|SMOKIN' GUN - After the drugs and alcohol-fuelled craziness of Guns N' Roses, it's been a long hard road back to normality for their ex-bassist. Now Classic Rock talks to Duff McKagan about life after GN'R - and the prospect of doing it all over again. Under no illusions: Jon Hotten
There was a time when a half an hour on the phone with Duff McKagan would have been a wearing proposition. For some years at the peak of his fame he was, in his own words, 'willfully fucked up'. So it's a heartening surprise that the funny, loquacious dude chatting away at the other end of the line in Smog Angeles is indeed the ex-GN'R bassist. Like his former and now current again partner in grime Slash, Duff has been through a hell of his own creation and come up smiling.
His latest band, Loaded, have a new album called 'Dark Days', but by the time we speak it already sounds old hat. Duff has hooked up with Slash and Matt Sorum again, and they're looking for a singer to fill some big ol' shoes. He's returning, professionally at least, to L.A., his city filled with ghosts. He expects to encounter some unfinished business there.
Let's not pretend to be too interested in Loaded. Like many of the records issued by former members of GN'R, it's a solid piece of work that exists in the shadows of one of rock'n'roll's defining moments. I know it, you know it, and Duff knows it, too. And with the hint of a reunion of sorts on the cards, it's a time to look forwards.
Nonetheless, 'Dark Days' is an appropriate title. While original drummer Steven Adler is GN'R's most obvious casualty, each one of the original five has gone through trauma of one kind or another: Izzy Stradlin is back in Indiana after throwing the heroin monkey off his back; Slash has recently bade farewell to uncle Jack; Axl Rose, reclusive and unhinged, is the Howard Hughes of rock'n'roll; McKagan, too, was wholly freaked out by stardom and what came with it. He moved to Seattle, his home town, and went back to college to major in accountancy.
"The Guns thing always seemed slightly unreal," he begins, as if articulating the thought for the first time. "I was never quite comfortable. It never quite felt like real life. I came from a far humbler place, we all did. I'd never felt that I constantly had to be the centre of attention, but I was. I didn't move out of LA because Guns finished, I had a house in Seattle already - that was real life to me."
When he called Axl and informed him that GN'R - already without Izzy, Slash and Adler - was no longer the deal that he'd signed up to, he knew that he couldn't stay in LA. The city was like a big ol' drink perched on a bar right in front of him, and Duff had fought hard to get himself sober.
"I don't think: 'Oh, this city has all this shit that nearly killed me'," he says. "I have a lot of great friends here. But when I got sober I couldn't drive down the streets in LA without thinking: 'That's a drug dealer's house there, that's a drug dealer's place...' I had to get away from that when I was sober. I'd earned the right to not be there."
He pauses for a second, maybe unsure about committing his next thought to tape. "What LA came to represent for me was that attitude of 'keep them on the road, get them whatever they want, just keep them out there making their money.' That is what LA is. When it was ripping the band apart, I remember thinking to myself: 'This is hell.' We weren't the first band to go through it. We knew the stories, we'd read them. We knew it was happening.
There was a signpost on the way to this West Coast perdition. The name carved on it was Steven Adler. Adler has been totally straightforward about the drug-induced strokes and heart attacks that have left him physically wrecked.
"We were saying to him, 'Steven, you're fucked up," Duff recalls. "We said: 'Me and Slash, we're fucked up, but you're really fucked up'. I remember saying to him: 'If me and Slash think you're fucked up, think about who's saying that...'
"But look at me. Look at pictures of me from '87 to '94. I started out as this thin rock dude, and by the end I looked like Elvis in his later years. Why didn't anybody say anything?"
Nobody did, and Duff carried on drinking until his pancreas exploded.
"It was 1994," he recalls. "I had stopped drinking vodka, but in a fucked up way I'd replaced it with 20 bottles of whine a day. I mean, I thought I was cutting down. I was taking Quaaludes, anything to bring me down. And one day I had a pain right under my sternum. I thought it gas pains. It felt like someone sticking a knife in me. And I remember my best friend came round. He could always come without knocking, and I heard him downstairs, but I couldn't get out of bed. He got me to hospital. Sometimes, just before you die, they'll stick a knife in you just to relieve the pressure and the pain. I wasn't quite that bad, but I was in hospital for 10 days."
"I was on Librium for the DTs, the delirium tremors. That got rid of the withdrawal. They wanted me to go to rehab, but I just felt that I'd had enough. I didn't want any more alcohol."
"At that time I started getting into kick boxing, and I found a martial art that I loved. More than anything, it taught me to think sober. It changed the way I thought about things. I started washing my clothes. I cleaned my house. I went to the grocery store. It was real life, little things. I did the martial art twice a day."
"Then I went back to dealing with Axl, and I realized I just didn't need it anymore. It was just me and him. Slash had left, Izzy had left. It wasn't the same band, and I just thought: 'What's the point?"
McKagan remained in Seattle and, in a move reminiscent of John Major's famous decision to run away from the circus and join the Tory party, he became a finance major at college. But his classmates felt when a former member of GN'R walked through the door and plonked books down on the nearest empty desk remains unrecorded, but McKagan had found a 'raison d'etre' again.
"Back when the band started, we all came from humble backgrounds. We got our first cheques for forty grand and it was like, whoah!" he says. "We'd been living on a hundred bucks a week. None of us had seen anything close to that before. Then the next cheque came, and then the really big cheques came, and they just kept coming. We didn't know what anything was, what anything was for.
"It was only later that I started tying it all together. I started wanting to know: 'Okay, the interest rates have just gone up half a percent, what does that mean for a mortgage? How does that affect my bonds?'
"I'd like to write a book for musicians about that," he says, warming to his theme. "Explain what a royality rate is, what a yield is, so that they know and don't get ripped off so much. It's not that it's not cool to know that stuff, you just don't understand it, so you cover up and pretend that you do. You can't let on. It's terrifying. You start out and you hand everything over to managers and accountants, and you hope that there's something left at the end."
Belatedly, he was dealing with the disorientating effects of overwhelming success.
He was married, had young daughters, and came to appreciate the beauty of the simple things in life. And only after he'd done so did the real desire to make music of his own return. He dallied briefly with Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, before regathering himself.
"I was doing my finance major, and I was playing with some guys in my spare time. I had a bunch of songs and I was laying them down in this little studio, called Jupiter Studios, in Seattle. It's run by this guy called Martin Feveyear, who's from Sussex. He kept telling me it was going to work. He helped me find my voice. He encouraged me and pushed me, and it worked without me really trying.
"I started working with Geoff Redding. I played guitar and he played drums, and I laid bass over the top. It was a real simple process. I had two kids, I was going to school, and I just put things around that. The next thing I knew, the record was done. That was the killer. It was an organic thing. I had fifteen or sixteen songs. We went out and played in Japan. It rocked. It was cool."
One of the first songs he wrote was 'Seattlehead', the aggressive tune that opens 'Dark Days'.
"That's about what LA came to represent, rather than what it is," he explains. "I still have an appartment in LA, I still love to come here. It's a great place to visit. Those sentiments come from that. It also made me realize that I can't just stop and go to school. I need to have some form of expression, and I always will do. It's definitely a step forwards. I didn't have to make a record. Shit, I didn't have to do anything..."
Nonetheless, he has done. Along with the Loaded record and the short tour that will accompany it, he's been jamming with Slash and Matt Sorum for most of the year. It has slowly become a priority for all of them. They've gone so far as to retain Pete Angelus as their manager. Angelus, a man who embodies the epithet 'a character', has managed David Lee Roth and the Black Crowes.
"We've written a bunch of songs," McKagan explains. "That's why I have an apartment down here [in LA]. We've auditioned a couple of singers, names you'd know [one was Joshua Todd of Buck Cherry]. They didn't quite work out. We know that whoever comes in is going to have to be the master of what he does. He's going to have to be able to ride out the comparisons, he'll have to make it his own. We don't know him yet, but we will. We're going to spend the summer finding someone. I'm coming over to play the Loaded record in Europe in the first two weeks in September. Slash's wife is having a baby then, so it's a good time to do that. Then we'll get back to what we're doing."
What does yours and Slash's thing sound like?
"I don't know what anybody would expect from me anymore. It's hard and fast. We know that we can't de-tune and do that stuff. We have to be who we are, and what we were in GN'R. It doesn't sound like GN'R, but we're not going to pretend that we weren’t there."
In imparting this information, McKagan remains so relaxed as to be almost horizontal. He doesn't flinch at all, even when the inevitable question arrives: what about this GN'R-reunion, then? After all, you're two-thirds of the way there.
"Slash is having a baby. It's changed him so much already. I have two daughters, a beautiful wife, and a house. So any kind of reunion would have to be a real relaxed, family-type affair, like it was in the beginning. I talk to Izzy all the time, see him around. So does Slash. We're friends. It's not worth screwing that up. You know, Izzy had to leave last time to save his life. He got clean of heroin, and he had to get out..."
So the story that some big-name manager or other has got the five of you in therapy to get you back together...
"Hey, I heard that!" He allows himself a long chuckle. "If it's happened, nobody told Slash. I asked Izzy, and nobody had told him. I think it's just some big manager saying: 'I can get them back together. I'll get them in therapy and go from there.' There have been a couple of offers tabled for the reunion tour. We're not talking about it right now. I'm not saying in two years time or three years time I won't be talking to you about the reunion tour, but not right now."
Could you stand it?
"We went through so much," he concludes. "I mean, not like war or anything, but a lot. There are things that I can only talk to them about. Things that not even my wife, who I sleep with every night, knows, because she wouldn't understand that stuff. It was pretty heavy stuff. The Loaded album deals with that. It's a little snapshot of a guy's life. A guy who's talking about life after seeing some pretty heavy stuff. I mean, in my 20s they were pretty fucking intense."
Transcribed by Michelle