Music Interviews

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interview by Joy Williams & Olga Chaiko
published in Artist Magazine, San Francisco; Thrash Metal, Los Angeles; &
Rock City, Moscow, Russia
cover photo © Michael Lucero/Artist Publications

Lemmy Kilmister/Motorhead c Michael Lucero/Artist Publications

“That's the only reason to be alive, is if you have a certain set of morals—as far as I can perceive it, what a decent human being should do—and stick to it. Nothing's worth it without it. You decide what's wrong and what's right by figuring out that it hurts nobody else if you get advanced.”

-- Lemmy

The first time I saw Metallica I was astonished to see punks, in all their multi-colored-mohawked, safety-pinned, ragged glory, heavily populating the audience. I couldn't understand what had happened, how the punks who hated metal could be at a metal show—until I remembered that in 1983 my punk/new wave friends from college radio had been raving about Motörhead. At this time, it was absolutely de rigueur to despise the entire metal genre as the epitome of everything wrong with music up until punk was born.

Except for Motörhead, that is. Curiosity getting the better of me, I arranged to interview the band in an effort to find out why. What was so different about Motörhead that they were actually hip with the Ramones, Sex Pistols and Simple Minds crowd?

I never did figure that out in 1983 (they got me so drunk it was all I could do to keep from falling over—or puking); I only remember that they were incredibly loud. And that Brian Robertson ("Robbo," ex-Thin Lizzy guitarist), had told me "I hate this music, it's shit." Which I thought was awfully weird, and so I happily went back to the Cure, et al.

But some of those other punks out there had figured it out, and when Exodus and Metallica and the whole thrash/speed metal thing appeared in 1981, some them, at least, readily accepted Motφrhead. It took me until 1985, when I peeked out from backstage with Armored Saint to check out why I kept seeing the name Metallica everywhere, to realize what Motφrhead had done to/for metal.

Back in '83 Robbo had recounted a story of how Motörhead had stopped at a hamburger stand somewhere in the Midwest, and a fan had come running up to him. He'd grabbed Robbo's arm and, wild-eyed "just like Charles Manson" (here, Lemmy did a very credible impersonation of that madman's demented stare), and exclaimed, "Oh, Motorhead is my life!" "Can you imagine?" Robbo shook his head. "What kind of person thinks Motörhead is his life?"

You know me, evil eye.
You know me, prepared to die.
You know me, the snake-bite kiss,
Devils grips, the iron fist.

As Malcolm Dome wrote in his liner notes to 1984's No Remorse double LP, "Head music has always mirrored the personality of its prime instigator. You can't distinguish one from the other—Lemmy is Motörhead, and Motörhead is Lemmy."

By all accounts a bright, amusing, learned, philosophical and self-deprecating (though decidedly unattractive) man, Ian Fraser Kilmister grew up in a series of small, dull, strictly seasonal seaside resorts in Wales. "We used to break the beach hut windows every winter from boredom," he's said. During the 1950s and '60s the overwhelming mediocrity and uneventfulness of the environment spawned a long hair, leather and machine-oil branch of social disenchantment. Greasers. The Motörhead image, in fact. Reflecting on his formative years, Lemmy once said, "I remember rock starting and I remember what was there before that... Then all of a sudden this very sexual music came out and we found that if you had a guitar, girls clustered about you in large numbers. I thought, 'Well, that looks like a good idea.' Soon as I heard rock'n'roll I was gone. It's as simple as that. I just never had another idea in my head."

Lemmy joined Hawkwind and stayed with them for five years, until that fateful day in 1975 when he was suddenly fired—unfairly, he claimed when I'd asked him what happened. And he told me a story that had something to do with a camera and Canadian Customs, and not being able to make it to the gig on time. That's not quite the truth—except for the part about Canadian Customs and not making it to the gig.

Whatever. Lemmy promptly formed Motörhead, from the song "Motörhead," which had been the final song he'd composed and recorded while still a member of Hawkwind. Lemmy's vision of his new band was simple:

We will concentrate on basic music—loud, fast, gritty, raucous, arrogant, paranoid, speed freak rock'n'roll... It will be so dirty that if we moved in next door to you, your lawn would die!

Lemmy/Motorhead c Artist Publications

photo © Artist Publications

But in the US, Motörhead has only been influential in the thrash world. An interesting phenomenon when you realize that, as Philthy Phil puts it, "This phrase 'heavy metal' came out after we started. When we started Motöhead was a 'hard rock' or a 'heavy rock' band. Now you've got thrash metal, speed metal, black metal... I don't really know what to make of all of this."

The truth is, Motörhead's preference for short, fast songs and extreme volume, Lemmy's guttural vocals, and their hell-for-leather biker image have inspired a host of new bands playing what has become known as thrash or speed metal. Phil's drumming, too, was crucial to the new wave in metal. His intensity and rapid-fire attack helped to innovate heavy metal drumming. Although he doesn't seem to fully understand his own influence, Phil's comments about his playing in Motörhead are telling: "During the three years I was away [from Motorhead], I played different styles of music, which I quite enjoyed. But since returning to Motörhead, I've realized that this is the only drumming I enjoy on all levels. I can hit everything at once, as many times as I want and as fast as I possibly can, and it all fits in.

"A lot of people have told me that they've been listening to us for years and that I'm a hero and all that, and I think, 'Me, a hero? I'm just an ordinary geezer.' But I guess we must have influenced some people. I know Lars Ulrich [Metallica] has been a fan since he was 13. We first met him in Sweden way back in '79 when he was living there with his parents. He used to come to all of our gigs and we used to talk and all that. At the time, he was totally in reverence, which is fine—he was just a spotty teenager. And now he's so great!"

Indeed, Motörhead is acknowledged by many in the thrash community as not only an influence in sound and vision but the band serves as spiritual godfather to the genre.

Along about 9:30 most evenings when he's at home in West Hollywood, you can look down the hill from the Rainbow Bar & Grill on Sunset (aka "The Strip"), and see Ian Fraser Kilmister, or "Lemmy" to his friends and fans, Motörhead's founder/frontman, walking up the rise toward his favorite hang-out.

"That's why I got this place here," he tells me when Olga and I stop by one afternoon for an interview. "I don't drive, usually. I drink too much to drive. I like to drink. Wanna see my new tattoo?"

Lemmy's playing the part. Because he's so rebellious, or because he plays such hard, fast, uncompromising, ground-scorching music and looks like a biker, people think he's dumb. I don't buy it. Every surface of his apartment is covered with odd, interesting, historical, controversial and thought-provoking things. Flags hang on the walls and from the ceiling over the coach. In the stacks of videocassettes piled around the TV are lengthy historical documentaries and movies. There are books. This is the home of a man who thinks about things, not just some dumb metalhead.

Lemmy offers drinks. I take bourbon and Coke, like him—he makes it easy to more-or-less drink along with him, he just keeps filling up my glass when he fills his own—and we settle back to talk.

JOY: So, Lemmy, I know a fair amount about your background, I know all the terrible things about your previous manager: how he stole from you all those years, signed you to lousy record deals with independent labels who couldn't get you distributed in America, screwed up your visas when you had an American tour.... But he's gone now and here you are in America on Epic Records, a major label. And you've got a new record coming out and...

OLGA: You're going to Russia, where Motörhead really is a supergroup.

LEMMY: Yeah, that's in the plan. I hear there was a statue of Lenin somewhere in Moscow with "Motörhead" spray-painted on it.

OLGA: And once we figure out all the licensing problems with the record companies here, you can be sure that Motörhead will sell a lot of records in Russia. You do want to sell a lot of records, and you do want a lot of people to hear you, right?

LEMMY: If I say I don't, it would be a fucking lie, eh?

JOY: I think so! So, did you start carrying a guitar around when you were 13 to attract girls, but then you discovered at some point that you actually had to learn to play the guitar?

LEMMY: Yeah. But I loved music. You have to go through the bleeding fingers syndrome, you know. If you really want to (play). I really wanted to. I didn't give up.

JOY: Were you obsessed?

LEMMY: Yeah. It's the vocation, the priesthood. It is similar. If it's your vocation, you have to do it. There's no choice, yeah? "You hear the word and the word is good," and that's it.

JOY: Besides, most musicians can't get along in the "real" world.

LEMMY: There's always gonna be a Hitler running a job, and I always seemed to catch them, you know? They had to make you conform, they had to make you match the others. I didn't let them. But then they hate you. You represent everything that threatens their cozy little world.

JOY: Not that everybody in the music business is wonderful and kind and sweet.

LEMMY: No, they are not, they are horrible. This is a horrible business. I was blind. You only know you want to play music. I'm furious, too. I mean, they've done a lot of damage to my life. But I'm alright. I mean, what the fuck do you want from this life? You only live once. I've noticed, all these people on this block go to work at 8:00 in the morning.... It's a hard job to be on the road, but I'm used to it so it doesn't bother me. I'm still the boss, anyway, all my life. I mean, as soon as you die, you've got, what, 20 years or so while somebody remembers you? And that's it. It doesn't matter. People say that a human being is an ultimate reflection of evolution. It's not. We are cutting our own throats, and we won't stop doing it. (laughs)

JOY: Ah. Lemmy Kilmister, the humanistic, ecologically aware....

LEMMY: No, I don't give a fuck. I think it's funny. I think it's funny that they are still cutting down the rain forest and it's been all over the media for almost 20 years. It's gonna kill us, and they are still doing it for money.

JOY: In a way, it's no different from what your ex-manager did to you. It's greed.

LEMMY: Yeah, it's just greed, and it makes you blind. Greed makes you stupid, you know. They've got all my money, but they cannot get my brain.

JOY: But you did get rid of the lousy manager.

LEMMY: Yeah, because he was robbing us blind, he didn't know how to handle management. He was taking all the money and keeping it. He never put any money back into the band. When we found out, we took it all away from him. Now, he has nobody to steal from, because we put the word out around the business that he is a thief. So he is fucked. But I'm still working. Besides, I was always ultimately better off than him, because I'm morally better than him.

JOY: Oh! You're concerned with morals?

LEMMY: That's the only reason to be alive, is if you have a certain set of morals—as far as I can perceive it, what a decent human being should do—and stick to it. Nothing's worth it without it. You decide what's wrong and what's right by figuring out that it hurts nobody else if you get advanced.

JOY: But what is and is not moral is usually defined by your culture, religion, etc. They tell you what is right and what is wrong. To make up your own mind means you also have to have the strength to stand up to....

LEMMY: No, it takes a brain. If you're smart, you can't put up with them. No, I don't think I'm a moralist as well, I don't think I have a better alternative, because I don't. But I found my values that I live by. Everybody has to find his own. But everybody knows when one does an indecent thing. Everybody. It's in you, you're human, you know what's right and what's wrong. There are people who would do the wrong thing for advancement. And they know it's wrong, and they'll carry it with them all their life. And yet.... The wife of the commandant of Buchenwald, Ilse Koch, was making lamp shades out of human skin, tattooed human skin. They killed some prisoners ahead of time if they had a good tattoo because she wanted it for a lamp shade. But apart from that, they had an ideal family life. He loved his children, he was a good father. If there ever was a microcosm of what's wrong with humanity, that's it. But even before he started with them (the Jews), the first ones were the nuts. And the church protested, so even Hitler had to stop. History will teach you everything if you want to look at it.

JOY: Music doesn't kill people.

LEMMY: I don't see them picking up guns to burn in the streets, but they picked up Beatles' albums and burned them in public. There's that famous clip from the Alabama radio station: "Rock'n'roll has got to go! Pick up your Beatles' memorabilia, dump it at these places in the city and we will pick it up and burn it in public later." Doesn't it remind you of anything? A witch! Somebody to blame. The Americans killed more people (the Indians) than Hitler, it's just that they didn't have any relatives on Wall Street to write to The Times about it. People always need somebody to blame. Like the Russians blame Gorbachev, 'cause it's the easiest thing to do. I think after he dies, there will be statues of him all over Russia. But he did it all by himself.

JOY: If you know history, you know how difficult it is to transform a society, not only to personally take the risk, but to actually bring about that kind of change.

LEMMY: Yeah, to get to the point where he became elected the General Secretary, right? I mean, that's a hell of a fucking system there. So, if he's risen through that and still perceives the moral wrong of it, and when he's got to the top, kills it, that's fucking incredible. The man must be so strong. That's the highest moral thing I've seen anybody do.

OLGA: Sure, Gorbachev's done a lot of bad things and mistakes along the way....

LEMMY: But he did a lot of good things, too. He sent you to America.

OLGA: No, he didn't. People like me helped him to win. I mean, the whole rock'n'roll world in Russia did no less than the political dissidents. We did a lot to break the system down. When I started in the music business back in 1978, almost everything we were doing was deemed illegal.

LEMMY: But you knew it wasn't, morally.

OLGA: Yeah. Joy asked Valeri (Gaina) why he would do something that was illegal, and he said simply, "How on earth can making music possibly be illegal? So, if they ban rock'n'roll and proclaim it illegal, what do they know? I play my guitar and I know it's not illegal; and I'll be doing it, no matter what."

JOY: Lemmy, you must have wondered: What's so powerful about music that nothing can stop it?

LEMMY: Because people want to hear it. And if people want to hear something, they'll find it. They will listen, you cannot stop them from listening to it. You can't stop them wanting to listen to it. And you can't stop it being there, because people will whistle in the fucking street, and you can't stop them doing that.

JOY: People criticize the music business so much, but we don't start wars or kill people, we don't force people into slavery....

LEMMY: We point things out, if you are a political sort of band, which in a way Motörhead is. But nobody listens to our lyrics. I did a show on NBC a few months ago, and they requested me to be polite, and I'm sure they don't do that to anybody else. Because I look like this, the long-haired geezer with the mustache and beard, the bogeyman. But if you look at serial killers and child molesters, they don't look like me.

JOY: They look like normal, average, mild-mannered guys, usually.

LEMMY: Yeah! They look like them, not like us.

JOY: OK, why such loud, some would say obnoxious, music? Why not play nice, even-tempered music?

LEMMY: I don't know.... Loud music.... What's wrong with it? People are always complaining about how loud it is, about losing their hearing. I don't know what the fuck is wrong with those people. Nobody wants to be in any kind of danger anymore. Listen, safe sex, safe this, safe that, save the planet.... The planet is already dead, anyway. You've killed it. You can't reverse what's done anyway.

JOY: What kind of a kid where you?

LEMMY: Small. I don't think that I was a problem, I suppose. I was in Wales, you know, which is like being in fucking Bulgaria; nothing ever happens there. And if you want something to happen, it would be on a very small level anyway. There are no peaks in life there. And if you want something interesting to happen, it might be a problem. If something from the outside comes in, then they don't like it. It's a microcosm of the music business, if you like; it's the same thing. Nobody likes it if you create a problem, if it's revolutionary.

I worked for this factory when I was 16, and this guy said to me, "I've been here since 1953." And I said, "Really?" And he said, "Yeah, and I never missed a day, either." And he was proud of it, you now? He never misses a fucking day. (pause) Why not?

JOY: So you went into rock'n'roll for freedom. But you have to make concessions in the music business, too. You have to give them some of your earnings. You have to play the marketing game, with all the boring promotions and the interviews.

LEMMY: You have no way around it. They have the network. If you had a way to do your own records and then distribute them, then you would. That's the only reason anybody goes to any company, any part of this industry, because there's no choice. But I'm not doing this interview because I have to bite the bullet. I'm doing this interview because I remember you from before and I like you. I don't have to do any fucking interviews; all I have to do is say, "Fuck off!" and shut the door.

JOY: Cool. But doesn't that interfere with your career?

LEMMY: Yeah. But it doesn't interfere with my head. Nonconformists are usually people who win in the end anyway. People end up doing what nonconformists did, it just takes so long for them to realize that. You know, all the advances in any kind of system in the world have been done by nonconformists. Every change that has ever been, there has been a nonconformist who's been given shit for starting it. Look at Solzhenitsin. You couldn't buy his books, but he is a hero now.

OLGA: Oh, he's always been. Even for those who couldn't get his books to read, just his name meant a lot—there was somebody out there who was trying to do something, who didn't conform. It was very easy to control the printed press.

LEMMY: Yeah, but you couldn't control thinking. That's why they hated rock'n'roll so much.

OLGA: Right. And the things you said about you growing up in Wales, which is like Bulgaria or Iowa, would be a revelation for many Russian readers. A lot of kids in Russia and in the Eastern Bloc tend to think that America or the West has total freedom of choice...

LEMMY: Promised Land, eh? They don't realize that bullshit is international, yeah?

(everyone laughs)

JOY: When I went to Russia, I found that the same type of people become government workers, the same types become small or petty gangsters, the same types become musicians.... And so I found it surprisingly easy to fit into what I'd thought would be a totally alien world.

LEMMY: Of course. Because it's just a different language and buildings, and that's it. Everything else is the same. I mean, look at us (meaning him and Olga and me). Don't we look the same? Our uniform doesn't change, only their uniforms change, because they feel a need to identify themselves according to their regime. We don't have to do that, we are international. And we're always gonna win. 'Cause music came across the Berlin Wall and the uniforms couldn't, because we take the reason for their uniforms away. It's the fact that you won't die. It's the fact that you exist. It ruins everything they wanna do, because they wanna keep you in your box so that you get up in the morning, go to work and then go back in your box at night. And if you realize you don't have to go in that box, they are fucked. (laughs)

JOY: Yeah, because, like you said, you did win. You are who you want to be.

LEMMY: I've won. I was 36 on Christmas. I've beaten them, they didn't stop me. I'm still saying exactly what I wanna fucking say. And they cannot stop me. So fuck 'em.

Motörhead 1983 next
Backstage with Motörhead next


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