Bassist Duff McKagan says that if anyone wants to know anything about him, he’s an open book – he has one and they should read it.
“There’s not much about my life that’s not out in the open already. I just know I’ve been blessed to be in the position I am and to be playing music as an occupation. Never did I imagine I’d be doing that.”
McKagen is heading to South Africa for a second time with rock supergroup Kings of Chaos in Sun City and Cape Town, and he says that last year, the first Kings of Chaos tour, he didn’t even think about South Africa as a place he would ever tour.
“My former band Guns N’ Roses was meant to play there a few years back  but the last time I was with them was 1994, so South Africa never occured to me as this place where we’d have fans. I expected a sparse crowd, but it was sold out and I was amazed.
“South Africa is a fucking long way away and I was like, ‘What the fuck? We’re playing to a full house? Really?’ It was a good feeling and is why we’re heading back there again.”
McKagen – born Michael Andrew McKagan – was best known for being the bassist of Guns N’ Roses, bassist for supergroup Velvet Revolver and a stint with Jane’s Addiction.
He teamed up with former Guns N’ Roses and Velvet Revolver member Matt Sorum and Gilby Clarke to form Kings of Chaos, with revolving members from many other bands, including Gene Simmons from KISS, Corey Taylor from Slipknot, fellow former bandmate Slash, Def Leppard’s Joe Elliot and most recently, Robin Zander from Cheap Trick, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, who will be joining the band on stage in South Africa.
The Kings of Chaos L-R: Gilby Clarke, Duff McKagan, Billy Gibbons, Steven Tyler, Matt Sorum and Nuno Bettencourt. (Photo: Nikita Ramkissoon)
“Never in a million years did I ever think I would share the stage with people like that. They’re such good people, and they’re professionals,” says McKagen.
“I started listening to ZZ Top when I was seven or eight years old, and those great songs … man it feeks like yesterday that I wished I could be like them and here I am playing on the same stage. And we have this musical chemistry, too! That’s fucking cool, being able to play with my heroes.”
The band’s chemistry is always changing, though, and with the roaming lineup, McKagan says it’s kind of like this perpetual honeymoon period, where they never tire of each other.
“We’re not all in the same band all the time, so when we get together, it’s this energy that you don’t get in a full-time band. We feed off each other, we feed off the audience, and we push each other to almost outdo each other in the best ways possible. It’s great. And we don’t have band politics.”
He says they’re all good for each other for that short space of time “because it’s an opportunity to learn from the best in the business. How often do you get to be taught how to play a song like ‘La Grange’ by the person who wrote it?”
The audience also helps, he says. “They add this extra member, almost, that gives us drive and with the audience there, all the magic happens in the moment.”
McKagan is not tied down to one band since leaving Guns ‘N Roses, and he says this is his lot in life. He’s also a writer and a family man.
“My path was never to be one in a band. You look at bands like Pearl Jam and they’ve been together for ages, and I’m jealous of that, but it wasn’t my lot,” he says with a hint of sadness.
“I mean, how cool is that, to be with the same people making a career your whole life?”
I say that’s the dream for most people – to work with as many people as possible instead of staying with the same ones. He laughs and says “maybe”, but in music, it’s different. “People respect musicians who can keep at it.”
Feet planted on the ground
I say I think he’s kept at it, and again, he laughs. “Yeah, you can say that. It’s not that I never wanted to move forward, but it would have been nice to have a constant. But now with what I do, I challenge and push myself, because I don’t have a band’s specific style, sound and reputation to fall back on. I have to keep working, keep going at it. There’s always growth on the horizon.”
McKagan says he has two daughters back home in Seattle, and they keep his feet planted on the ground. His journey has been a whirlwind one; from playing in one of the biggest rock bands in the world to having acute alcohol-induced pancreatitis – a condition that could have killed him – from dropping out of high school to going back to community college and being the last confirmed person to see Kurt Cobain alive, he’s happy to be a settled-down family man.
“My kids, they don’t care that I’m famous. Watching them live their lives makes me realise that I am there to guide them. Not to be a rock star. I’m a parent.
“I won’t ever teach them music, though. I’m terrible at that.”
McKagan says that even though it’s been such an incredible time, the key is to keep on learning. “I wouldn’t say I’m a rock legend. Not at all. I’m very lucky to be where I am, but if I get complacent, I might as well just quit.”
Kings of Chaos will be performing at Sun City on Saturday, November 29 and Sunday, November 30 and at Cape Town’s GrandWest Grand Arena on Wednesday, December 3. – Nikita Ramkissoon
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