Tommy Lee On Making the Jump From Metal to Electronica

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It’s slightly after 10 p.m. on Saturday in the Uptown neighborhood on Chicago’s far North Side, and I’m speaking with DJ Aero and Tommy Lee in their tour bus parked behind the Aragon Ballroom. The DJ duo has just finished playing an hour and a half set and is taking a needed break before performing again in the early hours of tomorrow morning. In 30 minutes, Deadmau5–the man who has been appointed electronic music’s de facto ambassador to mainstream audiences and Lee’s good friend–will take the stage to a sold out crowd of eerily young-looking ravers clad in neon and faux fur.

But until then, the two are musing on the current state of the music industry, and two things are blatantly apparent:

  1. These men are (almost) complete opposites.
  2. They have an equal amount of appreciation and disdain for the effect that technology has had on the music industry.

Long before they became electronica’s odd couple in 2005, DJ Aero–real name Chester Deitz–and Lee were leading lives that would have likely never even put them in the same room, let alone lead to a fruitful artistic collaboration.

At the time, Deitz was a 28-year-old director of operations for Buffets, Inc., traveling the nation to help open new locations for the corporation’s various chain restaurant. Lee—the notorious partier who began his music career when he joined Motley Crue at 17 and is tattooed from pectoral to second knuckle—however, is the personified antithesis to all things corporate, and has likely never spent a day of his rock ’n roll life working in an office.

Tall and lean, Lee is dressed in a wife beater, black jeans, black sneakers and black hat. He’s talking about how the music industry has changed during his storied career and at 49, he is as enthusiastic, demonstrative and excitable as ever.

To Lee’s left, in stark contrast, is a stoic Aero; calm, composed and thoughtfully articulating each point. It’s easy to imagine him seated at a board room table deftly navigating the financial stipulations of his next restaurant opening.

Their styles may differ, but their main concern about the current and future state of the music industry—electronic music, in particular—is unified: technological advancements have given artists the capability to explore a seemingly infinite sonic universe, but the result has been tons of music that all sounds the same. As Lee puts it, technology has become a “double-edge sword” in the world of music. (Over the span of 30 minutes, he uses this term three different times.)

At best, it may seem curious for one of rock ’n roll’s most iconic superstars to attempt a crossover into electronica, and, at worst, a shameless attempt for a formerly great drummer to recapture lost stardom by becoming yet another celebrity DJ.

But at its core, electronica—and the countless subgenres it encompasses—is solely a series of complementary percussive beats interwoven with mixing technology. So, if there were any member of a rock band to be intrigued by electronic music, it would only make sense that it be the drummer. And, if there were any rock drummer to transition into this genre, it would only make sense for it to be Tommy Lee; a man whose entire life has been a literal and figurative “fuck you” to the status quo.

“I’ve always been fascinated by technology and what you could do (with it),” Lee says in between puffs of his cigarette. “Once I started realizing what was possible, that’s when I lost it…I was like a little kid with a lot of fucking buttons to play with.”

So, in 2000, after spending all of his adult life as a member of Motley Crue, Lee was “dying creatively” and looking for an artistic venture that would fuse his rock roots with his affinity for other musical styles.

From that creative urge emerged Methods of Mayhem, Lee’s rap-metal group that featured appearances by Fred Durst, Kid Rock and George Clinton among others. But when Mix Master Mike, production artist for the group, had to leave for a Beastie Boys tour, Lee’s group was without a DJ. DJ Aero then sent Lee a video of his work, and the relationship was born.

Now, 11 years later, the two are opening for (arguably) the most notable EDM act in the world. But despite the traction the pair has gained, Aero and Lee have made it a point to combat preconceived notions about electronica that exist from within and outside the DJ community.

On DJ Magazine’s recent “Top 100” DJs list:

Aero: “To be honest, I don’t get the popularity contest. Armin van Buuren (ranked) four years in a row…what does that even mean? … Do you have to have DJ Magazine approval to be popular? I don’t think so.”

On the recent rise of dubstep:

Lee: “I know everybody calls it ‘dubstep’… but, it’s like new metal. It’s funny because the younger kids don’t know that.”

Aero: “They never went to a rock show, ‘cause there’s not any. So how would they know?” (Lee laughs in the background.)

Lee: “That style, it’s becoming quite popular. And it reminds me so much of electronic metal, because it’s aggressive and everyone waits for the drops and everybody bounces.”

On Skrillex:

Aero: “One thing you can never take away from Skrillex is his stage presence. Ball of energy. We just did a tour with him and every single night, no matter if we were traveling 10 hours, 20 hours, it didn’t matter; when he got on stage he just made the crowd get crazy.”

On the current state of rock music:

Lee: “With new music, new bands, if your shit doesn’t hit in less than 30 days, you’re off the record label. Nobody nurtures things anymore. Nobody gives kids the chance to find themselves musically…There’s this massive double-edged sword out there with technology that lets you get your music to a fucking shitload of people, but you don’t make any money either because everybody steals it.”

This “double-edged sword” suddenly becomes the focal point of the conversation. It is a perfect analogy for not only the state of music at large, but for Aero and Lee’s current situation as artists.

For Aero—a California kid who spent his childhood sneaking into raves in abandoned L.A. warehouses—the Internet was a godsend. Without it, he would have never been able to reach Lee and leave behind his business gig for a career in music.

And for Lee, technology was the perfect sustenance to satiate his creative appetite.

But there is a downside to the democratization of music technology. As music fans, we are predisposed to believe that the accessibility of this music production software will drive innovation. For Lee, the opposite has been true.

“If you listen to it, it’s all starting to sound the same,” Lee says in a somber tone. “And the reason why is that all those sounds are available to everybody.”

Several hours later, DJ Aero and Tommy Lee take the stage at the Mid, a small, 801 person capacity venue in Chicago’s West Loop that has become the premier late-night destination for any world-renowned DJ passing through the Windy City.
The crowd is going bonkers throughout the duo’s electro-house set, and to right of the stage, hidden behind a large speaker is Deadmau5. He is slamming Coronas from Aero and Lee’s rider request and bragging about it on Twitter.

His presence is not only an indication of Aero and Lee’s newfound respect within the DJ community, but a testament to the blending of genres that continues to occur in modern mainstream music.

It’s unclear if Aero and Lee will be able to stay ahead of the ever-growing crowd of electronica competitors and copycats, but one thing is certain: they are passionate about what they do, and they won’t ever go back to their old jobs.