Duff McKagan, ‘How To Be a Man’ Excerpt: Life After Guns N’ Roses + New Band Walking Papers
Duff McKagan is dipping his toes in the book world once again with his latest page-turner, How To Be a Man (and Other Illusions), which is set to arrive on May 12. The tome is the follow-up to McKagan's It's So Easy and Other Lies memoir and shares some of the wisdom the bassist has picked up over the years ,as well as anecdotes about his time in the music industry.
McKagan has shared an excerpt of his forthcoming book exclusively with Loudwire and you can check it out below. In the piece, McKagan discusses what his time in Guns N' Roses meant in terms of allowing him the many opportunities in life he's enjoyed since. That includes going to college, writing columns and in the latter portion of this excerpt, it meant being able to start fresh with the band Walking Papers. Check out the piece below.
I never meant for Guns N’ Roses to break up. We were just getting started. But that setback—stepping away from one of the biggest bands in the world—did not stop me from playing music. It was never the fame thing that made me want to play music. It was those dreams I had as a boy. Music had me. I’m a lifer. So I started over. And when you’re starting a band—like any other business—you start from zero and build from there. You start in the van.
My brain was adjusting to the move from the high-energy Kings of Chaos set of music back to the groove of the Walking Papers, so I listened to our record a couple of times while I adjusted to the fact that I’d be wifeless and kidless for the next couple of weeks.
I thought about getting in the hotel gym right then and there to try to shock and sweat this sudden onset of fever and chills out of my bones. But the German gal behind the reception desk barked that the “Gymnasio eez CLOSED!” OK, OK. Take it easy, overaggressive lady. I don’t think she liked the fact that I was just hanging out in the lobby without a room. There was no place to go and absolutely nothing to do. No TV. No newspapers in English. No city nearby. My fever was getting worse by the minute.
One of the most frequent questions I’ve been asked since I left GN’R in 1997 has been, “How does a guy go from Guns N’ Roses to [insert regular life experience here]?”
When I went to college after GN’R, I was asked a million times, “How does a guy go from Guns N’ Roses to a college classroom?” People assumed a lot of things about that band, and yes, we were a big band. But what being in a big band meant to me was that a lot of people liked our music. Period. I was honored that so many fans came to our gigs and bought our records. I loved those songs we wrote, too. But we were just regular guys. And we knew it. My dream of going to college was finally realized in the late ’90s, and I was as stoked about going to Seattle University as I had been about any other high point in my life.
I’ve also been asked, “How does a guy go from Guns N’ Roses to changing a diaper?” It ain’t gonna change itself. “Why is a guy from Guns N’ Roses getting into the ring as a sparring partner for Sugarfoot Cunningham?” He can’t be champion without help from his gym mates. “The guy from Guns N’ Roses has a column for ESPN?” I like sports, too. And, well, I went to college! “Why is the guy from Guns N’ Roses in the emergency room with a broken nose?” Surely you’ve seen the way Pete “Sugarfoot” Cunningham can throw a punch.
So, how can the guy from Guns N’ Roses go from the St. Regis Hotel, playing before tens of thousands of fans, to a van in Germany?
This isn’t my first time trying to break a new band. Some people assume GN’R arrived as a huge rock-and-roll entity. Of course we didn’t. We had to do it just like every other band: broke, starving, and playing small clubs to no one.
Even after GN’R went multiplatinum and started selling out stadiums, I couldn’t just start a new band and expect the same level of success—GN’R was a once-in-a-generation thing.
So, to get back to your question: if you have to ask why I would spend a month in a van touring Europe with a fever, then you’ve obviously never heard the sound of Jeff Angell’s voice.
I was just finishing a tour campaign for the last Loaded record when I got a call from Jeff, asking if I would play bass on a couple songs he’d written with drummer Barrett Martin. I jammed with Barrett a lot back in 1997 and slated him as a guy I wanted to make music with in the future. And dig this: Jeff Angell was the very first guy I thought of back in 2003 as Velvet Revolver started to look for singers before Scott Weiland came into the mix. Jeff is, hands down, one of the best songwriters, lyricists, and singers out there.
Would I play bass on a few songs you guys want to record? Hell yes.
Barrett has his own independent record label, Sunyata, that he uses to release jazz and world music recordings. Jeff and Barrett were going to put this record out on Sunyata and enjoy the process of making good music without the complication and stress of trying to find a major label deal and actually forming a full-tilt band. None of this mattered to me, of course. I was just happy to be playing with two guys I’d admired for years.
There are some posh recording studios left in this world, the kind of places the public envisions recording studios should look like: high ceilings, plush rugs, and a full staff of engineers and assistants at the ready to fetch dinner for the artists. But recorded music doesn’t generate the kind of money that it used to. So artists and bands are ever on the lookout for places they can record for next to nothing. A basement with a few microphones and a Pro Tools setup is increasingly the norm.
When I went to play on those first Walking Papers songs, I noticed that the studio shared a paper-thin wall with a rock-and-roll karaoke bar. The wall was so thin, in fact, that I couldn’t immediately discern what I was trying to hear through the speakers in the studio and what was going on next door. Jeff was on coffee and buzzing around me, excited with a million ideas. Barrett was calmly trying to tell me where the verse and the chorus of the songs met. I couldn’t really hear any of it over the chorus of “Crimson and Clover” coming from next door. I asked what key the song was in and did my best.
I thought the day was going to be a wash and that I would have to come back another time when the locals weren’t shouting “Hollaback Girl” next door. So I was surprised when Jeff sent me a mix of those songs. “You actually used what I played?” Barrett has such a clear drumming groove and Jeff ’s guitar riffs are so deliberate and angular that through all of the noise and caffeine-fueled chaos, the chemistry of the three of us forced its way to the top. We added Ben Anderson on keys that week and watched the thing bloom.
Word of the recordings got out in Seattle, and we were offered a set at the Capitol Hill Block Party, a large and rather prestigious modern-music festival in town. We played the show on the floor of some retail space that was completely packed. Jeff and Barrett are absolute heroes locally, and luckily a few of my friends came to check us out, too. When Barrett put the record out a few weeks later, gig offers from up and down the West Coast and a tour of the UK started coming our way. It all felt so natural and cool that we said yes. We wrote new music at sound checks and became a better band every minute we played together.
After we accepted a choice spot on the touring Uproar Festival, we were approached by the Loud and Proud record label, who wanted to release our record again with a bigger commercial push and broader distribution.
Record deals these days are a different animal than the ones offered back in the mid-’80s or even mid-2000s. Simply put, there just isn’t a lot of money going around in this area.
But Loud and Proud came through for us. They offered money to help us absorb the cost of touring; they ponied up for the cost of making the record; they even agreed to pay for a bunch of marketing and promo. They got us a publicist and a radio person, and all in all just did a pretty superb job at trying to get our record out. All they asked was that we tour our asses off. No problem: it’s what we do.
To read more of McKagan's How to Be a Man, be sure to pick it up on May 12. You can currently pre-order the book via Amazon. McKagan is also going on a book tour and you can find him at these locations.
Duff McKagan, 'How to Be a Man (and Other Illusions)'
Walking Papers' Duff McKagan and Jeff Angell Play 'Wikipedia: Fact or Fiction?'