Music Heals: Duff McKagan on Life After Addiction and The Need For Tenderness

Music Heals
Owen Murphy
photo by Jim Bennett

If there’s anyone who can speak to the perils and temptations of rock stardom, it’s Duff McKagan. A local to Seattle, not only has he played bass in the iconic Guns N’ Roses but has toured and made records solo as well as with Velvet Revolver, Walking papers, and more. Throughout this time he’s seen the best and the worst of the world – battling with addiction and finding his way out to sobriety after he turned 30. 

McKagan is returning to his solo career with a new album called Tenderness, out May 31 via Universal. Inspired by his travels on Guns N’ Roses recent multi-year tour, McKagan is at his most thoughtful. He shares reflections from engaging with people on the road and is using the record to broaden the conversation around homeless and treating addiction. 

KEXP chatted with McKagan about the inspiration behind the new album, his own recovery journey, and what life looks like after addiction. 


KEXP: Congratulations on the new record. My first question for you is what does the word "tenderness" mean to you in this context?

Duff McKagan: I think tenderness, it was kind of the word that rose to the top through writing, observing all of these things that I wrote the songs about... These topics, the opioid crisis, and Parkland, cable news shouting at you and social media. I put it all down. I put down the news and I put down the social media once I went on the road with this [Guns n' Roses] tour and just getting out and talking to people. I read a lot of history and I have for the last 25 years. On the road for the last 25 years, I go out and see this nerdy stuff. Historical stuff that I read about. The news was getting... I was falling into a rabbit hole of that consumerism. Suddenly there were people yelling at each other on the news and I knew this must be selling ads or they wouldn't be doing it. I kind of fell into it for a moment in 2015, I guess, and then turned it off. They were talking about divisiveness and I was getting scared. I'm like, 'Wow there's this divisiveness that I wasn't aware of!' And I travel a lot. I have for the last 30 years. Did I miss something? 

And we went out on this two and a half year tour and a lot of it was me going out and seeing these things, historical things or whatever – these things I'm interested in – and talking to people. Not just in America, but around the world. A lot of it in America.  I learned that we have so much more in common with each other than what separates us – by a long shot. And I didn't see divisiveness. Sure, people have some differences of opinion but that's always been true. I thought through this, turning off the TV and putting the screen down on your computer and turning off the social media and just treating each other as we do through like a hurricane in Houston or the fires in California or after 9/11. That's the America I've always been proud of how we treat each other. And that's with tenderness and care. We don't ask who we vote for. We don't ask how much money we make. We don't categorize each other. We just are there to help. 

You meet people from all walks of life. If you could wave a magic wand and kind of clean things up, what would you do exactly?

Well, I realized I can't [laughs]. And I realized that we all want to wave that magic wand. Even for Seattle traffic. But I know, like to get local. KEXP, I mean it's in Seattle. And to get local, I wrote a song called "Cold Outside" that was inspired by the homeless thing that was very visible in Seattle. It's scary. I walk to my car a little faster. Don't want to make eye contact and get in my car and realize... I grew up with depression era parents. I always think I'm one or two bad moves away from being homeless. So it's that fear. The fear of me being homeless and why are people homeless? The magic wand wasn't a magic wand. It was going to the Union Gospel Mission. I just want to find some stuff out. I want to connect and know what this is all about and being able to go up into the Jungle with these guys. For those listening outside of Seattle, the Jungle's an area that's been underneath the I-5 and I-90 for some time. Years – 10, 15, 20? Going up there for the first time, I've been up there a few times now, and connecting with some people and finding out their stories and like... oh shoot, okay, there was abuse as a child and then the foster care dad abused them too. There was this downward spiral. There was no other place to go when they turned 18. They had no place to go but underneath the god damn bridge. And, you know, the drug and alcohol element to self medicate that will just turn into this spiral. And that's a lot of the stories I was finding.

So suddenly I found some humanness to the stories –  these people, the others that I was walking fast away from. There was a guy I met there that maybe I told him my story. I've been strung out, I couldn't breathe a moment without a bottle of vodka in my hand and I got out of it. And I'm like, 'Dude if I can get out of it anybody can.' Because I was gone. He listened to my story. He told me his story and maybe I'd like to go talk to him again and maybe there is a treatment center at Union Gospel Mission and maybe one or two more visits he might go through there.

So I don't think it's a magic wand. I think it's a one on one kind of thing with all of it – with the opioid crisis, with male predators, the work with the #metoo movement. Maybe it's about the five signs that you can recognize earlier on. The ship has sailed on some of these older guys who are now busted, but can we recognize some of the stuff at a younger age and perhaps stop it? I've gotten involved with this record, Tenderness, with some social action. Things that hopefully get fans involved. It's not about throwing money at it. It's like, subscribe to their newsletter. Wear one of my shirts has the five signs on the back of it. All the profits of that shirt will go to that nonprofit. I'd like to get to the five signs into schools if I could. I just kind of figured after all this traveling and writing about it and doing all this, I really saw that it was going to be small actions that might cause a ripple effect.


We're doing a day on addiction and it's called Music Heals: Addiction & Recovery, we do this every year at KEXP. And you got clean. When you're talking to someone who has the opportunity to make to change their life and getting clean, what would you say to them in terms of what their life will be like once they stop using?

What I would tell somebody who's in the midst of addiction and how their life will change for the better because people were trying to tell me that in my 20s. I didn't know how to get to AA.  I didn't know many people were sober but there were a few that would tell me, 'You'll be able to do the things you want to do. You'll be able to not die. You'll have a chance at living again.' And I thought to myself the whole time, 'They don't know what you're talking about. I won't ever be able to play music again. I won't ever have fun again.' Obviously, I got sober because an organ of mine failed. My pancreas did. So I was flown into Northwest hospital in intensive care and suddenly I was 30 years old and you either get sober or you're going to die. Because if you have a drink, your pancreas is exposed and you'll die. So it was really black and white for me.  I was kind of flung into this sobriety day by day, like, 'If I drink I'm gonna die. You can drink today, but you're going to die.' So that's almost like a firing squad kind of situation. At first, for me, I really didn't know anybody sober.

This is 94 so I had an address book and I had to throw the thing out. And that alone was like this cleansing moment. In that black phone book was like drug dealers and all the people I got loaded with and all of that. And throwing that out, all of the sudden that lifeline – or drug-line – was cut off. I got into martial arts and I learned from that so many things. My life got so much better. Within like even two months of being sober I was able to take a clean breath and look at myself in the mirror, which was something I hadn't been able to do for a long time. I got Steve Jones, one of my heroes from the Sex Pistols, asked me to play music with him. And I said, 'Steve, I don't think I can play music. I'm sober now. I don't know how to do it.' And he was sober. He said, 'You'll be fine. Just let's go play this gig next Tuesday night.' And I did and I was terrified. And after the show, people said I played better than I ever played. And I started to recognize what levity and humor was, maybe the first time in some time. I could do things that I wasn't able to do. I didn't have to have my kit of drugs and my bag with my alcohol bottles at all times. I was free.

My life before 30 – especially from like 23 to 30 – was this... Nobody dreams of being successful in music and being able to make a living at your passion. You don't also want to be a junkie or an alcoholic. That happened. It turns into this really awful wet cardboard box you can't quite punch your way out of. Once I got out and once I got sober and got clean and started to think straight, I was able to do so much more with my life. Since that time, I've met my wife. We've had kids. I went to Seattle U. I had so many amazing musical experiences with Loaded and starting Velvet Revolver and being able to go out and play with a lot of my heroes and being able to play with my local heroes, Walking Papers. Get Guns back together. Write books. Write for the Seattle Weekly for five years. These things all made they happy and I was getting fulfilled. I got fulfilled intellectually. My heart is full with my wife and my kids. I would be dead. There's the other thing. There aren't people my age that are alcoholics and drug addicts. They're all dead. 

Well, look at you. You made a solo record. You're supporting the community. You've turned your life around. You fuckin kick ass brother.

Thank you! I'm just doing my bit. I have kids and there's a lot going on right now in a lot of different areas. Maybe we just see more of it because of the news and social media. But, you know, my kids. I'm their dad. They're looking to me. I don't want to grandstand. I hope to use whatever little piece of celebrity or whatever I have to bring awareness to some stuff that I think I've put a lot of thought behind it. I don't want to be another person up there stumping and pointing fingers, because I'm not doing that. I think it's about us connecting with others and doing a little piece of something in a direct action that can really make a difference. And from my experience, that's what's helped. Throughout history, it's not been a president or a king or queen or a war-maker. It's been us. 

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