American rock legends Mötley Crüe have finally quit playing live shows. Amit Sharma catches up with bassist Nikki Sixx to find out what’s next for the bassist who died, was brought back to life and wrote a hit song about it, all in one day…
“You know, I get a lot of flak,” chuckles Nikki Sixx. “People say, ‘Nikki Sixx can’t play bass!’ And I always laugh. It’s like, I’ve been playing arenas for 34 years – sure, I’m not a good bass player. You know… 120 million records sold, but definitely not a good bassist. Yeah, I get it.”
When you sit down with Mötley Crüe’s bass player, who formed the band in 1981 with drummer Tommy Lee, you soon realise that he rejoices in proving his doubters wrong. His band played their farewell UK tour this November – and just in case anyone thinks they’re telling porkies, the four members have signed a legally binding ‘cessation of touring’ death pact. This is it, the end of an era. There’s no turning back.
“Well, I’ll be back, but never with Crüe,” says the Californian, sitting by the coffee table in his plush room at Kensington’s Royal Garden Hotel. “Not even the smallest chance. I don’t want to, none of us want to. The phone calls will start, I’m sure the snakes and parasites will come out saying, ‘Hey man, what about just five shows at Wembley? You’ll each make this much…’ and I’ll be like, ‘No!’ I’m really adamant about it. The money’s not important, but the legacy is. Age is a cruel monster when it comes to rock bands: what happens is that people grow and change. Me and Tommy [Lee, drums] don’t even listen to the same music, he likes electronic stuff, I’m really into 70s rock. Vince [Neil, vocals] is really into the classics and makes a little blues. Our common ground is Mötley Crüe. But there isn’t as much common ground these days, and that’s not gonna get any better. The band will end, the movie will come out shortly after, and then we’ll be sat here talking about my other band Sixx:A.M. We want to leave it now, before we end up like one of those bands with no original members. That’s sad to me – when you see two versions of the same band. It’s just so weird for the fans.”
The man raises a good point: no fan wants to see their favourite band dissolve into a weak-willed, half-arsed tribute act. Sometimes it’s good to quit while you’re ahead. And that’s precisely what the Sunset Strip’s most notorious sons are doing: preserving their integrity before the cruel monster Sixx speaks of can set its wretched talons upon their name.
Since forming in 1981, the hair metal heroes, synonymous with sleazy odes to decadence, also practised what they preached: at one point, Sixx was pronounced dead after a heroin overdose, only to come back to life courtesy of a cardiac adrenaline shot, writing the hit song ‘Kickstart My Heart’ just hours later. But Sixx is open about past mistakes – and how to learn from them without regret.
“It’s all part of the story,” says Sixx. “Mine was a version of rebellion based on abandonment and a deep brooding sense that life is poetry. I think I was a living, breathing nightmare, to be honest. I probably wasn’t a pleasant person, with a temper prone to violence. I knocked this guy out in Australia a few weeks ago, and my wife was sat on top of me in the bedroom saying, ‘You can’t keep hitting people!’ And I go, ‘They insulted me and that’s what happens!’ And then she asked if I was ever going to stop, to which I said I didn’t know…
“My bass style and ethics – whether through sobriety, drug addiction, being a parent or a good friend – are down to the fact that I believe you can do whatever you want with your life. Sometimes that can have repercussions that in my case ended up in drug overdose and death. I’m not saying everyone should go through the stop light, I’m saying tread lightly with the fact you can do whatever your heart tells you. Follow your path. There was an American mythologist and psychologist called Joseph Campbell and his call to arms was ‘follow your bliss’. Follow what you love and you will find yourself on the right path.”
It’s a practice that has certainly worked out well for the four-stringer. He briefly contemplated guitar as a young teen, at which point he stole one from a shop – but soon realised it was the bass he was born to play and sold it. (“That ’76 gold top Les Paul would be worth so much now!” he adds.) It was the instrument’s ability to change the context of melody that inspired him, almost like a greater force within the recordings that were shaping his life.
“I was playing guitar and it was fun, but I wanted that thing which could change everything with one note. With a lot of the Crüe stuff – like ‘Too Young To Fall In Love’ – if you listen, it’s the bass that moves. The guitar part I wrote just stays the same. So the melody moves with the bass, and understanding that was how I began to write songs. My first bass was a Rickenbacker. I didn’t want it, I didn’t like it, but it was all I could afford. I actually wanted a Gibson Thunderbird.”
As Sixx began to broaden his musical horizons, he explored the immortal 70s rock of Aerosmith and UFO and developed an ear for songs that affect people. He decided to stick with the ‘less is more’ school of bass playing – serving the song instead of seeking opportunities to stand out as an individual.
“When I get flak, what they’re saying is ‘You should be more flamboyant’. But if you listen to AC/DC, it would be out of place. Or imagine if Pete Way was moving all over the fretboard in UFO? It wouldn’t be right. Luckily with Sixx:A.M. it isn’t out of place. There is a progressive element to that band and macabre undertones that allow for really interesting melodies. On our last record, I played six months straight with just my fingers. I wouldn’t use a pick, unless I was with Mötley Crüe. It brought out another side of me, something that was a bit more rhythmic, almost a little funky. People had never heard me play like that! Then I’d start using the pick, which would sound more like stuff you hear on Jack White or Lenny Kravitz records.”
When it comes to gear, Sixx favours the simpler things, just like in his note choices: a solid wall of sound with little need for any intense parametric tonal sculpting. You could say he’s a fairly straightforward, ‘plug in and play’ kinda guy.
“My set-up is still pretty simple,” he shrugs. “I’ve been with Ampeg most of my career, and apart from that, I just use a little compression. It’s a real low and bitey type of sound, which works well because I play really aggressively. Sometimes I’ll put a distortion pedal in there to bring a little dirt in. I like my bass to sound closer to a guitar than a standard bass, at least for what I play in Crüe. I find it really cuts through. And when I do walks, they sound really fucked up, like the early Black Sabbath songs where the bass would be blowing up! I think if it was any quieter, I wouldn’t have the same feel.”
At 56, Sixx looks remarkably young, but he’s more than aware of the clock that ticks inside all of us. After all, he’s already died once and been lucky enough to tell the tale. If that doesn’t put things into perspective, nothing will.
“I understand age,” he says. “I’m experiencing the reality that there are more years behind me than in front of me. Unless some miracle drug comes along where I can take a shot every week for a month and get another 30 years. That would be great – but that’s not gonna happen in my time, so I need to cherish what I have. Like I said, the money’s not important to me. The legacy is.”