Wednesday, February 22, 2012

TNB Music Chats with Duff McKagan

With his autobiography, It’s So Easy (and other lies), crawling up the New York Times Bestseller list and a book tour in support of that release unfolding as we speak, Duff McKagan’s dance card is pretty full. He is first heading to the UK, where he will tour with his band Loaded while managing a string of appearances in support of his book. Aggressively dodging all opportunities for rest or relaxation, he is then touring South America with Seattle’s Alice in Chains before jetting over to Germany to play some dates with Motörhead.

But wait—there’s more.

As this all unfolds, his other band, supergroup Velvet Revolver, continues their search for a new vocalist in the wake of Scott Weiland’s departure. And then there’s the little matter of his former band, Guns N’ Roses, basking in their recent nomination to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

A compelling case for Duff being the busiest man in music, for sure.

But wait—there’s more!

In addition to his musical pursuits and the myriad obligations of a bestselling author on book tour, Duff also authors weekly columns for Seattle Weekly and ESPN.

Moreover, he is a registered investment adviser who recently launched a wealth management firm, and he is actively engaged in social media, all of which he balances with a wife, two daughters and most beloved dog.

How he manages to field a fantasy football team is a miracle that rivals the Lady of Lourdes.

Considering that seventeen years ago, his
pancreas had exploded from alcohol abuse as he stormed towards certain death, his story is a miracle incarnate. TNB Music was honored to sit down with Duff to chat about his book, his bands and his struggles with addiction, fatherhood and the never-ending obligations of touring.

Congratulations are in order — your book is officially a New York Times Bestseller. That’s got to feel pretty good.

Yeah, I don’t know if I’ve had a moment to even realize that the book’s out, you know? (laughs) This is a whole new thing for me, being on the New York Times Bestseller list. The New York Times Bestseller List… it hasn’t sunk in at all.

Unlike many other artists who have released autobiographies, you’ve been publishing your writing for quite some time as a regular columnist for ESPN, Playboy and Seattle Weekly. How did the experience of writing a book feel different? Apart from the length, that is.
When I started writing the book… well, I didn’t really start the book. I won’t actually say that — that would be a miscue. I started writing side stories that really weren’t pointed enough or focused enough for ESPN. And they were brutally honest pieces that I wrote in column-like format, or maybe twice as long, and that’s really how this whole book was written. We tried to edit some of that choppiness feel out it, but we purposely kept a lot of it in, too, because life is choppy, you know? It’s not this long, smooth thing.
You know, I haven’t ever wanted to write a prize-winning column. I’ve read great writers that have won Pulitzer Prizes for their articles, like Thomas Friedman, but me getting on the New York Times Bestseller List? For a book nerd like myself, that’s the biggest thing I could ever hope for.

This has been quite a month for you, recognition-wise, because about a month ago, Guns N’ Roses (“GNR”) was nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Yeah, it’s weird, you know? I’ve never striven to get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Never in my life have I thought, “Man, I gotta get a Grammy.” In sports you try to win it all, but music’s a different deal. So the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was never on my radar. As a matter of fact, I don’t know how we got roped into it, but when we (Velvet Revolver) inducted Van Halen, it went south. I don’t know if you remember that. It just went south. The band (Van Halen) was fighting, and the only ones to show up were Michael Anthony and Sammy Hagar, and it was like, “Ohhh, boy…”

So when we (GNR) got announced, that’s what I remembered. But I do understand that for the fans, it’s important. It’s important to the people who buy your records and come to your gigs and connect with some lyric that you wrote or a groove or something. I mean, I’m part of social media — I write a couple of columns online, and people comment on those. I have Twitter and I’m on Facebook and I read people’s comments about how they feel about us being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, so then it’s important to me. Only then. And I’ve learned to just say thank you.

There are a few parallels between GNR and Van Halen, the biggest one being the turnover in membership, both during and after your involvement. Assuming Guns gets right in, how do you envision your induction? What do you see it looking like?
I can’t. I can’t picture it. Your guess is as good as mine. There is no picture. It’s bound to happen but I’d love to call the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, whoever they are, and say, “Hey guys, why don’t you put this off for another ten years? Thank you! Thanks for nominating us — it’s great, but how about you put it off for ten years?”

Would ten years give things more time to settle?
You know, that’s all I need to say about this. I care about our fans and that’s it.

Let’s talk about your book. You open with the Upton Sinclair quote from The Jungle: “He went on and on down the road, finally coming to a black woods, where he hid and wept as if his heart would break. Ah, what agony was that, what despair, when the tomb of memory was rent open and the ghosts of his old life came forth to scourge him!” Is that how the experience felt to you?
I read that passage once and I thumbnailed that page in the book. I thumbnail a lot of stuff, and yeah going back, I wrote about those clarion turning points in my life that informed me. Like Sly Stone- seeing him (as a desperate drug addict in the apartment above him). I grew up with Sly Stone(‘s music) and seeing him in this shithole apartment, smoking crack… I remember thinking: “Remember this. Learn from this.” That was a teachable moment for me.
And the heroin days of Seattle when my friends sat me down and said, “Dude, you gotta get out of here, because we’re all strung out.” Those turning points in your life. The St. Louis riot—it’s not like they were tough points for me to remember, it’s just that when you start writing about something, and you’re writing to yourself and your Word document, and you start to go into some stuff… I’ve deleted some sentences because I was lying to me and my Word document. I was like, “What are you doing?” I’d just delete the sentence and start over again.
But it was uncomfortable for sure, because you find accountability. If you’re being honest, you find your own accountability, and maybe it didn’t have everything to do with all the good shit and nothing to do with all the bad stuff—maybe it had something to do with both of them. I understood my part in my own life.

At the end of the book, in your Acknowledgements, you speak to your daughters. Was it tough to walk the line between knowing what to discuss in your book, knowing that they’d be reading it someday?
Well, as your daughters get older, you talk to them about this and that, and they ask you questions like “Why don’t you drink when everyone else does?” and “Why can’t you have a glass of wine?” I have to say, “Well, I can’t, because if I do, I’ll drink everything in the house maybe, and then I’ll have to go to the store and get some more, and then I’ll buy some more there, and I’ll come back to the house, and then I’ll be upside down, and then I might crash my car, so I don’t.” Then they say, “Wow, yeah, that’s probably a good idea that you don’t.” So it’s a natural conversation that we have as they’re young.
I’ve been really fortunate that I have the Seattle Weekly column especially, because I’ve been able to write about some things, and learn how to write about them without including all the gory details. My book has plenty of gory details, for sure, but when it’s really bad I just let the narrative fall apart, so you get a sense of where I was without me spelling it all out into this many ounces and that many drinks, and all that. You get the gist—I don’t need to spell it all out.
I did a reading last Thursday in Seattle at a theater with a video and pictures behind me. This theater’s beautiful—it’s a hundred-year-old theater, and there was a lap steel player behind me, playing songs from my whole career, and I read certain passages. And it was heavy, but it was good. I picked the guitar up once or twice here and there, and I’d play a little piece of the song with the guy. My daughters came and I read some heavy excerpts from the book—the hospital excerpt (when McKagan’s pancreas exploded), and my girls had known about it, and they think it’s kind of boring. “Yeah, yeah, Dad, the drugs and the alcohol, blah, blah, blah…” But I think we had a moment there, after I did the event, and they really understood. I don’t know if they’ll ever read the book. They might just say, “We got it. Our dad almost wasn’t here way before we were born — got it.”

Slash and Steven Adler both have their own books out, and many other books have been written about Guns N’ Roses that already cover parts of your life. When you sat down to write your book, was there anything you felt that needed to be corrected or cleared up?
No. No, I read Slash’s book because we were on the road together with Velvet Revolver when that came out. It doesn’t matter what’s correct or what’s not correct. There’s stuff in Slash’s book that I remember in a different way, but that’s all there is. My experience of the same situation is different than his — that’s what life’s about, right? We all have different experiences, sometimes with the exact same thing.
When that book came out, I had no inclination to write a book. This book sort of wrote itself out of these little side columns that I was writing. So many people have asked me, “How much did you drink?” and “How did you get into that hospital bed?” And a lot of people ask me, “How did you get sober?” In other words, “How did you get out of that hospital bed?” And that’s really what I wrote to — that was the mission statement. The arc became clear as I wrote — my family, my mom, my kids—how important all of this stuff is to me. And it’s just a guy’s story. I happen to be in a couple of rock bands, but it’s just that guy’s story.
Guns N’ Roses is a weighty subject, but in the same breath, I don’t take it that seriously. It was an extraordinary circumstance that happened to all of us. Shit, we all survived! That’s great! A lot of my fellows out there didn’t. But at forty-seven years old, I look back and see that we fell into every goddamned trap that there was. But we were honest. We were a dangerous, real band. We were real. Nobody was faking it, and I’m proud of that.

You speak to your own accountability in your book, which is unique by rock memoir standards. In particular, when you talk about the Riverport riot in St. Louis, you address Axl’s expanding habit of showing up late for gigs. Interestingly, instead of discussing Axl’s behavior, you focus more on the fact that you never called him out for that. You never confronted him, and you take accountability in that sense. But do you think that he would have been receptive to that if anyone had said something to him at that point?

I don’t know. You raise the point of my self-discovery of my role, but the other part (how Axl might have reacted) is a whole separate study. But this is also a book written by the guy now — I’m writing this book and I’m sure as I can be of myself today. I couldn’t say that when I was twenty-seven. Saying “I’m a bad ass motherfucker!” isn’t being sure of yourself, that’s just being full of yourself.  So I know that if I were the guy I am now back then, I would’ve said, “Okay guys, alright—let’s everybody just stop. Stop.” I would have said to the management, “Stop — don’t book us another gig. We need to come off the road and we need to step back and examine this whole thing. The band needs some time away from all this stuff so we can figure our shit out.” Because we were really close dudes, and now we’re all separate. Or I might’ve also said, okay—like Izzy did—if you can’t stop it, I’m out.
So it’s really a study of my own self. I didn’t stand up when I should have. I didn’t rise to the occasion. I did rise to a lot of occasions, but I didn’t rise to as many as I think I did. And the self-medicating…
You know, it’s also a study of life. You always think you’re gonna have time to take care of some shit in a couple of months. “I’ll take care of the panic attacks, I’ll take care of the drinking too much.. a couple of months. I’ll get to it.” It was nearly too late with me.

You open up an interesting discussion about your own struggles with anxiety. When you talk about playing with the Rolling Stones — the gig where Axl famously called everybody out from the stage (threatening to disband GNR if unnamed members didn’t curb their drug abuse), you guys kept going after that. What was it like still playing in the band with that threat hanging over your heads?
He said it and we were like, “Oh, we’re discussing this stuff in public now?” When we were all into it. We took care of our own shit inside, and I’m sure Axl had his reasons for that, and they were probably valid. At the time, I could see it. I was pissed off, too. So half of me was with him, but half of me was like, “No… not here, not now. Not here. Not in front of eighty thousand people…” (laughs) But that’s the way he was, and I can’t really speak for how he is now, but love him or hate him, at least there was no filter.

Was there one memory of playing in Guns N’ Roses that stands out as your absolute favorite? One thing that really makes you feel proud?
All of it. I mean, really, most of it. I could write another whole book about the first eighteen months of our band, and it would be fascinating, and fun and good, because nobody believed in us. I touched on it in the book. We just believed in us, and we weren’t accepted into any little section of L.A. rock, and so we just did our own little thing. We were just young, young dudes and we just really knew that whether there were two or two hundred people who knew who we were, we were going to change their perspective on music. We were learning how to write songs together, and the chemistry was stunning. We were more punk rock than any punk rock band I’ve seen. And it was more Judas Priest than Judas Priest, and it was more Elton John than Elton John.  It was just kind of everything. Some nights we were the best band on the planet.

If you could go back and change anything, would you?
Um… I don’t even really dance around with that kind of stuff. The closest I ever get is looking back at events as the guy I am now, then I could tell you what I might do differently, but I don’t think I could change anything. So to even speculate would bring up issues of resentment and regret, and those are things that I’ve worked through. Some people ask, “Dude, how can you just walk away from that question?” Well, if you were me and you sat around and asked yourself, “Why’d the band break up?”, and let that sit in your head, you wouldn’t be able to move on with life. So I’ve dealt with those questions and I feel pretty sure of myself as to how I’ve dealt with them.
But no, the success of that band, and what we accomplished with the songwriting, that’s what I mean by success — you can’t take that away. Ever. Ever. And it was really great at times. There are really good songs — some really good turns of a verse into a chorus and some really great moments.

To then move on from GNR into Velvet Revolver—how hard was it to be eight years sober and to then have to lock into a creative process with someone who was still in their disease (Velvet Revolver singer Scott Weiland battled with addiction at the time)?
Well, it was different. I’d known Scott. When you’re around and playing in bands, you know these guys before you work with them. I mean, I know people today who are still fucked up and I just don’t get too close. But suddenly I was in a band with Scott, and people said, “Well, Duff’s the guy, Duff will take care of it.” I’d been sober long enough — I’d been through Seattle U, I’d had kids, and I just thought I was so far removed that I thought I could handle it. I was doing martial arts, and I still do, but when I got up to the mountain I didn’t realize that I was mixing all of that stuff — martial arts, healing, and spirituality with commerce.
But the creative process with Scott was great. He handled himself well for that first record and that first tour, and he’s a good guy. Like a lot of people. So I’d danced around, but never with someone that close who was still using.

You’re in the eye of the storm now—there’s so much speculation about finding a replacement for him, but you don’t hear people talk about who would best serve the sound. You mentioned Judas Priest. They play like Judas Priest no matter who the singer is. Is that true with Velvet Revolver, or does the singer influence the rest of the band’s sound?
I think there’s so much familiarity there. Number one, with the way that Slash plays. Number two, with the way that Slash and I play together. Number three, with the way that Slash and I and Matt play together. With the three of us, it was our sound that brought us together. We were like, “Oh shit — that was pretty great.”
People didn’t think that Slash and Matt and I going back to playing together would work out. They started asking, “What are they gonna do, go out and get a new singer and that’s it?” So I think that we kind of like being the underdog. Guns N’ Roses was always the underdog. Me going back to school made me an underdog, with people thinking this guy’s gonna be a dumbass, you know? Having kids and staying sober through it, and raising healthy girls — all kind of underdog moves.
So here we are, discussing Velvet Revolver. I’m sure that we’ll succeed if we put a hundred percent into it. Because that’s what we do — we overcome shit.

So do you think we’ll see another Velvet Revolver album when you guys are ready to move forward?
I hope so. I can tell you that I hope so. You know, without a singer I couldn’t say. You’ve got to have that singer that adds, so I hope we find that guy, and I hope that Slash and I play together again. And Matt, and Dave, because they’re a great group of guys and nobody works harder than them. And it’s a positive environment to be in, so at some point, yeah, I think we’re gonna make an attempt at finding a guy pretty soon.

What’s more difficult to you — three months of touring, three months of martial arts training or three months of mountain bike training?

I often do them all at the same time. My first three months of kickboxing, my very first three months when I was going through all that stuff, when my body was rebuilding and my mind was rebuilding, and Benny (the Jet, Duff’s trainer) and I were doing a bunch of work—that was the toughest, but it was also the best. I’m one of those guys who responds better when it’s harder. Touring is tough for me now because being away from my wife and kids for a long time is hard. That’s harder than anything. But the physical part of touring for me isn’t hard for me. I can go through security, get on a plane, check into a hotel and do all that traveling in my sleep. And then the gigs—that’s for free. That’s just awesome. I do the gigs for free—I get paid for traveling.

What’s next for you?
Well, I leave in a week and do nine days in the UK with Loaded, and then I do four book and in-stores. The book comes out in England on November 1. Then I fly to South America to do some shows with Alice in Chains, and then fly back to Germany and do some gigs with Motörhead, and that will get me to the end of November, and then I’ll find out what December holds.

We like to close our interviews with an Either/Or segment. I’ll give you two choices and you pick one. Fair enough?

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