Duff McKagan: How Being An ‘Information Junkie’ Led To His New Album
In this exclusive interview, Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses discusses his new solo album Tenderness, which addresses gun control, corporate greed, the opioid crisis and #MeToo.
“Susan and I went to a village, like 200 miles outside of Johannesburg.” Duff McKagan is describing some of the off-the-beaten-path locations that he visited during his downtime on Guns ‘N Roses’ insanely successful reunion tour.
“They were the nicest people there, and they were like, ‘What are you guys doing here?'”
“‘I’m in a band, we’re playing tonight.'”
“‘Oh, we’ll try to get some people to come. What’s the name of your band?'”
McKagan replied, “‘Guns N’ Roses.'”
He laughs, recalling the response: “‘Can you say that slowly, so I can write it down? I’ll try to get some people to go.’ He’d never heard of Guns N’ Roses!”
The above story came in response to a question about how often he meets “regular people” in the course of a tour like that (as opposed to some of the smaller tours he’s done in recent years, with his bands Loaded and Walking Papers, and his current solo tour as well). McKagan is a guy with a powerful sense of curiosity: an information junkie, he’s always reading and learning. His new album, Tenderness draws inspiration from the stories he absorbed on the road during the GNR tour.
“All people are ‘regular people!'” he exclaims. But he notes that he does a lot of extra traveling during tours to hit spots of historical and natural significance, and as a result, he meets, and chats with, a lot of people on those travels.
“I take side-trips. In America, I have my tour bus go to Little Big Horn before I play Denver. People there are not expecting someone from Guns N’ Roses there. I do all these kinds of things. You go to Washington, D.C. and there are all these museums. And just because you’re in a big rock band, they don’t really care. I went to Auschwitz when we were playing Vienna… Auschwitz is a long way from Vienna. I went to the Normandy D-Day beaches, that’s far from Paris. I had a guide named John, he was a D-Day guide, he’s like, ‘You play in a rock band? Cool.'”
“I did an airboat tour of the marshes in Louisana. He’s been doing this for 45 years, and he told me how the marshes are disappearing. We were trying to navigate through the marshes, and he was like, ‘I’ve got no place left to go!'”
During his travels, he also realized that the world described on political opinion shows that dominate cable tv (and seep into social media) didn’t really reflect what he was experiencing: “I realized in all of these travels, no one was talking about politics. I turned off the news and the computer, and I was just experiencing life. I didn’t see a divide, and I was going to places that were being described as ‘red states’ and ‘blue states,’ and I gotta tell you, I was looking for it and I didn’t see it. Then you go to places like Africa or Europe, and we have so much more in common — by far — than what might separate us. It gave me a sense of overwhelming hope. I felt foolish for watching the news and falling down that rabbit hole. And social media. Once I did that, life got good… like when I got sober!”
These days, he chooses his news sources a bit more judiciously: “I watch morning local news in Seattle or L.A., I’ll watch BBC News, I’m informed; I’m not sitting in the dark. I’m an information junkie. I’m reading a book on Chernobyl now because of that series on HBO. It’s good to have backstories to what’s going on. History does repeat itself, if you read enough history, you see mistakes being made.”
In a press statement, he addressed one of the most powerful songs on the new album: “I heard and read some awful stories that arose as a result of the #MeToo movement. As the father of two girls, I felt the need to write ‘Last September,’ [as] a sort of follow-up to Loaded’s ‘Follow Me To Hell.’ If I have any job in the world, it is to protect the women in my life. Period.”
When discussing this statement, he says, “Loaded’s ‘Follow Me To Hell’ is a much more aggressive version of ‘Last September.’ It’s depressing to talk about but it’s important. There was a girl missing in San Diego, she was 15. They found her, she had been raped, she was dead. The guy [who did it] was living in his mother’s garage. It’s literally what I would do if I was alone in a room with this guy. I was so mad, my girls were in their young teens.”
“Last September,” on the other hand, tells a tale of an attacker who, chillingly, knows the victim. “He’s blind, what she wore, he said she planned it / He lied to himself, said she could have ran. She said no, he said yes, he took her down and choked her neck / His mama didn’t raise a man.”
“My wife was a big-time model in the early ’90s. She told me stories, she would go on trips alone, she’d be in Bali or Cuba or some far-flung place. [A guy would say,] ‘Come to my room after the shoot.’ [She’d respond] ‘I’m not coming to your room.’ She had the smarts at a young age to not to get into those situations, but she also says, ‘No one trapped me in a corner or a hallway… I was lucky, I guess.’ We’ve had these open discussions with our daughters, how to avoid these situations. But some of these stories, these women didn’t go back to the hotel room, they got trapped in a corner. These Hollywood guys [will say] ‘Do this, or you won’t get this job,’ or ‘You won’t get this movie [role].’ The song was about all of these guys, combined. It’s a fictionalized story.”
Instead of revenge, with “Last September,” he wondered how the attackers and aggressors got to be that way. “The only thing I could think of… there had to be a turning point: how did they get there? It starts early, doesn’t it? Like, school shooters, there were signs beforehand.”
“‘His mama didn’t raise a man,'” he says, quoting his lyric. “Certainly, there was someone around when he was younger that noticed that this guy was gonna be a little f—ing rapey. I’m trying to get involved with an organization that identifies signs of what you recognize in somebody earlier to help prevent this kind of s—.”
Tenderness addresses a number of other issues, including the opioid crisis, homelessness and gun control. The latter topic, in particular, may upset conservative-leaning fans, who will likely complain that McKagan should avoid politics in his lyrics.
“I wasn’t really writing about politics on this record necessarily,” he says. “I’m writing about topics. Rock and roll has always been about rebellion and telling the truth. As far as other people staying in their lane, at least in America, it’s built on ‘We The People.’
“Everybody is allowed a voice, that’s what this country was f—ing based on. I saw this thing written about LeBron James [should stay away from politics]. I thought, ‘Hey wait, this guy is a smart motherf—er, he’s doing stuff in the community, he’s going beyond the scope [of what athletes need to do]… you don’t complain when he starts a school with his own f—ing dough, but when he says something political, ‘Oh, stay in your lane, bro.’ No, he’s an American citizen! He’s ‘We The People!’ I actually encourage it, that’s what we’re built on if you read your history: please read your history! Freedom of speech was the first thing they put there, so that we could have a voice!”
Duff McKagan’s ‘Tenderness’ is out now. Get his tour dates here.