Tuesday, September 14, 2010

How To Adapt And Thrive In The Changing Music Industry

Legendary rock guitarist Duff McKagan, former member of Guns N’ Roses, is revered by many musicians all over the world for his unique guitar skills. He’s been in the music industry over 25 years, so he knows a thing or two about adapting and moving with the times. Duff invited us backstage to talk exclusively about how to keep up with the rapid changes in music industry to ensure a successful career.

Duff McKagan is the guitarist with supergroup Velvet Revolver and lead vocalist and guitarist for his own solo punk/rock band “Loaded”, plus he spent thirteen years in the hugely successful band Guns N’ Roses. He’s also performed with Lenny Kravitz, Iggy Pop and been in bands with Steve Jones (Sex Pistols), John Taylor (Duran Duran) and Stewart Copeland (Police). Duff also writes a weekly column for Seattle Weekly and a financial report for playboy.

Duff you’ve been in the music industry a very long time and been extremely successful, but what’s been the biggest barrier you’ve had to overcome?

Getting sober. I wouldn’t be alive today otherwise. My pancreas blew up, so my body made up my mind for me. The decision was literally made for me. It really was, and I could have continued using (drugs) after I got out of hospital, but I would have died within a week or two. So that’s the biggest life changing thing I’ve had to deal with. Because when I got out of the hospital I finally said “OK I want to live now how do I do this?”.

I had no fucking idea how to be sober. I remember going to the store the first time and I was shaking. It was as if I was on acid. I remember taking the money out and handing it over and I thought everybody was staring at me. I just couldn’t really deal with anything at that time. I didn’t even know how to do the most basic things. I had to take it from being completely detached from my body to now; being totally comfortable in my own skin.

I know you’re very much into fitness now, so has it gone to the other end of the scale?

I went completely the other way. I started doing martial arts. I became a kick boxer. I got into the best dojo and I started competing with real fighters. When I dive into something whether its alcoholism and drugs, (which I was the fucking world champion) whatever I do, I go for it and dive in and immerse myself in it.

What inspired you to do martial arts?

I didn’t know which way to turn and it was another fateful thing that happened to me. I was introduced to this legendary kick boxer who was a very spiritual man. He had been retired from the fight game for a while and he took me in and agreed to teach me. He was only teaching serious fighters, but he took me in and tore me down and built me back up.

Martial arts isn’t just a sport it’s a way of life. Did you find it helped you emotionally as well?

The sport is such a tiny amount of it. Most people would assume that the biggest fear, is that you are going to get hurt, but by time i got into the ring I was extremely calm. I just looked into the guys eyes and I could read everything that was going on. I was taught all about defense the physical part, but I’d also developed the mental side, so I was at peace within myself and I knew I wasn’t in there to prove that I was macho. I was in there to learn and discover more about myself.

It seems like you have been on a real journey of discovery. Lets go back to when it all started. I’m interested to know how you got into music?

I grew up in the last of eight kids. I was born in 64 so by the time I was cognizant of music, it was probably 1969/70. My older brothers and sisters were pretty hip. They were into a lot of Hendrix, Beatles, Zeppelin and Sly and the Family Stone. Really great bands and there were always lots of instruments around the house. I didn’t know at the time, that you would suppose to take a lesson to learn how to play the guitar. I thought there’s a guitar and I would hear a sound on the stereo, so I’ll just do that on the guitar and make that same noise and that’s how it started for me.

At some point I really got interested in medicine too. I set my mind on being a doctor. I was doing really well even at Elementary School. I was getting all A grades and I was really into it. School was always kinda easy for me, but then Punk Rock started to hit, I was about 13 and I said lets go form a band and go play.

It was really something about the primalness of Punk Rock that struck a chord with me, and the first time I heard the Sex Pistols and The Ramones it was like “oh wait this is mine, its not my older brothers or sisters music, its mine”. I started writing songs and performing. I’d play drums in one band, guitar in another and bass in another, and so I was playing in three bands all at once and I was really going for it.

It sounds like you were really dedicated to music so what happened about being a doctor?

Music I loved it, I ate it up you know and then “Prince” hit and on his first four records he plays everything and there I was, a kid who could play drums and lots of other instruments and so he became the man to me, and he still is even to this day. He’s the most creative musical genius there is, he can sing, play guitar and he’s just amazing and he writes awesome songs as well.

So back to medicine, when I started my first band I was like “oh well me being a doctor, nah, its not gonna happen” but I kept that dream alive of academia and I went to school in my thirties.

So you’ve always enjoyed learning?

I loved it. I loved school and somehow I want to continue into a Masters program, because I really love learning. My success was because I loved my art and I applied myself. There’s a lot of people that say “Nah you’re never gonna make it doing that, go to school, blah blah blah” and if I was going to go to school and go down that route, I would have had to really applied myself to that as well.

We didn’t have money for university you know. There were so many fuckin kids and my mom as well. Some of my older brothers and sisters put themselves through University, and you know being from a large family you have to fight your way through. You have to fight your way to the fucking dinner table, so you get use to thinking, ‘Alright I’ve got to do this on my own”.

So the business side of being in the band; is that something that you had an interest in?

No. Not initially. I never dreamed I would make any money playing music. That’s not the reason why I got into it.

Money wasn’t your main motivation?

No not at all! When Guns N’ Roses formed and the five of us got together it was like we would be in a room and the moment we struck the first chord we knew we had something. We didn’t know we were going to sell millions of records. We just knew we could create something special and that’s all we really thought about. We just wrote some songs and managed to get a record deal.

How did you go about getting a record deal. Did you get a manager and then approach lots of record companies?

We were kinda anti all of that. We didn’t try looking for a record deal. We had a manager this guy who was absolutely insane.

He found you or you found him?

It was kind of a mutual thing. I worked at this place in Hollywood it was really decrepit; full of Hungarian mafia. I just needed a job as I was starving, so I drove around delivering stuff. It wasn’t drugs, but it wasn’t fully legal and I didn’t ask any fucking questions! as long as I got paid it was cool. There was a guy who worked there and he was absolutely insane and addicted to doing speed balls. He was totally out of his mind. He eventually died from drugs.

Well that dude was our manager and he would bring us like little kids Halloween costumes down to our rehearsal place and he would say, “I’ve bought you guys some new clothes to wear”. He would tell us “You guys are gonna be bigger than the New York Dolls.” and we would think, “Yeah. Alright dude that’s great,”, but he would book us shows. They were the weirdest fucking gigs you’ve ever seen: like playing at a UCL frat party for 30 bucks, but we were cool with that, because all we wanted to do was be out performing.

When did Guns N’ Roses start getting popular?

Guns N’ Roses started getting successful when we started performing at proper clubs. We were pretty smart. It was before the internet and stuff, so we would do like old skool mailing lists and people would sign up and we would mail them out information about our next gig.

How did you get record labels interested in your band?

We just hustled and promoted our gigs by passing out flyers and people started coming out to watch us, because we were something different. Our audience were punkers and metal kids, rockers, chicks and dudes and you know the whole thing. We started selling out clubs and then selling out on multiple nights and then record companies would come to see us.

We thought it was just an opportunity to get free meals, so we kinda dragged it out for as long as we could. Once one record company jumped in, all the rest did, so we were getting free lobster dinners and cocktails. You know, that was pretty cool and we knew all along which company we wanted to go with.

How did you decide which record company to choose?

Geffin was a little boutique record company and it was small so it wasn’t like, “How am I going to find our guys office?”, they had this building right on sunset and our A & R guy Tom Zutaut who signed us, he now manages a band called McQueen. Well, he really believed in Guns N’ Roses. He was telling us shit like. “You guys are going to be bigger than Zeplin” and we were like “That’s what every A & R guys says to their band, whatever dude we’re just glad you love us”.

We just found some people who were into us for who we were and who weren’t trying to change anything about us. Some record companies we talked to didn’t know what they were talking about. We were the youth. We knew what was going on, they didn’t. They had no idea.

The record companies at the time were finding older producers. An older producer is fine, but you have to be in touch with what’s going on and bring some fresh ideas that the kids don’t know about, but these guys were bringing disco beats, and we were like “what are you talking about?”.

Click here for Part 2 Of This Interview where Duff recounts the tactics Guns N’ Roses employed in order to ensure no one took advantage or ripped them off financially. He reveals the saucy things they now do which were totally taboo before and how they maximize the money they make on tour. Plus don’t miss the story of who freaked out Duff for a whole day and had his knees shaking and voice quivering.

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