Guns N’ Roses Bassist Duff McKagan Sings a Message of Hope

Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan has spent three decades touring the globe, playing for tens of thousands of fans at a clip. But he’s always set aside time to explore, observe, and learn about the people for whom he’s strumming his strings. Their stories, situations, and struggles have often been the subjects of Duff’s articles for Seattle Weekly and ESPN.com, as well as two nonfiction books. His new solo album, Tenderness, is perhaps his most cathartic—yet hopeful—analysis of the world’s ills to date.

We caught up with Duff at Thalia Hall in Chicago a couple hours before his concert in support of Tenderness. He spoke about his writing process, artists who inspire him, the podcasts that keep him in good mental and physical shape—and the new Guns N’ Roses album in the works.

What inspired you to start writing Tenderness and to explore the topics that you do? Why this particular album now?

In late 2015, Axl, Slash, and I were getting back together and having talks and really clearing the air. We went out on tour, and I was at this intellectual ease when I turned off all the news.

Instead, I read a lot of history. I went and visited the places I read about —  such as Monticello, for example, or went with the airboat guy to see alligators. I talked to people and made observations.

I was going to write a third book about all of the noise and divisiveness in the news, and how we’re in the infancy of social media, and we have to find a better way to interact with each other. I started writing these little vignettes that eventually became songs. The album presents an overarching theme of hope, and I was careful not to point fingers since there’s enough of that going on. We’re all on the same team. It’s about us having each other’s backs and making positive change, and this little record is my attempt at illustrating that.

So what’s one thing people should know about Tenderness before listening to it?

Open your mind and take the journey. It’s a story of us, not me.

We know how ’60s and ’70s social consciousness played out in the music of the day. Are you seeing something similar now?

Some people just never stop doing it. Like Bruce Springsteen or Willie Nelson. Rock ’n’ roll has always been about rebellion. It’s beautiful, it’s love songs, it’s songs of anger, it’s all of those things.

We’re all on the same team. It’s about us having each other’s backs and making positive change, and this little record is my attempt at illustrating that.

What element of rock wisdom do you think you passed on to the generation behind you?

Well, look at “Welcome to the Jungle” or the lyrics of “Paradise City”: “Captain America’s got a broken heart.” That’s political commentary right there. That was our youth. We were just writing how we felt about where we were at. We were living in Hollywood when things were dirty and gnarly, and the humor of those songs was lost on a lot of people. Axl was always very politically aware. Try to debate Axl Rose on something political, and you’re going to lose!

Has writing your columns and books affected your songwriting process? Or are they different muscles that you flex?

Writing books, writing columns, creating songs—you’re just following where your heart’s taking you, and you hope it strikes a chord. With writing you find a voice, and trust that voice you’re writing in, and hopefully it’s your honest voice—same with songwriting. With this album I had to trust my honest thoughts and my observations and check them twice. Are they inclusive? Am I exposing something that doesn’t deserve to be exposed?

In your second book, you listed 100 albums every man should know. But what artists or genres do you listen to that people would find surprising?

I listen to all kinds of music, especially music that scares me. Henry Rollins and I talk a lot about new music. We’re old guys, so we have to discover what scares us now—the honesty that just oozes out of it. Can I ever be that honest, that real?

I’m really into this band Ho99o9. I love them. They’re brave—a mix between punk and hip-hop. This guy Ghostmane, who’s in that same genre. And a band called The Garden, two brothers from Orange County, who I got to go see. They’re 6’ 3” and impossibly good-looking twins. But they’re terrifying. One of them jumped over his drums with one step, and just caterwauled into the audience. Just fearless. Very modern, cool, and original. I get turned on to this stuff through my daughters.

Are there any particular podcasts you enjoy listening to?

I’m more of a reader, but my wife and I listen to history podcasts. We’re such nerds. We have a pool in our backyard, and we do one-hour swims and don’t touch the bottom while we listen to those shows.

Slash was recently quoted as saying a new Guns N’ Roses album is in the works. True? And if so, how do you see the band’s sound evolving?

We know how to create music together and play music together. There’s this thing about the chemistry of the three of us that I just can’t explain. I can’t comment much further than that. I like to keep things about this band on the down-low, and in true Guns fashion, you’ll know when you know.

Listen to all of Duff McKagan’s solo work here.