Lemmy At 'Em
Motörhead frontman on entering the US charts and why rockin' for a half-century is a little too ambitious
The phone rings. At the other end, in some smoky, Jack Daniel’s bottle-strewn, Nazi memorabilia-adorned apartment, a familiarly gruff voice answers: ‘Hello.’
‘Hi, is this Lemmy?’
Most conversations with the legendary Motörhead frontman are going to be surreal, but calling him at his California home on a wet Tuesday evening, while parked outside the Odyssey Arena in Belfast (where Tom Jones is about to play) is particularly so.
Lemmy, 63, is promoting Motörhead’s upcoming Belfast gig at the Ulster Hall, their first Northern Ireland appearance in half a decade. I point out that the interview is a special one, that the ‘Head have been heroes since adolescence, that there have been numerous trips across the Irish Sea to see them in concert around the UK. ‘That’s nice, man,’ says Lemmy. ‘Thank you.’ He may be a screaming, bass guitar-abusing heavy-metal icon, but he’s a mannerly one.
Born in Stoke-on-Trent on Christmas Eve 1945, Ian Fraser Kilmister was three months old when his father, an ex-RAF chaplain, walked out. He spent most of his formative years in north Wales, since when Lemmy (the nickname originated due to the teenage Teddy boy's constant harassing of people with the demand ‘Lemmy a quid till Friday’) has been on a mission to live life in the fast lane. ‘I can’t think of anything better to do, can you?’ he says. ‘I can’t see retirement being any better than running round the world chasing birds.’
In 1967, Lemmy moved to London, where he got a job as a roadie for the Jimi Hendrix Experience. He joined the ‘space rock’ band Hawkwind in 1971, singing lead vocals on their biggest hit, 1972’s ‘Silver Machine’.
In 1975, he formed Motörhead – named after the title of the last song he had written for Hawkwind. Since then, the seemingly indestructible road warriors have released 27 albums and toured the planet more times than Lemmy has had hot women – which is a lot. At the last count, in Maxim magazine in 2006, the mole-faced, mutton-chopped singer had bedded an estimated 1,200 partners.
As for the music, in an unbroken 34-year career the English (now bolstered by Welsh and Swedish) trio have seen off punk, glam rock, grunge and nu-metal. Motörhead’s appeal is primal. Lemmy’s trusty Rickenbacker sounds like a Luftwaffe bomber taking off. Pontypridd-born Phil Campbell’s lead guitar slashes like a madman on a murder spree. Swedish drummer Mikkey Dee pulverises his kit like an enraged gorilla. It’s a glorious racket, adored by denim- and leather-clad scoundrels across the globe.
The group’s latest aural blitzkrieg is the aptly titled Motörizer. For many fans, the 11-track release is up there with the triumvirate of early Motörhead-classics, Overkill, Bomber and Ace of Spades. ‘I suppose we’re good at what we do after all this time,’ says Lemmy. ‘We’ve got a formula, and it’s worked so far. We’ve been lucky.’
Motörizer took Motörhead (whose sales had steadily declined from the high-point of 1981, when live album No Sleep ‘til Hammersmith entered the British charts at number one) into the UK Top 40 for the first time in more than 15 years. It also gave them their debut US Top 100 hit. ‘Number 82 and straight out again!’ roars Lemmy. ‘It’s OK. It’s a start.’
The success of the new album caps a rewarding decade for the band, whose profile had dipped somewhat in the 1990s. In 2004, Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters recruited Lemmy to sing and play bass on his Probot album – a project celebrating the former Nirvana drummer’s teenage passion for heavy metal. 2005, meanwhile, saw Motörhead win their first Grammy Award, for a blistering cover version of ‘Whiplash’ by Metallica, ironically another act they had originally inspired.
Motörhead have toured solidly since their inception, these days averaging around 150 performances per year. Lemmy, who in 1990 relocated to west Hollywood’s Sunset Strip – where he presides over the world’s second-largest collection of Nazi artefacts – explains that Motörhead were absent from Northern Ireland for much of the 80s and 90s because former guitarist Würzel had been posted to Belfast during his army career. ‘We just didn’t want to put him at risk,’ he says. ‘There are some nutters out there…’
Würzel quit in 1995, and the now three-piece group returned to Ulster in 2001 and in 2004, more than 20 years after their inaugural visit, in 1980. Lemmy says: ‘The first place we played in Belfast was at the university [Queen’s]. That was on the Overkill tour, I think. We played the leisure centre [Maysfield] on the Bomber tour, I know that. I remember someone climbed up and was hanging off the lighting rig.’
The current line-up of Lemmy, Campbell and Dee is Motörhead’s longest lasting configuration, with seven studio and three double live albums under its collective bullet belt. For a string of recent US dates, however, Dee bailed to appear on the Swedish version of I’m a Celebrity… Get Me out of Here. Motörhead did what Motörhead do – they hit the road, with Velvet Revolver sticksman Matt Sorum in tow. Lemmy growls: ‘Yeah, we had Matt in for a couple of weeks while Mikkey was doing that stupid fucking TV show. I know it’s a bit slow for entertainment these days, but Jesus!’
With sales on the increase, a new generation of artists citing Motörhead as an influence and 2010 marking 35 years of the band’s maximum-volume metal, it’s starting to look as if Lemmy and co might actually make it to a half-century of active duty. ‘I don’t think so,’ chuckles the vocalist. ‘I’ll be too decrepit by then. Bits’ll be falling off!’
Signing off, Motörhead’s gregarious leader invites CultureNorthernIreland backstage after the Ulster Hall show. ‘Come and say hello,’ Lemmy says. ‘I’ll buy you a beer.’
We are not worthy.
Motörhead perform at the Ulster Hall, Belfast, on November 9, with support from Sweet Savage. Tickets, priced £38.00, are available from all Ticketmaster outlets.