Michael Monroe Says ‘There’s Nothing Cool About Dying Young’
"Life's a bitch and then you live," Michael Monroe says over Zoom, leaning toward his camera and curling his lips slightly upward into a roguish grin. "It's easy to die. Living and surviving and staying relevant, that's more of a challenge, but it's fun. It's good to be alive."
Monroe ought to know. The proverbial nine-life cat has gone through nearly as many career reboots as cans of hairspray over the past 40 years, fronting the influential glam-punk band Hanoi Rocks in the early '80s (and again during a successful aughts reunion), launching short-lived projects with Steven Van Zandt and Steve Stevens, guesting on several Guns N' Roses-related endeavors and releasing a steady stream of solo albums over the past 35 years.
His latest, June's I Live Too Fast to Die Young, is a riotous punk-rock tour de force that finds the 60-year-old Monroe putting his tongue-in-cheek spin on several rock 'n' roll cliches. It's his fifth solo LP since 2011 with a mostly consistent backing band, including original Hanoi Rocks (and later New York Dolls) bassist Sami Yaffa and former New York Dolls guitarist Steve Conte. Monroe's longtime pal Slash even drops by to lend a solo to the rip-roaring title track.
Monroe relishes the hard-fought consistency and camaraderie of his current band, but comfort doesn't equal complacency, as breathless tracks like "All Fighters" and "Pagan Prayer" demonstrate. Shortly after the release of I Live Too Fast to Die Young, the tireless frontman caught up with UCR to discuss the making of the album, the misconceptions about dying young and his influence on the '80s glam-metal zeitgeist.
When I put this album on for the first time, the only thing I had to ask myself was, "Where did he find this fountain of youth, and where can I find the same one?" Because, my God, you're just rocking your ass off on this record. You sound like you're 25 still.
[Laughs] Thank you. That's great to hear. It's no secret that I just love doing what I do, and I always try to do better. I mean, I just turned 60, and I don't feel 60. I never get complacent, always try to go for a better performance live, make a better record than the previous one and never get complacent. I try to improve. There's always room for improvement, which is good because that keeps me hungry. Keeps me trying.
You lay it out right there in the title of the album and the title track, "I Live Too Fast to Die Young." Inverting that old cliche for your purposes.
That's right. There's nothing cool about dying young or dying in general. Besides, it's too common, it doesn't even help sell records anymore these days. So I Live Too Fast to Die Young is perfect. That could be, it's one of my middle names again. It could be the name of my book or my life story. And I just turned 60, so I can't die young anymore.
Listen to Michael Monroe's 'I Live Too Fast to Die Young'
Lyrically, on songs like "Murder the Summer of Love" and the title track and "Young Drunks & Old Alcoholics," I got a certain wistfulness. It's almost like you're saying, "Yeah, those old days were fun and they were crazy, and it was a decadent lifestyle, but maybe it wasn't quite as glamorous as some people make it out to be nowadays."
Yeah, that’s true. That's right. It's like acknowledging the fact [that] we've all been there and seen it and done it. My whole band, we have so much fun together because we're laughing at all these old cliches and stuff. ... We avoid cliches at all costs, in lyrics and solos and everything we do, because we've seen it so many times in rock 'n' roll, so [you've] just got to reinvent them. Songs like "Young Drunks," it's about so many bands who are encouraged to party and get screwed up, and before you know it, they end up as drug addicts and alcoholics. And the industry, of course, loves a good train-wreck — until it becomes a serious problem, and then it's no fun anymore. Suddenly, nobody finds it funny. You're on your own. And so the song is basically saying you can't live like this forever, so you better get your shit together. There's still some bands who think that's part of the stereotype of [a] rock star or rock 'n' roll, like, "Yeah, party hardy, dude!" and chicks. So many bands — in America, especially — they started playing, [and] you'd ask them in interviews, "Why did you start playing rock 'n' roll?" "For chicks, man!" For chicks? OK, well, lucky you could play a little on the side! Partying and all the posing and all that in the hair metal scene, that's why I always say I didn't want to have anything to do with it, although I was blamed for a lot of that.
There were good bands, too, but then some of them played their hairspray cans better than their instruments, and they were into the posing and the whole superficial thing. That's why, even if they got famous and they sold millions of records, they were miserable later on, because they didn't have strong roots.
You mentioned Hanoi Rocks getting lumped into and blamed for the whole glam scene in Los Angeles. It's pretty funny considering A) You guys weren't even from the United States, and B) You never really classified yourself as a glam — certainly not a glam metal — band whatsoever.
Oh, no. Yeah, further from metal. When we started, well, that's when heavy metal started becoming like a term, like a genre, but before that, there wasn't even any heavy metal. There was a band called the Heavy Metal Kids with Gary Holton singing. That was a cool band in the '70s, which influenced a lot of the punk bands, the [Sex] Pistols and the Damned. But heavy metal ... yeah, I think genres are unnecessary, and they tried to categorize us. Hanoi defied all categories. That was one of the best things about the band. We played anything from punk to calypso, and the shows at the Marquee in London, when we started creating a scene, we had a residency at the Marquee for two months. We played once a week, and everybody came to see Hanoi: hippies, punks, Teds, skinheads. We crossed over to everybody — heavy metal fans, everybody came to see us. And the press tried to categorize us. They tried to call us metal at first, and then punk, and then they came up with this glam thing. And we were just a rock band.
Watch Hanoi Rocks Live at the Marquee Club in 1983
Was it weird for you, being credited as such an influential band in that scene, and then seeing a lot of other bands from L.A. take it to even bigger commercial heights and watching it become a parody of itself? Were you looking at it thinking, "What the heck? That should have been us doing that!"
Oh, yeah, it was a strange thing to witness, but I never thought it should have been us doing it. I'm glad we weren't part of that, what would I call it? The whole scene was kind of ridiculous.
Yeah, and all the posing, it was just like, I would rather not have anything to do with that. That's why I called my  album Not Fakin' It. I was not trying to say that I was any more real than anyone else. I was just saying it's not so superficial. I took rock 'n' roll more seriously than these guys. To me, it was more religious, as opposed to this superficial partying and all this posing and stuff. And [it was] very L.A. When I went to L.A., I realized people can be very superficial and kind of pretentious. And people think that's OK — it's like, "Hey, dude, yeah!" — which was hard for me to swallow. I mean, I lived in New York for 10 years, and New York, it was more like reality's in your face. But L.A., you can live in a bubble. So I never wanted to be part of that glam scene, but I thought it was a little surprising and a little bit amusing seeing these bands. But then people [were] coming up to me and asking, "Are you from Poison?" Some kids came up to me. I was like, "Excuse me? Do you want some Poison? I'll give you some." [Laughs] But yeah, that was a little silly. So it kind of made me not happy to be thought of as one of those bands. So that's why with Demolition 23 [the punk band whose 1993 eponymous debut was produced and largely written by Van Zandt], I stripped down my image, pretty much down to jeans and T-shirt and leather jacket, and started from there, to get away from that kind of stuff, [so we] wouldn't be mistaken as one of the so-called glam bands. But glam, thrash, punk, whatever you want to call it, you know, some people said, Michael Monroe is the guy who put the punk in the glam. I don't care what you call it, it's rock 'n' roll to me.
It was cool to see Slash laying down a solo on the title track of the new record. Is that the first time you guys have worked together on an album since "The Spaghetti Incident?"
We did the Steppenwolf cover of "Magic Carpet Ride" [for the 1993 Coneheads movie soundtrack], which we recorded two versions [of] because I had this new arrangement idea that I presented, and Slash said OK, he likes that too, let's record both versions and see what Warner Bros. picks. And they picked the new arrangement. And the other version that was more like the original arrangement, that was never used, except I had probably the only existing copy on audio cassette. And with my best-of collection, a CD collection in 2017 called Michael Monroe: The Best, I emailed Slash and asked ... "Do you think it's a big hassle to negotiate this to be able to use this on my CD collection?" Because, you know, he's a big part of my career, an important person, and I thought it'd be so cool to have it on the CD collection. And he said, "Yeah, that's OK. You can use it. No problem." But he's done a couple of things. I had a couple of projects that I needed a solo for, and he's always been very accommodating to me in any project I've done and I've asked him for favors. He's a sweet, sweet guy and a dear friend. But this one, I realized he hadn't guested on the last four albums, and I figured this would be a good one for him to be in. I sent him a demo of the song and said, "Would you like to play a solo? It's gonna be the title track of my new album." And as busy as he was, he said he'd see if he could carve out a day for it, because I said I would need it, like, right now. So he said, "Let's see if I can find a day for it." And then two days from then, we had the solo.
Listen to Michael Monroe and Slash Cover 'Magic Carpet Ride'
Throughout your career, you've gone back and forth between doing stuff in band settings and solo stuff. Do you have a preference for either one of those dynamics?
Well, I have both, actually. I've created this situation with the band around me, even though it's called Michael Monroe, it's really a band situation. We have democracy. I involve everybody, I encourage everyone to write, and I choose the best songs for the album, regardless of who wrote what. So [there] really is a great chemistry. We started this band in 2010. Sami Yaffa and I put it together, and there's only been [changes with] the other guitar player. First, there was Ginger Wildheart on the Sensory Overdrive album, and then he was replaced by Dregen on Horns and Halos. And then after that, Blackout States and One Man Gang and now I Live Too Fast to Die Young, Rich Jones has been the other guitar player. It's been the same lineup, the same band. We have a great time together, we're the best of friends and we really act as a band. So I [have the] best of both worlds.