to be big or not, but if you’re making the record that you want to make, it doesn’t matter if it’s big or small, it’s a piece of time that you got onto audio somehow and it is exactly as you had hoped.
“Set Me Free was the first song that we did together. It just felt right. We had the song and then Scott stepped in and it was like, ‘There is the missing piece.’ It felt right and we thought, ‘Oh, we can go play anywhere now, this could be a thing right now.’ It was interesting and different and not what people would probably expect and that’s always cool.”
Since the onset of Velvet Revolver’s ongoing hiatus, Duff has concentrated on his punk project Loaded. While he’s aware that the band is unlikely to ever shift the millions that he has effortlessly sold in the past, he is completely at ease with where Loaded are today, and where they’re heading.
“It is being satisfied with the recording and how we got the song across. That doesn’t always correlate into commercial success but it isn’t any less satisfactory to us as a band. We can still go out and play these songs and have a handful of people that love our band and see the band as we see it, just this force. It thrives on a much smaller scale than Guns N’ Roses or VR, but it still does thrive and that’s cool. It grows.
“The Taking is the first record I’ve ever done with Terry Date, which was really cool. We’re both Seattle guys and he has done some shredding records and some really angry, intense records and I had some songs that fell into that grouping so off we went with Terry. It’s a record that it’s safe to assume will never get much commercial airplay or anything like that, but that’s ok.”
It's So Easy and Other Lies
Which brings us back to Duff’s bursting at the seams schedule. Just before our chat it was announced that his autobiography, It’s So Easy and Other Lies, is to be turned into a documentary.
“We have to film it first. I think the film company got a little ahead of themselves, but that’s what they do, they announce. So we’re going to film a book show that I’ve done in Seattle and then break off from parts of the book and not make a talking head documentary, but make something artistic, cool and different and hopefully a piece of art in itself.
“There always seems to be lots going on even when you think at 48 you’ll have everything under control and everything will be mellow. Well, it’s not, it’s not mellow right now. Maybe when I’m 58!”