Duff McKagan’s a hard guy to miss. The tall, lean rocker dude as seen on Jumbotrons across the globe is standing in the lobby of a swanky hotel, his sleeveless Shooter Jennings shirt exposing his tattoo-covered arms. Phone pressed to his head, McKagan spins around surveying the dining room of the hotel restaurant that’s slowly filling with tourists and power-lunching business types — a Venn diagram in which the working-class Seattle punk-turned-stadium-filling Guns N’ Roses bassist assuredly does not belong.
The downtown hotel is the Seattleite’s temporary home while his house undergoes a major three-year remodel, hence the reason we’re here in “fancy pants land,” he explains almost apologetically, after sliding into a leather booth overlooking Elliott Bay.
“We get a deal because the band stays at these all over the world, so I can stay here for the price of the Marriott,” he says. The financial prudence makes his band’s days as a symbol of rock ‘n’ roll excess feel like a distant dream. But it’s not out of step for a guy who launched a wealth-management firm for musicians after taking classes at Seattle University’s Albers School of Business and Economics and whom Bloomberg once hailed as an “investment guru.”
As McKagan was growing up in a working-class Seattle family, the youngest of eight kids, one of his earliest economic lessons came at the dinner table from his Depression-era parents. “We had this thing about there’s not enough food, so ‘family hold back’ — F.H.B. — you don’t take a big portion. If somebody brought their buddy over after school for dinner, it was F.H.B. times two.”
That upbringing informed how McKagan, 55, handles his money, but also to an extent, it informed a track off his new “Tenderness” LP — McKagan’s first solo album released purely under his own name in more than 25 years (a late-’90s record, “Beautiful Disease,” got canned during a label merger). McKagan wrote the compassionate “Cold Outside” after walking through the remnants of The Jungle homeless encampment, wanting to “undemonize” what he saw and the people he met. “I know that I’m one [expletive] decision or one wrong move from being homeless,” he says.
It’s one of many heavy topics the hard-rock hero tackles on his unintentionally countrified new concept album produced by songwriter and superproducer Shooter Jennings. McKagan ends a two-week tour with Jennings and his band, which played on the record, June 16 at the Showbox — a club whose floor the teenage McKagan once swept for free Devo tickets. The homecoming party continues with “Duff McKagan Night” at the Mariners game June 17, followed by an in-store performance at Easy Street Records on June 18.
Since getting clean more than two decades ago after his pancreas burst, the clearer-headed McKagan has taken up a number of hobbies: martial arts, mountain biking and “armchair historian” among them. “In the 25 years that I’ve been sober, my wife estimates that I’ve read a thousand books on history,” he says.
Throughout our conversation, McKagan name-drops authors and book titles faster than a liberal-arts college junior on a first date, but with enough “dudes” and f-bombs to avoid even a whiff of pretension. There are detours on the “sloganeering of Andrew Jackson” and Jimmy Carter capturing the evangelical vote, tying back to the current White House occupant. If the rock-star thing ever goes bust, McKagan could have a second career as the first American history prof to have once narrowly avoided a beatdown in an Alabama laundromat with Slash. But that’s another story.
“If you read enough history, like, I don’t get mad at current administrations because I know they’re all fleeting,” he says. “I’m looking at the world from 10,000 feet.”
As the previous presidential campaign season entered peak mania toward the end of 2015, McKagan got hooked on the 24-hour news cycle. Like many Americans, McKagan was inundated with social-media vitriol and cable-news panelists screaming at each other. “It’s entertainment, they’re selling ads,” he rationalizes. “But it was really dangerous — the vibe and all these messages of negativity, and I found myself going down this really scary route. I think the rest of us did, too.”
As McKagan prepared to embark on Guns N’ Roses’ 2.5-year Not in This Lifetime world tour, he decided to tune out, removing Yahoo as his homepage and muting everyone on Twitter — “except for the Seahawks and the Mariners.” The stadium-gig setup time afforded McKagan 36 free hours in each city, layovers he filled with aggressive itineraries fueled by his equally aggressive reading habits. There were off-the-beaten-path trips to villages outside of Johannesburg and more touristy alligator airboat excursions while playing New Orleans.
Sober Duff has proved himself a compelling writer as a former columnist for Seattle Weekly and ESPN, and an author of several books. He began jotting down observations from his travels and his encounters with people from all walks of life, thinking he’d compile these little vignettes into his next book. During a rare quiet moment in his hotel, McKagan was playing guitar and found himself setting one of those pieces to a simple chord that became “It’s Not Too Late.” The swaying acoustic ditty — later adorned with fiddle and pedal steel by Shooter and the gang — is a gentle plea to shut off the screens, give a “middle finger to The Man” and focus on our similarities instead of our differences.
Taken with the title track, “Tenderness,” the first two songs form the thesis statement for what in a sense feels like McKagan’s swing at an “Imagine” record; a simple call for unity in a complicated, divided world. As if predicting them, McKagan dismisses charges of idealism in the album’s in-depth liner notes. His optimism in the face of headlines that get more doomsday by the hour grew from seeing stadiums packed with GN’R fans, “united under rock ‘n’ roll,” where no one asks who you voted for.
“Nobody gives a [expletive],” says McKagan. “People are losing their [expletive], crying and happy and hugging. And this is not just America. There were women with full head coverings in Kuala Lumpur, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the devil horns out, just like the guy in Little Rock, Arkansas, rocking the [expletive] out.
“So if I was in any bubble, it was one where I saw a world that was united — maybe just through music right now, but that’s enough to keep me going.”
McKagan has made his career as a brash, bird-flipping rocker type, but for years he’s longed to do a moody, austere record in the vein of fellow Seattle great Mark Lanegan or acoustic Johnny Thunders. That moment in the hotel room with his guitar and all these topics — homelessness, the opioid crisis, school shootings — swirling around in his head, he thought it might be the right time. Once Jennings got involved, there was no turning back.
Aside from Johnny Cash, McKagan had “no background” in the outlaw country Jennings is known for. But the longtime friends clicked musically right off the bat. It also didn’t hurt that Brandi Carlile, whom McKagan knows “a little bit, being from Seattle,” entrusted Jennings with coproducing her latest album, which you know, did OK.
McKagan had no intention of incorporating the spacey, faintly twanged-out sound that colors the album until Jennings suggested trying a couple tracks with his band. Jennings helped build the subtle arrangements around sparse acoustic and piano demos, as well as prodded McKagan into rerecording his old Loaded song, “Wasted Heart,” that deals with his own struggle with addiction. It serves as the “yang to the yin” of opioid epidemic lament “Falling Down,” which features heralded studio singers The Waters, who sang on Guns N’ Roses’ famous “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” cover 30 years ago.
McKagan gets almost grade-school giddy talking about Jennings’ “cool ’70s tricks” in the studio and the Beatles-mimicking process he used to give McKagan’s vocals their raw sound — “like Phil Spector without the guns.”
Despite all the external issues “Tenderness” addresses, McKagan’s daughters were at the front of his mind during its conception — and not just with school-shooting elegy “Parkland,” which occurred while both of his girls were in high school. “This is kind of a ‘what did you do when’ moment as a dad — ‘Hey, Dad, what did you do when …?’” McKagan says. “This is my little stab of trying to do something when people are scared, when people feel divided.”
A countrified rock record can’t end divisiveness or quiet the “talking heads” in McKagan’s crosshairs. But a little tenderness can’t hurt.
Duff McKagan featuring Shooter Jennings. 8 p.m. Sunday, June 16; Showbox, 1426 First Ave., Seattle; $35-$40; showboxpresents.com
Duff McKagan. 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 18; Easy Street Records, 4559 California Ave. S.W., Seattle; free with album purchase; easystreetonline.com