Interview: Duff McKagen Walks Into Adulthood With Walking Papers

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…

I think sometimes people assume that musicians who play a very codified style of music, like metal or punk, only listen to that same type  of music where in actuality the best bands always listen to a diverse variety of music.

J: And made diversified records. I’m a Stones fanatic and Led Zeppelin too. They’re breaking out dulcimers and mandolins and getting nutty with tunings. If you’re an artist, it’s not really creative to do the same thing over and over.

D: When we were making Appetite for Destruction my two records of that year that I listened to non-stop were (U2’s) The Joshua Tree and Power by Ice-T. Right now the band I’m all into is Purity Ring. My daughter turned me onto them. They’re ultra-hip.

What are the advantages and disadvantages you encounter when you start a new project since fans often come with preconceptions about the music based on the members older bands?

D: I think if you go into sort of middle America – and maybe that’s over generalizing – but you get “Dude, it doesn’t sound like Guns N’ Roses.” OK, and? But I don’t know if there’s been a disadvantage thus far with this band. Maybe some people who are fans of my past bands will come to our gigs but I think we’re really winning fans just by the weight of this thing now. It’s 2013 and this thing is happening now. People get that almost instantly from the first four bars of the first song of the set. People are hearing the record and they’re coming and they’re singing the words that he wrote that are hard won words, stories that were truly lived and seen. I think they’re really effective. There hasn’t been this struggle to overcome.

J: The cool thing about playing with Barrett and Duff, and the cool thing with the way culture has changed due to the internet, is people no longer go to the same sources. They need someone they trust to introduce them to something. So by playing with Duff, who has incredible credibility with where he came from and what he brought to Guns N’ Roses and with Barrett and what he’s played on, people trust them to not play in something that sucks. Now, it’s kind of funny when you’re sitting in a signing tent and they see Duff and get their picture taken with him and walk right past us (laughter) but we see those same people after the show at the merch booth buying two t-shirts and a CD and they want their picture taken with the rest of us. It’s good for me because it keeps me humble. There are people who are going to come see these guys because they’re made phenomenal records. They don’t know me or what I’ve done but it’s nice to know at the end of the show they like what we did and they didn’t just come to get Appetite for Destruction signed. It’s like having a friend and he introduces you to new people and now they get a new record that they can enjoy and hopefully get nostalgic about it and this time in their life the same way everybody is nostalgic about (The Screaming Tree’s) Sweet Oblivion or (Guns N’ Roses) Use Your Illusion. It’s really cool.