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Tommy Lee: Double Bass Old Schooler

By Jared Cobb • Photos By Neil Zlozower Originally published in DRUM! Magazine’s February 2007 Issue

Spend your hard-earned money on tickets to a Tommy Lee show – whether with the newborn Supernova, the experimental Methods Of Mayhem or the foolproof freak show of Mötley Crüe – and you’ll get what you paid for: A killer show. Supporting musicians simply disappear when they step on stage with Tommy Lee’s bombastic bravado. He’s a magnet for the limelight. A rock and roll death ray. Say what you will about his multitude of questionable career moves (how much reality TV is too much reality TV?) but when it comes time to sit and hit behind the kit, no one beats it like the T-Lee beats it. There’s just no escaping it, and there’s certainly no denying it.

Tommy Lee is the most entertaining rock drummer in the world.

And to call the world’s most entertaining rock drummer the world’s busiest musician certainly wouldn’t be much of a stretch. His life seems like one swirling champagne-soaked thirty-second-note roll. When he’s not anchoring his new supergroup’s debut album and worldwide tour, he’s spearheading the Mayhem project or spinning tables at the club or running his clothing line or hitting his television spots or battling paparazzi or grinding out the press junket or plotting the next reality rock revolution or …

“Dude, am I ever going to sleep?” Tommy Lee knows the answer – Sleep When You’re Dead – to his own question. And he knows he wouldn’t have it any other way. “It is non-stop, bro. I’m not complaining but it is completely bananas.”

Talk to Tommy Lee on the phone and you start getting antsy. The guy is a mile-a-minute and his quick, jumpy words constantly battle with his laidback California dialect. Add persistent drags on the perpetual cigarette and one can almost feel him pacing, cell phone pressed to jeweled ear, grinding impatient paths into the burdened hotel suite carpet.

Theater Of Gain. We caught up to Lee as he prepares to head back out on the road with the legendary Mötley Crüe, continuing their international sold-out arena tour. Times haven’t always been platinum-dipped rose pedals between the drummer and his band, but things seem different this time around.

“It’s been fun. Much to my surprise, we’ve had a blast,” Lee’s deep, nicotine laugh. “Sometimes I’m not sure why I’m surprised by that but I took almost a six-year break and did some solo stuff and kind of my own thing fo r a while because I was getting totally tired of it. But coming back to it and playing every show in a sold-out arena wherever we go – it kind of blew my mind. It made me realize that there’s something really special the four of us do together that people really like to see and hear. So it was a pleasure and an honor to go around and play all those sold-out shows again with the boys.

Fill the arena and the boys will rock it. The Crüe can still deliver that pyro-fueled decadence its screaming fans demand. Vince Neil’s lick-me vocals and those raunchy, dry-humping guitar riffs – as classic as they may be – still take second stage to Tommy Lee’s pimped out performance on the kit.

Especially come drum solo time. The man who made himself famous by turning the drum solo literally on its heels (more on that later) prides himself on taking things to new soaring heights with each night’s thunderous show.

“I have three drum kits for this tour,” he laughs. “My main kit on stage consists of acoustic and electronic drums. Then at one point I run out into the middle of the arena with this vest on and get clipped to this wire. Then there are two other drum sets out in the house. One is comprised of anything metal: beer kegs, trashcans, fire extinguishers. It is very Stomp-oriented. Then there’s a third kit that is all electronic keyboards and pads and samplers. So I clip into this wire and fly all over the arena from kit to kit.

“I try to mix it up where you get the best of each world: acoustic, electronic, and metallic. Toward the end I’m flying back and forth between these kits and then at the very last kit it’s made to look like I get blown off the thing. There’s this huge explosion – a big blast of pyro – and the lights go out, and then I appear back on the floor in a spotlight.

“I love that stuff. If you’re going to do a drum solo, make it an event. Otherwise people are going to go buy a beer or t-shirts or go take a piss or whatever. So go crazy or stay home. I’ve always prided myself on that. And who knows, hopefully one of these days, when it’s all said and done, somebody will put together a reel of all the crazy stuff I’ve done.”

It’s all part of the incredible Tommy Show. The Crüe has held the primetime slot on his maniacal network since 1981 – yes, that’s 25 years – launching his platinum career and leading to several spin-off programs of varying success. And while the band isn’t above giving their fans the hits they want to hear, don’t expect to air drum along to those classic Lee fills you long ago memorized through your cassette deck.

“My drum parts to those old Crüe songs have totally changed. Stuff that I played on the first record – what was that, early ’80s? – I would never play like that now. I have a different sensibility now of what I like and what I think other people like.

“I’m always trying to update stuff and keep current – adding electronic sounds or loops or whatever. I try to keep modern because I love that stuff and music is constantly moving in a forward direction. Yeah, it’s cool to hear some of the older retro stuff, but mixing it up with new stuff keeps it fresh. I’m always trying to pay tribute to the old and keep it real with some new. Because all these kids, they’re hearing hip-hop stuff with amazing sounds and big, giant bass, and super-flavored beats. So I’m just trying to keep it fresh for everybody.

“There’s nothing better than looking out in the crowd and seeing a nine-year-old pumping his fist in the air and screaming at the top of his lungs. Hell yeah!”

Don’t Hang The Deejay. Contributing to Lee’s evolving sensibilities is his frequent work as a club deejay with co-collaborator DJ Aero. Sex-soaked club raves become absolute seas of mayhem when Tommy Lee steps behind the boards and works the masses into a dance frenzy. The deejay gigs are a huge release for the drummer’s hectic life and they’ve played a big part in changing his drumming style.

“The simplicity of dance music should be a big wakeup call to all drummers. Yeah, it’s cool to jam and be all crazy and overplay stuff – whatever with that – but what I’ve learned to appreciate from dance music is its simplicity and the constant beat that never changes. You know what? That’s what moves people, dude. I learned some of that before I was deejaying but now that I’m deejaying so much I definitely really get it.

“At the end of the day people like to dance – or bang their head or whatever they like to do – and it’s all about the rhythm. When you look out into the crowd and people have their fists pumping in the air – or they’re dancing on their chair or whatever – they’re doing it to the beat. And that’s so important. Deejaying has really cemented that into my head. People like to dance and they like that repetition.

“So it’s made my drumming stay really simple. Not everyone in the crowd is a drummer and not everyone is a musician. For the most part, the people listening to your stuff are just fans of music and if you confuse them and get all progressive and crazy on their ass, they don’t get it. Most people don’t know what the hell 6/8 is. They’re like, What?! You’re just confusing them. They just don’t get that.”

What they do get is the beat. Lee and Aero split the booth duties to send listeners far over the audio edge. And lucky onlookers sometimes even get a chance to see Lee incorporate the skins into the show.

“Sometimes we’ll set up drums for the deejay gigs, other times we don’t. DJ Aero does all the beat mapping with the turntables, and I do all the effects – the stutter edits, flanging, phasing, filtering, delays, and all that. I’m kind of like the vibe guy. Basically, I do all the fun stuff. I freaking love that.

“There’s nothing better than watching people have a good time out there dancing and just sending them through an audio journey. I love tweaking the music to where they’re like, ‘Whoa! Listen to that!” We have an amazing time doing it. Here’s the deal: For me, deejaying is something that the critics don’t come to judge. There’s no record out to be reviewed. It’s just fun.”

Thank You Pat Travers? “One of the first concerts I ever went to was Pat Travers, if you can believe that, and Tommy Aldridge was playing. I was like, whoa. It was unbelievable. And I think from that day on I added another bass drum and another pedal. I think I was 16 years old.”

From then on, through all his various bands and ensembles, Lee has incorporated the double bass into his play. It’s taken many forms – from the running metal tempos to the tricky funk fills – but it’s always been there, and held its ground, thanks to some of his favorite players.

“We all have our influences. Soon after seeing Aldridge play at that concert I was at a Van Halen show watching Alex. So I kind of got bombarded by double bass in those first couple concerts and I was all about the double bass after that. When I was growing up it was Aldridge, Van Halen, and Bozzio. When you see Terry Bozzio play your jaw hits the floor. How the hell does he do all that? The guy is just a monster.

“But my favorite drummer of all time is John Bonham. So, yeah, I’m a fan of double bass but at the end of the day it’s that big-ass big beat groove simplicity that he did that I love. I prefer that over the metal double bass thing going on. I prefer the groove over just running on the pedals. There’s nothing better than a big ol’ fat groove.”

And the groove evolves. Listen to any recent T-Lee recordings and you’ll usually find the double bass licks hiding behind chunky funky fills rather than thumping in the spotlight, leading an intricate beat.

“That’s exactly it,” he explains. “I definitely use the double bass more in the fills and not too much in the beats. I don’t really play that much double bass these days. It’s mostly used in fills or maybe occasionally I’ll use double bass in a funky beat.” The change in style has led to a change in setup as well. His kit nowadays seems a bit disproportionate, like it has a swollen black eye. But that’s no street fight tattoo, it’s Lee’s way of configuring his drums to suit his style.

“I usually play a double pedal on one bass drum. In my setup right now my second bass drum is that enormous 32" kick drum on the left side. I use that for very open, flowing stuff. The drum is just gigantic so it’s like boooooom! And if you were to rock that on a fast song it would sound like ass. So I put the double pedal on the 26" bass. And it’s always heel up for me. You don’t get much power with your heels down and I need to freaking jump on them.”

The result of the change in philosophy combined with the creative setup is a very diverse drum sound that can move from big, expansive beats to quick-tempo trickery literally with a flick of the foot. Lee figured out this setup pretty much on his own, just as he’s learned much of his technique: by trial and error.

“When I was learning to play I never really took any lessons. I was one of those guys where if I heard it once I could eventually figure it out and play it. So to me my favorite thing to do was to put some headphones on and crank it and play along with my favorite bands and my favorite drummers. That was the quickest way of learning for me.

“Drums are one of those things where the more you play the better you get. Even now, if I haven’t played in a while it takes me a minute to get everything back together. You go through that phase where you have chick’s hands and you have to play through that until they’re more like the bottom of someone’s feet. Then all of the sudden, like a week into the tour, all my stuff is back and I’m hitting hard and slamming again.” Learning technique by listening and repetitive playing is nothing new. Learning all this and then turning it upside down, however, was completely new for Lee and his drum technicians. When it came time to flip the kit on that legendary Crüe tour, they all had their work cut out for them.

“That was freaking crazy dude. As you’re going upside down, and as gravity takes over, everything goes wrong. If you take a bass drum pedal and turn it upside down the pedal falls down, right? Of course. I use the chain-driven DW pedals and that’s what happens. So we had to take springs and put the springs on the footboard to keep the pedal up, just to keep it in the neutral position when I was upside down.

“Yeah, as soon as you take a drum set and turn that thing upside down, all kinds of things go wrong. We had to make cymbal adjustments, pedal adjustments, drum throne adjustments with seat belts. It was bananas dude. But we sorted it out and made it so when you turn it all upside down everything stays neutral.”

The Power Of Nothing. The tumultuous times of Tommy Lee have been well documented. While the 44-year-old high school dropout has made incredible achievements in the music and entertainment world, those soaring high points didn’t come without the occasional – and sometimes even frequent – dark hour. Undoubtedly the lowest point of his life came in 1998 when he served four months in jail for a spousal abuse charge on then wife Pamela Anderson.

“It was a terrible point in my life,” a long, introspective exhale. “But also one of the best points in my life. It sounds messed up, but I actually enjoyed it. I enjoyed it because I actually got to sit still for a moment and ask myself some questions. Questions like: Tommy, who are you? What do you want to do? Where are we going? What’s next?” The breakneck pace of superstardom can cripple the senses of even the strongest rocker. As his life spun faster and faster, further and further out of control, the Lee machine finally broke down. It was time to head to the repair shop, even if that meant serving dreaded and humiliating jail time.

“Sometimes in life when you get wrapped up with so much stuff going on you find yourself on this conveyor belt that just doesn’t stop. And at that point, for once in my life, everything stopped. Everything. Everything. I spent four months in jail doing absolutely nothing. Nothing but introspective work on myself.

“I would have conversations with myself like, What do you want to do? Well, I’m tired of playing with Mötley Crüe right now. I love those guys but I want to do something different. Then, boom: Methods Of Mayhem is born. How are you going to be a better father? A better person? All this stuff was happening with me. Then I got a life coach, this wonderful man who helped me discover a bunch of other things in life that I didn’t even know about. He opened doors in my life with things that I needed to do and that I hadn’t had time for.

“I was going like a maniac all the time and life was passing me by. There were all these doors that needed to be explored and he helped me see that. Everything got really good after that. I would’ve definitely preferred a cabin in Montana over a freaking jail cell, but it’s the same thing. Just shut it down: no TV, no phone, no pool man or gardeners coming by, no rehearsals … just nothing. Every day was just nothing. Which, for me in that point in my life, was a big turning point. It sounds messed up but I enjoyed it.”

Tommy Lee would leave that dark jail cell a new man. He would reinvent himself from brash, swaggering smart-ass to thoughtful, compassionate superstar entertainer with eyes all the time fixed on the very top of rocker mountain. And meanwhile The Tommy Show continues, now broadcast into more unsuspecting homes than ever. Viewer discretion advised.

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