SIXX:A.M. – High On the Music
Los Angeles, California-based hard rock outfit Sixx:A.M. formed in 2007. Spearheaded by Mötley Crüe bassist Nikki Sixx, the ensemble additionally includes vocalist / rhythm guitarist James Michael and lead guitarist DJ Ashba (Guns N’ Roses). August 2007 studio full-length The Heroin Diaries Soundtrack opened the group’s account, with sophomore outing This Is Gonna Hurt arriving in May 2011. October 2014’s Modern Vintage expands upon Sixx:A.M’s discography.
“Obviously, Modern Vintage is the third studio album,” begins James Michael, vocalist and rhythm guitarist for Sixx:A.M. “With the first two records, there were books to coincide with them. We had The Heroin Diaries Soundtrack, and then there was the second record – This Is Gonna Hurt – which was a photography book. This was the first time that we sat down and wrote a record without something, without a peripheral type of thing like a book. It was really exciting for us to be able to not have those type of parameters – it gave us a chance to really explore our musical influences.
“I think that on this record, the listener is gonna really hear those musical influences shine through much more because we had a lot more freedom on this record to explore what we had become as a band after three records. We really made it a point, and that’s kind of what the title Modern Vintage is all about. As far as the songwriting process, Modern Vintage really refers to how we have gone back to our musical influences, be it Queen or be it David Bowie or ELO – a lot of those great rock bands and rock artists from the 60s and 70s.
“We really celebrated that music; we celebrated what got us into the music business in the first place. I think that as you listen to Modern Vintage from beginning to end, you’re gonna pick up on a lot of those types of influences. It was very exciting for us to have that blank canvas, and have an opportunity to really kind of discover what Sixx:A.M. has become after this many years.”
A more disciplined songwriting approach was employed for Modern Vintage. “I think that even on the first record we had a lot of influences, but I think that we would allow ourselves to kind of…,” the singer muses. “Let’s say we would start writing a song; we would allow ourselves to kind of stumble over newer things, and then we’d allow ourselves to just kind of go in different directions. On this record, we really made it a point to stay on target, so if we sat down and said ‘We wanna write a song that’s gonna have a real kind of ELO influence,’ then we’d make sure that we didn’t get sidetracked this time.
“I feel like on all of the songs on Modern Vintage, you’re going to be able to really identify things. For instance, if you’re listening to a song like ‘Gotta Get It Right’ – which is our first single – you’re gonna notice the background vocals for instance, the harmonies and stuff are very ELO-influenced on that particular song. I think that in general, what the listener will notice is those influences shine through a lot brighter on this, and that it’s easier to identify some of the music from the 60s and 70s that we were basically deliberating.”
Albeit boasting ‘vintage’ influences, modern elements additionally exist on the record. “It’s kind of two-fold,” James explains. “Obviously we’ve talked about our influences, but also, it’s not a derivative record in the sense that it is still a very modern sounding record. I think that a lot of that has to do with the songwriting, as well. For instance, there are moments on the record that feel like they were written today or written in modern times, but were recorded at a time in the past – be it the 60s, or 70s, or even 80s in some cases – but then there are also moments on the record that maybe sound like they were written back in the 60s and 70s, but yet recorded in modern times.
“We really made sure that we leaned on some of the recording techniques from the past, but then also took advantage of where we are with technology today. It’s a little nice hybrid sonically between the old and the new, and that really is why we called it Modern Vintage.”
Taking advantage also applies to the benefit of hindsight, Sixx:A.M. having recorded two previous full-lengths. “You know, it’s interesting,” the frontman reckons. “I produce a lot of other bands. I kind of learnt to never look back with regrets. I look back on those two records and I love everything about them, but I think that you learn what it is that you want to do next time. In other words, I wouldn’t go back and change anything about the first two records, but we definitely took advantage of this being our third record, being much closer from now knowing each other better, and having done some touring. We have the benefit of just being a more established band now, and that’s very exciting because we’ve always said that Sixx:A.M. was a band with no parameters, with no rules. We prided ourselves on not really conforming to the rules of the record industry and that stands true with this new record Modern Vintage as well, but we just know each other better as musicians.
“Another thing about it Anthony is we’re all better musicians now than we were. We keep on pushing ourselves. For instance, when we did The Heroin Diaries Soundtrack, DJ had not joined Guns N’ Roses yet. He has toured the world five times with Guns N’ Roses now. Even though he was an incredible guitar player back then, he’s one of the best guitar players I’ve ever heard now, and that can only happen with that type of experience. Sixx:A.M. in general is really benefiting from just this many years of being friends, and pushing ourselves musically.”
And then of course Sixx:A.M.’s line-up includes namesake bassist Nikki Sixx, who has a wealth of experience within Mötley Crüe’s fold. “Absolutely,” James agrees. “That always factors in. The knowledge that he has is just so vast; we really are at an advantage because of that wisdom and that experience. Sixx:A.M. really benefits from that.”
Nikki’s and DJ’s membership within Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses respectively hampers Sixx:A.M.’s potential productivity. “Obviously, it creates logistical situations where we can’t just finish a record, and just hop on the road and tour – it has to be more carefully thought about and planned out,” the producer elaborates. “In the same respect though, I think it has made Sixx:A.M. a special band, because it really did start as a side project for all of us. That in and of itself gives you some freedom, because you’re not really relying on it for anything other than a form of musical expression.
“You don’t have to conform to the rules, because it’s not our day-job, and that makes it exciting for us. However, that being said – as you know – Mötley Crüe is beginning to wind it down, and they’re on their final tour right now. We’re all excited about the fact that we can bring Sixx:A.M. a little more to the forefront; we can think about doing some tours, and making a fourth record, and really kind of prioritising Sixx:A.M. a bit more. It’s very exciting for us.”
One specific outside songwriter contributed to Modern Vintage. “In fact, I don’t know if you remember, but on This Is Gonna Hurt we had a song called ‘Skin’,” James reminds. “I wrote that with a good friend of mine, Blair Daly, so I brought him back in to write one of the songs on this new record. It’s a song called ‘Hyperventilate’, and then it’s the first time that Sixx:A.M. has ever done a cover song. We actually covered a song by The Cars called ‘Drive’, which was a huge hit back in the 80s (from March 1984’s Heartbeat City). The Cars were certainly a big influence on me, so this is the first time we’ve ever recorded a cover song, and that was a lot of fun to do that.
“It was a big step for Sixx:A.M., because obviously that song is so well known from the 80s. There was the challenge there of having to pay respect to that song, and doing a version of it that maybe made the listener listen to it in a different way. We really wanted to have an opportunity to make the listener focus on the lyrics of that song, because it’s such a powerful message. When we did it, we approached it more like a piano ballad at the beginning, and then it kind of devolves into this kind of epic, very modern sounding arrangement, so that was exciting for us. As far as outside writers, there’s one song where we actually got Blair Daly in, and then of course the cover song of The Cars.”
Listeners individually interpret the meanings behind a given set of lyrics, causing one to wonder how the Sixx:A.M. vocalist personally interprets the lyrical content behind ‘Drive’. “To be honest with you, as much as I love that song – it was a part of my growing up – I had never really paid attention to what it was saying,” he admits. “To me, it’s a very thoughtful, really beautiful lyric basically. The video that they made originally kind of told the story, but it was really a very kind of intimate song about somebody that was just having a struggle. To me, I interpreted it as just somebody who was really having a hard time with some type of transition in their life, whether it was they had gone through a break-up, but they were having a hard time admitting to it.
“Maybe they were a little bit in denial, and that’s what I liked about a lot of the questions in it, about who’s gonna pick you up when you fall, and who’s gonna hear you scream, and all of those types of lyrics were really powerful. As a kid, when the song was a hit by The Cars I was more taken by the production and the vibe of it, but as an adult I was really taken by the lyrics. It was really a great opportunity to kind of live them, and shine a different light on them.”
Generally speaking, Modern Vintage’s lyrical content is positive in scope. “I think that Sixx:A.M. fans will probably notice that there is a lot of hope on this record,” James judges. “There’s a lot of celebration on this record and Sixx:A.M. has always done that, but we’ve also always had kind of a dark undertone, so for us we’ve always liked how we can contrast beauty with darkness, and there’s plenty of that on this record. I think that on this record, there are a couple of songs that would actually be categorised as love songs. That’s a bit different for Sixx:A.M., but it is also consistent with Sixx:A.M. in the sense that the backdrop is always slightly darkened. We’re never just talking about being happy without contrasting it with the darkness that it came out of.”
Although Sixx:A.M’s lyrical preoccupations exhibit a dark undertone, there is nonetheless light at the end of the tunnel if you will. “It’s that age old thing that you can’t really know what happiness is unless you know what sadness is, and that’s so true, and just the contrast of beauty and pain,” the rhythm guitarist describes. “We always tend to have those lines in our songs, but there’s a line in the song ‘Give Me A Love’ off of the new record that says ‘Show me a life with blood and with beauty’, and that really sums up what Sixx:A.M. is all about.”
As was the case with Sixx:A.M.’s previous two platters, James sat in the producer’s chair. “It’s a really exciting role,” he enthuses. “I’m very blessed to be able to be in that seat, because unlike other bands, there is just this freedom to explore. In addition to that, the musicianship in this band is really strong. DJ’s a special, incredible guitar player. People are gonna be surprised at the bass lines, the work that Nikki has done on this record as far as bass performance. They’re stunning. I think people will be very surprised to know what an incredible r ’n’ b bass player he is, and I hope that they will really notice the performances on this record. As a producer, it’s just a joy to be able to be in a room with these guys and provide the canvas for them to paint these amazing pictures.”
The singer is arguably better known in a production capacity, as opposed to standing behind the microphone. “I always tend to kind of downplay my singing,” he confesses. “I don’t really think of myself as a singer so much as a storyteller as a vocalist, if there is a difference – I tend to see a difference between those. Technically I’ve never thought of myself as much of a singer, but I’ve always had the ability to tell stories within my craft. I think I got that from my father, who was a visual artist. He was a painter, so he told his stories on canvas. For me, I’ve always taken advantage of the poetry of music and the ability to say something through music that I might not have the courage to say in person, or just as a human. In some ways it’s a safety net, but it also gives me the ability to say things poetically that I couldn’t possibly say if I was just sitting here having a conversation with you, and then of course I have always loved the time stamp that it is.
“When you write and record a song, you are creating something that will exist long after you’re gone, and that’s always very exciting to me. It’s also a responsibility; it causes you to take what you do very seriously, which we all do. Back to your question about being a singer, though. When I get to the end of making a Sixx:A.M. record, I’m kind of always shocked at how the vocals turned out, because during the process – like I said – I don’t really think of myself as a singer so much as just the person given the task of telling the stories.”
‘Gotta Get It Right’ serves as Modern Vintage’s lead composition, as mentioned earlier. “We chose ‘Gotta Get It Right’ as the first single, because we wanted people to know right off the bat that this record was gonna go some places that they did not expect,” James divulges. “I really like the fact that while ‘Gotta Get It Right’ is still a rock song, it’s a rock song in a different form. I think it’s very important to Sixx:A.M. that we started kind of showing that rock is not just one thing. I think that today’s perception of rock music has become very narrow; the expectations of a rock song have become extremely one-dimensional. When you go back and listen to rock records of the 60s or 70s, they’re incredibly diverse.
“If you listen to a Queen record or a Bowie record, you go on a musical journey – not every song is an uptempo, wall of guitars, heavy drum song – so we wanted to make sure that we made a rock record that was inclusive of many different genres of rock music. That’s really what Modern Vintage represents to us, and I think that ‘Gotta Get It Right’ is a good example of that. It’s a rock track, but it’s rock in a different way. We’re getting the aggression and the heaviness from different instruments; for instance, it leans more towards the rhythm than it does towards the chords, and that was important for us to kind of set the stage for what was to come.”
A music video was filmed for the track. “We shot a video out in Lancaster, California,” the frontman informs. “It was a really cool location out in the middle of the desert, so you’re driving for a couple of hours and it’s just all desert, and then you come up on this little motel – or at least it appears to be a motel. It’s actually a movie set, but I can’t remember what the actual set was built for. As you drive up to it, it’s like a normal, old, 70s-style motel, but then you realise that it’s all specifically for filming. When you go in there, the décor is very, very true to that time period, so it really ended up being a perfect place for us to not only do the photoshoot but the video as well, because it had that modern, vintage feel to it. The kind of mid-20th century modern décor and stuff really lent it to basically the story that we’re telling with this record.”
James described the number ‘Stars’, meanwhile, as being a quintessential Sixx:A.M. song. “When you go back to ‘Life Is Beautiful’ or ‘Lies Of The Beautiful People’ – or any of the songs off of the earlier records – I think that the Sixx:A.M. listener would notice that it has a few things that are kind of consistent,” he critiques. “One of them would be a big, heavy guitar riff, verses that have a darkness to them, and then choruses that explode and soar into that contrast that I was talking about between beauty and darkness. We’ve always done that kind of naturally, and to me ‘Stars’ takes that to another level. It has the dark, brooding verses, and then the chorus that just really explodes and soars. That’s why I described that as a quintessential Sixx:A.M. song; it has everything that Sixx:A.M. is known for, and possibly just on a more heightened level.”
And as well, a music video for that specific track is in the pipeline. “It looks like that’ll probably be our next single, and I’m very excited about that as well,” the producer discloses. “Yeah, I think that we’re going to hopefully shoot several videos for this record, and just really take advantage of where we are and social media, and how much easier it is to reach our fans, and interact with our fans, and share content with them.”
Cover artwork duties fell to Paul Brown, once again. “Paul Brown has been the artist for Sixx:A.M. for quite some time,” James comments. “He shot a few of our videos. He’s always just kind of been a family member to us, so when it came time to make this record and do the record cover, I believe Nikki actually had the concept of the robotic girl that was made out of car parts. We wanted the record cover to, again, really tell that Modern Vintage story. As you look at it, at first glance you might just think she’s kind of a half-robot, half-human, but then as you look at it closer, you realise that she’s made up of all old car parts, and we just loved that concept.
“We wanted to do something other than just putting a picture of the band on the record cover, and we wanted something that really told the Modern Vintage story, or at least told one version of it. Paul came to the table, and was able to design that cover. It really just says everything that we wanna say about this record.”
Over the years, the Sixx:A.M. vocalist has developed somewhat of a solo profile. “I’m always kind of dabbling with that,” he ponders. “I don’t have any immediate plans to make a solo record, but I am always writing. It just depends on what projects I’m working on at the time. I’m always writing songs, so if I am in a project – say I’m producing a band – maybe that song will end up on their record, or maybe it’ll go on the shelf and be a Sixx:A.M. song at some point. If neither of those seem like likely options, I’m certainly always in the studio making songs, so I’m sure there will be some more solo stuff in the future.”
Modern Vintage was released on October 6th, 2014 in the United Kingdom and subsequently on the 7th in North America, all via Eleven Seven Music.
Interview published in October 2014.
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