Mick Mars and Keith Nelson interview: Two For The Road
As the hard-rocking Crüe Fest tour gets underway, Mötley Crüe’s Mick Mars and Buckcherry's Keith Nelson discuss their bands’ latest albums and why guitarists have the toughest job in the business.
"Put on your shades, grab a wine glass, and smash it on the bar.” When Mick Mars talks, people listen. The Mötley Crüe guitarist is perched on a stool at the Rainbow Bar & Grill, the West Hollywood club that’s been the site of countless debauched moments in Mötley history, not to mention those of many of their rock-and-roll forebears, peers and followers. He is observing intently as a photographer snaps away at Buckcherry guitarist Keith Nelson. Which is when, black cap pulled low over his eyes and peering out from behind dark sunglasses, Mars gives the aforementioned command.
Nelson sends broken glass flying in every direction. Unfortunately, the shot is missed.
“Do it again,” Mars instructs him. “But this time fill the cup with ice—it’ll look like glass when it smashes.”
Nelson brings his arm down hard, and shards of glass and ice erupt off the bar and spray around the room like BB pellets. The shot is captured (and looks very, very cool). Mars smiles. “Done it a million times,” he says of the glass and ice combo. “Always works like a charm.”
Despite his apparent photographic expertise, Mars has not been summoned to the Rainbow on this day to act as an impromptu lensman for this Guitar World shoot. Nor have he and Nelson been brought together merely to bust up the joint. Rather, the two guitarists are here with Guitar World to talk shop—and there’s lots of shop to talk.
At the top of the list for Mars is Saints of Los Angeles (Mötley/Eleven Seven), Mötley Crüe’s first new studio disc in eight years, and their first in almost a dozen to feature the original lineup of Mars, singer Vince Neil, bassist Nikki Sixx and drummer Tommy Lee. Taken as a whole, the album’s songs loosely recount Mötley’s rise to fame—it’s something of a “soundtrack” to the band’s 2001 best-selling autobiography (and soon-to-be film) The Dirt. Without a doubt, it’s the most vibrant, engrossing and downright rocking Crüe effort in a very long time. From the sinister churn of the title track to the punk-trash stomp of “Face Down in the Dirt” to the glammy pop of “Down at the Whisky,” Saints of Los Angeles succeeds where recent Crüe discs have come up short, retaining the classic Mötley sound while updating it for the modern musical world.
As with every record throughout the band’s 27-year recording career, at the center of it all is Mars’ thick, grinding guitar riffs—rarely celebrated, always underappreciated. “There are some people that recognize what I do,” Mars says, “but a lot more that don’t. I’m used to that. I will say, though, a few years back when we were on the road with Aerosmith, those guys were bowing to my playing and my tone.”
Nelson, for his part, concurs with the Aerosmith men. “The first Mötley record I ever heard was Shout at the Devil, and Mick’s guitar on that was where it all came together for me. You could sing the riffs. You could sing the solos. It hit me right between the eyes like a hammer.”
Nelson and his Buckcherry bandmates are currently in the studio putting the finishing touches on their upcoming full-length. However, their most recent album, 2006’s 15, has not yet finished its run. The album’s fifth single, the smash power ballad “Sorry,” is still riding high on the charts, and, along with the raunchy “Crazy Bitch,” has pushed 15 past sales of one million. Not bad for a band that, after rising to fame with their 1999 debut single, “Lit Up,” crashed, burned and dissolved in fairly short order, and as recently as 2005 couldn’t convince an American record label to give them the time of day.
The one that did was Mötley’s label, Eleven Seven, which brings us to another reason Guitar World has brought Mars and Nelson together on this day: to discuss Crüe Fest, Mötley Crüe’s summer tour with Buckcherry. Rounding out the bill are several artists associated with either Eleven Seven or its allied management company, 10th Street Entertainment, including Trapt, Papa Roach and
Sixx:AM, the band headed by Nikki Sixx. The jaunt—part rock extravaganza, part sly marketing move—is shaping up to be one of the hottest tickets of the summer.
On a warm afternoon in Hollywood, Mars and Nelson broke bread—and a few wine glasses—with Guitar World and talked Crüe Fest, their respective bands and the state of the music industry. They also discussed their favorite pieces of gear, their shared love of the blues, and why guitarists have the hardest job in rock and roll.
GUITAR WORLD So what’s the idea behind Crüe Fest?
MICK MARS Mötley could have just toured the new album, like we always do, but we wanted to put something together that was more of an event. We’re trying to reach the next step on the ladder, you know? We wanna get up to that Aerosmith/Rolling Stones level. And Mötley built our reputation on playing live. We once did a tour that we called “Any Place There’s Electricity”: we’re happy to go anywhere and play any place, at any time. So we have plans to do Crüe Fest as an annual thing, just like any other festival: Ozzfest, Lollapalooza... And festivals are always good, because you get great bands and also great guys to hang out with, like, well, Keith!
KEITH NELSON [laughs] Mick should watch what he says. He doesn’t know this yet, but I’m actually riding on his bus for the whole tour.
GW Festivals may be a good time for the bands involved, but they also seem to have become a necessity. These days, you have to offer people as many options as possible in order to compete for their dollars.
NELSON That’s true. One thing that we noticed in Buckcherry over the past two years of being on the road is that there are festivals for everything: your metal bands, your alternative bands, your lesbian acoustic singer-songwriters… They’ve got it all covered! But there hasn’t really been a festival for rock bands; the genre is so scattered. So when the powers-that-be came to us and asked us to be a part of this tour, we jumped at it.
GW Mick, Mötley Crüe are touring behind their first new album in eight years. At this stage in the game, how does a new Mötley
record come about?
MARS We’d been going out and doing the same thing over and over again, releasing greatest-hits albums and playing all the classic
songs on tour. That gets old. And we had done [1997’s] Generation Swine and [2000’s] New Tattoo, but truthfully, those were big disappointments, not only to us but to our fans as well. So we decided, You know what? It’s time for us to sit down and concentrate. We need to do a real modern-sounding rock record but still be Mötley Crüe about it and show people how we’ve progressed as a band and as songwriters.
GW There are contributions from several outside writers on Saints of Los Angeles, including Marti Frederiksen and Nikki’s Sixx:A.M.
bandmates James Michael and DJ Ashba.
MARS They all added their own thing to the songs. Marti’s cool. He’s done a bunch of stuff with Aerosmith and these guys [Buckcherry]. DJ’s a great guitarist. He came up with some pretty cool ideas, some stuff I wouldn’t think of. And James Michael is just an all-around good songwriter. He writes really strong—let’s call them “radio-friendly”—songs.
GW You say “radio friendly” with a bit of a smirk.
MARS You know, I’ve always been about the music. I could give two fucks about radio or any of that. But I shouldn’t say that because the programmers might get wind of it and stop playing us! But I couldn’t care less about radio, TV—even money. I’m about music, not hits.
GW But speaking of hits: Keith, Buckcherry are currently enjoying some of the biggest of your career. People have likened one of them, “Crazy Bitch,” to a 21st century version of “Girls, Girls, Girls.”
NELSON They’re definitely both strip-club anthems. My first thought about “Crazy Bitch” was, Well, it’s never gonna get played on the radio! But to me, it’s so tongue-in-cheek and over-the-top, it’s hilarious. Because who the fuck, other than maybe Mötley, would write a song like that? Even women seem to like it and, more importantly, to get the joke. When we finished 15, we put the song up on our MySpace page, just as a sort of, “Hey, we’re back, for anyone who cares.” All of sudden, satellite radio picked up on it, and then next thing we knew terrestrial radio stations were going to MySpace, downloading the song and overdubbing duck quacks over all the “fucks.” We were on tour at the time, and I had to hop a plane home to do a quick edit and take out all the
f-bombs so radio could play it.
GW And now you have a Platinum album. Pretty good for a band that had more or less been completely written off just a few years back.
NELSON No one in the industry really believed in us. All of the industry people we spoke with had no interest in the band. They were all about, “You guys can go do county fairs with… Styx!”
MARS Oh, god!
NELSON Yeah, like the music wasn’t relevant anymore, that it was all just nostalgia. Without hearing a note of it. So I had pretty low expectations, but we made a very honest record that accurately represents who we are and what we’re about, and I think that came across and connected with people.
GW You’re both rock players who are very much rooted in the blues. Who were your influences growing up?
NELSON I’m from Pennsylvania, and I was very into Tom Petty, John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen…because that’s what I was hearing coming out of the radio. But then when I started playing guitar it was Billy Gibbons, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix. But I also went backward to the blues, to Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker and Hubert Sumlin. It’s funny, because Josh [Todd, Buckcherry singer] comes from a very punk rock background. Growing up, he never even owned a record longer than a
seven-inch. So we get up onstage together, and he’s screaming his punk stuff, while I wanna be an old black dude with a slide. We kinda meet somewhere in the middle. Though I will say that the music I make in Buckcherry is about the heaviest I’ve ever played.
GW Mick, you could probably say the same thing about your situation in Mötley.
MARS Totally. Nikki’s like the punk, and I’m the classic rock and blues guy: Jeff Beck, Clapton, Hendrix... Nikki doesn’t know a lot of my music, and then there’s a lot of stuff he’ll play for me and I’ll just go, “Yeah, um, that’s nice…” But I listen to it, because you can learn something from everything.
GW Is Mötley a band you would have ever been into had you not been a member?
MARS Well, it was hard for me to get into the whole thing at first. I was a blues guy, but I had played in cover bands that had done a lot of hard rock, so I was used to that, too. But on the first few Mötley albums I really felt restricted in terms of how I could play. I still do, somewhat, because I can play so much better than I do on our records.
GW What about the first time you had to put on the makeup…
MARS Hated it!
GW Did you look in the mirror and say, “What am I doing?”
MARS The way I always thought about it was, at least it wasn’t Kiss or Twisted Sister. I was never into that. I just wanted to be a raw rock and roll band. And I mean, I’m not a very pretty person; I’m ugly as fuck and I don’t give a shit. But again, it’s about the music. I just wanted to play my guitar, you know?
GW Let’s talk guitars a bit. Keith, I know you’re something of a gearoholic.
NELSON I am. On 15 I played mainly Gretsches; most of the rhythm tracks were done with a Gretsch 6120. And I stick to vintage
Marshalls: I have an old JTM 45, a ’68 small-box “Plexi” and a ’71 Super Lead. Those are the three workhorses. And then I have a couple others: a Vox AC30 and an old Fender Bandmaster.
GW Do you prefer vintage guitars as well?
NELSON I do. I have a couple great old [Gibson] PAF guitars I use in the studio, a ’62 SG and a ’62 355 that get a lot of work, some old Les Paul Juniors, a ’54 Gold Top that I love, a ’53 Fender Esquire... I also have some cool, newer stuff, like a Zemaitis. Like Mick, I have a lot of gear, but I stick to my favorites, because I don’t wanna drag 60 guitars down to the studio or out on the road.
GW Mick, what did you use on Saints of Los Angeles?
MARS I still use my Strats. I have my main one that Fender built for me custom in 1996. There’s no particular model to it. Like, it’s not a ’69 reissue or anything; it’s just a custom shop model. Fender actually copied it off a guitar I had bought back on the Dr. Feelgood tour in ’89. It never sounded good, so I hacked it up, and Fender based my custom Strat on that.
GW I know you’ve favored Soldano amps in recent years, in particular the Super Lead Overdrive.
MARS Actually, on Saints of Los Angeles I mostly used this new amp plug-in for Pro Tools called Eleven [manufactured by DigiDesign]. It’s a virtual amp thing, where you choose from all these different classic models and cabinets and mix-and-match them with different microphones. I played through that, and [producer] James [Michael] and I stacked a bunch of amp models together: some Marshalls, a Soldano Super Lead and this custom Eleven plug-in. And it actually sounds like true, off-the-floor amps in a studio. It’s a great application.
GW Can you talk about your gear setup on some of the classic Mötley albums, like Shout at the Devil ?
MARS That was all my black ’72 Les Paul Custom guitar. I bought it for 400 bucks and sold it years later for 25 grand. That was a good investment! And the amp line was all Marshall. In the old days I had two: a ’71, and another that was also pretty ancient. They had master volumes, but on the back of the amp; I had them built-in. I used an Electro-Harmonix LPB-1 [linear power booster] on the front and had the amps stereo-ed off. And that’s how I played in those days.
GW How about Theater of Pain ?
MARS That record was also pretty much all black Les Paul. Though I remember when I was cutting the solo for “Home Sweet Home” the guitar wouldn’t stay in tune or something, so I sent someone out to get me another one. The guy brought back a Kramer Baretta with a Floyd Rose on it. So that’s why you hear some whammy dives on that one.
GW What about Girls, Girls, Girls ?
MARS Well, Theater of Pain was the beginning of my using the Kramer and Charvel Strat and Tele-style guitars, and that continued on through Girls and Dr. Feelgood. Also, around that time I was working with Eddie Van Halen’s old tech, Rudy [Leiren], and he came in and set me up with this bi-amp system that changed a lot for me. I started to combine a lot of different amps, mixing and matching Hiwatts and Marshalls and Vox AC30s—all this different stuff. So I’m always open to trying new things.
GW Keith, Buckcherry is currently in the studio recording the follow-up to 15. You cut that album in roughly two weeks and on a very small budget. How did that experience, and the album’s unexpected success, affect the way you’ve been approaching the new one?
NELSON A lot and not at all. On the one hand, there’s a much bigger pile of money for us to work with. We could have gone to the Bahamas or something for two months to do the record, you know? But instead we’re doing it in L.A. in two weeks again. That seems to work for us. It’s funny, but now I hear people say “We’re gonna do it the Buckcherry way”—circumventing the major labels, getting the music out through MySpace and YouTube and all that. But we just did it that way out of necessity.
MARS With all the stuff that’s going on today, who cares about the major labels? If you sign a deal with a major record label now, you’re making a big mistake. With a major you’re making maybe 10 cents on a record, and you can do so much better—not only from your albums but also from touring. And there are ways to get so much more out of it.
GW Hence, Crüe Fest.
MARS Exactly. It’s funny though, because I always said to myself, “I don’t wanna be on tour when I’m fucking 40 years old!” But here I am in my fifties and still doing it. But I’ll tell you now, I don’t wanna be in my seventies and still on the road. Maybe my
early sixties, at the oldest. And even that’s getting to be too gnarly.
GW Due to your health issues [Mars suffers from ankylosing spondylitis, a degenerative bone disease] people have speculated for years whether you’re still up for this.
MARS I always have to prove myself. I’ve been dead twice according to rumor. And there’s always stuff like, “Mick has to be carried onstage” or “Mick has to play in a wheelchair.” It’s all garbage. This thing that I have, I don’t call it a disease; I call it an inconvenience. And the doubters can come and see me live and get their asses kicked by my playing. Here’s a true story: A few years back I was in the hospital getting hip replacement surgery, and my nurse told me she overheard this guy ask someone, “Who is Mötley Crüe?” And the answer he got was, “Well, Tommy’s the drummer, Nikki’s the bass player, Vince is the singer, and Mick doesn’t do anything.” And I just went, “What? That’s crazy!” People are so dismissive, but they don’t realize that when you’re the only guitar player in a band, you’re really the only musical element coming off the stage. Other than the guitar,
there’s just the vocals and the rhythm section. I mean, not to degrade the other guys…
NELSON …but let’s do it!
MARS Well, bassists only have to play one string…
NELSON And drummers sit down all night. And singers, they don’t even have to carry any gear.
MARS Shit, we’ve got the hardest job in rock and roll!