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Renaissance Man: An Interview With Tommy Lee

By Gail Worley, Contributor
Friday, May 31, 2002 @ 12:35 AM

Tommy Gives The Dirt On His La

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Tommy Lee is cruising the streets of New York City in a hired car, en route to his hotel. He's in the Big Bad Apple to promote his new album, a true solo effort on which he plays most instruments and hardly raps at all, called Never A Dull Moment. Time is short, and there is much to talk about.

"I think that when I did the Methods of Mayhem record, some of the hip-hop stuff probably freaked a lot of Motley Crue fans out," he says, then laughs. "They were probably [thinking], "What in the hell is this?" To a dyed-in-the-wool Motley Crue fan like myself, these are epic understatements. It would be far closer to the truth to confess that, in fact, Tommy Lee's radical leap from Motley Crue drummer to dreadlocked, hip-hop MC was considered by many to signal the end of days.

That hardly mattered to Lee. Methods of Mayhem was never about gaining commercial acceptance or toeing the party line of the Motley Crue camp: rather, it was all about releasing over a decade of creative expression stifled by his long tenure in Motley Crue. Thankfully, he has now shorn the dreads and proceeded to create an album of hard rock with a more palatable flavor -- not quite reverting to his spandex-metal roots, and still keeping his heart somewhat in the hip-hop/nu-metal domain. Somehow, it all works. Lee returns to the drums, plays guitar and effortlessly assumes all vocals for Never a Dull Moment (MCA), a radio-friendly collection of brooding ballads ("Ashamed," "Blue"), catchy dance-metal ("Sunday"), pretty-fly-for-a-white-guy funk, and a creative, in-your-face reworking of David Bowie's "Fame" ("Fame 02") that's certainly going to raise a few eyebrows. Believe it or not, Lee's singing is far from incidental: he can honestly croon like a pop star or out-shout former Motley Crue cohort Vince Neil on that guy's least-hung-over day.

Despite his best efforts to reinvent himself musically, Tommy Lee bluntly admits that must defend his creative choices "every day." Unfortunately, I have to do that and also [fight against] a lot of pre-conceived ideas that people have about me, [personally]. Whether they've heard some bullshit in the news with my past, musically or personally... there's just all of this bullshit in the way that makes it extremely difficult for me just to do what I love to do. It's crazy sometimes, and it really starts to wear me down. I think in the last year or so I've gotten good at not letting it bother me, just doing what I do, and not thinking about everybody else so much." Tommy addresses the creative and personal frustration he's been up against on the album's first single, "Hold Me Down," on which he sings, "It's a test to see how much you can take/It's nothing new." If there's only one thing Tommy Lee has learned, it's that you can't please everyone, so you've got to please yourself. And when I mention how much I really love the record he says, "I love it too, and I'm really proud of it." In this interview Tommy talked about the making of "Never a Dull Moment, reminisced extensively about his days with the Crue and revealed himself to be surprisingly grounded and spiritual guy.


KNAC.COM: What made you decide to disband Methods of Mayhem and make an album that has more of a classic, hard rock sound ?
TOMMY: You know what? It was weird, when I got home from Ozzfest in September of 2000, I locked myself in my home and I just started writing. I didn't know what I want to do, it was more like [I thought] "let's just write and see where this goes and make this like a natural progression." So, what you hear is where it went. The more we started listening to it [in the studio] the more my producer started going, "Dude, you know, you can just call this what it is." I was like, "What are you talking about?" And he goes, "Why don't you just call this Tommy Lee?" After thinking about it for awhile, I realized he was right. That's when I made that decision, to just go under my own name rather than a "band" name. I haven't really disbanded Methods of Mayhem, I'm definitely going to do another one of those records, with a shitload of guest stars and have it be, like, this crazy, creative free-for-all -- like the first one was. I want to do that again because I really enjoyed that, that was a fun process.

"[People are] looking externally for things to make them happy -- whether it be sex or drugs or alcohol or religion -- when really, everything that you need is inside you. I really believe that."
KNAC.COM: Since you're a bonafide solo artist now, and don't have the safety net, so to speak, of being part of a band, does the responsibility for making decisions about how the record will be promoted and how the tour will go, that kind of thing, eventually all come to rest on your shoulders?
TOMMY: Yeah, because [in Motley Crue] we sort of split up the press between four band members and split up interviews and each guy was doing his own separate thing, but also working as a team. Here, it's like the workload is pretty much all on my ass (laughs), which makes it a little more stressful and more difficult. If it doesn't sound good live or it doesn't look good, I have only my own ass to kick. If it's successful and it sounds awesome, and looks killer live, then I guess I can pat myself on the back and take all the credit too. So I guess it's a strange situation, but it's definitely a lot more work, that's for damn sure. I guess I got my feet wet, doing this with Methods of Mayhem, which was kind of cool. It helped me get ready for a lot of what is happening now, I think.

KNAC.COM: You mentioned having to constantly battle preconceived notions about yourself and your music. On the flipside of that, how are you able to use your well-established reputation to create interest in what you're doing now?
TOMMY: That's the good part of having my past follow me, is that sometimes some of that stuff can help. If I decide to have a press conference or decide to go on [Howard] Stern or MTV, pretty much any news network, anywhere [will cover it], and people will show up and will hear what I have to say. That's the good part [that] I can use that to my advantage. Even though it's been used to my disadvantage in the past, I can still use it in a different way, which is pretty cool (laughs).

KNAC.COM: Motley Crue's hard-partying ways have been well-recorded, especially in The Dirt and on your episode of Behind The Music. Looking back, do you think the partying had a negative effect on the music?
TOMMY: Sometimes I think that, and then other times I think, you know what, that was just that time and it was really cool. Maybe we wouldn't have been as cool or as crazy-sounding as we were, because we were in that state [had we been sober]. Records like Shout at the Devil may not have sounded as fucking badass if we were totally straight, you know? Then again, for Dr. Feelgood we were totally sober and that was one of our most successful records, so that tends to prove my theory a little wrong as well. For some reason [when I record], I always try to put myself in the state of mind that the listener is going to be in. When they're at the concert, very few of those people are going to be standing there, sober, watching your show. So, I try to think about what it would be like live and think about what it would be like, standing there, with a couple of beers in you and a joint, you know? Because that's actually how everyone's going to see you (laughs). It's the truth.

KNAC.COM: Do you have any survival tips for bands into partying, on how to still have good time but not die?
TOMMY: Yeah, you know what? I got it: stay away from cocaine and heroin. Those two fucking things are so dangerous. Everything else, to me, is pretty cool...well, I shouldn't say everything because there are lot of dangerous drugs out there. But you know what I'm trying to say, it's that there's a couple of really dangerous drugs out there and I've lost some friends to them. Those two that I've mentioned -- there's probably a few others -- just aren't cool and they will definitely ruin your career, or you will die, whichever comes first.

KNAC.COM: Once you're dead I'd guess your career is pretty much ruined.
TOMMY: Well, some people die and then they sell more records, go figure. But I'm not going to sit here and say that all of it's bad, because that's just not true.

KNAC.COM: I want to say how much I loved reading "The Dirt." It was so awesome, such a great read. After the book was published, was there anything that you revealed about yourself that you wish, with hindsight, you hadn't let come to light?
TOMMY: That was a crazy book. You know what, I think about that sometimes, and I think, "That was a bit of an over-share, T." But then again, I re-examined it, and decided that maybe something I said helped somebody out there. And if it helped one person, who was maybe going through the same thing that I was going through -- even if I felt like I shouldn't say it, or it was an over-share -- then I don't think it [was inappropriate]. That's the way I feel about it, I don't really regret saying anything. If somebody gets it, or it helps them, or they're like, "Wow man, that's crazy, I never knew that," maybe it's ok.

KNAC.COM: I think people just really appreciated how honest you guys were. It made you really seem human.
TOMMY: Exactly. It does show that, too, and I think that's important because at the end of the day each guy is human and (laughs) [what's in that book] is definitely the truth.

KNAC.COM: I was really surprised by your vocals on the album. I think you did a great job with everything, and I especially like "Sunday." I wondered which vocalists you've drawn inspiration from?
TOMMY: There's a lot of guys that I love. Thom Yorke from Radiohead, I like his voice. The Radiohead record, The Bends is my all-time favorite record on the planet. I just think he's got some great melodies and I feel him when he sings. I think that's what I try to do when I sing a song; hopefully people feel me. I think Brandon (Boyd) from Incubus has a great voice and he's on the record with me, on the song, "Blue." I like the real melodic singers, but I like the heavy guys too -- the hip-hop/metal guys. I think Fred Durst has got some good flavor.

KNAC.COM: I'd have to admit that you sing better than Vince Neil on his best day. It's really too bad about Vince, isn't it? What happened to him? It's so sad.
TOMMY: I know, I just saw him in Florida. We did the VH1 Fairway to Heaven golf tournament and I walked up to him and we said hello. We don't get along at all but we're cordial to each other. I just looked at him and I was like, Wow! God, what's happening to him? He's so overweight and just looks so sad. I don't really know what's going on with him but he didn't look very good at all. I felt bad for him. Maybe it's possible that he's still searching for some sort of happiness, maybe he hasn't found it yet. I don't know.

KNAC.COM: Are you still friends with Nikki?
TOMMY: Nikki lives around the corner from me and I see him all the time. We talk a lot, and of course we're still friends. That was our baby, Motley Crue, we put that band together. So, we're still friends, yes. He's a great guy and he's a very intelligent guy, too.

KNAC.COM: After spending a couple of years concentrating on your own thing, writing and performing songs, and not having the drum kit as your primary focus; now that you've come back to it a bit, do you find that your playing has changed at all?
TOMMY: I wouldn't say so, just because, for as long as I can remember I've always been one of those drummers who won't overplay and won't underplay. I always try to play what the song needs. I think that's the most important thing that drummers sometimes overlook. You'll hear stuff and you're like, damn, that guy's just playing too much. The song really isn't calling for that. I still have that same philosophy when I record. The only thing that's changed for me is that I've figured out a new way to do this; when I go to record, I like to do the drums last, if that makes any sense to you. Once the song is done and recorded, I like to go back and then cut the drums, because then I know exactly what the song needs, and what it doesn't need. Sometimes when you cut your bed tracks right off the bat, you don't really know where the vocal is landing and where the background vocals are, and other loops and stuff that are going on. So, I find that doing the drums last, coming from a drum history, really works well for me. That's what I've done on the Methods record and now on this one.

KNAC.COM: That makes sense because then you know what to accent. Someone I interviewed told me that he finds if he lays down all the drum tracks first, all the drums sound the same, whereas if you do it one track at a time, it's a richer sounding record. It was Mike Portnoy who told me that, actually.
TOMMY: Yeah, you know what, that can happen, too. You cut all the drums at once and then you're like, well, fuck, every song sounds the same because the drums sound the same. Often you'll find that [that approach] really changes things because maybe the song doesn't need that big of bombastic sounding drum set for this section. That's the cool part about doing that last.

KNAC.COM: When you play live, will you plays drums?
TOMMY: I'm singing and playing guitar. Then, halfway through the show, me and my drummer both beat the fucking shit out of drums for a bit.

KNAC.COM: The song "Body Architects" is my favorite song on the album and I wondered if there was some kind of spiritual undertone in the lyrics?
TOMMY: Totally. You know what, I was sitting there one day and I'm like, man I've got to write about this because -- and it's probably been going on for as long as I can remember -- everyone seems to always be searching externally for everything. [In a search for] some sort of satisfaction or happiness, they're looking externally for things to make them happy -- whether it be sex or drugs or alcohol or religion -- when really, everything that you need is inside you. I really believe that. In the chorus, I'm trying to remind people that (quotes lyrics) "We're the architects of the bodies we inhabit." That's where that song came from, it's conception [came from thinking] maybe this will remind people to really just look in the mirror.

KNAC.COM: I think people tend to underestimate you and what you're about.
TOMMY: I think so, too. With my background, coming from Motley Crue, which makes people think, "Oh, he's probably just writing lyrics about partying and chicks." Fuck, I hate that, when people think that, because...like, I read a review of my new record in Blender, and the guy, I don't think he listened to the record. I was tripping, because some of the lyrics he recited aren't even on the record! He says, "basically, the record's about chicks and partying." And I'm like, "Dude, what record were you listening to?"

KNAC.COM: Maybe he was listening to Andrew W.K. There was a very interesting part of "The Dirt" that explained a band's commercial success in relation to "The Cog Theory." I always wanted to ask which member of the band came up with that?
TOMMY: That's Nikki's theory, yeah. He's smart like that, heh heh. That's his whole perception of how this all works and how everything goes in cycles. Fashion, fads, trends, music, lifestyles; it just all comes back around in ten year increments. And you know what? He's kinda right (Laughs).

KNAC.COM: It's genius. I like especially the example of Santana's career: how he was just at radar level for 25 years and then the album, "Supernatural," just blew up like a bomb.
TOMMY: To me, that's the most insane phenomena. Like, What? Santana's fucking giant right now. My manager also manages Everlast, who did some songs on that album, apparently. I remember when that went down and I was so stunned. Wow, how crazy is that? You never, ever know do you? It's so bizarre that way. (Laughs) That's why my record's called Never a Dull Moment, because, I swear to God, it just is never dull. You never know what's going to happen sometimes, or what you think's going to happen never happens, or when you least expect it, the Santana record comes along and just blows up. And no disrespect -- because he's awesome -- but holy shit!

KNAC.COM: Did you watch any episodes of The Osbournes?
TOMMY: I've known the Osbournes for several years now and so that show is nothing new to me. I've seen that for years. But yeah, I have seen it. I mean, I know them; they're funny.

KNAC.COM: Who would have imagined it would make Ozzy the new Superstar of the Universe?
TOMMY: I know, go figure. It's another thing like Santana. Out of fucking nowhere -- BOOM! -- it's giant! Ozzy Osbourne is now the Allstar TV Show Guy. That's crazy.

KNAC.COM: Do you think that there is any chance of you playing with the members of Motley Crue again, the recent and very sad death of Randy Castillo notwithstanding?
TOMMY: Talk about weird, I just saw the guy a few months ago. He came to see me and Stephen Perkins, from Jane's Addiction -- he was my Methods of Mayhem drummer -- and we did this Drum Day LA thing and he was there. His hair was gone from chemo and he had this scar on his neck and he was like, "Yeah, they removed it and I'm good. The therapy's good and I'm in remission." And the next thing I hear, I got an email from somebody saying he'd died. So that freaked me out. But to answer your question, (sighs) you know, like Michael Jordan was saying, "Never say never," about getting back together with the Crue. But right now, I don't see it happening any time in the near future. I'm just doing my own thing.

KNAC.COM: Do you feel that you've achieved more success than you anticipated when you split from Motley Crue?
TOMMY: Yeah, because I really didn't have any expectations. I always feel that if it's successful, killer; if it's not, then that's cool, too. I'm happy doing what I'm doing, and if you have that kind of attitude then everything else from there on is a bonus. The Methods record went gold in America, Japan, Canada. For my first solo effort, that's fucking phenomenal. For this new record, who knows where that will end up? I can't complain (laughs).

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