Guns N' Roses' Michael (Duff) McKagan hears the question 30 times a week, easily.
" 'When's the album coming out, dude?' is the expression," says Mr. McKagan, a founding member, bassist and songwriter for the hottest rock and roll band on the planet, which brings its much-awaited tour to the Capital Center on Wednesday and Thursday nights. "I'm at the point now where I don't mean to be rude, but I just say, 'When it's in the stores. When you see it in the store.' "
Mr. McKagan says he's even toyed with the idea of having some T-shirts made with the message "When it's done!" to deflect inquiries about the group's new album, "Use Your Illusion."
But there's no question that the album -- tentatively slated for release in two volumes in August -- will come out to heavy expectations and hype. More than two years in the making, "Use Your Illusion" follows 1987's "Appetite for Destruction" and the archival 1988 "GN'R Lies" -- records that sold a combined 17 million copies. With hit singles such as the No. 1 "Sweet Child o' Mine," "Paradise City" and "Patience," they established the group's position in rock's upper echelon.
The same expectations have greeted the current tour. Having appeared only sporadically since 1988, Guns N' Roses is under the gun as fans, critics and the entire music industry watch to see if the quintet can maintain its substantial following and the momentum of its early successes.
But the group's popularity is based on more than music. During its lightning rise to the top, Mr. McKagan and his bandmates -- singer W. Axl Rose (real name William Rose), guitarists Slash (Saul Hudson) and Izzy Stradlin and drummer Steven Adler (since replaced by Matt Sorum) -- cultivated a bad-boy image that at times made the Rolling Stones of the '60s look like altar boys. The musicians' seedy appearances and flaunted drug and alcohol abuses -- plus Mr. Rose's lyrics about dreams clashing with the gritty realities of street life -- fed a perception of danger and decadence that has always intrigued rock and roll fans -- particularly teens.
But the image caught up to the group in the past two years. Founding member Adler was kicked out when he couldn't clean up his drug habit. The group was labeled racist and homophobic for the song "One in a Million." Mr. McKagan and Slash suffered an embarrassing drunken national TV appearance during the 1989 American Music Awards that prompted some radio stations to boycott the group's music. And the quintet almost broke up onstage in Los Angeles when the group opened for the Rolling Stones later that year.
Mr. McKagan dismisses concerns that problems remain. "All that s--- you've heard . . . whether it's true or not, it happened, meaning it's past tense, it's in the past. As a band, we're heavier and tighter than ever . . . we're not just dumb kids who say 'Let's sell some records by saying 'F--- you.' It's just not that way."
That flamboyant, flip-off attitude is as much a key to Guns N' Roses' success as the group's songwriting skills and Slash's guitar-hero solos. Like the best of its forebears -- most notably the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin -- a mythology has encased the group, celebrating it as a secret society prone to dark, hell-bent behaviors. "There's a certain lineal descendency back to Motley Crue, Van Halen, maybe Kiss if you want to go further, of rock 'n' roll street punks that are on the cutting edge of outlaw," says Andy Secher, editor of the heavy metal magazine Hit Parader.
"Guns N' Roses came along and said, 'We can take it one step further.' There's a great deal of musical skill involved, but the basic appeal is street level -- 'We're not posers. We're not fakes. We come from the gut, from the street. We could be dead tomorrow.' Kids like that."
That the members of Guns N' Roses have been largely inaccessible during the past two years only heightened their mystique. They've kept a tight control over the media; after granting this interview, they required reporters and photographers to sign contracts giving the group full copy control and copyright over stories and pictures (an arrangement declined by the Baltimore Sun and most other papers). Though this was designed as an easy way to deflect interview requests, Mr. McKagan acknowledges a sincere distrust of the media.
"The critics are looking for us to fall on our a--," he says. The group went from being critics' whipping boys to being "the press' darling, then the press turns around on you."
He admits the group wasn't ready for its massive success. But beyond that, "we didn't care. We didn't record ['Appetite for Destruction'] to become millionaires or whatever; we recorded it to get out songs that were us, that we felt. I remember saying that if the thing only sells 10 copies, we'd be happy that 10 people bought it.
"Put yourself in our shoes . . . going from dirt poor -- seriously, getting $100 a week. All of a sudden you're handed a gold card. You get a thing in the mail saying, 'This is how much money you're worth. You should probably look for a home now. You can actually buy a car.' We were on the road for at least two years, and that's what we got hit with when we came off. That's when the drug problems . . . started happening."
If their subsequent behavior seemed to turn the tide of support, the Guns N' Roses members found support and understanding from their peers. "They're not dumb boys," says Iggy Pop, who was backed by Mr. McKagan and Slash on his most recent album. "They're canny guys. They're very aware of the world around them and things. They know a lot of stuff I didn't learn until just this last year."
Adds Alice Cooper, who uses Slash on his coming album and duets with Mr. Rose on a "Use Your Illusion" track called "The Garden," "They're just kids, you know? They went from being this bar band in Los Angeles to being bigger than God, or something like that. You can't expect someone in their 20s to handle that with grace. . . . I know I didn't when it happened to me."
Now, Mr. McKagan says he hopes music will speak louder than misadventures for Guns N' Roses.
He says the addition of the drummer Sorum, formerly of the Cult, "brought the family back together, the sense of family that was totally missing." And the sessions were admirably prolific; the two "Use Your Illusion" albums will contain at least 30 songs, and a wealth of punk rock covers -- including songs by the Damned, Fear and the U.K. Subs -- will be released later on a separate EP.
The two-album plan, according to Mr. McKagan, came about simply because the group couldn't pare the wealth of material down to one record.
"We were going to just record until we burnt out," he explains. "We thought that if we only made it to 12 songs, cool, then we'll stop there, go tour and make another record later. But we had all this material, and we didn't burn out.
"We didn't make it a double album because that's a little overboard and a little pretentious. Plus, this way, a kid can go out and buy one record, his buddy can go buy the other record or whatever."
"Plus," he adds, "it's never been done this way before."
From all reports -- based on bootlegs that have been circulating and performances of some new songs -- "Use Your Illusion" cuts a wide stylistic swath.
"I'll put it this way," Mr. McKagan says, "take the songs from 'Appetite,' the rocking songs, the heavy songs . . . they're magnified by 10. The pretty songs? Magnify that by 10, too.
Guns N' Roses
Where: Capital Centre, Landover
When: June 19 and 20, 8 p.m.