Looks can sometimes be quite deceiving. With his spiky hair and hardcore stare, you might look upon Billy Idol guitar player Billy Morrison as a firm supporter of the days when punk rock was boiling over with attitude and violence. He comes across tough with his low slung Gibson and leather jacket, hanging out near the shadows of the stage, helping to keep the rhythm locked into that “Billy Idol sound” we are all accustomed to. But once he comes closer to the lip of the stage and smiles, the walls crumble and you can see that although he retains his punkish aura, he is probably a lot nicer guy than you originally thought.
Sitting down with Morrison before the start of a recent Idol concert in Biloxi, you can sense right off how passionate he is about the music he plays. He is very serious about his songs and boldly honest about what inspired them. “You’re allowed to ask me anything,” Morrison tells me during our interview after we start circling his past. His past is pretty well known to not have been all lollipops and lullabies but twenty years on, he is a prospering, happy musician with a new solo album coming out this very week.
God Shaped Hole was a labor of love for Morrison. What started out to be a few cover songs from some of his inspirations to be released perhaps on iTunes built up into being five covers and five originals, enough for a full album. With help from Idol bandmate Erik Eldenius, who played drums and helped produce, the songs came together quickly during a break from touring. “This record comes from a place inside me,” Morrison has said. Songs like “Methadonia” and “Ordinary Girl” go into dark territory while the Flesh For Lulu song “Baby Hurricane” is an homage to a band whom Morrison worshipped in his younger years while honoring their lead singer Nick Marsh who passed away a few months ago after a battle with cancer.
Morrison also enlisted his fellow Idol guitar player Steve Stevens to play on the song “Cinnamon Gin,” which they wrote together, and Ozzy Osbourne helped write (and sings lead vocals on) the final track, “Gods.” It is a record with many shades, something that also shows up in his art and Morrison painted what would become the cover for the album. “I have found painting to be extremely valuable in my life – a creative outlet that no one else is involved with – no managers, agents, bandmates or unwarranted opinions!” Morrison has stated. “I have collected art for years and loved pop art since I first heard the Velvet Underground sing about drugs and transvestites when I was twelve years old.” One tour through his online art gallery [www.billymorrisonart.com/] and you recognize a man of many colors, emotions, thoughts and trajectories. And you will probably find at least one painting that calls out to you … and at least one song on God Shaped Hole as well. It is a treacherous place, one’s soul, filled with potholes and fractures in the foundation, and Morrison has found a way to document his in several different outlets.
Glide spoke with Morrison about these fractures and pot holes that helped create the music and the paintings, playing guitar, writing a song with the great Oz and why the covers he picked for his solo album you may not have heard.
You have a concept with your new solo album. Did you know from the beginning that this is the way you wanted it or did it kind of end up that way having five originals and five covers?
The concept was nowhere when I started it. I wasn’t even going to make an album. The thing about music is when it becomes your job you lose somewhat of what turns you on with music when you’re like twelve years old and you hear music that touches you for the first time or again when I was like eighteen/nineteen and coming up and learning and getting in bands. The songs that affected me, you lose that, some of it, when music becomes your job, cause by the very nature of the word job, a lot of it is hard. And finance comes into it and all this, how many units have you sold, it just becomes work. It’s a great job but you lose some of the magic.
So I’ve always made an effort to retain the magic that music has had for me. So I just wanted to record two or three covers of songs that no one’s heard of, they were one-hit wonders. The only cover that I did on this album that anyone might have heard is the Gary Numan song and even that was Gary Numan when he was in Tubeway Army and not Gary Numan. They were just songs that turned me on. They were English bands that maybe had one song and disappeared without a trace or, you know, a two or three year career and then just fell apart. But the music affected me greatly.
So the original plan was just because I had written the Billy Idol album with Steve and Billy [2014’s Kings & Queens of the Underground] and because we were embarking on a massive world tour, in the breaks, I thought, that would be good to just record a couple of songs and I’ll put them out on iTunes and I don’t have to worry about writing new songs. I just want to pay homage to bands that meant a lot to me. And maybe in the process my new fans through being in Idol might learn about some bands or songs that they perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise. Well, you know, in the great scheme of things that just didn’t happen.
I’ve have a blast making this record. My partner in crime on this album is Erik Eldenius, he’s the drummer of Billy Idol, and I play just about everything on the record but the one thing I can’t play is drums. So I brought Erik in on the plan and I said, “Look, I need a drummer,” and we’re obviously close friends being in the same band, so I said, “Here’s my plan: Let’s record a few covers in the break between Australia and Europe and we’ll just stick them out there.” And as we both went down that road, first of all, we ended up recording five covers and at that point, Erik says, “Well, we’ve got half an album. If we write five originals, we’ve got an album.” And then the concept became, for me, okay, well, let’s do five songs that inspired me and let’s do five songs that get written as a result of that inspiration. So that was the basic concept. The art came later.
When I do a solo album, I do everything myself: the cover, the liner notes, everything. So when it came time to do the cover – I’ve got this burgeoning art career happening, which I’m not quite sure where that came from but it’s pretty huge – so why not use my art for the album artwork and then the whole Ozzy thing happened and so I painted the front cover of the album. I painted that in Italy this year. And yeah, the concept wasn’t there when it started but as in all good creative endeavors, by the end of it there was a total concept.
What was the main cover song that you said, “Okay, I have to have this song on the record.”
There actually was one song, yeah. I’ve long been quoted as being a fan of an English band called Flesh For Lulu. They did one song here in a movie that was quite big [Some Kind Of Wonderful]. So they had a very, very minor American success but they were very inspirational and part of the formation of the goth scene in the early eighties in London. I was a huge fan. I used to hitchhike around Europe to go see them. They were very inspirational for me. And last October when we played Hammersmith in London, the lead singer, whom I am obviously close friends with, came down battling cancer. His name was Nick Marsh and he lost that battle. But, you know, without Flesh For Lulu, I wouldn’t be a musician, that’s for sure. So they had this song, “Baby Hurricane,” that I’ve done acoustically and I’m a big fan of the song so I recorded it and after I recorded it, Nick passed. So I wasn’t sure if I was going to put it on the record but I sent it to his guitar player, my version of the song, and said, “Look, I don’t want to disrespect Nick,” and he sent me an email back going, “Dude, this is great, just stick it on the record. Nick was all about the music.” So that was the number one song that started the whole thing and then, of course, I just picked songs that even now when I play them, make me want to jump around, you know. It’s a great process recording songs that mean a lot to you.
What was the first original song that you wrote for it?
Well, I had a song called “Cinnamon Gin,” and the moment we decided to go from five to ten, cause we had five covers and then Erik in his wisdom said, “Let’s write some songs,” I already had this song lying around. Me and Steve Stevens obviously work closely together on many different things and Steve and I had written “Cinnamon Gin” with no vocals. We just wrote it instrumentally. So I called Steve and I said, “Look, I want to rerecord that song – it didn’t have a title at the time – will you do the solo on it again?” So we took that song, that was the first original, and I wrote the lyrics to it, gave it the title “Cinnamon Gin,” and that started the process of the other original songs.
What was the next one, do you remember?
It was Ozzy
How did you get Ozzy Osbourne to write a song with you?
Well, it’s kind of well-documented that Ozzy is my best friend and I’ve known him many, many years. Sharon and Ozzy are family. They’re not LIKE family, they ARE my family. And I text with Ozzy most days, every day of my life, and we’re very, very close and I disappeared for a couple of days and he texted me, “Where the fuck are you?” And I texted him back, “I’ve decided to make a solo record. So I’m not going to be around. I’m in the studio.” And the next text back was, “Well, I want to be on your record.” I was very honored by it but I took it with a grain of salt because, you know, Ozzy is signed to a big major label and that takes a lot of paperwork and a lot of getting in the business side. But when I went up the house, I started to ask Sharon, I said, “Look, Ozzy wants to do this song on my record,” and she interrupted me and said, “Think no more of it. Leave it with me. It’s a brilliant idea. I’ll take care of it.” And in every interview I have done, I’ve sent out much love and respect to Sharon and everyone in the Osbourne’s company cause she just made it happen. So that allowed me and Ozzy to just be artists and not worry about, “Is this going to happen?” So when Sharon says she is going to get something done, she gets it done. Trust me. And me and Ozzy went to South America, we wrote the song together in about twenty minutes. It was one of those, a very special song, and it just came.
It’s not what you might expect from you two getting together writing a song. It’s not a wild and crazy song.
You know, there’re two reasons for that. I don’t want to say too much but that wasn’t the first song I’ve written with Oz and he specifically said, “Have you got a ballad?” He wanted to do a ballad. So I said, yes, and I didn’t. So four chords later, I had a ballad and we sat and wrote the lyrics and when we got back from, I was out there with Black Sabbath or with Ozzy, and when I got back we recorded it. He showed up at the studio and he is the most amazing person to watch in the studio because people see The Osbournes TV show and they think that’s what he’s like. But this guy walks into the recording studio and what you hear took him about fifteen minutes. Like, when he opens his mouth in a recording studio, it’s something special. And somehow, it’s on my album. It’s a great song and everyone loves it so I’m very lucky and it’s all down to Sharon and Ozzy. He’s the real deal.
Of the five original songs you wrote, which song changed the most from it’s original conception to the time it hit the final version?
I’ll tell you, there’s a song, it didn’t change but it was written and recorded in about nine hours. The very last one and it’s my favorite song on the record, the song “Ordinary Girl.” We had nine songs and we had one day left in the studio, literally one day cause we were going on tour. So the night before when I left the studio, I looked at Erik and I said, “We need one more and we’re going to fucking do this. We are going to do this.” So I went home about midnight. I sat up till four in the morning writing the music, playing in my studio guitars that would end up being on the record. I did some rough program drums. I sent in the track and I went to sleep. I woke up a few hours later. He woke up a few hours later and listened to what I sent him. He learned the drums. I drove back over to his studio. We got the music, he played drums to it, it was amazing and we got all the music sounding good in about 3:00 in the afternoon and he said, “We haven’t got any lyrics.” I said, “Give me a second” and I went outside and I wrote the lyrics in one shot and then walked straight back in and sung them. So that song was quite special in the way it came together because it was literally nine or ten hours from start to finish and it’s my favorite song. The subject matter is fantastic. It’s about waking up next to someone you don’t want to wake up next to; or perhaps you don’t even know who they are. And all of us have done that.
You seem pretty realistic and raw in your songs. Is it easier to put your thoughts and feelings there than keeping them to yourself?
Yeah, the reason I do so much – I act, I play music, I paint, I write – that is all cathartic for me. My formative years were less than salubrious. I’ve had a well-documented drug addiction and today I’m over it. So I’m probably darker than most inside my head. And all those forms of creativity are my way of not spending the rest of my life in jail.
How long sober?
I haven’t had a drink in twenty years. And it’s only because I’ve been granted avenues of creativity that let me get this shit out of my head. Same with the painting. And the other thing that’s important to mention is I don’t really do this with anyone else in mind, any of it. Any song I write, any painting I paint, I do it for me. It’s my way of getting, like you say, those thoughts and feelings out of me. Now if someone else likes what they see or hear, then that’s great. But this is life preservation for me.
With the album coming out, people are going to ask you about certain songs and about your life. How does it feel to talk about your past nowadays? Does it draw you back again to the pain?
No, for me, the only way to be in this business is to be an open book. I’ve got nothing to hide. These days I’m a good person. I don’t do shit I’m ashamed of. So anyone can ask me anything. The thing is, songs like “Methadonia,” I wouldn’t write “Methadonia” if I didn’t want to talk about it. I’m not that kind of artist. I’ve got nothing to hide. In the stuff that I put in my songs when I say it’s cathartic it really is. I don’t live with all that shit in my head anymore because I’m able to paint it, play it, write it, sing it, you know. Cathartic means getting it out of you. So there’s nothing, there’s zero in my life that I wouldn’t talk about because I don’t live like that anymore.
So it feels good
It feels great and also I hope that there is some kind of message of hope in there because anyone that knows me well knows I wasn’t just a part-time weed-smoker. I was a professional junkie for fifteen years and I lived on the street. So if you look at my life now that means it’s possible. No one came along in a Gulfstream jet or a Bugatti and picked me up off the street and gave me a few million dollars. No one did that. So everything that I have right now is because of effort that I have put in to get connected to something other than me, like the universe or whatever you want to call it. I’m not a religious person but I’m a spiritual person and I think that if you tap into that and realize that you’re not the be all and end all in life then you will be granted some kind of respite from your troubles.
Do you remember the moment when you decided to change your life?
Oh very clearly. I had done about fourteen rehabs and God knows how many methadone detoxes and none of it had worked. And I’d come out of another rehab and I was sitting in King’s Cross in London behind a huge trash can in the middle of summer and I was trying to shoot some smack and I couldn’t find a vein. And I had a moment where I realized that I wasn’t going to nearly die and have someone come along and go, “Oh my God, don’t die, we’ll change your life for you.” I was actually going to die and no one would give a shit. See, that’s the reality of a junkie’s death, is everyone will call everyone that you know and for three days people will go, “Oh my God, did you hear about Billy Morrison?” And a month later, forgotten. That is the reality of a junkie’s death. And I had this moment of clarity that I was going to die and no one was going to care and I thought, “Fuck, I don’t want that. I better do something.” So I made a phone call. That’s what I did. I made a phone call to a friend of mine and everything changed.
Who or what made you want to pick up a guitar?
My life was changed by the Sex Pistols. The moment I saw them on TV, it was a TV show called The Bill Grundy Show and is very, very famous and anyone that wants to know can Google it. But I saw Steve Jones playing guitar and what I realized was, you didn’t have to be Jethro Tull or Genesis or Yes or any one of those intricately technical players. What you needed was something to say. Didn’t matter how you said it. And it was like an opening of the floodgates. So Steve Jones is very instrumental, he’s the reason I picked up the guitar. Obviously, once you start playing guitar you learn more and I went backwards instead of forwards. I learned about Mick Ronson, Bowie’s guitar player, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page at the same time as listening to Mick Jones from the Clash or the Dolls, the New York Dolls. I’m very much a rhythm guitar player. I’ve never been much for the noodling guys. It’s just not my bag. I’m more Malcolm Young rather than Angus Young. I’m the rhythm guy. So all my favorite guitar players are basically rhythm players. We can all do a bit of lead but it’s the rhythm that turns me on.
When you were first learning to play, what was the most frustrating or difficult part to get a hang of?
That’s a very, very good question. I have big hands, big fingers and if you look at Steve Vai, for instance, who is a very close friend of mine, he’s got long skinny fingers. And I think that’s one of the reasons I gravitated towards rhythm. In hindsight, I’m really glad because I have a rhythm style that no one else has and I believe my tone is partly to do with that. Most guitar players can look at another guitar player and see what they’re playing. I have developed ways of playing chords because of my big hands and big fingers where one finger covers two strings. So my style of guitar playing has been developed where most people play using three fingers, I play using two fingers. And people will look at me when I’m like showing them how a song goes and it’s like this and like this and it’s like, “What are you playing?” I’ve realized over the years that the way I’ve learned to play guitar is completely different to everyone else. Now that I’ve got a career, I don’t care and it’s great and it’s me and it’s my style. But my most frustrating thing when I was young was the size of my hands. I couldn’t get my fingers to do what I thought they should be doing and what that forced me to do is to figure out my own way of getting the same sound out of the guitar.
What guitar did you start on?
I started with a Les Paul. First guitar I ever had was I think I probably had some cheap $10 thing to start with but the first real guitar … No, I lied. There is a guitar called a Gibson L6S. I don’t have it now. You don’t ever see them. It was a Gibson and it looked like a Les Paul but it was called an L6S. That was my first real guitar.
And you play Les Paul now
I am a Gibson endorser. I have my own signature model. Well, I say I have it. It was made and it sold out. So it’s not there anymore. But yes, I’m in the books.
What is the one you play onstage the most?
Oh it’s a Gibson Les Paul. There is nothing like a Gibson Les Paul but I’ve got like ten of them out on the road. I’ve got a lot more than that but there’s a bunch of different ones. I’ve been playing a Gibson Firebird recently that I really like.
What triggered you to write your first song?
Wow, it’s very hard to remember but I think it was a desire to make my own music. Lyrics have always been easy to me because, like I said before, I’m such a dark person. I look at the world differently. Even as a kid, I used to look around and be like, “Well, what are these?” In England there’re these adverts on little postcards and they put them in telephone boxes for sex. And even as a kid I would be looking at these things going, “Why is there like women in suspenders in the phone box?” I would ask myself these questions so when it came time to write lyrics, my head was full of sex and drugs and rock & roll anyway, so it wasn’t hard to write lyrics. The music was just a natural progression from learning how to play Never Mind The Bollocks. I want to make a song that sounds like that and you just learn. I don’t know, it was something that was in me from a very early age.
Are you going to be able to do some solos shows with your record?
The Billy Idol tour is forever (laughs). We’ve been on the road a long, long time and it’s great, I love working with Billy and Steve. They were very gracious to bring me in to write the album, the Kings & Queens Of The Underground album. It was a genuine collaboration between me, Billy and Steve. That was a great experience. The solo album is close to my heart. I probably won’t tour it purely because I don’t have a band. I may pop up and do a few acoustic performances. But the art, my painting, is very, very prominent on my radar. It’s blown up beyond all expectations and obviously people are buying my pieces. It’s something I love. I’ve got a great collection. I have Warhols and all kinds of stuff. I love art.
It’s a nice way to spend your money than on drugs.
Yeah, exactly, and the fact that I am able to paint and people like it and people are buying it is a bonus so I’m going to pay that some attention.
When you paint, do they free flow or do you sketch them out first?
I do the backgrounds first. I’m a big fan of color so I do the backgrounds first and then I sketch it out using an acrylic pen and then I start to paint. I just sketch the outline, I don’t sketch too much, and then I start to build it with the shading. That’s my thing, the shading.
I looked at all the paintings on your website and I wanted to ask you about the one titled Pick Up The Pieces. It’s very intriguing.
Skulls as an image is just an iconic image. Anyone can paint a skull, anyone in rock & roll loves a good skull and they’re on every t-shirt. So I started by painting skulls and as you paint something you invest more of yourself in the painting. And I certainly don’t view myself as a complete human being. Everyone has pieces missing and depending on your area of dysfunction, some pieces are sexual, some pieces are financial, some pieces are emotional. We all have pieces missing and so the concept of it being this jigsaw puzzle, when you put a jigsaw together there’s always four or five bits that you can’t find. And there’re bits missing and you like want to pick these pieces up and put them in because it’s going to complete the picture. It’s going to make you whole. And so the concept was, the idea of the journey through life is to gradually find a piece and put it in. You spend your life looking for those pieces and occasionally you find one and you pop it in. I just don’t ever want to be whole. I don’t want to be a whole person because perfection is boring. Who is perfect in this world. Thank God we’re not perfect. So I embrace my imperfections and I embrace the fact that I’ve got some pieces I’ve got to look for. Otherwise, life wouldn’t be a journey and I’d be bored shitless.
Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough, Amy Harris and Dan DeSlover