As a hungry young musician, Duff McKagan learned early on how to make a graceful entrance or exit, maybe more often than most. Even before his dozen years as bassist for the L.A. hard-rock act Guns ‘N Roses and his later collaborations with Velvet Revolver, his days as a Seattle punk meant one transition after another.
“It was 31 bands or something ridiculous by the time I was 19,” he recalls.
Now the tall, blond McKagan finds himself in another new band: the Walking Papers, which also includes Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin, plus singer Jeff Angell and keyboardist Benjamin Anderson, both of the Missionary Position. Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready also plays on the band’s album, “Walking Papers,” out Tuesday.
McKagan describes the sound of the band as “dirty blues,” both bruising and contemporary, while more willing to indulge in restraint and empty spaces than typical offerings from GNR or Velvet Revolver. But in a three-decade career that has bounced from Seattle to Los Angeles and back and that has included time in the Fastbacks, Jane’s Addiction and the Neurotic Outsiders, McKagan insists the sound is no departure, but part of a larger repertoire of interests.
“If I’d had my druthers, I would of course love to be in the same band this whole time,” he says. “It’s not that I like moving around, but it’s just my lot in life. There’s plenty of things that I’ve passed up doing -- but the thing that has always driven me since I started playing punk rock is that it’s got to mean something, you know.”
The band began as a casual jam session and recording between Barrett and Angell; McKagan and Anderson were recruited as things progressed into real songs. The first track the bassist played on was “Red Envelope,” which grinds with a noisy swing. (Listen below.)
“Two Tickets” is louder and funkier. McKagan uses the word “slanky” for its bluesy, lurid flow, which he credits at least in part to Martin, a longtime friend and occasional jam partner.
“Barrett is an actual college professor -- music theory,” McKagan says of the drummer, a faculty member at Antioch University in Seattle. “He has studied percussion with a tribe in Senegal . . . You know he knows a lot that you haven’t even thought about when it comes to music.”
The debut album was recorded in week-long bursts of energy and inspiration in a couple of Seattle studios. McKagan was born in the city and still splits his time between there and Los Angeles, where GNR and Velvet Revolver both came together in ways noticeably different from his hometown.
Although L.A. bands can sometimes seem to be clawing their way to the top, he calls Seattle “very communal.”
“There is a difference,” McKagan says. “L.A. is a massive city, a city I love, but you’re kind of on your own when you’re in a band. When I first moved to L.A., if you were a band, you were on your own little island. Oftentimes, it's even competitive -- especially back in the early club days: People fliering over other people’s fliers, taking fuses out of the back of amp heads and all that.”
While focused on Walking Papers, McKagan says his other ongoing bands are on hiatus. Only recently, the band he leads as singer and guitarist, Loaded, completed a recording and touring cycle and expects a return to action at some future date.
Velvet Revolver, the band he started with his longtime GNR comrade Slash, is also ongoing but on indefinite hiatus since the exit of singer Scott Weiland, he says. “The chemistry between Slash and I is a thing,” McKagan says. “We go in with our ears pinned back, and we’re ready for war.”
Joining the Walking Papers also put him back in the bass position, after focusing on guitar in Loaded. And he still works at it, studying the instrument and its possibilities with more seriousness now than he ever did before. In preparation for the Walking Papers, he reexamined the work of Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones.
For the last five years, he’s been listening to certain records just to play along to the basslines. In 2009, he even began jamming and taking lessons from other bassists, including Scott Shriner of Weezer, who McKagan calls “a hell of a bass player.”
A seven-week Walking Papers U.S. tour begins Aug. 8 in Scranton, Pa., and lands at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine on Sept. 13.
“Playing bass with Barrett is challenging and killer,” McKagan says. “It’s really great to be 49 and to be really inspired on my instrument.”