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McKagan sneering onstage with his “lightning white” Sparrow Rat Rod. Photo by luizfelipeleite.com
What about effects and amplification?
No effects for me—I just plug straight in. On the record, I used a hot-rodded 1991 Marshall JCM900, which I usually use with a beat-up old 4x12 Marshall cab that I love. I even wrote this song about it called “Seattle Head” [from Loaded’s 2003 album, Dark Days]. For touring, I’ve been using various amps from Engl—a German company that makes really great stuff if you like an aggressive sound and don’t want to worry about things breaking down on the road. Unlike other amps I’ve tried, which sound good in some rooms and shitty in others, Engls sound great in every venue.
What about your bass gear?
I essentially just use one kind of bass, my white Fender signature P bass, which is basically a copy of the instrument I used all those years back in GN’R—an ’80s Jazz Bass Special. It’s kind of a mutt, with a Precision-bass body and a Jazz-bass neck. The sound is tight, and it plays really well. Also, I sometimes play a semi-hollow Duesenberg that I had filled in to prevent feedback. You can hear it on [Velvet Revolver’s] “Fall to Pieces.” But really, I’m a Fender guy.
The Taking isn’t just a collection of random songs—it has a narrative arc. What was the inspiration for that?
When we wrote the record as a band, we were watching this relationship between two of our friends fall apart. We couldn’t take sides, since we were so close to both people. It was kind of like Zen Buddhism: We just had to sit back and observe the whole thing passing— y’know, be the river flowing down the stream and not the rock holding up the river. It’s kind of corny, but true. In the end, our friends got divorced and became much better friends than when they were married.
We didn’t set out to make a concept record, and we weren’t even cognizant at the time that we were writing songs about the relationship dissolving. But after we wrote 11 or 12 tunes, we saw that our observations ended up in most of the songs—all the heartbreak, the deceit, and the anger. In other words, it wasn’t necessarily a cool and carefully thought-out concept record like the one Mastodon did based on Moby-Dick [2004’s Leviathan], but one that came after the fact.
What was the writing process like?
It was mostly done on the road, which is one of the best places to write: You’re not in a room somewhere alone—you’re with your bandmates in a bus, fueled by caffeine, testosterone, and adrenaline. It’s kind of chaotic being in such close quarters with other dudes, and with us there’s a sort of rub—sometimes I don’t get along with Mike, because we’re both kind of hardheaded. Not that I go out of my way to create friction, but the energy and tension can translate to some killer songs.
Mike, Jeff, and I have been playing together for more than a decade—this is the longest I’ve been in a band. We’ve helped each other through a lot of shit, and we’re like family. Since we know each other so well, it’s natural to write together. Our song ideas can pop up anywhere, from the things we witness in our lives—like that messy breakup—to a cool riff that I stumble upon in sound-check or chord progressions we discover in an all-acoustic jam in the back of the bus.
To give you a more specific idea, on “Easier Lying” Mike brought us this complete song—the lyrics, everything— and we all tinkered with our own parts until it jelled. For “We Win,” Isaac and I drank way too much coffee and fiddled around in GarageBand until we came up with the bare bones of the song to present to everyone else for input. In the end, everything seemed to come together magically.
Did you write your songs on guitar or bass?
I write on guitar and always have—since even the days before GN’R. Though I play a lot of bass, I’m a rhythm guitarist at heart.
You worked with Terry Date on the record. How did that come about and what was it like?
Terry and I are both from Seattle, and although we have many mutual friends and sometimes see each other at the SeaTac airport, we’d never even been to a barbecue together before The Taking. In preparation for the album, we recorded a bunch of complete demos in Isaac’s studio. Terry heard them and jumped on the project.
One cool thing about Terry is that he’s extremely forward-thinking. A lot of major-label producers these days just aren’t getting those big paydays like they used to. So, Terry decided to take a great and novel business approach—he offered to partner up with us on the album and record it for nothing, banking up on the back end. Because of that, he was literally as invested in the project as we were—so he had incentive to see it succeed.
Terry really brought out the best in all of us, and he recorded the band in much the same way he did for Soundgarden: He carefully mic’d things in such a way that we got this brutal, dry sound. Because we went into the studio with the whole record written, it didn’t take very long to record, and it didn’t feel like hard work. On the 11th day in the studio, it was just like, “Whoa, we’re done!”