We’ve Got A File On You: Tommy Lee
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
It is literally a miracle that Tommy Lee’s career has lasted as long as it has. The band that brought the 58-year-old drummer to worldwide fame, Mötley Crüe, has one of the most sordid and utterly depraved backgrounds in the history of popular music — piles and piles of drugs and alcohol, the kind of debauchery that most people don’t come back from, period.
And yet: Beyond the Crüe’s initial run and in between the band’s periods of activity since their ‘80s heyday, Lee has persevered throughout popular culture, collaborating with some of today’s biggest pop stars and leading lights in rock music along with popping up in a variety of mixed media over the years. He’s kept at it on his own with music, too: This week marks the release of his third solo album Andro, his first album as such since 2005’s Tommy Lee: The Ride.
Talking to Lee about the myriad curiosities in his career is not necessarily an easy task. Lee’s memory isn’t 100% airtight, nor does he seem to recall specific details very often. But as we chatted on Zoom, Lee dialing in from his expansive home studio in Calabasas, he was nonetheless in good spirits to discuss his many decades in the public eye as well as what he’s taken away from those experiences.
Mötley Crüe’s Cover Of The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” (1983)
STEREOGUM: In a 1986 interview, Nikki Sixx said he thought the Beatles sounded “fucking wimpy.”
TOMMY LEE: That’s strange that he said that, because I know he likes the Beatles — and who doesn’t? The Beatles, man. I grew up on the stuff. Those guys were fuckin’ pioneers in so many ways. Their span was just all over the place musically. They’d do fun stuff, dark stuff, orchestral stuff. I can’t say enough about the Beatles. We covered “Helter Skelter” because covering a Beatles song is cool, and it also just fit with where we were at at the time. Doing it right now wouldn’t make much sense, even though it is fuckin’ crazy right now. But at the time, it was a perfect match.
STEREOGUM: Do you remember the first time you ever listened to the Beatles?
LEE: The first song I ever heard was “Revolution #1,” but later on when I was taking piano lessons and really starting to understand music, “Hey Jude” freaked me out. I was like, “Oh my God, listen to this!”
Mötley Crüe – “Home Sweet Home” (1985)
STEREOGUM: This song was one of the first times you shared songwriting credits on a Mötley Crüe song.
LEE: I was always involved when it came to arranging and making things work — that’s a drummer’s job, to make sure everything’s flowing right. I did that a lot, but on Theatre Of Pain I started bringing in full ideas and demos. I was just dicking around on the piano during rehearsal playing what would become “Home Sweet Home,” and Nikki was like, “What is that?” And I was like, “It’s this thing I’m working on, it’s pretty cool.” Later on I’d get more into the production side too, but I started bringing in stuff around this time.
STEREOGUM: Nikki and Vince Neil have both said they don’t like Theatre Of Pain. How do you feel about it?
LEE: I’m with the guys on that one. There’s parts I love, and parts that I don’t. I can’t say it’s my least favorite, because there’s some great stuff on it. But as a band, we were still trying to figure out what it is that we all collectively did. I was just coming into the picture with songwriting, and we were in this headspace where we loved David Bowie. Every time you saw him, he had changed into something different. We liked that, so that’s why around Theatre Of Pain we really glammed it out — super bright colors, more makeup. Then we went for a different look on the next record. We were always evolving, but Theatre Of Pain was early on enough that we were still figuring out what Mötley Crüe was.
STEREOGUM: Did you ever meet Bowie while he was alive?
LEE: I did! Either 1989 or 1990. It took everything in my power not to freak out as a fanboy. What a wonderful man. I didn’t say much because I know what that’s like, and I didn’t want to bug him. I just thanked him and told him it was an honor and pleasure to meet him. But I was fanboying hard. It’s David Bowie!
Mötley Crüe’s Girls, Girls, Girls (1987)
STEREOGUM: This album lost the top slot on the Billboard 200 to Whitney Houston. In a 2017 interview, Nikki accused her then-label of foul play when it came to beating you guys for the top spot.
LEE: [Laughs] There was a lot of payola around that time. You could fudge the numbers with album sales and radio airplay. We just thought, “God, we did this organically, and she’s probably got a little bit of help.” We just assumed — and we’re probably correct — that she got a little bit of help, because our [success] was completely organic. Right then, we were starting to blow up. We were coming off the success of the video for “Home Sweet Home,” of which they made the “Mötley Crüe rule” for over at MTV. We’d held the top position for requests for so long that they were like, “This isn’t fair.” But maybe she didn’t have some help. Who knows?
STEREOGUM: What was your guys’ relationship with MTV in that late-1980s period?
LEE: They were really cool to us. They were always very supportive, although we had to do a lot of editing in our videos for them — we had to “PG” them up a bit. We did a “Mötley Crüise To Nowhere” with a bunch of fans in a crazy boat. Then Viacom bought MTV and it became a big mothership rather than a cool homegrown music video station. It was still OK, but things changed and you could definitely tell.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned “PG”-ing up your videos. Any specific instances come to mind?
LEE: We had to blur out a girl lifting up her shirt in “Home Sweet Home,” and “Girls Girls Girls” — that was in strip clubs so it had cut marks all over the place. Our videos were always like that, and we always knew we had to make MTV versions. It bums me out, man. I wish everyone had attitudes like Europe, where anything goes. We’d go over there to play, and these people would be almost fucking on television — and it was cool! No one was bugging out about it! I wish we were more open and relaxed about that stuff. “Oh boy, a 15-year-old boy saw boobies.” Yeah? Well, I got news for you — he was probably breastfed until he was this little. [Gestures height] They’re boobs.
Mötley Crüe’s “Sticky Sweet” (1989)
STEREOGUM: Steven Tyler sang backup on this song.
LEE: That was really cool. It worked out timing-wise — we were studio neighbors at Little Mountain Studios in Vancouver, so we’d go over there and hear their new shit and they’d come over and hear ours. We were like, “Dude, this song has your name all over it, would you sing on this?” And he was like, “Hell yeah!” We had AC/DC once as studio neighbors at that studio, too. Bon Jovi was in there too, and so was Bryan Adams. There were a lot of people coming through that studio at that time. We’d be in there tracking and recording for hours, and then we’d hit up the strip club for lunch or hang out in the lobby. It was really cool.
STEREOGUM: When’s the last time you saw Steven?
LEE: It wasn’t that long ago — right here in my recording studio. He was doing something with Mick Fleetwood and another guitar player. We’ve got $40,000 of the best microphones on the planet in this studio, and he walked in and asked for an SM-58, which is probably $140. The shittiest mic ever, the type of microphones we use live. But he was so comfortable holding it instead of some on-the-stand tube vintage mic. He nailed it in one take, and everyone was like, “Whoa.”
Playing Drums On Richard Marx’s “Streets Of Pain” (1991)
LEE: That was a trip. He’d asked me to work with him, and it was quite the cast of characters. We also worked with Steve Lukather of Toto, who is an incredible guitar player. That was insane. Randy Jackson was playing bass, too. He’s a badass on the bass. It was such a fun experience beyond getting to play with those guys.
Methods Of Mayhem – “Get Naked” (1999)
STEREOGUM: The song is called “Get Naked,” and there were a lot of cameos in the video. Anyone that needed convincing to take part in it?
LEE: No, everyone was super cool about it. The only difficulty was that when we were shooting mine and [Methods Of Mayhem co-vocalist TiLo]’s parts, we were completely naked so it had to be a closed set. There can’t be a ton of people hanging around when you’re bouncing around on a bed naked. But the video was super fun to make. It conveyed the message very well.
STEREOGUM: After playing variants of metal for most of your career, you pivoted to rap-rock for Methods Of Mayhem.
LEE: It was a cool time. I’d left Mötley Crüe because, creatively, I was dying. I told the guys, “I gotta go do something else for a minute or I’m gonna lose my mind.” I had all these ideas and I needed to get them out — and they were genre-smashing ideas. I was mixing hip-hop, rock, industrial, EDM. I was literally all over the place because that’s what I was feeling. A lot of my musical peers tell me the first Methods Of Mayhem record was ahead of its time. If I made it today, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but it was seen as bizarre back then. Now, that kind of genre-smashing is done all the time. I was just bored of doing the same rock thing over and over. I was like, “Man, there are so many other styles that are moving me that need to come into play here” — and that was my chance to get it out.
Moby’s “We Are All Made Of Stars” Video (2001)
LEE: Moby was doing this cool thing and asked me if I wanted to be in it, and I was like, “Yeah, of course.” I really dig Moby. It was great to be in it and have some fun with it, it was a cool video.
STEREOGUM: The video is a commentary on fame and everyday life. How do you reflect on your experience of being famous?
LEE: It’s cool. I pinch myself daily. It’s wonderful when people like what you do. I know some people who complain — ”Ah, this fuckin’ paparazzi,” but you know what, dude? The second people stop asking for your autograph or following you around, then you should be worried. You should be happy when people care! Because when they don’t, you’re gonna be bummed. I take it all with a grain of salt, but at the end of the day, I’m still Tommy, and I still carry on.
Playing A Car Salesman In Vanilla Sky (2001)
STEREOGUM: You had a small part in this one.
LEE: Dude, it’s so bizarre, but I don’t even remember it. It’s a blur. Maybe we should go on to another one.
STEREOGUM: Have you seen Vanilla Sky?
LEE: I don’t know if I’ve seen the whole thing. I’ve seen parts. I mean, it was cool.
STEREOGUM: The movie he did before was Almost Famous. Have you seen that one?
LEE: I have seen parts of that, yeah.
STEREOGUM: That movie captures rock star life in an era before Mötley Crüe became superstars. What did you think of that depiction?
LEE: I wish I would’ve watched that movie before this interview. Then I could’ve talked about it.
STEREOGUM: It’s OK.
Playing A Drug Dealer In The TV Show Fastlane (2003)
LEE: That was so fun. Big stretch for me on the acting side of things to play some fuckin’ crazy cracked-out drug dealer. It was right up my alley! I know guys like that really well, so it wasn’t hard to pull from real experiences. That was my first time with a substantial role in something. Getting shot was cool, too. They wire you up with the blood capsules and [makes gun noise], with blood going everywhere — that was fun. Working with Naomi Campbell and the cast was great, and they all made me feel really comfortable. McG is a badass, too. He made everything look super cool.
STEREOGUM: For this first substantial acting role, was there anything you had to do to get in the role?
LEE: For what?
LEE: Oh, no. I’ve just had enough people in my life who mirrored [the role], so it wasn’t very hard for me to get in character. I just did this cameo on The Goldbergs where I was playing a professor, and that didn’t come as easy. I didn’t have much to pull from. Thankfully, my wife grilled me on studying the lines. For that role, I pulled from my dad — I was trying to be as straight-edged and militant as possible.
Missy Elliott’s “Lose Control” Video (2005)
STEREOGUM: Were you a fan of Missy’s music when you appeared in the video?
LEE: Huge Missy Elliott fan, oh my God. A mutual friend told her I was such a huge fan and was like, “We should get them together.” I get a random phone call from her being like, “We’re shooting this video in the desert and we want to know if you’d like to be in it.” I was like, “Let me think about it — OK!” I remember taking this helicopter out to the desert and we shot this really trippy dance sequence on this log, with a big pit beneath us. We were flying and dancing around. It was such a cool video to be in, and I love Missy to death.
Tommy Lee Goes To College (2005)
STEREOGUM: This was your first reality TV experience. What was that like?
LEE: When I was approached to do it, I was like, “Hell no.” I was so anti-reality TV. But the more we talked about it, I realized that I’d never been to college, because I got a recording contract instead. So I was like, “Wait a minute — I could go experience an entire semester of college and make this show.” It was a fish-out-of-water concept. You’ve got this rockstar dude, and you drop him off in Middle America. The reaction is gonna be fun and weird, so I talked myself into doing it.
STEREOGUM: Did you learn anything from your college experience?
LEE: You hear about people in college not doing any studying — they just fuckin’ party. But that’s actually not true! Yes, they do party, but at the end of the day there was a lot of work, studying, and tests. It’s a lot, and I can’t imagine going through four years of that. It’s pretty hardcore. I stuck myself into some classes that were just above and beyond my comprehension. I was in — what the hell was it? The math was incredibly hard.
LEE: What’s above that?
STEREOGUM: I don’t know. I wasn’t good at math.
LEE: There you go! It was so over my head. I was like, “I’m Greek, and they’re still speaking Greek because I don’t understand any of this.”
Rock Star: Supernova (2006)
LEE: I gotta give props to Mark Burnett. That show really catapulted where we are today. He wanted to bring real rock music to prime time television, and he did that. Before that, it didn’t exist. Good luck having found anything to do with rock music on prime time television — no way. He wanted to bring that back, and hats off to him. It spawned a shitload of competition shows, but I think that one was great, because some of the others are freakin’ karaoke, which is pretty boring. To present real bands and real singers was a great idea on his part, and The Voice was one of the better shows that emerged from that.
STEREOGUM: The resulting band that you were in put out an album and did a world tour too.
LEE: Yeah, it was a really cool way to end the show. The singer [Lukas Rossi] is on my new record, too. Not only did we find this incredibly talented guy, but we also got to make a record with him and tour. Those kind of prizes don’t seem to exist on competition shows now.
Playing Drums On Smashing Pumpkins’ Monuments To An Elegy (2014)
LEE: Man, talk about a challenge. Billy came to this studio and brought me some demos to listen to, and I loved the music. But it was a big challenge for me, because in the prog-rock drum world the time signatures are constantly changing, and the feel of songs changes sporadically. It’s not your straight-ahead four-on-the-floor thing. I love a challenge, though.
Billy doesn’t really believe in editing with Pro Tools, or taking the best of two takes to make one great take. He wanted a top-to-bottom uncut take that encapsulated the energy and feel of everything. “That’s magical, that’s it!” He was adamant about that stuff, so we were on the hunt for the magical take, which took some time. Especially as the drummer — you’ll think you have the perfect take, but those last few bars at the end you ran out of energy, or you space out and play the wrong part. “Fuck, we gotta do it all over again.” But it was a great learning experience for me.
STEREOGUM: Have you talked about playing with Billy again in the future?
LEE: Not yet, but we had such a good time together that I’m sure we’ll do it again.
Charity Drum-Off With Will Ferrell, Chad Smith, Mick Fleetwood, Stuart Copeland, And Taylor Hawkins (2016)
LEE: I’ve known Chad for a while, and that was the first time I met Will Ferrell. I was like, “I’m gonna fanboy out.” Will is fuckin’ hilarious, so I took the comedic approach thinking he would appreciate it. When we did the show, all the drum sets were on rolling risers, so every drummer would get rolled in for a minute and fifteen seconds to go out there and do their thing. When it came to my part, I was just standing up playing the bass drum and getting everyone hyped up. I did it the entire time, the whole place was clapping, and then I got rolled off the stage. [Laughs] I thought it was hilarious, and Will was just dying. It was like his cowbell skit from SNL.
Getting Stuck In The Rollercoaster During Mötley Crüe’s Final Show (2016)
STEREOGUM: Were you scared when this happened?
LEE: I wasn’t, because it happened before — but I wasn’t expecting it to happen on the very last night of the tour. We were filming for a DVD, so there was a lot of remote cameras in the building. We’d tested the rollercoaster before doors opened that night, because we were fearful since so many cameras were mounted on the actual rollercoaster, which were all wireless, and the rollercoaster is controlled wirelessly too. So during the concert, I travel all the way back out on the rollercoaster, and just when it got to the big drop it received too much radio frequency interference and went into safety mode, so it just stopped. We didn’t take into account that there would also be 19,000 people with their phones, too. I was sitting there dangling with no power, so crew guys had to climb out and manually turn me right side up. It was one of those Murphy’s Law things. If it could happen, it’s gonna happen.
Playing On Post Malone’s “Over Now” (2018)
LEE: This happened through a mutual friend of mine who was also working with Ozzy. He was like, “Let’s get together in your studio and jam with Posty!” I thought we’d just drink some beers and fuck around, but one thing led to another and then we went into a groove where we were like, “Oh shit, this is sounding cool.” We hit “record” and ended up using those tracks for “Over Now.” Since then we’ve jammed together with John Mayer at The Forum to play Post’s “Congratulations.” He’s a great guy. I respect his style and attitude, and he’s a terrific songwriter — and, fuck, he’s huge right now. I just remixed [Tyla Yaweh and Post Malone’s “Tommy Lee”], too, which just went gold. Tyla called me to tell me they’d send over a plaque.
The Dirt Film Adaptation (2019)
STEREOGUM: How do you feel about your portrayal in this film?
LEE: Surreal. What a trip. There were cringe-worthy moments, but it was done so well. We had a big premiere party, which was cool. The whole time, I was thinking, “God, I wish my parents were still alive, because it would be so cool to have them watch this.” I left high school for a recording contract, hearing them say to me, “Tommy, what if this music thing doesn’t work out? You gotta have something to fall back on!” And I was sitting there going, “No guys, I got this.” To have them watch that film would’ve been a full-circle moment, but they saw it in real life — they don’t need to watch the movie.
Andro is out 10/16.