Tommy Lee's Back, and He Didn't Come to Rock
When infamous Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee rolls into town Saturday night, he won't be here to check on Rok Bar, the currently under-renovation high-glam-trash-rock spot in which he's partner. Nor will he rehash the past like former Crüe bandmate Vince Neil, who recently played a gig at Dolphin Stadium after a Marlins game.
There won't be a whiff of power chords or organic drum beats coming from his direction — unless they're chopped up, sampled, and tweaked through speakers at South Beach superclub Mansion. Yep — Lee's in town to DJ the original electro-house tracks he's created with his partner in crime, DJ Aero.
And guess what? They're pretty bangin'.
Still, some old habits die hard. When I called the duo's publicist recently for an interview scheduled at 1:00 p.m., there was a bit of a delay — a roadie had to be dispatched to their hotel room to wake them up. When I was connected shortly thereafter, their voices were morning-husky.
The pair has been working together since late 1999, when Aero sent Lee a video of a scratch routine. Aero, who was raised on the early-Nineties L.A. rave scene, was soon brought aboard as DJ for Lee's most recent band, Methods of Mayhem. It was he who got Lee interested in the mechanics of the dance floor — as well as Mixmaster Mike, the Beastie Boys, and Qbert.
"I've always loved dance music, or pretty much anything with beats, being a drummer," says Lee. "There were all kinds of possibilities. So I met Aero and was watching him do it, so then I got some turntables."
The two roles at first seem almost antithetical. A rock star is the center of attention, the object of adoring fans' gaze. But DJ culture has long been about the abolition of rock-star culture, about the quasi-anonymous conductor changing the vibe in a room from a shadowy perch. That's exactly what Lee finds appealing.
"You're not supposed to sit there and stare at the DJ. What are you looking at, fucking tweaking knobs?" he says. "My favorite thing that blows my skirt up is when people are dancing and having a good time and don't give a shit who's DJing. I go into a zone and I don't come out until we're done. I get lost in the music."
No wonder. Lee and Aero's live sets are so involved that run-of-the-mill club iPod jockeys should weep with envy. Aero and Lee don't tag team; they are on at the same time, trading sounds and vibing off each other. Every minute of every track gets flipped, reworked, and remixed on the fly, stretching into a locked groove of chunky four-to-the-floor action with a sexy-sleazy bass and a topping of melodic funk.
"How it works is basically I'm starting with the live mixing," Aero says. "Then there's an effects end on my equipment, and it sends what I do over to Tommy's keyboard. Then he manipulates it with a program called Artillery, and it sends it back to me and then out to the house."
Lee works not only a keyboard but also a bank of percussion tools and MPC drum machines. At the same time, he controls a DVD-J setup, which projects images onto the walls.
The result is an experience that can't be duplicated from night to night — one that puts the current moribund school of just-press-play DJing to shame. It's a kick-in-the-ass to both boring, big-room dance music and self-centered dude rock.
In fact comparing Lee's musical story to bandmate Neil's is a cautionary tale. Change things up and continue to play clubs full of sexy people, gaining new fans and crossing genre boundaries — or you'll end up in a half-empty stadium of lingering fans who paid pocket change to see a failing baseball team.
The music world needs more drummers-turned-DJs.
"For the soul, you've gotta switch it up," Lee says. "I love rock music, but this project will never be over. This isn't like a quick little 'I'm gonna play techno music with my buddy Aero for a minute.' It's tattooed in. It's not going away."
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