It's a beautiful spring day in LA and I'm riding in a car with Nikki Sixx that's weaving its way through Los Angeles and, really, there's only one subject I want to ask the iconic rockstar about: death.
A founding member of 80s hair metal legend Mötley Crüe, Sixx became famous for three things: sex, drugs, and dying. His life has been almost over-chronicled; his time in Mötley Crüe first detailed heavily in The Dirt, the biography of the band written by Sixx, Mick Mars, Tommy Lee, Vince Neil, and others close to their machinations and then again in his autobiography The Heroin Diaries, which focused on, you guessed it, his relationship with heroin. It doesn't matter whether you're a fan or not, because when you get right down to it you're standing in front of the guy who, along with three other ragtag teenagers with no more direction than you would expect, launched heavy metal into a completely new orbit.
Hours earlier, I found myself waiting to enter the first floor of a recording studio in downtown Los Angeles. It's about 10 AM, which means I've been up since 5 AM, anxious. Waiting on the patio, I smoke a cigarette and chat with the photographer. I smoke another cigarette. Finally, after what seems like an amount of time designed specifically to stress me out as much as possible, we're ushered inside.
The headquarters of the Sixx Sense, Nikki Sixx's iHeartRadio show, are corporate, sanitary; they feel like a newly-opened campus library, one designed to be aesthetically pleasing and nothing more. As we walk to the back of the building we pass a few different shows in session, 'On Air' signs illuminated. I make awkward eye contact through the windows, and am quickly reminded of how anxious I am.
In the same way that Alice Cooper and KISS opened the door for costumes, gimmicks, and power chords, Mötley Crüe wiped away any possibility that hair metal bands could be anything less than powerful influences on modern music: look no further than the artists featured on Nashville Outlaws: A Tribute to Mötley Crüe for proof of how a hair metal band can inspire a generation of musicians in a genre that may as well be considered a complete opposite of their own.
"Are you looking for me?" he asks when he opens the door to the empty studio I'm sitting in. He still has his signature coif, dyed black; the same one he had when he moved to LA at 17. He has more tattoos than I thought he would, and he's wearing his sunglasses, indoors.
These days, Nikki Sixx introduces the world to new bands he loves through his show, as a kind of way to repay Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne, who took a chance on Mötley in the early 80s and took them out on tour. By night (or probably by day as well, considering the 58-year-old has slowed down considerably in comparison to his youth), he tours and makes music with Sixx A.M., a trio comprised of himself, DJ Ashba (best-known for playing guitar with Guns N Roses from 2009-2015) and James Michael, a producer who has worked with everyone from Hillary Duff to Trapt. Ashba helped Sixx set up his studio, Funny Farms (which operated from 2006 until 2013) and Michael collaborated with Sixx on songs for Mötley Crüe, which explains why Sixx A.M. sounds tight, energetic, and frequently rips. The band blends classical music style string arrangements with hard rock riffs to create a kind of orchestral rock that feels natural coming from them, if not a little dated.
The guys got together to record a "soundtrack" to Sixx's autobiography, The Heroin Diaries, which focused on his years of addiction to heroin and other drugs. Once people got their ears on the album's title track, "Life is Beautiful," radio DJs started to request the name of the band so they could tell listeners who it was they were hearing, and that's when they decided on the name Sixx AM.
Sixx tells me that this project marks the first time he's ever had people to bounce lyrics off of, and to really and truly collaborate with another musician. "I've learned so much about lyric writing from James," Sixx said, "because I was alone for a long time, writing all those lyrics in Mötley Crüe by myself. Vince [Neil] used to be just like 'Fuck, dude, I can't sing that many words within the timing of the song,' but that's how Vince's voice sounded so great, because I was writing for the poetry of it and not for the melody. And so with James, I'm so grateful to be able to have that, as a lyric writer having a partner is crazy." Sixx is completely adamant that the band would not exist without Michael and Ashba, and that he is merely the guy who got them the stage.
The band's fourth record, Prayers for the Damned, wrestles with dark material—death, drug addiction, failure, and aggressive nihilism. It's a gospel album for people who don't believe in God and recording it was an uplifting experience, according to Sixx. Prayers for the Damned, as with all of Sixx A.M.'s releases, focuses on the difficulty and struggle of working class life. Prayers for the Blessed, their fifth album, released a few months after Damned, focuses instead on songs about people who don't have much but consider themselves immensely wealthy or, in Sixx's terms, "the people that need more prayers."
It's easy to dismiss this band or put them in the same realm as Nickelback, or the current incarnation of Guns 'n' Roses, or Slipknot, System of a Down—really any band that gets played on your hometown hard rock station. It's even easier to assume the simplicity of the lyrics means the emotions the music provokes and encourages are less important, as if being good and being decipherable are mutually exclusive things.
Everyone knows the story of Nikki Sixx's overdose and subsequent death. At one point while he was on tour in Japan, he was left for dead in a dumpster behind his dealer's apartment after overdosing on heroin. The next time he overdosed, he was pronounced dead at the scene, only to be rescued by an ambulance tech who happened to be a huge fan of the band. The struggle with depression and drugs is not at all uncharted territory in music, but he might be one of the only artists to die, come back to life, and walk right out of his hospital room the very next morning.
"What's your relationship to death now that you're a father watching your kids grow up?" I ask him.
"I want a really nice plot in Hollywood Cemetery. I was going to get myself a really badass tombstone that says "Nikki Sixx, born 1958, death - ???" Then, every year, I'd get together with my friends and family and we'd take pictures in front of my tombstone so when I pass away, people could visit me they would go,'"Remember how Nikki made us come here every year and celebrate?' A couple of people said, 'Look, we might have to put you in an institution if you do that.' But in general, my point is, I've had a really fucking hard life. I've had a really great life too, and I kind of just want to live in the moment. You know the saying, 'This too shall pass?' When you're on top of the mountain, I'm going to tell you right now, this too shall pass. And when you're in the weeds, covered in maggots, that shall pass too you know?"
At one point I ask Nikki Sixx what he would do if he had to live a completely different life. "My ultimate goal is to be a homeless street artist," Sixx says sarcastically as he gets out of the car. Before I can ask what he means, he gets pulled away, and disappears.
Annalise Domenighini is always down to talk about death. Follow her on Twitter.
Adam Menzies did the illustration.