In a spoken-word bit, Henry Rollins tells a story about being on a plane whose takeoff has been delayed owing to the last-minute arrival of some VIP passengers. The door opens, and in wafts the smell of whiskey and leather, followed by its source: Motörhead, led by inimitable frontman Ian "Lemmy" Kilmister, one of the most respected names in hard rock.
The legendary British band has been a model of consistency since 1975, playing grungy rawk at the speed of punk and always making good on the motto "Everything Louder Than Everyone Else." Lemmy — as in "Lend me a five till Friday," but delivered in his thick, borderline-impenetrable Bri'ish accent — has roots that go back even further. He broke into the music business as a roadie for Jimi Hendrix, then went on to psychedelic space-rock band Hawkwind, which famously kicked him out "for doing the wrong kind of drugs."
In 2001, VH1's 100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock countdown ranked Motörhead at No. 26. The group hit a commercial peak early, when 1981's live LP No Sleep 'til Hammersmith debuted at No. 1 on the UK album chart. Today, Motörhead is probably best known for the speed-fueled title track of 1980's gold Ace of Spades LP. Nearly three decades later, the 63-year-old singer-bassist still gets around like few others do.
Lemmy has collaborated with Dave Grohl, appeared on a SpongeBob SquarePants album, written a WWE theme song, recorded with Rollins, penned a song for Ozzy, opened last year's Judas Priest-Black Sabbath/Heaven and Hell tour, kept company with the Dropkick Murphys and Social Distortion, and covered Johnny Cash in the Head Cat (a return-to-his-roots rockabilly side project featuring a member of the Stray Cats).
Lemmy's main band is no nostalgia act, though. Motörhead has been a power trio since 1995, when popular guitarist Würzel left. The group won a "Best Metal Performance" Grammy in 2005. And it continues releasing improbably solid albums such as 2008's Motörizer LP (the band's 24th album, which was issued by collapsing international metal label Steamhammer/SPV). On the website for his Probot project, Grohl declared, "Fuck Elvis and Keith Richards, Lemmy's the king of rock 'n' roll — he told me he never considered Motörhead a metal band. He was quite adamant. Lemmy's a living, breathing, drinking and snorting fucking legend. No one else comes close."
By all accounts, Motörhead's penchant for booze and volume is real and relentless. When Lemmy took a call after a Milwaukee soundcheck, the band was running late because they'd blown out their amps. He delivered short, punchy answers in a voice with a texture like sandpaper.
D.X. Ferris: What was Hendrix like to work for?
Lemmy Kilmister: He was great. He was wrecked all the time, plastered. We all... you know? He just needed a pair of hands. There was two of us lookin' after all the stuff. You used the house PA for vocals. There was nothing mic'd up. Just two mics and a stack of drums.
How did the Motörhead sound develop? When the band began, there was nothing that sounded like it.
There was nothing that sounded like Hawkwind either.
Where did it come from, though?
MC5, I guess. The MC5, people like the Stooges.
How was Hawkestra, the Hawkwind reunion in 2000?
It was a mess. They couldn't organize a bow and arrow in the fucking dark. It was fucking hopeless.
Würzel rejoined you for a few shows in the last year.
When we play in England, he comes up and does a couple songs. It's awright. He's a good boy, you know?
Is Head Cat still together?
[It's] doin' alright. I haven't got a day off until December. We only can do it when [Motörhead] isn't working.
Will there be another album?
I've got to go into the studio in January with Motörhead. So maybe [if we find] some time off.
What does the new Motörhead stuff sound like?
I don't know. We always work in the studio.
Are you free to move to a new label? Or is Motörhead tied up in the SPV bankruptcy?
SPV's on its way to the doghouse, yeah. I dunno. Maybe we'll go on the Internet. I dunno. Stuff will be released, don't worry about that.
Is the SPV bankruptcy affecting band business?
[Laughs a gravelly laugh] No. We got paid first.
Rickenbacker only made, what, 60, of the Lemmy signature basses?
Rickenbacker — they ain't really good at that sort of thing. They sold them only on the Internet, right? They sold them all in a month. So their business acumen, they didn't make any more. It's fucking brilliant. I don't know who decides this shit up there. The last tour was in Las Vegas. Everyone went to the guitar store, and [there was one] with a price tag on it for eighteen grand. And he'd sold one the week before.
I read an article that said you live in a little apartment in LA.
Yeah, a two-room apartment.
Why such a small place? I'm guessing you could afford something bigger.
It's near [legendary Sunset Strip rock club] the Rainbow, and it's controlled rent. I've been there since 1990, so it's pretty cheap.... I'm looking for a slightly bigger place than I've got now, but not a freestanding chateau. I'm not looking for a big house — you can only be in one room at a time.
Do you plan to stay in the United States or retire to England eventually?
I'll stay in America. There's more scope.
Do you ever go back to England?
I only go when we tour there. I was there in the summer for a couple of weeks. The attitude's a lot more upbeat [in America], you know? In England, the main emotion is resentment. They're still trying to get over losing India.
What was the band's best payday? Does Ace of Spades still sell?
The best payday was when Metallica did some of our tracks on one of their albums.
Do you still follow British football, or do you follow American sports?
I don't. I don't like football either. I like rodeo and pool.
What do you consider the band's low point?
Probably the Brian Robertson era [1983, when the former Thin Lizzy guitarist joined the band]. Because the things he did — you alienate whole entire families — just about all by himself.
And your high point?
This is one of them, for sure. Obviously, Hammersmith going straight to No. 1 was the 'igh point of that band, for sure. This band's just done three of the best songs anybody's ever done, you know?
How long do you see yourself doing the band?
I dunno. How long do you see yourself talking on the phone and writing? You don't know, do you? You can't tell yet. I'm sure it'll all become terribly clear suddenly one day.