Now that Motley Crue has officially retired and called it quits, how did bassist Nikki Sixx plan to spend his retirement? By releasing a new (double) CD with his band Sixx:A.M., playing the biggest festivals this festival season, a headlining tour and a blockbuster tour planned for this fall with Shinedown and Five Finger Death Punch. I have to admit, that’s not a bad retirement plan.
Sixx:A.M., featuring my legendary hero, Sixx, singer James Michael, and guitarist Dj Ashba, released their fourth studio album, Prayers For The Damned: Volume One, back on April 29, and the highly-anticipated CD is nothing short of spectacular! I may be a little biased, but after listening to tracks like the lead single “Rise,” “When We Were Gods,” “I’m Sick” and “You Have Come To The Right Place,” objectively, this dark and well-written CD is seriously a masterpiece leaving me longing eagerly for Volume Two, which is set to be released later this year. In all honesty, double albums are always a risky move, but is seems Sixx:A.M. is doing it right by releasing them separately, while fans savor over Volume One.
Sixx:A.M. brings their show back to the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, NJ on May 24 after a sold-out stint there last April. They will also be performing at the MMRBQ in Camden and the Rock ‘N’ Derby in Schaghticoke, NY a couple of days before alongside bands like Shinedown, Coheed And Cambria, Megadeth, Ghost, Sevendust and Trivium. I got a call from singer James Michael and guitarist Dj Ashba a couple of weeks ago to discuss all things Sixx:A.M., while they kicked off their current headlining tour. Here’s what they had to say:
Can you guys believe that Prayers For The Damned is your fourth studio album already?
James Michael: It’s really strange. It really is. In a lot of ways, I really do believe it because being a producer of the records, I’ve spent an awful lot of time with all of these records, but what’s really kind of shocking to me is the fact that next year, we’ll be celebrating the tenth year of The Heroin Diaries. Nikki told me that like three months ago and I was shocked because in some ways, it feels like we’ve been doing this for 25 years, but in other ways, it feels like Sixx:A.M. just started, and if you really sit down and look at what we’ve done over that 10 years, then it makes sense, but it’s just gone so quickly. The other amazing thing about it is that right now is really the starting point for us because with Nikki having wrapped up Motley Crue and Dj having left Guns N’ Roses, this is the first time where none of us have had other things from keeping us from being able to focus on that. So, in some ways, it feels like we literally are just putting out our first record.
So, Dj, we actually met before when I guitar-teched for Sebastian Bach once and they were opening for Guns N’ Roses. While they were sound checking, I stood next to you and begged you for a Sixx:A.M. tour and at the time, you seemed unsure it would ever happen, and now look at you guys.
Dj Ashba: I know! I’m so excited. This has just been a dream come true. As everyone’s probably heard the story by now, we never planned on being a band, and the fact that the fans never gave up on us and I went out and did Guns N’ Roses, like you said, for six years, and Nikki was out doing Motley Crue and the stars just aligned. Motley came to an end and I just thought there was no better to kind of, I just felt there was no better time to kind of give Sixx:A.M. my full attention at this point.
How much has having Nikki and Dj full-time changed the band dynamic for Sixx:A.M.?
Dj: Oh, big time! Listen, when we decided this, we went in and did a double album, and it’s some of the best songs that I’ve ever been a part of and I couldn’t be more proud of the album we put out. We went in with the intent of let’s not make a double album, let’s make two single albums that stand on their own, but complement each other because double albums I always had a problem with. You get one or two good songs off of one or the other. It always seemed like double albums got a bad rap. That’s not what we wanted to do it all. In fact, we wanted to make sure that our second album if possible surpassed the first one. So, we kind of wanted to do it in reverse. I really feel like the first one, we knocked it out of the park, as far as the songs. The songwriting has come a long way and I feel incredibly strong. If people love the first album, they’re going to be blown away by the second one. So, I think we’re in good shape right now.
JM: It’s changed the band dynamic, especially when we went into the recording studio. I’ll tell you what; it’s a very different experience to be in the studio making a record knowing that you’re going to be out on the road in just a couple of months touring on that record. We’ve never had that before because every time that we’d gone in the studio in the past, it was this kind of project. It was this thing that we did because loved it, and we were excited about it, but we would never know whether we were ever going to perform these songs live or not. And this time around, every single note that we were writing, we knew that were going to be performing. So, it did change the dynamic quite a bit. I think that what it ended up doing was giving us a much more aggressive, a much more live-oriented record. So, these songs translate to the stage really, really seamlessly and that has been a real joy for us.
I’ve been listening to Prayers For The Damned for over a week now and I love it! From “Rise” all the way down to “Rise Of The Melancholy Empire,” it’s a dark and heavy record that just sucks you in. The songwriting on this record is just unbelievable and a definite standout.
JM: Thank you so much! That gives me chills to hear because when you’re in that bubble we call the studio doing it and you’re all so focused on this thing, hopefully you get into this creative vacuum, where you don’t wonder about that stuff, but then once you’re done, there is that moment where you go, “Are we just fooling ourselves here, or is this as good as we think it is?” So, when you start hearing people go, “I get what you guys are doing,” it’s very, very gratifying.
Dj: I’m so happy you like it! Even though I helped write all of the songs, I’m a big fan of this record as well, and it’s hard for me to actually say that when it’s about my songwriting, but these songs really just came out phenomenal in my opinion. We set some extremely high goals and we really pushed ourselves hard as songwriters and musicians and we just didn’t let “okay” go on the record. It had to be phenomenal to go on the record. I’m really happy that people are listening and really digging it and feeling the songs. It just really means the world to me.
Is Volume 2 already written and recorded?
JM: When we set out to make two records, it was very intentional. We didn’t want this to fall into that category that a lot of albums do, where it actually sounds like you went into the studio to one record, you have a few extra songs, you figured you’d polish them up and then you have a double album. We’ve all fallen victims to those albums before. This was a very different beast. It was very intentional. We thought of this as one big record, but then in a lot ways we knew that we were going to be releasing them separately, so we did treat them separately, so they would stand alone. But we put so much effort and thought and care into every single note of both records and we wrote them both at the same time, and then figured out where each song made sense, so I think to add to what Dj was just saying, Volume Two is absolutely as strong, if not stronger than Volume One. There are some songs on there that are really career songs. So, in a way, while we’re so excited about Volume One and the response that we’re getting, we’re also chomping at the bit for people to sink their teeth into Volume Two as well.
“Rise” was an excellent single to kick things off for you guys, who knew it would kind of be synonymous with your current battle with YouTube in “rising against something you believe in.”
JM: Yeah, it’s really interesting because “Rise” really started off resonating with people I believe because of the current political climate in what’s going on here in the United States, which is the viciousness of this election cycle, but then it also started resonating with people on a more global level because everyone is reacting to what’s going on with terrorism right now and so what happened is that the song “Rise” started taking on a different meaning to every single person. In fact because of that, what we did was start this Reason To Rise campaign on social media, where each one of us posted something about an issue that really is important to us and then asked our fans to tell us what their reason to rise is, and people just started coming back with so many different amazing things. Some intimate and personal and some very global and broad, but people were empowered to start saying, “Yeah, you know what? I’ve got something that I need to take a stand for and rise up against!” And so, in transitioning into the YouTube thing, it’s an incredibly important issue and what we’ve been doing is trying to figure out how to message it so that it doesn’t just sound like a bunch of rock stars complaining and wanting more money because it’s the exact opposite of that actually. And I think that’s why we’re using this platform to really start a dialogue and get that narrative happening so that people can start understanding what the actual problems are. And yeah, it is a very important thing and it’s become another reason to “Rise.”
Do you have a favorite song on the record?
JM: I have a couple. One of them from very early on was the song “When We Were Gods.” Actually, when we were recording that, I knew that was going to be that one that just rattles my bones, and it still does. But now that we started playing it live, the reaction that we’re getting from the crowd is crazy! I mean, number one, they’re reacting as if it’s a song they’ve known their entire lives and it just means something to them. It’s a vicious reaction. The crowd just starts jumping and goes nuts and for that to happen on a song they’ve never heard before except for right there in that live setting, it really tells us that it’s striking a chord. Plus, it has my favorite guitar solo Dj’s ever done. The guitar solo in “When We Were Gods” is just staggering.
Dj: It’s really hard for me because some of my favorite ones are actually on Volume 2. But I also love “When We Were Gods.” I feel it should be a single. It’s a very powerful song live, so that would be at the top of the list. I think “Everything Went To Hell” is going over extremely well live. I love “Better Man.” I love “Belly Of The Beast” and “I’m Sick.” There are so many that I really not only enjoyed helping the guys write, but recording them was a blast and they’re just incredibly fun to play live too. They’re “big arena” rock songs.
On the Modern Vintage Tour, which I saw three times, you played around seven songs off of that record, which a pretty considerable amount of new tuneage. Will you be doing that on this tour and performing a lot off of Prayers?
JM: You know, it’s interesting that you point that out because that’s something that we talked a lot about. I think that on the Modern Vintage Tour, maybe we pushed that a little too hard. When you have three full-length studio records to choose from, what we didn’t realize how deep our fans had gone into our previous records. Not just our hits. But songs like “Live Forever” off of This is Gonna Hurt, or “Deadman’s Ballet” off of Heroine Diaries soundtrack, so our fans had already gone so deep into those and didn’t realize how much they appreciated it. So, what we started doing was we went on social media and asked them what they wanted to hear and that really helped us design this set list for both our festival set that we’re doing and also our headlining set, which we’ll be doing at the Starland Ballroom. And I think it’s going to be a very nice mix of all of our albums. We are going to be playing a songs off the new record, but now with four full-length studio records to choose from we’re really able to build a beautiful evening of music.
How does the songwriting work between the three of you? I mean, it’s no secret that Nikki is one of the best songwriters in hard rock, and you seem to add to that in a major way, but how does a typical songwriting session for Sixx:A.M. go?
JM: Well, that’s a good question and interestingly enough, even though the band had evolved significantly over the years, both as far as musicianship and sound and dynamic, the songwriting process itself has stayed pretty much the same. It’s the three of us getting together in a room picking up instruments and talking. We talk a lot before we even start writing, discussing subject matters, and working through melody ideas, working through riff ideas and we all bring in ideas. Sometimes Dj will bring in a really killer riff and that will inspire something else, but we’ve always maintained that chemistry between the three of us. So, the three of us are equal songwriters. That’s what we do. We’ve all built careers writing songs on our own, so when we bring it together, we just complement one another, and the interesting thing about that, that I’ve noticed as a producer, because I’ve produced a lot of bands… I’ve produced a lot of bands at the beginning of their career, and I produced a handful of bands towards the end of their career, and to watch that transition of what happens is very interesting. What happens is a young band, they form, they swear their undying love to each other, they’re going to be brothers forever, they write a record, hopefully they get a record deal, and then they put a record out and lo and behold, they get a hit song and one of the worst things happens. The checks start rolling in. And what happens when people start opening up their checks, and one guy looks at his, and his eyes open up and he has this great big smile on his face, and the other guy opens his and he kind of starts frowning and looking at the other guy wondering what’s the difference here. That’s when they realize that songwriting is where it’s at, and what happens then, after the next record, then the record after that, it becomes a competition, but the exact opposite happens with Sixx:A.M. We become less precious about our own ideas and are more excited about welcoming the other ideas. So, it’s partially because we’ve all been able to build successful careers outside of Sixx:A.M., so we’re not doing Sixx:A.M. for the money, we’re doing it for the art. And I think that plays a big part in it. So when we get together, we’re actually more excited about the idea that the other guy is going to bring in. I think that just really makes for an incredibly inspiring and creative and supportive process.
Dj: Yeah, and a lot of people only know Nikki’s history. They don’t know mine or James’ and if dig really deep into both of ours, I’ve produced for Neil Diamond, I wrote for Neil Diamond, I co-wrote 11 of the 13 songs on Saints Of Los Angeles for Motley Crue and I co-produced that album with James. A lot of people don’t know that we did write a lot of Motley Crue songs. We’re kind of a trio team. Originally, me and Nikki were songwriting partners before the Heroine Diaries, we would write and produce for tons of bands from bands like Drowning Pool and Saliva and you name it. A lot of different bands. And James, here, was writing for all kinds of huge people like Hillary Duff, Faith Hill. It’s just one of those things where we originally teamed up as songwriting partners and we were writing for other people and through the course of that, and Nikki brought in his actual “Heroine Diary” that he found in the locker before it was a book and that inspired us and we’re like, “Let’s bring this to life, musically,” because we’re all musers. So, that’s what happened. We got in a room and it was just magic. No one can explain it, I’ve never had it, once in a while you come across somebody that you write with and you’re like, “Woah, there’s magic here,” but very rarely will you come across two people in your life, and that’s what happened here with Sixx:A.M., and we just realized from day one that there was magic here. In fact, the first time that Nikki invited him up to his house, we wrote four songs that day just sitting in front of a piano and an acoustic guitar, and originally, Sixx:A.M. was never going to be a band. Sixx:A.M. didn’t even exist when we were finishing up the Heroine Diaries. It was actually going to be a CD that went in the book and management got their hands on a song called “Life Is Beautiful” and served it to radio without even telling us, and it went number one overnight, and it just became this phenomenon. They immediately were calling us, tracking us down and saying, “You guys are now a band.” We never set out to be a band. We were just best friends, who liked to write together.
You know, I was just thinking do you think that with the three of you constantly visible on social media with live broadcasts on Facebook and daily status posts, does anything surprise the fans anymore?
JM: That is a really good question! I think it’s a real issue to be honest with you because when I was a kid growing up on rock ‘n’ roll and had my rock idols that I would follow and stuff, when I knew a record was coming out, I’d go down to the local record store two weeks beforehand and dig through the garbage in the back behind the record store to see if any pre-released stuff had been thrown out or any posters or anything like that. I would do anything that I could to get a glimpse or any little foresight as to what was about to come. Nowadays, you know what I had for breakfast. (Laughs) It’s a different thing, but what it does is it forces us to up the ante. That’s why a lot of bands have started doing V.I.P. packages and meet and greets that are a little bit more special. More than just the grip and grin type of stuff, creating experiences for the fans that go above and beyond, and you have to outdo yourself because just to get backstage is not that exciting for a band because they knew you took a shit three hours ago because you posted it on Twitter. (Laughs) I think it just forces us to create greater experiences for the fans both onstage and offstage.
Sixx:A.M. has been on the festival circuit in a big way this season, including the Rock ‘N Derby on May 22. Are there any bands you were really excited to share the stage with or looking forward to?
JM: There are a few things I love about playing the festivals. Number one, every year we get into the discussion about how rock is dead, and you go to these festivals and you realize rock is very much alive, and when you see a sea of rock fans, that’s the first thing that’s very exciting that just inspires and reminds you why you’re doing this. But number two, all of these bands, most of them are our friends. They’re our friends and family that you just don’t get to see that often. So, to be able to come to these festivals, one of the most exciting things is to go give your buddies a hug in the band that went on before you or after you or stand at the side of the stage and watch them. Like last night, one of my very dear friends is John 5 from Rob Zombie and he and I have not been able to spend more than five minutes together in the last three years and I hate that because I love the guy and we love hanging out. So, we got to spend some time yesterday. He watched our show and we got to watch his. So, it’s all of them. Some of the guys I don’t know, like I just met Matt [Heafy] from Trivium and boy, I can see that guy being a friend in the future. He’s such a sweet guy and I just look forward to the next show that we’re doing together. So, really, all of them! It’s a fantastic community and it’s very inspiring.
Dj: Yeah, same for me, in regards to Rob Zombie, who has been awesome! He has a brand new record that just came out. I haven’t heard it yet, but I’m definitely gonna go grab it. He’s so awesome at what he does. He’s so fun to watch. He’s such a seasoned vet out there and me a guitar player, I learn a lot from watching other people like John 5, who is one of the best guys out there. He’s just a humble and nice dude and extremely talented guy and Rob has so much charisma, and just the way he rocks the stage is awesome to see. So, that’s been a thrill for me. Disturbed is also out there doing a great job, but I’m just excited to get out there and just play on all of these festivals and play with a bunch of different bands. We played with Pop Evil last night. There’s Cilver, we played with them last night. There are just so many good up-and-coming bands as well that are so much fun to watch.
In the fall, you kick off a tour supporting Five Finger Death Punch and Shinedown, which is an amazing package! Do you think there’s less pressure for someone like Nikki, who’s been headlining arenas for the majority of his career to going back to opening for headliners?
JM: I think there’s more pressure in some respects because we know we’ve got something to prove. We’re playing with two extremely experienced and extremely seasoned and just bad-assed rock bands who know how to do this and they’ve figured it out and they do it brilliantly. So, we really have to up our game. We look at this as an opportunity to roll up our sleeves as Sixx:A.M. and proved to the world that we should be there. It’s an exciting challenge for us, but I think it speaks to both the character of Nikki and Dj that they’ve been at the top and they’ve done this stuff and what it says is how much they love Sixx:A.M. music that they’d be willing to basically go right back to the bottom of the ladder and start again. I have a great deal of respect for them for that. I get to benefit from their touring experience as we put together what this Sixx:A.M. machine is.
Dj: I’ve always felt the best slot you can ever have is the slot before the headliner because the headlining crowd has to sit through your shit. (Laughs) It really is the best spot to be in. Otherwise, if you’re headlining, all the other bands’ crowds, if they don’t like the band, they peace out.
Hey, Dj, not only are you an amazing guitarist, but you also just put out a clothing line too, right?
Dj: Yeah, I’ve been doing clothing since 2008, but I just launched my first retail store in Vegas at the Stratosphere. It’s a big 1,600 square foot store in the Tower shops on the second floor. We just had an incredible grand opening party and I think 1,100 to 1,500 kids showed up. The mall was mobbed. It was like a rock show. It was so awesome to see so many come out to support something that I did that had nothing to do with music. Eli Roth, a great movie director and producer and great friend of mine, came out. Just tons of cool people came out to support it. It was really cool!
So, one last question before I let you guys go. We keep hearing rumors about this, so I have to ask, are we ever going to see Heroin Diaries on Broadway?
Dj: We are! Nikki’s been working really hard at that and it looks like it’s going to happen. I’m really excited about it because we’re going to get it going and probably write some new stuff for the Broadway play along with being able to put a lot of our songs in it. I’m excited about it though.
JM: Yeah, it’s in the works and I know Nikki’s been talking about it publicly as well. It’s a long, very complex process to do that well, and Nikki is never going to do anything unless he can do it well. So, like Dj just said, he’s been working on that and he’s got a team of people, we’ve been writing songs for it. Even when we recorded The Heroine Diaries soundtrack, we always saw it as a very theatrical story. So, we’re very excited that someday it will be a Broadway musical.
Catch Sixx:A.M. at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, NJ on May 24 or a couple days before at the Rock ‘N’ Derby in Schaghticoke, NY on May 22. Don’t forget to pick up Prayers For The Damned wherever CDs are sold, and for more info on Sixx:A.M., visit SixxAMmusic.com.