It’s a Thursday afternoon, and the posh Astor Court restaurant in the lobby of the St. Regis Hotel is abuzz with the kind of travelers and business people you’d expect to find in a 5-star Manhattan hotel that offers butler service and keeps an actual Bentley on the premises to shuffle guests around. Tucked away on a blue velvet bench in the corner of the restaurant is Duff McKagan, wearing the same outfit he always seems to be wearing: tight jeans and a T-shirt with the sleeves lopped off so that it just hangs off his collarbone, occupying a nebulous zone between muscle shirt and tank top. Granted, the 55-year-old Guns N’ Roses bassist is insanely ripped after years of martial arts training and mountain biking, so you can’t really blame him for being allergic to sleeves. McKagan is in town promoting Tenderness, his understated alt-country album produced by Grammy-winner Shooter Jennings.
One thing that’s clear about him is that he likes to talk. And conversing with McKagan is a contact sport, as demonstrated by his tendency to reach over and lightly tap your upper arm to emphasize the point he’s making, like a goofy dad making sure you got his pun. It’s an endearing quality, although those taps edge dangerously close to slaps depending on how excited he is about the topic at hand, whether it’s about an old Stiff Little Fingers record he owned as a teenager, or working with Jennings, or one of several history books he read during the two and a half years he toured the world with the reunited Guns N’ Roses on the Not in This Lifetime tour, which kicks off another leg this fall.
These days, McKagan has a lot to be excited about. Tenderness hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Heatseekers Albums chart in June. He recently wrapped up a North American tour in support of the record, with a European leg later this summer. And he’s got a new album with Guns on the horizon. Right now, he’s keen to talk about touring with Axl Rose and Slash during the rise of the Trump era, and how he channeled his experience from that fraught time period into songs about gun violence, homelessness, and his palpable frustration at being told to stay in his lane when speaking out about things that are demonstrably fucked up.
Oh, and punk rock. The Seattle native is apparently always down to talk about old punk records.
The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What was it like seeing Black Flag back in the day?
My first gig was opening for Black Flag.
Oh, no kidding.
Ron Reyes was the singer, the singer from Decline [of Western Civilization]. Just after Keith, I didn’t see Black Flag with Keith Morris but Ron, that was my first gig ever opening for Black Flag. Then seeing them with Dez Cadena as a singer and then Dez moved to guitar and Henry [Rollins] came in, and my band 10 Minute Warning, we did a five-city tour with Black Flag. We did Vancouver down to San Francisco then to L.A. I got to see the early L.A. punk rock scene too from playing Cathay de Grande.
What’s it like going to punk shows now that you’re a …
An elder statesman? Well, fear. I wanted to get in the pit. Then I saw these really young, aggressive kids in the pit and I’m like, “Fuck that. I ain’t getting in there.” I’m wise enough to know that’s going to fucking leave a mark. That’s going to hurt. I still have that “I want to get in the pit” [impulse]. It doesn’t have to be what everybody considers punk rock. What I learned from punk rock was this ethic and this honesty and an energy. Sometimes that energy was scary. Henry, when he first came in Flag, he was scary. Ron Reyes was fucking scary.
It sounds like you had to be scary, because when you read Henry’s writings on his time in Black Flag…
You thought everybody was out against him?
That, and he always talked about this point in Flag shows where either skinheads would roll up or cops would roll up, or both, and then there’d be this big brawl.
I was in the era when it turned. Punk was for different people. Anybody could join. Geek, freak, whatever you are. Artist or homeless person, whatever. Punk rock was all inclusive: gay, straight, whatever. Black, white, whatever. We all discovered The Stooges, and the MC5, and The Sweet, and AC/DC, and Cheap Trick, and Prince, early Prince. Then it turned. I got beat up three times for being a punk rocker from the frat boys from the University of Washington just for walking over the hill.
When you say “for being a punk rocker,” are you talking liberty spikes?
This was even before liberty spikes. I had a leather jacket, bleached blond hair, I pegged my own pants, and probably some Chuck Taylors or something. It may have been more of Ramones-looking blond hair. There was only, like, 75 punkers in Seattle. There was a period where you’d just get beat up for being into punk rock. It was always by an outnumbered group of jock dudes at a pier or something. I don’t know why. Because you’re different. That only gave us more, like, “We’re on to something if it’s scaring them.” If me and my buddy Ed are scaring 15 dudes at this frat just by walking over the hill, what’s the point of that?
I just learned a lot about truth in music. I never got into music for the money or the chicks. You don’t start playing in punk rock bands to get chicks or money because there was none of that. It was about the music and the pure furor of that and seeing bands that I liked. The first time I saw Axl, Slash took me—I met Slash first in L.A, and he took me to see LA Guns, very early LA Guns—and Axl was the singer. I see this dude come out, and it’s like rawness. I see a real anger and a real ferocity. I’m like, “This guy might jump off the stage and kick my ass.” He broke a glass on stage. Something pissed him off and it was real. You saw people back away. I’m like, “I fucking love this guy.” [laughs]
Within weeks, I met Izzy [Stradlin] and he goes, “I’m starting this band.” Izzy moved in across the street from me. You probably heard this story. “I’m starting this band with this guy Axl.”
Was the apartment from when you lived downstairs from Sly Stone and he came into your apartment to smoke crack in your bathroom?
That’s my second apartment [in Los Angeles]. That was up around the corner. Sly and the Family Stone. You know Sly Stone?
Who I grew up to, Sly and the Family Stone. That’s when, like, you move to L.A. I wasn’t a greenhorn. I’d played in punk rock bands, but I thought Sly and the Stone must be in a mansion somewhere. Then I move into this place, and my next-door neighbor is this guy who becomes my best friend. He goes, “Sly Stone lives above us.” Our apartment was $200 a month. It was a shithole. He was just, like, running hookers and selling crack. [I thought,] “Are you fucking kidding me? That’s what all that noise is up there.” That was a lesson in like, “Don’t fuck up.”
Or try to start a wealth management firm if you can.
I grew up with Depression era parents. That really instilled a lot of— Well, I didn’t grow up in it. Do the math. My dad was a fireman and there’s eight kids, so college wasn’t an option. My brother Matt put himself through college, and my brother Mark went to Vietnam and got a GI Bill and then went through college. That’s how you went through college in our family.
My parents grew up in the Depression, much older than most parents. They’re like most people’s grandparents. I’m hearing stories, growing up in the Depression. I wrote a song called “Cold Outside” on the new record. It really is only by a little providence, the grace of God, or a lucky streak am I not there. I still think in those terms of those homeless stories I heard from my parents. There was no work. There was nothing. My grandfather had to go to work and build the dams.
Now that you’ve brought up your album Tenderness, I was curious about this part in your liner notes where you talk about your frustration of being told “stay in your lane” when it comes to discussing current events and politics. Does that feel counterintuitive to you given that you come from a punk rock background and punks are known for being outspoken about politics?
So did the hippies, and so did the bikers in the ’50s, and the Wobblies, and we can go back. Even the first newspapers pre-America, here in the Northeast, they would have a blank sheet of paper on the back. Did you know this?
So they would print up, like, 10 newspapers for a little town. The back page would be blank and that’s where the people would comment on an article.
Wait, so early colonial newspapers had a comments section?
You’d have to handwrite it, right? But you’d have to put your name and your address. You had to take responsibility—
Responsibility for what you said.
They were trying to instill this [sense of], “We the people can speak out.” It wasn’t America yet, but people in America were getting this idea like, “We can speak out. We’re here, we’re paying taxes to [England] over there, but we want to be us and the only way to that is to govern ourselves. We’ll put [together] a government, but we’re going to be the bosses. Therefore, we’re going to have a voice.”
Somehow, I think in the social media age, this has been lost to a lot of anonymous posting and things you wouldn’t say to each other face-to-face. I was especially astonished when LeBron James [got told to shut up and dribble after criticizing Trump]—I’d heard of that. I was off of social media by this point, but I read about it. … Oh, so, LeBron James, there’s a guy who’s started a school and he does things with his money that—
He gives back.
He doesn’t have to, but he does. I’m pretty sure most of the stuff he doesn’t even talk about. He started a school, that was a thing and he came out and said something about some move somebody made in our current administration, and he got jumped on by a bunch of people.
Not only that, but there’s an incredible history of activism tied to professional sports.
There really is. Jackie Robinson getting in and playing major league baseball and the owner of the Dodgers and like, “Look, this is not going to be easy man. You’re going to have to go this certain route and take a bunch of shit. Are you ready, kid? I believe in you.” [Olympian] Jesse Owens, going in for America, in this fascist regime. The dude is just saying, “It is we the people. At the end of it, we’re the bosses.” Freedom of speech is what it is and he really got jumped on and that really is just because of social media. Obviously, the [NFL anthem protests] got turned into this whole other thing. It was a protest against, of course—
A larger portion of African Americans brutality cases. We’re going to make a stand, how else are we going to do this? They go, “You’re against America and the military.” That has nothing to do with that. Being from Seattle, [former Seahawks players] Michael Bennett and Richard Sherman, outspoken guys. People didn’t see what those guys were doing—Doug Baldwin—were doing in the community, with police, doing wonderful things. And Russell Wilson. They just lumped them in this category, and we’re doing a lot of that right now, you know, labeling people.
I never heard [labels like] “lefty” or “those Dems” or “extreme right conservative” or “alt-right” or “in-the-bubble elitists,” or “snowflake”—all this crap. I was out on this tour that I did, traveling for two and a half years. I get out and I do all these touristy things because I read a lot of history and I’m super interested in places like that. My wife [Susan Holmes McKagan] and I do tons of nerdy touristy stuff, like going on the alligator airboat in Louisiana. They’ve labeled stuff like red states and blue states, but in none of those places did I see see any colors when I cross the state lines. It wasn’t red or blue. The people, we have so much more in common with each other than what differentiates us. Our social media, the three cable news networks, are poisonous. I stopped watching that. I fell into the trap myself.
I started watching the debates and then I start seeing these panels come on and they’re screaming. CNN started showing Trump rally after Trump rally after Trump thing. Is that their candidate? That’s their candidate. CNN used to be something else, and they turned it into—all of them turned into entertainment.
Sometimes the panel discussions feel like professional wrestling, like when certain pundits will throw out any ridiculous talking point on partisan lines.
I figure it must keep people glued. It didn’t keep me glued, but I knew all the cable news were having historical highs in revenues because everybody was glued. They found these formulas to keep people glued. I was watching. November to January, December to January ‘16, February ‘16, March ‘16, April is when [Guns N’ Roses] started the tour. I started following all those people on Twitter and I’m in. I’m like, “I’m fully in.”
You mean following the cable news reporters and pundits on Twitter?
Yes. The people I see on TV. I’m like, “I like his take, I’m going to follow them.” You see all the comments on them so you get caught up and it’s like—I read too much history and I see cycles and I know, “This is just a cycle. It’s not one I care to watch first person. I’m way too involved. Step back 10,000 feet and look down and just—” So I turned off the news, I muted all the people that I followed and then I just went back to following my Seahawks and my Mariners. That’s why I got on Twitter in the first place, so I could follow my sports teams wherever I went. Then I started going out and doing my tourist shit and talking to people. I didn’t see this divide that they’d been talking about on the news. I didn’t see this huge red state, blue state anything. I just saw Americans and cool motherfuckers and motherfuckerettes, you know?
Were you on the road with Guns on Election Day?
We were in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
How was that? Do you remember how you guys processed that as a band?
My mother instilled in me that it is impolite to talk about money, politics, and religion. So as opposed to commenting on the election and the current administration, I will just tell you this: I’ve lived long enough and I’ve read history that predates me by a couple of thousand years, that things are cyclical. We tend to pay too much attention to what’s going on now. To really sink in as far as I did in those four months I’m telling you about, it’s not healthy. It’s not good for you and it’s not really real.
It’s all the lobbyists. In punk rock bands, that’s who we were railing against—the man. We knew it then. It wasn’t our mayor, it wasn’t our [other elected officials], it was the fucking lobbyists behind the whole thing.
I learned a lot from older punkers then. I didn’t understand what The Clash was talking about at first. I didn’t understand what Stiff Little Fingers—what’s a suspect device? Until my mom came in the room when I was listening to that and she looked at the album cover. We’re of Irish descent, my grandfather came from Ireland. She started crying, she said, “These poor boys, this is Bloody Sunday. The suspect device, it’s a bomb, and these poor boys had to wade through all of this stuff.” I’m like, “What?” She told me about “The Troubles” and things and all and I’m like, “OK. I had no idea.” Suddenly, I have redoubled my effort on Stiff Little Fingers and reading names and reading fanzines and you get more politically aware.
It’s interesting how you’re synthesizing all these feelings on tour. It’s synthesized into Tenderness, an album that’s rootsy and kind of quiet alt-country album.
Well, I’ve always wanted to make a record like this. I’ve been a massive fan of Johnny Thunders’ So Alone and Que Sera Sera and the acoustic stuff and Mark Lanegan‘s first two records, really.
Also Greg Dulli?
I have this fucking demo. It’s Deepest Shade and it’s a four-track demo of the Twilight Singers, Dulli. It’s just him on the piano and a brush and snare. It’s so heartbreaking. I played it for Shooter and I said, “I want this feeling. man.” The quieter you get— Do you ever go to someplace where someone is talking on a microphone? You can barely hear him, but you’d want to hear what they’re saying so the room quiets down. I wanted that effect on this record. Getting Shooter to produce this was a godsend. I’ve known him for a long time. He loves Guns N’ Roses. Part of the reason he moved to L.A. was because Use Your Illusion I and II are his two favorite records.
I just noticed the shirt. [Duff is wearing a Shooter Jennings shirt with the sleeves cut off.]
Yeah, I’m wearing his shirt. I’ll tell you a secret: Once I put a shirt on, it’s the shirt I wear for about two weeks. [laughs]
When you see the pictures from our record, I’m wearing the same Iggy Pop shirt for every single picture. That must have been, like, two weeks of that shirt.
So, I’m working with Shooter. I was out on the road. My manager sent him eight songs, just me and acoustic guitars. He knows about my Johnny Thunders background. My point about him knowing Illusions is he knows each of our personal musical histories. And I mentioned Lanegan and how bare those records are. Then I played him the Dulli thing. Then we talked about ELO. And then we got together and play, him and I, and that’s the true test.