Tommy Lee on the Power of Self and Riding Life at 320 MPH
By Allison Kugel
Tommy Lee has something to say about a lot of things. Iconic drummer for the multi-platinum selling mythical rock band Mötley Crüe, solo artist, master of mayhem … philosopher? To have a conversation with Tommy Lee is to be regaled with tales of a life lived to the extreme, and to bear witness to a dynamically creative imagination. Yes, Tommy Lee has that whole Law of Attraction thing nailed down in spades. He dreams up larger than life adventures and makes them happen, not just for him, but for all of us. Anyone who has ever been to a Mötley Crüe concert and felt their breathe escape their body as they watched Lee drum his heart out, upside down and on a roller coaster, will back me up.
Tommy Lee might be more mellow these days, but his imagination is still operating on high octane. Now living his life sober, married to social media star Brittany Furlan and a father to two adult sons, Dylan Jagger Lee and Brandon Thomas Lee (MTV’s The Hills: New Beginnings), the 58 year old living legend might be more mellow in body, but his spirit remains a livewire, ready to jump at any adrenaline fueled pursuit that will scratch his insatiable itch for feeling alive.
Lee’s latest musical endeavor, his newly released album, ANDRO, boldly crosses musical genres. Fourteen tracks feature a roster of incredibly talented artists, punctuated by both male and female vocals, creating a medley of defiant metal, brazen alternative and progressive pop.
Tommy Lee is humble, shockingly down to earth and grounded in his love for the music. Our conversation travels through images of his childhood, religious upbringing, the power of hard lessons learned and the purity of rock ‘n roll debauchery sans social media.
Allison Kugel: What’s your earliest memory realizing music was going to be your path?
Tommy Lee: I remember, and my parents reinforced this, that it started around the age of two or three. You know when you’re in the terrible twos and you’re into the drawers and cabinets. I’m pulling out pots and pans and spoons, anything I can get your hands on, just playing drums like crazy. My poor parents, I drove them nuts. But that’s my earliest recollection. I can see myself on the kitchen floor just wailing on everything (laugh).
Allison Kugel: Wow! Do you believe in past lives?
Tommy Lee: I go back and forth with that one. Sometimes I think when you die, you’re done. But then there are other times where I have this weird attraction to trees and to birds. Every time I see a bird fly by I wonder if in my past life I was a bird, because I have this fascination with flying. That’s a wild question. Why?
Allison Kugel: I believe that it is not an accident when children come into this life with certain predilections towards something, whether they are just really interested in something or they have a God given talent, even if it hasn’t been developed yet. But I believe it comes from somewhere else and your soul carries these things with it, or you make a plan before you come here as to what your purpose is and what you came here to accomplish.
Tommy Lee: That’s wild. I think about that too. My dad tooled around with drums in the marching band when he was in school, but he wasn’t really musical. It’s not like I came from a generational music family or inherited a musical family trait, so I’ll go with that. I was definitely put here to do this, for sure. Nothing else brings me that much joy or makes me feel that amazing. Nothing.
Allison Kugel: Let’s talk about this new album, ANDRO. I really loved how you showcase all of these up and coming artists, and I love that you worked with so many women on this album, really talented women. Where did you find them?
Tommy Lee: So much of this record happened organically and authentically. I didn’t set out to make a record that was half male and half female energy. I love the female voice and that energy that it brings. It can make you cry, it can make you feel sexy, so many things. I keep a collaboration list of people that I love, where I think, “One day I have to do something with this person.” So, in writing for this album, there were moments when I was writing these tracks that needed that female energy on them. I love that kind of music. I mean, I love all kinds of music, but I would be working on a song and be like, Oh My God! I know that Push Push would just kill this song!” And I’ve been following her for years. She was on my list of people to work with. That is really in a nutshell how it happened. The voice would come to me once the music was starting to come together. I would say, “I know exactly who to do this with.” I ended up with just as many male tracks as female tracks, hence the album title, “ANDRO.”
Allison Kugel: Can you describe your creative process?
Tommy Lee: My process is never the same. I will hear a melody and I will sing a basic melody and put it down as a scratch, so I don’t forget it. Sometimes it will come as a drum beat that I’m hearing, and I’ll just put down the drum, or sometimes a keyboard or a guitar part. It’s never the same. I don’t have a method. It’s always random and I love it because it just comes in spurts from different places. A lot of times a melody will come into my brain and I’ll just grab my phone really quick, so I don’t forget it. There is nothing worse than having these incredible ideas and losing them. I’ve done it so many times where it’s 2 or 3 in the morning and I’m thinking, “Oh My God! This is so good, there is no way I’m going to forget it, and I just go back to bed. And then I forget it! It wasn’t meant to be, I guess.
Allison Kugel: (Laugh) I know exactly what you mean. I keep a notebook and pen next to my bed when I know I’m doing an interview. If I think of a really killer question at 3 in the morning, I have to write it down, because I’m going to forget.
Tommy Lee: Sometimes on the spot you’re probably thinking, “I can’t even believe it. I forgot to ask one of the most important questions. What the hell?” I get it.
Allison Kugel: Yes! Especially if you’re a perfectionist and hard on yourself, like me.
Tommy Lee: Yes! Finishing a record for me is like letting go or putting a baby up for adoption or something (laughs). It takes forever for me to finally say that it’s done. At the end of the day you can continue to keep making something better and better, but I’ve had to work on that and say, “No, this is super rad Tommy. Let it go.” If I had the chance I would still be down in my studio.
Allison Kugel: You appear to the outside world as an extrovert and the life of the party, but is there a part of you that is an introvert? Is being alone in your studio your happy place?
Tommy Lee: It’s totally my happy place. When I’m happy or sad I will immediately head to the piano. It’s one of the most beautiful instruments that gives you immediate gratification when you start playing chords that sound beautiful to you. It always makes me feel better. Yes, you would assume that I’m the crazy guy, and I can be, but I really am introverted in many ways.
Allison Kugel: I got that vibe from you! What is the best advice you’ve ever been given that’s directed your life?
Tommy Lee: I share this with my sons constantly because I see it in so many young people. I always tell them, “Be yourself, everybody else is already taken.” So many people, especially now with [social media], they watch other people’s lives and try to emulate this or that, and say, “That’s super rad. I need to have that because someone else has that.” This younger generation tries so hard to be somebody or something, and they’re going in the wrong direction. The correct direction is inward. I just always support them in being their authentic selves. That’s my best advice. Be yourself above anything else, because there is only one of you and that one is precious. Just rock what your mama gave you. My sons live in a very different world than when I was their age, and nobody really said those kinds of things to me, so I think that’s cool advice.
Allison Kugel: Speaking of social media, how do you think your entire music career and your life would have played out differently had there been social media back then?
Tommy Lee: (Laugh) Oh man! I tell people this all the time, and it is a fact and it is the truth, that we got away with… when I say murder, I mean everything but the act of physically killing somebody (laugh). We carried on and we did anything and everything you could possibly imagine, because there wasn’t social media. People were not carrying around a cell phone that had a camera on it all the time. If you were going to take a picture of something you needed to take a picture and get it developed at the one-hour photo place, and even that wasn’t always an hour. Sometimes it was a day. It was a free-for-all before social media. You didn’t have to worry about where you were and is this going to show up on Instagram in four minutes. A lot of fans that watched the Mötley Crüe movie The Dirt, will ask, “Is that really what it was like back then?” It was absolutely what it was like. And a lot of them feel like they missed out on that in their lifetime and they will never get to experience it. It was crazy back then. And when I say “back then” it wasn’t that long ago before cell phones, cameras, and social media.
Allison Kugel: As crazy as this is to say to you, it was a more innocent time… as weird as that sounds (laugh)!
Tommy Lee: (Laughs) Right. You had to do something really terrible to get into trouble.
Allison Kugel: How are people responding to your new album, ANDRO? Some of the music has a metal sound and some of it has a pop sound, which is a departure for you.
Tommy Lee: Everyone that I’ve talked to loves it, and of course you have your occasional haters who are like, “This is bullshit, man. It doesn’t sound like Mötley.” Well, it’s not Mötley. Of course it doesn’t sound like Mötley. And it’s not like this is some new thing. I’ve been doing this since 2000 with Methods of Mayhem which was my first solo venture. I’ve been cross-genre-pounding-hybrid making cool shit since 2000. I don’t think it’s a big surprise to many people. The majority of people are digging it, and in Australia the ANDRO album was number six on the Alternative Chart, which is super cool. Alternative and pop are kind of the same to me, and I love pop music. I love good music and I don’t care whether it’s pop or what genre it is. It’s called pop because it’s popular. At the end of the day I just dig good music.
Allison Kugel: Do you pray? And, if so, who or what do you pray to?
Tommy Lee: I’m not religious. Although, when I was young, I was Greek Orthodox. My mom was very religious, so I do have that experience from when I was younger going to a Greek church. Since then, I’ve moved on to practicing a little Buddhism, and I don’t really pray to anything in particular. I believe in something much bigger than any of us, which is the universe. So, although I am not religious, I am spiritual.
Allison Kugel: Knowing you’re an animal lover, is that what connects you to trees and animals, that holistic feeling of connectedness?
Tommy Lee: Yes. I love all that stuff and that is just another piece of evidence that there is so much beauty out in the world and in the universe that has been provided to all of this. We get to enjoy all of this, and I have nothing but love and respect for animals, plants, and our planet.
Allison Kugel: What is still on your bucket list? I can’t even imagine (laugh), but is there something?
Tommy Lee: Are you familiar with what they call “Squirrel Suits (bodysuits used for wingsuit flying that resembles a flying squirrel)?” You see those guys that fly in those suits. They’re like wings when they open up. People put on this suit with wings and a webbed fabric and they fly. I want to try that. I’m going to be a bird one day (laugh). That is on my list. I’m just kind of waiting for the right time to do that because it’s not like you just go up and jump off the Swiss Alps and go and do it. You have to go through the training, which is incredible. There’s a guy that flies for Red Bull and he offered to help me. I have to do it.
Allison Kugel: You are not a fearful guy. You’re pretty brave.
Tommy Lee: No, I’m all about it. I’m such a thrill seeker, I can’t stand it. I also want to go to this three-day school where you do two days in the classroom and the third day you’re strapped into an alcohol burning funny car, going 320 mph. What is that like, that three seconds of G-force? I’ve already been upside down in a plane. I’ve done a lot of crazy stuff already, but I’ve got some things on my list I still want to do.
Allison Kugel: What do you think you came into this life as Tommy Lee to learn, and what do you think you came here to teach?
Tommy Lee: Obviously, I came here to learn a lot because I have learned a lot and you can’t do that unless you have some years on this planet. It might fall under the musical category, because like I said, at a very early age, earlier than most, I was drumming and playing music. I think I’m here to teach and enforce the power of yourself and to be careful what you wish for. There have been many things that I’ve set out to do and people have told me “No.” No is not an option for me. I remember sitting on the corner of my bed thinking, “One day I’m going to play drums upside down, flying around in a rollercoaster.” And I’ve done it! When people told me it can’t be done, I said, “That’s bullshit. It can be done.” Anything can be done.
Allison Kugel: I have goosebumps right now (laugh). I love that.
Tommy Lee: Aww, that’s so cool, and it’s the truth. I can’t even tell you how many people would say, “Dude, you can’t do that,” and my response would be, “Who says we can’t?” Yes, the application is extremely difficult, but I know it can be done. I guess one thing I’m here to teach is not accepting “No,” and to have No not even be an option. That’s what I’m leaving in my wake. It Can Be Done!
Allison Kugel: Love it! That is the most awesome way to end this interview!
Tommy Lee: (Laugh) That is beautiful.
Images of Tommy Lee Courtesy of Myriam Santos, Album Cover Art Courtesy of Todd Gallopo/Meat and Potatoes
Tommy Lee‘s third solo album ANDRO assembles an eclectic collection of rappers and singers, some known and some unknown, to bring his musical creations to life. Follow on Instagram, YouTube and Twitter.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment and pop culture columnist and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and AllisonKugel.com.