After departing his much-hyped, glam-affiliated and ultimately modestly-received band Beautiful Creatures in the early 2000s, guitarist DJ Ashba could have found himself headed to lowercase skid row, but he ended up finding a much more successful future by teaming up with two Sunset Strip icons: Nikki Sixx and Axl Rose. After operating a studio with Sixx, Ashba was brought in to play guitar in Sixx's side project, Sixx:A.M., which served as a soundtrack for his book The Heroin Diaries. This would lead to Ashba appearing as a featured co-writer on Mötley Crüe's 2008 album Saints of Los Angeles, and the next year he would join Guns N' Roses as a lead guitarist, with his frequently present top hat easily bringing to mind one of his more prominent predecessors.
Amidst the flurry of the Mötley Crüe farewell tour and Guns N' Roses' live schedule, Sixx and Ashba managed to convene with singer James Michael to create Modern Vintage, the band's third album, and their first album to stand alone and not serve as a soundtrack to one of Sixx's books. It's also a good example of not judging a book by its cover, because instead of a direct Hollywood sleaze throwback record, Modern Vintage draws its inspirations more from the bombast of musical theater, ragtime, and the proud pomp of Queen, offering more to its package than what's apparent at first glance. AllMusic editor Stephen Thomas Erlewine gave it four stars and said the invigorated band "sounds as if it's just getting started."
Ashba and Sixx:A.M. are currently winding down a tour, only the band's second ever tour, before Sixx returns to finish up the final Mötley Crüe dates. We caught up with Ashba to talk about pushing his musical envelope, why Elvis' backing band was so great, and the differences between playing in Sixx:A.M. and Guns N' Roses.
AllMusic: Lineup-wise, Sixx:A.M. is a more stripped-down act than the current Guns N' Roses lineup, which fills up a stage. Are you enjoying playing live with a more consolidated band?
DJ Ashba: You have to put on a completely different kind of persona. Sixx:A.M. is one of those things where the songs, and I’m the songwriter in the project, they come from the heart, so the guitar style is a no-brainer, it’s simple to play that stuff, although it’s very technical. Being onstage and not having two other guitar players that share the stage and share the songs, it’s a little more challenging, holding it all down, but it’s so fun, so much fun to be onstage with Nikki and James, and they’re completely two different worlds, there’s no comparing the two.
AllMusic: And you're not playing three-hour marathon sets, so you don't have to pace yourself as much.
Ashba: Sixx:A.M., it’s interesting, because we’ve really done zero touring except for the 40 dates five years ago with Crüe Fest, but this has always been a pipe dream, touring with SIxx:A.M., and we’ve always talked and dreamt about, “Wow, if we could ever tour one day, if we could headline, let’s do this, let’s have a big, theatrical show for the fans,” and I think that’s the type of band Sixx:A.M. is, our music is so dramatic and it kind of calls for that type of show, it’s something that we’re all very excited about, we’re all super creative, and putting a show together, it’s one thing when you’re opening up and you can’t really do the show, but it’s another thing knowing that we’re going to be headlining, and it’s going to be awesome putting this show together.
AllMusic: The new album gets very theatrical, especially with the closing track, "Before It's Over." Are you a fan of musicals?
Ashba: Huge fan. I’m a big fan of composers, Danny Elfman, John Williams, Tyler Bates, different people like that. Some of my favorite music out there is Bing Crosby Christmas songs, and I listen to Christmas songs all year round, Nightmare Before Christmas type songs are nothing more than a demented person at Disneyland songs, so when I was writing “X-Mas in Hell” back in the day, that opened the doors, I think, and was accepted by our fan base, mainly because we weren’t trying to be a band. With the Heroin Diaries, we had the mindset of, “If this were ever a movie, let’s score this movie in our heads,” so we basically painted the movie in our heads, and I saw the cameras coming through the neighborhood, going through the windows, seeing Nikki by a Christmas tree with a needle in his arm. It was never, “Hey, we’re a band, let’s do something really crazy and out there,” I was literally scoring a movie for a book.
The fact that “Life is Beautiful” took off was just a shock to all of us. We didn’t even know they were servicing it to radio, and all of the sudden it hit number one, and we were like, “Holy shit,” and it was completely not what we set up to do. This whole thing, and because the fans were so accepting of this crazy, weird, different album, it really opened the doors for us to be as different as we wanted to be because of that. So had we not done that, I don’t think we’d have been able to do songs like “Miracle” and “Before It’s Over” and really push ourselves musically like that, so I’m very blessed when it comes to Sixx:A.M. that we have such a great connection with the fan base and we’re able to do songs that aren’t considered rock and roll, and can push ourselves.
AllMusic: Or there's "Get Ya Some," which is willfully bombastic. Lots of bands shy away from that level of musical excess.
Ashba: I think that it’s mainly to do with how over the years rock has become somewhat narrow, that you have to write a song within three and a half minutes and it has to fit this format, you have to turn the guitars down in the mix to fit on this station, you have to turn the guitars up loud for this one, and I think Sixx:A.M. is completely the opposite of all that, we’ve never cared about radio because we never cared about being a band, and that’s the coolest thing. Thank god we’re all somewhat successful outside of Sixx:A.M., so we’re not sitting there with a label that’s hounding us for the next record.
Going back and listening to the bands that inspired us, that was the inspiration for this album. We wanted to write an album that captured the spirit of the bands that we grew up listening to. If you go back and listen to a Queen record, there’s not one song that sounds the same, and they did take you on a massive journey. They’re so out there, they were more like a big rock opera. You peel it back and say, “Queen, what a great rock band,” but the walls for rock were so much more broad back then, there wasn’t just three and a half minute songs and there wasn’t just one guitar tone and one way they wrote every single song, so that’s the spirit we wanted to capture. That’s what I’m mostly proud of, about Modern Vintage.
AllMusic: When you first started writing these songs, did they start simple and get bigger and bigger, or did you always have lofty ambitions for them?
Ashba: You never know where a record or song is going to take you. One melody idea might spark a riff or a riff might spark a melody idea, the riff may become the melody idea, you just never know where it’s going to take us, and we don’t ever really set out to say, “Let’s make this a simple song,” we really put our egos outside the door as songwriters and we go in, and I’ll be the first to say, “I don’t think this song needs a guitar solo, it’s perfect how it is.” “Gotta Get it Right” is a song where I didn’t feel it needed anything more than a three-chord stomp, real simple, the simpler the better, just big arena anthem type, Queen-influenced song.
Then you have “Stars,” where I felt it needed really badass, really cool, pulling back from my style that I was trying to develop back in the Beautiful Creatures days and pulling some of those elements from my past as a guitar player and putting that style back in and pulling some influences from Van Halen and different things and really bringing some cool flavor and really catchy guitar stuff in there, and so every song is different. With "Before it’s Over," I was going back and getting re-inspired by Scotty Moore and Chet Atkins and Les Paul and those kinds of guitar players and pulling in that ragtime feel and trying to do that song justice, as well. I really had to study to do this album, going back and really re-listening to Nile Rodgers and funk albums and really wanting to do these songs justice, to pay these genres of music homage. It’s exciting.
AllMusic: Were you always inquisitive about learning how to play in other styles?
Ashba: It’s stuff I’ve always listened to and I’ve always loved, but my style of playing was never that, and that’s what I’m saying, that these Sixx:A.M. albums are pushing me as a guitar player, I’m pushing myself incredibly hard, wanting to reach out and do stuff that I’ve never done, or out of my comfort zone as a guitar player, and that’s been the hardest thing so far. I’ve never been in a band or project where it’s like, “Let’s write a ragtime song.” I’ve always loved ragtime music but never sat down and really thoroughly went into it and learned that style of music to the point where I’m going to write a song like that and make it very authentic-sounding. That was exciting.
AllMusic: I'm imagining you walking around listening to Scott Joplin on your headphones.
Ashba: I’ve always loved Elvis, but if you can look past Elvis himself and really hone in on his band, he had one of the most ripping bands around. Scotty Moore is one of my favorite guitar players, and he’s so incredible. It’s exciting to go back and get re-inspired by this stuff that I didn’t know why I liked it, but it captured me, and then you go back and really learn it and it’s like, “Wow, I get why he was so great.”
AllMusic: And pushing yourself as a player doesn't have to mean playing faster or shredding.
Ashba: No, it’s the opposite. I always say that the most professional guitar players, it’s not about showing off on the guitar, it’s about writing the right notes for the right song and knowing when to hold back. That’s harder to do for a guitar player than anything on a guitar you can do. Most guys just tend to want to over-play and say, “I’ve got to prove my point, I have to make this statement here.” But on “Gotta Get It Right,” less is more, playing the right melodies, or the solo on “Drive,” [originally by the Cars] writing such a solo for such a classic song that didn’t have a guitar solo, you have to be really careful, you don’t want to fuck the song up, you want to pay homage to the song and do it justice by picking the right notes for that song, and it doesn’t have anything to do with how fast you can play, it’s all about taste and melody in my world.
AllMusic: To that point, I've always noticed bands where the bass players are the main songwriters, whether it's Nikki in Mötley Crüe, Steve Harris in Iron Maiden or Dee Dee in the Ramones.
Ashba: To be honest, when we all sit in a circle and write songs for Sixx:A.M., the guitars are the very last thing I worry about, and that’s very rare as a guitar player, unless the riff inspires the song, like “Let’s Go,” but other than that, we sit with acoustics and strum the basic chords of the song we’re writing, and it isn’t until all the song is pretty much demoed that I start adding all the riffs around the root notes, and I really start honing and defining what the guitar parts are going to be once the melody is set in place. Ultimately, the melody is the only thing that matters, that’s what people are going to walk away humming, and I fill in all the hooks and complement the melody as best as I can with the guitar parts.
AllMusic: With Guns N' Roses, you get to do a lot of the flashy things: you kick off the show, you play the intro to "Sweet Child O' Mine." Did you know when you joined that you'd get to be that prominent?
Ashba: It’s just one of those things where I was so blessed and honored to get the gig, and I do everything in my power to do the guitar parts justice. I grew up a huge fan of Guns N Roses and I have nothing but respect for the music that they did, and to land that spot and that gig was just incredible for me. I approached it from a fan’s point of view, if I was in the crowd and I saw some new guy onstage playing the guitar parts, what would I want to see? Thinking of it like that is how I approach it, I want to stay as true to what was written as I possibly can and play the songs as close to the way I remember them on the record, and that’s all I can really do. I’ve never wanted or tried to be anything other than myself, but you get put in a situation with such classic, memorable guitar parts that you just don’t want to fuck with that, there’s no reason to. They’re such great, classic riffs that the only thing you can do is stay as close to the original and pay them homage as you can.