Mikkey Dee: Shock The System

mikkey dee

It’s 10:00 pm in Gothenburg, Sweden, and Motörhead drummer Mikkey Dee’s dragged himself into the house and onto the couch after a day of wrapping up band business. At this point, the only thing Dee wants to do is eat his take-out and watch cable.

The occasion of our conversation is the band’s 21st album Aftershock, the latest installment in Motörhead’s NWOBHM-igniting biker metal. Whether it’s the best or heaviest is debatable, but try telling that to Dee’s face after several missed connections and dropped calls. “It’s not just certain type of songs, it’s all of it,” Dee says. “My goal is to be a wide drummer.”

You should never trust a musician’s opinion of his own album. But as far as diversity goes, the drummer doesn’t exaggerate. There’s a full spectrum of feels and styles represented, from the d-beat of “Going To Mexico” to the double-bass stomp of “Death Machine” and “To The End” to the loping “Lost Women Blues” and laid-back groove of “Dust And Glass.”

While the cowboy hat wearing, handle bar—mustached Lemmy Kilmister has always been the face of the band, its engine is Dee and guitarist Phil Campbell, who have written all the band’s music as a team since 1992 when the drummer came aboard. “Sometimes me and Phil obviously can go a little overboard, stretching it, which is natural I suppose, but then it wouldn’t be Motörhead,” Dee says. “We correct ourselves quick.”

If that sounds like a constraint on creativity, think of it more as safeguarding an institution. When Dee replaced original drummer Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor, some longtime fans were downright hostile. Dee kept his perspective. “[Taylor] was such an icon and great drummer and cool guy. They wanted to see him behind the drums – end of story,” Dee recalls. “I remember the first show when I came out and did the first European tour. The backstage area was very tight. The corridors and little rooms here and there were packed with all these Motörhead fans. They stood in Lemmy’s dressing room and said, ’How can you play with this imposter?’ And they thought I was American. [laughs] Lemmy stood up for me though. He said, ’Come back after the show.’ We did the show and it was great. The same bunch of people stood in the same corridor and every single one wanted to shake my hand.”

mikkey dee

The Dee Spot

For a drummer who gained international recognition with the technically demanding King Diamond, the Danish theatrical metal band he played in from the early to mid ’80s, you would think Motörhead’s (relatively) clear-cut beats would be a walk in the park. “In King Diamond the guitarist might play a really twisted part, a little offbeat, and I would think, ’Now it’s time to do some real tricky stuff,’ and then we came to another part where he was doing a very straightforward riff, and I played very straightforward over that. I was kind of guided [by the other musicians] how to arrange my drumming, and with Motörhead, I don’t have that guide.

“It’s a very fine line to what I can do and what I shouldn’t do,” he continues. “No one in the band has ever told me what to play or how to do anything – that’s all on my shoulders. I’ve got to make it sound Motörhead, but I’ve got to make it great for me as well and for the band and the listeners.” Combining precision, speed, and strength with less quantifiable traits such as taste, feel, and groove, Dee is the perfect drum storm. Noted extreme-metal players such as Flo Mounier cite him as a major influence. None of this is meant as any disrespect to Phil Taylor, who was no slouch in the speed department. The double-bass parts on 1979 classic “Overkill” is a live staple and one that drummers ask Dee about to this day.

“But that’s an easy song to play,” says Dee. “The hardest song is usually a mid-tempo song that is very long. When it comes to the third verse and maybe six-and-a-half minutes into it, you don’t have a reference point. When you do really fast songs and songs that have different tempos, you’re moving back and forth, and don’t play the different parts long enough to get lost.”

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Quick And Dirty

Dee made his Motörhead recording debut on 1992’s March Ör Die, although it wound up being more of a cameo appearance. The band had already tracked most of the drum parts with metal mainstay Tommy Aldridge. As much as the band wanted their “new guy” to re-cut the tracks, the label’s budget wouldn’t cover it, so Dee played on a few of the songs, sharing drumming credits with Aldridge.

Dee had a reputation for tracking drums with King Diamond without any musical accompaniment – not even a click track. He continued to track in this way with Motörhead until 2003, when the three members began recording basics as a band. But, for some reason, Dee decided to dust off his old technique for about half the tracks on Aftershock.

“If I have Phil play along, [I’ll keep his guitar] very low in the background.” This works because of the spontaneity and speed with which the Campbell-Dee team works together. “Sometimes it’s almost ridiculous,” Dee says. “Me and Phil will be at SIR [Studio Instrument Rentals, in Los Angeles] and we just can’t believe how quickly we come up with these pretty cool songs.”

That no-frills M.O. is quintessential Motörhead. “We tried to do it a more conventional way and it just doesn’t seem to work for us.” Dee is referring to 2000 release Hammered, which the band wrote songs for and then demoed – and then rewrote and demoed again. Perhaps it was an interesting exercise, but Dee ultimately found it to be pointless. “It doesn’t matter how many times you demo a song,” he explains. “Six months later, when you think you finished, you are going to think, ’Why didn’t I do that?’ So we just save our time and energy. ’This is great!’ Put it on tape, and that’s it.”

As far as miking and tones, it’s a pretty standard stuff during the drum tracking. “I don’t have too many tricks up my sleeve,” he says. “It comes more to the tuning of the drums. I really tune them down.”

Even though Sonor’s lug locks enable super-low tunings, Dee is ever vigilant during performances. “I take my kit apart quite a lot,” he adds. “I tune it back up so that I get the wood to sound in the drum more than the drumhead itself. I get them to sound like cannons.”

Diamonds Aren’t Forever

Dee’s drumming pedigree is deep. In the early 1960s, his uncle played in The Drifters, a famous Swedish pop band that Dee describes as “the Beatles of Sweden.” However, it was an older cousin, Gunnar, who played in a rock band in the late ’60s, doing covers of Johnny Winter and Cream, who inspired him to be a drummer. His first major influence was Ian Paice of Deep Purple, and later, Brian Downey of Thin Lizzy. “Everything Paice put his sticks to sounded amazing, because it was real musicianship – just microphones on the drums,” Dee says. “It’s because of his roundedness, and that’s what I have been trying to get to as a drummer.” (Dee also refers to Neil Peart and Steve Smith as “heroes.”)

Soon enough, Dee earned a reputation as a go-to drummer for local bands in Gothenburg. It was flattering at first, but then he realized that he was merely a clone of his heroes, Paice and Downey. “And that’s when I started to rehearse like a maniac, trying to find my own style.” It amazed other drummers that he was self-taught. “I was more going on what I heard,” Dee says. “I kind of got interested in [musical notation] for a while. I know how to read notes and stuff, but I haven’t really used it and played to it in so many years that I probably suck at it, but that did interest me for a while.”

Dee began to show real promise in Nadir – a local band that allowed him to cut his teeth – booking three to four shows a week while his mother took care of the accounting. But the music scene on the West Coast of Sweden was way too pop for him, so after moving to Copenhagen, Denmark, he joined glam-metal outfit Geisha.

One night in 1985, while hanging in the bars after a show, he met a few guys that complimented him on his playing. They had just left the influential proto—black metal band Mercyful Fate and wanted to start a new band. After Dee introduced them to guitar player Andy LaRocque, King Diamond was born.

The new prog-oriented band quickly created a buzz in Denmark, but their sales tripled when they started touring the States. And yet just as their momentum seemed to be accelerating, the band’s internal rapport began to decline. Diamond was suddenly less willing to co-write with other bandmembers and made it clear that only he would conduct interviews with the press.

“I got very disappointed in that,” recalls Dee. “I said, ’Look, if you just want a background drummer, it ain’t gonna be me.’ I thought we were a band and that we all did this together and we were fighting forwards. We were very happy that our music was taking off in the way that it did. But that didn’t seem to be King’s idea, so that was one of the reasons I left.”

The other reason was that Dee had settled in L.A. and started jamming with other musicians. His name got around quick, not only on the hair-metal Mecca of the Sunset Strip but also as a session player, even contributing to the soundtrack to the cult horror film Hellraiser.

It was a busy and productive time, but Dee was bored. “I had so much stress in my body by sitting playing simple straight-ahead beats,” he says of that time. “I couldn’t rock out. I felt very incompetent as a drummer. I panicked and I said, ’I don’t want to play this any more. I need to just rock out on something.’”

Don Dokken to the rescue. The singer recruited Dee to play on his 1990 solo album Up From The Ashes. It was an awesome lineup with John Norum (Europe) on guitar and Peter Baltes (Accept) on bass, but it fell apart quickly. “Don said, ’I don’t think the second album is going to happen. If you need to move on Mikkey, you do that.’ I said, ’I ain’t gonna leave a sinking ship here. I think we can still do it.’ I felt that I belonged in the heavier division of bands. I was really missing that.”

During his L.A. period, Dee got offered the Motörhead gig twice – once in 1986 and once in 1990 – but the drummer had to decline both times. “It sounds really bad, but when they asked me I was very happy with King Diamond. We were just coming alive, big time, so I didn’t leave them, because I enjoyed what I was doing. The second time I was doing an 11-month tour with Dokken and I wasn’t just going to leave that. So the third time Lem asked me, I said, ’Let’s give it a shot.’”

Motörhead was getting a second wind in the U.S. at this point, heading out with Ozzy Osborne on the 1991 No More Tears Tour, then later with Metallica and Guns N’ Roses. “I called [Motörhead’s] manager and asked for a week or so to practice,” Dee says. “Lemmy called me back 20 minutes later going, ’How about two days?’ I go, ’Two days?! Look, man, we need to rehearse.’ He was like, ’If you play half as good as you did in ’86 you’ll be fine.’”

Dee learned 20 songs in two days. All agreed Motörhead hadn’t sounded this good in 15 years. If Dee was busy before, now he was swamped. Motörhead is notoriously prolific, putting out an album every two years on average. It also meant turning down other lucrative offers for session work or sub gigs. Even when there was time, Dee still turned offers down. “My head wasn’t in it,” he explains. “I’m not going to do a record just to get paid for it.” The only exception was German thrash legends Helloween who invited him to subon 2003’s Rabbit Don’t Come Easy.

“That turned out to be a great record,” he adds. “I love to do awesome music, but I need to be in it a 150 percent or I just won’t do it.”

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The Drum-I-Nator

Solos are a love/hate affair with Dee. He did them regularly in the earliest days with Motörhead, but after awhile the feedback from the crowd grew tepid. He also started to read negative comments about them in the music press – not about his chops, but the whole idea of solos, which in the grunge era had completely fallen out of fashion. Dee was cool with that because he was sick of doing them anyway. “Then it’s, ’Oh, the show was great, but there was no drum solo, blah blah blah.’ No matter what you do, you’re never going to please everyone out there.”

Now that he has brought them back regularly since the mid 2000s, Dee enjoys them more than ever, and while they might sound the same to a casual audience member, each time it’s an adventure for the drummer. “It’s the transition [within] them that could vary from night to night,” he explains. “Sometimes I feel very stiff and square when I do the solo, like I’m just skipping between techniques, and other nights I flow in between them. Or I can stay on the snare drum quite a long time and just dig into that snare. So depending on how I feel I’d say 90 percent of the time it is the same every night.”

Sound checks are vital windows of time for Dee to experiment with different licks or fine-tune a groove. “I’m usually on stage a good hour ahead of all the other guys working on stuff. That’s where I practice,” he says. “I get great inspiration that way.” He definitely doesn’t waste these precious moments on stretching. “I don’t have a routine for that – usually just power-nap for like 20 minutes before.” [laughs]

It may be a bad example to set for younger drummers, but when you release albums as often as Motörhead, shedding by your lonesome while off the road is unthinkable. “Bodies take a lot of damage when you tour as much as Motörhead has over the past 20 years. And as a drummer, mentally, I really just don’t have it [in me to practice]. I come back from a tour and I hate my drums. I don’t even want to see them. I can’t dream of rehearsing here at home. I’d rather do it at sound check.”

While recording the first ten albums of his Motörhead career, Dee used no metronome at all. Around 2003, though, he started to use a click since it was part of the ProTools package that the band’s various producers began to use. “In the studio, it’s okay. It’s just a matter of learning how to play around them.”

On stage it’s another story. “Live, I hate them,” he says. “I understand the ones who need to play them because they have so much recorded stuff on their albums, but we don’t – so thank god for that. They do trust me back there to set the time. They can play around me a little bit, and it sounds just great when they do it.”

It goes without saying that Dee’s only experience with triggers was solely for audio consistency in the venue, not because of strength issues in his feet. “We knew we had no sound check,” he says. “It was easier to plug in and have the same sound basically every night.”

Dee is an unlikely figure in the evolution of triggering technology. Back before the company started building acoustic kits, Ddrum was the e-kit subsidiary of Sweden-based keyboard maker Nord. The company had devel- oped some trigger prototypes and thought Dee would be a good guinea pig. “It was Swedish-owned then,” he says. “A very nice couple owned the company and they wanted me to check them out. I said, ’Yeah sure,’ got endorsed by them, the whole bit. But it wasn’t really for me.”

He remembers his anti-triggering epiphany at a concert hall in Munich when the sound guy gave him a demo of how his drums sounded naturally. “After I found out how the kit sounded without them I said, ’No way.’ I guess I am a little old fashioned that way.”

As much as he is a product of metal, Dee, at 50, is just old enough to appreciate its roots in other genres. “Besides maybe some punk rock and heavy metal and some hard rock, I love to play fusion, jazz, and a bit of big band jazz. I’d rather be a decent drummer in a wider range than the best in only one type of music.” What might sound like mere dabbling, though, is ultimately in service of his stylistic foundation. “That’s what I try to bring into Motörhead, [something] you hear that’s kind of twisted, but you can still stomp your feet to it. As a general listener that is always the most important thing; they hear something going on, they just don’t know what it is.”

Lemmy and Campbell didn’t either, not at first anyway. The drummer thinks back to the title track he wrote on 1995’s Sacrifice, probably the drummiest Motörhead track – not just of the Dee era, but in the band’s entire catalog. “The guys just stood there and said, ’We can’t follow this, Mikkey.’ I come in with the backbeat and I turn it around twice. I used more of a Latin thing with a single kick and I put a double kick to it and simplified it, but it has a very strange time figure.

“I’ve had guys stand beside me onstage and see all the little ting-a- ling and little inflections I put in,” he adds. “They say, ’I had no idea you were doing all that other stuff because you don’t hear it out there.’ But it still gives me enjoyment to know I’m playing it that way.”

mikkey dee

Mikkey Dee's Kit

DRUMS Sonor SQ2 Vintage Maple (Custom Finish)
1 22" x 18" Bass Drum
2 14" x 7.25" Mikkey Dee Signature Snare Drum
3 10" x 10" Tom
4 13" x 11" Tom
5 14" x 12" Tom
6 16" x 16" Floor Tom
7 18" x 16" Floor Tom

Cymbals Paiste Signature
A 20" Power Crash
B 19" Power Crash
C 18" Heavy China
D 14" Sound Edge Hi-Hat
E 18" Power Crash
F 10" Splash
G 22" Precision Heavy Ride
h 14" Thin China
I 20" Heavy China
J 20" Power Crash
K 16" Thin China
L 19" Power Crash

Mikkey Dee also uses sonor hardware, DW 5000 bass drum pedals, Remo heads (Ambassador Clear, toms; CS Reverse Dot Coated, snare; Power Stroke 3 Black, bass), and Wincent sticks.