Duff McKagan on His New Solo Album Tenderness, Tackling Social Issues, and more

The GN'R bassist takes on mental health, addiction, school shootings, and more

Duff McKagan
Duff McKagan, photo by Jesse DeFlorio

After 40 years in the music industry, Duff McKagan has just released his first solo album, Tenderness, a stripped-down acoustic effort that is written straight from the Guns N’ Roses bassist’s heart.

On Tenderness, McKagan takes a hard look at some of the most important issues facing our country right now, and delivers his message with a musical vibe that’s equal parts Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, and Lies-era Guns N’ Roses.

McKagan originally intended to follow up his 2015 book, How to Be a Man (and other illusions), with another book, but while on the road with GN’R on their “Not in This Lifetime” tour, he was inspired by current events and social issues to pick up his guitar and write music instead.

Enlisting the help of Shooter Jennings, who produced the album and whose band provided backing instrumentation on the LP, McKagan recorded 11 songs that deal with such topics as the opioid crisis, mental health, school shootings, and more.

McKagan has just kicked off a US tour that runs until June 16th in Seattle, and on June 17th, the Seattle Mariners will host “Duff McKagan Night” at T-Mobile Park. The veteran rocker recently sat down with Heavy Consequence to discuss the album, and the various topics the songs address. Read the interview below.

On the decision to record a solo album rather than write another book

I was writing little starts of chapters, ideas, observations, in late 2015 and then we started rehearsing [for Guns N’ Roses] the first three months of 2016, and I was addicted to the news, addicted to Twitter, like everybody else. And I’m realizing the whole time, I’m too smart for this. I understand the macro picture of they’re selling ads, they get those panels on the news, and they’re yelling at each other. It’s still super fascinating, but not really. It’s super stupid and I got sucked into it. So, I wrote about that: “You know better, you know you’re getting sucked into it.”

And I follow people that I saw on the news, I follow them on Twitter and see what they had to say, and at rehearsals, we’d talk politics. And I was just writing about that. On tour, I took my acoustic guitar, especially later on in the tour. I wrote the song “It’s Not Too Late,” the second song on the record, and it was really kind of like a Porter Wagoner song, and that kind of gave me the first idea, like maybe these songs could speak better. I don’t need to be another finger out there pointing or another voice talking.

So, I thought it was maybe a smarter way to kind of “talk” about things. I include a lot of “we” in the lyrics because it is “we”, and it’s inarguably one of the most interesting times in our history. And not just in America. We traveled and we went around the world in two and a half years. And you’re seeing all these labels going around — the elite, the leftists, the right — and I’m like, I don’t identify with any of those labels. I was traveling and I wasn’t in a West Coast bubble or an East Coast bubble. The only bubble I was in was in those 159 shows [Guns N’ Roses] played. Nobody asks who you vote for or where you come from at our shows. Nobody cares. It’s just a celebration of this music.

And in America, sure there could have been “MAGA” people [at the shows] and whatever, but I just don’t buy this divide thing that they’re hocking on the news. I read history and go see tourist-y stuff and play rock shows. And I play like Kuala Lumpur — women with full head coverings rocking out just like [fans] would be rocking out in Alabama. So the bubble I guess I was in was one of unity and music, and it reminded me of the good things I think America is about.

On working with producer and musician Shooter Jennings on the album

He certainly understood the concept that I was going for. It was really based off this Greg Dulli demo, “Deepest Shade”, or Mark Lanegan’s first two records — like I wanted it to be sparse, in my own way, but not copy that. And the instrumentation that [Shooter] chose, trying it with his band, and they did indeed understand the material, how to play or not play — the sparseness of the instrumentation on the record is beautiful, and that’s all Shooter. He just understood the topics and the gentleness of the approach to the songs.

On the songs “Falling Down” and “Wasted Heart”, which deal with the opioid crisis and addiction

So, “Falling Down,” I’d read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and that inspired that song. There’s no hope at the end of “Falling Down” — it’s too late is what I say at the end. But “Wasted Heart” was kind of the answer on a personal level, with my own addiction, and there is a way out. In my case, I have my wife, she stood by me, and I got out. Every day, opioids, opiates, how they engineer that shit now, how addictive it is. Big pharma here is brutal. The amount of drugs that are prescribed in these places. It’s not just in West Virginia. It’s in Seattle, Washington, It’s in Los Angeles, it’s in New York, it’s everywhere.

On the song “Feel”, which was written in the wake of Chris Cornell’s death

I’ve had my own battles with depression, and you can’t breathe, you can’t move. If it’s depression, all bets are off. I’ve had recent experiences in depression, mine are in the last five years — almost half of me thought I’m getting this so that I understand it — maybe I had to believe that’s what it was for my own sanity. I’m OK now, and I’ve been OK, and I have a lot of help. But it does take a village.

Scott [Weiland], he was doing drugs and we saw that one possibly coming but it didn’t hurt any less. Because I’ve seen that guy at the top. But seeing that happen with Chris [Cornell] and with Chester [Bennington], and with Prince, who had been this deity in my musical life, that came out of nowhere.

I think people with depression may lean more to the artist’s side. I think it’s probably a combination of a few things. Rock ‘n’ roll, this day and age … you’ve got to travel a lot. You’re away from your family a lot. That song, “Feel”, was my reaction, which was really emotional, like, “You’re still here with me … we’re listening to your songs, we still feel you.”

On the song “Parkland”, which was written right after the tragic 2018 school shooting in Florida

I was f*cking pissed. That day, we were kind of doing some demos. We have a TV down in my basement. It’s never on, it’s never been on — it’s just there. My engineer came down to the basement and was like, “Did you hear about Parkland?” And I turned on the TV, and I was just watching [the coverage]. And I had a guitar. And he’s got Wikipedia and he’s looking at school shootings since 2010. And so the song just happened. I have a daughter, a senior in high school last year, with armed guards at school. It’s intentional in the song that there’s no “I’ve got an answer.” It’s just a funeral dirge, playing respect to the kids.

Duff McKagan 2019 US Tour Dates (backed by Shooter Jennings + band):
05/31 – Washington DC @ City Winery
06/01 – Boston, MA @ City Winery
06/03 – New York, NY @ Irving Plaza
06/06 – Chicago, IL @ Thalia Hall
06/08 – Nashville, TN @ The Cannery
06/10 – Austin, TX @ Scoot Inn
06/13 – Los Angeles, CA @ El Rey Theater
06/14 – San Francisco, CA @ Great American Music Hall
06/15 – Portland, OR @ Aladdin
06/16 – Seattle, WA @ The Showbox