An Interview with Michael Monroe

All images courtesy of Freeman Promotions


By Andrew Daly
andrew@vinylwriter.com

As he settles into the role of elder statesmen, Michael Monroe is ushering in his sixtieth year in the same way he always has – in style.

Never one to settle, or rest on his laurels, in the face of an evershifting scene, and immense personal tragedy, Monroe has always done what he was born to do – set the trend and break the mold. Monroe’s endurance tends to run through one’s mind in cranking the dial to eleven, and listening to I Live Too Fast to Die Young for the first time.

As long as defenders of the faith like Michael Monroe are around to spellbind us with roaring theatrics set to the theme of hard-edged music, rock will never die, “Who needs to be young? I’m rocking harder than ever, and I feel that this is one of the best times in my life.”

You could say that at times in Monroe’s career he’s been snakebitten, be that as it may, his smile is ever curled around the edges of his famous blonde locks. And as his sterling-silver-ringed fingers rattle against the mic stand once again, from the depths of the Finnish-born rocker’s soul comes the familiar sounds of aggression bred through allegiance

For Monroe, a career in music has been a mixed bag, alternating between immeasurable highs, and crux of the earth lows. But with I Live Too Fast to Die Young, Monroe seems to have found duality in the middle ground, call it an invitation to combat, “I’m forever young in my mind. The way I’m wired, well, I don’t count my years. I live my days to the fullest. There’s always room for improvement, and that’s what keeps me hungry. Trying to do that is what keeps me going.”

From his home in Helsinki, Monroe recently caught up with me via Zoom to dig into his latest record, his punk rock ethos, his memories of working on Two Steps from the Move, and his upcoming September anniversary show.

Andrew:
I Live Too Fast to Die Young is bursting with themes of rebellion and reflection. At sixty years of age, Michael, how do you keep that defiant spirit alive?

Michael:
Oh, it’s just in me. It never goes away. It’s buried too deep inside. What can I say? I guess, at the end of the day, I’m still excited about this, and I still love what I do. I still want to make relevant music and write meaningful lyrics. I still want to sing about something relevant rather than wasting the time. I wouldn’t put out a record with nonsense.

Andrew:
As we dig deeper, “Murder the Summer of Love” is an incredible album opener.

Michael:
“Murderer the Summer of Love” is about, well, obviously, there are references throughout about stuff in those days, but it’s about being in the present moment and appreciating the good things that are happening now. I think that as people we tend to tear things down in the name of progress, only to look back at them nostalgically wishing that we had those people, places, and moments again. So, what the song is saying is, “Get off your ass and live life to the fullest.” Now, this moment determines the past, the future, and the present moment. So that’s what that is about.

All images courtesy of Freeman Promotions/Image credit: Bobby Nieminen

Andrew:
“Young Drunks & Old Alcoholics” and “Derelict Palace” seem like tracks that could be close to your heart, or based on things you’ve seen, no?

Michael:
Yeah, well, it’s about how young bands are encouraged to party and get screwed up, and before you know it, they end up as drug addicts and alcoholics. And of course, the industry loves a good train wreck, right? They love it until it becomes a serious problem, and then suddenly nobody finds it funny anymore. The fun stops, and then you’re on your own. So, that’s another song that is basically saying, “Get your shit together. You can’t live like that forever.” With “Derelict Palace,” it’s about someone falling into a cycle of addiction and estranging themselves from people and the things that they loved, and that they used to love. That song is one of my favorites, actually. It’s something entirely different. I mean, this album, musically, song-wise, production-wise, and arrangement-wise, we really renewed this band’s sound in the best possible way. It has a lot of variety and a lot of new kinds of sounds that we haven’t done before.

Andrew:
The next couple of tracks really seem to lean into those themes of rebellion and defiance I mentioned earlier.
Would you agree?

Michael:
I agree. You’ve got “All Fighter,” and that’s about fighting boredom, fighting normalcy, and fighting against what you were told you’re supposed to do. And it’s about just letting yourself be yourself with no apologies and no regrets. And with “Everybody’s Nobody,” that is kind of about some bands and artists that are content to bask in the nostalgia. It’s about letting go of the good old days and finding things that make you happy in the here and now. You know, some bands are stuck in a certain time period, and they’re happy to be these sort of cult heroes in a small circle instead of starting to move forward, you know? So, I prefer to move forward.

Andrew:
Tell me about “Antisocialite,” and “Can’t Stop Falling Apart.” Have you ever felt like you struggled to fit in, or felt a certain longing on the road?

Michael:
Well, you know, “Antisocialite” is a little sad, but it’s a tongue-in-cheek tale about living an anti-social life, and that’s totally me in a lot of ways. When I wrote those lyrics, I thought that they were instantly ones that I could relate to personally. It’s about me in a lot of ways, my life as an artist, and how I’ve never fit in. Now, I don’t want to give too much away, because I want to leave room for interpretation for people to be able to relate themselves to it. I’m sure people can dig into that and find their own view.

You more or less have the idea with “Can’t Stop Falling Apart.” That was kind of written as an ode to our wives and the loved ones who stuck by our sides through the years. You know, for those of us that play music and tour the world or anybody who stays away from home because of their work for a long time, this is sort of a celebratory song for those who have stuck with us through thick and thin.

Andrew:
“Pagan Prayer” and “No Guilt” seemed intrinsically linked. Can you expand on that?

Michael:
Well, “Pagan Prayer,” that’s probably the only song that has a reference to the pandemic with lines like, “Your neighbors get no vaccinations, believe the Earth is flat, you get an eternal vacation if you believe in that.” And with “No Guilt, those lyrics were written during the summer riots in the United States that happened in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder. So, it’s about crooked cops, and how the whole system is kind of crooked and set up to help these scumbags to get away with murder time and time again. That’s what that’s about. So, those two songs were written around the same time and definitely reflect back on that whole period.

All images courtesy of Freeman Promotions

Andrew:
Given your history and experiences, can one assume “I Live Too Fast to Die Young” holds a special meaning?

Michael:
Of course. With that track, I am reinventing the old cliche of “live fast, die young.” Look, people need to know – young artists need to know – there’s nothing cool about dying young. It’s too common to die young, and it doesn’t even help sell records anymore. I felt that the idea of “I Live Too Fast to Die Young” was perfect for me as I just turned sixty. I can’t die young anymore, you know? I’m already sixty, so that can’t happen. People ask me, “Michael, what were the highlights of your career?” I don’t like that question, and I can’t answer it like you might think I would, because this is my highlight. I keep trying to make better records and do everything better every time I do it. Every song, every record, every gig, with all of those, I try to do better than the previous one. There is no highlight because I am always trying to improve.

Andrew:
The closing track, “Dearly Departed,” once again, feels like an intensely personal song. Is it about any single person?

Michael:
Yeah, so, the last song is “Dearly Departed, and that’s actually a lyric that I wrote in 2000 or 2001. I wrote it around the time when my late wife passed away. I always liked the lyrics, but I always thought it was a bit too sad, and maybe too personal to record. I felt that way until now. So, a few months before we were going to go into the studio, I picked the lyric up again, and it spoke to me. It felt like the right time, and I figured that it was a good time for it to finally be recorded. It was actually Sami Yaffa who set me up with the great idea for the approach that’s on the record. It’s got this great sort of atmosphere on its own without the whole band. We decided to just have a Spanish guitar paired with this very haunting vibe. Going in, I had a demo, and actually, the original version had drums, and a bridge, which I left out. So, after I looked at it, I simplified it to have just the verse and the chorus. After that, I sent it to the guys, and then Sami had this idea, and when I heard his approach, I thought, “Okay, that’s it. That’s the last one. That’s the album.” So, yeah, what it’s basically about is losing someone near and dear to you, and having to readjust your life to that situation.

Andrew:
On the whole, at least in a sense, would you call this album autobiographical?

Michael:
Yeah, you could say that. In many ways, yeah, it is. I mean, there are songs that are about different situations and stuff, but it’s very much about me. It’s not exactly the story of my life, but I don’t sing lyrics that I can’t relate to, you know? Everything that I sing about is always something that I can relate to. So, in that sense, yes, I would agree with that. The title track is definitely my autobiography. I mean, “I Live Too Fast to Die You,” I’d have to say that’s my middle name. [Laughs]. With this album, it was a turning point in the sense that we went into a new studio, and it was all new. I really didn’t plan it out to be exactly as it came together. It was really something that came together as we were in a studio.

Going in last summer, we had thirty-four songs to choose from, and I had to narrow it down to the eleven we hear on the album so it wasn’t too long. I wanted this to be the type of record that you listen to it, and you immediately want to hear it again, and listen to it over and over. So, it sort of came together in a studio in Helsinki, with a new engineer who we hadn’t tried before. That was a conscious risk, and it really paid off because like I said, we renewed the band’s sound in the best possible way on this one. Song-wise, production-wise, and arrangement-wise, there’s a lot of air and it’s more pleasant to listen to as opposed to the previous albums, I think. It’s not cranked to ten all the time, you know? It’s got a lot of variety, a lot of air, and a lot of dynamics.

So, I’m happy about how it came together as we were in the studio. We made some demos beginning of August last year and got it down to nineteen songs, and then we went into the studio in November. It was then that we got it down to about fifteen or sixteen songs. And then, as we were recording, I chose the final eleven, which kind of fell into place pretty nicely. So, like I said, I didn’t plan the whole thing from the beginning, I just took it as it came, and it came together pretty easily in the end. It was pretty clear to me what songs were the strongest ones, and gave the album the most variety. There are a lot of different types of songs from what we’ve done before with this band.

All images courtesy of Freeman Promotions/Image credit: Bobby Nieminen

Andrew:
You’ve got deep roots in punk rock, and that seemed to come out in “All Fighter,” and “Pagan Prayer.” What was it about those tracks that catered to that?

Michael:
It was just natural. As far as what brought the punk out, to me, those songs just had that vibe. When I wrote them, I felt they were very punky, and punk is always part of my thing. Obviously, there’s been a little rocking ‘n’ rolling over the years, but in general, it’s always been about rebellion, shaking up the establishment, and speaking the truth. I love punk music because I feel that it’s about getting in your face, seeing things as they are, telling the truth, fighting normalcy, and fighting against what you’re told you’re supposed to do and say. I believe in being an individual, and questioning authority, and you know, at the end of the day, it’s all about rock ‘n’ roll, but the punk thing was a good kick in the ass at the time, and it opened a lot of eyes. But that’s really what rock ‘n’ roll was always about, right? If you look at Little Richard, he was rebellious. He was raucous. He was wild, free, and a complete entity unto himself. He had to fight the system because it was trying to keep him down because he was black. Little Richard was wearing makeup, he was gender fluid, and he was just wild and free, and in America, the system didn’t like that. They tried to keep him down, but they couldn’t, and that’s why he’s a hero. So yeah, the punk thing has always been important for me, and it always will be a part of what I do, and those songs just felt that way to me when I wrote them, so here they are.

Andrew:
How important is longtime bandmate Sami Yaffa to your overall sound?

Michael:
Yeah, he is definitely important but everybody’s just as important. Every personality brings something to it, and all of us, we’re the same age and pretty much the same generation. We all like a similar kind of music, although we like different types of things too. We still turn each other on to different music all the time. It’s a whole band attitude about being cliche-free, and whatnot. When it comes to lyrics, solos, or anything, we always want to reinvent all cliches and avoid being stagnant. We’ve seen people do things for so many years where they think things aren’t cool enough, and that just feels silly. But yeah, Sami is a very important person for me as my blood brother for years and years. He’s probably the closest to me because I’ve known him the longest time and he is very close to my heart, and a very dear friend. But everybody in this band is the best of friends, and we have a great time together, which shows on our record. You feel the vibe on stage too when we play gigs, and you can’t fake that because it’s just natural. We have great chemistry and a great vibe. We’re the best of friends, and we have a great time together.

Andrew:
Your style, sound, and aesthetic have often been imitated, but never duplicated. Do you feel that labels missed the boat on Hanoi Rocks as they scooped up many of your imitators instead?

Michael:
Well, for a large part, I think they probably did kind of miss the point of what we were about. And I think that some of those bands were good, but most of them seemed to be more into the posing, big hairdos, partying and the old cliche of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. We weren’t about that, we had a punk ethos, and were more of an “us against the world” street gang. To us, the music was always most important, and definitely more important than anything else, and when it came to that, Hanoi Rocks defied categories. So much so, that we could not be categorized. So, they started calling us a “glam band,” after they tried calling us punk, heavy metal, and everything else. We always saw it as if we were just a rock ‘n’ roll band that played anything from punk to calypso. We intentionally defied all categories, which I think was good, because I think genres and categories are unnecessary anyway.

I think a good rock band is a good rock band, like, The Stones, ACϟDC, Aerosmith, ZZ Top, Motörhead, the coolest bands, they’re all just good rock music. There’s no point to try and go deeper than that, and I don’t think there’s any need to categorize or put labels on it. Of course, the industry, and record labels love that. They love labels so that they can market something as heavy metal, grunge, or whatever. I think that’s why music was made for music’s sake in the old old days – the 50s, 60s 70s, and even early 80s – you made music for music’s sake, and we didn’t think about how it was going to be marketed. We didn’t think about what it was going to be called. I think music was more fun back then because I think bands and artists had more personality before. It’s not necessarily nostalgia, I think the fact is that back then, music was made for the right reasons, and later on, it became more about the business. And that’s why nowadays, real music has no business in the music business, you know? I mean, there’s still some good music, but not as much, as it’s about the business too much, in my opinion.

Andrew:
To that end, there are many of your peers who feel that rock is dead. Would you agree, or disagree with that, Michael?

Michael:
Of course, I disagree with that. As long as I’m here, then rock is alive and well. [Laughs]. We were just doing some shows with Alice Cooper in June, and he said to me, “Michael you’ve just turned sixty. Man, you’re young. You’re only just starting.” Alice is seventy-four, and he’s still having the best time of his life doing this. I mean, he could have retired thirty years ago if he wanted to, but he loves doing it, and he’s doing it better than never. So, rock ‘n’ roll is by no means dead. I don’t know whose opinion that is, but it’s certainly not dead in my world.

All images courtesy of Freeman Promotions/Image credit: Bobby Nieminen

Andrew:
I wanted to touch on Two Steps from the Move. That record serves as an incredible testament to everything that Hanoi Rocks was about. When you look back on that record, how do you measure its significance and importance?

Michael:
For me, I think that was one of the best. When I look back, yeah, that was my favorite Hanoi Rocks record. We worked with Bob Ezrin, and that was a great experience. It was a great school, and I learned a hell of a lot working with that guy. He was and is such a great producer, and we were planning to do more together. You know, Bob, he felt the same about Hanoi as he did about Alice Cooper, and we were planning to work together in the future, but things got cut short. So, to me, that’s my favorite album, and it’s the one and only Hanoi Rocks album that I can listen back to without skipping a song or two. To this day, I think it’s an important record, and it really is a strong record. I think that was the best to that point, and we only would have gotten better from there on. If we’d been lucky, you know, if we didn’t have such bad luck with the tragedy that happened, and all that, I think that Two Steps from the Move would have been the start of something for us. So yeah, I think that was a really good record, and we had a great time making it. It was a great learning experience working with Bob Ezrin. Man, it was fantastic. I’ve been in touch with him recently, and he really likes my new record as well. So yeah, I think it was a great record, and we were on our way to something, but fate had other plans.

Andrew:
What did you take away from that experience that you still apply to this day?

Michael:
Ah, Wow. That’s tough to answer. I guess it’s just the experience, you know? It’s all a learning process, and I’m still learning. I’m still getting better at what I do. So, I think maybe it taught me a sense of how to arrange songs in terms of musicality. It definitely allowed me to develop and reminded me to always keep trying to get better. I think making that album really instilled that in me, which we were talking about earlier. I also learned a lot of things about singing by working with Bob. He taught me a lot about getting into the feel of a song while singing, and also, really thinking about what you’re going to sing before you sing it, but in a way that you’re not in your head. He also showed me how to get inside a song and stuff.

Andrew:
You mentioned that you spoke with Bob recently, and that he enjoyed your latest record. Is there potential to work with him in the future?

Michael:
I would love to work with him. It’s a matter of money though. I mean, working with him, it’s pretty expensive. If I could afford it, I would. I don’t know. I’ll have to see. I’ll have to see what the future brings, but I’d love to work with him again. I mean, it would be absolutely fantastic to work with him in the future. Maybe it will happen, but you never know. We will have to see how things play out.

Andrew:
Lastly, tell us about the upcoming anniversary show you’ve got planned for this coming September.

Michael:
It’ll be on September 23rd, and yeah, it’s going to be a special concert with some very special guests. I’ll be playing some – many songs – that I haven’t played before with this band and that I’ve never played before, in general. I like the idea of doing some songs I’ve never played live before, and there will be some nice surprises. I can’t reveal too much of it, but I’d say it’ll be worth being there. I would say, be there, or you might be very sorry that you weren’t.

All images courtesy of Freeman Promotions

Andrew Daly (@vwmusicrocks) is the Editor-in-Chief for www.vwmusicrocks.com and may be reached at andrew@vinylwriter.com

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