Duff McKagan is always going to be best known for being the bass player in Los Angeles bands that had mercurial frontmen, first in Guns N’ Roses and later in Velvet Revolver. Maybe some people are familiar with the story of how he was such an enormous drinker back in the day that his pancreas exploded. Go a bit deeper, and not only did that little incident in 1994 serve as a wake-up call, it was the impetus for McKagan turning his entire life around. He squared his focus on cleaning up, went back to college to study business, started his own financial planning company and began writing, from 2011’s It’s So Easy: And Other Lies to a regular column for the Seattle Weekly.
But it always comes back to the music. McKagan brought a punk edge to the more famous bands he played in, which stemmed from time spent in his native Seattle where he was in 10 Minute Warning, later evident in the Neurotic Outsiders alongside Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones, his solo efforts, and the rock group Loaded.
This month saw the eponymous debut from Walking Papers, with Jeff Angell and Benjamin Anderson from the Missionary Position on vocals and keyboards, respectively, and ex-Screaming Trees and Mad Season drummer Barrett Martin. It’s a surprising record, mainly because the expected hard rock punch is immediately tempered by the slow burning blues of opener “Already Dead.”
Vanyaland caught up with McKagan last week, early in the morning west-coast time, but he was already on the go, heading to a photo shoot after playing a free show at Seattle’s legendary Easy Street Records the night before to celebrate the release of Walking Papers’ album. We talked punk rock, relationships between local bands in different cities and the audiobook reading he did for In Case We Die by longtime Seattle music scene fixture Danny Bland. Set to hit shelves in September, it’s a stunner of a novel set at the height of the grunge era, billed as “a tale of love, heroin and redemption” — three words McKagan is all too familiar with.
Michael Christopher: How did the show at Easy Street go last night?
Duff McKagan: They have really cool in-stores and it was, like, 80 degrees – perfect weather. They open up the whole front of it, it’s sort of a garage door that opens up into the street; it was just one of those really killer hometown gigs.
Let’s start off with Walking Papers, which isn’t at all what I expected it to sound like, and you seem to lock in really, really well with Barrett.
It’s an honor to play with Barrett – he’s killer. Playing with all of these guys in the same band is really powerful, but playing with Barrett is like an entirely different animal. I’ve played with some really great drummers over the years, but Barrett is just one of the world’s best drummers. Sometimes it feels like I’m playing with a percussionist and a drummer if you know what I mean.
Did you know they sound they were going for when you joined the band?
Yeah, I did. If you live in Seattle, you would know about Jeff Angell. His old band, Post Stardom Depression, was a band that really should have been that “next big thing.” They were signed to Dreamworks but they were young, mid-20s, and they kind of went left with the advance money they were given when they should’ve gone right, and you know that thing that happens when you throw some young guys a couple of bucks they’re not used to having.
That was around 1999/2000, and Jeff recovered, started playing around town either by himself or with the Missionary Position. He has a particular songwriting style, a particular vocal delivery that I was very familiar with; so yes, I was hoping Walking Papers would be in that same neighborhood and it really is and pulling Jeff to the forefront of his forte which is that storytelling lyric writing with a particular streetwise cadence that I just fucking love.
The storytelling makes sense, because I’m hearing a lot of deep blues in it and even some of the jazz sounds that Barrett toyed with in some of the Mad Season stuff.
Yeah, definitely. And Barrett has his own thing, which is really cool for a drummer to have. And Jeff, with the blues, he’s very well-versed in musicology. He listens to everything from Dr. John to Lady Gaga. It’s also a product of where he grew up, in south Tacoma, which is rough, very rough, and I think that really influences his bluesy-ness.
In your playing in particular, I’m hear a bit of Zeppelin. On songs like “I’ll Stick Around” and “The Whole World’s Watching,” it’s got sort of a more note-aware, studied feel to it.
In the last five years I started studying bass more than I ever have before. I started taking lessons, and really got re-inspired in playing bass and taking it seriously. In that, I was playing to different bass players like Donald “Duck” Dunn [Booker T. & The MGs, The Blues Brothers] and John Paul Jones [Zeppelin] with that Motown that kind of influenced rock and roll bass playing.
So yes, it wasn’t meant to be influenced by Zeppelin or John Paul Jones but I’m sure it snuck in there.
After being so closely identified with the Los Angeles music scene, obviously with Guns and then Velvet Revolver, you’ve kind of reclaimed your Seattle roots in recent years. Was that a conscious move or did it happen organically – or both?
I’ve been back here since ’93; I never really left to be honest. The biggest bands that I’ve been in, with Guns N’ Roses and Velvet Revolver, it is L.A.-based, and I’m proud of that. But I’ve been playing up in Seattle the whole time whether with Mark Lanegan or the Presidents [of the United States of America]; I played some gigs with those guys and it was really fun. And these are all just my friends, so it wasn’t conscious. I’ve been friends with Barrett for 18 years and Jeff for 14, and it just really happened organically.
The Seattle music scene, much like the one here in Boston, seems very self-supportive of itself, whereas I think New York and L.A. tend to me more cutthroat, every-band-for-itself.
It was shocking to me when I moved to L.A. in 1984. I had played in a lot of punk bands and in Seattle, and I was used to bands playing together, sharing equipment, showing each other chords – and I thought that was the way in the musical community. Then I moved to L.A. [laughs] and it was very cutthroat. And at 19/20 you learn to attack pretty quickly for survival. If you come to Seattle from L.A. to see a show, you’d be shocked I’d imagine.
These bands actually help each other and like last night at Easy Street, you see all the musicians come out, they know we have a really special thing here in Seattle, you’ll see accountants, blue-collar guys, punkers and moms and daughters all coming to gigs; things you probably wouldn’t see in other places. It’s a great town for being in a rock band.
That’s interesting you mention how people from all different walks of life come out to the shows, but Seattle – more than any other big music city – has gotten the reputation for so many loners who have either succumbed to drug addiction or taken their own lives. Do you think it’s an overblown reputation?
Yeah… I think that stuff is prevalent in any town you go to and there were just a couple more high-profile people here that got overtaken by it – then it got blown out of proportion. They put Layne [Staley] on the cover of Rolling Stone when it was supposed to be an Alice in Chains piece with “The Needle and the Damage Done” on it.
But I was here when the first big influx of heroin came here around 1982. And it really did, it decimated the music scene. But it wasn’t just the music scene; there was a recession on, it’s a port city and I see what happened.
Speaking of heroin, how did you get involved with the In Case We Die project?
Danny Bland is a guy, another Seattle dude, and he asked me to read a chapter for the audiobook and he’s got a lot of people reading on that; Mark Lanegan, Greg Dulli… I don’t know who else is on it.
Mark Arm, John Doe…
I was chatting online with Danny last night and he said he asked you specifically to do the “You Aren’t Your Only Sin” chapter. Did you identify with the material in some weird, retrospective way?
Oh it’s a common story. I recognized it. I don’t use anymore and I don’t drink – but I certainly did, and those of us who made it through that shit recognize the story.
While we’re sort of on the topic, the most underrated frontman of the past 25 years has to be Greg Dulli.
Oh! He’s a genius, yeah. I went to the Sub Pop Silver Jubilee, the 25th anniversary thing? It was a great fucking thing with three stages and outside and great weather and bands – but I went to see Dulli. And he was great. I love the Gutter Twins, just kind of anything he does. Everything he touches there’s Prince in it, there’s all kinds of shit, and he’s great – and he’s just getting better. We’ve become friends over the last couple of years and it’s good to see your friends getting better.
You’ve been closely associated with punk rock. Have there been bands you were fans of that let you down, like with Black Flag going through their current legal stuff or how Jello isn’t even in the Dead Kennedys these days – things like that seem to go against the proverbial punk aesthetic of “we’re all in this together?”
Well, there’s money in it now and there was never money in it before. It was “we’re all in this together” because you needed to survive. Now people have kids and people grow up, and it happens – but it doesn’t happen to all the bands. I go over to England and see Stiff Little Fingers and U.K. Subs, and fucking everybody. There’s this great big punk rock festival up in Blackpool, and it’s everybody; the Undertones, 999; for me – I just think it’s killer.
And then there’s the Black Flag story. I’m friends with Dez and Ron Reyes and they’re both in Black Flag but two different Black Flags [laughs]. I’m not deflated by any of it – I think it’s great and some of it is even sweet. Legal battles or not, it’s guys doing what they want to do. It’s still punk rock.
ROCKSTAR ENERGY DRINK UPROAR FESTIVAL: WALKING PAPERS + JANE’S ADDICTION + ALICE IN CHAINS + COHEED & CAMBRIA + NEW POLITICS + MORE | Wednesday, August 14 @ the Comcast Center, 885 Main St., Mansfield | 2pm, all-ages, $32 to $103.55 | advance tickets