When it was announced in 2016 that bassist Duff McKagan would be rejoining Hollywood rock titans Guns N' Roses 19 years after leaving the band, fans rejoiced. With guitar hero Slash also back in the Gn'R ranks alongside mainstay frontman Axl Rose, three of the five classic lineup players were back together again. And nobody was happier than McKagan himself.
Anybody who has read any of McKagan's books or columns knows that the bassist clearly felt Guns N' Roses was just getting started when the core imploded. As far as he's concerned, and in his own words, Gn'R is what he's meant to do. That said, the mammoth world tour is ongoing, the machine will keep whirring, and it's important that the members do other things to keep themselves refreshed and interested. Slash was on the cover of this publication last year thanks to his solo work, and now it’s Duff’s time to shine.
His new album is called Tenderness and, as the title suggests, it's a far more sedate affair than the wild rock his main gig specializes in. He worked on it with Shooter Jennings, alt-country icon and son of outlaw country artists Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter. McKagan says that he has always wanted to make a rock & roll singer/songwriter album in the vein of the solo work of Screaming Trees man Mark Lanegan. Add that desire to the fact that he had been traveling the world and taking notes about his observations, and the ingredients for something special were all there.
"[Guns N' Roses] played a lot of shows and traveled a ton," McKagan says. "Pre-election, I was absorbed with the debates. I’m getting wrapped up in these panels, looking at Twitter and getting riled up. And I read too much fucking history for me to get riled up about it. I know things are cyclical and they pass. But a funny thing happened. On a stadium tour, we play every third day because the stage takes two days to set up. When I go out and do stuff, I talk to people. WW1 museum, Little Big Horn, whatever. Then we left America, I think [it was] South America first, and the big three news stations aren't on down there. So you're not stuck in your room hyperventilating over news, so I stopped looking at Twitter and the quality of my life got a lot better."
Music is, of course, the great leveler. It can bring people of all different backgrounds together. McKagan says that, while on tour, he simply had conversations with people. Nobody asked who anybody else voted for. The America he knows, he says, is the one that came together after 9/11, after the hurricane in Houston and after the California fires.
"There’s a bubble of unity at our gigs," he says. "We're in Muslim countries, and people have devil horns up rocking the fucking out. Music is a universal language and it brings people together. The news is selling ads and we’re falling for it. This too shall pass. It'll change into something else — we'll be pissed off about something completely different in two years."
So it was all of these observations and thoughts that became the inspiration for Tenderness. The notes he took became lyrics, as the work started to take shape.
"The first song I wrote for the record was 'It's Not Too Late,' " he says. "Acoustic in hand, reading my notes, [sings] 'Everybody's lying, I need some truth.' For a long time, I’d wanted to make a more Mark Lanegan-esque record. I played shitty demos to my manager, and I’ve known Shooter Jennings for a long time, since he moved to L.A. He's been doing a ton of producing — he had just finished Brandi Carlile’s record. My manager suggested Shooter and I thought it was perfect. Shooter fell into it — he understood my Johnny Thunders influence. I went to his house and we started arranging."
In the extensive liner notes that accompany the new album, which were written by McKagan himself, he talks about the fact that we are living in scary times. Much of that stems from the fact that he has daughters, and pays attention to what they are worried about.
"The famous LeBron James comment on social media where he said something political and somebody told him to stay in his lane and play basketball — I laugh at that because it is we the people," McKagan says. "We're the bosses. That's the way the Constitution was written up. When I say it's scary times, I see my daughters, I hear what they're talking about and there's fear. There's fear of fucking guns in school. There's fear that everybody elected is so much older than them — how do they control everything? Fuck this! There's going to be a motivated, educated younger voting force coming in. We've been in very serious times since 9/11. This will pass. I don't say anything politically divisive on this record. I hope it will be a thought-provoking path to healing. I felt like I needed to do it."
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For many, McKagan was always the "punk" in Guns N' Roses — he was the guy who sang the Misfits and Johnny Thunders covers, having been in punk bands in his younger days. Post-Guns he formed a punk band called Loaded, and he also recorded with MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer. So what does he think old fans will make of this more sedate album?
"I didn't make a record to continue down those paths," he says. "I just played two and a half years of big, long rock & roll shows, and that is where I thrive the most. But I’ve wanted to make this kind of record for a long time, and as an artist, it's OK to take a left turn here and there. Really challenge yourself. I don't want to do the same thing day after day. People are allowed to change and grow and do different things. If some people come along on the ride with you, great. If you gain new fans, that's cool too. Who would have thought I'd be on country radio. To get a song into that world, talking about flat-Earthers and white supremacy — job done."
Duff McKagan plays with Shooter Jennings at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 13 at the El Rey Theatre.