Musician, songwriter, producer, graphic designer, self-professed gear fanatic and technology addict — Sixx:A.M. guitarist D.J. Ashba is a tireless workaholic, which makes him a perfect match for his equally driven bandmates, James Michael and Nikki Sixx. Ashba began playing guitar as a child, influenced by innovators like Randy Rhoads and Eddie Van Halen, and threw himself into his craft as a form of self-expression, therapy and a labor of love. His passion for the instrument, and most of all for music, led him to start his own bands, try his hand as a solo artist, and eventually find a musical home in Sixx:A.M., all while making a name for himself as a multi-faceted artist inside and beyond the realms of the recording studio.
The trio recently released their second album, This Is Gonna Hurt, the follow-up to their tremendously successful debut, The Heroin Diaries. In this interview, Ashba discusses the teamwork behind Sixx:A.M. and the ongoing projects in Ashbaland.
AXS: You were raised in a religious household. Does your faith play a great part in your life?
D.J. Ashba: It does. I don’t go to church every Sunday, just on Christmas, but I still pray every night and thank God for everything I have, because it could all be gone tomorrow. I’m fortunate. I work very hard and I’m very lucky to have two arms, two legs, two hands, and I don’t take that for granted. I really could get hit by a car and it would all be over. I thank God every night and it makes me feel good. I’m not a Bible thumper, but at the same time, it was instilled in me at such a young age and it has helped me get through a lot.
AXS: Nikki and James have talked about the “old school” way of making records. They’ve both worked in analog and digital, and their recording roots go back further than yours. Are you the balance of old and new, or are they the influences on how you track?
DA: I’m a huge fan of digital. I’m so into technology that it’s sick. I’m the computer nerd of the band. If I don’t have to pull an amp out of storage and mic it up, God bless it! I love technology and I’m never afraid of it. I always want the latest and greatest gear, phones, TVs, everything. I’m getting heavily into movie scoring and I’m really into writing 60-piece orchestral arrangements. I built a scoring studio that’s all USB digital, no MIDI, and I did a lot of the Motley Crue record [Saints of Los Angeles] there. I did albums on 2-inch tape when I was 17 or 18. I hated it. It was a horrible experience and I haven’t done it since. Now, nine out of ten times, it ends up being downloaded on iTunes, which is MP3, and I think, If it sounds great, use it.
AXS: What do you have in your studio?
DA: I’m using Pro Tools. Everything is in the box, not one amp. I have 30-some guitars hanging on the wall; it looks like a GC, but no amps or drums. I have the best orchestra and drums sounds, and everything for what I do is in the box and perfect. I could program drums forever. If I want to pull up a violin or cello, I have it at my fingertips and there’s no wall of rack gear. I see that in a studio and think, This place is dinosaur land! Guys who love it, love it, but I was never a fan of racks and racks of gear, and nine out of ten times, you go to the other side and half of it isn’t plugged in.
I use a CME MIDI controller. It’s amazing. My studio is super-clean, efficient and real cozy. I have a lot of Line 6. I love it. They modify my stuff. I have 10 terabytes full of packages and so many samples and sound effects. I have a full studio inside my computer. I use all Macs, two 52-inch monitors, ADAM speakers, a bunch of guitars, piano and keyboards, and if we do any drums, I’d rather do live drums. I bring in a MIDI kit to record and import because you can always change the sound of the drums at the last minute instead of miking everything down, because you can never re-create the same sound. That’s why I don’t use tube amps — because room to room, if the tubes run hot or not, even though the sound is phenomenal, they’re never consistent. With digital, it doesn’t matter where they are — they always sound the same. And tubes — to keep them up is a headache.
AXS: How does the creative process work between the three of you?
DA: James and I, our studios run nonstop. We all three get together to write. I go home, and some songs I start from scratch, or James does, and talk about the digital world — we upload on the server and our studios are in sync. Let’s say he programs drums. He uploads them to the server, I download, lay on guitars and a scratch bass track, upload it, and within an hour he has them back with all the leads. A lot of times we work that way. We did the whole Motley Crue record like that. I get stems, say a programmed drum part, and since we all write the songs, I know how they went, but there are markers for the verse and chorus and I do guitar. Vince [Neil] goes to James’ studio and does vocals. I focus on songwriting, programming the guitars, bass and drums if need be, James comes in and addresses different sounds and goes to town on the vocal end. We’re always sending files back and forth. We’ll go to each other’s studios and record acoustics and mic them down. If we’re on a crunch, we’re back and forth. I do all the orchestral stuff and they let me lose my mind and create things. Nikki is good at painting a picture in my head, and I sit in a room and paint it musically on a big open canvas with no rules. Doing orchestral stuff is a blast for me.
AXS: How are your work ethics similar?
DA: We’re all workaholics. I went from writing and producing Sixx:A.M. to Motley Crue to touring with Sixx:A.M. to working on the new Sixx:A.M. record. I’m working literally around the clock from 10 a.m. until 2 a.m. in the studio. It’s been shocking — we weren’t going to be a band, we never realized how The Heroin Diaries would touch so many people. It was literally a labor of love. It’s an amazing story, so inspiring, and to this day I get biker dudes hugging me, crying and shaking when they talk about it. It’s a powerful album that has touched so many people. I never thought it would hit radio.
AXS: When did you become interested in graphic design?
DA: I had a cartoon in the newspaper for four years when I was young. I was always into painting and drawing, and then I got into Photoshop. Ashbaland is the world of my music and Ashbaland Studio. Ashba Media is my graphic design agency for wallpapers and desktops for mobiles. I love scoring movies, and while we were doing The Heroin Diaries, I knew I could do orchestral music. My mom is a classical piano teacher and I grew up listening to that music. My influences are Danny Elfman and John Williams. I was into film music as a kid, and now I’m getting into making that music. I’m building Ashba Media up with good clients, and my brand with Ashbaland and Ashba Music.
AXS: What led you to production work?
DA: I had done some before Sixx:A.M., but not a whole lot. I always did stuff myself. I think it’s super-important to learn the gear you use every day for your business, so every day since I was little I would record a guitar riff in my tape deck and then play along and record that in another deck. It was really crappy, but I was young and learning. Then I got my first 4-track. I always learned the gear, and when Pro Tools came out, I learned that. I didn’t know it was classified as producing. I had to learn just to produce what I was writing.
AXS: Is your production style similar to James’?
DA: James and I are very different as producers. He has the patience to sit in a room with a band for a year and do a whole record. I’d rather sit in a room without anybody around and just create. I’d rather sit with a film and maybe a director. I love coming in if a band needs a good song. I listen to so many styles of music that I have that weird gift that I can listen to any kind of music and write like that, whether it would be a Garth Brooks record or whatever it is. Nikki and I wrote 40 or 50 songs at his Funny Farm Studio before we started The Heroin Diaries and before I had Ashbaland. We did the Motley Crue record at mine and James’ studios, the band loved it, and Nikki decided to gut his place and turn it into a full-time photography studio.
AXS: At what point did your playing style develop? When did you progress from imitation to innovation?
DA: Probably when I did my first instrumental record at 19. Nirvana was hitting really big and I was young and thinking, What? No guitar solos? This is lame! I didn’t get where they were coming from at the time. I remember a couple of guitar players back home and the tiny local wars of “Who is better?” I never got into that. I was in my room practicing. While one guy is saying, “I’m better than the neighbor,” there’s always somebody better, and that competition is so ridiculous. Be the best you can be. Do your thing. Be an individual and be unique. The hardest thing we had to figure out on the first Sixx:A.M. record was what we sounded like. We needed to create a unique sound for The Heroin Diaries. That was the challenge. The style is there now, so we can take certain elements of it and push the envelope, dive deeper into certain cool elements, and push and twist them harder.
AXS: Is there a difference between what you play for the public and play for yourself?
DA: I think so, absolutely. I like to play around with so many styles. I pick up a guitar and it depends on the mood I’m in. I think the public looks at me as this tattooed guy, spitting and jumping off of s**t, but at home it’s just me in bed, watching TV, playing acoustic guitar and writing songs.
AXS: What is the difference between playing guitar and being a guitarist?
DA: Wow! These are crazy, great questions! I think the difference is being mature in what you do and in the choices you make. Putting everything into a song and knowing when to go for it and when to pull back.
I respect anybody who wants to be any type of musician and I would never discourage anybody. But there are definitely people out there … it’s almost like they’re into it for the wrong reasons, and that’s sad. To be a true guitarist isn’t about anything except the art of playing guitar. I didn’t get into this … I didn’t know I could make money at this. I spent most of my life starving and I didn’t care because I loved what I did. Making money now is the icing on the cake.
I hate bands that literally clone other bands because they’re not original enough to put in the hard work to develop a style. It disgusts me. That’s the difference: they don’t want to put in the many years of hard work and dedication. They’d rather sit back, rip off somebody else’s style and claim it as their own. It makes me cringe. It’s embarrassing.
The answer to that question — the difference between the two is that being a guitarist means being true to what you do. You can lie to yourself, but others will see through it. Guitar is an art and it takes a lot of years and dedication. It’s not an overnight thing. It’s a super-long road and you’re going to hit the ground, but at the end of the day, what makes you a true guitarist is honing in on a unique style and never giving up.