Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee on his notorious name, why he loves an underdog, and that time Axl Rose thanked him for the inspiration to write November Rain…
To speak to Tommy Lee is to engage with someone hyperreal. Take the conditions of this career spanning chat, for example. It might seem tedious to read of another interview being conducted via Zoom, but it offers some insight in this case. Because while this K! writer appears on screen as a pixelated mass of pale flesh, a clothes horse in the background bearing the week’s washing, Tommy is an ultra high-definition avatar of tanned, chiselled superstardom – fast approaching a year of sobriety – sat in a studio of varnished wood and pristine metal. The contrast is stark. Oh, and there’s a drum kit visible in case we’d forgotten we were talking to one of the most iconic players to ever thump the tubs. It’s as if we’ve stumbled into an infomercial, which, given Tommy has a new album to promote, we sort of have.
His speech is similarly OTT. Ask whether doing a remix of the Post Malone track Tommy Lee was the moment Tommy Lee reached peak Tommy Lee and the 58-year-old explodes into a gale of ‘dude’s, ‘woah’s and ‘rad’s reminiscent of a read-through of the latest Bill & Ted movie. And as you’d expect from a man whose exploits have shocked readers and viewers alike via the book and film versions of Mötley Crüe’s autobiography The Dirt, things occasionally get outrageous. Hit him in the feels, though, by going beneath the tattooed exterior and you meet another Tommy Lee entirely. Less able to fall back on the rock star rhetoric, he becomes hesitant, vulnerable even, and not necessarily willing or able to tackle the deeper stuff.
That’s not the side of him you’ll find on new album ANDRO, though. Unpredictable, excitable and focused on the now thanks to its range of up-and-coming guests, ANDRO’s rap and dance leanings are as far from Home Sweet Home as it’s possible to get. Given Tommy’s unofficial role as one of music’s most enthusiastic magpies, though, that suits him just fine. “People have asked if this is the most me album I’ve ever done,” he ponders, “but the truth is whatever I’m doing is where I’m at right now. I don’t give a fuck if it’s country music – if it’s moving me, I’m down.”
What are the consistent elements that have kept Tommy Lee circa 2020 as enthusiastic about music as the hyperactive teenager drummer version?
“Technology is a big one. There are so many things possible now. On a daily basis we’re being introduced to new synths or new software that allows you to do shit you could never do before. And I’m inspired by continually hearing new music – that capacity to get excited by it has never gone away. Plus at heart I’m a tweaker – I just love being in the studio and making new shit. That’s my happy place.”
You’re passionate about introducing new talent, but why? Is it passing on the feeling you had going from obscurity to success, or the natural continuation of when Crüe would take new bands out on the road?
“It’s both. In the early days, Crüe always had their finger on the pulse as to what was cool and what people would dig. I remember we did it with Guns N’ Roses. No-one knew who they were, so we decided to take them out with us. I’ve been a supporter of the underdog for a long time. I find it mind-boggling when I hear an artist whose music is insanely good but who somehow they’re not hugely successful. Those are the people who wind up being on my collaboration list.”
You’re passionate about cooking – is it part of the same skill set that allows you to listen to a track and know it needs ‘A pinch of this’ and ‘A dash of that’?
“Fuck yeah – there’s absolutely a synergy between being a chef in the kitchen and a chef in the studio! And just like when you’re cooking, you can totally fuck it all up by adding too much of a certain ingredient, which ends up ruining the overall flavour.”
The title of your new album, ANDRO, is a Greek word meaning male or man. You’re part Greek on your mother’s side – how was that part of your heritage brought to life when you were growing up?
“I fucking love my Greek heritage, the people and the food, so I try to get back to Greece as often as possible. I was there last summer, in fact. My mom was my big connection with the country, and we’d speak Greek together, but she’s gone now so I don’t have that exact connection anymore.”
What traits do you think you have from your late mother?
“I’d say her inquisitiveness… (Tommy hesitates for some time, unsure of how to elaborate) When my mom and dad got married, neither one of them spoke the other’s language. I mention this because those circumstances were challenging, with the two of them sat around dictionaries looking for translations drawing pictures to communicate with one another, but her spirit and passion made that work.”
And what of your father? He was a military man, but not the disciplinarian some might expect given his career…
“He was a super-serious military type but I can’t say he was a disciplinarian when I was growing up. He’d be stern but not like a drill sergeant. He was a great father.”
The Dirt – the book and the film – illustrated how much your parents supported you with your fledgling music career. What, then, did you have to rebel against?
“Fuck… I’m not sure I know how to answer that one. I’m stoked that the movie showed the close relationship between my parents, which was so crucial, and how behind me they were when I started getting serious about music. My dad was a fucking maniac with that stuff… we’d be in the backyard at home, with neighbours on both sides, and he’d be building a full pyrotechnic show for my shitty band from high school. I remember him pouring gunpowder into pipes, connecting wires and testing the explosions. I think I was a fun little project for my dad because he was a mechanic. He built us a full lighting rig, too.”
Machine Gun Kelly’s performance as you was pretty uncanny. What was the main note or piece of advice you gave him for the role?
“You know, it’s funny, I didn’t really tell him anything. I knew he was going to nail it because I’ve never seen someone with such a level of dedication to a project. I’d known him for a couple of years and he called me up saying, ‘Dude, you’re not going to fucking believe this… I’m fucking playing you!’ He had the script and he came straight over, wanting to go through everything line by line. Then the motherfucker went out and took four months of drum lessons, learning exactly how I twirled the sticks and bounced them off the snare. He nailed it. It was wild.”
What was hardest or weirdest thing for you to see in the film?
“I don’t think there was a moment like that. I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t really have regrets. I believe that everything that happens to us has been put there for us to either learn or not learn a lesson. I was just struck by the fact the film was made, telling the story of these four guys who went on an incredible journey. That in itself was so amazing.”
When did electronic music touch affect you in the same way rock had when you were a kid?
“Mötley were just starting [1987’s] Girls, Girls, Girls album and I had a fucking old Mac computer, learning how to use
Digital Performer. Around that time I started getting pulled towards these sounds that were new. I started hearing drum sounds that were so much bigger that what I could create with my acoustic kit. That’s when I started manipulating sounds and editing shit that I didn’t think was possible, which really opened my mind and whole other world to me.”
There’s a rather racy sample at the beginning of the Nine Inch Nails track Big Man With A Gun called The Steakhouse that’s attributed to you. How did it come to be?
“My nickname has been T-Bone for a long time. When I was single, The Steakhouse became where you’d go to get your T-Bone, to get naked, fuck, and be crazy. When Trent [Reznor] used it, he was referring to the time Mötley was in one side of the studio and Nine Inch Nails was in the other, and I brought over a couple of pornstars. So that’s where that comes from.”
Yours is a notorious name and some people might assume they know what to expect from you. Have you ever been tempted to do something under the radar creatively to see what would happen?
“That’s a really interesting question, because I battle all the time with that. If you establish yourself as a certain personality or musician or whatever, that ‘thing’ is attached to you, whatever you do in life. I would love to do an experiment and release a bunch of music, unnamed. It would be really cool to see what happened.”
You’re a rock musician who was always interested in incorporating other sounds; now we’re at a point when people are saying genre is dead, do you feel you’ve been something of a trendsetter?
“Yeah, so I’m going to do this (Tommy pats himself on the back) because no-one else will. I’ve always put myself wherever I feel I’m supposed to be, musically, but recently I’ve looked back at the crazy shit I’ve made in the past and it trips me out. In 2000, the first Methods [Of Mayhem] record was definitely on the path on the way to my new record now. I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘Dude, sometimes you’re just a little too far ahead of the curve.’ Maybe that’s not always a good thing – I don’t know.”
What’s the story with Methods Of Mayhem now? There was talk of a resurrection…
“It’s always been a passion project, but… I don’t know. Mötley has a stadium tour to do next summer [with Def Leppard, rescheduled because of coronavirus] so I just don’t know. I thought about putting Methods together and doing some online performances, but then I wasn’t sure if it would really translate across the computer screen like it does if you’re there in person. Never say never – I could suddenly get some hair up my ass about it and say, ‘Let’s go!’”
You played on the 2014 Smashing Pumpkins album Monument To An Elegy – some people might assume that you and Billy Corgan, two big guys with big egos, might have bumped heads. How was it working together?
“I love Billy and I just talked to him a couple of days ago. I can see that people might think we might have butt heads, knowing something about the way he works or whatever, but we had a wonderful time. The only reason that might have happened is because he’s like me – he’s a fucking perfectionist. He wants things to be badass and doesn’t settle for anything less. I’d be in the studio getting three quarters of the song fucking ripping but the rest maybe not as good as it could be… for him, rather than edit, taking the best of another take and adding that, he was a fucking stickler from having it perfect from top to bottom. He’s an energy guy – I get it.”
You’ve become a regular fixture in rap songs – is it more flattering because you’re a rapper yourself and it gives you greater credibility, or because it cements your place as something of a cultural icon?
“Oh, both! I get a shitload of rap and hip-hop shoutouts and I just think, ‘Why?’ I love it and I think it’s rad, but it’s hard for me to explain it.”
Who would you say is a better pianist, you or Axl Rose?
“I don’t know how much he actually plays these days, but he sounds like he plays pretty well. I will say, though, that there was this one time he thanked me for inspiring him to write November Rain. Oh wait, hang on, I can’t take all the credit; he actually thanked me and Elton John. That’s pretty awesome, but I don’t know who’s better out of me and him.”
You described yourself earlier as a fan of the underdog – despite all of your success, do you feel like an underdog yourself?
“I do. Not with Mötley, but I do when I’m doing my own thing. But you know what? I like that! It keeps me fighting. The minute you become complacent and lose that fighting sprit, you might as well pack it up and go home. Being an underdog motivates me.”
ANDRO is set for release on October 16 via Better Noise Music.