We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
It is literally a miracle that Tommy Lee’s career has lasted as long as it has. The band that brought the 58-year-old drummer to worldwide fame, Mötley Crüe, has one of the most sordid and utterly depraved backgrounds in the history of popular music — piles and piles of drugs and alcohol, the kind of debauchery that most people don’t come back from, period.
And yet: Beyond the Crüe’s initial run and in between the band’s periods of activity since their ‘80s heyday, Lee has persevered throughout popular culture, collaborating with some of today’s biggest pop stars and leading lights in rock music along with popping up in a variety of mixed media over the years. He’s kept at it on his own with music, too: This week marks the release of his third solo album Andro, his first album as such since 2005’s Tommy Lee: The Ride.
Talking to Lee about the myriad curiosities in his career is not necessarily an easy task. Lee’s memory isn’t 100% airtight, nor does he seem to recall specific details very often. But as we chatted on Zoom, Lee dialing in from his expansive home studio in Calabasas, he was nonetheless in good spirits to discuss his many decades in the public eye as well as what he’s taken away from those experiences.
Mötley Crüe’s Cover Of The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” (1983)
STEREOGUM: In a 1986 interview, Nikki Sixx said he thought the Beatles sounded “fucking wimpy.”
TOMMY LEE: That’s strange that he said that, because I know he likes the Beatles — and who doesn’t? The Beatles, man. I grew up on the stuff. Those guys were fuckin’ pioneers in so many ways. Their span was just all over the place musically. They’d do fun stuff, dark stuff, orchestral stuff. I can’t say enough about the Beatles. We covered “Helter Skelter” because covering a Beatles song is cool, and it also just fit with where we were at at the time. Doing it right now wouldn’t make much sense, even though it is fuckin’ crazy right now. But at the time, it was a perfect match.
STEREOGUM: Do you remember the first time you ever listened to the Beatles?
LEE: The first song I ever heard was “Revolution #1,” but later on when I was taking piano lessons and really starting to understand music, “Hey Jude” freaked me out. I was like, “Oh my God, listen to this!”
Mötley Crüe – “Home Sweet Home” (1985)
STEREOGUM: This song was one of the first times you shared songwriting credits on a Mötley Crüe song.
LEE: I was always involved when it came to arranging and making things work — that’s a drummer’s job, to make sure everything’s flowing right. I did that a lot, but on Theatre Of Pain I started bringing in full ideas and demos. I was just dicking around on the piano during rehearsal playing what would become “Home Sweet Home,” and Nikki was like, “What is that?” And I was like, “It’s this thing I’m working on, it’s pretty cool.” Later on I’d get more into the production side too, but I started bringing in stuff around this time.
STEREOGUM: Nikki and Vince Neil have both said they don’t like Theatre Of Pain. How do you feel about it?
LEE: I’m with the guys on that one. There’s parts I love, and parts that I don’t. I can’t say it’s my least favorite, because there’s some great stuff on it. But as a band, we were still trying to figure out what it is that we all collectively did. I was just coming into the picture with songwriting, and we were in this headspace where we loved David Bowie. Every time you saw him, he had changed into something different. We liked that, so that’s why around Theatre Of Pain we really glammed it out — super bright colors, more makeup. Then we went for a different look on the next record. We were always evolving, but Theatre Of Pain was early on enough that we were still figuring out what Mötley Crüe was.
STEREOGUM: Did you ever meet Bowie while he was alive?
LEE: I did! Either 1989 or 1990. It took everything in my power not to freak out as a fanboy. What a wonderful man. I didn’t say much because I know what that’s like, and I didn’t want to bug him. I just thanked him and told him it was an honor and pleasure to meet him. But I was fanboying hard. It’s David Bowie!
Mötley Crüe’s Girls, Girls, Girls (1987)
STEREOGUM: This album lost the top slot on the Billboard 200 to Whitney Houston. In a 2017 interview, Nikki accused her then-label of foul play when it came to beating you guys for the top spot.
LEE: [Laughs] There was a lot of payola around that time. You could fudge the numbers with album sales and radio airplay. We just thought, “God, we did this organically, and she’s probably got a little bit of help.” We just assumed — and we’re probably correct — that she got a little bit of help, because our [success] was completely organic. Right then, we were starting to blow up. We were coming off the success of the video for “Home Sweet Home,” of which they made the “Mötley Crüe rule” for over at MTV. We’d held the top position for requests for so long that they were like, “This isn’t fair.” But maybe she didn’t have some help. Who knows?
STEREOGUM: What was your guys’ relationship with MTV in that late-1980s period?
LEE: They were really cool to us. They were always very supportive, although we had to do a lot of editing in our videos for them — we had to “PG” them up a bit. We did a “Mötley Crüise To Nowhere” with a bunch of fans in a crazy boat. Then Viacom bought MTV and it became a big mothership rather than a cool homegrown music video station. It was still OK, but things changed and you could definitely tell.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned “PG”-ing up your videos. Any specific instances come to mind?
LEE: We had to blur out a girl lifting up her shirt in “Home Sweet Home,” and “Girls Girls Girls” — that was in strip clubs so it had cut marks all over the place. Our videos were always like that, and we always knew we had to make MTV versions. It bums me out, man. I wish everyone had attitudes like Europe, where anything goes. We’d go over there to play, and these people would be almost fucking on television — and it was cool! No one was bugging out about it! I wish we were more open and relaxed about that stuff. “Oh boy, a 15-year-old boy saw boobies.” Yeah? Well, I got news for you — he was probably breastfed until he was this little. [Gestures height] They’re boobs.
Mötley Crüe’s “Sticky Sweet” (1989)
STEREOGUM: Steven Tyler sang backup on this song.
LEE: That was really cool. It worked out timing-wise — we were studio neighbors at Little Mountain Studios in Vancouver, so we’d go over there and hear their new shit and they’d come over and hear ours. We were like, “Dude, this song has your name all over it, would you sing on this?” And he was like, “Hell yeah!” We had AC/DC once as studio neighbors at that studio, too. Bon Jovi was in there too, and so was Bryan Adams. There were a lot of people coming through that studio at that time. We’d be in there tracking and recording for hours, and then we’d hit up the strip club for lunch or hang out in the lobby. It was really cool.
STEREOGUM: When’s the last time you saw Steven?
LEE: It wasn’t that long ago — right here in my recording studio. He was doing something with Mick Fleetwood and another guitar player. We’ve got $40,000 of the best microphones on the planet in this studio, and he walked in and asked for an SM-58, which is probably $140. The shittiest mic ever, the type of microphones we use live. But he was so comfortable holding it instead of some on-the-stand tube vintage mic. He nailed it in one take, and everyone was like, “Whoa.”
Playing Drums On Richard Marx’s “Streets Of Pain” (1991)
LEE: That was a trip. He’d asked me to work with him, and it was quite the cast of characters. We also worked with Steve Lukather of Toto, who is an incredible guitar player. That was insane. Randy Jackson was playing bass, too. He’s a badass on the bass. It was such a fun experience beyond getting to play with those guys.
Methods Of Mayhem – “Get Naked” (1999)
STEREOGUM: The song is called “Get Naked,” and there were a lot of cameos in the video. Anyone that needed convincing to take part in it?
LEE: No, everyone was super cool about it. The only difficulty was that when we were shooting mine and [Methods Of Mayhem co-vocalist TiLo]’s parts, we were completely naked so it had to be a closed set. There can’t be a ton of people hanging around when you’re bouncing around on a bed naked. But the video was super fun to make. It conveyed the message very well.
STEREOGUM: After playing variants of metal for most of your career, you pivoted to rap-rock for Methods Of Mayhem.
LEE: It was a cool time. I’d left Mötley Crüe because, creatively, I was dying. I told the guys, “I gotta go do something else for a minute or I’m gonna lose my mind.” I had all these ideas and I needed to get them out — and they were genre-smashing ideas. I was mixing hip-hop, rock, industrial, EDM. I was literally all over the place because that’s what I was feeling. A lot of my musical peers tell me the first Methods Of Mayhem record was ahead of its time. If I made it today, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but it was seen as bizarre back then. Now, that kind of genre-smashing is done all the time. I was just bored of doing the same rock thing over and over. I was like, “Man, there are so many other styles that are moving me that need to come into play here” — and that was my chance to get it out.
Moby’s “We Are All Made Of Stars” Video (2001)
LEE: Moby was doing this cool thing and asked me if I wanted to be in it, and I was like, “Yeah, of course.” I really dig Moby. It was great to be in it and have some fun with it, it was a cool video.
STEREOGUM: The video is a commentary on fame and everyday life. How do you reflect on your experience of being famous?
LEE: It’s cool. I pinch myself daily. It’s wonderful when people like what you do. I know some people who complain — ”Ah, this fuckin’ paparazzi,” but you know what, dude? The second people stop asking for your autograph or following you around, then you should be worried. You should be happy when people care! Because when they don’t, you’re gonna be bummed. I take it all with a grain of salt, but at the end of the day, I’m still Tommy, and I still carry on.
Playing A Car Salesman In Vanilla Sky (2001)
STEREOGUM: You had a small part in this one.
LEE: Dude, it’s so bizarre, but I don’t even remember it. It’s a blur. Maybe we should go on to another one.
STEREOGUM: Have you seen Vanilla Sky?
LEE: I don’t know if I’ve seen the whole thing. I’ve seen parts. I mean, it was cool.
STEREOGUM: The movie he did before was Almost Famous. Have you seen that one?
LEE: I have seen parts of that, yeah.
STEREOGUM: That movie captures rock star life in an era before Mötley Crüe became superstars. What did you think of that depiction?
LEE: I wish I would’ve watched that movie before this interview. Then I could’ve talked about it.
STEREOGUM: It’s OK.
Playing A Drug Dealer In The TV Show Fastlane (2003)
LEE: That was so fun. Big stretch for me on the acting side of things to play some fuckin’ crazy cracked-out drug dealer. It was right up my alley! I know guys like that really well, so it wasn’t hard to pull from real experiences. That was my first time with a substantial role in something. Getting shot was cool, too. They wire you up with the blood capsules and [makes gun noise], with blood going everywhere — that was fun. Working with Naomi Campbell and the cast was great, and they all made me feel really comfortable. McG is a badass, too. He made everything look super cool.