Seattle native and Guns N’ Roses bassist, Duff McKagan, oozes rock ‘n’ roll. The man has seen it all. He’s toured the world, lived great highs, and great lows. He is the author of a New York Times best-selling book and has played to hundreds of thousands of people around the globe. Most recently, McKagan found himself on tour with his Hall of Fame band. And during the course of those two-and-a-half years on the road, he noticed a few things. He began talking to people. In an age when there seems to be so much social division, the musician found that people aren’t so different after all. On tour, he thought he’d write a book about his experiences. Instead, though, he wrote a new solo record, Tenderness, slated for release May 31 (followed by a North American tour, including a Seattle date on Sunday, June 16th at The Showbox). To get a sense of what went into the recording, we caught up with McKagan and asked him about it.
The new record feels intimate, almost conversational, like a close chat with a friend. Was this your intention?
It really was. I had the idea of writing a third book on these topics and I started it off almost like a columnist. I was writing little vignettes. I had my acoustic guitar with me on the whole tour. But instead of me, as a columnist, writing, I wrote these songs. So, they should almost read as columns or conversations. I think that was definitely the intent.
On the album, you worked with famed producer, Shooter Jennings. Was there a moment when he particularly pushed or encouraged you?
I’ve known Shooter since 2001. His rock band, Stargunn — before he went and started his own thing under his name — opened for [my band] Loaded back in 2001. I’ve known Shooter and kept in touch with him since then. When had I this group of songs, my manager came up with the idea of Shooter producing it. Shooter was just finishing the Brandi Carlile record and I know Brandi from Seattle, of course. I’ve played with her a couple times and she’s kick-ass. And Shooter really loved the songs. I went up to his house and he had a keyboard up there and I had my acoustic guitar and we just played through the songs, arranged them. It was so effortless. The songs were done — it was just a matter of how we’re going to end them, whether we extend this middle part here, whatever you do when you arrange. We used his band to track it and he knew the strengths of his band, he knew immediately how the instrumentation would be used and all of that.
"It was one of the finer musical experiences of my life doing this record."
I think Shooter, in terms of pushing me, was saying to not be afraid of what I was singing, lyrically. And getting real vocal performances out of me, which means not perfect, but real ones. With this record, we didn’t want it to be perfect and all produced up. We wanted it to sound real. And it was — those were all first or second takes with the band. I played bass after. I played acoustic on the basic track and I’d put on the bass after. His band is really so good at catching the emotion of a song. It was one of the finer musical experiences of my life doing this record.
You wrote the record after seeing tensions of all kinds worldwide. Did making the album offer any solutions or perspectives you didn’t expect?
It wasn’t like writing my first book, an autobiography where there’s a lot of self-realization — and, like, shit, you’re just lying to yourself. I’d write passages for that book and have to delete 4,000 words because it was one big lie I was telling myself for fucking 20 years. With this [record], I realized, there’s enough voices out there pointing fingers and adding to the noise. I realized by traveling the country and this world that we’re all in this shit together. Nothing’s changed, it’s just "The Man" devising some new mechanism, this time to try and divide us. But I just don’t think we’re that divided at all. If you turn on cable news or look at your Twitter, you’re like, “Oh, we’re super divided!” But from traveling — and I really talked to a lot of people; I’d go to a lot of places, I do a lot of little side trips on our tour, from Little Big Horn to the beaches of Normandy to Auschwitz to Jackson, Mississippi, you name it, I went to Monticello — I went to so many places and talked to people and we’re just not as divided. When you sit down and talk with somebody, even if you have completely different viewpoints then they have, if you sit down and talk, you realize it’s not as bad as it seems to be. And this has happened before. In our country’s history, it’s happened quite a few times, actually. And it will pass. And we’ll get through this together. That’s, I think, the theme of the record.
"And we’ll get through this together. That’s, I think, the theme of the record."
One of the most poignant lyrics on the album comes from the song, “Parkland,” when you sing, “Another school / another fucking heartache.” Can you tell me what it feels like to sing that line?
It’s tough. I have two kids. At that time, one was a senior in high school. I was down in my basement and I was making little demos and my engineer came to the house and came downstairs and said, “Shit. Have you heard about Parkland? It happened again.” We turned on the TV and I’m watching all this shit and the chords came out immediately. It’s like a funeral dirge. And I mean the song to be this straight line, an eerie straight line. And I don’t offer any solutions. It’s just a funeral dirge. Man, I tell you. We went on Wikipedia to look at school shootings and fuck, you have to look away. School shootings 2000, just do that, and it will fuck you up. So, this was my little fist in the air drawing attention to this thing. Like, let’s not forget about this one. Let’s not forget about Sandy Hook. Let’s not forget about the Charleston church. Let’s not forget about Virginia Tech and Columbine. This is happening fucking right now all over.
The record feels mellow at times, but it ends on a triumphant note. Do you ultimately feel hopeful?
I do. I did “Don’t Look Back” as the last song on purpose. I put a lot of themes from the record on that song. I sing, “Our tenderness is true / rise up, demand the truth.” So, it’s meant as a triumphant thing. And that just comes from going out and talking to people. There’s so many labels put on people. I was having dinner with my friend in Seattle. He’s a builder now and he’s been sober for 20-something years. He’s a sober buddy, but he was an old punk rocker guy like me. He ended up with nothing and then built this business on his own building houses, started as a laborer all the way up and it’s his company. And I came from the same background. Family with eight kids, we couldn’t afford to send kids to college in my family. You had to make it on your own. But one night we’re having dinner and we’re both like 54-years-old and he goes, “You know the ‘elites’ they talk about? They’re talking about us.” And I’m like, “They don’t know my fucking story!” And he’s like, “It doesn’t matter. We live on the west coast. We make over 100-grand a year. We’re the elites they’re talking about.” How quickly they point fingers, you know? And I was talking with another friend of mine who’s also a builder, he’s from Orange County and he’s been through the shit — drug addict, all that stuff, but he’s sober now. And he loves Tucker Carlson. He loves all that stuff. And we were talking about it and I was like, “Hey, Randy. You’re one of the elites, though. You own your own company, you make over 150-grand. You’re one of the elites. You live in California. You’re one of those!” And he goes, “I’m not!” It’s how quickly we use these terms now, “elites” and all this stuff that’s suddenly arisen over the last few years. I think, in talking to people like my buddy Randy, who is more conservative, we’ve all just come to the conclusion that it’s still just The Man separating us and keeping us down. It’s the same thing. Back when Randy and I were in punk bands in ’79, ’80, ’81 railing against the system, nothing’s changed.
You have a long history of encouragement in your work, whether in your writing, your wealth management firm, or this album. What inspires you to offer a helping hand?
I’m a parent. I think that’s probably the best answer I can give you. I have to be a good example for my girls. Like, “What did you do during this time, Dad?” Hopefully, I’m trying to heal. That was the intent of this record. It doesn’t offer a ton of hope but at least it’s real, it’s realistic, and I’m telling true stories and my perspective. But I do use a lot of “We.” After 9-11, I didn’t see a lot of people asking which party they were from when people were helping. Nobody cared who you voted for, you know? When a hurricane hits fucking Houston, nobody asks who you voted for? When flooding in New Orleans or the fires in California — that’s the America I know. It’s one that rises up together to be great and help and be empathetic and morally strong. And that’s what we come down to, really. That’s who we are. You can watch cable news or look at your fucking Twitter feed and go crazy, right? We're fucked! But I just don’t think we’re that fucked. I truly believe we’re not that fucked.
I’ve been reading more and more about social media and it’s almost like — well, it is — the platforms promote this anxiety. It's what they feed off of.
Yeah, turn it off, man. Try a week without it, without cable news and social media and just go talk to people and I guarantee you, your whole fucking perspective will change. I did that on the road. I was in places where you couldn’t even access American CNN or MSNBC or Fox News, gladly. I don’t look at Twitter while we’re on the road. I’ll post shit like sound check. But I don’t look at comments. I wanted to experience the world as it is while I was out there. And I think I really got a better view because I wasn’t watching news and wasn’t looking at social media.
There’s a fair amount about drugs and addiction on the new record. What does the idea of sobriety mean to you today?
I read J. D. Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy — a lot of books inspired topics on this record, books combined with my experiences — and Hillbilly Elegy is the story in large part about oxycontin taking over in these areas where jobs have gone away and oxycontin takes their place. It’s a reality that we all know about. Oxycontin fucking kills more people than even school shootings. It’s an epidemic and it’s condoned. It’s diabolical and ugly. I’ve lived it. I know what it’s like to be strung out on pills. So the song “Falling Down” was inspired by J. D. Vance’s book and what he talks about growing up in that area. And “Wasted Heart” was the other side of that, a more personal story of my own drug addiction. I think combined, you get the before and the after. There is hope to get through this. For me, it was with the help of a good woman, my wife. But it takes a village to get somebody through it. It really does.
What was the best non-music-related thing about being back on tour with the Guns N’ Roses crew over the last few years?
A sense of ease, man. Being with my compatriots, we wrote these songs way back when, we’re the only ones who experienced the Guns N’ Roses thing together, the whole highs and lows, playing to three people, then five, seven, eleven, and then the rise of that band and going through this explosion, which is such a weird thing to do as a 22-year-old kid. I came from Seattle playing in punk rock bands and I still had this super punk rock ethic, and it stayed with me. Like seeing Joe Strummer at the Paramount in ’79 pre-London Calling, saying, “We’re all in this together, man. There’s no difference between us on stage and you out there, it’s just us.” That really struck me when I was a 15-year-old kid. This huge, exotic English rock band included me in with them. I saw Zeppelin at the King Dome and it was huge and they were so far away. And I love Zeppelin. But all of a sudden this band that was, to me, as big as Led Zeppelin and as exotic suddenly included me into their inner circle and a "fight for what is right"-type of thing. So, when our band exploded, I was super confused. Like, how do I deal with this? And we were all confused together.
So to flash forward and to be with these guys — we’ve been through a well-documented break-up — and to come back together for the right reasons for a healing purpose, that really matriculated and grew through the whole tour. There was a lot of intellectual sobriety that happened with me because of that, if that makes sense. I was at ease. It gave me the peace to really observe as a columnist what was going on in the world. I didn’t have to constantly be attentive to my band and any bullshit. We were good. We were fucking good. And playing those shows, seeing people. So many people come to those shows and looking at their faces — when you assume you’re the most interesting person in the room, just listen to the next person’s story. We’re playing to 60-70,000 people who all have stories. If you think about that then, it’s a real honor. You’re playing for these people, like how did they get to our show? What’s their story?
What was it like to have a 2019 point of view and, in many ways, teleport back to what it was like spending time with friends you made pre-internet?
I had the honor of raising two girls through this whole internet and social media age — and that’s a challenge as a parent, reality TV and all this stuff. How do you get your girls to think for themselves and be strong and be critical thinkers? That was the challenge. I think about that more than, “Hey man, we were together before the internet!” But yeah, back then you had to talk a lot more to people face-to-face, or at least on the phone. There was a lot more communication. I still call somebody on the phone now. I wouldn’t text them.
Your projects often have such large, ardent followings. “Welcome To The Jungle” has over 300 million YouTube views.
Yup! And “Patience” has over 400 million.
But as you mature, so do your fans. What do you hope they learn both from you and with you by listening to Tenderness?
I think our fans, they run the gamut. We’re fortunate that all kinds of people like our band. In politically charged times or not. So, I hope to offer just a voice of calm and healing. Hopefully, I’m a guy they trust. I’ve laid it out there in a couple books. I’ve laid my soul bare. So, you know me. You fucking know me. As well as you can. As well as I’ll let you know me, I guess. And I just hope the record has a positive effect on anybody who hears it. A contemplative effect. Realizing we’re all in it together and there’s no sides. And we’re all going to come through this okay.
Tenderness is out May 31 via UMe. (Pre-order here.) Duff McKagan performs Sunday, June 16th at The Showbox in Seattle, as well as these additional dates across North America.
Duff McKagan (backed by Shooter Jennings + band) 2019 Tour Dates:
05/30 – Philadelphia, PA @ TLA
05/31 – Washington DC @ City Winery
06/01 – Boston, MA @ City Winery
06/03 – New York, NY @ Irving Plaza
06/06 – Chicago, IL @ Thalia Hall
06/08 – Nashville, TN @ The Cannery
06/10 – Austin, TX @ Scoot Inn
06/13 – Los Angeles, CA @ El Rey Theater
06/14 – San Francisco, CA @ Great American Music Hall
06/15 – Portland, OR @ Aladdin
06/16 – Seattle, WA @ The Showbox