Duff McKagan & Shooter Jennings Talk Teaming Up for GNR Bassist's 'Compassionate' Solo Album
"I was seven years old when I heard 'Sweet Child O' Mine' for the first time," recalls artist/producer Shooter Jennings. "I was on tour with my dad [outlaw country icon Waylon Jennings], and I remember we were in a hotel and my cousin was on the road with us. We were playing pool in the game room of this hotel and I heard it on the jukebox for the first time there. I remember feeling an energy that I never experienced before. It felt like the most dangerous rock n’ roll I ever heard. And that was the ballad (laughs)."
Thirty-two years later, Jennings finds himself manning the boards for the anticipated new solo album from GNR bassist Duff McKagan, entitled Tenderness (May 31 on UME.) The project originally began as a concept for a book chronicling the 55-year-old Seattle native's travels across six continents on the partially reunited GNR's Not In This Lifetime... Tour, a two-and-a-half-year trek that just wrapped up this past December (his last book, How To Be A Man (and other illusions), was released in May 2015). The tour spanned the entire spectrum of the 2016 presidential campaign and its fallout, the weight of which McKagan felt would be better suited for a collection of tunes rather than a tome.
"I went everywhere on that tour and saw a lot of places and talked to a lot of people," Duff explains. "I went to the beaches of Normandy and I went to Auschwitz and the Anne Frank house. I’ve been to some of these places before, but traveling and talking to people these last two years has been a different thing. And I don’t want to point fingers either way, because it’s worldwide. It’s not just in America. There’s a lot of things happening; there’s Brexit happening and how that’s impacting the U.K. In Poland, we played there three weeks after 100,000 Neo Nazis had gathered. You look around and think, what the fuck is going on? I read a lot of history and a lot of contemporary books, so I keep myself pretty aware, and all these songs came out from these observations. I don’t want my daughters asking me in ten years what did I do during this time."
The amount of time GNR was out on the road for Lifetime rivaled the length of the tour in support of their double LP omnibus Use Your Illusion, which ran from 1991 to 1993 and ended with an underrated covers album and an acrimonious split between Axl Rose, Slash and McKagan, the three original members in the group at the time. However, McKagan’s globe trotting travels on the Lifetime Tour resulted in more self discovery than self destruction.
"You can see the changes more clearly now,” he recalls. “I think it’s because I was a columnist for the Seattle Weekly for so long—I was there five years—that I became more of an observationalist. Because you always have to think about what column you’re going to write, you’re observing stuff all the time thinking about what you are going to write about next. I feel like I gained this extra little talent of looking around, talking to people, observing without judgment and then writing about the stuff."
Lyrically, the songs on Tenderness reflect a stark contrast to the notorious hard-partying rocker of the Guns' halcyon days in the late ‘80s. In the thick of his mid fifties and well-known for his appearances on CNN, Bloomberg TV and Fox Business as a financial expert, songs like "Last September," "Wasted Heart" and the touching title track are reflective of an older, wiser McKagan. Especially when you take in discussions of gender equality, the opioid crisis and, on the sobering "Parkland," the public shooting epidemic crippling our national psyche these last 20 years.
"I have two girls, and the #MeToo Movement has had an affect on the way I see things," the bassist explains. "I was hearing some pretty awful stories, and these songs came out as a knee-jerk reaction to what I’ve been taking in."
"It’s a very compassionate album, one that wants to see people not be polarized from each other," adds Jennings. "And that’s what made me feel like this is such an important record. He’s offering a solution. He wasn’t coming at these problems he addresses in these songs and saying you’re wrong and I’m right; he’s above that. He’s so good at that. When he talks about his personal life as well as something in the world around him, he couldn’t be more self aware of what could be perceived as preaching. He's very empathetic to that."
For Jennings, the trick of Tenderness as a producer was to balance the gravitas of McKagan's lyrics with a sound that imbues their collective spirit, which he undoubtedly succeeded in accomplishing with a warmth that more recalls his dad Waylon's 1971 masterpiece The Taker/Tulsa than Duff's hard-charging 1993 solo debut Believe In Me.
"Naturally he goes towards the Stones/Johnny Thunders thing, which I love," the producer explains. "So at first I thought it was going to be like a roots, Stonesy thing. But then songs would start developing that were much more Beatlesesque, or had a Kinks vibe to it. There was a lot of pure country in there as well, like the song ‘Breaking Rocks,’ which sounds like something from one of my favorite songwriters ever, Steve Young. He had a song called ‘Montgomery in the Rain’ that Hank Williams Jr. did later that has the same kind of feel as Duff’s song."
"I’ve been dabbling with this kind of songwriting for the last 20 years," McKagan adds. "I’m good friends with guys like Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli, and both of those guys have influenced me tremendously. The thing is right now we have this huge rock band going (with Guns), so I don’t feel the need to peel off a rock record right now. It is the perfect time for me to do a record of whatever the fuck I want. I mean, I could have done it at any time. I’ve done a bunch of cool stuff in the past like Walking Papers and the Neurotic Outsiders, but it was more like aggressive punk rock. For this one, though, I really took my time with Shooter to get the right arrangements and the right instrumentation. It didnt have to be perfect. I didn’t want any part of this record to be perfect; I wanted it to be real."
Tenderness is unlike any album you’ve heard from a member of GNR. However, if you appreciate the rustic warmth beneath the denim and leather of GN'R Lies side 1 or Use Your Illusion deep faves such as “Dust N’ Bones,” this sonic turn will be met with open arms. For McKagan, it was the input of Shooter Jennings that gave the album its earthy authenticity.
"Shooter is so well versed in music, man," acknowledges Duff. "I could make a reference to the Raspberries or Badfinger or ELO, he would know which verse of the song I was talking about. I had these shitty little acoustic demos I made on GarageBand on the road and he really liked the songs. So I went up to his house, and he had a little keyboard and I had my acoustic guitar. We arranged all the songs, and he said, ‘We could use my band.’ Then we hunkered down and cut the record. It was such a pleasurable experience. His band are great players, and great at capturing the mood and the intent of the song. Most of these tracks were done in the first or second takes. They were just so good and Shooter is such a great producer. I never worked with a producer like Shooter, who was just so involved in the mic placement and recording the drums in mono and all of this cool shit that he did to make the record sound super authentic."
"That kid in that hotel game room hearing 'Sweet Child' for the first time and now is working on a Duff McKagan album is definitely a fourth dimensional high five," Jennings laughs. "I can’t believe I’m in this position right now. But at the same time, it was also a real labor of creativity between the two of us, where we really connected and made this music. And it feels so separated from my view of GNR and Duff as a fan."
Yet while Tenderness is an expression of McKagan's truth as a concerned citizen of the North American continent (case in point: the album's anti-greed screed of a second single, "Chip Away," released today), it's delivered in such a way that doesn't cater to either end of our polarized political landscape, something he contributes to the sense of comfort he felt while on the road with his old friends.
"I was at ease again," he admits. "I was with my bros that I came up with. We wrote these songs that appeal to a whole swath of the world. And we were back together again playing these songs which helped put me at ease. That gave me the intellectual sobriety to observe. Luckily our band appeals to everyone. But nobody comes into our concerts with a red or a blue flag in America. They just come to our shows to rock, and music is so universal. I also don’t think we are as divided as, if you’re to turn on the fucking cable news you’re going to freak out about this great divide. I don’t think it’s there at all. It’s the same old shit, and it’s been the same since I’ve been playing punk rock in the early '80s. The Man is in control. We have seen this divisiveness before in America get used as a political ploy. The same shit happened in the 1870s and the 1940s. Andrew Jackson was the architect with his simple slogans and intentional misspellings on his campaign posters, which he did just to appeal to a certain constituency. If you know your American history, you’ve seen this all before. This too shall pass if we can keep our heads on."
Duff McKagan will embark on a quick North American tour that begins in Philadelphia on May 30 and runs through June 16, where he will play to a hometown crowd at the Showbox in Seattle. Preorder Tenderness here.