ATTITUDE & ETHICS
Guitarist Billy Morrison of Billy Idol & The Royal Machines talked with Mayhem Music Magazine about his career in music, his life as an artist, and why a strong work ethic means everything. We joined Billy as he was doing an all star gig at The Viper Room in Hollywood, Ca.
Mayhem Music Magazine: You’ve been doing shows with your group The Royal Machines. How did this group come about in the first place?
Billy Morrison: It stems back, there was a group that I was previously in that I had formed with the same guys called Camp Freddy. We formed that in 2002. So it’s come out of fourteen years of that madness and Camp Freddy ran ten years and then we decided Matt (Sorum) was doing some stuff and we were doing other stuff so we just rebranded…really. Came up with a new name and it was born a couple of years ago but the concept dates back to being asked to play a party in LA. It was the opening of the downtown Standard Hotel. Donovan (Leitch) our mc, son of Mellow Yellow Donovan…
Mayhem Music Magazine: and from Nancy Boy.
Billy Morrison: Oh yeah, if you want his credits basically all you had to do is say super model. Because he was a legitimate male super model. He called me, I knew him for years and he said can we put some people together and play some cover songs at this party? I had just been in The Cult with Matt and I was sitting opposite (Dave) Navarro at the time the phone call came in and I literally went hang on, and I said ”Dave you want to play some songs down at The Standard?” And I called Matt and you know that was it. It’s been fifteen years or something, fourteen years. The point of that band is the antithesis of everything else. The point of the Royal Machines is everyone involved has real legitimate day jobs in the music business. And when you have a real legitimate day job in the music business, it’s a job by definition, it becomes about how much money we’re getting for this? And how long is the flight there? It becomes about everything other than the thrill of playing that song. I’m very lucky I get to play “Rebel Yell” and “White Wedding” every night of my life. I’ll never get bored with that. The feeling I had when I was eleven and I learned how to play “Never Mind the Bollocks” in my bedroom, that feeling went away somewhat the more successful my music career got. We just all come together to recreate that feeling in a pretty cool way. Playing “Venus in Furs” with Lou Reed in New York is quite a heavy way of recreating that feeling, but it works. I had a great feeling when I did that. We get to live out our music fantasies and just have fun.
Mayhem Music Magazine: So you still actually enjoy what you do.
Billy Morrison: Yeah, you can see it in any photo of us, any photo of The Royal Machines. We’re doing shit that we wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. Steven Tyler gets up and sings a Led Zeppelin song. That’s not really happening every day. Over the last five years I’ve seen a lot of other of these outfits come and that’s great. There’s room for everyone. Music is meant to be fun. It’s great when I see a bunch of musicians get together and play cool cover songs but we just do what we do which is we spend a lot of time on who’s singing what song. You can’t just invite this person to sing this song. We put a lot of pride into our fun. I guess that’s why we’ve been doing it a long time.
Mayhem Music Magazine: How did your music career start and when did you make the jump to the US?
Billy Morrison: It’s been an interesting trajectory. Ever since I saw the Sex Pistols, what went through my mind is none of that shit I thought mattered, what matters is “have you got something to say”. It doesn’t matter how you were taught to say it, whether you’ve been trained to say in a professional manner, as long as you’ve got something worth saying you can go out there and say it. And from that moment I wanted to be in the business. If for no other reason than to get this weird, black anger out of me. We’ve all got dark corners in our minds. The arts in general have saved my life. Through painting, acting, writing, per- forming; I’m able to get that weird shit out that we’ve all got and live a relatively normal life. But before I was able to translate that into actually paying the bills, I went down a rather long narcotically fueled hazy road. I was in bands when I was a kid but I was also actively pursuing a professional heroin career and the two don’t mix. The narcotics won and I woke up many, many years later and I sobered up and I didn’t have any career. So everything that I have started when I stopped getting loaded. From that point I thought it was the classic trajectory, formed the band, signed to Geffen, came over here, made the record here, loved it here, “Oh my God Los Angeles, palm trees, birds in bikinis”, went back to England, did a bunch of touring, and couldn’t lose the thought of Los Angeles. So eventually I moved here and I joined The Cult within five minutes of landing. Then it was The Cult, Camp Freddy, Circus Diablo, solo stuff, one thing leads to another. Once you’re here and you’re working and if you have a work ethic, which I do, you just work hard and look for the opportunities.
Mayhem Music Magazine: You recently recorded a solo album “God Shaped Hole”. With you having such a busy schedule, how did you find time to write and record this album?
Billy Morrison: Honestly, it was done in a sixteen day break in between Billy Idol tours. We got back from Australia…five songs were covers so they’d already been written and initially the thought was I was on tour and I spoke with our drummer Eric Eldenius and I said let’s put out an EP. Four covers and I was going to call it ‘Ideas & Inspirations’. Just four songs no one’s ever heard of but meant a lot to me growing up. Purely to pay respect to the music, not to make money. Four cover songs ended up a full album with five originals. We got back from Australia and we worked eighteen hours a day for sixteen days and then we went back on tour and the album was done. I gave it to (producer) Mike Clink and went “Here mix that”. The rest was all on the road. Hiring pr, mixing, mastering it was all done digitally.
Mayhem Music Magazine: From your days in Camp Freddy until now, you’ve played with some of the best in the business. Who have you shared the stage with that was inspirational to you personally?
Billy Morrison: There’s been so many. I mean Billy Idol’s an inspiration to share the stage with and he’s my day job, he’s my boss. He inspires me on a daily basis as does Steve Stevens. Having those two as my work compadres its insane how much they inspire me. As terms of guest Lou Reed was a very formative part of my growing up with all the drugs and The Velvet Underground. Sharing the stage with Lou, rehearsing with Lou the day before and hanging out, talking was an insane experience. To hang out and play with Lou Reed and have him sing “Venus in Furs”, he knew the effect had on our generation and he just had this wry smile. He’s singing it and he looks over at me and I’m looking at him going “oh fuck me I’m on stage with Lou Reed” and he’s looking like you’re on stage with Lou Reed. That was pretty fucking cool. Ozzy inspires me on a daily basis too. Everyone knows he’s my best mate so I hang out with him all the time.
Mayhem Music Magazine: You spent Christmas with him didn’t you?
Billy Morrison: Ozzy and Sharon are extremely special people. They’re my family. I spent Christmas day over there which was hilarious and as far as being an inspiration that man is sixty six or what- ever he is or sixty seven. I’ve done a bunch of writing and recording with him and I’ve got to tell you that when the red light goes on… your hairs stand up. Me and Steve Stevens recorded him singing that song on my album, just jaws on the floor. People have this image of Ozzy and its one thing and I just watch him record, there is a reason he is a living legend. When he sings into a microphone, it’s unfucking real.
Mayhem Music Magazine: You mentioned being part of Billy Idol’s band. Everyone knows that he has always worked with Steve Stevens. What made him bring in a second guitarist and how were you chosen?
Billy Morrison: I’ve known Steve a lot longer than Billy. I use to go and see Generation X when I was a kid in London. I use to go to the Marquee (Club in London) and watch Generation X as an eleven year old. I’d climb through the bathroom window. I was a huge Generation X fan. I met Steve when I moved over here. Me and Steve have written songs for years and he’d get up and guest with Camp Freddy. One day Steve call- ed me and said listen ‘cause I had a period of inactivity. There was a long period of inactivity. Those two had obviously gotten together and Steve had never been in a two guitar band and Steve had said to him “what would you think about a two guitar band?” and Billy went for the idea and Steve said I got just the guy. There wasn’t an audition. I got a call “Do you want to play with me?” I was like “Yeah, ok” and that was it eight years ago. And it works, there’s a punk sensibility that I have coming from London. I come from the same part of London that Billy does and I grew up with punk rock and Billy is an original punk. So I have that sensibility that maybe American guys don’t. I also have the ability to be a rhythm guitar player which means don’t fuckin’ step on the main guy and I know that. I’ve always been the Malcolm Young. I don’t want to be the Angus Young. That’s why I get on with Navarro, I love playing with lead players ‘cause I’m not a lead player. If I have to play a lead, I’ll hack thru some fuckin’ lead but I much prefer power chords because of the Sex Pistols. I’m a good rhythm player and I fit well with the band that has a consummate lead sound. And I get on with Billy like a house on fire ‘cause I bring the punk back. Billy is a pop star, let’s face it with MTV generation. If you listen to ‘Flesh for Fantasy’ and ‘Eyes Without a Face”, they’re pop songs but at the core of Billy Idol is punk. So I can add that and not detract from the pop part of it.
Mayhem Music Magazine: You are also an accomplished artist. When did you decide to pursue this as more than a hobby?
Billy Morrison: Two years ago. I’ve never picked up a paint brush or touched a pencil until two years ago. In school I use to skip art because it was boring and the teacher didn’t know I was there so I’d never be there. I never doodled, I’m not the guy on the bar napkins drawing little cartoons. I never touched anything, never had a lesson, no idea what I’m doing. But, I’ve bought art. I have a very nice private collection and I’ve always appreciated art. I know a lot about art. I read the books, I have the coffee table books. I know the difference between the skulls and who did the Lichtenstein stuff after Lichtenstein. I’m knowledgeable and Ozzy drove me crazy. He draws every day. It’s a nice meditation for him and he drove me fucking crazy telling me “You should do it, you should do it”. Two years ago I was in South America and I bought a canvas and four colors because we were in an art store together getting him stuff. I bought it really to draw a stick figure and go “now will you shut the fuck up” and I painted this amazing skull. It came out of me and I’ve been painting every day ever since. In two years I’ve done four art shows. My work is being collected now by real collectors. Real people that have Warhols and Basquiats, it’s crazy but I love it.
Mayhem Music Magazine: Your work is very visual. Whether it’s the grenades, the skulls, the hearts, or the puzzle pieces; it doesn’t seem like this was something that started only two years ago.
Billy Morrison: It is and it isn’t. It goes back to that saying… I have something to say. I have opinions, I observe, I live in this world that we all live in and I see holes in it. I see missing pieces and I see dichotomies and most people see that and have no way to articulate it or they feel hampered by what society tells them. You need to be trained in order to articulate it in that certain way. How dare you put brush to canvas without doing nine years of art school. We’re brought up to believe that we can’t articulate that stuff without being trained and the Sex Pistols told me you could. Fuck all that, it’s what you’ve got to say not how you’ve been trained to say it. So I have no fear when I want to say something. The fact that I’ve never painted is true but I would say all the imagery has been building in my head for years. Ever since I was old enough to open my eyes and see what’s wrong with this world. It’s only a matter of allowing yourself to get it out. Now if you have an adolescent and you haven’t watched YouTube videos and don’t know what you’re doing, how freeing is that? Maybe that’s why my art I good ‘cause I’m not hampered by.. well I’m meant to be mixing water with this paint. I don’t fucking know. I buy shit out of art stores that I don’t know what it is. I think that looks good and I just start working with it. I believe that’s why what I’m doing is good because I’m not hampered by anything.
Mayhem Music Magazine: There are no rules.
Billy Morrison: There are no rules! Hand grenades, I picked hand grenades because I’m very into Warhol and Warhol is single iconic imagery. Soup Can, one head. To me a hand grenade is an instrument of death and destruction and if you paint it in pastel pinks or beautiful pale baby blues, it becomes a dichotomy. It becomes a beautiful piece of art. On one level it’s an instrument of mass destruction and on another level it’s a beautiful painting and that’s all I needed. I can see that in my head and then I just start buying shit. Well it’s kind of egg shaped, that’s really was how I painted those gren- ades. I know what a hand grenade looks like. I’ve watched a lot of movies. Now as I’ve gone on I’ve brought more techniques in, I’ve never watched a video but you learn as you go.
Mayhem Music Magazine: Whether playing guitar or using a brush, has expressing yourself always been easy for you?
Billy Morrison: No, I find it really difficult. I’m the same as anyone else. I have an internal dialog that tells me I’m not good enough. And I go back to the Pistols again, they were the people that said don’t listen to that internal dialog; just do it. I’m a human being so every morning I wake up and I go “who you trying to kid”? Every time I walk on a stage I think someone’s going to tap me on the shoulder and go “We didn’t mean you. We meant the skinnier, better looking kid behind you”. Honestly that’s what goes through my head but the trick in life for me is to not listen to that voice. You have good days and bad days and some days that voice is fucking loud and I don’t leave my house and I look around at all the wonderful shit I’ve got and I go my life is shit and I’m an untalented, unloved asshole. Everyone get that. You’ve got to wake up the next morning and go “fuck that shit”. I was up at four o’clock this morning painting. I painted from four am until twelve, then I went and had a busi- ness meeting, then I went home and had a shower and came here and now I’ll play a gig. I do that every day, seven days a week including Christmas day. I was painting Christmas morning then I went over to Sharon and Ozzy’s. There’s two things I believe in. If you’ve got something to say, say it and don’t worry about what other people think and work ethic. Don’t say I want to be rich and famous and in the music business and then do nothing. Gone are the days where you can be a smack head or a crack head and sign a big record deal and then have a bunch of record company people give you more money to go on tour… that doesn’t cut it. You don’t have to be technically the best in the world. I’m not Steve Vai on guitar but I think a twenty plus year career earning my living playing guitar says something. So I don’t have to be the best, I just have to be the best I can be and that’s in every aspect. I’m doing an interview with you guys. I’m trying to give you the real me. I’m not trying to pretend to be anyone else. Just try and be the best you can be.
Mayhem Music Magazine: Our last question. Some say “Rock is Dead”. How do you feel about that statement?
Billy Morrison: Rock is different, not dead. I mean we would be fucked if it stopped at Yes and Genesis and never changed. Then we really would be fucked. But luckily rock changes, music changes, the business changes.
Mayhem Music Magazine: But it has to.
Billy Morrison: Exactly, there’s an evolution. I don’t think rock is dead at all. First of all, Five Finger Death Punch are ruling the world right now, Slipknot are ruling the world right now. Black Sabbath number one album. How is rock dead? Black Sabbath just had a number one album all over the fucking world. That’s not dead. The music business is dead is a saying that gets said a lot and I just laugh and I’m like “nah, the music business isn’t dead. The assholes died”. The music business is alive and kicking. The difference is we’re all in charge of it now. People releasing pledge campaigns and kick starter campaigns and earning loads of money and paying their bills themselves without paying seventy five percent of their income to someone else. The delivery system is different. Sure you can cry over there is no vinyl but guess what, there’s no fucking vinyl. So now we’re buying digital so let’s get into that. Music will always exist and you have the sense to roll with the punches, look at what’s coming down the pipe, you’ll always have a career. You’ll always have fun which music is fun. So many people in this business forget they could be working at Walmart. Music is fun, the fact that I pay my mortgage by having fun…oh my God, I’m such a lucky guy. Nine times out of ten people just forget that. That’s when their career tanks and all the rest of it. Positive thinking, speak your mind, be the best you can be, and no, rock is not dead.
Interview conducted by Dwayne Cavanas
Photography by Dwayne Cavanas , Alan Hess. and Charles Jischke
Art Exibit Gallery photos courtesy of Billy Morrison
Find out more about Billy Morrison by visiting:
& to view his art work visit: