As the founding member of Motley Crue, the abrasive ensemble that came to define all that was lewd, crude, and undeniably rock and roll in the 1980s, Nikki Sixx was often recognized more for his debauchery than for his songwriting, musicianship, and business acumen.
When the era of Aqua Net, spandex, and leather gave way to alternative rock, rap, hip-hop, and emo, Sixx proved his mettle as a survivor — not only on a personal level, but also as an entrepreneur. He successfully carried on with Motley Crue and expanded his musical horizons with Sixx:A.M., which includes James Michael and DJ Ashba. He launched a clothing line, Royal Underground, became president of a record label, Eleven Seven, and added photographer and author to his credentials. His autobiographical journals, compiled as The Heroin Diaries, became a New York Times best seller and the inspiration behind Sixx:A.M.
Sixx accomplished all of this without compromising. The secret, he says, is finding the right team and being able to step back for the good of the big picture. He has also learned how to delegate responsibilities, something that requires placing trust in his team. It took time, he says, but it came with self-confidence and the process strengthened him. One thing that hasn’t changed or wavered is the passion that first led him to make music, as he made clear in this 2008 interview.
Alison Richter: The obvious question: When do you sleep?
Nikki Sixx: Well … I delegate a lot. To give you an example, I’m doing some changing in my studio, which is becoming 100 percent video, photography, and painting. The music studio has been merged with James and DJ, so we make music at their studio and do video, photography, television, and anything else like that here. There are meetings and that kind of stuff, and I’m obviously delegating a lot of things to people, and at the same time doing interviews, looking over artwork, checking e-mails, picking up my kids, and seeing my girlfriend later. It’s delegating and time management.
AR: As someone who admits to wanting to be involved in all things, was it initially difficult to delegate and trust people to work for you without wanting to look over their shoulders?
NS: The more confident you are, the more you can let go and believe that the people you’ve chosen to be in your circle are able to do what they say they’re going to do and what they’re really good at. It has made me a better band member, too.
AR: How so?
NS: Anybody I’m in a band with can do what they do better than me. I’m a huge believer that I can play bass or whatever I bring to the table — producing, songwriting, orchestrating — and I can look at the other guys and say, “He’s got that, he’s got this, and I have this.” It’s a team thing. I don’t like to write music by myself anymore. It’s boring. I want the jamming, the push and pull, and the excitement that comes with it.
AR: When did you reach the point of confidence and delegation?
NS: An hour ago! It’s been a gradual work in progress, and the confidence … there’s a big difference between confidence and overconfidence. Overconfidence comes from fear and doubt, and you boast an ego when you’re feeling less than. I look back at things I said when I was younger — it was bulls–t. You do what you have to do to go where you have to go, but I look back and I don’t believe what that guy was saying.
You grow, learn, and the more I can sit in silence and be comfortable with myself, the more I can make noise, as ironic and Zen Buddhist and satanic as it sounds! The more I go onstage, the more quiet I am before, because I intend to go onstage and slaughter. In Motley Crue, onstage it’s war. With Sixx:A.M. it’s completely different. It’s a calmer, more poised approach. The chemistry between us is different from the chemistry in Motley Crue. It’s a different feeling, and I’ve learned to harness those individually. I’ve especially learned in Crue Fest.
AR: Do the two bands share a fan base?
NS: They overlap at times, but they’re definitely different. I see very young fans at Sixx:A.M. shows who are not familiar with Motley Crue. They know the band, a song or two, but they come to Motley Crue through Sixx:A.M. I see a lot of tears when we play. Fans tell us that the songs have touched them. They relate them to something painful or hopeful, or something touched them emotionally somehow and triggered a feeling. We get that with “Accidents Can Happen,” “Tomorrow,” and “Life Is Beautiful.” We’ve looked at the front row and seen people weeping, like, “This is my song; it relates to an experience I’ve had,” whether with themselves, a family member, a lover. Somehow they interweave with Sixx:A.M. or my story personally.
Motley Crue is a different animal and I’m proud of that. Motley Crue fans will say, “I respect what Nikki’s doing. It’s cool.” I’m not chasing something. It’s an honest part of me and it doesn’t feel fabricated. That’s a good feeling.
AR: Producer, songwriter, photographer, clothing designer, musician, label president — how do you keep from spreading yourself too thin?
NS: Again, it’s about how I delegate. Friends of mine are successful businessmen, phenomenal fathers, great friends, have social lives, work for huge corporations, and they’re calm and able and have a great infrastructure. I have a great family in both bands, Royal Underground, with Eleven Seven, and photography is an individual passion of mine. I don’t get paid to do it, although people offer me money. I do it because I love it, and if there’s no money attached, I don’t have to do anything. It’s my weekend away, my vacation, whether it’s an hour or five hours or editing photos on my laptop in the middle of the night. It gives me relief from all the other stuff.
Eleven Seven is an amazing rock label, and [CEO/founder] Allen Kovac and our staff and I bring a lot to the table for our artists. We want to help them become better artists, help them reach the fans they want to reach. It’s both easy and a lot of work. With Royal Underground, we create something out of Mike and Kelly’s ideas.
AR: Let’s talk about your photography — your equipment, what you’re doing. Is there a book in your future?
NS: It’s been brought up to me to do gallery showings, but I’ve said no. There’s something in the future, I’m sure, because I do like sharing my work; otherwise I wouldn’t put it on the Web.
I use a Nikon D3, the best camera there is. I’m really into the photojournalistic style, but I’m getting into being in our environment. At my studio, Funny Farm, I’m doing a lot of research on 1940s-style lighting and medium-format work. I’ve done sessions where we build the set. I have “the talent” come in — the makeup artist, the lighting assistant, the set builders — and I’m there with my baseball hat on backward and I’m like a pig in mud! “Touch up the makeup there.” “We need a little more light.” “Carve out the chin.” It’s made me a better subject, too. Paul Brown is a favorite photographer of mine and he works with Motley Crue a lot. He’ll do a session and I’ll say, “Hey Paul, can you do this and this,” and he’ll raise one eyebrow over the camera and I’ll say, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” It’s quite the passion.
Music is always there; it flows so freely for me and it’s not something I have to think about. The challenge is to be honest at all times, and it’s not the challenge you’d think. It’s not, “How do I write a hit record that appeals to the masses?” F–k that. We have nothing to prove. The biggest question is, “Is this honest?” If the answer is yes, we release it.
With photography, I have to work at it. There is always more to learn, and again the question is, “Is this picture honest?”
AR: Over the years, many people underestimated your musicianship and intelligence, and certainly your business sense. Did that ever bother you?
NS: I guess I just forgot to care 90 percent of the time, and the other 10 percent got in my way. What I mean is that I can’t make anybody happy, so I try my best to be good at what I do. In Motley Crue we do what we do. We’re aging, sometimes gracefully and sometimes not, and the blemish enhances the beauty. The falling apart at the seams seems to be what people like. In my own life I like to be poised and have a positive outlook on life, and I’m leading by example to my children and people around me. In Motley Crue I let it fall apart. It’s my guilty pleasure. We don’t have to grow up, so why would we? So if I ever had a split personality between Sikki and Nikki, there must be a third one in there now, and the more the merrier!
My friends say, “There are many people in your head, Nikki,” and maybe that’s why I thrive so much on being president of Eleven Seven and being in two bands and working on a few books and having many photography projects going on and being a father of four and being in a relationship. And in the end there may be a bit of a people-pleaser in there.
AR: Are you surprised by the huge wave of success with both Sixx:A.M. and Motley Crue? A lot of bands from the so-called “hair band” era are not at the level you are, despite their best efforts.
NS: I have always believed that if you are honest in what you do, continually reinvent yourself at the same time, and there’s respect amongst your band members, then you will be respected. A lot of bands respect us as a band who have been around for five, ten, even fifteen years, as I respect those who came before me, like Van Halen, Ozzy, and AC/DC.
We wanted to do a festival, and we asked bands that respect us to be a part of it so that we could give people a great concert experience of rock music. We didn’t want to do an alternative fest — there is one. We didn’t want to do a rap-rock fest — there is one. We didn’t want to do a heavy metal fest — there is one. We wanted a festive touring environment of rock and rollers. What’s next? We want to do it again. We want to find new bands who can carry the flags, the new Motley Crues, the new Guns N’ Roses and AC/DCs. They’re out there and need to be found, signed, and delivered to audiences. That’s what we want to do, whether it’s through Eleven Seven or Crue Fest. We want radio and press to see them. We’re proactive in keeping rock music alive. We were never interested in doing an ’80s package. I think it’s ridiculous. An ’80s package? What the f–k?
AR: In both The Dirt and The Heroin Diaries, you talk about your rock heroes, artists you looked up to, what it was like to meet them, what they meant to you. When did it sink in that you are that hero to so many fans?
NS: I don’t know if it has yet. When I’m onstage, I hope it looks like what I want to see — the lights, the pyro, the band. That’s what I’m interested in when we’re putting together a show: Is it what I wanted to see when I was 14 or 18? When I’m onstage, I’m more in the audience in my head than I am on the stage.
AR: What made you feel that James and DJ were the ones you could work with on something as intensely personal as The Heroin Diaries?
NS: I’ve known James for so long; we’ve done so much together, being really good friends. We talked about the concept for years, doing a theatrical presentation of these crazy, wacky dreams that are not so crazy-wacky after all.
James is a respected singer, songwriter, and producer, and I love his personality. He was an obvious choice, and when he sang, DJ and I just went “duh.” We were all writing music, and DJ has these gothic, weird guitar passages that he does over simple pop melodies and grimy bass parts and lyrics dripping with honesty. Nobody else would make sense. The fact that we’re doing another record — I’m so excited.
AR: Is there a timeline on the next record, or will it just be done when it’s done?
NS: Exactly. We’re always working. We just write songs and they become the record. I don’t know what to write about yet. There’s a book I’m working on, and I can’t do what I need to do to make that book a reality. I have to put myself in a very vulnerable position and that takes time. That’s another interview. It has nothing to do with anything anyone could guess, but imagine something as outrageous as living on top of a mountain for a year, away from everything …
AR: You consider that outrageous?
NS: OK, forget that analogy! We’re digging into things that have touched us, and that we feel, to plug into what we want to say. We’re close. It’s very personal, and when it’s ready, it will be out there.
AR: How are your work ethics similar?
NS: We believe that if it takes too long, it’s a lie, that if you have to play it over and over, it’s the wrong part, that we can get together and write three or four songs in a setting and they just come out, and that sometimes if nothing comes out and we just sit around and talk and laugh, that’s fine too. It’s easy to be in a band with James and DJ. It’s really fun, we really dig deep, and someone says, “Wow, I remember that feeling,” then bam, it comes out in a lyric and flows so quickly that you have to catch it.
When we were working on “Life Is Beautiful,” I said, “How about something like, ‘There’s nothing like a trail of blood to find your way home’?” And James goes, “No, how about just that?” I said, “Just what?” He said, “That!” I said, “What did I say?” We’re always monitoring each other, and one guy will say, “That’s amazing!” “Accidents Can Happen” was one of those songs that just came out, and then we all sat in silence and finally said, “Did that just happen?” It’s such an honest piece of music. Where does it come from? We’re all born with the same basic brain. Where does this stuff come from? How does it come out? That’s what’s exciting about being an artist, still, and what I’m really finding is awesome is that you can do it until you drop. I don’t care how many lines I have on my face — I’ll keep doing it!
AR: Has age ever been an issue? Have you ever thought, Teenagers are getting the record deals, the fans are young, we’re twice as old as some of these rock bands, I’m going to be 50, too old to do this — any of those thoughts?
NS: No. I don’t ever think about age. Someone sent me a picture of myself in 1981 or 1982, hanging out at the Roxy, and I thought, Whoa, that’s cool. I didn’t think, Look at how young I look. I know how I look. I’ll have the same haircut when I’m 80. My pants will be too tight. I probably won’t shower. I want to be ridiculously underweight, with wrinkles on my face, a snarl, a gold tooth to add to my inner pirate, and I don’t give a f–k. I’m in awe that I can think of it! I take a picture and go, “I did that?” We write a song and I go, “We wrote that?” What you look like — that comes and goes. When I was younger, I was looking for the perfect girl. Now I realize that the perfect girl has imperfections and that’s it. Perfection is unattainable, so I like to live in imperfection.
AR: Is maturity the right word for Motley Crue as you are today?
NS: It’s an individual choice, maturity is. It’s about always doing your best, not assuming anything, showing up in the best possible shape, mentally and physically, bringing your best ideas forward, and if your ideas don’t gel, not taking it personally. We go in and a miracle always happens. It baffles me.
AR: Your performances with Sixx:A.M. have been described as more laid back than your performances with Motley Crue. Is that correct, and if so, why?
NS: First of all, I want people to notice James and DJ as much as possible because I believe in them so much. People know who I am, so I want to take a back seat. I hold down my area. I want people to know Sixx:A.M. musically. The other thing is because Sixx:A.M. and Motley Crue have been performing every night, I pay my respects to Motley Crue by not coming out with guns blazing twice. If Motley Crue weren’t playing, I’d probably let go a little more with Sixx:A.M., but in the end it’s about being respectful to Motley Crue and wanting people to notice how talented James and DJ are.
AR: We always hear about how crucial it is for the bass player and drummer to find the pocket, but Sixx:A.M. doesn’t have a drummer.
NS: I don’t know if I believe that analogy. Personal chemistry forges the way for musical chemistry, and there’s so much chemistry between James, DJ, and I, and so much trust, that we let it go and fall and know it’s going to be OK. I dig it a lot. With Motley Crue it’s completely different.
AR: Your roots, like James’ roots, go back to analog and the “old school” method of making records. Do you hold on to some of that in the digital age?
NS: I’d lose it all if I could! If I could make a record in two minutes and thirty seconds, I’d do it. I want the creativity, and I don’t give a f–k about the snare sound. I want to rock! I want to be good, snotty, clever, catchy, and out of there. I want the s–t on the airwaves!
AR: I envision James locked up in his studio in the middle of the night, in the dark, one red light bulb on, he’s hunched over the board, and before he quit, a big cloud of cigarette smoke surrounded him.
NS: That’s what he does! It’s painful to me. That’s why I like film. I have an amazing camera. I want to shoot, stick the card in the computer, and edit right away. All this “I’m going to take it to the processor. Can you change the tone?” No! Put the tape in the machine, rewind it, I’m in my car and on the way home! James is that guy. That’s his drug. He loves that. When I photograph someone, I want to shoot the subject and get them out of my studio so I can play with the photos and do all the stuff I want. James needs the subject, the hit song, everything. He’s happy if we leave, so that he can experiment and brighten and add effects. I’m glad he’s like that. I’m not a gearhead at all. I can debate over a good light bulb for photography, but hertz and EQ? I’d shoot myself. I just want to play.
AR: Where is DJ between you and James?
NS: He’s a bit of both. He balances us.
AR: Aside from the fact that you no longer need to steal your instruments, how is the feeling of playing one still similar to the feeling you had as a kid?
NS: I still feel the same. I love it. When I’m with the band, I love it. My favorite moments are when the bass falls in the pocket with the drums, the guitar is on top just slicing it, and the melody is scraping across like a sidewinder shattering through the monitor. It’s just, ahhh, I love it! That’s the jones, the hit, the buzz right there. It gets me off.
I think that must be what it’s like to be in the Stones, just playing and grooving on it. The Stones are not the kind of band that want to get in the details. That’s why they have a producer and engineer — to pull the magic out of them and make them sound so great. I feel that way with DJ and James and with Motley Crue. We’ve got to capture the moment.