Duff McKagan chortles happily, reflecting on a life of two halves. "I woke up out of a drunken fog at 30 years old and I had no idea about anything," he says. It was 1994, and he was, one doctor told him, about a month from death. His pancreas was "the size of a football". He'd had too much of everything: drugs, booze, money, fame. "That seems like a long time ago," he smiles. "Some people need drama in their lives. I fucking hate it. I’ve grown so averse to it.” In 2009 he’s a different man. Sober, happily married, the father of two daughters, the author of two weekly magazine columns, bassist in the self-styled supergroup Velvet Revolver and frontman of his own project, Loaded. It’s quite a turnaround. “My brain is always working, I feel really vibrant,” he says. “I feel like I haven’t written the best songs yet. Life’s good, I have to say.”
Interview: Duff McKagan on sobriety, Velvet Revolver and Chinese Democracy
In 2009, the sobered-up Guns N' Roses veteran spoke to Classic Rock from a position of domestic bliss and reduced drama, while promoting a new Loaded album
You’ve got a Loaded album coming in April, eight years after the last one. You could call that band an on-off project.
Yeah, it’s a little strange. People call it my side project or my solo project, which it just really isn’t. I started the band back in ’98 and solidified this line-up in 2000. But I was going to college full-time; and I didn’t even graduate high school, so full-time college was an endeavour. I had no study habits. I had to work four times as hard as the kids who’d come straight out of school.
I formed this band after I started hitting my stride at college. We did a record called Dark Days in 2001. And since I was still in college and I was practising my business degree, I did my own licensing deal with EMI in Japan. I did a deal with Locomotive Records, which is a Spanish label. But right around then was when Slash and I met and we did that gig [a benefit for drummer Randy Castillo]. And that was really the beginning of Velvet Revolver. The importance of Slash and Matt and I playing together again overshadowed Loaded. The guys in Loaded understood, they totally got it. It wasn’t something I planned to do, it just happened. But Loaded we still had on the back burner. We planned on making a second record; we didn’t plan on it taking so many years. But everything happens for a reason, and it’s well-documented with your magazine – the drama and shit we went through last spring. That’s when we started making this record. It’s really a musical lifeboat for me.
Do you differentiate now between artistic success and financial success?
Loaded’s not about the dough, and I don’t think Velvet Revolver was ever really about the dough. We did some really good deals upfront for Velvet Revolver, financial deals, but that’s part of it. You’re playing in front of a lot of people, you’re selling a lot of records, you should get paid. That’s about not letting the man get one over on you. I think that’s more punk rock than anything. You’re due your share and you should fucking get it.
What’s the situation with Velvet Revolver and a new singer?
We’re looking... I’ve said things like I think we have the guy, and then that’s been overused. The songs we’ve written are the best we’ve written. I don't think Velvet Revolver have made their best record. We've listened to probably 300 singers, and there have been some really amazing guys in there. We've played with Royston from Spacehog, and he was probably 95 per cent there but you can't put a finger on what was missing. We've been playing with this guy recently, and I won't say his name, but it's not someone you'd particularly know. I hope he's the guy, because he's a good guy and a hell of a singer. You write a column for Seattle Weekly and playboy.com. It started a couple of years ago. Seattle Weekly asked me to write about the experience of going to business school at Seattle U. I didn’t know I could write funny. I found that I could take the piss out of myself in print.
It’s a classic fish-out-of-water story.
It is that classic going-against-type. Then the editors at Playboy asked if I’d write an article about how to hold on to your wealth. I wrote a mission statement column, and my idea is break things down to the basics. You watch financial news and you don’t know what they’re talking about, so I’m explaining in really simple terms.
What did you think of Chinese Democracy?
I was glad to hear Axl’s voice. I’ve always been a fan of his voice. He’s one of the real ones. I’m in sort of a different position listening to that record, because I’m not listening to it for it to sound like anything I was part of, because I know it’s not that. I think Axl sang his ass off. He made the record he wanted to make and I’m happy for him. I thought he did a great job.
Do you think there will be a point where the five of you will be friends again, able to just sit and talk about the old days?
Wouldn’t that be great? I think Guns were five dudes with this shared vision. We met and it was the exact five right guys. I’d been in enough bands before that to know there’s always a weak link in a band. The moment we got in a room and played the first three chords, we all knew it. We didn’t have illusions that we were going to be huge or anything. But people started coming to our gigs and then labels started coming to our gigs and we made the record we wanted to make. And all of a sudden it hit, and it seems like a whole generation of the world had an affinity for that record.
We went through some growing pains together. Everybody knew who we were. Man, you’d go to the grocery store and people would be like: “Woah! Dude!” How do you cope with that? All we had was each other to help us understand. We all survived. And that’s pretty amazing, that we’re all alive to talk about it.
So yeah, as part of a perfect world we could all go out to dinner without our wives or anything and say: “'Congratulations. We’re all alive, and people still freak out over what we did.' Will that happen? I don’t know. It’s probably Utopian."