Mötley Crüe bassist on his approach to the instrument, new album, the farewell tour and what lies ahead
Sitting in his tour bus parked outside the Gas Monkey Live club in Dallas, where Mötley Crüe is playing a special small club date as part of Dodge’s sponsorship of its farewell tour, Nikki Sixx appears to be a contented man. And why not? The bus is as luxurious as it gets, his faithful dog is resting on the floor and Sixx and the Crüe crew – frontman Vince Neil, guitarist Mick Mars and drummer Tommy Lee – are in the midst of a triumphant jog around the planet, playing final (they promise) shows for big, enthusiastic crowds after nearly 35 years and worldwide sales of 100 million records. He’s also got another band on the go, Sixx A.M., which will be doing its first headlining tour in April to support its third album, Modern Vintage.
Sixx (born Frank Ferrana, Jr. in San Jose, Calif.) doesn’t see the Crüe’s farewell as an end; rather, it’s the start of a next career phase that will see more music and ancillary interests, including clothing, charity (his Running Wild in the Night partnership with Covenant House) and his syndicated radio shows “Sixx Sense” and “The Side Show with Nikki Sixx”). Rest assured, though, that Sixx will always have a bass in his hands and will always be shouting at the devil.
FBPO: How did bass become it for you?
Sixx: God, I was just drawn to it. I was drawn to the simplicity of it as a songwriter. I love basically writing in the simplest form, and then I figure out what that means – “Is this a ballad? Is this a pop song? Is this a heavy metal song?” A lot of time some of our songs, our heavier songs, I’ll play them acoustically when I’m writing and really make sure that the melody line is really worked out, just acoustically and then get into the rough ‘n’ tumble of it. But a song has to be hummable and memorable at it simplest form, and that’s what bass does for me. I feel like the glue to everything.
FBPO: In Mötley Crüe, where do you find your spot within what Mick and Tommy are doing?
Sixx: I feel my spot is somewhere between a bass player and a rhythm guitar player. I play with a pick. I play very aggressively. I always have a distortion pedal in line, and I play less melodies and do more stuff against the guitars that create melodies. Song is king for me, so as long as the song is soaring I’m in my pocket, and then I figure out what I can do to make the song better. In a song like “Too Young To Fall In Love,” for example, the bass moves from the A to the G to the F, and then towards the end it does the A to the B to the C and it walks up – the same melody line but we just kind of wrap it around a different way. It’s those simple little things that are what people remember.
FBPO: Because of that quasi rhythm guitar role you mention, are chords an integral part of your playing?
Sixx: I do play a lot of chords on the bass, especially when we’re ending songs. If we’re in the E position, I’ll play an open E and a closed D at the same time. I guess what I mean by rhythm is creating that energy, so I’m very aware of Tommy’s kick and snare, right in that pocket. At the same time I’m very aware of Mick, trying to get in there and rub with him at the same time, back and forth. And I’ll only do that when I play with Mötley Crüe.
FBPO: Outside of the Crüe, then…
Sixx: Yeah, the different other artists I play with I don’t do that; I play a more traditional-style bass. That’s a totally different bass style, and what I do with Mötley Crüe would not work in Sixx A.M. or vice versa. That’s exciting and challenging. Whenever I play with different musicians I kind of get to know what they do and I try to be the glue to enhance what they do.
FBPO: Do you often find yourself out of your comfort zone, then?
Sixx: Sure. All the time in Sixx A.M., all the time we come up with stuff that’s out of my wheelhouse. With he song “Miracle” on the new Sixx A.M. album, I was really kind of pushing to get this ‘70s, almost funky disco thing, and obviously I knew just playing a straight bass part was not the way to go and I had to really dive in to pushing myself to do lots of walking and lots of almost funk-style bass playing. It was fantastic. The song turned out great; we feel like it ended up somewhere between what the original idea was, a nod to Lenny Kravitz a little bit. Afterward, we were in rehearsal to do some stuff and I said to the guys, “Can we please never play ‘Miracle’ live?” and they laughed. They go, “You fuckin’ wrote that bass part, so you’re gonna have to play it!” [Laughs] I was like, “God damn it!”
FBPO: Is the gear any different between the two bands?
Sixx: No, that’s the same. I like my basic Ampeg SCT set-up and my 810 cabinets and a variety of basses, but my main bass is my Schecter bass. It has such great tone. I’ll use different distortion pedals all the time. I love a little distortion across the bass; I think it kind of adds something to the sound of the band when the bass is a little overdriven. I can either get it by overdriving the amp or using a really cool MXR pedal or something.
FBPO: The new Sixx A.M. album, Modern Vintage, has a lot of different flavors than its two predecessors. It’s the first one you’ve done without a companion book to go with it, for instance.
Sixx: We felt that we needed to leave off and take the next step, which was to stand on our own musically, to take some chances musically, to really be obvious and up-front about our influences and wear them on our sleeve. We didn’t want to be shy about it or coy; we wanted to say, “Yes, you’re hearing a Queen influence. When you’re hearing “Gotta Get It Right,” yes, we understand that does sound like something Freddie Mercury would bite down on or something Slade would’ve lit into or something Elton John or Paul McCartney would have done, melodically. Lyrically, thematically I don’t think we’ve strayed; it’s always real subject matter that has always had a glimmer of hope, even with songs like “Life is Beautiful.” It’s just, musically, we’re more obvious on this record. It took two years to write, record, mix it and master it. It’s almost a miracle that we were able to get this done.
FBPO: The mixed bag approach seems in tune with the way people are listening to music nowadays, too.
Sixx: We understand what’s going on (in 2015). People cherry-pick singles. It used to be we had AM radio and people listened to singles. The listening experience has gotten narrower and narrower, and radio is so formatted that a rock song might only end up on Alternative or if it has a little more guitar then it might end up on Active Rock or Mainstream Rock. You think about Queen songs; imagine the hell that would’ve played with radio if it was so formatted back in the day. So we understand that for some people, Modern Vintage could slightly polarize you, and that’s okay because we’re hoping people will go, “Wait, the same album has ‘Before It’s Over’ and ‘Let’s Go and Drive.’” We wanted to make an album-oriented rock record again.
FBPO: You’re taking the band out on the road for this one. What should we expect?
Sixx: We’ve always wanted to go out and play live, and there’s a small window between a couple of Mötley tours when it just happens that DJ (Ashba) and James (Michael) are available. We’re so excited; now that we have three full albums to choose from, it’s going to be great. As far as putting the show together, we want to show how we were influenced by (David) Bowie and Mott the Hoople and Queen and Elton John; we look at those bands and go, “Those were arena bands. Those were theatrical shows. Those were extravaganzas.” That’s how our mindset works. So even though it’s our first headline tour and we’re going to underplay and play smaller places, we’re gonna put on the biggest show we can think of in those places. It’ll be nothing like what Mötley Crüe has ever done; I would never disrespect Mötley Crüe and do that. Mötley Crüe is this beautiful four-headed monster (Sixx A.M.) is a new band. This is a different band, and it’ll have a different interpretation of what a rock band is.
FBPO: Speaking of the Crüe, how are you feeling about the farewell tour so far?
Sixx: Well, you know it started with the idea of pride and it started with the idea of us not wanting to be what we’ve seen before us, which is people kinda hobbling off into the sunset. We watch it in boxing, I’ve seen some of my favorite football players who should’ve gone away a couple seasons before. It’s human nature to want to keep going, but you have to fight against the “I’m just gonna keep doing it” when you know the possibility of not looking great on the way out. It’s better to pull it in a couple years too early, and that’s really what we’re doing. This tour’s been phenomenal and the crowds have been amazing and the show’s amazing. So I feel really proud and I talked to the guys in the band and they feel really proud.
FBPO: No chance of a reconsideration, then?
Sixx: [Laughs] For me, no, never. Every version of that question has been asked and there’s all the trick questions – “Would you do it for $100 million for five shows in Dubai?” Y’know, let’s just get to the core of it; Do you want us to renege on our word? We don’t want to. I don’t need to name the bands that have. It’s obvious. It’s okay if they want to do that, and it’s okay if their fans accept it. For us, we didn’t want to do that. Plus, I have less years in front of me than I have behind me, and it’s the same for all my band members. There’s a track record of what we’ve done together, and I think we each individually want to go out and do some other stuff. If it was just about money it would be different. But it’s not about money. It’s about credibility. And, you know, the next day after we take our final bow, I’m gonna look at my band members and say, “Wow, dudes, everything we said the first day we got together, the very first band rehearsal, we did it. And then I’m right back at it. I’ve got my fingers in many pies and I’m very excited about creating stuff and watching it blossom and bloom and harvest it and get on with the next thing. I think it’s a very exciting thing to look forward to as well.
FBPO: It doesn’t sound like the door’s completely closed to doing other things together, though.
Sixx: We actually have a lot of great things we have in front of us, including our movie. And if something comes up and we want to write a song for something, that’s an opportunity we can look at. We want to keep extending our brand into different places, into movies and soundtracks and our music will live on through licensing and our brand lives on through merchandise and new generations will get to wear our clothing and our T-shirts and stuff that’s associated with us. And I think they’ll be more proud about it as the years go one. They’ll be like, “Man, remember when those guys said they were doing their final tour and they did it their way and I’m wearing their shirt. I dig their music and I went back to some of their albums I never heard before and I discovered their music and I heard it in a new movie…” That’s so cool. And besides, whatever we do as Mötley Crüe, what about what each guy’s gonna do, individually? That’s really exciting.
Gary Graff is an award-winning music journalist and author based in Detroit. In addition to FBPO, Gary writes regularly for Billboard, the New York Times Features Syndicate, Digital First Media, Revolver, Classic Rock, United Stations Radio Networks and Greater Media Interactive, and he reports on music news for WCSX-FM in Detroit and WHQG-FM in Milwaukee. Graff has authored, co-authored and edited books on Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger and others and was the founding editor of the MusicHound Essential Album Guide series. Graff is also the co-founder and co-producer of the annual Detroit Music Awards.
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