Duff McKagan, rocking his 'Bernie' Les Paul, as the frontman for Loaded. © HERBERT P. OCZERET/epa/Corbis
"Personally, I'm settled and content right now," says Duff McKagan. "My home life is very stable, and that's the most important thing. My daughters are healthy, happy and well-adjusted. My wife and I have been together a long time. We've learned to keep all of the band drama and ups and downs that I go through separate from everything else."
Hearing his words, McKagan, a founding member of two fabulously trouble-plagued bands, Guns N' Roses and Velvet Revolver, who now leads his own group, the very even-keel Loaded, laughs and says, "Of course, it's only taken me 25 years to figure all of this out. But hey, I'm an adult now - I'd better learn how to deal with things. It'd be pretty pathetic if I didn't.
"I will say this, though: martial arts really helps. Practicing martial arts completely puts me in a state of mind where I can look at what's going on clearly. Basically, I'm a pretty lucky guy to have survived so much crap. You have to get smart if you want to stick around. The alternative isn't good."
McKagan is pumped about The Taking, the third full-length album he's recorded with Loaded (the disc is due to drop on 19 April), and with good reason: it's the group's most cohesive and hard-hitting effort to date. Cut in just over a week in Seattle with noted producer Terry Date (Soundgarden, Pantera, Screaming Trees, among others), it's full of hooky, rousing anthems like We Win and darker-edged rockers such as Executioner's Song.
McKagan trades in his usual bass to sing and play guitar in Loaded, which is also comprised of Mike Squires (guitar), Jeff Rouse (bass) and new member Isaac Carpenter, who assumed the drum throne in late 2009. "It's a great mix of guys," McKagan says. "We work hard at what we do but we try not to make it feel like work. I think that energy comes through on the album."
MusicRadar sat down with McKagan yesterday to talk about what's going on in the land of Loaded. But there was much more to discuss: his recent stint with Jane's Addiction, the status of the still-singerless Velvet Revolver and, of course, Guns N' Roses. Polite, witty and humble, the renowned musician and journalist (for years he's penned a column for the SeattleWeekly.com and also writes about finance for Playboy.com) was thoughtful and extremely candid. "With all the things I've done and experienced, I know how to do an interview," he says with a laugh.
The Taking is a great album. It doesn't feel like Loaded is a side band anymore; this is the work of a full-time, dedicated group of guys, clearly enjoying themselves..
"It is. I'll tell you, it's pretty cool the way the band has progressed. When I formed Loaded in 1999, it was this safe, tucked-away thing for me. And now, suddenly, it's my band. It's my only band. It's what I do. We came off the road after our last album, Sick, and we had all of these riffs and some whole songs, and we were like, 'Hey, let's get into the studio and make another record.' Which is what we did."
You've stated that The Taking is a concept record. How so?
"It's a concept record that revealed itself just before we started mixing. What happened was, during our last tour, there was a guy on the bus - I don't want to say who - and we're friends with him and his wife. Unfortunately, there was a fracture in their marriage, and we watched the whole thing deteriorate. We couldn't take his side, because his wife is our friend, too. So we had to witness everything in a Zen Buddhist kind of way."
A happy bunch. Loaded are (left to right), Mike Squires, Isaac Carpenter, McKagan and Jeff Rouse. © Lance Mercer
"I don't know if we realized at the time how their relationship was affecting us, but ultimately it did. Watching the lies and the deceit and the anger…we took it all in. The end of their story is that they divorced and reconciled as good friends. But the entire ordeal informed the darkness of the album. We didn't go into the recording like, 'Let's write an album about this.' But it is what happened. So I don't know if it's a 'concept record' so much as it's an 'absorbing life' record."
To my ears, there's a bit of an old-school Seattle sound to the record. Intentional?
"No. No, not at all. I've never done anything intentional as far as music goes. I wouldn't even know how. [laughs] I think if there's a 'Seattle sound' on this record, it really has to do with how Terry Date mikes up amps. That's the sound of Studio X in Seattle, where all of those important records were done. The size of the room, the board…it just gets in there. As far as the riffs and songs, we wrote all over the world, so it wasn't like we were sitting in Seattle going, 'Yeah…let the rain soak in!'" [laughs]
What made you go with Terry Date as a producer?
"He just wanted to do it, man. He was really excited about the demos, and he really believed in the band. He said he'd get us Studio X for 11 days for next to nothing. So all of that was cool. We were like, 'OK, you're on!' [laughs]
"You know, even though people know who I am, Loaded isn't a major-label band that can spend $100,000 or $200,000 making a record. Terry came in as something of a partner. There was a lot of energy going on in the room, like we were in on something together. You can feel the caffeine and adrenaline - so there's the Seattle for you! [laughs] But Terry was awesome. He even said to us, 'You don't have to pay me. I'll go back-end.' More and more, I think that's how it's going to work with bands and producers."
I know you referenced the personal nature of the album, but a few of the songs, such as We Win, have an overtly political tone. Has your blogging affected your songwriting?
"It all affects everything. Everything I read and witness, it's all there. It's funny: I remember when Slash and I went out to do press for Velvet Revolver in 2004, and people in Europe were asking me, 'So, do you think John Kerry's going to win?' And at the time, I had just gotten out of college [Duff earned a Bachelor's degree in Finance from Seattle University], so I was with America's youth, you know? So I was like, 'Yeah, Kerry's going to win.' Of course, we all know what happened with that election.
"It was strange becoming this bumbling ambassador for America in 2004. When you're in a band, you're like a world citizen. It just happens. I do try to read as much as possible, and not just about America - I read about countries like Africa, as well. I take it all in. But I wouldn't describe myself as overtly political."
For much of your career, you've been a team player. "The guy on the right side of the side" is how you've described yourself. How different is it for you to be a frontman?
"It's not different anymore. I've been fronting a band since 1999. I've done hundreds of shows now as the frontman, so it's not new. Yes, I love playing the bass, so there is a comfort zone to that. But I'm totally at home fronting Loaded. Put it this way: if you've played hundreds of shows and you don't feel right, then you're doing something wrong." [laughs]
I've seen you playing Les Pauls with Loaded. Are those your go-to guitars?
"I am, but I'm also playing Fenders. I have a Fender signature bass, I've played their instruments for a million years. I was at the NAMM Show, and their new A&R guy asked me why I wasn't playing Fender guitars for Loaded. I was honest with him and said, 'They're a little light for my sound. I can't play a Strat or a Tele in Loaded - they just don't work.
"He told me about this new Jim Root Telecaster and said they could put some Seymour Duncan humbuckers in there. Would I want to try it? I said, sure, no obligation. And I'll tell you, it's fantastic. I used it on this ZZ Top tribute record that Loaded is a part of. We do a really hopped-up version of Under Pressure, and man, that Tele sounds awesome on it. It might be the best guitar I've ever played. So…I think now I play Teles, my Duff-ized Jim Root model. [laughs]
"But I do have a couple of 'Bernie' Les Pauls that I play. I've probably done over 200 gigs with them. Bernies are the Les Pauls you can't get in the States 'cause they're made in Japan. They're copies, really, but they're fantastic guitars. There's nothing that special about 'em, but they just smoke, man. Les Paul owners who know about these things get kind of jealous: 'Aw man, you've got a Bernie!' [laughs]
"If I lost one or it got stolen, I wouldn't be too bummed. It wouldn't be like losing a $20,000 guitar, or a '59 Tobacco Burst Les Paul, which I do happen to own. Wait…that came off as bragging, didn't it?"
"'Cause I didn't mean to sound like that. But I do have some really great old guitars. Thing is, you can't even leave those things around the house - you've got to put them in storage and get 'em insured and the whole deal."
Talk to me about the film that's going to accompany The Taking. I've heard it described as a cross between A Hard Day's Night and The Song Remains The Same [McKagan laughs]. I'm having trouble picturing that.
"Good. We've got a bunch of smart alecks in this band, but we've always got a really great, fucking weird sense of humor. In this movie, our drummer, Isaac, gets kidnapped by a former Soviet State henchman. We don't ever learn why he's kidnapped, but it's got something to do with goats. So he's gone, and we've got a gig that night. It's madcap and funny, but it might only speak to people who understand Spinal Tap - we'll have to see."
How much touring are you planning to do with Loaded this year?
"It all depends on how the record does. You can only tour when the people come. We're playing the Golden God Awards in April, which is a pretty big deal. We've got a great partner with Eagle [Rock Entertainment], who have already put more money into us than Century Media ever did. I'm going to do some stuff for VH1, and in turn they'll run some ads for the record. It's the day of partnerships, man."
"But we'll play all the festivals in Europe. We're doing some dates with Judas Priest, and this will be their last tour, so that's great. Because we've done a lot of festivals, we're getting better slots, better stages. We'll do some club gigs and probably a UK tour - the UK has always been a cool place for us to play - and then we'll dot the US as much as we can.
"The US is hard for a band like us. We're not a radio band; we're not Shinedown. US radio is a hard nut to crack. They play, like, 10 songs. If you get added into those 10 songs, it's cool. I don't know if Loaded is the type of band to get those adds."
Maybe you have to throw a temper tantrum like Chris Brown. It's worked for him.
"I could, yeah. I could go on some Twitter rants." [laughs]
What would have happened with Loaded had you stayed with Jane's Addiction?
"OK, here's the deal with that: I was writing with Jane's Addiction. I never joined the band, though, and that was the biggest misconception. I saw it starting to happen, and I told the guys, 'Look, I'm just here to help you with the record. That's my deal. That's what you asked me to do, and that's what I'm doing.'"
You never intended to become a member per se?
"I wasn't planning on it. If it would have happened naturally, I would have considered it. [pauses] They have to make a great record, or else… See, they're poised. They're poised to make a huge comeback. There's a need for a band like that. So, basically, I was there to help them in whatever way I could.
"I've been a fan of Jane's Addiction for many years. I really respect them. But I didn't want it to become this thing, like, 'Oh, the guy from Guns N' Roses is now in Jane's Addiction! The joining of two scenes!' None of that shit. I know it happens, and I've been around. I'm not a dummy. That whole thing could've really gotten in the way of making a great record."
Am I right to assume that you left at the time you originally planned?
"Yes! You just got it right. I went in help them write and recorded some songs with them. But I had a Loaded record to make, and I told them that. They were cool with it. Nobody was mean or anything. I know something came out in the press last week about Perry Farrell, but I don't think he said that - "
McKagan and Slash, almost "Unplugged," in 2003. © Scott Nathan/Corbis
"Oh, you know…something about me leaving Jane's because I was annoyed with them - I'm paraphrasing. These things happen. But the most important thing is that I had a wonderful experience with those guys. I got to play a couple of gigs and played all of those amazing Eric Avery bass lines. That was great, and it made me a better bass player."
Let's talk about Velvet Revolver. I spoke with Slash before the holidays, and he indicated to me that things would be figured out soon. [McKagan laughs] Then, around the start of 2011, rumors circulated that [Slipknot and Stone Sour singer] Corey Taylor might be the new vocalist.
"We recorded a bunch of songs with Corey. I think he's fucking great. Whether he's in Velvet Revolver or not…'cause I'm at a point where I can see things with a bigger view, you know, it's not all about me… I think he's the best voice of a new generation. The best rock 'n' voice out there. He's got a lot of positive energy. I'd be proud to do anything with him.
"But the truth is…I can't see Velvet Revolver happening till fall, maybe. Slash is touring, I'm just starting to tour… We'll just see. Joe, I just don't have an answer. I don't."
On to another group - Guns N' Roses. Last year, you played with the band in England, but afterwards - and I want to make sure I get this right - you said that you felt it was a mistake to have done so.
"It wasn't a mistake. Everything happens in life for a reason. See, I have a another business that has nothing to do with music at all, and my partners are with a London-based firm. As a result, I go to London from time to time. So I'm in London on a business trip, and the hotel manager is showing me and my wife to our room. Nothing's odd at all, everything's fine. Then the manager says to me, 'You're playing tonight.' And I'm like, 'No, I'm not playing.' He looked at me strangely, and then he said, 'Is it going to be a problem if your room is next to Axl's?' And I said, 'No, there won't be any problem.' At that moment, I said to myself, 'This is the time when it's gonna happen, that he and I reconnect.'
"You know, say what you want, but some of us guys went through a bunch of shit together. You can't take that away, and you can't put yourself in our positions. People have quipped wise about our situation, but what it comes down to is that you're in a room with a guy you went to fucking war with. Everybody said we wouldn't make it, that we sucked. We played gigs to three people. But we believed in ourselves and we got huge, and we went through all of that together, too.
"I hadn't talked to Axl in some time, but you know… I'm a grown-up. Martial arts has really taught me how to deal with a lot of things. The biggest thing is, Don't be a pussy. Not just with that situation, but in general - in life."
If my calculations are correct, next year Guns N' Roses are eligible to be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
"Yeah, there are a lot of 'ifs' in that…"
McKagan, flanked by former GN'R bandmates, drummer Steven Adler and guitarist Izzy Stradlin, celebrating the 20th anniversary of Appetite For Destruction in 2007. © Jared Milgrim/Corbis
If GN'R makes it in, do you think the band would show up?
"I…[long pause] Fuck if I know, man! Joe, I know your thing hits a lot of people. You're a well-read guy. I mean, people read you a lot - I don't know if you're well-read.
I like to think I am.
"Are you? Well-read, I mean…"
"Have you read Suttree?"
Oh, well, I've read some of his other works. All The Pretty Horses, No Country For Old Men…"
"You have got to read Suttree. It's the book. It took him 27 years to write. It's a journey. Anyhow, I know a lot of people read you, so I have to be careful with some of my words. Not that I can't open up to you, I have before…But with this Hall Of Fame thing…I'd be lying to you if I said I didn't know it was coming. I've been made aware of it. I don't sit around and do the calculations: 'Oh yeah, the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, that's where I gotta be…'
"So yeah, I guess we could be eligible. But I think it's a real 'cross-that-bridge-when-you-come-to-it' kind of thing. I haven't done any thorough thinking about it or reaching out to anyone about it.
"My only experience with the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame was when VR played it and we were inducting Van Halen. That whole band was supposed to be there, including David Lee Roth - we were going to do a song with him. It all started falling apart in the two weeks leading up to the gig. It was sad to watch…
"We were just the innocent band that was there to play Van Halen songs, and we saw their whole thing crumble. To see Michael Anthony and Sammy Hagar show up, when it was supposed to be everybody... Michael and Sammy were really cool guys and good sports about it, but they took all the heat over the situation. A lot of heat.
"I don't know if I want to set myself up for heat. It's going to be a debacle, isn't it? A press debacle. I just don't know what else to say about it, Joe. I have to come up with some good quotes!" [laughs]