“It was obvious: John was the guy... we didn’t choose this, but since we had to be put in this position, we’re very happy with where we’re at”: Nikki Sixx opens up on the crisis talks to replace Mick Mars and how John 5 has re-energized Mötley Crüe

John 5 and Nikki Sixx
(Image credit: Ross Halfin)

When it was confirmed that bassist Nikki Sixx would take part in Guitar World’s Mötley Crüe cover story (he agreed to respond to emailed questions), it was requested that we keep the focus on “what’s happening now – the tour, music, nothing about Mick Mars.” 

At the time, this didn’t strike us as outwardly odd or significant (somewhat rock-star quirky, perhaps), and there was nothing to indicate that there was any kind of drama, legal or otherwise, surrounding Mars’ departure as a touring member of Mötley Crüe.

A short time later, news broke of Mars’ lawsuit against the band, and it became clear why Sixx preferred to sidestep the elephant in the room. Seeing as we were very careful to steer clear of asking the bassist even the vaguest question about Mars, we were more than a little surprised when he brought up the guitarist by name and provided his own account of the events.

When and how did John 5 get on your radar? When did you become aware of him?

“I had heard of John years before I met him. Then we met and became friends first. We’d be hanging out and things would come up. I remember working on a Meat Loaf song with Desmond Child, and John’s name came up to work on the song with us. I was like, 'That’s great.'

“As we became friends over the years, I was doing some songwriting, and we wrote Lies of the Beautiful People, which was the Number 1 song for Sixx: AM. We’ve been friends, musicians, just sitting on the back patio playing guitar and noodling around, making jokes about Hee-Haw and the ’70s. He became a really good friend, a collaborator – and now he’s in the band.

What was it about his playing that stuck out to you? How did he seem different from his contemporaries?

“John has the ability to play so precisely, and at the same time he keeps so much emotion in his playing. He obviously can play any style of music, and even blend them together. As a collaborator, it’s amazing with John; you’re like, ‘Could you do…?’ And he’s like, ‘Yes.’ ‘Hey, could you do…?’ ‘Like this?’ 

“He’s fun and exciting to hang out with – whether it’s his guitar playing, as a writer, and now on stage. It’s literally like having your little brother right by your side. It’s such a nice feeling.

'Do we want to let ourselves down because an original member of our band can’t tour anymore?’ We had to have a deep, deep look into what we were going to do

“We never saw it coming that Mick wasn’t going to be able to tour and was going to have to quit the band. In the middle – not even the middle – of a huge tour, we had to ask ourselves, ‘Do we want to let the fans down? Do we want to let Live Nation down? Do we want to let Def Leppard down? Do we want to let ourselves down because an original member of our band can’t tour anymore?’ We had to have a deep, deep look into what we were going to do.

“[In regard to] John, knowing all the members of the band, and me having this relationship with him writing and as friends, and even being in the studio with him writing stuff with the band for The Dirt, it felt like a no-brainer in a horrible situation – something we did not ask for or want. And then it was just kind of obvious. If there was 'the guy,' John was the guy. Like I said, we didn’t choose this, but since we had to be put in this position, we’re very happy with where we’re at right now.”

Did you ever think, “If we needed somebody, John 5 would be the guy”?

“No, we’ve never been like that – never, like, ‘Nikki’s not in the band. Who are we gonna get?’ I mean, Nikki’s in the band. Tommy’s in the band. Mick’s in the band. Vince is in the band. It was Mick saying, ‘I can’t be in the band’ that forced us into making a decision – one that we didn’t expect, by the way.”

Take me inside the band discussions about who to bring in. Was John always the top pick in your mind? You said he “checks all the boxes.”

“I sat down with Tommy and Vince and said, ‘We’re in this situation. What do you guys think we should do?’ We kind of talked about it for a while, and John’s name came up. We were all like, ‘I mean, if he’s available.’ It would be like the perfect solution, not only as a friend, just as a human being, as a player – obviously, as a player comes first, being in a band. 

“So I called John, and I said, ‘OK, this is gonna be kind of weird… ‘ And since we talk almost every day, he was like, ‘What could be weirder than some of your off-color humor?’ [Laughs] I go, ‘Well, this one’s gonna top all of our shit.’ There was quiet, and he said, ‘I’d be honored.’ We were like, ‘OK, here we go.’

John 5 and Nikki Sixx

(Image credit: Ross Halfin)

“You know, we were, ‘This is a major change for us.’ I remember going to rehearsal, and it felt, well, seamless, if that makes sense. It has nothing to do with anything other than John was so prepared. The very first rehearsal, I was like, ‘What do you want to do?’ Vince or someone said, ‘Let’s try a song.’ We were like, ‘Let’s just do the first song in the set,’ which is Wild Side at this point. We played Wild Side – it segues into Shout at the Devil

“We ended Wild Side and we’re kind of grinding, and then this sequence with some of the sounds of the ’97 Shout at the Devil remake – a lot of backward loops and swells. John started swelling up. I looked at Tommy and Shout at the Devil started. We ended that, and we didn’t even say anything, and we went right into Too Fast for Love. We played the whole show – seamlessly. And we were like, [Laughs] ‘Well, I guess band rehearsal’s over.’ 

“We started laughing. His personality, his professionalism, his sense of adventure as a guitar player, his understanding of what’s so important about so many of the solos Mick played on; him wanting to honor that, not wanting to do something different during Home Sweet Home; wanting to stick to what fans expected and want to hear and grew up hearing… has been just a really wonderful experience.”

John 5 and Nikki Sixx

(Image credit: Ross Halfin)

Did Tommy or Vince have any other candidates in mind?

“No, we talked about John, and that was that. I mean, it’s just like we kind of knew. Because we knew him, too. It wasn’t like, ‘We’re in a shitty situation. Let’s just get a guitar player, and then we’ll get another guitar player, and then we’ll get another guitar player.’ We were looking for somebody that wanted to be here permanently with us.”

As for that first rehearsal, what would you have done if, for whatever strange reason, things didn’t click with John and the band?

“[Long pause] We would have been fucked, I guess.”

How much musical leeway are you affording John?

“Within the song structure, it’s important that John delivers what people are used to listening to – the solos, and honoring the songs. Outside of that, complete freedom. If he wants to do a guitar solo or ad-lib at the end of a song, it’s completely free-form at that point.”

John 5 and Nikki Sixx

(Image credit: Ross Halfin)

Obviously, these are songs the band has played thousands of times. But in some small ways, did you notice anybody making any kinds of musical adjustments to suit how John plays?

“I think, in general, the band – bass, drums and guitar – is a rock band at our core. But any time you play with another musician, it’s going to change a little bit. Such I’ve found being in Brides of Destruction or Sixx: AM… I guess we’re more aware because suddenly John is playing the songs, and we’re hearing John and us… and it’s like, ‘Oh, wow, it sounds right. It sounds tight. It sounds right on the money.’ And it feels energized. It feels positive.” 

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Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar World, Guitar Player, MusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.