What do you do when you’ve been in one of the biggest and most important rock bands in history and they break up before you hit middle age? If you’re Duff McKagen you leave the cliché L.A. rock n’roll lifestyle behind and move back to your native Seattle, study business and economics in your spare time and choose your musical projects wisely. Since leaving Guns N’ Roses in 1997 the bassist has played high-profile gigs with Velvet Revolver and Jane’s Addiction and others closer to his heart such as his reformed ‘80s band 10 Minute Warning and his solo band, Loaded. His latest project is Walking Papers with fellow Seattle scenesters Jeff Angell on vocals and guitar, former Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin and multi instrumentalist Benjamin Anderson. Unlike the full-throttle hard rock of his previous bands, the sound of Walking Papers is weathered, bluesy and broken in by years of experience. This is hard rock as made by grown ass men with stories to tell and no one to please but themselves. Jeff and Duff sat down with Tuner while they were in the midst of this summer’s Uproar tour with Jane’s Addiction and Alice In Chains.
Tuner: How did Walking Papers come together?
Duff McKagen: As a musician you put people that you’ve played with or seen on a shelf and hope one day you can take something down from that shelf and play with them. I’ve known Jeff for 14 years. He’s just one of the best songwriters I’ve ever known. Everybody in Seattle knows it and people scratch their head like, why isn’t Jeff Angel the next Tom Waits or Mark Lanegan? Barrett I jammed with in the ‘90s and we made this silent musicians pact that one day we were going to do something together. The perfect time for me came when these two guys started recording some songs. I knew they’d be epic. I got a call from Jeff and he said “Hey Barrett and I have got a couple songs we think your bass would be great on.” I was like DING – DING – two of my shelf guys are recording!
So I went down and there were these two guys all jacked up on coffee like “HEY!” But the first song I played on, “Your Secret’s Safe With Me” I think or “Red Envelopes,” it just spoke to me. I hadn’t played bass in a band for a few years and I was really missing it. I had been taking lessons even and felt really inspired. We started playing some shows in Seattle last summer, added Ben Anderson who played on the record, and who is as Jeff said, the Swiss Army Knife – genius guy of the band. It just felt perfect and right and it’s an honor to play in a rhythm section with Barrett. He’s ridiculous, just ridiculous. I’ve been lucky, I’ve played with some really great drummers but Barrett’s got this different swing and girth and soul to his beats. He’s so mild mannered – he’s a professor – but when he plays on stage it’s like (makes angry face) and he starts screaming and it’s real. I would never mess with him physically (laughter)
Jeff Angel: He’s also really musical and plays some different instruments. He likes to get things rolling and keep the ideas moving. An idea that maybe you didn’t have faith in, he’ll be like “No that’s good, let’s milk that.” What was cool when Duff and Ben came in to play is they took these sketches that we had and fully realized them and brought in the energy. I think the Duff McKagen right arm, that’s the energy of Guns N’ Roses. You have the song and it’s kind of meandering along and then once he jumps on it, it demands that it’s going to be full of energy. It’s the passion and he brought it to the songs.
Walking Papers is a very different sounding band to those any of you were previously in. What were some of the stylistic touchstones for the band?
J: The demographic teenager was made for rock and roll. That kind of “I’m gonna put my arm around my girlfriend…” stuff works when you’re 15 and you’ve got some hormones raging but as you grow up to an adult you want music that speaks to experience and things that have been lived. I think our band – musically and the people involved – it’s time for us to reach into different territories and write songs that have a more experienced message. It’s more lived in. It’s got some scars and some wrinkles that it’s earned but it also has passion and drive and energy and I think that’s important. And I think all of us are eager to explore those new avenues.
D: Just think of all the influences we’ve accrued over the years. From Jello Biafra to Prince records and his whole career and you’re living that and Black Flag with the different singers and then when they slowed down and Nick Cave….
J: …and Lucinda Williams and Townes Van Zandt. And whatever Cuban crazy stuff Barrett’s listening to…