|Welcome Back to the Jungle
RELOADS WITH VELVET REVOLVER
BY JOHN FERRANTE
the scene: Late afternoon at a hit-making recording studio in North Hollywood. Intense energy buzzes around the building. A guitar player known as Slash sits inside the green room drinking coffee. Duff McKagan emerges from Room A looking balanced and full of positive energy, having just completed tracking with Velvet Revolver, a powerhouse band featuring former members of Guns Ní Roses (Duff, Slash, and drummer Matt Sorum) and former Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland - an explosive combination of talent and history, and a group of men not without their demons.
One of historyís most volatile and exciting bands, in the late Ď80s Guns Ní Roses brought itís high-energy, sleazy blues riffs and attitude to a mass audience with huge hits like ďWelcome to the JungleĒ and ďSweet Child oí Mine.Ē At a time when metal hair bands pumped out formulaic commercial pabulum, GNR provided a shot of honesty and reckless excitement into the music biz. Unfortunately for their fans, the bandís best-known lineup self-destructed shortly afterward, scattering the members in various musical directions.
Since departing from the Roses camp, McKagan has been living in Seattle with his family, studying finance, and touring as a vocalist and rhythm guitarist with the band Loaded. We sat down with Duff to discuss his new project.
Is your playing different with Velvet Revolver compared to GNR?
Bass is a very important element of a band; if done right, it can be awe-inspiring. With Scottís complex melodies, I canít get in the way, so I am playing simpler. Not that Iíve ever overplayed in the first place - Iím not going to dazzle you with really fast runs - but I might hold back on runs that I would have done before with Guns Ní Roses. I play more back in the pocket with Matt now. The songs that weíve written arenít extremely difficult to play, but the most important part about them is that they all have this deep pocket, the deepest pocket Iíve ever played in. Itís important for me to be in the pocket; if Iím not, then itís all going to fall apart. Itís all about the groove, man.
How would you describe the chemistry you have with Slash and Matt?
Itís intangible. It goes all the way back to when Guns Ní Roses formed - there was a different first lineup, with a different guitar player and a drummer, and it wasnít great. As soon as Slash and [drummer] Steven Adler joined, it clicked. In the first five minutes we could tell; there was like electricity in the air. After Adler, we went through a lot of drummers but we just werenít finding that guy with the connection. We finally saw Matt playing with the Cult; it was their last gig on the tour, and Slash and I went down to check it out. We were blown away. The three of us just have this special thing when we play together.
How did Velvet Revolver come together?
Slash, Matt, and I played at a benefit in Los Angeles for our friend Randy Castillo. Josh Todd from Buckcherry got up and sang with us, as did Steven Tyler from Aerosmith. It felt good to play with Slash and Matt again. We had kind of forgotten about the chemistry we have together.
What is the Velvet Revolver sound?
Matt is always saying, ďWeíve got to keep it modern,Ē so he is always listening to records and coming up with great drum beats. With him itís easy just to find the groove, and then all of a sudden thereís the song. Then Scott comes in and sings a melody. He is a master melody writer; he can write a melody over a turd. And [guitarist] Dave Kushner adds a whole other element; heís got all these effects. He is a classic rhythm guitarist. To play with Slash you canít play like Slash - you have to play in a whole different place. [Former GNR rhythm guitarist] Izzy Stradlin played completely different from Slash; when Slash was hitting down, Izzy was hitting up, and it worked. Dave came in and knew what to do. Whether our sound is modern or not, itís our own thing. Itís us.
How do you write songs?
Itís really a band process. Nobody ever brings in a complete song. Slash might have a riff and heíll just start playing it. Maybe weíll play the exact same thing, or maybe weíll turn it upside down. Or Matt will start a drum beat, or Iíll bring in a bass thing. Itís a band process.
Do you have a daily practice routine?
Hell no. For me, playing bass without drums or other instruments - just to practice bass - is so unfulfilling. It doesnít make me any better of a player. Instead, Iíll strum an acoustic guitar at home. I like my playing to be a little rough around the edges. Iím not technically the best bass player in the world, but I grew up with a musical family, so I know how to feel - and thatís so much more important than anything else. I worry that if I get too good technically, Iíll lose something in my feel.
Do you stay up to date on music technology?
We recorded this album to tape, but we used Pro Tools as well. Matt and Scott are great at it. I try not to get caught up in Pro Tools; Iíd rather play a song all the way through than sit there and edit parts together. We tracked this record as a live band, and on most of the tunes, we didnít use a click track. Sure, some of the tracks speed up at the end, but they do so for a reason: because the music and the feeling are getting more intense. I think the listener wants to hear that, too.
Youíre studying finance. Do you see a correlation between math and music?
Yes. Math to me is easy. I didnít graduate from high school, so in college Iíve been taking algebra and business calculus - lots of math. It just makes sense. Itís a puzzle, like doing a crossword puzzle. There is totally a correlation with music, absolutely.
What is the connection exactly?
None of us reads music - we never have - so we have to remember sequences and stuff, how many verses, where are the choruses, is your verse going to lead to a pre-chorus? How many times? Not that we have an equation for a hit song; we donít. Weíve done songs that mathematically donít make any sense, but they still make sense. I donít know how many formulas I have in my head and how many songs I remember how to play - too many - but with music, youíve got to put feeling into the math.
What are your expectations regarding Velvet Revolver?
We know how high the bar is raised, so we wouldnít have done this unless we were confident. Initially we were hesitant to say anything officially; we said, ďOh, weíre just jamming together.Ē But once Scott came in and sang the first song with us, it was like, ďOkay, now we can go ahead and do this.Ē
Are you looking forward to getting on the road?
Playing live is what this band is made for. This is going to be Old School in the way that we are real players. Itís not politically correct; itís going to be questionable what will happen every night. Scott is a rational and sane guy, mild-mannered in everyday life - but when the guy gets onstage, he is fucking great. Stone Temple Pilots are a great live band, but the other guys donít move; Scott was the mover. In Velvet Revolver, everybody moves and there is a lot of energy. Scott, Dave, and I all do martial arts together, so there is a whole other intensity level that we know we each have. Martial arts are pretty violent and the workout is intense. That brings a lot to this band.
If youíve ever played a sport like football, sometimes thereís that one teammate you can count on to knock the shit out of somebody else. All three of us are that guy - so we can all count on that guy being onstage. And for me, going onstage is almost like going to war. Itís combat.
It sounds like the tour will be entirely different from the GNR days.
Absolutely. I donít remember the Guns tours. There are literally stamps in my passport where Iím like Whoa - I went there? Iíve toured a lot since the Guns Ní Roses days, since Iíve been sober, with the Neurotic Outsiders and Loaded. Touring when you know whatís going on is a lot more fun. Itís a lot easier than trying to cop drugs in every city you are going to.
What do you think about the current state of music?
I wish I could say there are a lot of new bands that I absolutely love, but the groups I love are guys that are my age - bands like the Foo Fighters and Audioslave. I really like the new Janeís Addiction record. Some great bands have come out in the last ten years, but they are underground. I love the Refused, and Queens Of The Stone Age are a perfect example of a great, dangerous rock band, especially if you see them in a small place. They are great players, but you never know if one of those guys will jump off the stage and kick your ass - I love that! I miss that about a band. When I see the Queens, I am so glad I play rock & roll.