theartsdesk Q&A: Musician Lemmy Kilmister | reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk Q&A: Musician Lemmy Kilmister
theartsdesk Q&A: Musician Lemmy Kilmister
The unstoppable Motörhead frontman talks hippies, religion, Oasis, death and much, much more
Lemmy Kilmister (b 1945) was born Ian Fraser Kilmister in Burslem, near Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, but spent his formative years in Anglesey. His father, ex-RAF padre, left when he was an infant and he was raised by his mother, who worked as a librarian, and his grandmother. He was interested in rock and pop from an early age and formed various local bands, most successful of which were The Rockin’ Vicars who had a CBS recording contract. Moving to London in 1967 he quickly became involved again in the music scene and blooming counterculture, acting for a while as roadie for Jimi Hendrix.
In 1971 he became bassist for space-rockers Hawkwind and in 1972 sang their biggest hit, "Silver Machine". He left Hawkwind in 1975 and formed Motörhead, the band's name a colloquial term for speed-freak, as in amphetamine enthusiast - which Lemmy vocally was. Motörhead’s super-fast, extremely loud blues rock created a template for hard metal and, in their initial stable line-up (“Fast” Eddie Clarke, guitar; Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor, drums), they had a series of hit albums and singles, including the band’s signature song “Ace of Spades” (1980) and Number One live album No Sleep ‘til Hammersmith (1981).
During the Nineties Lemmy moved to LA and his band developed a global reputation as a fierce live unit. The Motörhead snaggletooth symbol and logo have become iconic far beyond the world of heavy metal, as has Lemmy, who has made film cameos, including in Hardware, Airheads and The Comic Strip's Eat the Rich, and is renowned for his sturdy rock’n’roll attitude. Since the millennium there has also been an autobiography of sorts, White Line Fever, and a documentary, Lemmy. He is also known for his extensive collection of military – primarily Nazi – memorabilia.
Motörhead have had many line-up changes but for almost 20 years have remained Lemmy (bass), Phil Campbell (guitar) and Mikkey Dee (drums). They have over 20 studio albums to their credit, their latest being The Wörld is Yours, as well as a new live DVD The World is Ours Vol 1 – Everywhere Further Than Everyplace Else.
I meet Lemmy in a dressing room at Wolverhampton Civic Hall prior to a gig. He looks as he always does, in semi-military apparel and a cowboy hat. Despite recent health problems with diabetes, he looks well, if lived in. He drinks Jack Daniels and coke throughout our interview and is a gruff, lively, amused presence. For some interviewees the process consists of a question and their paragraph-length response. This is not the case with Lemmy. He is more of a conversationalist who responds somewhat stiltedly to the formal pre-prepared question/given-answer style. Thus our chat wanders around a fair bit. It starts when he spots a book I am carrying, Hunting Evil by Guy Walters, about the search for Nazi war criminals after World War Two…
THOMAS H GREEN: I didn’t realise the Catholic Church had been so directly involved with sheltering them, finding them new IDs and actually assisting their escape.
LEMMY: Oh, yeah, straight through the Vatican. The Catholics were always against Communism, see, because the Communists were anti-church, weren’t they, and that was the most evil the Catholics could imagine. The SS were good Catholic boys and the Catholic Church hated the Jews as well so it was two for the price of one.
[Pointing at what appears to be an old-fashioned fruit machine on the table at which we’re sitting] Is that yours, that thing?
Yeah, this is a temporary replacement. Mine’s being overhauled. I got given it by a German promoter about 15 years back.
I’m sorry to say this, but who’s Richard Dawkins?
So what is it?
It’s a German one-armed bandit.
You don’t get money out of it?
Yeah, you do, it’s my money anyway, it’s just another device to keep the boredom off.
On your 2006 album Kiss of Death there’s a song called “God Was Never on Your Side”, one of many Motörhead songs that showcase a vehement atheist perspective.
Agnostic. I can find out when I die. I can wait. I’m not in a hurry.
You seem to argue the case against it, more in the camp of Richard Dawkins.
I’m sorry to say this, but who’s Richard Dawkins?
He wrote The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. He’s this scientist and writer who’s dogmatically opposed to people believing anything religious. He essentially thinks that if you believe in religion, you’re an idiot.
I think it’s a pretty thin story. A virgin got raped by a ghost, then the husband went for it. “I’m pregnant, darling, but I’m still a virgin.” “Oh, OK.” Even back then that’s a thin story, right? And all these flaming swords and chariots taking them up into the sky with a roar of white thunder – bullshit, it was astronauts. What does it sound like to you? It’s a fucking spaceship, isn’t it? There were a lot of ‘em too, people being drawn into Heaven by the Lord.
Do you think people who believe in a religion are foolish or that it fulfils a useful role in their life but it’s not for you?
It’s not their fault. They’re fed it all their life. You never learn anything else but “the truth”. When you hear it enough times it becomes the truth. It’s like the Nazis. Nazism was a religion with Hitler in the place of God. Stalinism – same thing. As long as there’s one above us all who knows best, then you’re fucked.
People need myths, in other words?
People need a crutch to keep them from despair. But how you could believe in Stalin and not be in despair I don’t know [laughs]. Yet he’s still kind of acceptable compared to Hitler, isn’t he? People’s perceptions are weird. He killed more people than Hitler and they were all his own people: 100 million [Stalin] killed, they reckon.
Do you think you’re sometimes recognised more for your persona than your songwriting?
That’s about it, isn’t it. Still, you can’t have it all ways. My persona has given me a certain notoriety if not international celebrity. We do OK. I don’t want to get any more stardom than we’ve got right now. I couldn’t stand it, it’d be too fucking much.
Is there more recognition in America?
No, more in Germany, France, places like that.
Is that where your biggest fanbase is these days?
Yeah. LA’s getting a bit crowded now ‘n’all. I hardly go out anymore and I’m getting a morbid hatred of cellphone cameras. It used to be more difficult, people had to have their camera with them. And people can never work the fucking things – “Oh, it’s full. Oh, the battery’s gone” – people taking pictures of their own eye. You get a lot of that.
I’m not as young as I used to be, and the younger you are, the more immortal you are, which is very sad
Do you ever get nostalgic?
For my misspent youth?
For the counterculture of the late Sixties and early Seventies?
Only in a relatively small way. It wasn’t really a winner but we did change the world a bit, we knocked it off its axis a little, which made people question the government’s doings a bit more while it was happening. Unfortunately we get the backlash now and people say, “Oh, the hippies were filthy dirty idiots,” but they weren’t, man, it wasn’t true. Nothing is ever all one thing. There’s degrees.
The archetypal image of hippies is possibly summed up as Neil from The Young Ones
That’s how they hung it on people.
When really it was also Timothy Leary, Abbie Hoffman…
There were intelligent guys in there. Unfortunately they were completely fucked all the time. That was kind of a drag. Of course, now drugs are the great evil but then they weren’t, they were just part of people’s lives, that’s all. It doesn’t matter. What are kids taking now? They’re going in their parents' medicine cabinet. Kids are taking their parents’ shit, tranquilisers, most of it, so now we’re preparing another culture for heroin. Again!
You’ve always been very anti-heroin.
Yeah, I fucking hate it. Mind you, it’s easy for me to hate it, my old lady died on it.
You’re referring to Susan Bennett [Lemmy’s girlfriend who died in 1971, drowning in her bath after passing out on heroin]?
Susan, yeah. Oh, you’ve read the book [White Line Fever]. My life’s not that important but it has been amusing.
It’s not exactly a proper autobiography, it’s more akin to being in a bar with you telling anecdotes.
That’s more or less how it happened. I told it to this girl [US journalist Janiss Garza] and she wrote it down in proper English. Then I went through it with a pen and crossed out the stupid bits.
Returning to the early Seventies, some of the material you performed with Hawkwind (pictured left, Lemmy second right), such as “Lost Johnny”, was more punk than hippy.
I didn’t actually write the words to that – that was [writer and proto-punk singer] Mick Farren.
I heard he’s a bit anti-punk these days?
He would say that. It depends what day you talk to him.
I read Nick Kent’s autobiography, Apathy for the Devil.
Oh, Nick Kent, yeah, “apathy”’s the word for Nick Kent.
You pop up in it a number of times.
What? Well scanned?
In the section I recall especially, he comes downstairs after sleeping overnight in some squat in 1973 and you and half a dozen Germans are chopping out huge lines of pure amphetamine. You gave him one line and he didn’t sleep for four days.
Ah, well, the Germans are a thorough race, you know [laughs].
He said he did the line and left at once.
Yeah, well that’s what Nick was good at, really, going away.
At least from the perspective of someone who wasn’t there, his book captures the milieu of the early-Seventies London alternative scene rather well.
We gave him his start when he was with Frendz magazine. He came on a German tour with Hawkwind and it was his first feature piece. He did very well with it. It was a good piece. He’s a smart man, Nick, but he got onto smack as well. It nearly killed him.
Motörhead’s older albums are full of the joys of hedonism. They’re…
Watch Motörhead play "Going to Brazil" and "Overkill" live
Well, a song such as “Going to Brazil” [from the album 1916], it just fizzes with pleasure, the sense that rock’n’roll is the ultimate buzz.
Great [song] that, we’re playing it tonight.
Are you? Fantastic! The newer stuff, though, is more fatalistic.
Yeah, well, I’m not as young as I used to be, and the younger you are, the more immortal you are, which is very sad but there you go [laughs]. Also you become more cynical as time goes by. I’m sure you realise that. The more you learn about everything, the more you learn that everything’s fixed not in your favour.
There’s an old Jam song, “When You’re Young” which has a good line - “The world is your oyster but your future’s a clam”.
We’re like a dose of crabs on the planet – eventually it’ll shrug us off
There we go, that’s not bad.
You mingled with The Jam, didn’t you?
They were more acquaintances. I didn’t know them very well. I didn’t know the drummer at all. I knew Paul Weller and Bruce Foxton. I remember when Foxton glassed Sid Vicious. I was walking up Wardour Street at about 11 o’clock. The Marquee had just thrown out but the lights were still on so I looked in to see if there were any birds in there. There weren’t ‘cause they’d been thrown out but all the staff were excited talking about Foxton glassing Sid and I said, “Where’s Sid, then?” “Oh, he went off.” So I went to The Speakeasy and Sid was there. There used to be cinema seats in front of the stage, about five rows of them. He was sat in the middle one. I went and sat next to him and there was a big T-shaped scar in his cheek. I said, “Alright, Sid?” “No. Fuck. Cunt. Glass.” “Who did it?” “Bruce fucking Foxton – I’ll never live this down.” It upset me when Sid died because he never had a fucking chance. He was a deprived youth, a depraved youth, and then that fucking bitch [Nancy Spungen] got hold of him and he never had a chance after that. If ever there was anybody I met who was such a fucking arsehole, that was her. She just killed him. And he killed her, probably. We’ll never know who killed who in that bedroom [in the Chelsea Hotel, New York, 1978]. It didn’t sound like Sid because he was devoted to her. The only way I could think of it was she’d been fucking somebody else and he found out. I could see it then. All the same, I don’t know.
In the Jon Savage book, The England’s Dreaming Tapes, which contains interviews with almost everybody involved in the early days of punk rock, all but one of them acknowledge Nancy Spungen as straight-up bad news.
Yeah, everybody but Sid. Love is blind, eh? It’s also deaf and dumb.
She’s in that film The Punk Rock Movie, footage taken on the Sex Pistols final US tour, and her voice is just so grating.
[Imitating monstrous New York nasal whine] Sidney! Sidney! I had my picture taken with those two ‘n’all (Lemmy with Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, pictured right). It’s in a couple of rotten books.
Do you think we live in a society that pathologises hedonism?
Yeah, I do, for all the wrong reasons and in the wrong way. It’s become a story, although the story’s usually two lines of drivel and you get a two-page spread of pics. It’s all bollocks, though, it doesn’t matter, humans aren’t that important anyway. We’re like a dose of crabs on the planet – eventually it’ll shrug us off.
"A virus with shoes" is what Bill Hicks called us.
On our last album [The Wörld is Yours] there was a song called “Brotherhood of Man” and the last line was, “We are a disease upon the world, brotherhood of man”, and it’s true, you know, nothing else destroys as completely as we do. Everybody’s going, “Save the environment” – too late, motherfucker, it’s over. It’s just a matter of the countdown now.
That’s very pessimistic. You didn’t feel that way when you were younger.
But you could say it was realistic, couldn’t you? When does it stop being pessimistic and become realistic?
Have you ever decided on a programme of exercise for yourself?
Oh no. No, no, no, no. No, no, no, no. That’s not the way forward for me. No.
It’s a fairly good work-out on stage, you know, that fulfils a lot of it. And I’ve got diabetes, my legs aren’t what they were so the jogging’s gone out of the window.
You drink a couple of bottles of Jack Daniels a day with Coca-Cola.
I never really drink two of those, it’s fucking impossible. You’d have to start before you went to bed, wouldn’t you?
Does it affect managing your diabetes?
It doesn’t seem to. Every time I take my blood sugar, it’s a low count. I must be doing something right.
You don’t have to take insulin?
Oh no, just the pills. I don’t want to take insulin really, I think that makes it worse, in fact. That’s the last stand, isn’t it.
The new Motörhead album is called The Wörld Is Yours which is Tony Montana’s motto in Brian de Palma’s Scarface.
That’s where I nicked it from but I thought it was a good phrase. It’s the first optimistic [Motörhead] album title ever.
Bastards, that was a great album title – where did that come from?
That was the best album title [laughs]. Me and Phil Campbell thought of that one. It has to be the northern English pronunciation – not baah-stards, ba-stids, fucking ba-stids.
You’ve said on a few occasions that what you do isn’t so much metal as rock’n’roll but some of your albums, such as, say, Inferno, are pretty much metal while others, such as the new one, are more rock’n’roll.
Metal is kind of the bastard son of rock’n’roll. If Eddie Cochran or Buddy Holly were alive now, that’s what they’d be doing, I’m sure. That or punk. [Apropos of nothing] I just have trouble with Noel Gallagher being called the funniest man in music. Is that right? If it is, down we go.
You’re not an Oasis fan, then?
I went to see the real Beatles. [Oasis] are good songwriters and everything but you can see where it all came from. At least they admitted it, I’ll give them that. There’s a band called Overkill in America and I said, “It’s nice to see somebody giving us props,” and [their singer] said, “Oh, we never heard that song.” Please! What are you gonna do with people?
Motörhead are famous for loud songs but you have a few quieter numbers – “Whorehouse Blues” is a sharp acoustic one about life on the road. Do you ever wonder if it might be interesting to do an acoustic set?
People do like the amplification.
The Kronenberg ad with the acoustic version of “Ace of Spades” went down well, too.
Yeah, that was nice, I liked that. Maybe an album of acoustic versions of four or five songs would be fun to do.
Watch acoustic "Ace of Spades" TV ad
Talking of adverts, would you be willing to advertise car insurance with a little plastic puppet Lemmy squeaking around beside you?
No, no. I did do one for AXA Insurance in the Nineties. These people pay very well. They flew me over first class both ways to do that Walkers Crisps advert. You feel guilty in a way but I wasn’t going to say no, I couldn’t possibly. But these people just waste money, you wouldn’t believe it. I did that one for KitKat and they sent a guy from the London College of Music to show me how to hold a violin, hired him, hired the violins, two or three of them and I only used one. It’s incredible.
Especially the money behind car ads.
Well, I’m never going to do a car ad because I don’t drive.
Why didn’t you learn to drive?
Oh, I did. I had five cars on the road but I never had a license. It seemed like a lot of hassle. I used to drive vans, never got nicked. Last time I drove was in 1966, big Chevy it was, beautiful car. I got it for £36. Ridiculous. You notice how the cost of things never goes down, ever, it’s always up.
God moves in mysterious ways? I can’t figure it out at all. Why are children dying of malnutrition all over the world and their parents still go to church?
That may change. We’ve all been stitched up by one small sector of society investing in things that don’t exist or, at best, might exist at some point in the future – but the bubble may be about to burst.
You think so? Do you really think so? The bubble will never burst on those cunts because they can always buy their way out of it. It’ll never change. They might change the name of the company or the type of advertising they do but it’ll never die because those fuckers have had a stranglehold on the world for hundreds of years. They’re not going to let go now because there are a few scruffy cunts in front of St Paul's Cathedral. I don’t think so.
Back to religion, then. A number of religions suggest you should renounce material possessions.
Oh yes, but the Pope rides around on a chair made of jewels. There’s not much logic in that but I’m sure they could point out [the logic] if you asked them. If you argue with bloody Christians all they ever say is, “God moves in mysterious ways.” I’ll tell you what, motherfucker, it’s too mysterious for me. I can’t figure it out at all. Why are children dying of malnutrition all over the world and their parents still go to church? What the fuck is that? Come on, God, do something. And those fucking bastards keep telling you the same story, year in, year out, century after century. People still suck it up because there’s hope that in the afterlife everything will be nice, nobody will die because they’re already fucking dead, and they’ll have harps and fucking trumpets and fucking halos round their heads and it will be fantastic. Except if you go against the Catholic Church, in which case you get sent down to a place where God has special treatments, where you burn and twist and writhe and freak out for all eternity – but He loves you [roars with laughter]. Isn’t that something? Too much.
Your new album, especially the song “Get Back in Line”, has a certain socio-political flavour.
I’ve done a few like that.
Watch the video for "Get Back in Line"
You generally don’t point the finger at the Left or Right; your songs in that vein simply suggest that people in power are corrupt.
To be in power you have to pass certain tests, chief of which is not to care about your fellow man. Think of them in blocks of 50. It’s all bollocks.
The concept of the so-called psychopath test has been in the news recently, in the wake of that Jon Ronson book, suggesting corporate leaders and government figures don’t have empathy for their fellow man…
…then you’re a psychopath. All they care about is the profit margin.
What do you think about 21st-century celebrity culture? About The X Factor?
It’s a joke. You can’t win fame. You have to earn fame. And if you get given fame without working for it, then you’re not going to be ready for it. Fame’s quite a thing to digest, you know. What it must have been like for The Beatles I’ll never understand. It must have been fucking awful. You ever see footage of that Washington concert? It’s a four-sided arena and they’re facing one way for the first two songs, then they face another way but the amps aren’t turned round, then they face away from the amps, the opposite direction. They couldn’t hear anything, man. And the screaming was overpowering. You have no idea. When I went to see them in Llandudno, the last time I saw them – no, Rhyl was the last time – the screaming was incredible, you couldn’t hear a thing they were doing. You could here the song generally as a little murmur. All you could hear was these chicks screaming their heads off. That’s why The Beatles got sick of touring.
I was surprised when I heard you preferred The Beatles to The Stones. The Stones are more generally associated with hard rock.
Yeah, they were more blues, The Stones. I like The Stones as well, you know, but I like The Beatles better. [The Stones] did some great albums – the first two are excellent and then there’s Exile on Main Street.
You ever run into Keith Richards on your travels?
Yeah, once. They played the 100 Club about 20 years ago and we were invited up to his suite in The Savoy. Würzel [Michael Burston], our recently deceased guitar player, distinguished himself that night. He was standing by the bar, as you do, and [singer] Kirsty MacColl came in with [producer] Steve Lillywhite who she’d just married. I’d been in a video with Kirsty so I said, “How are you doing?” Würzel’s standing next to Lillywhite and he says, “Who’s that old boiler Lemmy’s got hold of, then?” Steve says, “That’s my wife.” About half an hour later, not content with that, Würzel’s buying himself a drink at the bar and Ronnie Wood’s next to him. Jo Howard walks past, all slink and tits, and he says, “Cor, I’d like to fuck her, wouldn’t you?” Ron Wood goes, “I do actually, that’s my wife.” I think Würzel left soon after that.
In White Line Fever, which was written in 2002, it ends badly with Würzel (pictured on the far left, with Motörhead). He had a lot of animosity towards you when he left the band. Did you bury the hatchet before he died [in July this year]?
Oh yeah, he came on stage with us the last few times we played London. He was always sick. He was sick for five years before he died. Apparently he was pouring a drink when he went so at least that’s something. He was my best friend in the band for 11 years so you can’t just throw that away
Back to The Savoy, then, how was it up in Keith Richards' suite?
I never actually spoke to Keith. He was holding court in the bedroom with heroin and all that going on, so I stayed away from that.
Do you stay away from narcotics these days and stick to the drink?
More or less. If it’s a special occasion I can probably rise to it…
Did you ever take Ecstasy or go to a rave?
No, not really, I was too old for raving when it started but I did try Ecstasy, I took four of them and nothing happened. I think my psychedelicness of the Seventies must have blocked them out.
You ever go to a rave?
No, it was far too much music I didn’t like far too loud and a lot of idiots.
I like that sort of thing. What was good about it originally was it had that utopian sense of…
…fuck-you-ness. That’s cool. That was your version of it, see. The trouble is with periods of time that you’ve lived through, you can’t ever make a person who wasn’t there feel it. You can’t ever describe it well enough to let a person know how it was, so I don’t bother. I could tell you for the next 10 hours and you’d never twig how it was to be there. It’s like when we first got rock’n’roll, when I first heard Little Richard and I went, “Yes! That’s the one, that’s how it should be.” We had Bill Haley before with his kiss curl. You knew he wasn’t the guy but he opened the door, then Elvis was good but he had shit B-sides, then all of a sudden, “Good Golly Miss Molly” – bingo! He’s the only man I’d never cover a song by, ‘cause I can’t do it. I don’t think anybody can. Little Richard was unique.
He’s still going.
Yeah, well, not really. I went to see him a couple of years ago and he did half of “Good Golly Miss Molly” and then started handing out Bibles. That wasn’t really what I was looking for.
When punk came along Motörhead’s music was loud, raw and in the right place at the right time. If you’d just cut your hair, you might have had a very different career. I believe your manager even suggested it. Why didn’t you?
I like my hair long.
What, like that whole symbolic David Crosby “Almost Cut My Hair” thing?
No, see, I got these ears. Without the hair behind them they look really large, like Prince Charles on steroids.
When you hear your debut album, Motörhead, do you enjoy its rough'n’ready quality or wish it was better produced?
No, it’s what it was, you know, for the time. It’s not a perfect recording but we were all really fucked up. We were lucky to get that, actually. We were down at a studio in Kent, Escape it was called, Jeff Beck owned half of it, I think. We were down there for two days and we were supposed to do a single, one track a day, and we did our entire stage act as instrumentals, then we fetched down Ted Carroll who was boss of Chiswick [Records]. He came down and was bopping at the back. I knew we’d got him then and he said, “Alright, put vocals on it and I’ll pay for it.” That’s where the album came from. He had four [spare] tracks and he’s been putting them out ever since. Every two years they come out again on brown vinyl, blue vinyl…
Watch the trailer for the film Lemmy
In Greg Olliver and Wes Orshoski’s 2010 documentary Lemmy, which follows you around, your flat’s a bit of a tip. Is it always like that or was it just a messy day?
That’s how it is, I’m afraid. It’s a very small place, you see. It’s a good thing only I live in it. If a chick lived in it she’d probably throw half my [military memorabilia] collection away and destroy my old-age pension scheme. My collection’s worth a lot of money.
On your new album there’s a song called “I Know How to Die” which stares into – or rather shouts at – the abyss of mortality.
Well, why not? You have to look at it eventually. Everybody has to do it. I’m not scared of it. It’ll show up one day and say - [Lemmy beckons] - and off you go. There’s no control over it, is there? You could be under a bus tomorrow. There’s no logic to it, no acceptance, nothing, it’s just going to happen so you might as well get used to it.
He said while lighting another Marlborough. How many of them do you smoke a day?
I go through a pack probably. These don’t kill you. Being told you have cancer kills you.
You once did a song called “R.A.M.O.N.E.S”.
I love the fucking Ramones. I knew Joey and Dee Dee the best. Dee Dee was a mess, he was smacked out all the time. It killed him. I read his [autobiographical] book Poison Heart – very, very depressing. It says in it that he hated every minute of the Ramones, which is awful, isn’t it, ‘cause I enjoyed them so much.
There are certain parallels between the Ramones and Motörhead.
Not much appreciation, looked upon as a joke for a long time.
Cormac McCarthy once wrote that constancy is a form of courage, or words to that effect.
Yeah, we don’t go away. I always say we get fashionable again every eight years. “Die, motherfucker.” But we won’t die.
Watch the cracking video for Motörhead classic "Killed by Death"
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