Duff McKagan is a hard man to pin down. The revered multi-instrumentalist, mostly known for his tenure as the bassist for Guns N’ Roses in their late eighties heyday has also enjoyed considerable success performing with the likes of Velvet Revolver, Jane's Addiction and Loaded. To top it all off, he’s even a New York Times best-selling author. But when McKagan picked up the pen to start on his fourth book last year, things quickly took a different turn.
“I was actually intending for this album to be a book,” says McKagan of Tenderness, his forthcoming solo record slated to be released in May. “I’d written a few words which I thought might be the first chapter of a new book, but instead they became the start of these songs.”
Eschewing his previous dabblings in alternative rock for a country-tinged American roots sound, Tenderness sees McKagan tackle everything from clickbait and conspiracy theories to travel and tragedy throughout his lyrics. While the album certainly bears an aura of political urgency over its eleven track runtime, McKagan strays from labelling it a political record.
“I don’t know if you want to call it politically charged, it’s just more of a reflection of our reality right now,” McKagan stresses, describing how his reunion with Guns ‘N Roses for the Not In This Lifetime tour influenced the creation of the album.
“It’s sort of a concept record of the things I experienced touring the planet with Guns N’ Roses, which was probably one of the most interesting times in modern history – not just in America but everywhere,” explains McKagan.
Over the last 35 years of touring and travelling around the world and talking a tonne of people, I’ve come to realise that we’re so much more alike and we have so much more in common than anything that could possibly separate us, and this record kind of just aims to highlight that fact.”
Inspired by the likes of Paul McCartney, ELO and Willie Nelson, McKagan wrote, recorded and produced his forthcoming solo venture in conjunction with alt-country luminary Shooter Jennings, whose band also perform most of the instrumentation across Tenderness.
“It wasn’t an arduous long process. The songs were there, me and Shooter arranged them, the band came down to record and before we knew it we were mixing,” McKagan says of the recording process, acknowledging Jennings’ monumental contribution to the development of the album.
“What he does with organs and keyboards and synthesisers, the way he thinks about music, is really something to watch. It’s so special being in the same room as him. He almost goes into a trance and you’ve just got to stand back and watch him bring out what he’s brewing in his head.”
In addition to performing vocals on all tracks of the album, McKagan also handles acoustic guitar and bass duties across Tenderness, highlighting his strengths as both a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.
“I’m definitely more of a bassist, but I’m certainly not any less of a guitarist,” McKagan says, discussing how taking music lessons as an adult helped him to recalibrate the way he thinks as a bassist.
“I took some bass lessons from Scott Shriner from Weezer, he’s an MI graduate and a monster bass player,” McKagan recalls. “He was teaching me about theory and a couple of other things, but as much as I wanted to know. I don’t want to get too deep into theory where I start thinking too much about what I’ve done in the past or what I want to do in the future, or what is right or wrong. I just want to know my neck better.”
Potentially due to the overbearing influence of his top-hatted compadre, McKagan’s bass playing is an oft-underrated staple of the sound adopted by Guns N’ Roses in their golden years. Recently, his four string contributions were acknowledged by Fender, who worked with McKagan to create a signature model based on his original Precision Bass Special. While featuring some modern additions, including a Hipshot Drop-D tuner and an intuitive TBXTM treble/bass expander tone circuit designed by Fender, McKagan considers it a faithful tribute to his eighties workhorse.
“It’s got the same Seymour Duncan pickups as my Special, as well as a Jazz Bass neck like the Special, but with block inlays,” McKagan explains. “It’s a new-old me in the form of a bass.”
As well as celebrating his influence as an instrumentalist, McKagan’s new signature bass is also a testament to his legacy as a member of Guns N’ Roses, with McKagan expressing the elation he felt by finally reuniting with Slash and Axl Rose as well as hinting at the possibility of a new record from the tumultuous threesome.
“I mean, we just got off tour after two and a half years, so don’t expect anything too soon,” laughs McKagan. “But yeah, there’s some stuff brewing for sure.”
“Since we got back together, some of the best things that have come about is just from the three of us talking again – that was long overdue, and the way we approached it on this last tour was pretty great,” McKagan says, his voice notably rich with pride. “To get rid of all the negative shit between us and have it all gone really provided me with a sense of intellectual sobriety, which was astounding.”
Duff McKagan's Tenderness is out 31 May via Universal.