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Please feel free to look around the forum as a guest, I hope you will find something of interest. If you want to join the discussions or contribute in other ways then you need to become a member. We especially welcome anyone who wants to share documents for our archive or would be interested in translating or transcribing articles and interviews.

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2023.10.23 - Paste Magazine - Duff McKagan Finds His Light

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2023.10.23 - Paste Magazine - Duff McKagan Finds His Light Empty 2023.10.23 - Paste Magazine - Duff McKagan Finds His Light

Post by Blackstar Mon Oct 23, 2023 11:41 pm

Duff McKagan Finds His Light

The Guns N’ Roses bassist on telling other peoples’ stories, finding love, hope and truth during COVID and his new album, Lighthouse.

By Matt Mitchell

Duff McKagan is still the same rowdy punk with a million-dollar smirk that he was 40 years ago—well, mostly. Before achieving immortality as one-fourth of Guns N’ Roses, he cut his teeth on the bass stylings of Lemmy Kilmister and Paul Simonon and Randy Rampage and learned how to make music through listening to Prince’s 1999, McKagan has drifted in and out of chaos, fast-living, generational tunes and near-death experiences. He’s one of rock ‘n’ roll’s last great journeymen, having been the rhythmic conductor and pace-setter on the greatest hair metal album of all time (Appetite for Destruction) and a conspirer in some of the toughest and loudest supergroups of the last three decades—including Velvet Revolver, Loaded, Neurotic Outsiders and the Gentlemen, to name a few. McKagan almost died from acute pancreatitis catalyzed by alcoholism in 1994 and got sober soon after. Now, having outlived the curses and benders of the Reagan-era Sunset Strip, he’s just released his most important rock project yet, the impressive and beautiful Lighthouse.

I hop on a Zoom call with McKagan on an off-day between GN’R shows in Lexington, Kentucky. He’s hanging out in his hotel room, making sure that his camera paints his side-profile in a good light. Perhaps this is your first time hearing that the Seattle musician is also a solo artist, or that he, uncharacteristically, plays guitar on the work he makes under his own name. While he still maintains his longtime role as a bassist in a renowned, hall of fame rock band, his Duff McKagan racket is a pretty damn good one. It transcends a side hustle at this point; it is the hustle. Building on influences ranging from Mark Lanegan’s acoustic stylings to the instrumental diversity of The Stranglers to the risk-taking of Prince, McKagan honed his self-taught finger-picking and has parlayed it into two beautiful, off-the-beaten path (at least for him and his punk and hair metal roots) albums, Tenderness and Lighthouse.

In the original Guns N’ Roses run, from Appetite for Destruction to The Spaghetti Incident?, McKagan amassed some songwriting credits here and there. Now, however, he’s got this mode he can pivot to and be the sole voice. He recorded 60 songs for Lighthouse, but only 10 are seeing the light of day right now. It was just him and his longtime producer Martin Feveyear, alone, cranking out a record during COVID. It’s a different cosmos entirely from the work he’s most famous for, the big-budget, loud, quintet brilliance that colored the legacy of rock ‘n’ roll for a lifetime. But, to arrive at this place where his solo work is such a bright, moving endeavor, McKagan had to, first, perfect his place in the company of talented peers and friends. He had to, first, learn what it meant to make a record and take the stage with four other people who shared a trust with one another. And then, he had to keep teaching himself new ways to keep all of that alive.

“You’ve gotta be good at being in a band and serving the band. That’s your gig,” McKagan explains. “Any younger rockers, listen to this: Be about serving your band and not fucking trying to get off some licks every time you can. I love being in a band, that’s what I wanted when I was a teenager—I wanted to be in a band, serve my part in the band, have that band be a greater expression of the individuals. But doing it myself is a whole thing. I love creating songs from beginning to end myself. I know what background vocals, almost immediately, I want to put on it. I know how I’d like the drum kit to sound—which is always, to me, ELO/Jeff Lynne drum sounds. I tried to achieve that, haven’t achieved it yet. I’ve gotten better at recording and better at guitar playing. I’ve been doing it for a long time. I practice and I record a lot. You tend to get better at things, and I’ve really been working for the last 30 years at finding my place in my singing voice. But, at the end of the day, you’ve got to write music for yourself. And, if it sounds good to you, hopefully it sounds good to somebody else.”

McKagan put out his first solo album, Believe in Me, in 1993, just two months before Guns N’ Roses would put out The Spaghetti Incident?, their last record featuring him on it. That record, though, was a pretty close-knit extension of McKagan’s work in his longtime band, as he called upon folks like Slash, Matt Sorum, Dizzy Reed, Gilby Clarke, Sebastian Bach, Jeff Beck and Lenny Kravitz to help fill out the arrangements. Believe in Me peaked at #137 on the Billboard 200 and sold over 100,000 copies; it was a bonafide, stone-cold hard rock bruiser that couldn’t be further away from what McKagan is doing now, and it’s likely he didn’t foresee this kind of solo career spawning from that project. Tenderness became, in many ways, a reinvention—as if, after years of being in one of the biggest bands in the world, he had to go back to square one. It takes me back to when McKagan was bright-eyed and rebellious, playing in a punk band called The Living and opening gigs for Hüsker Dü and D.O.A., just climbing the industry ladder slowly and surviving and making a name for himself by getting up on stage every night. All of it still influences him in 2023, especially with the construction of each song on a molecular, technical level.

“Even writing a song like ‘Lighthouse’—three chords,” McKagan says. “Susan and I have a radio show, we call it Three Chords & The Truth. We try to play songs that we think are honest rock ‘n’ roll songs. Once I started playing bass, once Guns really started happening, [I said], ‘Okay, I am a bass player. I’m not a guitar player, I’m not a drummer. I’m a bass player in this band. Those performances I saw—and the way that songwriting was approached—it was just these guys, bleeding hearts and these great three-chord fucking songs. How do you get so much melody out of that? It’s beautiful. When I sit down to write a song, I think of that. I don’t need a bunch of riffs. I don’t need to make a hard rock record right now. I play hard rock every other night. It’s a great band, I can’t compete with that—and I don’t want to. I’ve been leaning towards going this way since the early 2000s. And, finally, with Tenderness, I got Shooter [Jennings] and I’m like, ‘Dude, I want to go this whole other direction.’”

Lighthouse begins in a place of love, with a title track that was written as an ode to Susan Holmes, McKagan’s wife of 24 years. Where other moments on the record are subjective, “Lighthouse” and “Fallen” are two explicit, wholehearted depictions of devotion and reciprocated care and affection between two people who saved each other. But Lighthouse is an album born out of the forced closeness we all faced during the pandemic, and McKagan used moments on the tracklist to articulate just how much he and Susan saved each other again during COVID.

“I try to be somewhat reserved with my lyric writing and, sometimes, have a few meanings—none are wrong,” McKagan explains. “But ‘Lighthouse,’ I wrote as my wife being the lighthouse, my life. Our kids are grown, and she and I have been through so much stuff together. And then we got a worldwide pandemic that we were going through together. The way she really supported me—I had just got my own studio right before COVID started, and I had recorded two songs. I was supposed to be off on a Guns N’ Roses tour and, of course, that all came crumbling down. I really realized, with her, in our time when when you’re not in contact with other people, it was just her and I thought, ‘Fuck, man, we’re solid.’ We’d heard about people splitting up during COVID; we got drawn closer to each other during that [time]. I’m a fortunate guy, to have met her, that girl, Susan Holmes, when I was 32, two years into sobriety—because there was something that clicked and, hopefully, for both of us, that really has made my life make sense. Even in the darkest times, even when I’m suffering a panic attack or some other malady, I still know I have her.”

Enveloped in-between those chapters of love and partnership are earnest, empathetic reflections on survival and injustice. Lighthouse is, at its core, a political record—but not explicitly so. McKagan calls the societal and global issues unfolding around us “malarkey” but, on the album, he paints vivid and precise portraits of disparity that he’s encountered. On Tenderness in 2019, he visited the Jungle in his hometown of Seattle so he could honestly write about homelessness and addiction. They were moving accounts, told only by someone who’s had such an intimate history with it—and McKagan delivered that to us without missing a hitch. On Lighthouse, the work moves farther beyond his own backyard, as he ruminates on global conflicts in Ukraine and Afghanistan. On “I Saw God on 10th St.,” he sings about conspiracy theories and religion and who gets the privilege to repent their way to eternal forgiveness and who doesn’t; on “Just Another Shakedown,” he casts admonishment on how the rich suits in Washington and in statehouses across America use poor families and folks as pawns in their ladder-climb to the very top; on “Hope,” which features his longtime bandmate Slash, he questions the relationship between faith and fear and its convergence in war, before landing on images of children becoming our beacons of hope that we can, if we put our hearts into it, prevent from falling victim to the cyclical violence that is ongoing.

“I’ve always considered myself, even when I was drinking and even in my 20s, an intellect,” McKagan says. “I would travel to places, other countries—and I get to do that, and I’ve gotten to do it for a long time now, since the ‘80s. What I’ve started to figure out what to do, in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, is observe—observe other cultures. On tour, you’d hear other people [say] ‘Oh, these fucking Spanish, why don’t they just speak English?’ or some bullshit, whatever. I would just observe and try to learn languages. And then we’d start going to Islamic countries and Israel, it’s really cool to observe, man.”

McKagan has a pretty receptive outlook on what his place is in all of this. He plays bass in a band that, back in 1988, came under great fire for using racial and homophobic slurs in the song “One in a Million.” 30 years later, the song was cut from the Appetite for Destruction box set completely. Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose also became one of the loudest (and, possibly, most unlikely) opponents of Donald Trump during his presidency. McKagan has gone on record in the past as explaining that “One in a Million” has never been a reflection of the band’s real views, that it’s a story told from a bigoted protagonist. His appreciation for the world he gets to play music for upholds that continuity and rebels against the de-humanizing pedagogy that much of our world is built on. It’s a real treasure to watch musicians you’ve long adored grow up, too, and not harden their morals in a cast of regression. It seems that McKagan—and Guns N’ Roses as a unit—are fully capitalizing on just how uniting music can, and should, be—and that bleeds into his own solo work.

“To be able to write about some things, I also noticed, in the same breath, that we will play these other places—you play in Little Rock, Arkansas—and there’s this guy with the hat on and the wife beater, he’s got his devil horns up, just rocking out, lost in ‘Paradise City,’ just lost in having his best life,” McKagan adds. “And then you go and play Kuala Lumpur and you see a woman totally covered up [in a tudong], she’s got her devil horns up in the air, she’s having her best life during ‘Paradise City’ as well. Music is so universal and upbringing. Politics are left outside the door when you come to one of our shows. It’s just about celebrating music, these rock songs in particular. When I songwrite, I take all of these things into consideration.”

These moments have become so formative for McKagan that he’s considering putting the focus of his next book onto a woven tapestry of culture, travel and observations—a real tour diary that sprawls far beyond green rooms and highways in-between gigs. The bassist is a journalist to the bone, having written columns for Seattle Weekly, ESPN and Playboy while on the road. He’d work on his articles while heading to the next city on the itinerary, writing on his BlackBerry or on ferry rides or at makeshift desks on tour buses. Though he’s always been a reading buff, McKagan’s interest in literary work was sparked while he was attending Seattle University’s Albers School of Business and Economics 20 years ago.

“It was another place for me to express and get things out and observe,” he says. “When you’re writing a column, when you’re writing 1,000 or 4,000 words, you’ve got to observe. ‘Am I telling the truth here? Or did I just lie to myself on my Word document?’ That’s fucking lame, then you’ve got to rewrite that stuff. You really get to the bare bones of your meaning or yourself. Writing my book, It’s So Easy, I was writing pages and pages of lies. I had to erase so much stuff. I’d be sitting between my little girls like, ‘That’s not what happened’ after 2,000 words. ‘That’s not how that happened, be honest.’ We all tell ourselves a better history of our lives. I think it’s universal. Well, it’s human nature. You don’t want to live with that one sticky thing, so you might massage what happened before. And I found that I had done that. Writing columns for Seattle Weekly, I wrote on all kinds of topics—you’re writing for the public, you’ve got to be honest and you’ve got to make sure your facts are straight. Being that ‘1,000 words a week’ honest is a learning process.”

On Lighthouse, there’s a bit of a spiritual undercurrent going on—but McKagan isn’t preaching anything. Instead, he’s telling his story and he’s telling other peoples’ stories; there’s a real equilibrium of narrative ownership, though he doesn’t put his foot in his mouth by cooking up some half-baked solution. There are no embellishments, just visions and transcripts. He’s always operated on the idea that a songwriter gives the listener the tools to go out and be motivated enough to change the equity of those around them. He’s a vessel of possibility, not an endgame steadfast in one mode of salvation—and, really, he just wants to see the common goodness in the folks who cross into his orbit.

“People talk about the ‘great divide’ in America and, sure, it’s fucking weirder than I’ve ever seen it, in 59 years,” McKagan says. “But it’s not as stark as cable news would lead you to believe. I go out into all parts of our country and go out and walk around. This morning, I walked to the capitol building or into the Mary Todd Lincoln house. You’ve got to get out and walk around and talk to people. And I do, and people are just fucking people, man. Most of them are pretty badass. Hopefully, in my songwriting, I elevate some issues, elevate some situations to a place where we can all, maybe, look at them with a view of, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s all this is. And, maybe, that makes some people feel better or it brings us all to the same level. We have more in common with each other in this current country by far than what separates us.”

Tenderness, was done with Jennings as a producer—and you can hear how his country and outlaw roots affected the bassist, especially in how much of a stripped-down risk the whole record became. When he took the music on tour, some of the non-Chicago and New York dates didn’t sell out (but were well-attended) and folks hadn’t so quickly bought into the work—possibly because they were expecting it to be some kind of Guns N’ Roses offshoot and not this bold, Western-inspired folk setup. He’d take the stage at supper clubs with tables and lit candles set out before him, a massive departure from the arenas he’s been shredding in for four decades. At this point, though, especially in his sobriety, McKagan isn’t much interested in whether or not his listeners find his new directions copacetic or not. He knows the folks who dig the ambition and the tunes will show out, and he’s keeping his own interests and his own identity autonomous in the process.

“Listen, I’m doing a whole kind of new music. For anyone to show up? I’m stoked,” he says. “At the end of that tour, going through Europe, I think it started catching on. I don’t know what to expect with [Lighthouse], as far as audiences and expectations of me. I’d given that stuff up a long time ago. In my 20s, everyone said ‘It’s Duff from Guns N’ Roses,’ so I identified as Duff from Guns N’ Roses for about two years of my really bad drinking and drugging. And, when I got sober, out of the hospital bed, literally, I was like, ‘Who the fuck am I? It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of me. I gotta take care of me first and figure out who I am.’ Once I really started doing that, with some honesty and whatnot, what to expect of me is what it is. I’m going to do what I do.”

And, in turn, Lighthouse is exactly what McKagan wanted to do—a tremendous, surrendering folk record packed with affirmations for our guiding forces, our relationships to personal afflictions and the global disparities that surround us. It’s a tender and unabashed record left with open-ended warmth towards folks just trying to survive—McKagan included. You can tell that the pandemic greatly affected him and his understanding of what power storytelling has in our interactions with the people around us. Lighthouse is an emotional, personal and spiritual reckoning, a monumental moment for a musician with 40 years’ worth of achievements. The world around McKagan is larger-than-life—a feat that feels impossible for a guy who has spent his entire adult life expanding the shapes and sounds of venues and albums and music altogether. But, when Lighthouse concludes, it’s as if that world has shrunk into something familiar and, perhaps, newly hopeful.

I look up to McKagan, mainly for the transparency he employs in the life he chooses to share with everyone else. Ever since he damn near died from pancreatitis in 1994, when his alcohol use caused his pancreas to swell and ooze digestive enzymes throughout his body, he’s kept folks in the know about his sobriety and, most especially, his bouts with panic attacks. In “I Just Don’t Know,” he works through his own faults, like dropping out of high school. He questions how much time we have left to right our wrongs and what it means to outlive the rest of our loved ones. “Holy Water” uses drinking metaphors to make sense of how we hurt others. I can’t help but ask McKagan if that approach to honesty is something there could be more of in rock ‘n’ roll. Of course, in Duff McKagan fashion, he’s not much interested in being a spokesman for everyone else—instead opting to put his story into the hands of others and let them use it to help make sense of their own.

“I do the little things that I do, just because I feel it’s right. I live in a situation where, my wife and two daughters, what happens in the four walls of our house, everything stems from that—so you’ve got to be a badass at home. Show your kids that you have integrity, caring and sensitivity. Once I get outside of the four walls of that house, that’s still with me. I feel like I gotta be sensitive. I hear about a lot of people suffering and I just hope that, maybe, a guy with a little bit of notoriety like myself, who people might think they have preconceptions of me—all of a sudden, I’m raising my hand up, going, ‘Hey, I suffered this and that and this, so you’re not alone. I got you.’ It’s effective in my little world that I’m in. It’s good, I think, for my daughters to see me being honest out there in public, as well.”

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