Over the past decade, Nikki Sixx, Dj Ashba and James Michael — collectively known as SIXX:A.M. — forged an unbreakable bond through their art. With two U.S. Billboard top 20 albums and a string of hit singles under their belt, they are on the brink of unleashing yet another rock monster onto a burgeoning fan-base. The band’s previous release, 2014’s “Modern Vintage,” featured the breakout single “Stars,” which sold more than 73,000 copies, peaked at #5 on the Active Rock Chart and #4 on the Mainstream Rock Chart, making the band the #10 most played active rock artist of 2015. It was an impressive start with the best yet to come.
“Prayers For The Damned,” the fourth studio album from the trio, marks a point in their careers when they can focus on the band and take it to even higher levels. As a result, this inspiring new album represents the band’s most ambitious, complete and adrenaline-soaked effort to date. The album boasts first-class production and mixing by Michael and original artwork from Ashba, proving this collection is a labor of passion. At its core, “Prayers For The Damned” is a collection of songs that will fire up the head and heart in equal measure, providing a soundtrack to a generation in search of a voice.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Sixx:A.M.’s Dj Ashba to discuss his creative evolution, the making of the band’s inspired double album, their recently launched #ReasonToRise campaign and their recent open letter to Google’s YouTube service urging them to examine their unfair payment practices for artists around the globe.
I want to start by going back to your formative years. What got you involved with the arts early on?
Let me dust off my brain and try to remember! [laughs] Ya know what? I was kind of born with a pencil in my hand. I drew on everything from napkins to paper plates to my mom’s wallpaper! When I got into school, I was kind of the artsy kid they would take out of class to paint the hallways, the mascots, prom backdrops and design that type of stuff. Then they put me in to teach the advanced art class to the kids. It went from there to having my own cartoon in the newspaper. Eventually, over the years, it turned into Ashba Media and became a massive multi-million dollar company.
Building on that, what went into finding your creative voice as an artist?
I think it came down to being true to myself. No matter what I did, I would put my heart into it 110%. I never half-assed anything. My mom always told me, “If you are going to do something, do it right the first time.” I am a strong believer in that. Whether it was sitting down to write a song, drawing a picture, creating a 3D environment or creating a clothing line, I really get obsessed with making it as perfect as you can. There is something so perfect about imperfection. The clothing is doing incredibly well! I just launched my first retail store at The Stratosphere in Las Vegas on the second floor. I am really excited about it! We had a huge grand opening and SIXX:A.M. has a double album coming out and the media company is slammed busy doing a bunch of jobs for the TV show “Tanked” and Sebastian, the hair company. It is busy, busy!
Where do you look for inspiration?
I am inspired by everything around me. I could literally be at a stop light and hear a blinker. I might start tapping on my steering wheel and it turns into a song. I will be driving to the studio and I will be like, “Man, I had this cool idea. I heard a train making a certain noise on a beat … ” It’s that simple! Inspiration is all around me. I am inspired by the fans that write me with great stories or even sad stories. They are touching in a way where our songs have helped them through a tough time. I find that inspiring to get out of bed and keep moving forward because you know you are doing something good for the world.
SIXX:A.M.’s new album, “Prayers For The Damned (Vol. I)” is an inspiring record. What goals or aspirations did you guys have for this album when you started?
Ten years ago, we started writing “The Heroin Diaries” and next year will mark the 10-year anniversary of the release. We never set out to be a band, so we would be creative as possible. We were artists with an open canvas. We didn’t put up guidelines to stay within and that is what made SIXX:A.M.’s music so special. The last tour we did with “Modern Vintage,” we did a 19-date, sold out, headlining tour. I have been in Guns ‘N Roses for six-and-a-half years where we headlined every arena and stadium from here to kingdom come, which has been great. I am a huge fan of the band and it has been a huge honor to be a lead guitar in that band but I can’t put into words what I felt playing to much smaller audiences but playing to your audience with songs that you helped write and that came from your soul. You see how it is affecting the crowd and people have tears in their eyes. Money can’t buy that and I can’t put into words the feelings that went through my body. It just made me realize not that I was doing the wrong thing but that I just needed to get back on track and do the right thing.
How does the album compare and contrast to what we have already been exposed to from SIXX:A.M.?
It is absolutely our most aggressive record. Both of them are very guitar heavy and it is the most guitars I have ever laid down on an album. I am very proud I pushed myself as a guitar player extremely hard on this from the solos to the rhythms to the songwriting. I also designed the album covers. If you put them next to each other, they make a bigger picture. I am just really proud! We set out to make two arena rock records and that is exactly what we did — two separate albums that compliment each other. If you only heard “Prayers of The Damned, Vol. I,” you would be completely satisfied with the art and the music. It all tells a beautiful story like a great movie. It has a beautiful beginning, middle and end. If you put the album covers together, from “Vol. II,” and continue to hit play, you are going to be taken further on a journey. It’s mind blowing! I am really excited that we finally have these songs with this much aggression to pull from live now. We also brought our live band in from “Modern Vintage” and James [Michael] did a great job of capturing the magic of what we felt on stage.
Let’s talk about the added element of the band. What do these people bring out in you creatively?
It allowed me as a songwriter to go places I normally couldn’t because I could sit down with Dustin [Steinke] and say, “Hey, try this beat or do this … ” I was really able to play off of that. Melissa [Harding] and Amber [Vanbuskirk] are just incredibly trained singers, so I love having that whole element that adds a whole new layer to SIXX:A.M. And I think it is really special, what they brought to the album.
What can you tell us about your songwriting process these days? Is there a method to the madness?
The only thing I can say is there is definitely a magic when James, Nikki and myself get in a room. It is something we have felt since day one. The first time I ever sat in a room with Nikki, he had invited me up to his house, and we sat there at a piano with an acoustic guitar and wrote four really beautiful songs all in one day. That kind of explains the magic we have always had. When we all get together, I can’t explain it but we write so fast. We wrote and recorded both albums in nine months, which is really quick for as in depth as these songs are. There is a lot to each one of these songs and we by no means skimped on anything. We will never half-ass any SIXX:A.M. song, let alone an album. I think double albums have gotten a bad rap in the past. A lot of bands will go in and write an album and have a couple of leftover, OK songs and they figure they will throw in a chorus and polish them up to put out a double album. That is not what we set out to do. We really wanted to make up for lost time and give our fans a huge treat, as well as something to say thank you for hanging in there and turning us into a band. We went in with the intention to make two kickass albums that stand alone and compliment each other.
Did you encounter challenges in the creation of these albums?
I think it was tough because there is a lot going on in the world. As songwriters, if you stay true to your craft, you tend to get inspired or have that kind of funnel through the veins, so to speak. It is very sad, what is going on in the world, with the Paris attacks, all of the shootings, ISIS and everything else. You have to be living under a rock for that not to affect your songwriting. A song like “Rise” was exactly that. It is not us trying to tell the listener what to believe in, who to vote for or this or that. Everybody has their own mind. We are just saying, “Use your voice.” Whatever you believe in is completely your call. For instance, with my voice, what I believe in strongly is anti-bullying. It is an incredible thing that is taking over and it kills me to see it. I get thousands of emails from kids who are getting bullied. In fact, my wife Nati showed me an interview of a guy online who got acid thrown in his face. He is a young kid, who’s name is Stefano [Savi] from Italy. He lives in Milan. Some kids just threw acid in his face and burnt his face up. I was sitting there going, “Why are you showing me this?” She said, “Just keep watching.” I kept watching and it was a really heartfelt interview. I felt bad and I was kind of tearing up. I didn’t understand. Towards the end of the interview they start lightening the mood and they ask him who his favorite actor is and he says something like Kate Beckinsale. Then they ask him who he would like to meet if he could meet anyone? Without hesitation, he says, “Dj Ashba.” I was floored. I was literally floored. I looked at my wife and it was hard not to have tears in your eyes because here is this beautiful young kid whose whole life changed with a bad decision from some other kids. I immediately put my wife and I on the couch and we made a video for him. We sent it to him and he is going to be my special guest at the Milan show when we play there. It isn’t a whole lot but it is reaching out and rising up to try and come together and make a difference. I think if everybody does their part out there, the world will be a better place.
I know everyone in SIXX:A.M. has causes they support. I wanted to shine a light on the recently launched “Reason To Rise” campaign.
I think that is so important. Ya know, I am going to Boys and Girls Clubs and speaking to kids and doing whatever I can. I also donate money to the fallen officers of the Metro Police Department. I also try to get behind James when it comes to his work to raise awareness on human trafficking. Nikki, of course, is all about the heroin epidemic. We really support each other’s causes and these are our reasons to rise. We put it out there on social media with #reasontorise. It was incredible how many responses we got back! It is a movement happening online and with the song that we put out called “Rise.” It is a magical thing that is going on and people are really connecting to our song in a major way. I think it is so powerful what is happening when people really start using their voice, so I strongly urge everybody out there, no matter what you are going through, to use your voice and stand up for what you believe. It is amazing, when people come together, the mountains we can all move.
SIXX:A.M. is also lending its voice to other artists in the music industry. The band recently posted a message to YouTube about their treatment of artist’s content. What can you tell us about that situation?
Here’s the thing, we put that out there and it is something that has been bubbling for many, many years and a lot of artists are starting to speak out about it. Basically, to make it simple to understand, this isn’t so much about SIXX:A.M., this is about the future of music. For a lot of young bands, the future is looking very dim, so to speak. I personally think and we all think YouTube is a phenomenal platform. The problem that most people don’t recognize is that it is very hard for artists, both young and old, to get paid for their craft. Here you have a $500 million company that is paying 1/6th of what Apple Music and Spotify pay to their artists. It is just not fair. What happens is they hide behind a safe harbor clause, meaning it was created in 1998 when, basically, the Internet was on dial-up and way before YouTube. YouTube came out in 2005 but they still ride under this old clause. All we are saying is, “YouTube, do the right thing.” We need to update this clause because they didn’t make it with the intent of knowing YouTube was going to find that loophole. Basically, the loophole is that every artist that creates content, if somebody uploads a song illegally, it is up to the artist to do a takedown notice. As everybody knows, it is virtually impossible to do that with the millions of people making their own videos using whatever songs they might use. They know it is virtually impossible and that isn’t right. By doing that and not changing the law, they are getting away with not paying the artists for their work. That is all we are saying, “Do the right thing. Do what Apple Music and Spotify are doing.” I think the platform is awesome and we are not trying to tell them how to do their business but it is not right for the creator’s of the content.
You have all come to a point where SIXX:A.M. is your main focus and are preparing to take it to higher levels. What does that collective focus mean for the band both short and long term?
It’s great. What it means is that we get to go out and tour on two incredible albums that will be coming out. The first one, “‘Prayers For The Damned, Vol. I” comes out on this Friday, April 29th. “Vol. II” is not called “Prayers For The Damned, Vol. II,” it actually has a completely separate title, which we will be revealed when it gets closer to the release. We plan on putting that out around September or October. We finally get to be a band and go out on the road. We have a ton of touring coming up and we will be hitting every major festival in the United States. In between those dates, we are going to be doing a massive headlining tour ourselves. In June, we go to Europe and do the same thing there. We plan on hitting all the major festivals there, as well. In the fall, we are doing an incredible arena tour that we are very happy to be a part of with Five Finger Death Punch, Shinedown, ourselves and a brand new band called As Lions. The singer, Austin Dickinson, is the son of Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden. I am really excited to see his boy’s band. It’s going to be a great bill and just a lot of fun!
Looking back on your career as an artist, how have you most evolved along the way?
I feel, I hope, that I have constantly pushed myself as hard as I can, whether it is becoming a better songwriter, a better guitar player or writing for the song or coming up with a solo that fits the song perfectly and isn’t a show-off like, “Look at me, look at me!” I think that all comes with maturity and time. You learn that is what is really important, writing for the song. I am hoping I have progressed immensely and I learn everyday. I think if you get to a point in your career where you feel like you know it all, I think you are dead. I am wide open and I am a sponge of life. I literally like to suck up and learn as much as I can everyday and do whatever I can to become a better person.
To tie it all together, what is the best lesson we can take from your journey as an artist?
If I had to give anybody a little message out there, I would say you are going to find more people in life that try to convince you why you shouldn’t follow your dreams or why you can’t or why it’s a bad idea. I think it is incredibly important to always remember to follow your heart. Don’t ever let anyone discourage you from your dreams. Anything is possible! I am a firm believer in the fact that there is nothing in life you can’t have, if you want it bad enough. You just have to be willing to work as hard as it takes to get it. I don’t look at this person in the nice house and driving nice cars as more fortunate than me. I look at it as, “Well, maybe they have worked a little harder than me.” That is what I believe. Don’t ever doubt your capability of achieving the world. Once you have figured that out, you really can kind of mold your future and it is a very powerful thing!
That is awesome, Dj. Thanks so much for your time today! I wish you continued success with all you have going on! I hope we cross paths again very soon!
I am sure we will. Thanks, Jason!