INTERVIEW – Mikkey Dee of Motörhead
On the eve of the release of posthumous covers album, Under Cöver, drummer Mikkey Dee chatted with Jeff Nolan about life after Lemmy.
When Lemmy Kilmister died on December 28, 2015, it was much more than the loss of a rock icon. In some ways, an entire species of human died as well. The days of the hedonistic, balls-to-the-wall rock ‘n’ roller who lives the lifestyle 24/7 and makes no apologies for doing so are essentially over. Product and celebrity rule the roost in 2017. Lemmy was neither. He was the last of a breed.
A great songwriter, lyricist, bassist and – yes – singer, Lemmy personified rock music completely. For Motörhead fans, his loss felt like a death in the family.
That loss is lessened a bit with the release of Under Cöver – Motörhead’s 23rd studio album. A collection of covers recorded between 1992 and 2015, Under Cöver is Motörhead at their most playful. Covering artists ranging from the Rolling Stones to the Ramones to Judas Priest, it’s clear that the band loved to simply rock out. It’s a really joyful album.
If you’ve followed Motörhead’s career over the years, you’ve probably heard most of these tracks, but it’s great to have them all collected in one release. The album’s tour de force is the unexpected version of David Bowie’s “Heroes”. When this track dropped a couple weeks ago, heads exploded worldwide. It’s absolutely amazing that Lemmy recorded a tribute to Bowie just a few weeks before they both died. In fact, “Heroes” was the very last song Motörhead ever recorded. It’s kickass and poignant simultaneously – just like Lemmy himself. Check it out:
Mikkey Dee was Motörhead’s drummer from 1992 until Lemmy’s death. A veteran of King Diamond and Dokken, he’s renowned as one of the most gifted and hard-hitting drummers in rock. Now a member of Scorpions, Mikkey is keeping the torch held high for those of us who love uncompromising music. I spoke to him about his career and the result was a freewheeling, entertaining and enlightening glimpse into the life of a working musician who learned the lessons of Lemmy well. Enjoy.
Under Cöver is just a great gift for the fans.
I think so too. Unfortunately, there aren’t really more songs that haven’t been released. All of them have been around, but it’s nice to have all of them gathered on one record with a really cool booklet. It looks good and it’s a good collector’s deal.
The fact that the last ever recording with Lem was “Heroes” is pure coincidence, to tell you the truth. We finished the album [[2015’s ‘Bad Magic’]] and we were supposed to do a few covers and that one was the last song we actually played together.
You couldn’t even script that. It’s just too perfect. You guys doing “Heroes” right before Lemmy passed and then Bowie going just three weeks later is mind blowing.
Yeah, I thought about that myself. Not too long ago, it occurred to me that it was the last song we ever did. It’s a trip.
Like a lot of fans, I’ve got to admit that it choked me up when I first heard it. It’s emotionally powerful.
I think so too. Lemmy was not very keen on doing that song, actually. We talked for years about making a cover record. We were gonna choose four songs each and then record a cover album.
We used to do a studio album every other year, so we said “let’s skip one year and just record a few songs that we like”. We were kind of tired of writing new songs at that point. We never got to do a proper covers album, but we did always record one or two covers anyway since we like playing other people’s music. It’s a bit of a treat.
Me and Phil got together and said, “let’s play a number on Lem” and came to Lem with a list of eight songs – and it was songs like “Run to the Hills” and “Livin’ on a Prayer” where the vocals are super high, ya know! (laughs)
Lem just looked at the list and goes, “what the fuck do you guys want me to do with this?”
Phil was actually rooting for “Heroes”, but Lemmy said “Nah… I don’t think I’ll be good at that”. He didn’t think his vocal would fit. But we recorded it, he sang it and it turned out to be his favorite track, actually.
Why did you choose to leave it off Bad Magic then?
He wanted both “Heroes” and “Sympathy for the Devil”, but when you print vinyl you’ve got to be careful with the time or the (audio) quality goes down; so they just skipped “Heroes” and put the Stones track on. Lem was pretty upset about it. He was actually pissed off.
Now I’m glad we didn’t include it. It’s a good little treat after his passing.
I find it kind of ironic that he was worried about how his vocal would fit because it really underlines what a great singer he was.
Yeah. He never really exposed his true vocal ability with the way that he sang, you know? A lot of people thought it was just a growl or something. But he was great. He was excellent. We knew that and I’m sure true fans knew that.
For an album that was recorded over a 23-year time frame, Under Cover sounds surprisingly cohesive. Was there a lot of backend production to achieve that consistency, or was it sort of a happy accident?
Well… if you listen to our records, they all pretty much have a thread running through them. There’s a little bit of production back-and-forth over the years, but Lemmy kept his sound, I’ve had the same basic drum sound since the old King Diamond days and Phil Campbell also didn’t experiment too much with his sound, so it’s pretty natural that most of the songs sound kind of from the same time.
It’s great songs, great performances. I think it’s gonna be a fun record.
You’ve got the two Stones covers – “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” – back-to-back on the album
Lemmy loved the Stones and both these tracks are very good, so it’s a little “Stones moment” in the middle of the record!
Was Charlie Watts an early influence on your playing?
No, but I’d never want to hear any other drummer in the Rolling Stones. The Stones impressed in so many ways that it’s impossible to take it apart. Everything they’ve done and still do is just so right.
You don’t need to be a Neil Peart to be a good musician. Charlie Watts is a great drummer.
When you’re young, you listen more to fast drumming and technique. That was more important than groove or maturity back then. But as you go on, you realize that’s actually the hardest part – to play music on your drums, not to play a fucking drum solo all the time.
In your playing – especially in a heavy rock context – there’s a swing to your feel even when you’re playing Motörhead songs. I find that most heavy drummers don’t have that kind of feel.
Thank you for noticing that. It’s the most important thing.
I was very, very into Ian Paice of Deep Purple when I was young – I still am – but when I was little, I couldn’t understand how drummers like Ian Paice or Brian Downey could play hard rock and be so dynamic and so swinging. That impressed me the most.
Take a guy like Neil Peart – you look at him and he doesn’t even look like he’d be a good drummer, but he’s so good and so tasteful and so dynamic.
I was trying to build my own backbone out of that.
With King Diamond, we did some fairly technical songs. I had to play dynamic and hard and fast and slow, and then joining Motörhead I knew they were lacking that kind of dynamic. You don’t have to play brutal to sound brutal. You can be brutal and still put some tasty stuff in there, you know?
I want music to taste good, not just sound good.
After all these years of tours and albums, I feel I have a pretty good view on how to sound like myself.
You’ve been with Scorpions for a little while now. How long have you known those guys?
We’ve known each other for a very long time. We’ve done shows off and on ever since I joined Motörhead. Lemmy had great respect for Scorpions. He said, “Those fuckers have been around longer than we have”. He really liked those guys and so did I.
They’ve written so many great songs and are such a classic band. I was very, very happy when they actually called me and now I have a chance to make a difference in yet another solid, great band.
What kind of adjustment did you have to make after so many years of playing in a trio? Now you’re in a more orchestrated quintet situation. Was it an easy transition, or did you actually need to go through a thought process?
It was very, very hard to tell you the truth. For example: in Motörhead, when Phil Campbell did a solo I would have to get busier on my drums – maybe a busier kick drum pattern, a few more rolls, maybe a double bass drum deal – just to fill up some gaps in the sound of the trio.
With Scorpions, it’s the complete opposite. I have to really lock in with (Scorpions bassist) Pawel. So it’s a different kind of thinking playing a little bit more commercial, mainstream rock.
But it couldn’t have come at better point, you know? With Motörhead sometimes towards the end, all three of us felt like we were kind of going in a circle. Our framework was so narrow. That’s what I complained about a little bit. We had to sound like Motörhead 100% of the time and couldn’t experiment with too much stuff.
For our fans, we could have written the same song on a whole record and they’d love it. “Killed by Death” or “Ace of Spades” – they could listen to the same songs throughout the album almost, you know? That’s an honor. It’s very hard to get to that point as a band. But it can also be a little tough when you really want to create some new stuff.
Me joining Scorpions is great because I get to say something different after so many years.
Now every snare hit I do is a tribute to Lemmy – and it will be throughout my entire career – because I learned so much from the guy. I miss him and I miss Motörhead, but we have to move on and joining Scorpions is a great way of doing that.
Not for nothing, if I’m in the Scorpions, I’m pretty damn happy to have Mikkey Dee join. You bring a different sort of power that can ignite their enthusiasm.
That’s kind of what we’re hearing now from a lot of reviews and stuff. “Scorpions are back to the ‘70s, it’s so tight and so heavy…” It’s nice.
James (former Scorpions drummer James Kottak) did great all those years, but he kind of lost it in the end, I think. I saw a similarity to Wurzel in Motörhead. Wurzel just one day did not enjoy what he was doing. And to be on the road and touring like we do with these bands, you have to really love what you do. Wurzel didn’t and suddenly didn’t sound good and wasn’t interested. I see a bit of a comparison to James there. When that happens, it happens. It can sneak up on you.
What are you listening to these days? If someone gets in Mikkey Dee’s car, what’s bumping on the stereo?
I listen to everything to tell you the truth. All kinds of music. Soul, fusion, big band jazz, hard rock, heavy metal…
For me, music is like food. I like to enjoy everything.
Over my thirty-five year career, I’ve gone from King Diamond to Dokken to Motörhead and now to Scorpions, but I also do jams and sessions on everything from fusion to soul to pop. It’s great and it inspires me to put all these ingredients into one soup and try to create Mikkey Dee.
When touring with Motörhead, what were some of the more challenging songs to play live from a purely musical perspective?
Really nothing to tell you the truth. It would vary from tour to tour. For some songs, all three of us would think it wasn’t sounding that good. I remember one song called “Bad Woman” from the ‘Bastards’ album. We really wanted to play it. When you listen to the record, you thought that would be a live song for sure. I would have bet my life that would have been the first song we’d pick to play live from that record. But when we actually rehearsed it, we didn’t think it sounded good at all. It wasn’t groovy, it wasn’t swingin’, so we never got to play that song. Why didn’t it work? I have no idea. It just didn’t.
Lemmy hated to play the song “Motörhead”. He never wanted to play it. Me and Phil were on his ass pretty much every tour because I love that song, but he would say “Nah. It just doesn’t sound right”. And maybe he was right. He just had a different vision and didn’t like to play that song.
You’ve been drumming in heavy rock ‘n’ roll bands for thirty five years. That’s such an athletic, physical thing to do. How do you keep in playing condition?
When I’m on the road, I’m doing pretty much NOTHING. The few moments I have, I have to rest. I tried to work out and go for a jog, but it just takes energy away from the playing.
It’s when I’m off the road that I have to try to stay fit. I have a personal trainer, I play hockey, do sports in general… I’m so active at home all the time with my boys and running around like a fucking madman.
What were some of the earliest cover songs you did when you were first getting started on the drums?
I did a lot of Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy, Black Sabbath and Blue Öyster Cult. I was also really into Rush and a Canadian band called Saga was one of my favorites. I used to get a lot of gigs when I was young because people would say, “call Mikki – he sounds exactly like Ian Paice or Brian Downey”. After a while I realized I was just a bad copy of my idols and had to start working on my own identity as a drummer. That really started when I joined King Diamond in the early ‘80s.
And now you’ve got a whole generation of young drummers covering you.
Hopefully they do. I can probably teach them a thing or two. I’m really honored when they come up to me and say that I inspired them to start playing drums or I’m their favorite drummer. That’s really great.
One last question – For true Motörhead fans, it’s not a casual thing. The band became very much a part of their lives. You and Phil are the last real connection fans have to Lemmy. The fans lost an icon, but you lost a brother. Have you even really had a chance to mourn his passing? Is the weight of that legacy bearable?
Yeah… both me and Phil were with Lem 24/7 and we were with him when he started to get sick in 2012. It’s not a pretty sight when anyone gets sick, but especially a man like Lem. It was very hard to see him bitter and depressed and not being able to continue the life that he loved so much. Playing, hanging out, interacting with fans, having his whiskey, being Mr. rock ‘n’ roll; when all that stuff was taken away from him, it was hard to see. He suffered, to tell you the truth.
People come up to me and say “what a disaster when Lemmy died”, but I disagree. It wasn’t a disaster. It was very, very sad, but the man lived seventy years of a perfect life. He told me when he was fifty that if he died tomorrow, he was a happy camper.
Lemmy had a great fucking life. I’d rather celebrate his life than mourn his death. He was a happy dude. But he struggled the last couple years tremendously.
I told him many times, “Look – let’s cut this tour short, let’s go home and rest so you can come back strong” but he was a guy who was going to be on that fucking stage NO MATTER WHAT.
It was very hard for us to see him go downhill like that and almost disappear as a person. Toward the end, he was just skin and bone. Lem put 100% into every show of his life, but the last two years he put in 300% just to be able to perform and do what he loved.
It was harder for me to see that than to say, “Hey – let’s just wrap up Motörhead and call it a day”. We didn’t think he would die, but I thought we were done. The last tour, we slowed the songs down a little bit and really had to pick and choose what we played. He couldn’t do “Killed by Death” anymore. It was just too high and some songs were just too hard for him to sing.
He was so sad about doing that.
But to answer your question, he was a family member, a brother, a father, a son, a grandpa, a bandmate… all of the above.
He said to me, “I had a good fucking run, fuck this shit” – and he laid down and died. He was very, very satisfied with his life. That’s why I celebrate his life rather than mourn his death.
He’s still somewhere checking us out. I can feel him.