INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL MONROE
Date: October 12, 2015
Interviewer: Greg Troyan of Lipstick
MICHAEL MONROE IS ONE OF THE MOST LEGENDARY FRONTMEN IN ROCK. HANOI ROCKS, THE BAND THAT HE FRONTED IN THE MID ’80S, WAS VISUALLY A GLAM BAND, BUT MUSICALLY SOUNDED LIKE NONE OF THEIR CONTEMPORARIES. THE BAND DEVELOPED A UNIQUE SOUND THAT SEEMS TO HAVE GARNERED UNIVERSAL RESPECT, AND MONROE HAS GAINED RESPECT FOR HIS INTELLIGENCE AS A LYRICIST AND BRILLIANCE AS A PERFORMER. I HAD THE HONOUR OF TALKING WITH MICHAEL MONROE, AND IT FELT MORE LIKE A CONVERSATION THAN AN INTERVIEW, AND I HAVE TO SAY THAT MONROE IS A COOL GUY. HE’S DOWN TO EARTH, INTELLIGENT, AND ONE OF THE BEST ROCKERS OUT THERE. SO, I HESITATE TO CALL THIS AN INTERVIEW, BUT RATHER A CONVERSATION BETWEEN TWO ROCKERS. THIS IS GREG TROYAN OF LIPSTICK REPORTING FOR SLEAZE ROXX.
Sleaze Roxx: First, let me begin by saying that it is an honour to talk to you today. You’re a huge influence on me and the genre of music that I do, so it is truly an honour to talk with a real music legend. And that leads me into my first question, which is, how does it feel to be a legend?
Michael Monroe: I don’t know, man [laughs]. May I ask you something?
Sleaze Roxx: Yes, absolutely.
Michael Monroe: What is sleaze rock? What does it mean?
Sleaze Roxx: Well, Sleaze Roxx, the site that I write for, is a website that specializes in ’80s hard rock news, reviews and interviews. So, sleaze rock would maybe be the more edgy side of glam, so your Motley Crues, your Hanoi Rocks, you know, glam with edge.
Michael Monroe: I got you, I got you. I just don’t really see it that way. I never really saw Hanoi Rocks as sleazy, and I’m not a sleazy kinda guy. That’s all I wanna say [laughs].
Sleaze Roxx: I don’t think you’re a sleazy kinda guy either. When I got interviewed and reviewed for Sleaze Roxx for my band Lipstick, they were talking about how we weren’t sleazy and were saying that people who like glam will like us, so I completely understand where you’re coming from.
Michael Monroe: I mean, I understand it. The Motley Crue guys are all, “Oh, it’s cool to be sleazy with the chicks and drugs” and party hardy and all that stuff, but to me, it was all about the music and the attitude and songs. I’ve never been into that other stuff. I’ve never been with a groupie in my life. Not once. I could not imagine spending an intimate night with a complete stranger and never seeing them again, even before the whole AIDS thing. It just doesn’t agree with my way of thinking. But that’s the difference between me and the Motley Crues and the Poisons and the hairdo bands. I just wanted to make that point, but I can see that you see what I’m about, which is good.
Sleaze Roxx: Absolutely. I’m a big fan of yours, especially from a lyrical perspective, because like you said, you don’t go that route. Your songs are very heartfelt and sincere. There’s a lot of passion, emotion and core to what you do. There’s heart in your stuff, and that’s the kind of stuff I enjoy. One of my favorite songwriters of all time, and I know it’s someone you’re a fan of, is Phil Lynott from Thin Lizzy.
Michael Monroe: Absolutely. Yes.
Sleaze Roxx: And how he was able to mix rock n’ roll, and poetry, and romanticism, and I know that’s what you do also. So that’s another reason why I respect you so much.
Michael Monroe: Cool man. That’s great. You know, I’ve got to have some content in what I sing about. I need to sing songs with conviction, so I can’t just sing about something superficial or something phony. That’s almost half the the thing, the lyrics. They’re also tools for positive action. You can make points and raise some questions without getting too heavy or political. You don’t have to turn your brain on blank mode to have fun and enjoy rock n’ roll. I think eventually, we can do our part and make the world a little bit of a better place. I mean, let’s face it, we’re going to hell in a handbasket. I mean, has there ever been a day on this planet, that anyone can remember that there was not a war in some country, somewhere? Nope.
Sleaze Roxx: I think actually, there was, I read something somewhere. I read it a long time ago, so I don’t remember exactly what it was, but I seem to recall I read something somewhere that stated there was at one point a two to three year period where there were no wars anywhere in the world, but I don’t remember when that was and I’d have to look that up. So I don’t want to necessarily say that is a fact. I read that like six years ago, so I’m not 100% sure about that and would have to do some research.
Michael Monroe: Yeah man, that’s a whole other thing. We could talk about that for a while. So, have you heard the new album?
Sleaze Roxx: I have. I like it a lot. I think it’s another great record from you. I was talking the editor of the site, and I was telling him how much I loved it. I think the songs are catchy, great lyrics — I think it’s great. It’s great and it’s exactly what I would want as a Michael Monroe fan.
Michael Monroe: Cool. That’s nice to hear. People who are not even into rock n’ roll hear the record and sometimes come to our shows and are really taking to it. They’re not necessarily converted, but they’re like, “Oh wow, something like this is going on?” People can feel that it is authentic, honest and from the heart. Rock n’ roll causes a reaction. I would love to see this band get a chance to play for bigger audiences around the world and see what happens then, because every time we play, we go over really well. I think people don’t hear good rock n’ roll much these days, or good rock n’ roll that has a bit more depth to it. I hate to say it, but I think a lot of bands that came around in that so-called “glam” scene… And mind you I never considered or called myself or Hanoi Rocks to be “glam” because I think Hanoi Rocks defied all categories. We played everything from punk to calypso. As soon as something has a name like “punk” or “grunge” or “heavy metal” — it’s over, because then it becomes a fashion and a trend and you have so many bands trying to sound the same and it kills creativity.
Back in the ’60s and ’70s, bands didn’t think about what genre they were going to be, or how commercial this is and how it’s going to sell. Bands did their own thing and had more personality then. Nobody worried about the money or the business, but the record companies encouraged categorization and putting things in a box and packages by saying “this is grunge” and “this is glam” and “this will sell so many copies to a certain type of people.” That, to me, just kills music. To me, music had no place in the music business for a long time [laughs].
There’s still a lot of good bands around. If you look around you’ll find them, and I’m so glad that bands like Foo Fighters and guys like Slash are as big as they are. They’ve got the right attitude. Slash plays the right kind of guitar, ya know? There should be more bands like them. And I’m not saying that all new bands suck or anything like that, but so many bands have become famous and sold millions of records, and people assume it is because they’re the best bands out there. But ten million fans can be wrong, and usually are.
Sleaze Roxx: [Laughs]
Michael Monroe: In some ways, that gave a bad name to rock n’ roll. In the mid ’80s, after Hanoi Rocks broke up, I was almost embarrassed to tell people that I was a rock musician because of the connotation. People would say, “Are you a rock star?” and I’d say, “I’m a rock singer. I wouldn’t say I’m a rock star.” But at that point, I’d rather say I’m a plumber or something because of the way those people were acting towards me. It was part of the whole thing, you know, to be stupid because you had to be stupid to be a rocker, and I wasn’t about that. You hear what I’m saying, right?
Sleaze Roxx: I totally do. The thing about Hanoi Rocks, in comparison to some of the other bands at the time, is that you guys sounded so different from everybody else in the quote-unquote “glam” genre. I’ll talk to a lot of people, and they’ll say, “I hate glam, but I love Hanoi Rocks”. I hear that a lot, so you guys definitely stood on your own merits.
Michael Monroe: Well yeah. I never really considered us to be a glam band, I just considered us to be a rock band like Aerosmith and The Rolling Stones. It’s rock. We were always a rock band. That was always one of the best things about Hanoi. We were spontaneous. It wasn’t always about leather and studs, because everybody had their own classy and cool style. It was five strong individuals, and the big hairdo or whatever, you know, people blame me for that. I started back-combing my hair because I had boring, straight Finnish hair, and I wanted my hair to be a little bit more wavey. I love Neil Smith’s hair — the original Alice Cooper band drummer. He had the coolest hair down to his waist, nice and wavey, and I wanted hair like his so I started back-combing my hair. And of course, because it was long, it got really big, and a lot of people didn’t like that, and looking back on it, it wasn’t that cool looking. Ronnie Wood has the coolest haircut in rock n’ roll. But my hair was kinda like Johnny Thunders on the cover of the first New York Dolls album. It was unintentional. I never meant to have big hair, and people would say to me, “So, Michael, you started this glam resurgence on the west coast. How do you feel about that?” And I’d say, “Don’t blame me for that shit.”
Sleaze Roxx: [Laughs]
Michael Monroe: Anyway, go ahead.
Sleaze Roxx: So, Mike, you’ve done a lot of interviews over the course of your illustrious career, so what is something you want the world to know about you that you may not be asked in interviews all the time? What is something you want people to know about you as a person? What do you want the world to know about Michael Monroe?
Michael Monroe: Pretty much everything I’ve said so far, without you asking.
Sleaze Roxx: [Laughs] Alright, well that’s fair.
Michael Monroe: That’s what I want people to know, that I’m not like those guys [laughs]. As soon as something has a name, you know, like the grunge thing, when Nirvana came out, I thought they were a great band. I thought they sounded great and as soon as they came out, they became huge, then there’s 200,000 other bands trying to sound like them, because they think it’s the formula to success and they all start sounding the same. And the record companies encouraged this because this was their little product to sell. It’s the new hip latest thing, this grunge — this well sell. And that’s what ruins music, you know? It becomes boring and very limited. I like to keep an open mind and [am] open to all kinds of influences. It’s much more fun and creative to be free to not try to sound like the other guy. Therefore, I think as soon as something has a name, it’s over. But I don’t want to mess with your thing, your glam thing. It’s cool and all [laughs].
Sleaze Roxx: [Laughs]
Michael Monroe: Yeah, I don’t want to blow it for you. But you know, you don’t have to act like an idiot. Those bands that are so big, people understandably think, “Oh yeah, it’s rock n roll. It’s wild and wacky and crazy.” And then, in real life, you know, reality sets in. I lived in New York, I never lived in LA. I lived in New York for ten years, and reality was always in your face. When I went to LA, I was always scared that the self-delusion was infectious. Whenever I went there, it was mainly to do sessions with Guns N’ Roses, and it was always a great time because they were good friends, but after one or two weeks, it was like, “Okay, get me out of here now.” But I’m sorry, that’s beside the point.
My integrity has always been more important than anything else. It’s always been important for me to not become an asshole in the process. I didn’t want to lose myself, and to me, the most important thing was never to sell my soul. It happens easily in this business. There’s a lot of yes-men and people agreeing with you, and that to me is scary. It’s dangerous. You might start to think you’re cool, and you’re up onstage singing terribly and sounding like shit, and people tell you, “You’re great!” And that is scary to me.
Sleaze Roxx: And to be frank, I think that’s why your fans love you so much. You’ve always kept that sincerity and integrity, and you’ve never become “the asshole”.
Michael Monroe: Well, that’s great to hear. If I sold millions of records and became an asshole in the process, it would not be worth it. That would be worth nothing.
Sleaze Roxx: So, I’d like to talk about some of your prior work and get some commentary and thoughts on those albums in retrospect. I’d like to start by talking about ‘Bangkok Shocks, Saigon Shakes, Hanoi Rocks.’
Michael Monroe: Well, that was the first album I ever recorded, and I didn’t really know much about anything. When we started Hanoi Rocks, me, Nasty and Sammy were living on the streets of Stockholm. We were homeless. Andy McCoy never lived on the streets. He was smart and had a girlfriend and lived with her.
Sleaze Roxx: [Laughs]
Michael Monroe: And never once did he invite us over. He was probably afraid he was gonna get thrown out for letting the bums come over. But we were living on the streets, and it got rough in the winter when things got cold and people got grumpy and wouldn’t give you change when you were begging on the street. We had a rehearsal space, but you couldn’t stay overnight. It was in a subway station and it was like a fallout shelter. So, we just walked around the streets and stayed wherever we could. We started making the record, and our manager started booking us some shows. He paid some money for the rent, so that I could have a roof over my head. Before that, I had one suitcase and a cardboard box and nothing else. At our original drummer’s work, his job had a place where you could shower so we’d shower at his work and get cleaned up there, and then we’d get back out on the streets again. So, I had a flat for the first time in over a year, and I was like, “Wow, this is cool.”
So, we’re in the studio, and I didn’t think I could sing then. We did our best. Andy and I produced it and we called ourselves The Muddy Twins, as opposed to The Glimmer Twins. “Don’t You Ever Leave Me” is a song from that album that I’m glad we re-recorded with Bob Ezrin, because that version is way better than the original. It’s way better arrangement wise, my vocals are way better on that version too because I could actually sing then. There’s some songs I skip on that album, but I do that on almost every Hanoi album, except for ‘Two Steps From The Move.’ There’s always one song where I go, “Oooh. Ouch. I wish I hadn’t done that.” But it was a good record, and sound wise it was a better record than the second one, so we were better off producing ourselves. The second one had a producer, this guy in England who really, really, ruined a bunch of great songs on ‘Oriental Beat.’
Sleaze Roxx: So you’d say ‘Oriental Beat’ has some great songs but poor production?
Michael Monroe: Yeah, ‘Oriental Beat’ had a bunch of great songs. Andy and I weren’t getting along too well during the recording of the first album, because I was on the streets and he wasn’t and maybe he felt guilty, but on ‘Oriental Beat’ we were getting along great and connecting better. It had a bunch of great songs, but the producer has admitted in interviews that he was totally the wrong producer for us and was trying to go for something that was not right for Hanoi. But that has a lot great songs on it. “Motorvatin” is a song that has been a staple for us for a while. “Oriental Beat” is a great song. “Sweet Home Suburbia” is a Stones inspired one. It’s inspired by “Fingerprint File” which is really funky and has a cool groove. Yeah, great songs but the production was horrible. “Fallen Star” is nice, and Andy composed that back when we were kids. He was outstanding at composing on the piano and he had that whole thing way back then, when we were 14 and we first met. I dedicated that to Mary Pickford, my favorite actress. It was a good album. The cover was horrible and tacky and really tasteless, which was great.
Sleaze Roxx: [Laughs]
Michael Monroe: A lot of people were put off by that cover, but if you wanted tacky, man, that was it. It was beyond sleazy. Your sleaze dudes don’t even come close to that [laughs].
Sleaze Roxx: Well, I’m probably the least sleazy guy on this site. My band doesn’t have a single song about sex on our record.
Michael Monroe: Good for you, man. There was a time when I refused to sing the word “baby” in a song. But I got over it, because, you know, “baby” can also mean a guy. You know, “Hey baby, how’re you doing?” “Take it easy, baby.” [laughs]
Sleaze Roxx: So, how about ‘Self Destruction Blues?’
Michael Monroe: Well, that’s funny, because that one was never really an album. It was a collection of b-sides, singles and demos put together by the record company. They put together that album, and we didn’t even know about it. All of a sudden, we had an album called ‘Self Destruction Blues.’ There was calypso stuff. You know, “Malibu Beach” was originally a calypso joke song. It was me kinda doing an Ian Dury from the Blockheads thing — sex drugs and rock n roll. You know [in a cockney accent], “I want to stay in the sun. I gotta have my fun.” And I started doing a weird chipmunks voices like [in a high pitched voice], “Yeah! Tico tico!” You know, making jokes, and one day at a gig, we were sitting on a tourbus and I said to Andy, “How about we play that song like The Ramones and make it a rocker?” And that became “Malibu Beach” on the ‘Back To Mystery City’ album, which was one of the strongest songs that Hanoi had.
But back to ‘Self Destruction Blues’ — it was a mish-mash and a mess of everything. But I’ve heard some people say it’s their favorite Hanoi album. The guitarist Jay Hening, who played with me in the Demolition 23 band, he told me it was one of his favorite albums of all time. “It’s such a great album because it’s such a mess.” So, I never wanted to admit that was an album by Hanoi. ‘Back To Mystery City’ was the actual third album, but ‘Self Destruction Blues’ — let’s face it — it’s a Hanoi album. Whether we like it or not, it’s there. It was definitely not planned, but that was the fun thing about Hanoi; stuff like that just happened.
The song “Self Destruction Blues” was originally written like a shuffle, like ZZ Top meets Deep Purple. It was a cool riff, and we never recorded it properly the way it was written. The way we recorded, it was just an acoustic jam. I did a version of it on my ‘Life Gets You Dirty’ solo album, the way it was originally written. And with the rebirth of Hanoi on the ‘Street Poetry’ album, we did that song with that arrangement. It was much stronger the way it was written. It was just one of those things that slipped our minds.
Sleaze Roxx: So, what are your thoughts on ‘Back To Mystery City?’
Michael Monroe: That album was an album where I knew much more going in. I was able to contribute to the arrangements much more, and we had a really good time recording that. We had Dale Griffin and Pete Watts from Mott the Hoople produce that one. We wanted Ian Hunter to produce it, but he turned us down.
Sleaze Roxx: How about ‘Two Steps From The Move?’
Michael Monroe: I think that was the best Hanoi album. It was the last album with that band, or that version of that band. It was produced by Bob Ezrin, who was wanting to produce more of our albums in the future. He was looking for a band to work with in the same way that he had worked with the Alice Cooper group in the ’70s, and he felt like he had found his band again. But sadly, the accident with Razzle happened and the dream fell apart.
Sleaze Roxx: So, I know you’ve got to get running to your next interview, but what are your favorite solo albums you’ve done?
Michael Monroe: My favorite solo albums are Not Fakin It’, ‘Demolition 23’, ‘Sensory Overdrive’, ‘Horns and Halos’ and ‘Blackout State.’ I feel I continue to get better and better as I go on.
Sleaze Roxx: Awesome. Just to toss it out there, my favorite Hanoi album is ‘Street Poetry’ and my favorite song of yours is “Fashion”, but I’m a glam guy.
Michael Monroe: That was a bonus track on there, right? ‘Self Destruction Blues?’
Sleaze Roxx: I think so, yeah.
Michael Monroe: That’s the way it was written. It was properly recorded. It just happened to be 20 years later.
Sleaze Roxx: So, my final question, is what is your advice for the kids out there starting in rock bands?
Michael Monroe: Don’t do it!
Sleaze Roxx: [Laughs]
Michael Monroe: No. Do your own thing and be yourself. Your personality is your strongest thing. Be honest with your stuff, no compromise, no regrets. It’s all about integrity, and good music, and rock like fuck!