Ex-GN’R man on why Velvet Revolver ain’t no frickin’ supergroup
AREN’T THE BEST BANDS THE ONES THAT FORM FROM OF A BUNCH OF PLAYERS WHO HANG OUT TOGETHER? JOHN CALLAGHAN FINDS OUT THAT VELVET REVOLVER IS THE REAL DEAL – WITH SOME PUNK ATTITUDE THROWN IN FOR GOOD MEASURE…
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‘Fuck anyone who calls us a supergroup,’ spits Duff McKagan with considerable venom. Having been in the business for over 15 years, including surviving the horror show that was often Guns N’ Roses, the man from Seattle is pretty sanguine about most of the brickbats the music business has thrown at him. However, the notion that Velvet Revolver is just an all-star group really does get to him, despite the fact that it contains three former members of Guns N’ Roses (Duff, Slash, and drummer Matt Sorum), guitarist Dave Kushner (formerly of Wasted Youth and Dave Navarro’s band), and former Stone Temple Pilots vocalist Scott Weiland.
‘I sort of understand why people say it,’ McKagan shrugs in a more conciliatory fashion, ‘but to me it conjures up record company exec’s putting together this guy with that guy so they can make a million dollars… and it wasn’t like that. It was totally organic. All of us move in the same circles, and have either played in bands together or hung out a lot.’
The bassist goes on to laugh at the very notion that any record company bigwig would place their bets with a band made of people who’ve had some much-published battles with alcohol and drugs. Despite this, however, Velvet Revolver’s opening salvo Contraband fairly whizzed up to the summit of the US charts. All the more surprising, perhaps, given that the record really doesn’t give any nod to modern sounds, and displays a real punk attitude that proves Duff and the chaps haven’t gone radio-friendly as they hit their late 30s/early 40s.
‘In terms of the aggression and sounds, this is definitely the most punk record I’ve heard on a major label,’ McKagan concurs. ‘God, man, the first thing we did as a band was Set Me Free for The Hulk movie. Nick Raskulinecz produced it, and it was mixed by this guy – I forget his name – that seems to mix everything that comes out now. When it was mixed, we all said, “What the fuck is this? This ain’t rock! This is the modern sound? Fuck that!”
‘So for the record, we went to Josh (Abraham),’ continues Duff. He did some tracks on a Hole record, and, while they’re not my favorite band, the tracks were so 3-D; everything was in your face and the guitars were swirling around. And he recorded to tape.
‘We recorded Headspace with him as a test. It was all done in the first take and it sounded great.’
The combo certainly didn’t need much time to gel, according to McKagan. The recording sessions for Contraband started in October last year, even though singer Weiland had only joined the band in May. ‘We did have a hard time searching for a vocalist who was good enough and right for the band. But when Scott joined it worked right away. We gave him the music for Set Me Free and he came in the next day with the lyrics. We started playing the song, he started singing, and when we finished the song he turned ‘round and said, “We could be the greatest rock’n’roll band there is!”
‘Me, Matt and Slash hadn’t played together for seven years, but it was still like those ol’ comfortable pair of shoes – they just fit differently now,’ declares Duff. ‘Me and Slash never talk about what notes we should go to at any point. We just know. It’s weird.
For all the talk about their no-bullshit approach, it must be noted, however, that Contraband abounds with subtle shifts and dynamics – not least from Duff himself. With Kushner’s gigantic rhythm playing and Slash’s leviathan fretting skills, it would be simple for the bassist to take the easy way out and stick to the root notes. But Duff certainly ain’t no Cliff Williams or Pete Way – just listen to the way he keeps the groove swinging on Big Machine, or the nifty passing notes he propels Illegal I Say with. ‘Slash is a guitar player that plays around a lot of things. You can’t really get in the way, but you can cross through him at times; when you do that it’s just magnificent,’ he purrs.
‘Anyway, I never just want to play the root note of a riff,’ he explains. ‘It’s nice to go to fifths and thirds.’
‘The only rule that Matt and I abide by is getting as deep a pocket as possible. The way Scott sings on this record, he goes to a lot of the places where I might have done runs before, so I’ve had to stay out of the way. Instead, we created more of a groove – and that will become more evident as we progress as a band. We are a rock’n’roll band but there’s nothing better than a stinkin’ groove, however.’
Duff McKagan’s bass playing has been described as the ‘bastard child of punk and soul’. The man himself reckons his job is powering the rest of the band. ‘It’s what the bass is for; punk, rock, Motown – all them huge James Jamerson basslines. It’s the same role every time.’
Although Velvet Revolver perform a cover of Bodies on Contraband, McKagan understandably claims that seeing the like of The Clash’s Paul Simonon and The Jam’s Bruce Foxton as a teenager had more of an influence on him as a bassist than Sid Vicious.
Not that the Sex Pistols aren’t dear to his heart, and Duff has played rhythm guitar alongside Steve Jones in Neurotic Outsiders – another time where McKagan had to make sure he was on the money. How well does he feel he managed to keep in step with Jones, whom many believe to be the tightest guitar player of all time?
‘Yeah, well I was good’n’sober at the time,’ he laughs. ‘And, when I’m not all fucked up, I’m a tight bass player, too.’
The man christened Michael Andrew McKagan has either sung or played guitar, bass or duns in about 30 bands in his time, including his own band Loaded, and has released solo material, although one of his albums Beautiful Disease was never released – falling through the cracks in a record company merger. ‘I bet it’ll get released now we’ve just had a hit record,’ wisecracks a cynical McKagan.
And, although – given the reputations of the band’s personnel – many might bet against Velvet Revolver being a long-term concern – McKagan’s belief in the band is unshakeable. In fact, as a resident of LA for many years now, he can tell you exactly the reason why his band has become so successful.
‘A lot of the kids are starvin’ for rock’n’roll. It’s that simple,’ he declares. ‘There’s a place called Silverlake in East Hollywood, which is where all the hip kids are from. If you look at them now, they all look like Guns N’ Roses back in ’87 – all the mirrored shades and growing their hair out. Five years ago the kids were all wearing bowling shirts.’
Regardless of the vagaries of fashion, if Duff McKagan had never played another note in his life, his place in rock history was secured the day he recorded the bassline to Sweet Child O’ Mine. It’s the kind of melodic, neck-traversing part that makes bassists look impressive, and even guitar players want to check out. McKagan explains, however, that it came about as a bit of a joke. ‘The beginning of it was almost written as a farce. Slash had this way-out-there thing,’ he recalls. ‘I played this part along o it and we were all laughing. But we quickly realized that it worked.
‘Then I thought “Shit! I’ve got to play this part every night when I’m hammered!” It’s not difficult to play, but I play my bass so low that you’ve got to bend over, put the bass out a bit, spread your legs… and concentrate!’ G
Bass: Fender Jazz Bass Special
Amps: GK 2001, Marshall JCM800, 1x15” cab
Who Rules: Paul Simonon, James Jamerson, John Paul Jones, Bruce Foxton
Album: Contraband (RCA)
EASY LOW RIDER
Having discovered Fender Jazz Bass Specials back in 1987 when he got his first Guns N’ Roses advance, they’ve become McKagan’s instrument of choice. He gets them custom-made these days, though, because the originals were only in production in 1987.
When asked if he’s checked out the advances in bass technology over the past 17 years McKagan adopts a pained expression. ‘Five-strings for fuck’s sake! A bass has four strings. End of conversation. ‘And I won’t go active because I once has a “bad active experience”. I got given one and it went during the first song of a Guns N’ Roses show live. Never again.’
He was, however, willing t go with the engineer’s suggestion of adding a Marshall JCM900 to his rig in order to get a little extra growl. ‘I mixed that Marshall up with my CK2001 head, but there was only one 1x15” used, along with a direct. I hate to say it’s more “contemporary” but it’s definitely more fitting for this band.’
An MXR distortion and a Yamaha SPX60 chorus unit complete the sound – depending, of course, how long they last. ‘My tech Mick Bob is always on at me to not take the word “stomp” literally,’ laughs Duff. I just can’t help jumpin’ on ‘em and beatin’ the shit out of ‘em!’