After being ousted from the British space-rock band Hawkwind in 1975, bassist/vocalist Ian "Lemmy" Kilmister formed Motörhead, one of the best hard-rock acts in the world. To this day, the band manages to embrace the speed, volume, and "fuck you" attitude of both metal and punk, while transcending the label of either. More than 22 years and many line-up changes later, Motörhead still creates ass-pounding rock music. The group just released a new album, Snake Bite Love, for CMC International Records, and is preparing for a summer tour with an as-yet-unnamed big-ticket act. Kilmister, now 52, recently spoke with The Onion about tour troubles, label troubles, recording troubles, and why he still loves to rock despite all that.
The Onion: It looks like Motörhead has found a pretty consistent record label right now.
Lemmy Kilmister: Yeah. They've been great to us.
O: Why do you think the other labels kept grabbing onto and then dropping Motörhead after releasing only one or two albums?
LK: Labels nowadays, mostly, don't seem to have any commitment whatsoever to the people they sign. They'll sign the band, and then sack them halfway through the first album. It's obviously a tax wash: Lay out an advance, and then you can plead poverty at the next IRS audit. I'm sure that's what WTG [the Sony affiliate that released 1991's 1916 and its follow-up, March Or Die] was, 'cause they hired all these bands and then fired them all, right? Including Bonham. We went up to the label one day, and it was empty. All the staff had been fired, except the secretary. That was it. That was all. It was major.
O: Did they at least make sure you got the money that was coming to you?
LK: They paid us the advance. That's the thing, you see: They do that, then they include that with the IRS, and then they get it back from the record sales. Double-whammy. It's a license to print money, I suppose.
O: Do they still have the old catalog in print right now?
LK: No, I think they sold it all to Castle, like the others did. Compilations coming. Wait for the next glossy box set. CMC actually shipped the first album, Sacrifice, before we signed. That is unheard-of nowadays, anybody having faith in the bands they sign like that. I'd go to bat for them any time. They've been great to us. I used to think it was hopeless. I used to think we were bloody doomed.
O: Tell me a little bit about the new album. How long did it take to write and record it?
LK: It was about five weeks in the rehearsals and writing mode, and then about six weeks in the studio.
O: When did you wrap up the recording?
LK: About the end of January.
O: That was after the ill-fated last tour.
LK: Oh, yes. [Laughs.] W.A.S.P. Well, actually, it wasn't the band W.A.S.P.; it was only Blackie [Lawless, vocals]. He just seemed to have lost his mind for a little while there.
O: Have you been in contact with him since then?
LK: No. What for? So we could go over old times? [Laughs.] Not really.
O: You spend a lot of time on the road, but do you live in Los Angeles now?
O: What precipitated the move from England to L.A.?
LK: Well, I figured 44 years was long enough to live anywhere. Like, as Bill Clinton once so succinctly put it, it's time for a change, right? If you're English, you watched all these shows on TV all your life, and three-quarters of them are set in L.A. Then we went to play over here, and… It's the palm trees, you know? [Laughs.] The palm trees are exotic to an Englishman. We don't have palm trees, especially not 30 feet high. We have small, stunted bushes all pushed over one way with the wind and drizzle. It's quite a revelation when you come to California or Arizona or somewhere like that for the first time. It's sort of like living in Disneyland. It's great, but a lot nicer before they brought this no-smoking thing in.
O: Are you still a smoker?
LK: Oh, yeah. I go in there and smoke anyway. I don't care. My picture's on the wall in the bar. I've been going there since 1973. Throw my ass out for smoking a cigarette. Go on. It's not logical. Also, it's grossly one-sided. When we had the power, we always gave them no-smoking areas. Now we don't get any. The first thing you want after you buy a drink is a cigarette. The thing is, they haven't banned automobiles. [Coughs.] People are sitting at the sidewalk cafe on Sunset Strip doggedly not smoking three feet from the traffic, breathing in exhaust fumes. It seems like clowns to me. If you ban automobiles, I'll give up smoking. I'll make the effort, 'cause I can see you're serious. Until then, don't waste my time.
O: Do you have any other drug of choice at this point, or is it just cigarettes and whiskey?
LK: We don't talk about drugs any more. We've already been hoisted by our own petard on a few of them, yeah. Kind of too controversial being in Motörhead, you know. [Laughs.] We have four kinds of Starbucks coffee on the road. A lot of lemon cream slices, but that's about it.
O: What would the typical Motörhead rider contain?
LK: A couple of bottles of bourbon, a bottle of vodka, a bottle of tequila. Bunch of Cokes. Bunch of beer. Bunch of cheese platters, you know. All that stuff. Two goats, a donkey, three Playboy bunnies (retired), and one Playboy bunny (current).
O: Tell me about some of the songs on Snake Bite Love, like the title track for example.
LK: That's just funny. That was one of those things I wrote in 10 minutes, like a stream-of-consciousness thing. Phil [Campbell, guitar] changed the chords around on this drum track, 'cause that was a different song before, and we had it down. It wasn't really happening. Phil went in early one day and listened to the drum track without the guitar, and changed it completely. Then I came in, and he baffled me with it for 10 minutes. It was a great little work, and I was just like, "In the jungle, in the jungle…" It was really quick.
O: Do you usually write songs by starting out with the music?
LK: Well, we're always panicked, because we're always under the hammer. We're very lazy in rehearsing: We never have anything ready. We pretend to rehearse, then we go to the studio, and we're trapped at the console with the producer glaring and people looking at their watches going, "Oh, we'd better order some more time." "No, man, it's okay. Don't worry. [In a hushed, panicky tone] Jesus Christ!" I wrote three different sets of lyrics for "Don't Lie To Me." I wrote four different sets of lyrics for "Joy Of Labour." I just couldn't get a couple of them to sound right, and I got 'em in the end. It's one of the best albums we've made, I think. We don't do much filler, Motörhead. I mean, we only come up with the amount of tracks we need, and don't do filler.
O: Leave the double-disc sets to The Smashing Pumpkins.
LK: Good old Smashing Pumpkins. They've had their problems, haven't they? That was a shame, that guy [referring to touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin, who died of a heroin overdose on tour with the band]. It's always a shame. People won't listen to you. You tell them about heroin, and they won't listen. I hate preaching about it, because that's what it becomes, you know? I've seen a few people go under, including my girlfriend and a lot of my best friends. You try to tell people that, and they don't get it. They think they're the ones that discovered it for the first time.
O: It's hard to understand the appeal of sticking a foreign object into your arm to get that rush.
LK: Well, that becomes part of the fascination. The ritual. A lot of rituals attached to heroin.
O: Do you guys have any tour rituals before you go out?
LK: Yeah, we worship 19-year-old women. We used to do it from afar, but we're getting a lot closer now. Almost caught one last week. Then, hopefully, later on, they worship us.
O: Do you find that when you're on the road, the Motörhead fan base is staying young?
LK: It's taking them longer to pick it up. It's difficult to get them to concentrate. The attention span is getting shorter, what with the MTV catastrophe. We just do the best we can. We do get a lot more young people than most bands our age do, 'cause we came into the punk thing. I think we'll always be in a funny way linked with punk, which is kind of young.
O: Would you consider Motörhead to have been a punk band?
LK: If we had short hair, we would be a punk band, wouldn't we? We do mostly short songs that hit you in the face and run away. I always thought we had a lot in common with The Damned. We didn't know what we were doing, and we'd take our clothes off a lot, like [The Damned bassist] Captain Sensible. Only we didn't do it on stage.
O: You have a strong musician fan base. Any hard-rock band, and many punk bands, certainly owe a debt to Motörhead.
LK: Yeah, Metallica really did it right. They came down to my birthday party and played there all dressed like me, with wigs on and bullet belts and black shoes and trousers. And they had the tattoo drawn on the wrong arm. [Laughs.] All four of them. They played 45 minutes of Motörhead songs, which is excellent of them. They interrupted their new album to come down at their own expense and do it. It's the best thing anyone ever did for me. They didn't have to do it. They could have just done another "Hello, Lemmy" video, and that would be the end of it.
O: Have you heard many covers of Motörhead songs?
LK: Well, Metallica did a bundle on a European single. They put three of our songs on the back. They did "Overkill" on the Lollapalooza tour. I got up and did it with them in L.A. when they came in. They were really good, man. People say Metallica has lost it? Forget it. They were unstoppable that night. I've heard some very strange covers of our songs: A guy did an acoustic version of "Overkill" with harps, singing it like a folkie. [Singing] "The only way to feel the noise…" Really strange, man. Then we had a Swedish tribute album, with all these Swedish bands, two all-girl bands—and they were the best ones on there. One did "Hell Raiser," then did five bars of "Take A Chance On Me" by ABBA in the middle of it. It's great stuff. There's been a lot of gob mixes of "Overkill" and "Motörhead" and that.
O: When you have an all-girl band, it seems more sincere and more dangerous than when you have your average hard-rocking metal bands that…
LK: …go through the motions. I like to see girls play rock 'n' roll. A lot of them do it very, very well. We were the first band to take an all-girl band on the road with us—Girlschool, back in '78. People would say, "Well, they play very well for girls." "Screw you, man. She's better than you." Kelly Johnson could hold her own over any guitar player I ever heard, anywhere, including Eddie Van Halen, all that bunch. She was great. On a good night, she was a killer. It wasn't just "pretty good for girls." That's pretty patronizing.
O: What other bands have you seen lately that you've really dug?
LK: Funny enough, they've both got girl singers. Skunk Anansie from England, who I really like a lot, and Skew Siskin from Berlin, who are excellent.
O: What's that last band?
LK: Skew Siskin. Their name is going to be the death of them. I told them before, "Nobody can pronounce it, guys." But they're Germans, you see. They don't get that. Change the name quick before you make the second album.
O: You'd like to think your band could stand alone no matter what the name.
LK: It's not true, though. You've gotta get it across to people. I've always said, you can have the best guitar player in the world in your own front room, but if you can't get on a stage and get it across to people, you might as well never have played.
O: You've got to get your foot in the door.
LK: Well, you've gotta get it across the footways to people. You've got to get it across that barrier from the stage. Some bands play, and they never get the music off the stage, and the audience doesn't receive it. You know what I mean? I guess it's maybe a bad way to put it. Really, the delivery has a lot to do with it, you know?
O: How did you come across the Motörhead way of delivery?
LK: I just look up in the air, you know? That way, if [the room is] empty, I don't have to look at it, and if it's full, I don't have to look at all them ugly guys. I just hit the bass very hard and shout me head off. But we do good songs, and we haven't had any trouble. I play like hell on wheels, and I'm good at what I do. The guys that are with me now are the best I ever had with me, Phil and Mikkey [Dee, drums]. I mean, Mikkey's murderous on drums.
O: How many drum heads does he go through in a week on tour?
LK: Oh, I don't know. Five. He breaks a lot of sticks, too. There are always sticks coming past me on the way to the audience. I'm glad they don't throw them back.
O: Especially when they're broken. They can get the sharp points, and…
LK: Right. Right in the eye.
O: That would be a traumatic moment in people's lives, going to see Motörhead and…
LK: Wouldn't be a bad way to go, though, I guess. Quick, at least. [Laughs.] Merciful.
O: And it would be a blaze of glory. Nobody would forget it.
LK: Trouble is, I wouldn't able to enjoy it.
O: At 25, did you think you'd still be rocking at 50?
LK: God, no. I didn't think so. I mean, I didn't think I was going to live past 35. When you're 25, everybody's old. You think, "My God, this guy is 35? He's ancient! He must be gonna die soon. He can't possibly last long." Then you get to 35, and then, God help you, you get to 40, and you think, "I don't want to stop playing." Why should I? Actually, I'm getting better. A lot of the bands carrying on don't get better. A lot of them are just doing it because it's all they know how to do.
O: What do you think is the future of Motörhead?
LK: The future? Man, I'm not a swami fortune teller. I can't tell. All I know is I ain't going to give it up yet. We have enough success to keep doing it. We can make a living, so it's fine with me. I'm enjoying meself.