When we knew MOTÖRHEAD were coming out with a new album, despite all the rumours of Lem’s ill health, we knew we wanted to catch up with the band that gave us our name for our birthday issue. PAUL SCHWARZ got to talking ‘Head with guitarist PHIL CAMPBELL and found out that nothing will tear ’em down
It all starts a bit uncomfortably. Upon arriving at Gibson’s offices – what better place to stage an interview with a guitarist than surrounded by 100-plus guitars? – I am grilled about what I will ask Phil Campbell. I blather that I will ask about the new record, touring plans, how Lemmy is getting on… “No, do not start by asking about Lemmy. Ask about the All-Stars,” recommends Ute Kromrey, Motörhead’s independent PR for the past 15 years (she coordinates press for the band worldwide and you can see why they’ve stuck with her: not for nothing does Lemmy call her The Germanator). At the time I feel silly – I’d quite forgotten about the All-Stars, who just played Bloodstock. Quickly reading up on the Motörhead guitarist’s covers combo while waiting for Campbell to finish his preceding interview, I am intrigued to note that they have some connection with Attack! Attack! – I confuse the Welsh band with the Americans (Attack Attack!) who made the abomination ‘Stik Stikly’, but it doesn’t matter: Phil doesn’t attempt to clear up any possible confusion as he explains how vocalist Neil Starr came to sing for his eponymous collective, who feature three of his children among their ranks.
“Neil Starr who sings with us, he has a new band now [States and Empires], they’re supporting Zebrahead coming up. He used to sing with Attack! Attack! [not Attack Attack!] and Dopamine. He’s a friend of my eldest son, my eldest son recorded him and everything. So Christmas week we’ve got four shows booked, we’ve got the Garage booked in London, and we’ve got one booked on the 28th and next May we’ve got 30 shows booked in Europe. It’s just fun. We play whenever we can. You can’t ‘ave much more fun than ‘aving ripped jeans and slamming out ‘Children Of The Grave’ with three of your kids in a band, like, y’know? My friends filmed it for me as well; we’ve had the Bloodstock show professionally filmed. [Wrestler] Chris Jericho came onstage with us to sing ‘Born To Raise Hell’, it was a lot of fun. It was way better than the last time I played there, with Motörhead two years ago. The disaster one. Couldn’t get three of us onstage at once. It’s a good festival though. It was fun this year. It’s not going to interfere at all with Motörhead, though: it’s just a fun thing to do.”
In the wake of Motörhead having to cut short a headline performance at Wacken Festival this year, and with subsequent commitments being cancelled due to Lemmy’s uncertain health, Campbell has probably had some pretty unpleasant questions relating to the All-Stars. Is he leaving Motörhead? Maybe ‘keeping his options open’ – that sort of rubbish. It should all ‘cease now. The ‘Head have a new album out and it’s a monster. We’d say it was the best in decades – since ‘Bastards’ or even ‘1916’ – but that journalistic formula doesn’t wash with Motörhead. They just make too many great records. It might be their best since ‘Inferno’ perhaps. One thing in particular does stand out though: it’s the dirtiest sounding disc they’ve done in a good few years.
“It has got a growl to it,” agrees Campbell. “I slammed a load of guitars on there, didn’t really tune differently but I did go for a dirty sound. I don’t really know what it is but I know it’s a fine album. I couldn’t believe at this stage of the game we could come up with 14 songs for an album. If you’d told me that 18 months ago I would have said, ‘Bollocks. No way’.”
It’s three years since your last one, isn’t it?
“I’m not sure.”
We’ll call it three, eh. 14 songs might sound daunting – might seem to belie the idea that this is a monstrously good record, rather suggesting it is just monstrously long. Not so. Six of those songs clock in under three minutes, two come in just under five – the rest are in-between. At almost exactly 47 minutes total runtime, ‘Aftershock’ is really to-the-point.
“Yeah,” agrees Phil. “Well, you don’t want to bore people with it, do you? Get the ideas across and then stop it and, you know, do another one.”
But there was no specific influence from a newer band or a particular producer or engineer…
“Nah, we’ve always written the songs just for the three of us. We don’t write for any record company, we don’t write for any,” he pauses, before saying, as if in quotation marks, “…fans. We write for the three of us and that’s why we think the music is more pure and you get the best. You won’t have people interfering with it and that way you’re getting the purest form of whatever genre you’re doing, like.”
That’s what sets Motörhead apart from Metallica, for example: Lemmy’s crew aren’t sitting around saying ‘How do we write so we sound like Motörhead?’, they are Motörhead.
“They’ve forgotten their essence, like,” is how Phil sums up that situation. “We won’t have have any producer telling us what to do. He’ll have a go at trying to change our minds or whatever but we just say no: we’ll win at the end of the day, like, y’know? In the long term, it makes for better music. I used to do guitar solos years ago and I’d say: what d’you think of that, guys? And one person would say it’s fuckin’ brilliant, somebody’d say it was crap, somebody else would comment – and I’d think: well, change this bit, change the first bit, change that. And in the end you end up with a watered-down piece of rubbish, like. You do something and people are either going to love it or ‘ate it, but just write it for the people whose ears are going to tingle, like. You know?”
Any significance to the title, ‘Aftershock’?
“No, it just sounded good,” he laughs, his strong Welsh accent ringing. “Somebody came out with the word and it just stuck. People could be in shock after – after they listen to it, if they play it loud. Should be played loud this one, I think.”
One question we wanted to ask, was has Campbell been involved in the songwriting since he first joined Motörhead, thirty years ago?
“Yeah yeah. Lem said, ‘You write and play whatever you wanna do Phil, just don’t wear shorts onstage.’
“Brian Robertson had been wearing shorts and I think Lemmy got scared. Yeah, I’ve always had a major part in the songwriting and stuff. Most of the stuff starts with me and then I take it to the boys and they comment that they like this or they hate that, and we may argue and change things about. Everyone will have their contributions and then Lem will put some lyrics on, his wonderful lyrics. He’s the best. There’s nobody better than Lem in hard rock music to write lyrics, I don’t think. He’s fantastic. But yeah: not every time, but 80 per cent of the time the germ of the idea starts with me and then we all work hard at it.”
I’d been listening to ‘1916’ a lot and when Campbell mentioned Lemmy’s amazing lyrics all I can think of is opening a song with the line, “I’ve made love to mountain lions”.
“I know. I was just in the car up today listening to ‘Inferno’. I just found it in my garage today ’cause my driver, he has crap CDs in his car. So, I had my glasses on this morning having a look through my garage, all these CDs, and I found ‘Inferno’. So I played a bit from ‘Keys To The Kingdom’ where Lem uses this ‘Vampire deluxe’ line. What the fuck is that? Brilliant. They’re inspiring lyrics, like.”
Lemmy is quintessentially brilliant at rock lyrics. There are only a few people that can do it that well.
“Yeah, he’s definitely one of the top men.”
So what’s next for Motörhead?
“We’ve got a tour coming up in November and December. I think there’s a possibility of going on one of them rock n’ roll cruises, leaving from Miami or Florida in February or something like that. And hopefully if all goes well, then we’ll do a bunch of shows again in the summer, festivals, and I don’t know if we’re gonna do the US next year. It’ll be the usual round of touring, anyway.”
So you’re planning to keep it going forever now?
“Yeah, but we might have to slow down a little bit. We’ve been trying to slow down for a few years but the powers that be won’t let us. But I think we’re going to have to now. We can’t do 150 shows a year, four or five shows a week for six weeks, you know? We can’t play Leicester and Manchester and Liverpool and Birmingham. We’ll do one show in the Midlands, people will have to come to us, you know? We can’t play in everyone’s back garden, put it that way. We can play to the same amount of people, right: everyone can be happy, we don’t have to travel so much – ‘coz travellin’s a pain in the arse for us after all these years – and we get to spend more time relaxin’ and,” he pauses, thinking how to put it best. “You know again, after 30 years I wanna enjoy the spoils of it. I don’t wanna still be fuckin’ playin’ some fuckin’,” he pauses a second to compose himself. “In the height of summer, I don’t wanna be playing, like, fucking crap clubs somewhere in America for three weeks when the sun is shinin’ ‘ere. You know what I mean? It’s not askin’ for much: we still wanna play, we’ve still got a lot to offer, we still intend going for as long as possible, but it’d be nice to just take a back seat for a little bit. I don’t think anyone’s worked as hard as us, giggin’-wise. I don’t know of any band that has toured as much as Motörhead, for the last 30-odd years.”
Even in the 1990s, when UK promoters – their idiocy can verge on the certifiable – wouldn’t book the band because they thought punters were no longer interested – I know: like I said, certifiable – Motörhead just went elsewhere.
“We were still doing stuff somewhere. We could get a gig every night, like somewhere in the world.”
A decade or so back, watching a headlining Wacken performance, which was driving me pretty crazy with its awesomeness, I wondered at a good friend why the crowd weren’t as rabid as one might expect. He explained that Motörhead had played Berlin just a week before and most of the crowd had probably been there. If you can play that much, you gotta be working hard.
“Germany’s been great for us all these years, yeah. Everyone’s really brilliant there for us.”
At this point, our conversation hits a pregnant pause. I can’t put it off any longer. Having mentioned Germany, I have to ask about Lemmy. I don’t mention the Wacken performance – no more salt needs rubbing into that wound. No, I just send our best wishes, make reference to all the rumours going about regarding his health and ask after him: is he okay?
“Yeah,” says Phil without hesitation. “I spoke to him two night ago. He’s getting stronger by the day and we’ll all be fighting fit before November. We’re gonna have a week’s rehearsals; maybe three, four or five days of rehearsals before the tour and then we’ll be like a trio of spring chickens. So yeah, it’s all going good. He just came back a bit soon, like, Lem did. He needed a bit more rest, that’s all. He’s fine. He’s strong as an ox now.”
The issue dealt with, I move on with as little hesitation: does Lemmy write all the lyrics?
So is it the typical rock band thing where it’s music first, lyrics second?
“Usually the music comes first. In the case of ‘Orgasmatron’, he had them written for a couple of years. It’s like poetry at the end of the day. He just wrote down what he was feeling one night on the bus, I think. I remember him showing them to me just after he’d finished ’em. I said, ‘Yeah man, these are, fuckin’ ‘ell! Wow.’ And then he just kept them in his file for – I don’t know if it was a year, or six months, or two years or whatever. I can’t remember.”
They’re some of his best. I also think ‘Love Me Forever’ is amazing, though I am a little biased: I recently became a father and two days after my son was born, ‘Love Me Forever’ came on when we had a pile of Motörhead on random shuffle at home, and the lyrics were just absolutely perfect for that moment in time. ‘Everything changes, but it all stays the same / Everyone dies to break somebody’s heart’.
“I like that one,” says Phil with a smile. “It’s a beautiful song. Now for that I had different tuning. I had thick strings on and I tuned way down, like three or four frets down. It’s really thick. I’m pleased for you, man. Take all the videos and pictures you can as the child’s growing up: you’ll regret it in 20 years time if you don’t.”
Phil sounds like he speaks from bitter experience. He has three children of his own, and after I tell him mine is called Aureliusz Jason Gylve he comments, “That’s cool. Better than John,” before telling his own little story.
“My eldest one’s called Todd Rundgren, that’s his middle name. Todd Rundgren Campbell. When I met Todd Rundgren recently in the US he signed a thing for my son’s studio, ‘Todd Rundgren, best wishes from Todd Rundgren.” He said to me, ‘Did your son ever forgive you for doing this?’ It’s on his bankcard: it says, ‘Todd R’.”
Coming back to ‘1916’, that’s one among a few Motörhead records from the ’90s that is quite underrated, I’d say. Especially if you listen to it with an alphabetical tracklisting: so it starts with ‘1916’, follows up with ‘Angel City’, ‘Love Me Forever’ becomes the closing song of side A and ‘The One to Sing the Blues’ closes the album.
“Yeah? Going alphabetically works? I’ll give it a go,” says Phil.
It’s an incredible record, in any case. I think what’s great about Motörhead is you have all these records that people hardly noticed, in some cases.
“Yeah, they keep on stopping at ‘Ace of Spades’, don’t they? They’re the ones missing out. I mean, I used to get pissed off with it: I’m just disappointed now that people don’t give themselves a chance. We’ve done so much good work,” he pauses. The statement stands on its own but he qualifies it, “…since the ‘Ace of Spades’ era. And ‘Ace…’, I’m not taking anything away from that, it’s a fantastic song, you know?”
“Iconic song. But we’ve done so much good stuff since then that people are missing out on, like.”
You’ve made much better albums than ‘Ace…’.
“‘Bastards’ was a brilliant record.”
I was going to say that!
“‘Overnight Sensation’ was great, ‘Snakebite Love’: all of them are great.”
My view is that the early ’80s ones have great songs, but as complete records they don’t match up: the band end up writing better albums later on. That reminds me: I meant to ask how much writing Mikkey does?
“How much writing? Well he works hard at it: he sings riffs in my ear and deals with the arrangements, yeah. He’s full-on.”
That’s really good…
“Nah, he’s a pain in the arse sometimes. But that’s good. We all push ourselves to the limits, we may not like it at the time but that’s the essence of a good band, you know? We care passionately about the music so we are,” he pauses again, thinking how best to put this. “If we didn’t care passionately about it we’d say, ‘Ah, fuck it, do it your own way then.’ You know? So that’s why it sounds pretty cool at the end of the day.”
Just finally then: have you or the band have been overwhelmed by the sort of support that people have had for Lemmy since his troubles?
“Yeah. Well of course. Well,” a brief, thoughtful pause. “…it didn’t really surprise me because I know how well Lem is thought of in the industry and stuff. So it’s nice: it’s reassuring as well. I know Lem’s overwhelmed with it, like. But it’ll be fine. You know, it’s just a little,” he pauses again: one feels like he was going to say ‘lesson’, but that’s pure conjecture. “After all the terrorizin’ of our bodies we’ve done over the years – you know, something’s gotta give at one point. We corrected it and it’s just building back up now.”
We’re really glad to hear that, I tell him before we finish. And now I wish I’d added: we’re also really glad to hear how great ‘Aftershock’ is. We’re just not surprised.
A full version of this interview is printed in Iron Fist #7 and available from our online store
Copyright © 2020 Iron Fist Magazine. All Rights Reserved.