Duff McKagan on his Sensei, Going Back to School, and Finding a New Singer for Velvet Revolver
Rock bios have been increasing in number lately, but few are as
enjoyable as McKagan's. While Duff is candid about his addictions and the collapse of the classic Guns n' Roses lineup, he eschews an easy tabloid approach and aims instead for the big picture, giving as much
attention to his early life in Seattle and more recent events like his
1999 marriage, his enrollment at the University of Seattle's business school, and his training in martial arts.
Coupled with his thrilling rise in the 80s and gory drug-related fall in the 90s, the details of Duff's eventual physical and spiritual rebound make for an intense and satisfying read (check out an excerpt here). It's So Easy also
reveals McKagan to be a grateful and personable guy whom you've
seemingly known your entire life.
OC Weekly: The press release says you enjoy reading about the Civil War and are a fan of William Faulkner. What have you been reading lately?
Duff McKagan: Let me see my Kindle [pauses]. I go through phases. I'll get into an author and read everything. Donald Ray Pollock. You know this guy? Knockemstiff -- that's one of his books. That's [also the name of a] town in Ohio. Another one of his books, The Devil All the Time, is awesome, in that sort of American, Cormac McCarthy dark way, but maybe not as dark as McCarthy. One Bullet Away [by Nathaniel Fick], have you read that?
No?! It's fucking great. I do a reading list on the Seattle Weekly like once every quarter. I do a movie and book review and I've gotten some pretty good suggestions [from readers] that way. I also read this book called Escape From Davao. That's a really great book. I'm reading a book called Lamb right now by Christopher Moore. It's about an angel who comes down and his job is to take this guy through life, and the guy is Jesus. It's probably the first comedy book I've read and the writing is really awesome. It was suggested to me by a friend who's a literature geek.
A lot of your early drug and alcohol use was to manage panic attacks. Do you want the book to reach out to people going through the same thing?
After I had my relapse with Xanax and began writing for the Seattle Weekly I found that I could get across my intentions or thoughts better in writing. I was writing these side pieces that were private and I wasn't sure what they were going to be for. I realized that in writing these little stories that if a guy like me, a normal guy, can get through extraordinary circumstances, fuck it, anyone can. So if one person finds something that turns around their life [in my book], that would be awesome.
Are you still running a lot?
I run, mountain bike, and kickbox. I do a lot of crap.
What's your mileage?
When I trained for the marathon, that was different, my wheelhouse was like seven miles. Now I run maybe 3.5 miles but I put stairs in it and push-ups and other stuff in it.
I saw that [martial arts legend] Benny the Jet Urquidez is your sensei. He did all those karate movies in the '70s and '80s.
Yeah he did a few, for sure. When I first met him, my world was all over the place and I didn't know how to collect my thoughts. All of a sudden I'm in the back room of his dojo, and it was a real fighter's gym. There were all these martial artists. It was mysterious to me. How do you become a martial artist? They seem so centered and sure of themselves, all of those things I wanted.
Someone introduced me to Benny and he was cool and calm. Benny the Jet was looking at me, summing me up, and looking all the way through me. He could tell immediately...
It was. I'd been sober a few months and I didn't know what to do. I just let it all overtake me, the intimidation, everything. I was like, "Fine, I want to start from zero." It was awesome. There's no way in the book that I could describe it. It kind of seems even corny, writing about that stuff. There's no way you can really do it. Using words like "spiritual awakening" would just be kind of dumb.
You break through those pain barriers and you start discovering stuff about yourself and you start to feel good, you really start to feel. You look at yourself in the mirror, literally look at yourself, look into your own eyes and say, "How was yesterday, how did you conduct yourself?" It was pretty great.
Do you participate in 12-step programs or do it your own way with fitness and martial arts?
I do it all. I have 12-step friends and community and fellowship. At the root of it all is martial arts, which is really just the same 12 steps, but it's just not called the 12 steps. For me to have them both, I think...I need everything I can get [laughs]. I embrace the bulk of them. They're not separate. They're kind of all one same thing for me.
In your book you talk about the time when your brother reviewed your old financial statements and found them misleading. Do you think anything is changing in the music industry in terms of how it deals with musicians and royalties?
The deals have changed drastically, for sure. It's completely the other way around. A record is about getting people down to a club to see you play to sell T-shirts. There's the odd band here and there that sells a bunch of records now, but it's not the norm. It was the norm back in the day for a band to sell [a lot of records]. A million records was looked at as okay and now a million records is amazing.
There was a lot more excess. You'd hear of bands spending $700,000 or a million bucks in the studio [then] and nowadays you can make a great record for 40 grand. Deals are done differently now and because of that, if a band's going to survive, they have to know how much a T-shirt costs with 2-color print on it and how much gas is averaged out across the United States.
What was it like to go from being in Guns n' Roses for over a decade and then finding yourself a freshman in college, learning how to use Microsoft Excel?
[Laughs] I didn't really have that sense of entitlement. I think college will do that for you, and martial arts will [also] bring you back into the real world. I had a GED so I didn't have full high-school transcripts. I just thought I could go to Seattle U and enter, write them a check. It was from that dumb-assed move that I started getting chopped down. They said, "Mr. McKagan, where are your transcripts?" I don't know, somewhere. "Well, you've got to find those and write us an entrance essay." I did all that. "Well, that's a good story, but your grades can't get you into Seattle U. What you can do is go to community college, take a full load of courses, get A's, and come back."
That chops you right down from any high station you might think you're at. So finally ending up at Seattle U with those really smart kids, it was just too much work for me to even think like that. I just really wanted to go to college. It was as fun for me go to college as it was playing some of the best gigs we ever played. Some people might read this and say "What the fuck is he talking about?" But for me it was brand new. I was thirsty for knowledge, and I was in the best place I knew of to get that knowledge.
How's it going with finding a vocalist for Velvet Revolver?
Slash and I played in New York a couple weeks ago and Matt Sorum was there. There was a singer there we might write some songs with. None of us have really tried [to find anyone] in the last few years. We've all been busy with other things. I think once that whole thing went down with Scott [Weiland], we thought we'd find a guy right away. Once a few months went by, it was like, "Oh fuck."
We didn't give up on the band but you can't force a singer into a situation. It's got to just kind of happen. So playing a few weeks ago with that singer, it seemed really natural. So we'll see. I'll come back to you on that.
Duff McKagan will do a Q&A and sign copies of It's So Easy...And Other Lies at the Barnes and Noble in Costa Mesa on October 8 at 2pm.