As they’re wrapping up their last tour, Mötley Crüe is soon to be no more. However, the band’s drummer Tommy Lee isn’t quick to give up his love of music. A true musician, Tommy Lee has a deep appreciation for sounds that just, well, sound good. From his love of metal, he began to experiment with electronic music. When we had the chance to chat with Tommy, he spoke out about the criticisms rockers often claim about DJs, how Skrillex‘s distinct sound greatly influenced him, and his recent track with RuPaul’s Drag Racer winner Violet Chachki.
We’re excited to see what surprises Tommy has up his sleeves in the coming months as he says goodbye to his rocker days and embarks on this solo electronic endeavor.
You’ve been DJing for quite a bit now –
Yeah, since 2004 is when I started doing it.
What inspired you to dig your feet into that with everything else you had going on?
I know, and talk about jumping in, too. Me and Aero’s second or maybe third gig was Ultra.
Oh wow, that’s crazy!
I know, we were like what the fuck.
That must have been overwhelming.
We were tripping, definitely tripping. I’m sure Aero was tripping more. I’m used to playing for large crowds like that, but this is a whole different thing. I was actually DJing with Aero and then I would jump off and play live drums, too. It was different for me, way different, but it was a lot of fun. Once that happened, I got the bug and I’ve been doing it ever since.
You’re obviously used to playing for very large crowds, but what are the main differences between a rock show and DJing electronic music, in terms of playing for that type of crowd, and that type of culture?
Well, that’s interesting – they’re both completely…well, I shouldn’t say completely, but they’re both very different. There’s something really cool about a giant rock crowd in an arena or a festival setting – that’s super cool, but there’s something really special about when you’re DJing in a club, for instance, and there’s no seats. Everybody’s just dancing around and having a blast, where at a lot of rock shows there’s seats. And I always get bummed, like, fuck, I wish there were no seats in this place so people could move around and interact and dance and do whatever the hell it is they need to do. Sometimes seats are a real drag.
Do you think the energy’s different then? Or it’s just different forms of energy?
Electronic music definitely has more bursts of energy. Especially now when there’s a drop every frickin 10 seconds. Where rock shows things burst in the beginning of the song or the ending or something, where as dance music is constantly full of high energy. So that’s definitely different. It’s super different.
You’re also in the midst of Motley Crue’s “Final Tour” – how do you even find time for your electronic endeavors?
Yeah, this is the last one. I take a portable studio on my tour bus, so when I’m done with Motley around 11 o’clock at night, chances are you’ll find me on the tour bus making crazy shit until the wee hours or during the day when I’d otherwise be sitting on my ass with nothing to do until the 9 o’clock show time. If you think about it, we have 22 hours of the day to kill. And I live for those 2 hours on stage, and the rest of the time is like doo-doo-dooo. I actually get a lot of time to make music, so that’s pretty cool.
A lot of people with different musical backgrounds, say rock, criticize DJing for the “lack of real instruments” – but you actually mix live and bring out your drums and everything. What are your thoughts on this type of criticism?
Yeah, that’s such an ignorant thing to say. A part of me wants to hide under a fucking rock when a musician says that. I’m like, you know what dude? You don’t know what you’re talking about, first of all. Because if you did, you would appreciate how much fucking time, tweaking, and insane amounts of knowledge it takes to make some of these tracks. It’s not easy. I’ve been a tweaker since ’82. That’s when I first started fucking with a Macintosh computer and MIDI and electronic drums. So I’ve been at this for awhile, but for rock musicians to say that, it’s like God, you’re such a fucking retard for saying that. It’s just a typical rock idiot being stupid.
And to say it doesn’t take any musical skill, I’ve played keyboards , I play drums, and I’m using my musical skills constantly. Like, if people didn’t have any musical skills, yea, I guess you could put together a bunch of samples, but when you’re making music you actually need to know some music theory, and have some talent.
Because otherwise the music is going to sound kind of Frankenstein, with existing samples and shit like that. If you’re making real electronic music, you gotta know what you’re doing. So that shit bums me out, it really bums me out.
Yeah, many musicians have more traditional music backgrounds, they just chose the electronic route.
Yeah, all the guys I know that I’ve had the pleasure of working with – they all have musical abilities and talent. I haven’t met one guy that makes electronic music that doesn’t, actually. It’s weird that rock musicians even say that.
We should get a bunch of rock guys and put them in a studio and watch what really happens – and make their fucking necks snap off. They’ll be like “Holy shit!”
You co-wrote & co-produced “Bettie” with Drag Race winner Violet Chachki — how did you become involved in that collaboration?
Well, it came from – I’m presently producing some stuff for my fiancé’s record…Sofi, you’d probably know her? She’s worked with deadmau5…
Is she the one that needs a ladder?
Yeah, haha, she’s on that track “Sofi Needs A Ladder.” So, Sofi has a new record coming out soon and I’ve been producing music for her, they’re all really fucking rad, but one of the tracks in particular – I’ve heard some work she did with this other guy and I really liked his mixing, so I wanted to take it over to him to get it mixed. His name is Tomas Costanza and he mixed this track for Sofi and I, and I was like, “Wow, man. I really enjoyed working with you. It was great, it sounds amazing” and he said, “You know Tommy, I got a bunch of drag queens that are looking for music,” and I was like wow, that’s fucking wild.
He goes, “Do you have any tracks laying around that might have that kind of a vibe?” And I thought, well, drag queen stuff is pretty electronic, if you ask me. Stuff I heard before is almost German techno. And I was like, “You know what, actually dude, I have a bunch of shit kicking around. Let me send you over a handful of tracks.”
So I sent him over a small handful of tracks and he played it for Violet and she fell in love with this track and boom! The track was already mostly done, she put her vocals on there and Tomas mixed it and boom.
I was a little freaked out, like, man, this is the first iTunes U.S. Dance charts that I’ve ever had a song chart on. It was #5 of the singles right next to Skrillex and Diplo and Zedd and Guetta and all of them. So cool to be in such great company, right? I was tripping out.
Yeah, it’s a really good, enjoyable, bass-heavy track.
That’s cool! I’m glad you like it. It’s kind of fun and nasty. It’s doing its job.
Do you see many similarities between bass-heavy electronic and heavy metal?
You know what? Yeah. This is really interesting, I’ve always told people this. I remember when Sonny – Skrillex – came over to my studio and he played me his first record and no one had even heard it yet. Just him and I were working on the track for my solo record and he was like, “Dude, can I play you my new shit?”
Is this when he was still in From First to Last?
Yeah, like right after he left From First to Last, and he made his first record. So, I was listening and I was like “Dude, this is something amazing, this is like electric metal.” From that day on, I always thought that style is really – the rhythmic patterns, the energy of it, the whole vibe is basically just electronic metal.
It’s so high energy, but in my mind, it has that energy but it has such a better sound than metal.
That’s a bold statement.
I love metal, don’t get me wrong – but electric guitars and electric bass – being in a band cannot compete with the frequencies of electronic bass and electronic keyboards and distorted samples. It’s just not possible. Those frequencies don’t exist in a drumkit or electric guitar or electric bass, so those frequencies just assaulted me when I heard [Skrillex’s] record. I was like, This is fucking amazing, this is going to be the most insane shit people have ever heard. And I’ll never forget that.
Do you think hearing that kind of sound made you think, “Wow this is really cool, I kind of want to try this”?
Yeah, I’ve always loved that kind of stuff and Sonny just brought it to a whole other level, and I was like, “Okay, oh now it’s on.” You know what I mean? He opened the doors for it to be as crazy as you want it to be. And the fact that he’s such a little fucking sweetheart…
So do you have any other upcoming productions you’re excited about?
Me and Nick Thayer also just released a track called Fly Shit. It’s crazy. The song is killer and we shot the video in Tokyo. We got probably half a million views when we dropped it, so that doesn’t suck.
Other than those two tracks, I’ve got a bunch of stuff I’ve been working on personally. I’ve been writing for the last year or so and putting everything aside for when Motley’s over, because that’s been a really frustrating part for me – not Motley – but, I’ve got a bunch of projects, solo records, stuff like that, and sometimes you spend a year of your life making this music and then you put it out, and, I call Motley the Mothership, once the Mothership calls, it’s time to go out on tour. And I was like fuck, I was right in the middle of promoting this, and getting it off the ground, and going to support it, and tour it, and I got to go. And I just have to drop the project.
So, I guess what I’m trying to say is I’m really looking forward to 2016 for when I can actually follow through with my vision and what I want to do, and not have to just kind of drop it. I feel bad, it’s like a child, and all of the sudden it’s a few months old and you’re like “Uh, I gotta leave you here with grandma, dude, I’m out.”
Okay, that’s a fucked up analogy, but that’s really what happens, it just gets abandoned. And I’ve been frustrated for a few years like that. But it’s all about to be cool. I’m real optimistic about some stuff here in the future when I actually get to follow through with what I do .
Yeah, I was actually going to ask what your future plans were after the Final Tour is over. Do you think you’re going to do any major solo tours DJing?
Yeah, I want to keep it a surprise so I can’t tell you exactly too much but just know what when Motley is done on New Year’s Eve, I’m probably going to delve into a little bit of hibernation and get stuff all together, all this work I’ve been doing for the last little while, and start to put it together visually and sonically what it is I want to do next.
Do you have any dream electronic collaborations?
Oh, yeah, I’ve worked with Joel and Sonny. I just saw this: Lorin [Bassnectar], is working with Tom Morello from Rage Against The Machine, I’ve talked to Lorin every once in a while, but I think doing something with him would be really fun. There’s a bunch of people I would like to work with – there’s really a lot.
Any tracks or artists that inspired you?
Yeah, I have a folder in my iTunes called ‘Inspired’ – let me take a peak, there’s so much music in my head all the time. I love Madeon’s work. I’ve done stuff with The Bloody Beetroots. There’s another guy who goes by the name of Moon Bounce who I love his shit. Have you heard of FKA Twigs? She’s super rad – she was at Coachella this year. She’s killer. There’s so many people…
And that’s what’s going to be cool- once Motley’s over, it’s like we’ll be divorced and I’ll be a single man again, trying to talk to everybody. Reality is we’ve been married for 34 years…
It’s time to go separate ways and hang out with other artists…
I know, I’m really looking forward to it.