In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers in the process, and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two.
The musician: Duff McKagan was a member of the classic AppetiteFor Destruction-era Guns N’ Roses lineup, but his roots extend beyond the ’80s Sunset Strip metal scene. The 47-year-old singer/songwriter/bassist started out in the early ’80s playing with Pacific Northwest punk and hardcore bands like Fastbacks and 10 Minute Warning. That would have been sufficient to solidify McKagan’s status as a rock legend, but he also spearheaded the multi-platinum radio-rock band Velvet Revolver with former GNR running mates Slash and Matt Sorum, and has continued to nurture various side projects. The most notable of his on-again, off-again gigs is as frontman for Loaded, whose latest, The Taking, was released in April.
“It’s So Easy” (from 1987’s Appetite For Destruction)
Duff McKagan: I moved into this apartment building and my next-door neighbor was West Arkeen, this crazy little guitar-player guy, this little freak. He went to the Guitar Institute a couple blocks from our house, and he came out of the Institute, and there was some guy selling an Alesis drum machine and a four-track cassette recorder. It was apparently Sheila E.’s bus driver. Somehow he got stiffed and he’s like, “Fuck it, I’m selling this shit.” So West comes home with this drum machine, [and] we figured out how to use the stuff. The demo of “It’s So Easy” was pretty great. West at this exact same time had taught me how to tune the guitar to open E. We used like, every feature on the drum machine: cowbell, woodblock, and everything on this demo. I sang it, tuned the guitars, put the drum track on, and it was just this cool little lazy summertime hit. West and I would record all these “summertime hits,” we’d call them. I had an apartment and West had an apartment before we had a rehearsal space, and it became an encampment for about two months for the band. “It’s So Easy,” “Yesterdays,” and I think “14 Years,” a lot of songs were recorded on West’s four-track. I think “You’re Crazy” came out on the West four-track. Sitting in an apartment, we’d play a lot of acoustic guitars, so I think “Easy” was recorded on acoustic guitar. Thing about our songs, we played ’em all on acoustic guitar. “Night Train,” we wrote on acoustic guitar. Because we’d write them in little cramped apartments.
The A.V. Club: It wasn't because you were trying to channel some raw blues?
DM: No, we weren’t trying to capture anything except for we knew we were developing a writing chemistry. “My Michelle” got written electric—you can kind of tell.
AVC: What about “My Michelle” signifies that it was written electric?
DM: Ah, shit. You know what, that’s a very good question. You’re right, I don’t know. Why would that be obvious to a listener? It wouldn’t. I retract that sentence. I’m not able to back it up. But I kind of found out through that process that if a song doesn’t sound good on acoustic, you’re not going to make it any better by it being electric, in most cases.
AVC: You’ll probably just wind up making cock-rock.
DM: Maybe. When you know you have a good song, when you’re onstage, even if it’s just a weird, basic energy, you know your song is good. In those odd times when you’re touring and people are throwing shit at you, you know your song is good.
“Welcome To The Jungle” (from Appetite For Destruction)
AVC: Where did that bass riff come from during the breakdown of this song?
DM: We have agreed to disagree on a lot of things. I’ll give Slash credit, and he’ll give me credit, and we’ll take credit other times when the other guy’s like, “Wait—fuck, dude.” So, there’s this song I wrote when I was about 14 and recorded it with my first ever band, the Veins. [It was] the B-side of this single, a song called “The Fake.” If you ever get your hands on it, you’ll hear the “Welcome To The Jungle” riff. I always thought the riff was too good, so in my 19-year-old recollection, I thought I brought that riff in from “The Fake.” I’m pretty sure I did. It’s too late to argue. We split the publishing evenly, so none of us have had to, thank God. That was probably the smartest thing we did. You don’t hear any arguments about who wrote what, or who gives a fuck.
I think Izzy, because he doesn’t speak in public, he doesn’t do interviews, kind of gets forgotten about sometimes. And he was such an important figure in the writing of all of that stuff. Without any one of those guys in that band, doesn’t matter who—Steven Adler, without his groove, we wouldn’t have come up with a lot of those riffs. Steven was there and worked just as hard on those songs, even though he couldn’t play guitar. But Izzy was such a key guy in those songs and their development.
“One In A Million” (from 1988’s Lies)
DM: I come from a family that’s multi-racial, Slash is half-black, and “One In A Million,” from where I sat in 1988—and I was convinced of it and still am, and people look at me cross-eyed—to me it was a commentary on America from a third person, and I thought it was the most genius thing ever, and I thought it was pretty bold of Axl to take that stance. We weren’t the huge band we’d become when Lies came out, but people knew who we were, so we knew people were gonna hear this song, but it wasn’t done for the shock value. It was kind of just recorded and done and out, and we were moving on.
David Geffen had us on this AIDS benefit in 1989 or ’90, and it was gonna be at Radio City Music Hall, and we were the headliner for this thing. And the Gay Alliance or Rainbow Coalition or something gave David Geffen so much grief that we were kicked off. And it was really like, “Are you fuckin’ serious?” And that’s when it first started to dawn. I remember taking a flight home to Seattle and there was an empty seat next to me, and the flight attendant sat down, and she was a black woman. She said, “So, are you in the band Guns N’ Roses?” “Yeah.” “Are you really a racist?” She wanted to sit down and talk to me and try and turn me from being a racist. She was a nice Seattle chick, and I was a nice Seattle guy, and I just shrank in my seat. I didn’t know what to say.
“November Rain” (from 1991’s Use Your Illusion 1)
DM: I think you give [“November Rain”] to Axl. That was his thing. He worked on it for so long, but that’s Axl. It’s a three-chord song, you know? But it took seven years or something, and at some point, you’re kind of like, “All right, dude, it’s a beautiful three chords.” The guy’s one of the best vocal melody writers ever, I think. By the time we finally recorded that song, it was like, “Okay, good, we finally got that up and out of the way.” You could tell it was gonna be a big song when we recorded it.
AVC: In the documentary The Making Of “November Rain,” you, Slash, and Matt Sorum seem at a loss to articulate your feelings on the song and video.
DM: I’ve never seen that video. I think I was at a loss to articulate anything when that video was made, ’92 or ’93. Those were the dark years.
“Sympathy for the Devil” (from 1994’s Interview With The Vampire soundtrack)
AVC: This was the last song recorded by the “classic” GNR lineup, or at least with the same personnel as Use Your Illusion. What was the atmosphere for these sessions like?
DM: It wasn’t good. The huge difference for me was, I was sober, so I was rising, you know? I was really focused on reclaiming my life, and I knew very much that I just survived something. I really gave up. At 29 years old, I told myself “If I live ’til I’m 30, I’ll be lucky,” and I was cool with it. It wasn’t a morbid thought. I was like, “Fuck it, live fast, die young.” And I realized at 30 or 31 that I had a chance to become the guy the 14-year-old me had envisioned. So the band was secondary to that goal at that point. It wasn’t the band first and me second, it was me first. So my whole outlook on what was happening in the session didn’t take over my whole fuckin’ thing. I saw it for what it was. Paul [Huge], Axl’s friend, the guitar-player guy, really saw an opportunity. I saw opportunities being taken advantage of, I saw management freaking out, I saw Slash in a fucking awful, black, and darkened malaise, and Matt had gotten sober. A lot of people were coming to me, management and the record company. I didn’t get a second to be sober, and [they said], “Now that you’re sober, you gotta save this thing.” And I really kinda thought I did for the first year or two, because so many people were saying that to me. I started to figure out in my second year of sobriety, “Oh, I don’t have to do shit.”
“Slither” (from 2004’s Contraband)
AVC: Fast-forward more than 10 years, and you’ve reunited with Slash and Matt in Velvet Revolver. When “Slither” broke out as a single, did it feel like coming full circle?
DM: Commercially, for sure. Again, it’s never been the commercial highs that have also informed my musical high. But that was a good story, in that Scott [Weiland] got sober, we did it as a band, we worked on each other. We knew people were gonna talk about it, [and] we can fall far if we’re not on point with songwriting and wearing our hearts on our sleeves. Talk about transparent—we gotta be transparent as fuck. So when it all kind of worked, and everything went to No. 1 and all that stuff, and people were showing up to see us play—when it goes madly beyond your expectations—you go, “Fuck, we just wrote some songs. We had good intentions, but we didn’t know it was gonna cause this much of a stir.” So it was satisfying for sure. We weren’t out to conquer how big we were in Guns N’ Roses or prove a point. It just felt right.
AVC: Slash has said he’s remained friendly with and supportive of Weiland. How is that situation different from your guys’ separation from Axl?
DM: Scott’s thing was substance-related, and I’m not throwing him under the bus. It’s pretty well-documented. It wasn’t like, “You’re a fucking dick.” Scott and I especially went through a lot of stuff in that band together. I went up to the mountains with him in Washington and we did martial arts and did some soul-searching together, just him and me. He didn’t let me down. I’m fine, you know? I still care for him very much, and always will. We’re bros when it comes down to it, and that’s it. We were having a hell of a hard time working together at the end. It wouldn’t come to blows, but it was just difficult when certain elements came back into the picture, but we’re all good.
I never had a personal beef with Axl, truth be told. Lawyers and stuff in that instance, it was kind of treacherous. They make money and try to create enemies between clients. I wish they’d teach that course. If there was a rock ’n’ roll textbook, I could add some shit to it, real valuable shit. We were torn apart by people who weren’t in the band, and that’s really what always happens. Same thing, in a way, that happened with Velvet Revolver. When you gotta have managers and agents, you can’t protect everyone from addiction. And it’s addiction, you know? It’s a modern world we live in, with everything at our fingertips, and if it’s not at our fingertips, you can dot-com anything.
“We Win” (from 2011’s The Taking)
DM: Sometimes, when you get into a record, it’s like writing a book, and you get so far inside the story you can’t tell anymore if it’s gonna be good to an outside listener. I don’t ever try to write for an outside listener. Maybe it’s because I started playing in punk-rock bands where it was like a “Be true to what you do” type of ethic. Through all the bands, all the way to “We Win,” sometimes you hit some chords and they feel good and things flow and you think, “I’m okay with that music,” but you don’t really know you can trust your ear. “Will this work on radio? Will this work at a football stadium?” You have no idea. You think all your shit will work anywhere. In a perfect world, you think all of your songs should rule the airwaves. In reality, things get picked up like “We Win” did by a local sportscaster who pushed it to the Seahawks organization and got on his show and said, “The Seahawks should play this song. These guys are ’Hawks fans,” and went on this whole rant. I don’t know if it’s gonna go down in time as a sports anthem, but it got played at a couple games, which is huge for a small band like us.
AVC: “We Win” and a lot of The Taking reminds me of the Foo Fighters, especially a song like “Hero.” Do you think the fact that you and Dave Grohl experienced the punk and hardcore scene before your mainstream success has informed your songwriting in similar ways?
DM: I’ve heard that before. I guess I could hear the Foo Fighters doing [“We Win”], and they kinda keep things simple, and they’re genius. Dave and I came up at the same time. I was in a band, and we played with his band Scream in 1982 or something. So that’s probably more the case, that our influences are pretty close, the things we refer to. I knew with the “White Limo” video that he was going after Black Flag’s “Six Pack,” and I texted him when I saw the video, and he goes, “That’s exactly what I was going for!” So yeah, maybe that’s it.
AVC: Did that background in the punk scene help you avoid some of the pitfalls suffered by many rock acts from the ’80s, who are either on the reunion circuit or just kind of eking out mediocre comeback albums?
DM: I don’t know what anybody else’s experience is, and I don’t know how people experience my music, really. If it seems vibrant still, that’s great. I don’t think I would do it if I was just kind of writing songs by the numbers and, “Okay, let’s push more product and see if something breaks.” That’s never been my thing. I never got into music for the cash end of it. I didn’t even think that playing and touring around in punk bands. It was like, “I’m gonna get to play a gig tonight.” That was the most important thing. And I’m still like that. I’ve got a wife and kids, and I’m a financially responsible person for my family, but what drives me musically and artistically has never been a financial end. The same things that drove me then, the scene that I grew up in, the bands that I saw, the records I got—Germs and D.O.A. and Ramones and the Stooges and I could go on forever. Or those bands I saw live—the Clash on their first tour in ’79 when I was 14, or whatever I was—those experiences still leave an imprint on me and drive me and inform me now.