BGM writer Jamie Blaine conducted this interview with Lemmy in September 2015, three months before the great man’s death from cancer at the age of 70. Tough as old leather until the end, the Motörhead frontman gave us a hell of an interview, signing off his thoughts on the world of bass with his signature good humour, even though his health was evidently failing. We salute him.
We’re flying cross-country on a 747 to meet the King of Rock‘n’roll, gravel voice, grinding bass, moles, muttonchops and mirror shades… is there any doubt who we’re talking about? He’s a legend of biblical proportions, as solidly iconic as Stonehenge, and the founder of all things Motörhead – Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister.
Long regarded as virtually (or at least chemically) indestructible, a recent rash of health crises forced both Lemmy and his adoring fanbase to reconsider his mortality as cancellations began to mount, even with the onset of Motörhead’s 22nd studio LP, Bad Magic, a blistering set of smashing new classics to celebrate 40 years of maximum rock‘n’roll. We’re a bit apprehensive as we land, taxi through the city and slip backstage. What sort of condition might we discover Mr Kilmister in? “Apparently, I’m still alive!” Lemmy assures us with a ragged laugh. “Much better now, thank you, sir.”
Finding our hero in apparent good health and fine humour, we’re eager to talk shop. Coming in, we catch a glance at his custom Rickenbacker 4004LK with triple humbuckers, gold hardware and a stunning hand-carved oak leaf relief in the walnut top. Lemmy is known for his long-time allegiance to the California maker’s guitars, so the first question that comes to mind is – why Rickenbacker?
“Well, the Rick’s got a really thin neck, which is good for me because I’m a guitar player playing the part of a bassist,” Lemmy explains. “The diabetes fucks with my hands, so it makes it a lot easier for me to handle. And I like the shape of it a lot. I used to buy a guitar just for its shape and if it didn’t sound good, I’d fix it, changing the pickups and such.”
Even though Motörhead’s frontman is famous for his Rickenbacker bass, we mention that we’ve spotted a few old photos of him with a Gibson. “I did play a Thunderbird for a bit, yeah,” Lemmy remembers as a toothy grin creeps across his craggy face. “But the neck’s so long you have to be an orangutan to play it!” We swap Thunderbird stories for a bit, having played one briefly in a Nashville party band. Though we loved the sleek look, releasing the neck made for a fast drop of the headstock towards the floor. “Exactly,” Lemmy agrees. “I’ve been trying to get Gibson to make me one with a shorter-scale neck for years but they haven’t done it.” So Lemmy might play ‘Iron Fist’ on something other than a Rick? “I play a lot of basses,” he says. “I’ve got a Gretsch Billy Bo that I love. I collect basses and six-string guitars as well.”
When asked about influences, Lemmy raves about the intensity of early rockers like Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. But how about bass influences? Was he paying attention to Jerry Lee’s left-hand runs? “I dunno,” Lemmy replies. “In those days you couldn’t hear the bass-line very well. You got the sound of the whole band because they only used a few mics. One on piano that caught the vocal as well, one on the drums and one on the rest of the band. So I don’t remember hearing any specific bass-lines until people like Jet Harris of the Shadows came up.”
Lemmy’s propulsive style set the cornerstone of speed metal, yet his own influences are broad and diverse. “Well, McCartney, of course, was just incredible. And John Entwistle changed it all, didn’t he?” he says. “But I wasn’t really that inspired by bass players as much as the sound or the feel of the entire band. I like to hear the whole road, not just the bricks, y’know?”
Lemmy’s technique is one of little finesse or trickery, just four fat strings raked hard with the rough edge of a pick, producing a raw, aggressive tone full of mid-range choke and plenty of hair of the dog. The gristly bite of Lem’s bass reminds us not so much of McCartney’s Höfner as some bastard son of Eddie Cochran’s guitar. “Eddie Cochran, yeah!” Lemmy growls in assent. “Shame he got cut off so young, as he was truly one of the greats. If I play bass more like a rhythm guitarist, it’s because that’s what I used to be. So it all makes sense, huh?”
Ian Fraser Kilmister got his start playing rhythm guitar in 60s Brit bands such as the Rockin’ Vicars, the Sam Gopal Dream and Opal Butterfly before picking up bass for space-rock pioneers Hawkwind after standing bassist Dave Anderson no-showed at a gig. Lemmy reminisces about his first bass guitar. “It was a Hopf Studio, I do believe, which were made in Germany. I bought it off Del Dettmar [keyboards, Hawkwind] for 17 quid but never paid him. Del got it from an auction at Heathrow Airport. Some poor son of a bitch left it on a plane, I guess. It was a good-playing bass. I’d love to have it back, but it’s long gone now.”
On developing his distinctive use of double stops and chords: “The first time I’d ever played bass was in Hawkwind in 1972. I walked on stage having never played one before in my life, and I did the whole show! I must have done something right because they kept me on for quite a few years. I was already a guitar player so I knew what went where and it occurred to me one day to try a chord, two fingers, three. It worked out well so I kept doing it. Simple as that, really.”
We ask Lemmy about the origins of his percolating run on Hawkwind’s ‘Master Of The Universe’ and his work on their Top 3 smash, ‘Silver Machine’. “They were already doing ‘Master Of The Universe’ by the time I joined,” he says. “I didn’t play the same bass-line, I kinda found a way to make it my own. Hawkwind already had ‘Silver Machine’ as well, but I changed the vocal and came up with my own bass part. Hawkwind was good. We were a unique band, but a lot of people missed what we were doing at the time.”
With over four decades of bass-lines laid down now, which one is he most proud of? “Probably ‘Ace Of Spades’,” Lem replies. “That one’s done us the best. And for good reason.” We press for details on the birth of the dirty, distorted bass lick that kicks off Motörhead’s earsplitting classic. There’s a long pause followed by a rumbling laugh and the trademark rasp of a thousand Marlboro Reds and shots of Jack.
“I can’t remember,” he confesses. “That was a long time ago, sir. We were just writing a bunch of songs for that album and I knew with ‘Ace Of Spades’ I wanted to start it on bass and then have Eddie Clarke come in and finish on guitar. But I write most of the songs on acoustic guitar, as you can’t very well write on bass, right? So I’m not sure how it took place, really. We were all on so many drugs in those days.”
So how does Motörhead’s engine run in studio and live shows with the gonzo drumming of Mikkey Dee and a rhythm guitarist on bass? Does Kilmister lead the charge? “I’m playing to the drums,” he answers, “but I also play to the vocals, if you know what I mean. There are all kinds of ways you can play it. On ‘Overkill’ you might let the drummer lead, whereas on ‘Just ’Cos You Got the Power’ you might lean more towards the guitarist. I’m not a traditional bass player, so really there are no rules.”
Settling in, we tell Lemmy of our first exposure to the band, via early MTV’s repeated airings of ‘One Track Mind’ and a Creem magazine centerfold of a leering Lemmy with a button on his jacket proclaiming ‘I Love To Read’. “A good one, ‘One Track Mind’ was,” Lemmy reflects. “It was a bit different for us and I think it gets forgotten sometimes. Motörhead is a blues band at heart, we just play ’em really fast. But now and then we’ll take it down slower, like on ‘One Track Mind’ or ‘Lost Woman Blues’ from Aftershock.”
Does he still have that unabashed affection for the written word? “Very much,” he tells us. “I read a lot of non-fiction, even what some might call textbooks. A lot about the war and plenty of good novels. Michael Moorcock, Len Deighton, Philip K. Dick with science fiction, he’s just unbeatable. Better than watching it on TV, isn’t it?”
Even though he’s lived in Los Angeles since 1993, Lemmy is still considered Britain’s most beloved rock export. The look, the attitude, even the accent remains. We wonder – what does the UK mean to him these days? “England was, to me,” he begins, “the birth of modern rock‘n’roll. Did you know the Beatles refused to tour the United States before they were No 1? It took us a good while to get America to listen but in the end, the Beatles killed ’em.” So why did Lemmy move to Hollywood? “Ah, well, the climate’s a lot better, therefore the girls wear less clothing! And essentially I came here for the music business too. We had just signed with Sony and I thought it was better for me to be close, so I could keep my eye on them.”
Few rock stars are as revered as the Staffordshire native, as evidenced by the outpouring of well wishes and kindness that surround him this evening. “It’s because I’m such a nice guy!” he cackles when asked why he’s so loved. But didn’t he write a song declaring just the opposite with 1992’s ‘I Ain’t No Nice Guy’? “That’s right, I did! But I had Ozzy with me on that one, mate.” So which is it? “Nice guy,” he concedes. “It’s just how I am, how I was raised. Good manners cost nothing. I never say anything bad about anybody. I don’t believe in badmouthing people.”
Speaking of Ozzy and songwriting, there’s something we’ve always wanted to ask Lemmy about ‘Mama, I’m Comin’ Home’. It’s a love song. Why does he suggest that the character in the song could have been a better friend? “Some people are good lovers and bad friends. But you can’t resist them, because they’re good in bed!” Lemmy says with a sigh. “It’s complicated, y’know? Human relationships…”
With showtime fast approaching, a huge backdrop featuring Snaggletooth and the Latin phrase ‘Victoria Aut Morte’ (‘Victory or Death’) is revealed on stage to cheers from the mob gathered to celebrate the band tonight. “Geez, my man!” Lemmy exclaims when asked to name his favourite Motörhead memory. “You’re asking a lot to remember. But I think it was when we went straight in at No 1 in Europe with the live album, No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith. That was pretty big, a validation of sorts, don’t you think?”
Given Lemmy’s recent health scares, is it presumptuous to ask what the future holds? “My solo album’s nearly finished,” Lemmy tells BGM. “I’ve just got one more track to do. I sing on all the songs and play bass on some. It’s me with different backing bands. I’ve got a track with the Damned, a cut with Dave Grohl, one with Joan Jett, two songs with Skin from Skunk Anansie and two with the Reverend Horton Heat. I’ve got a lot of acquaintances by now! It should be out by middle of 2016.”
And the future of Motörhead? “We’ll be in England early next year doing some shows with our old friends Girlschool, that’ll be nice. Then we’ll do another Motörhead record,” he assures us. “I want to do another, for sure.”
With that, our time with the legend is over. We stand to go, then turn back and thank him for all he’s given, for the endless tours and countless anthems, for never being anything less than exactly who he is. Lemmy fumbles with his hands and for a moment is silent. “Ah… you don’t ever think that way, really,” he says finally. “You just play music with a few guys and see what happens. And here we are 40 years later.” And with that, Lemmy Kilmister laughs, lights a cigarette and heads off towards the stage.
“We are Motörhead!” he declares to the faithful. “And we play rock‘n’roll!” Godspeed, Lemmy.