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Welcome to Appetite for Discussion -- a Guns N' Roses fan forum!

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.

Registering is free and easy.


2024.06.05 - The Line of Best Fit - Duff McKagan's Personal Best

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2024.06.05 - The Line of Best Fit - Duff McKagan's Personal Best Empty 2024.06.05 - The Line of Best Fit - Duff McKagan's Personal Best

Post by Blackstar Fri Jun 07, 2024 6:59 am

Duff McKagan's Personal Best

Words by Steven Loftin

From his glam-haired rhythm section tenure in behemoth group Guns N’ Roses to his earnest and honest solo output, Duff McKagan reflects on his growth to Steven Loftin.

45 minutes with Duff McKagan pass like five. As the inner workings of a bonafide rock staple work themselves out before you, it’s beyond evident that saying McKagan’s life is music would be an incredible understatement.

For the best part of six decades, the songwriter, bassist, writer, broadcaster, financier, and just about anything else he fancies turning his hand to, has been a transient figure. Taking himself from a burgeoning punk scene in his hometown of Seattle in such cherished groups such as The Fartz and 10 Minute Warning – where he rubbed shoulders and shared spots with the likes of Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt and Pearl Jam members Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament – eventually down to LA in the ‘80s, it was here that he met up with a now-famed gang of ruffians, forming one of rock music’s immovable titans.

Through the LA hard rock scene with Guns N’ Roses, he made it out the other side of stadiums and clubs (including founding post-millennium hard rock revivalists Velvet Revolver with Guns bandmate Slash, alongside late Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland), as well as an endless list of collaborators and icons who’ve sought McKagan’s touch, from Iggy Pop and Ozzy Osbourne to Macy Gray. Becoming a renowned voice for sobriety and general wellbeing, his two memoirs - It's So Easy (And Other Lies) (2011), and How to Be a Man (And Other Illusions) (2015) - are personally cherished tomes that feature everything from addiction to raising children and masculinity. Suffice it to say, McKagan has seen it all.

His most recent output was his third studio album, Lighthouse, last October – with an expanded version released earlier this year. On top of that, he’s celebrating the fifth anniversary of his second solo album Tenderness with a live version recorded in 2019, as well as an upcoming US tour. It’s here he excitedly sparks up with some classic McKagan hometown pride: “I’ve got a really good band, it’s an exclusive Seattle-guys band this time around,” he says. “There’s so many good players in Seattle, that I'm excited to bring that out and go, ‘This is what we have in Seattle’. They're all killer.”

The morning I speak to him from his home, he’s spent it curating his radio playlist with his wife for the show they cohost on Planet Rock (Three Chords & The Truth) – it would seem that life for McKagan is good.

Having penned pages on his life so far, McKagan is no stranger to delving into his past, warts and all. But it becomes apparent that, creatively speaking, being tasked with picking his choice cuts is a new endeavour for him. The way McKagan has navigated life is similar to his approach to his Personal Best. It’s a list of songs that string together his musical map, each plucked from his mind as an instant reaction to these segments of his life. “It's not often I get asked to pick five songs from my own catalogue. As a matter of fact, never,” he chuckles. “So I thought I would just do the first ones that came to my head, and these were the ones that came. I wasn't trying to paint a theme to them all.”

Across his selected output comes a story of a man with a dream that comes to fruition faster and blurrier than anyone could have imagined, as decades pass before it’s time to turn inwards. Even with a still as-yet unreleased solo album Beautiful Disease, set for release in 1996 after his ‘93 debut, Believe In Me, but was lost during his label’s merger, McKagan’s opinion on what his output is building is a wry shrug: “Shit, I don't know what I'm doing,” he laughs. “I'm writing songs. I'm writing the next song in front of me.” Being able to re-home one of these lost tracks (“Hope” featuring Slash) after finally getting his masters back in 2020, with the promise of more of this buried treasure surfacing, he reveals, “There's another song called ‘Undone’ from that batch that I may put on my next record, it's cool and it sounds like the shit I'm doing now. All I have to do is re-sing it so my voice sounds the same. This was in ‘96… I still had a lot of cocaine residue. I was 2 years sober, you can hear it, it's like, ‘Oh, Jesus. You sound like you have a cold!’ [Laughs]”

But with us passing through his musical journey in five songs, his personal development comes to light. He brings it all together: “I'm 60 now, so I can start to look back,” he mentions, the dots appearing that inevitably connected throughout his life. “And go, ‘Okay, that happened because of this and this and the other,’ right, and I'm very appreciative.” From physically listening to his instruments, to his ever-expanding songwriting craft that succinctly wraps up his musical life to date: “You discover all kinds of tricks, but they're not tricks… They’re just discoveries.”

“Welcome To The Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses

“‘Jungle’ was interesting for me to pick, in that it's one of the big hit singles off of Appetite. I was gonna go like, ‘Michelle’ or ‘Brownstone’ but I [thought] I’d go with ‘Jungle’ because the verse riff was the first riff that we wrote. We discovered our funky backbeat, and I think that was such an important element to Guns. I was listening to Cameo and Prince at that time and I think ‘Jungle’ was an attempt at getting that Cameo backbeat. It really influenced our songwriting from then on. You hear it on ‘Rocket Queen’, you hear it on that whole record – this funky, backbeat without trying to be too funky – and ‘Jungle’ was the first time where we had the ‘A-ha’ moment.”

BEST FIT: It’s interesting how those pieces came together: the metal, punk and funk influences, because ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ is the kind of song you could dance – or fight – to!

“Exactly. If you have the right groove, you can do anything. AC/DC’s early stuff, I've played that stuff, I played it with Angus [Young], so when I play something with an artist, I want to be at least as good as the record, right? So I'll go to school, and I'll study the artist, playing-wise, and then I'll play to it. And they were uncannily funky. If you break it down and go to school on AC/DC, the drums even make it more funky, like that single kick drum, and the bass is cool shit. You don't notice it until you study it. They make you want to fight too.

“With Guns, we could talk about the vocals, we could talk about the guitar playing, but I wanted to talk about the beat and the groove of that. There's Axl’s [Rose] vocals, guitar, all this stuff, but without the groove, none of that would have happened. So you got to start with the thing that got you there.”

Did having the level of backbeat you guys found surprise you?

"I mean, I grew up with a lot of Sly and the Family Stone. I gravitated to punk and to Motörhead, AC/DC and Thin Lizzy, MC5, The Stooges, but also Sly, Parliament, Prince – I was born in the right year that I was able to get into Prince while he was still on his first two records, you know, like, ‘Oh, shit, who's this guy who can play everything?’ It's kind of like Sly and the Family Stone, but it's kind of not at all – and it's cool. So I gravitated toward groovier shit and thinking, ‘How can I play that?’ You’ve got to play what you're comfortable with, but that's why it was important, to me, at least, that we found this groove that was legit. It wasn't some white dudes trying to be a funky group, it was just very legit swing.”

“Illegal i Song” by Velvet Revolver

“So it's called ‘Illegal i Song’. It doesn’t sound like it all, but at first, it reminded us of [Led Zeppelin’s] ‘Immigrant Song’, and that was the working title. We had so many songs at that point, because we had been writing way before we got Scott [Weiland] in the band, and there was this riff. Matt Sorum [drummer] was like, ‘Dude, I don't have a drum beat for this. I don't know what it's going to be. You play the drums.’ So Matt got on the bass, and I played the drums. I can't play what Matt played, but I insinuated a few things. It was kind of like almost a Devo beat I learned when I was a kid – The ‘(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction’ beat influenced a lot of my drumming. Matt said, ‘Dude, that's it’, came back around and played that sick drum riff, and the song just exploded. It was always one of my favourites.

It's not one of the top songs people talk about if they're talking about Velvet Revolver, but it was one of my favourite songs to record. It’s got a nice ferocity to it. It pointed Slash’s guitar playing in a different direction for 2004. He was rediscovering areas he could go with Velvet Revolver. I think he did a really good job of becoming a modern rock guitar player as well as being fucking Slash. He added to his repertoire with that song, as I saw it. It's great that I got to see it happening.”

With the second record, things became a bit more disjointed. Looking back, the second record’s got some cool stuff on it, but we weren't in a rehearsal room for eight months… It was more writing riffs on the road, and everybody bringing in their riffs all at once. Then it became jumbled, like too many riffs, and then, ‘Oh shit, we got to make this record,’ and throwing stuff together. I think the band was good enough that we could pull it off to a certain extent, but some things got in the way of that band later on that stunted that creativity. But for that time – ‘04, ‘05 and ‘06, when the band was cooking, it was such a great relationship we had with our audience. At that point, in 2004, rock and roll was dead and it was that band that was like, ‘We beg to differ.’”

“Don’t Look Behind You” by Duff McKagan

“This is when I started putting the acoustic guitar up against my chest. I went down on my couch and I started listening to what the reverberation of the acoustic guitar was doing to my chest, leading me where to sing – what register, cadence. I just let it happen – didn't force it, and things came out cool. Shooter [Jennings] produced it. My brother and his group played with Guns back in the day, they were the horn section on our first EP [Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide] for ‘Moved To The City’ and then later on ‘Live And Let Die’. So getting my brother and his two other guys back again into the thing was radical. It's one of the songs that totally wrote itself.

That whole group of songs since Tenderness to now has been amazing. Once I open myself up to listening to the instrument I'm playing and how it's feeling physically up against my body, it seems like I'm getting melodies easier. I'm getting little catchphrases, like ‘Long feather’ or, ‘Oh, long feather is gone’. What does that mean? The song is telling me what to write about. Not to sound like a fucking hippie, but songs do come to you out of thin air. It’s one thing I've always been mystified about since I was writing punk rock songs when I was 14 years old. You don't sit down and go ‘I'm gonna go to a G and a C and a D chord, and I'm gonna sing about this.’ I don't write like that. You sit down and it just comes to you from somewhere. I've had lyrics come to me walking my dog… It's a bizarre, really cool thing.”

“Longfeather” by Duff McKagan

“To you, if you read the lyrics, okay, it's about manifesting destiny and the white man coming across the West – but it's really about, ‘Today's a good day to die.’ This is a mantra of my sensei Benny Urquidez and his wife’s Native American beliefs and systems of bettering yourself. It got me sober 30 years prior to this, and ‘today's a good day to die’ means you've lived your life to its fullest. You told the people who you love that you love them, you've made your bed, you’ve washed the dishes, you’ve made that phone call back after somebody left you a message… You’ve done everything. So, if it is today, today's a good day. Now, it's not a morbid thought. You lived your life to its fullest. You didn’t leave a stone unturned. For me, it freed up a lot of dirty shit that I had inside of myself. I was able to expel it. But, when my sensei told me that today's a good day to die, I'm like Jesus fucking Christ that’s dark, man! [Laughs] But I finally learned what it meant. And when you learn what it means, it’s like ‘Okay’, and ‘Long Feather' is just about that.”

A lot of your solo output seems to deal pensively with situations, rather than confronting.

“Something I learned when I was writing columns and stuff, and then writing my books, and from sitting down with my friend Dave Dederer, from The Presidents of the United States of America… He was a Brown professor, he was an English teacher – he was all these other things before the band. He's a great writer. He said, if you use ‘I' a lot, cut the ‘I’’s out. This was way back when I was writing my book. So when I write lyrics, I try to keep ‘I’’s out of it. When you start saying ‘we’ then it brightens up the whole thing, like together we are stronger and together we're thinking the same things. I am not going to talk for us, but I think we see it this way, and that's what a lot of the songs for Tenderness and Lighthouse have – that intent.

I play a lot of live shows where everybody's in it together, and it is a we. Fuck, it's we, the band and the audience is one thing – an organism, doing it together. And so with songwriting, I don't even try, it just happens. That's my frame of mind.”

“Tenderness” by Duff McKagan

“‘A little tenderness is what we need’, speaking of! I was very influenced by my friend Mark Lanegan. We became friends in the mid-’90s. He had just got sober for the first time, and he was doing his record Field Songs. We became friends and I played the drums on a couple of songs, but listening to that is when I became hip to his first two solo records. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Whiskey For The Holy Ghost, but nobody's gonna sing like him ever. One of the best male baritone voices that ever existed.

But, this scarcity of guitars… I was very influenced by the way he approached it. I can't sing like him. I can't fill up a room with my voice. He can. But just watching him… and he had a band with Greg Dulli from The Afghan Whigs – the Gutter Twins. It all influenced me starting to pare back on my music. What's the acoustic guitar got to say? And maybe, you know, a little soulful organ with it, who knows? Then getting Jamie Douglas, Shooter’s drummer, to play. That fucking scarcity of drums on there… that song fucking wrote itself. The imagery of just a few lines paints a whole picture. You don't need to say a lot. I read a lot of really good authors, and some of my favourite authors, like Cormac McCarthy, where there's one line in there that’ll rip your heart out. I have these high benchmarks! [Laughs] Like, say it all in one line if you can, and I think that ‘Tenderness’ is really solid. I was able to say a lot with just a few lines.”

That in itself though becomes an art form – if it’s not the right exact words, it falls flat.

“Yeah, and if it's too much writing, it's like, ‘Jesus, what's going on here?’ So there's that happy middle ground, and I felt like ‘Tenderness’ was a minor songwriting victory for myself.”

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