Duff McKagan was always one of the most proactive Guns N’ Roses members. While Slash almost seemed to drop out of the mainstream for a couple of years at a time and Axl pulled off a pretty impressive disappearing act for a while there, Duff was putting out albums like his own solo CD Believe In Me as well as releases with Neurotic Outsiders, his pre-G’n’R Seattle band Ten Minute Warning, and Loaded. During downtime with Velvet Revolver he hooked up with Jane’s Addiction (for a while), and now he’s back in full Loaded mode with the release of The Taking, an often dark and heavy collection of tracks which knit together to form a concept album based on the fracturing of a relationship. McKagan is front and centre in Loaded, singing and playing rhythm guitar, and it seems he couldn’t be happier.
I bought the album off iTunes yesterday…
…Oh wow, you have the record before I do! Awesome!
Yeah! It’s great. You worked with Terry Date this time around.
He’s awesome. We recorded at Studio X where he’s done Soundgarden, Deftones, Pantera, all those records. I love that studio, and he knows that room so well. We brought in our gear and he said “You know what the most important thing to me is? I’m not a music guy. I don’t play guitar, I don’t know anything, but I want you guys to do all of my playing for me. I want you guys to really perform and be a fucking gnarly rock band.” He mic’d the cabinets up and mic’d the room up, the drums, and just got the best performance possible from us. There’s no trickery, nothing, just this guy who knows that room and how to mic it, and how a song should feel. And that’s it!
Speaking of how a song should feel, track two, “Executioner’s Song,” I’ve been trying to write that riff for years and you beat me to it!
Yeah! That’s one of those songs that feels just… once in a while you hit it and it’s just right. It’s like, “Who did we steal that riff from? It sounds so familiar!” But it’s not, y’know? We racked our brains. “We must have stole that. It is a Black Sabbath song we just listened to on the tour bus?” It’s just one of those things that happens once in a while, once in a blue moon.
Another monster song is “Indian Summer.”
I don’t write all the songs but I’ll take the credit on that one more than the rest. It’s a song I’ve had since Sick (2009). It was on my Garageband, just me playing acoustic guitar. I had a melody but I didn’t have words for it. I’d kinda forgotten about it then Isaac Carpenter, our drummer, heard it on my Garageband while he was going through my songs, and was like, “What the fuck is that?” and I said “It’s …something I’d forgotten about!” and we worked it out from that. We recorded it once with Terry and I said “I don’t like it. It’s too light.” But Terry was like, “No! This is great!”
How do you divide up the guitar parts with Mike Squires?
I play all the good parts on the record. That’s me. The other parts that are sort of pedestrian, that’s Mike. Haha. No, he does all the killer shit, all the leads. I don’t want people to say “Oh, he’s dissin’ Slash,” but Mike has become my favourite guitar player, besides Slash, on this planet. This guy fights his guitar, he bends a lot of strings – heavy gauge strings – he plays leads, he almost looks like he’s uncomfortable in his stance, and I think he likes that. He’s always kinda tortured himself. he’s had a tortured sort of life. He put himself into the Marine Corps to escape this life by putting himself into this even gnarlier thing where they scream at ya and beat the shit outta ya. He’s a really interesting character. He’s tattooed from head to toe and he looks like the meanest guy you’ve ever seen but he’s just the nicest guy you’ve ever met. And he’s just gifted. He picked up the guitar and played when you and I were like 14 and fuckin’ struggling. It’s like Slash: when I met Slash when I was 19, he was like an old blues guy. It’s like, “You’re 19… what the fuck?” But how do we split it up? We just know. I think I’m a really good rhythm guitar player. Rhythm is where I excel, when I’m playing drums or bass or rhythm guitar. I just know. It’s my little wheelhouse. I’m not technically the best guitar player – I’m technically a way better bass player – but I’ve got a good feel with my right hand for rhythm guitar. That has a lot more weight in a rock band like ours.
What gear did you use on the album? I understand you have a pretty special modified Marshall?
Yeah! I have a JCM800 that was modded out by Mike Soldano. That’s been my head, y’know? It’s been my head since then. I think I got it from Slash. I also use ENGL Fireball heads too – I tour with that – and ENGL cabinets. I have an old Marshall cabinet here in town too. Either one of them’s great for me. I don’t use any effects. I use my volume knob as my effect.
I was really psyched to hear you’ve got a book coming out. I’ve been reading your Seattle Weekly columns for ages.
What can we expect from the book?
Okay, so you know my column voice, right? I just kinda figured out that I can express myself more clearly writing than I can talking, and I can kinda tell people who I am, or about a situation, or whatever: be funny, or write about dark shit, whatever. I was approached about doing a book because of my columns. It’s a rock book, sure, because I play in rock bands, but if you know my column voice you know it’s not going to be the typical stuff. It’s not the typical rock fare, but I do tell way more in depth than I ever have about my life in playing rock music, from punk rock to the present. But I talk about my addition and how I got into that. How’s a kid who’s 13 get all the way into the point where it’s like, “I’m gonna die by the time I’m 30!” and I was fine with that! How do you get from that point A to that point B? And then a lot of people ask me how I got sober. So I wrote about getting sober, but going into the complete spiral down that was my 20s, addition-wise. It was really interesting to write that. I let the narrative fall apart. I read a lot and I get inspired by really great writers. I did my best. It’s my first book, y’know, the true story of me. It’s my truth, anyhow. I didn’t throw any of my friends under the bus, old bandmates or anything. I think that’s a little tacky to do that kinda shit. But I tell the story, and my part in the story. I think it’s good – I don’t know. I wrote for 14 months, so you get so locked into it. It’s like writing a song: “Goddammit, is this good any more?” But I wrote it, I’m done and it’s coming out October 4th.
The Taking is out now. There was more to this interview, which you can read at Gibson.com.