Victory or die.
Considering Lemmy’s recent health challenges, those three words could certainly be somewhat personal, but in a profound way, they also sum up Motörhead’s entire legacy.
When Motörhead first started popping out albums in the late ’70s, it probably seemed implausible that the band would be around 40 years and 22 albums later. And yet, here they are. According to Lemmy—who embodies the sex, drugs, and rock & roll ethos more honestly than anyone alive besides Keith Richards—Motörhead’s career is defined by “sheer, dogged, pig-nosed fucking persistence and refusal to listen to the evidence.”
Lemmy was born Ian Fraiser Kilmister on December 24, 1945. Though it has never been confirmed nor denied, legend has it that the nickname “Lemmy” came from the phrase, “Lemme (lend me) a quid until Friday,” because of his habit of borrowing money. He began playing rock & roll in 1964 in Blackpool, England with the rowdy Rockin’ Vickers, and he had a near-mythical stint as a roadie for Jimi Hendrix shortly before joining his first professional outfit, the heavy prog-rock band Hawkwind. Although Lemmy had never picked up a bass before joining Hawkwind, his time with the band is marked by a divine melodic sense and inventive chordal support, particularly on albums like Warrior on the Edge of Time. He was fired in 1975 after being arrested in Canada on drug charges.
He formed Motörhead shortly thereafter and released a few albums before gaining stateside recognition with Ace of Spades. Throughout the band’s career, Lemmy’s unbound playing style, which relies on guitar-like nuances, has been the driving force behind now-classic tunes like “Overkill,” “Ace of Spades,” “Iron Fist,” and “Killed by Death.” The band’s first live album, No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith, made Motörhead cult legends, and bands like Metallica often cite them as a precursor to speed metal. They were most certainly a forerunner of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, but unlike contemporaries such as Judas Priest, Motörhead has yet to enjoy mainstream success. And even when they do “succeed” at something, they seem to get a backhanded compliment. They won a Grammy in 2005, for example, but it was for a cover of Metallica’s “Whiplash” [Metallic Attack: The Ultimate Tribute, 2004, Big Deal]. They’ve sold 15 million albums worldwide, but they often still serve, and humbly so, as an opening act for many of their peers.
Within the industry, Lemmy’s imprint is so desirable that he’s been tapped by everyone from Ozzy Osbourne—with whom he co-wrote four of the biggest hits on the double-platinum No More Tears [1991, Epic]—to the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, who invited Lemmy to join his star-studded side project Probot. Heck, he’s even written songs for WWE wrestler Triple H. Despite such accolades and associations, Motörhead has always existed on the periphery. Lemmy sums up Motörhead’s legacy like this: “We’re the ultimate underdog band—the most underdog underdog band there’s ever been.”
Bad Magic is Motörhead’s 22nd studio album, and though it follows a familiar template, many of its aspects resonate with a sense of immediacy. The introspective, somewhat poignant “’Till the End” offers a great example of Lemmy’s singular tone, which pokes out of the mix and offers a distinct contrast to the clean guitars. His percolating take on Bill Wyman’s classic “Sympathy for the Devil” bass line is a bombastic homage to one of his earliest musical influences. And fast and vicious numbers like “Thunder and Lightning” and “Shoot Out All of Your Lights” are classic, raucous Motörhead, proving that even at 70 years old, rock’s perennial underdog still hasn’t slowed down. For Lemmy, the mission has always been “victory or die.”
How do you begin writing songs for a new record like Bad Magic?
We do it all different ways. Sometimes I come in with a song, or Phil [Campbell, guitar] will come up with a riff. Sometimes I’ll come up with some words that we’ll fit some music to, or we’ll have a couple of riffs that I’ll put some words over. I do all the words—apart from that, it’s all-in.
Do you write material before heading into the studio?
We always have the riffs before we go in. Sometimes we just make up something on the spot. And sometimes we write a riff that’s unfeasible, so we have to bite the bullet and cut it down.
Do you cut the bass before your vocals?
For recording, we put the drums down first with a scratch rhythm guitar. Then we wipe that and do a new rhythm guitar and I’ll cut the bass over that. Then Phil comes back in and does some solos. The vocals come last. Mickey [Dee, drums] was most outraged when he first joined. He said, “You can’t work like this!” I said, “Sure we can.” We just build it up from scratch.
Do you guys embrace any of the recording-technology advances, such as working with a click track?
Mickey sometimes uses a click track because he speeds up a bit now and again. But really, he’s pretty good. Me and Phil don’t need it because we’ve never used it. I don’t know how to use it. It puts me off, a click. I’ve got a natural rhythm, baby [laughs].
Do you play different bass parts in the studio than you do live?
No, it’s pretty much the same style. In the studio, you can make anything heard, whereas onstage I sometimes have to hit two strings to make it louder—the drone [open] string and the note. Fortunately, we do a lot of songs in E, A, and D [laughs].
Is it easier to sing in those keys or write riffs or both?
Those are my keys to sing in, really. We have a few exceptions. We do a few songs in B now and again—it just depends on what I come up with. Sometimes I’ll ask them to change the key of a song, which really pisses Phil off [laughs].
You use a lot of chords in your playing. Where does that come from?
I was a guitar player first, so I’m used to playing chords. It’s just like playing the guitar without the top two strings. I just made chords out of what strings I had left [laughs]. It’s unorthodox, but it works for us.
Do you apply that approach because Motörhead is a power trio?
I hate it when I see a band and they’re thumping along, the riff is great, and then the solo comes in and the riff dies because the guitar player has to play the solo. So I always said to myself, I’ll back it up—put some extra bits in, like two-note chords or something like that.
There’s a breakdown in “Fire Storm Hotel” that features a short bass solo. How did that part come about?
We had that right at the beginning. We don’t usually think about things like that. We just play it through a few times and one of us will say, “Hey, how about …” It’s just like a young band.
Like many Motörhead songs, “Fire Storm Hotel” has a straight-up rock & roll vibe, yet you are often credited with inventing speed metal. Does that ever bother you?
I know. It’s stupid. It was because we had long hair. When the mods came out, they had short hair, so the rockers had to have long hair. We got stuck in with heavy metal, which is not what we are. We’re hard rock—we have a lot of the blues in us.
The intro to “The Devil” shows just how crushing your tone is, with a massive combination of chords and distortion. What’s your secret?
I don’t use any effects. On my amp, I turn the bass off, the treble off, the middle is full on, and I’m at about three o’clock with the presence and two o’clock on the volume—on both stacks. I have two ’70s Marshall stacks. They go through 15" and 4x12 speaker cabs.
What made you gravitate toward the Rickenbacker as your main instrument?
The shape. I’m all for the image—always. If you get one that looks good, you can always mess with the pickups if it sounds bad. I would get Rickenbacker basses and change the pickups. I put a Gibson Thunderbird pickup in my first one, and that sounded like a fucking bulldozer. The new Rickenbacker pickups are much better.
In “Evil Eye,” there’s a melodic bass part in the bridge before the solo. You seem quite comfortable and adept at taking such liberties.
I like doing those. The bass can be more of a lead instrument than people give it credit for. I find it just as pleasant to listen to as a guitar. And I like to show off, so I put one or two of those on an album [laughs].
In “Teach Them How to Bleed,” there’s a two-note bass fill that epitomizes your innate sense of rhythm.
I was born to play the bass, basically. Basically … very good [laughs]. I was a mediocre guitar player—I couldn’t play lead to save my life. But I was a great rhythm guitarist. I have a feel for rhythm, so that’s probably where it comes from.
You’ve been working with producer Cameron Webb since 2004’s Inferno. What is it that makes him essential to Motörhead records?
He’s a really good producer. Sometimes, he hears things that we don’t hear, because he doesn’t share our history. He doesn’t know us like we know each other. We might dismiss a suggestion somebody makes, but he won’t. He’ll say, “Why don’t you try that?” And he’s not afraid to say, “Sit down, shut up, and listen,” which is what we need sometimes. We had a couple of producers who were scared to death of us. They tried to please everybody and, of course, pleased nobody.
Do you write songs on bass?
I usually write on acoustic guitar. But I do write the occasional one on bass. I wrote “Iron Fist” on bass. And I wrote “Ace of Spades” on bass, but it’s not often that I do that. It’s pretty limiting.
What do you mean by that?
With bass, you feel like a twat when you’re on your own. It feels incomplete. You have to have the other instruments to make it work. It’s not a lead instrument, per se. Although you can cheat here and there, you need the song playing to play bass properly, in my humble opinion.
Do you find that songs that come naturally are better than ones that take longer to write?
Sometimes each side of that is true. I wrote “(We Are) The Road Crew” in three minutes—all of the words. The rest of the band had gone on a break and they hadn’t even finished buttering their toast when I said, “Are you ready? I’ve got it.” That was the fastest ever. And then for Overkill, we were short one song. I went to the movies one night and saw Metropolis, the old Fritz Lang movie, and went home and wrote that complete nonsense lyric. “Metropolis is something new / Ain’t nobody got their eye on you / I don’t care.” What the fuck does that mean? But it’s a great song.
Did your experience as Jimi Hendrix’s roadie have any influence on you musically?
Yeah, he told me I was never going to be a good guitar player [laughs]. I was lucky, though. I joined Hawkwind for the job of the guitar player, and they just decided they weren’t going get another guitar player—Dave [Brock, vocals] decided he was going to play the lead. But the bass player, like a twat, had not shown up that day because it was a free gig and he wasn’t getting paid. He left his bass and amp in the gear van, like, “Steal my gig,” so I stole his gig [laughs].
What did you learn about playing bass while in Hawkwind?
I learned to play bass onstage with Hawkwind. I never picked one up in my life before that gig. Dave wanted me in the band because I did speed and he did speed, and we were the only ones, so he wanted a mate to speed with. So I walked onstage with this thing hanging around my neck—it was a Rickenbacker, too—and Nik Turner [vocals, saxophone, flute] said really helpful stuff [sarcastically]. He came over and said, “Make some noises in E—this one’s called ‘You Shouldn’t Do That,’” and then walked away from me. None of that old-fashioned stuff like, “Two verses and a solo.” Make some fucking noises in E—that’s really helpful [laughs].
So you were thrown right into the fire?
Oh yeah. It’s the best way. You learn if you can do it or not right there [laughs].
Did you have any bass influences at that point?
Paul McCartney and John Entwistle. Entwistle was like a lead guitar player, wasn’t he? He wasn’t like anybody I had ever seen. If you watch both sets of his fingers, it’s nuts. What he did is nuts. We played with the Who a few times in the ’60s when I was with a band up in Blackpool, and I used to sit and watch him. I couldn’t believe it. I never tried to play like him—just the tone more or less.
You once mentioned guitarist Duane Eddy as an influence. Care to elaborate on that?
He wasn’t an influence on my playing. He was more of an influence on my sound. All of the solos in his songs were by a saxophone player and he would just play the riff, but it was a great sound.
Have you always played with a pick? Did you ever experiment with fingerstyle?
No, I can’t do that finger stuff. I have to have a pick. I’m a guitar player, remember? [Laughs.]
How would you distill the essence of your playing into a few words?
Hard. No prisoners.
Any thoughts on the current state of the music industry?
People listen to rubbish now. It’s all garbage. In the ’70s, you would have gotten rocks thrown at you. In those days, you had to learn how to play your instrument. Nowadays, you can just loop a guitar from somebody else and you’ve done nothing to create that sound, except steal it. I don’t like that. I like to get in there and play the friggin’ thing. It’s not real if you didn’t play it.
Do you have any advice for young musicians?
No advice at all. The problems they run into now are not the problems we ran into when we started. The world has changed a lot, and the stuff they run into I never had to cope with. Make your own mistakes, sort yourselves out, do what you’re supposed to do. If you want to give it up, give it up and do something else, but don’t make it harder for good bands to get gigs by fucking around with it. It’s not a thing to fuck around with. You have to mean it.
Basses Rickenbacker 4004LK Limited Edition
Rig Two “salvaged” Marshall JMP-2 Super Bass Amps, two Marshall 4x15 cabinets, two Marshall 4x12 cabinets
Strings Dunlop LKS Lemmy Signature (.050, .070, .085, .105)
Picks Dunlop MHPT02 Lemmy Signature 1.14mm
With Motörhead Bad Magic [2015, UDR], Kiss of Death [2006, Steamhammer], Inferno [2004, Steamhammer], 1916 [1991, Epic], Orgasmatron [1986, GWR], No Remorse [1984, Bronze], Another Perfect Day [1983, Bronze], Iron Fist [1982, Bronze], No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith [1981, Bronze], Ace of Spades [1980, Mercury], Overkill [1979, Bronze]. With Hawkwind Warrior on the Edge of Time [1975, United Artists].