Duff McKagan talks about the pressures, the past, the ‘Use Your Illusion’ alums and more…
Never has there been a group more troubled over recent years than Guns ‘N’ Roses. Not so much internally, although they have had a few problems with past members. But most of the trouble was aroused through the press.
Some of the criticism might be just. Mostly, it was merely a newspaper or magazine ‘seller’ – so to speak. It seemed that not one member of the band could be seen in public hailing a taxi without it being taken as another abusive gesture from the wild boys of rock. But credit where credit is due, Guns ‘N’ Roses are most influential rock band around at the moment.
Their album sales top eight figures. They have picked up international awards by the score. So I think it’s about time that someone actually praised them for what they are. A damn good, influential and exciting band. Why is it, when a rock supergroup comes along, everyone guns for them? It’s happened in the past – Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple – the list is endless.
The stigma attached to being the best, can’t always bring out the worst. Not without being prompted – or pushed. So where did it all start? Without doubt, in the press. An unfortunate interview where Axl Rose was taken to the cleaners, led the band to draw the line and do no more interviews, unless under strict record company guidelines, which led the press to just ‘speculate’ – which always ends up being worse than doing an actual interview. The fans then become agitated because all they read is bad news – just rewards after spending their hard earned cash on the band they think is the best in the world!
What you end up with is a love/hate relationship, which always stoops onto the latter, and so adds fuel to an already raging fire.
Guns ‘N’ Roses recent ‘Use Your Illusion Tour’ – hailed as a mighty flop at some venues, including Gateshead Stadium, seemed like the end. But recent ‘barnstorming’ gig at Milton Keynes Bowl (so I had several people tell me) has put them back on the map – as if they ever left.
chart success with singles like ‘Yesterdays’, ‘November Rain’, ‘Knocking On Heaven’s Door’, and ‘Civil War’ plus the fact that the ‘Use Your Illusion’ albums I and II, as well as past albums ‘Lies’ and ‘Appetite for Destruction’ are still selling well in the album charts, proves that they still have a huge following in this country. Perhaps then, people do not want to keep hearing all the bullshit stories that continually get printed. Perhaps what they want is straight forward answers to straight forward questions. This might be a start.
“…‘Sweet Child’ (Of Mine) was the song that really put us over the edge – over the top. But we had toured for two years, and we had been together another year and a half prior to that, so it wasn’t at first. But – surprising – yeah. it was very surprising. IT was all of a sudden moving from nowhere, to getting an apartment which I hadn’t had before. From not actually having food in the refrigerator, to moving into a house, and actually being able to get a dog – y’know – things like that.”
Duff McKagan talks about the pressures, the past, the ‘Use Your Illusion’ albums, as well as the their landmark album, ‘Appetite For Destruction’ and more…
All the pressures that Guns ‘N’ Roses have had from the press must have harmed the group on a personal level. Duff, although not being the major figure in the group to be picked on by the press, wasn’t untouched. “As far as it having an effect on my personal life – yeah. It kinda makes things hell. Myself, I try to keep as much out of the public eye as possible. For instance, I’ve got a cabin up in the lakes near LA, and I just kinda get away from it all. But yeah, when we go out to places people hassle us – I guess you take the good with the bad, it’s not as if we’re not expecting some odd stuff to happen, so we’re prepared for it at all times.”
A valid pointer to the fact was when G ‘N’ R held a press conference in Ireland, we did a press conference. One paper put out two stories, and they both contradicted each other. One was that we were really rowdy blah, blah, blah – they put that story out before they did the interview, then they did the interview and found that we were like normal guys, so they put out a story that said we were too normal, so it’s like ‘what do you want us to be?’ You can’t win.”
I don’t suppose that it ‘can’t’ be expected. Always when you get to the top, there’s always somebody trying to shoot you down. But you don’t expect it from the same people who put you there.
When you really sit down and think about it, what Guns ‘N’ Roses do, isn’t that much different to what hundreds of groups are doing – musically I mean. It is basically, straight forward ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ – Duff “It is honesty! Obviously, we don’t hold anything back. The kids out there – I mean, people ask, is it different in that country or that country – and it’s not, us people, when it comes down to it, we basically are all the same. They all have the same emotion. They all get heartbroken, and they all have great times – everything. Our songs express that and I think the people and the kids and whoever really kinda feels that we’re not cheating.”
But did they expect their success? Did they know, when they were playing those small clubs in Los Angeles, that they would become the most popular group in the 1990’s?”You never expect anything. I mean, we were living in one room – it wasn’t even an apartment, it was a shed – if we made $500 at a gig, that was a big time for us – so we never expected anything at this level to happen. When you’re playing in a rock ‘n’ roll band, you come to learn not to expect anything – you take it day by day – and I still live life that way.”
From that obscurity – so to speak – they went on to support one of the most influential groups in rock history – The Rolling Stones – billed as the ‘Clash of the Titans’, by the press. “Nobody could compete with The Rolling Stones – and we didn’t go out to compete with them, we wanted to go and play with our rock ‘n’ roll heroes. It was the media that built it up like that. We just hung out with the guys – and they were cool and we talked to each other about that and everybody was sucked off that that build up went on. Because we just wanted to go out and play – it was an honour to open for The Rolling Stones – so, that’s that really.”
A lot of that success had to do with what was, and still is, Guns ‘N’ Roses best album to date – Appetite for Destruction. But it wasn’t an overnight sensation, as a lot of people seem to believe. Duff elaborates “We tried for two years on that record. A lot of people do say that our success came very fast and it’s not that true. People don’t realise that we had toured for two years and released three singles and three videos, until Sweet Child was the song that really put us over the edge – over the top. But we had toured for two years, and we had been together another year and a half prior to that, so it wasn’t at first. But – surprising – yeah. it was very surprising. IT was all of a sudden moving from nowhere, to getting an apartment which I hadn’t had before. From not actually having food in the refrigerator, to moving into a house, and actually being able to get a dog – y’know – things like that.”
To capitalise on the success of an album such as Appetite For Destruction’, it would have to be an exceptional album. Or a double – double. ‘The Use Your Illusion’ albums received a mixed response. One reason was the release of the two albums at the same time. “We still have another record, as they say, in the can. We have another record done, that we also recorded during those sessions. We had just a plethora of material that we could’ve recorded back during Appetite for Destruction, and if we were gonna keep backlogging this material, we would never get it out. It was just a case of let’s do it now, who knows if we’re ever gonna put out another record.” The other came with continuous hold up of the release date “Slash and I had to go out to New York to mix and master the tape. Things got delayed; it’s all just red tape. Record company bureaucracy and all that stuff, that’s all that stuff was about. I was very frustrated because it wasn’t us making the release date. It was the record company, and then they would postpone it, and of course, we get blamed. But it wasn’t our fault at all.”
On top of that, the material is diverse. Cover versions such as ‘Knocking On Heaven’s Door’ and ‘Live And Let Die’, as well as ballads, and sheer rock tracks – and even one dedicated to the press ‘Get In The Ring’ – but why so different? “Life took a weird turn for us all. After ‘Appetite’ took off like it did, when it did, life took a weird turn for us all. Our songs are about life, so our songs portray that. All the changes and it’s really hard to have a relationship with a girl because you don’t know if they want you for who you are, or for your money. So, all the love songs, or love lost songs I should say, are about that. And, a lot of the songs about angst are about that – about life.”
The “Use Your Illusion II’ album even contains a soundtrack to one of the blockbuster films of the 1990’s.’You Could Be Mine’ for the film ‘Terminator II’ – “That was funny”, says Duff. “Arnold got a hold of us. He had heard the song through a friend of his, through Maria Schreiver’s brother – sort of a Kennedy connection, basically. He had heard the song at the Record Plant or something, and he played it for Arnold, and there we were. Arnold called us up saying “Let’s go out – let’s talk” so we went and had a few beers. Austrian booze, I don’t know what they called it but it killed us. Then he had us up to his house for dinner and we just talked. His producer and director were there, and we talked about it, and that was that.”
Out of all of the songs ‘You Could Be Mine’, ‘Civil War’, ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’, ‘Don’t Cry’, ‘Estranged’, ‘November Rain’, and ‘Get in the Ring’, the track that oozes sheer class is ‘Coma’. But that song seems to hold more than what the title suggest “That’s a true story. I’ll just say one of the band members, I won’t name who it is, took too many pills one night and went into a coma accidentally, and was put into hospital. This was a long time ago. I’ll say it wasn’t me” Duff laughs “But, that’s what the song is about. This person’s experience of going through a coma.”
Live shows by G ‘n’ R are something to behold. They believe in keeping music live, and will play live for any good cause. The Freddie Mercury Tribute at Wembley in 1992 springs to mind. A concert that they were honoured to play at “First of all, very honoured. We had been talking to Freddie and Brian May because we were gonna open for Queen at Central Park in New York. That was a planned thing and obviously it didn’t go down because of the unfortunate thing that happened to Freddie. In the mean time, we had become friends with Queen and it was just, kind of, a natural thing. But we were honoured, and it was a cause that we believed in helping out with.”
Every live show is different. They never work to a set list “When it comes down to it, we’re still just a club band, but playing big places. We don’t have a formulated show. We just do what we want to do. We’re just a rock ‘n’ roll band, and rock, and rock ‘n’ roll bands are about telling the establishment to go (prompt) go forth and multiply. That’s the way we approach our shows, and multiply. That’s the way we approach our music too. No holds barred.” and it doesn’t seem to cause them any problems. “Axle’s voice, some nights it’s not as strong as others, so he’ll go ” Can we do this” or “Can we do that” because of his voice. He knows how to pace himself. So it’s completely spontaneous. Sometimes too spontaneous. It’s like, if your guitar’s out of tune, and we burst into another song, it’s like “Hold on a second dude” but it hasn’t caused any problems. We’re all pretty used to it.”
Finally, contrary to popular belief, Duff gets on amazingly with Axl, and isn’t a difficult person to work with “Not as much as people would like to think. I would say, he is sometimes, but when you have five or six guys travelling around together at all times, you’re gonna have arguments and so on. You’re also gonna have great times, but, it’s like, we’re all brothers and brothers fight. The press makes a big deal out of it, and it’s not really that big a deal.”
Interview by Dave Thomas.
Storyboard and additional info by Pete Daley.