Entering his seventh decade of life has done nothing to curb Lemmy Kilmister’s acerbic self-awareness. As vocalist-bassist for one of rock ’n’ roll and metal’s most influential bands, Kilmister laughs off any notion of his celebrity or even his success. Aside from the upcoming release of their 22nd studio album, Bad Magic, Kilmister and Motörhead have other reasons to celebrate, with this summer marking the group’s 40th anniversary. Aside from his near-legendary sexual reputation as rock ’n’ roll’s Wilt Chamberlain, Kilmister’s notoriety as the quintessential frontman has come largely from the fact that throughout those 40 years, Motörhead has kept things simple. For all the well-meaning and oftentimes successful experimentation of the group’s contemporaries over the last four decades, Motörhead’s straightforward, sans bullshit style has blazed through metal and rock ’n’ roll’s relatively brief history with Kilmister’s gravel-pitched snarl and turret gun bass as gasoline. Despite the gnarled badass image he’s justifiably earned, Kilmister was soft spoken and even contemplative in a phone interview, discussing his recent health scares, streaming music services, and more.
The A.V. Club: Bad Magic will be Motörhead’s 22nd studio album. What’s the source material for you guys at this point?
Lemmy Kilmister: More war, death, sex, and drugs. [Laughs.] There’s plenty of writing material in there. There’s always things that people want to hear, like war, death, and love. You can keep them going forever, and I do. I’ve done the other stuff like 1916, but more or less it’s all been war, death, sex, and murder. [Laughs.] But really, we seem to have it down now to a fine science, and it’s a good album.
AVC: How did Brian May’s involvement on the new album come about?
LK: Brian’s a good friend of Phil’s [“Wizzo” Campbell]. They communicate on the internet a lot, and he’d always wanted Brian to do something with us. This time Phil just called him up, or maybe he just got too lazy to do the solo himself. [Laughs.]
AVC: You guys have pretty much stuck to what’s worked for 40 years now. It can be a risky move not to deviate, but it’s paid off very well for Motörhead.
LK: Oh, it’s paid off in dividends for us and for quite a few other bands like Status Quo. There’s been a lot of bands who’ve stuck to their original idea and it usually helps them out. It’s when bands like to switch to what they aren’t or what they think they are that’s bullshit. It really turns out to be bullshit in the end. People changing because they think they should is not a good idea, because I just don’t think they should, really. [Laughs.] It’s something I thought was a good idea in the beginning. Why change it? [Laughs.] People seem to keep liking it, though we’ve done a few departures. We’ve made bad albums in the past, and people have bought them. I don’t know. I don’t care. I’m just grateful for it.
AVC: Was that straightforward approach something you aimed for from the very beginning?
LK: I’d always wanted that ever since I heard Bill Haley, and he wasn’t the only one. There was a lot of good bands then. The first rock ’n’ roll was like the punk business. They were all there, and then they were gone in two years, which is very strange if you think about it. A lot of other movements came in and went out again, but the punk thing was the only other one like that first part. There’s still bands from the punk era running around.
AVC: Has the definition for success in the industry changed from what it was in 1975?
LK: Sure it has, yeah. People who play in a different fashion don’t get signed anymore. I mean, you can still make it through word of mouth in the clubs, but it’s a lot harder. I remember before Chuck Berry, and I remember that early world of rock ’n’ roll, so yeah, it’s been weird. It’s been all right. Now is the worst time for rock ’n’ roll, I think. There’s no radio time for a new band. All the radio stations have been bought by five guys, and Ted Turner owns three of them. That doesn’t leave much room for choice.
AVC: Which is ironic, because you’d expect more choices just given the number of outlets there are to discover music.
LK: And it’s the exact opposite of that, and it’s a good thing too if you ask me. The thing is, you have to remember, people who work in the factory always like rock ’n’ roll. They don’t want to hear all these bands—I don’t fucking know the names of these people—but they don’t want to hear these bands going on about how downtrodden they are or what a drag everything is. They’re all in tune, and you want a bit of rough, you know? We’re good at that. [Laughs.]
AVC: One of the biggest issues in music right now is streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, and others. Do you see those as a potential detriment to artists and the art itself?
LK: Well, I can’t stop it, so I kind of ignore it. We’ve got a lot of people working on the internet for us. There’s a lot of breakthroughs coming through as well, because at one point they didn’t even pay anybody for playing on the advert and stuff like that, so that’s breaking through now. It’s not easy being in this business. We make money going on tours. It shouldn’t be like that, and [record companies] have been doing it for so long that they didn’t realize the internet was going to clean them out. And it has because they’re all going out of business, and all the record stores are going out of business, too. I mean, there’s only two in L.A. now. In L.A.!
AVC: You’ve had some recent health scares. Do you see a newfound kind of kinship with Motörhead’s subject matter and your own mortality?
LK: Well, I’ve never murdered anybody. I wish I’d had a couple, though. [Laughs.] I don’t know, though. I really don’t, to tell you the truth. I’m just part of it. There’s no bells and whistles to it. I just think I’m lucky.
AVC: Luck and smart choices. To that point, what for you has been the most pivotal point so far in Motörhead’s story?
LK: Moving to America is it for me. The last album before that came straight out, and then we were done, so then we moved over here and suddenly became one of those exotic foreign bands. [Laughs.] It’s fucking ridiculous. Mikkey’s [Dee] from Sweden, Phil’s from Wales, and I’m from England. It isn’t international. It’s all the same, so I was surprised when that caught on so much. We used to only be able to do one show, and then we’d go home.
AVC: By that time, the band had already dealt with not seeing that immediate success in the U.K. Was that obstacle something you see as a fortunate catalyst to continue on with Motörhead in spite of it?
LK: I just wasn’t going to take any more shit off of the business, because I’d had enough already with Hawkwind. We made an album pretty soon after I left [that band], and they didn’t even put it out, so I said, “Fuck you,” and with that we got on a small label and then eventually remade the album again that we’d made for Liberty. It was just rubbish the way they treated bands. Of course after we did Bomber, they put the fucking thing out which was what we’d recorded in the first place. Typical, innit?
AVC: It’s interesting to see the same marketing attitudes just manifested in different ways as time goes on. You guys have stuck with it, though. Where do you see the Motörhead story going from here? Where does it end?
LK: I think I’m going to go to Mexico. [Laughs.] No, but we’re going to do what we can as long as we can, and when it comes to the point that nobody listens, then we pack it up. I’m 70, and I don’t care much anymore. I cared a lot when I was 18, but who cares at this point in their life?
AVC: Would you have advice for that 18-year-old kid starting their own band now with those similar ambitions you had in 1975?
LK: I’d say: “Read the small print.” [Laughs.] There’s nothing really I can advise bands on now, though. I’m 70 years old now, and the problems I encountered in the beginning don’t exist anymore. In a lot of places it’s completely different, the whole scene. My advice wouldn’t be good to anybody. I don’t see it really being greeted with thunderous applause. [Laughs.]