Guns N Roses’ Duff McKagan on Why Girls Are the Future of Rock Music
It’s easy for our generation to think we invented the days-long ragefest that is a music festival, but our forefathers have been at it way longer than us.
Take Duff McKagan, a bassist and vocalist who got his start with Guns N’ Roses and went on to form Velvet Revolver, for example. He has partied harder than most people ever will. He’s now living the dad life — if the dad life includes playing the Grammys in a band with Johnny Depp — to daughters Mae and Grace, the lead singer of The Pink Slips.
We caught up with Duff about the state of rock music, what it’s like to be surrounded by girls at home, and Guns N Roses’ iconic style.
Duff, you’ve been married to model Susan Holmes since 1999. What’s the deal with models and rock stars?
You know, I don’t know if there is a deal. Susan and I met on a blind date.
When we met back in 1996, I wasn’t looking for a quote-unquote model. I was really a couple years sober, wasn’t dating anybody because I didn’t know how to date sober, and I got set up on a blind date, and there was this beautiful woman. She came and picked me up at the airport, and it was her. And I’m like, Oh, shit.
I was wearing, like, a wife-beater and sweatpants, and… She wasn’t. She was all dressed up. I really liked her. I fell in love with her personality. We talked on the phone a bunch before we met, so it was just a super nice bonus that she looks like perfection.
But maybe if there ever was a connection between rock people and models, it’s only because they both live crazy lives. So you understand that transient-ness.
You both understand life on the road.
Yeah. Living out of hotels, living out of your bag, having to leave suddenly if something happens. It would be really hard for most people stuck in a 9-to-5 job because it would be a lopsided sort of affair.
What’s your craziest story from your music heyday?
I’ll tell you a story. In 2005, my band Velvet Revolver—we were asked to [perform at a tribute] when the tsunami happened. We were asked to re-record an Eric Clapton song, and all the proceeds went to tsunami relief. Gwen Stefani was on it, everybody huge. All these people are taking verses on the song, and we’re the band.
Elton John decides he wants to record with us in the studio in London, and Sharon Osbourne is making this whole thing happen. I’m at the studio and Elton comes in. He looks straight at me and goes, “Duff, it’s so good to see you doing so good.” I was kind of stunned. I’m like, “Oh, thank you. I don’t know what to say.” He goes, “Well, uh…”
Then he starts talking about, “You don’t remember the Freddie Mercury show, do you?” It’s 1992 or something at Wembley Stadium. I remember getting to the stadium, I remember getting to the event, but I don’t remember all the in between stuff. I was so intoxicated. I was standing on the side of the stage getting ready to play, and I just fell over. He picked me up and I had my arm around him, and he was holding me up. And he goes, “It’s time to go out and play.” And I went out and played just fine. And I came offstage and fell down the back stairs, and he grabbed me and took me back to our backstage room and he thought, That’s gonna be it. I’m never gonna see this guy again.
And a year later, I got myself straightened out. I hadn’t seen him since then. I don’t remember any of this. You’d think you’d remember Elton John helping you around Wembley Stadium; I don’t remember any of it. There are a lot of crazy stories, I just don’t remember 90% of them. That’s the caveat to my life.
We were on that tour for two and a half years. We went around the world four times. This is back when the Berlin Wall had just gone down, the Iron Curtain had just gone down. We were playing these really exotic countries, like Czechoslovakia. I remember looking at my passport at one point, and I saw stamps from countries I didn’t even remember going to. The wall had just gone down, so you’d think it would be a memorable trip, but the only way I knew I’d been there was because I had a stamp in my passport. We thought we were doing what our heroes had done in the 70s, like Zeppelin, but I think we surpassed all that stuff.
In terms of how hard you partied?
I think we just thought that was the way it was done, and we went for it. I’m sure there were a lot of good times in there, but you know, we made it through. I remember something about jumping a fence at Niagara Falls and standing at the edge backwards, heels over the edge. I remember little snippets of completely insane things, but I have no idea why I was there.
Yeah, why were you at Niagara Falls?
What the heck was I doing there? Who let me climb the fence? I wrote a book about, kind of, me going through all that; and, as opposed to going around and asking people what happened here and what happened there, I wrote just my memories. When the memories started getting splotchy, [I wrote] what was going on in my head before that. The book goes into splotches of stuff and coming out of it. [We were] the ultimate band of taking it to the edge, for sure, but we’re all still here. It’s crazy.
What do you think of the state of rock music right now?
Because I have 15 and 18-year-old daughters, and they’re involved in that stuff, I was asked this question about a year ago. It came out sideways of course, because they cut and clip things you say and put it out in the Internet.
My answer to this question is: It shouldn’t matter what I think about the state of rock and roll today. I remember when I was 18 or 20, I didn’t care what some 52-year-old guy said. I go to a lot of shows. I think it’s healthy. There are a lot of great bands that Grace’s band, The Pink Slips, plays with.
The Garden is a really cool band. They’re two 6’5” twins, and they’re kind of menacing and cool. And I think bringing that sort of menace back into a live music experience is important. You gotta be a little bit afraid. And so I’ve seen stuff happening that I like. I think it’s probably in a good state, but I guess my point is that my opinion shouldn’t really matter.
I don’t mean it in a bad way. I’ve realized just from having kids myself that shit, man, my opinion shouldn’t matter. Like, I played rock and roll this whole time, I’m doing what I’m doing now, and I don’t feel any different. I still feel like I did when I was 18, especially when it comes to music. You’re just putting it out there. And because I’ve been through it for so long, if I’m gonna have an opinion on new music, it’s kind of like commenting on a high school. I’m just too old. I’m not in high school. But from what I’ve seen it’s alive and well and kicking.
You’re an expert and a legend though, so that’s why people care.
I guess, but I’m also old. I don’t think I’m old, but if I was 18, I’d think I’m old. I think, even Grimes and stuff I’ve seen, like Purity Ring—I think it’s all really cool. Do you call it all rock and roll? I don’t know what you call it all, and I don’t care. Charli XCX live? She’s like Iggy [Pop], man. I think she’s cool. Middle finger in the air, all of that.
I think it’s cool what’s going on. My daughter’s band kicks ass. It’s my daughter and I’m her dad, but I genuinely think they kick ass. Billie Joe [Armstrong]’s kids, SWMRS? They’re great. They do it on their own.
I have seen a lot of new bands as a result of having kids. Ho99o9—they’re black dudes from New Jersey who play hardcore, old school punk rock but mixed in with really dark hip-hop. They’ll go from like a Bad Brains sort of song to this amazing dark hip-hop where the guy’s writhing on the floor, like butt naked, screaming. And it’s dangerous and dark and cool, and there’s mystique to it.
You guys were able to chart and have mainstream success in a way that a lot of rock bands can’t today. Why do you think it’s more fragmented now?
If you were around our band in 1985 and 1986, we were not what was going on MTV or on the radio. Too many swear words in all the songs. It was too hard. There were no keyboards.
What was going on then was really dense pop, and if there was metal or hard rock on the radio, it was very sugary. So it’s kind of like… it goes in cycles. We were this underground band, so was Jane’s Addiction, but we kind of came out and suddenly something hit. They showed our video at 3 in the morning, and this was back in the day when people would call MTV and demand [the videos they wanted to see].
We struck a chord with this disenfranchised section of kids our age and younger, and that kind of opened the door for that kind of music—left of center music. Then Alice in Chains came out, then Pearl Jam, then Nirvana, and all that stuff started to really hit, and then it went away again.
I guess it’s just kind of cyclical. I feel like it’s set for another sort of underground resurgence. I don’t want to say mainstream, because I don’t know what that means, but it seems like there’d be this youth movement, like, We have to make rock and roll again. We have to scare people.
Maybe if Trump wins it will bring out everyone’s inner rebel, like Reagan in the 80s.
That’s true. When Reagan came into office, [it inspired] all those punk rock bands. I mean, that’s my age group. I had to sign up for the draft when I turned 18. I was a punk rock kid. I drew missiles and penises on the thing I had to sign for the government, but we all did.
But you just said, “if Trump wins.” That’s the scariest thought ever in American history, it really is. But yeah, it might create good art.
Anyway, back to non-political stuff. What does “the Golden Age of Groupies” mean to you?
I’m not the best at this, because when I grew up, it was all about music in my family. But I know guys who started playing guitar because they could get chicks, and I wasn’t one of those guys.
In the late 80s, before HIV was even thought of as a heterosexual thing, it was the craziest of sexual times. There was a lot of drugs, a lot of sex, no protection, no nothing. So it was kind of free and easy and [groupies weren’t] thought of as weird or taboo or anything.
But I didn’t know about [the legendary groupies of the 70s] until Almost Famous came out, kind of like everybody else. That’s when I discovered the Plaster Casters and all that stuff.
I met Sweet Sweet Connie from Little Rock, and by that time she was maybe 60. She was still Sweet Sweet Connie, and she showed up and I got to meet her. There were legions of groupies organized in all kinds of stuff back in the 70s. By the time we were a band, it was free and open and groovy.
And then, you know, HIV kind of came into everybody’s world in 1992 or so, and that changed everything. I guess I saw like the tail end of it, but it wasn’t “groupies” per se, organized like in the 70s when they had names and divisions, like West Coast and East Coast.
What about the rock aesthetic and look?
It was funny coming back once we got big. Our band blew up when we were on the road, and this was pre-Internet and pre-cell phones. We couldn’t look on the Internet and see that we were getting big or affecting fashion, just more and more people were coming to our shows. We’d see people in the audience in Wisconsin wearing bandanas or whatever, wearing cowboy boots outside their pants. We got back to LA when that tour was over and everybody was wearing pants with rips in the knees, cowboy boots on the outside, bandanas around the head, kind of looking like we looked. It was the strangest thing to come back and see that.
Our fashion—if you want to call it fashion—was…a hangover from punk rock. So the cowboy boots on the outside really derived from probably New York City—Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, Richard Hell—we morphed it into our thing, and literally, we were just poor. If the clothes we wore got old and messed up looking, it was because that’s what we wore onstage. We didn’t carry pajamas or an extra set of clothes with us. Those were just our clothes: one pair of boots, one leather jacket, one pair of pants, and maybe another t-shirt.
Out on the road, if someone threw [you a t-shirt] onstage, that was it. You had the belt you bought on Melrose for $15 and a pair of sunglasses that would break, so you’d tape them, and that was it. Now, you can buy a shirt that’s messed up and it’s got holes in it, and it costs $1,000. We had, I guess, a slight impact on fashion; but that was just the stuff we wore.
And I kind of sort of still dress the same. I can get a nice McQueen suit now, and I know Givenchy is a really nice fit on me. I know this stuff these days, but only because I have a wife and daughters that are super into fashion. And you know, once in a while, I’ll get something nice, but really I kind of wear the same pair of pants every day, the same boots every day. I haven’t changed that much—a black wife-beater, maybe a vest every once in a while to dress it up.
You name-checked a lot of female musicians before. Do you think now is a good time for women in music?
The girls are killing it, the young women right now. We’re at a really cool point. I get to be around a lot—not just my daughters, but all their friends, too—and it seems like these girls are really forward thinking. They’re tough in a very good way. They’re kicking ass. They’re looking at like, How are we gonna change shit coming up?
I don’t want to generalize guys because that’s not a great idea, but I think the females right now are of an age, from 14 up to 26—they are kicking guys’ asses right now. I don’t know what’s happened over the last 20 or 30 years to make this phenomenon happen, but it’s real. Artists, photographers, actresses, girls in a band, and going to school, and they’re all smart and cool.
I’ve seen a lot of female artists, like Lana Del Rey. I went and saw her and talked to her afterwards, and what a cool woman. She’s got her shit together. I’ve seen Charli XCX, and I just really like what the girls are doing now.
Everyone seems more empowered to make their own music.
I love it. Yeah, I think it’s great. And I’m lucky enough to have two daughters, so I get to really see it from the inside, and it’s really fun to be around. I’m just “dad,” but I get to be around it and be included because I’m also the dad who’s a musician, so I’m accepted into the club somewhat. I can’t ask all the questions, but it’s fun to be around, and it’s really refreshing.
So you had a huge night recently at the Grammys when you played with The Hollywood Vampires.
Yeah, I played [the Grammys] once before with Velvet Revolver. I think it was the tsunami song with Stevie Wonder, Bono, everybody. Awards shows aren’t always my favorite thing. Anything where there’s a competition with music has never struck me as being a completely solid thing because music is… There’s no winner.
But this show in particular was fun. Johnny Depp is a super cool guy, and doing anything with him is an adventure. He’s such a unique individual.
My wife and younger daughter, Mae, got to go. It’s really about them—their dresses, and the hair lady coming over at 8 in the morning, and being so excited… It’s really more about them than me.
It was cool to play rock and roll. The Grammys does need rock and roll, and it took a bunch of guys north of 50 to do it? Okay… But it should be a young rock and roll band. I’m glad to do it, and I’ll show you how it’s done, but next year, they’ve got to continue rock and roll at the Grammys. Everybody there—when we came out and started playing—you see people in suits go, “F yeah!” and stand up. Everybody appreciates rock and roll, I think.
Do you think the Grammys are hesitant to put a stamp on someone who’s just coming up?
I think it’s probably always been that way. I don’t pay that much attention to the Grammys, to be honest. It was fun for me to do, and I had a great time playing with those guys—Johnny and Joe Perry and Alice Cooper and Matt [Sorum]—it was kickass. I’m proud to be included in with those guys, and being able to pay tribute to our friend Lemmy, an icon and an ass kicker for any age group—to be able to pay tribute to him—was great for us.
How has playing live at a big venue changed over the years?
I don’t know, because I haven’t stopped playing. I played this whole time, and it’s really hard for me to get perspective. A live experience is a live experience, and I get to play all over the world.
You play South America, it’s all teenagers. In the US, it’s people your age and they’re bringing their kids to see you play. In the UK, it’s a different thing. In Europe proper, it’s a different thing. In Asia, it’s different.
You know you’re having a good moment in a set when you don’t see any iPhones up. You know that’s when you’ve gotten the people—when their iPhones go down, and they’re suddenly in the moment with you. That’s what live experiences should be about.
Someone who’s going to film the show on their iPhone—go ahead and go on YouTube later if you want to watch it again. I’m a firm believer that, if you go to a show, put your iPhone in your pocket and just experience that moment.
There are so few of those moments we can experience now without electronics. We’re all so glued to our navigation system in our car, our iPhone, our computer. There’s nothing better than when you go to a show and it’s like, Oh. This is all I care about right now. I don’t care about Instagram or Twitter or Snapchat. It’s just—I’m here, and I forgot about all that stuff.
I guess that has changed for me. I know when it’s a good moment when you don’t see any iPhones up.
Was that hard to get used to?
It was kind of gradual. With my band Loaded—that’s a smaller band—we play maybe thousand-seat rooms in South America. There was a gig in place down there, and everybody had their iPads up. This was a couple years ago [in Cordoba, Argentina]. I stopped the show and there was an interpreter, and I said, “Can we have a conversation?” I said, “You know, I’ve never been here, and I don’t know when I’m gonna come back. But I’m up here on the stage for two hours, and I’d rather share that with you guys. Because all I see is iPads, and I feel really weird. I’m not seeing any faces, just iPads. Why don’t you guys get one person to film it and watch it on YouTube, and the rest of us will ing rock?”
I wasn’t trying to make fun of them. I was just trying to make it a moment. And you know, I’m a modern man and I understand it and I live with a bunch of girls, so I understand stuff. I don’t hold a grudge. I don’t go, “Screw these god damn iPhones,” but I do know when they come down for that moment. I think the younger kids now are putting the iPhones down. They think it’s a little goofy, maybe it was just a phase.
Like we all had to get it out of our systems.
I think younger kids now are like, “Ugh.” I’m glad to see that kind of rebellion [against mobile phones] against that happening now.
You were in such a male-dominated scene for decades, and now you’re surrounded by women at home. What’s that transition been like?
It’s been a work in progress. It’s the best thing that ever happened. I had a really great mom, and I had three great sisters. It’s not like I grew up solely around men. And I think being a father of daughters is the biggest honor there is out there for a guy to have. Being part of their life growing up—you’re the male figure in their lives, that they base all other male things off of in some part or another. That’s just the truth, and it’s really an honor being that guy. I take it seriously, and I really like it and treasure it. And now I see other girls—teenage girls—and I understand them and I’m into what they’re doing—all the stuff they do: sports, musicals, plays. Yeah.
What’s something you didn’t understand about women until having daughters?
Just how different, you know…It’s that thing: “Men are from Mars.” Men are—we fix shit. Like, okay, “How do I fix that?” That’s our first instinct: Okay, I’ll fix it. I got it. And you know, women are not necessarily into getting whatever it is fixed. They want to see why it fell apart. Why did it get to this point? So now that’s a big difference right there. And I’m not saying one’s better. A problem should get fixed, and knowing why it got to that broken state is valuable information too, so it makes a whole. The female and the male make a whole. As a man, I have to have patience and understanding [with them like] they’ve had to have patience and understanding with me. Men are just different. That’s our deal.
What are you looking forward to music-wise this spring and summer?
I wish I had an answer for that. You know, I think it’s pretty obvious I like my daughter’s band. These bands, like The Garden and SWMRS, and the new Charli XCX thing—I’d love to hear that.
I think she really could be the voice of a generation, that girl. She’s pissed off and she’s smart, and she can write an amazing hook. It’s about girl power. I think that’s really cool and valuable. I look forward to something from her. I’m glad Iggy made a new record and that came out. Old and new, it’s all one thing for me.
You’re clearly not someone who just sticks to the music he knows from the past.
I’ll go back to stuff and fall back in love with it. I’ll fall back in love with Led Zeppelin, like Holy I forgot how good these guys are. A Prince record from 1978—Holy, I forgot how good this record is. I’ll do that a lot. But we buy vinyl at our house, so I buy a lot of new stuff. I like new stuff, but I realize I’m not a kid. I’m not trying to be a kid, I just enjoy music. I’m comfortable in my station in life at this point, whatever that station is.
Some people just refuse to learn new music past a certain point.
I know people like that. They just listen to classic rock, and it’s like, Dude, it’s the same six songs. Bad Company is great, but not every day.
I wonder if I hadn’t had kids where my musical journey would have gone. I’m fortunate that I have kids and that I’ve been into music, so I’ve seen everything—Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift when they were smaller. Hillary Duff and Hannah Montana.
Who do you think is keeping the rock spirit alive?
I always think Iggy keeps it alive, whether they re-form The Stooges or what. He’s just the ultimate rock figurehead. He doesn’t age, and we don’t want him to age. Lemmy was like that.
These are people…They’re more than people; they’re like ideas. Lemmy and Bowie passed—these people who are these amazing ideas. So yeah, it’s… Somebody’s gotta step up. Iggy’s still out there cranking. I’ve seen Black Sabbath, and these guys are in their late 60s and they’re amazing. Aerosmith toured last summer, shredding. Really good. Really into it. They’re not running from the set. They mean it, and it’s great to see that kind of stuff. Soundgarden is out there playing again. These are master musicians, and they mean it. And they created that shit out of thin air. It’s really cool to see.
Photography and Creative Direction by Jacob Dekat and Prince Chenoa