DRUM EXPO 2014: Take Tommy Lee at face value and it’s easy to undersell the true extent of his drumming skills, knowledge and influence. Yes, he’s the hard-partying, tattoo covered dude who plays drum solos upside down, but beneath the surface you'll find a fully rounded musician who's pushed boundaries with Sunset Strip stalwarts Mötley Crüe for more than 30 years.
In this interview, Tommy shares some of the wisdom garnered in his three decades spent working at the hard rock face…
Look back to move forward
“I had a couple of different influences growing up and each was for different reasons. I was always impressed by some of the progressive styles of guys like Neil Peart.
"Then I had really simple guys who were some of my favourites as far as really solid playing goes. Phil Rudd from AC/DC was someone I really liked a lot... Not because I was dazzled by his playing ability - he was just a rock, y’know?
“Of course, John Bonham was probably the most influential in terms of playing style and timing. So probably those three guys and maybe in the double bass drumming area Tommy Aldridge was someone I really liked because he was pretty flashy and did a lot of cool stuff. Like the way he caught his sticks and did the twirls.”
There is such a thing as 'too much'
“On our first record, man, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just playing. I was over playing. You’re as green as you can be with no experience in recording or knowing how sometimes a song can work; when it’s too much, when it’s not enough, when it’s not right. You’re still learning all of that stuff.
"By Shout At The Devil and further I was starting to hone my skills for the song. That became really important.”
Use the live arena as a testing ground
“Early on you’re also learning things that work live. A certain beat you’ll play live and think, ‘Wow, the whole place is moving to this.’
"Other beats maybe not so much. So you’re constantly learning, and I’m still learning. God, my views from the first and second albums on drumming are completely different now. I’m in a whole different place.”
Don't be afraid to embrace new technology
“Probably around Wild Side on the Girls [Girls, Girls] record is really when I started to add triggers and samples and all the sequencing.
"I was f**king with Digital Performer on my computer and going, ‘Wow, you can chop up the guitars and do this to them, you can put this drum sound on top of this drum sound and blend the two to make this, f**k!’ My whole world just changed.”
Listen to your bandmates
“It’s so cool because no one was doing [the triggers and samples] and I’ve always somehow been able to keep smashing it in there when I can without getting railed because I’m not in the band by myself, you’ve got three other guys who go, ‘Oh, it sounds a little too tech-y,’ so I’m always pulling back a little bit.”
Check out Tommy Lee's studio:
Record without distraction
“[For the Dr Feelgood sessions] we stuck ourselves in an environment where it just rains every single day. We couldn’t say, ‘It’s nice out, let’s go to the beach.’ It was like, ‘Man, it’s raining. Let’s go work, let’s record.’
"We had a really good time in the studio. The recording process was awesome too. Not many producers actually get in the live room with you. Bob Rock would come out and strap on a guitar or a bass or get on the mic. He was really hands-on.”
Be yourself, everyone else is taken
“Maybe it’s part boredom, part thrill seeking, part,‘F**k, someone’s got to do something new!’ Sometimes you operate out of the fear of being the same as somebody else.
"I always say be yourself, everyone else is taken. That’s a favourite phrase of mine that I constantly remind myself with saying, ‘Well, that’s really cool and so and so might like this and so and so would probably kind of like this, but I wanna do it like this.’
"And not just for the sake of doing that, but just to keep things moving and having everybody thinking about and creating new ideas.”
Everything has its place
“In the earlier days everyone was just all blasting at once, [but] things have their moments. There’s only a certain amount of space in a speaker.
"If it's just being hit by subsonic frequencies on top of bass drums and basses and analogue synthesisers and then that bottom end is full, there's no more that can possibly come out. It's a vibration of sound and those frequencies are all filled. Now I look at that as everything has its place. It can’t all be in there at once.”
Tommy firing on all cylinders for Dr Feelgood:
Add many strings to your bow
“I do, I still love [playing the drums]. But it’s not my only thing. It’s weird because whereas early on it was my main thing, then I taught myself guitar and I love to sing…’
"I’m constantly evolving as a musician. Drums isn’t my one thing anymore. I love to produce. I love to make tracks, write tracks, produce tracks and I can’t just sit back as a drummer anymore. I have to have my hands on it and say, ‘The guitar should sound like this, the bass should sound like this, this is how the drums should sound, the vocals would be really cool like this, this melody is not so good, let’s try this.’ I just have to touch all of it now. I just know too much!”
For more great interviews with the world's best drummers, check out Rhythm magazine.