Billy Morrison Interview: Billy Idol's Multi-Media Maverick


Creativity can be a funny thing. Some days you got it, some days you don’t. And when it hits you, who’s to say where it came from. Noted author Maya Angelou once said, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”

Maybe there’s something to that. If so, it seems Billy Morrison has it figured out. Morrison co-wrote a half dozen songs on the new Billy Idol album, Kings & Queens of the Underground, and heads out with Idol to begin a worldwide tour in Europe in two weeks, launching November 5 in the U.K. and swinging all through Europe before hitting the States and Canada in January, and then moving down under in March.

But before they leave, Morrison has to deal with another creative endeavor, his upcoming art event in Los Angeles this Sunday, October 26, at the Village Recording Studio. It seems Morrison’s creativity flows both musically and visually, and the guitarist/painter will be hosting the likes of Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne, Richard and Barbara Starkey, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray, Zakk Wylde, Joe Walsh, and actors and actresses a-plenty.

Before you hop into the Ferrari to head down there though, we gotta tell you this star-studded, one-night “pop up art gallery” is, sadly enough, by invitation only. It’s all good though: Some of the proceeds from the sale of Morrison’s paintings, and the works of friend and collaborator, illustrator Joey Feldman, will go to the Rock Against MS Foundation, a cause close to Morrison’s heart.

He’s toured with Idol before, having joined the “White Wedding” singer and “Dancing With Myself” author in 2010, after spending several years in the Cult. Morrison also regularly shares stages with Chili Peppers guitarist Dave Navarro and Sugar Ray singer Mark McGrath in L.A. based cover band Royal Machines, and occasionally steps into the spotlight with the aforementioned Mr. Osbourne as well.

Check out Morrison’s cool paintings throughout this interview and at the links below.

In this exclusive interview Morrison talks about the recording sessions and writing process with Billy Idol, Steve Stevens, and producer Trevor Horn. He also discusses his signature model Gibson Les Paul, and a unique on-stage gear setup that gives him a “massive sweet spot” amidst the cacophony of a rock and roll stage. And then of course we dig into the visual arts a bit, and Morrison explains how Ozzy Osbourne played a major role in his efforts with brush and canvas.. Hey Billy, how you doing today?

Morrison: Well, you know, it's pretty busy (laughs). Well you've got a lot going on.

Morrison: Yeah, there's a lot going on. The new Billy Idol album was released three days ago, and we're going to Europe, and I decided to do an art show at this time. So, it's busy, but I like it. I want to talk to you about both music and art today.

Morrison: Yeah. When do you start the Billy Idol tour?

Morrison: We leave next Friday for Europe, and we're scheduled to go -- well, they'll just keep it going -- but we've got dates right up until the middle of April. So we know where we're gonna be for the next six months. We're doing the whole thing, so it'll be a good fun tour, and we'll be supporting the album as it deserves to be supported. A few weeks back I saw a handful of U.S. dates, like 15 or 20. But you're going to add to that, right?

Morrison: Oh yeah. We're going out, there will be more dates added to that tour. And then, there's only so much time to get around everywhere, so I believe we'll be back in the summer doing yet more of America. So you were involved in quite a bit of the songwriting on this new album, Kings and Queens of the Underground, right?

Morrison: Yeah. I was. It was a complete honor, to be asked. I ended up writing six of the 11 songs with Billy and Steve. And it was a fantastic process. Really good fun. Like I said, it's an honor to work with guys that have such a pedigree, you know? And who are so cool, to write with. Being in the room with Billy Idol and Steve Stevens is pretty special. How did the writing process work? Did everybody just show up and start throwing ideas around, or did you have basic songs laid out, and you just showed it to Billy and Steve?

Morrison: Each song was completely different. Billy would come in with a lyrical idea, and then Steve and I would throw some chords around it. One song, "Eyes Wide Shut," started as a piano riff that I was messing around with in my own studio. And I took that piano riff in, and Billy starts humming some words over it, and Steve changes a chord. It was very much a team effort, and every song was approached every which way. It starts with lyrics, or guitar, or a beat -- anything. We were all very open minded, and it was very much a team effort on those songs. What do you do normally when you're writing? You have a home studio, right?

Morrison: Yep. What kind of system? Do you use Logic, or Pro Tools?

Morrison: I use Logic. I'm well versed in Pro Tools and Logic, but I just find Logic to be a better home setup. I've made albums in my own house. These days it's not really about the software as much as it is the hardware, your front end. And I have all the best front end, so... There's a saying in recording: "Shit in, Shit out." And so if you put in something quality, you're going to get out something quality. So all my front end is great.

My process is normally started with a guitar or a piano. You play piano someone fluently?

Morrison: Oh no! (laughs) I think anyone with a home studio can play around on a keyboard. I wouldn't say I play. But I know chords. Piano helps me find some better guitar inversions, rather than, "It's just an E chord..." There's a million different E's you can play. On the piano I hear some stuff that is more interesting. And then you convert those over to guitar sometimes?

Morrison: Yep, quite a lot actually. I find that there are some chords on the piano that I naturally play that I wouldn't naturally play on the guitar. But then I fish around and find those notes (on the guitar), and I'm playing some kind of weird inversion of the chord that fits. When you're recording at home, do you mic up an amp, or are you using a plug-in of some sort?

Morrison: I don't use plug-ins. I have an Axe-FX Ultra, by Fractal. And I find it absolutely awesome. Some of the guitar sounds -- I'm not gonna say which ones -- but uh... Let's just say that sometimes you don't need to mic an amp anymore. Sometimes you do. Sometimes the air breathing -- there's no substitute for miking up a loud amp. But at the same time, if you know what you're doing with these... see I don't think that technology is killing music. I think that the technology is there for us to learn and to grow with. So if you just buy something and use a preset, you're not gonna get very far. But if you dig in and you look for your tone, you can find it in these things.

Not that I would play one live. What do you use live?

Morrison: Marshalls. My rig in Billy Idol is, I use multiple heads. I've got JCM 2000s that have been heavily modded by Dave Friedman. And then I use those at the same time as a Custom Audio Electronics head. The basic premise is that I've got cabs facing rear, and cabs facing front. The cabs facing front are Marshalls, and the cabs facing rear are the Custom Audio Electronics, which give me the bottom end which the Marshalls don't provide.

And so through my wedges I have the back cabinets, and this creates a huge sweet spot where I stand, which is a combination of the Custom Audios coming through the wedges, and the Marshalls hitting me from behind. It feels really good to me. What kind of pedals or effects?

Morrison: I use a Friedman rack. I've got an All Access switcher and Friedman built me the rack. I use the old -- you can't get them anymore -- the old Line 6 chorus and delay units, the programmable ones. And there's some Boss and MXR pedals in there. There's a Dunlop wah.

Steve Stevens is the guy that provides the effects sound. My job is not to be effected. My job is to be a rhythm guitar player. And I think that one of my strengths is that I know what a rhythm guitar player means. It doesn't mean a guy that's dieing to play a lead solo.

It's to provide a backbone for the lead guitar player to do his thing over the top of. And I do that with in Royal Machines with Dave Navarro, and I do that in Billy Idol with Steve Stevens. I understand my role.

So that becomes about tone. I've got some chorus and delay and some stuff I can put on the clean sounds, but primarily it's about tone. It's about being Malcolm Young, not Angus Young. Right. Was Malcolm an influence of yours?

Morrison: Very much so. Very much so. The players that form what I view as tone, are Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols, Billy Duffy from the Cult, Malcolm Young. Those guys, you only need to hear a half a bar and you know it's them. Right. It's very sad to see the news about Malcolm these days.

Morrison: Very sad. Very sad. But you know, what a great career. I try and look at the positive in everything, and what an amazing body of work, and career that the guy had, and will be leaving us. Yep. So you always have a signature model Gibson Les Paul.

Morrison: I do, yes. You can't get it, because it's sold out, and they didn't do another run. But it does exist out there (laughs). And do you use those on stage?

Morrison: Oh yeah. Of course. I mean it was the guitar that I wanted that they didn't make. And when Henry gave the thumbs up, I was, first of all a little confused. I think I said, "You've got the wrong guy!" (laughs). And he said, "No, no, no. We really want to do a Billy Morrison signature Les Paul."

So I got to design it. It took two years because there were a couple of things I wanted that took awhile to get them to agree to. One was the white headstock. They just didn't want to do a white headstock. Their copyright and design and patents that they had are all black headstocks.

Now there's been -- I think Buckethead had one, but his was a really like an oversized Les Paul. There's very, very few Les Pauls out there with anything but a black Gibson headstock. But I wanted mine all the same color. It's a beautiful guitar. I saw a video on the Gibson site where you kind of walked through the features of the guitar. So you've got gold fret-wire?

Morrison: Yeah. I mean, being a rhythm guitar player -- and I have big hands as well -- so I like the jumbo fret-wire. And so that was another sticking point. And my thing is gold, you know? I like gold. And so I wanted all gold hardware and gold frets. And they found it for me, and fitted the 6100 wire. The neck profile is, I don't get on with the custom -- I like the weight of a custom guitar, but I don't like the necks. They're very flat to me, like a baseball bat.

So the profile is more toward the '60s slim line taper, but with jumbo frets. It plays exactly how I like. I dig in as well. I find that part of my tone comes from fingernails. Even though I'm holding a pick, I hit it with a pick and the fingernail. And so I'm digging in quite hard and I need it to be a sturdy guitar, but to play like a slim line. And they did it. They did it so well. I have a bunch of those and I use them all the time. What are you tuned to most of the time with Billy? Is it E? Is it E-flat?

Morrison: With Billy it's mostly E. But I have a lot of guitars. I have around about 80 or 90 guitars, and so I'm fortunate enough to be in the position to have a set of guitars... I mean I've got a set of whole-step down guitars in case I get up with Ozzy like I've occasionally done. I've got half-step down guitars. I've got drop-D guitars, open G. I do use all those tunings. And you leave them tuned that way, right?

Morrison: Yeah. Again,I'm lucky enough to have enough guitars to do that, but -- ask my guitar tech -- I'm a stickler for having guitars set up for that tuning, and leaving it like that. Guitars are made of wood, and wood expands and contracts, and I don't think guitars are made to constantly go whole step down, then 440, then drop it back down a half step. I just don't think they stay stable like that. So yes, I have all the guitars in different tunings, and we take whatever we need.

I have one guitar that is all E. All the strings...

Morrison: Every string is an E. And that was done for one song that never made it to the record, but we did play it live a couple of times. It had a very Glitter band -- remember that guy Gary Glitter, who we don't mention anymore? His band had a very unique sound, and one of the guitar players used to tune all E and use barres, and work around that. And so I did the same thing. It's a cool effect. Which band did you record this song with?

Morrison: We didn't record it. We did a demo. It was with Billy. I'm trying to remember what it was called... I don't even remember the title. We played it live in about 2011, and it was just one of those songs. So are all the guitars that you'll bring on tour with you Les Pauls? Are they all your signature model Les Paul?

Morrison: They're mostly Les Pauls. I'm taking a Gretsch White Falcon, double cutaway. But it's a slim line model. There's some songs that require something other than a JB-59 sound. I'm all JB-59 Seymours through Marshall amps. But sometimes you need to get that mini-humbucker or soap bar, or some kind of different tone. And so the Gretsch does that for me.

I use Godin acoustics. And the rest are Les Pauls. I think I have three signature models. There's a couple of really lovely flame-bursts that I take just because I can. I have a gold top in there as well. And what kind of strings, and what gauge?

Morrison: I know my gauges, but I have no idea what strings I use because my tech does it for me. (laughs). In fact -- hold on -- whatever ones with colored ends, are they D'Addario? Those are D'Addario, yes.

Morrison: Well I use them. (laughs). But again I'm a stickler for gauges. I use .010 to .046 on a 440 (tuning). I use .010 to .049 on a drop-D. And I use .011 to .049 or .050 on a whole step down. Very specific.

Morrison: I'm very specific in my set. I believe in finding what works for you and then not messing with it. The other thing is that I want to pick up a whole step down guitar and have it feel the same as a 440. I don't want to suddenly feel like it's all slack, or it doesn't stay in tune. The idea with all these different guitars is that they feel the same, so you can play. Right. I was watching some video that you guys posted of the Kings and Queens of the Underground recording sessions which are kind of cool.

Morrison: Yes. And there's a gentleman playing bass who I don't recognize. He's an older gentleman with white hair. Who is that?

Morrison: That older gentleman would be Trevor Horn, the producer of the album. Oh, OK.

Morrison: And he played bass on the album. And that's what he does. He's a phenomenal bass player. And that experience in itself -- I mean, we were recording in the same room that "Stairway to Heaven" was recorded, with the guy that recorded all the Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Yes, and Seal... It was kind of a bizarre experience, but fun. Did he play bass on everything on the album?

Morrison: Yes. OK, cool. So can we talk about your art, and your art exhibit, this Sunday...

Morrison: Yeah. It's this Sunday. We're doing it, as with everything I do, I like to keep it a little rock and roll, so instead of doing it an art gallery, we're doing it at the Village Studios, which is another hugely famous studio. Jeff Greenberg, who owns it, has been kind enough to let us do it there.

And yeah, I paint, and I find it to be a very cathartic creative expression format for me. I'm one of these guys that if I didn't get to paint and write music, I would be a danger to society. (laughs). And I figured that out many, many years ago, that I needed to find a way to get through life without being a danger to society.

So creativity is really important to me, and painting, I find... I find that painting attacks the really dark corners of my head, and I can get out onto canvas stuff that doesn't need explaining. No one's going to ask me what the lyrics mean. No one's gonna ask me what was behind the concept of that song, or that painting. It's a very personal interpretation. And so therefore, I can get out of me, some really dark shit, quite frankly. In a safe way (laughs). I do have to ask you something though...

Morrison: Hmmm... Why so many grenades?

Morrison: Why so many what? Grenades.

Morrison: Well, uh... The first one was so popular, that I painted another one. And then I painted another one. And then I started messing with color and light and shade. And I realized that I enjoyed not only the imagery of the hand grenade, but the many, many different... Like I painted one for someone that sold, and it was all pale pink. And it was for a woman. And I realized that what I was painting there was a completely different emotion than, you know, a purple one, for instance. And so I was finding emotion in color.

Now I will say I won't be painting anymore. I've done enough (laughs). But the hand grenade, I don't know where it came from. It's a hugely expressive image, and painted in such a beautiful way, I think it speaks of the dichotomy that we live with in everyday life. Where we are holding things in and ready to explode...

Morrison: Yeah. And on a very superficial level, I'm looking out of my window now. I live in West Hollywood, and it's a gorgeous day, and there's palm trees, and the sun is shining. And somewhere out there someone is gettin' shot.

And that's on the very basic level. And then on the human level, someone said, "Why do you paint skulls, naked women, and hand grenades?" And I said, "Because that's the inside view of my head." That's what's in there, is like death and destruction, and pretty colors, and naked women, and explosive things. (laughs). As a creative person, I know that sometimes you can't even explain why. It just is what it is.

Morrison: One of the most difficult things in my job -- and my job being a creative person -- is to explain why. Or what did you mean? Because the whole point of creativity sometimes is: "Just because." You know? Because I think true creativity comes from so far within that you don't know yourself.

And isn't it much more fun to look at an image and see what... like, I collected art, and appreciated art, for many years. I have quite a good collection. And I can sit and look at my fancies, and all my stuff, and I'm sure that what I feel when I look at them is not what the artist was feeling when he was painting it, or drawing it. But it doesn't matter to me.

It never mattered to me with songs. I don't need to know what a song is about when I first hear it and it touches me. It's my interpretation. If that song speaks to me... When I was a kid and I went to school and I listened to a punk rock song, and I thought it was about rebellion, and it wasn't -- it was about a girl... It doesn't matter. I heard rebellion in that song, that's what  touched me, you know. Right. What it meant to you is the key.

Morrison: Right. And I hope my art does that for people, because I don't want to have to sit and explain why... No offense to you, but why so many hand grenades. I don't fuckin' know! (laughs) It's a great image, and it speaks to me in different volumes, to use a musical term, depending on how I'm feeling. So you teamed up with artist Joey Feldman to do this show Sunday. And you did a collaborative piece that is very cool -- and which also has a hand grenade in it...

Morrison: Yeah, and we figured... his thing, he's an illustrator. I didn't want to do a show with another paint on canvas guy. So he uses  a different medium -- ink on paper. So we're not competing in any way. He's a friend, and he's into that kind of Ralph Steadman illustrator thing.

And we just got together and there were no rules, and we just said, "Look, let's just do what we do best." And so I painted the background, and I put one of my grenades on it, and then he came and he did his crazy guy behind it. And then it came back to me and I splattered it with some gold. And then we stood back and went, "Yeah, that'll do!" (laughs).

It was fun to do, and it's been fun to work with Joey. He's a good artist in a completely different vein from me. And this event is actually a benefit for Rock Against MS, which you're involved in, right?

Morrison: Yes, yes. I support it. My friend Nancy Sayle runs Rock Against MS And also one of my best pals, Jack Osbourne, suffers from MS. I always want to try -- every day that I don't work at 7-11 or whatever, I'm so blessed. I should be dead, let alone flying around the world playing rock 'n' roll.

So any chance I get to give back I do. And when this idea came about I approached Nancy and said, "Look, why don't we do some of the proceeds for the charity?" And she was really into it. So, yeah... Sharon and Ozzy have supported this event, and I believe are going to come down.

My whole painting thing was encouraged by Ozzy. I wouldn't have done it had it not been for Ozzy. Why is that?

Morrison: I painted one thing... I'd never painted anything until February of this year. I don't know if you know that. Oh... I didn't.

Morrison: I'd never put a brush to canvas. Ever. Wow! How did you learn to do this?

Morrison: I have no education or background in art, other than I know what I like to look at myself. Well this is really impressive art work. How did you learn to do this?

Morrison: It's just what comes out of me. I went to a charity event in L.A. and they gave me a blank piece of canvas and some paint and said, "Will you paint something. We can auction it." And I laughed and said "I can probably do a stick figure."

But what I actually did, in about 20 minutes, was paint a fantastic skull. And I showed a picture of it to Ozzy, who is a pretty good artist in his own right. And I was down in South America with him earlier in the year, and bought some canvas and paint on his encouragement. He said, "You should do some more painting." And I started to paint this year. Wow! It looks like you've been painting for a long time.

Morrison: It's stuns me, trust me, when I step back, and I look at what I've just painted, considering I got an F in art when I was in school. Well, what do those people know anyway...

Morrison: Yeah. And they told me I was never gonna be a rock star, so fuck them. (laughs) But I've been a Warhol fanatic since the age of 10. And I followed Banksy and Shepard and Lichtenstein. I love pop art. But me painting? No, this is since February. I'm just doing what I do. So you've got quite a guest list planning to attend this event...

Morrison: Well, yeah. It's a little weird because I live in Los Angeles, and I play music for a living, so my friends are these people. I'm not trying to be... I'm not deliberately trying to make it a star-studded affair, I just go through my Rolodex and I invite my friends. And my friends happen to be other musicians and actors. So it's gonna be a bit of a scene, but hopefully people will enjoy what they see. And hopefully people will buy a few things. Well, hey man, I am in Chicago, or I would have loved to come down...

Morrison: That's no excuse! (laughs) Wonderful to speak with you, and I'm sure we'll run into each other at some point. Stay in touch. Thank you Billy.

Morrison: Thanks a lot! Bye.


Related Links:

Billy Morrison Official Website

Billy Morrison Art Website

Billy Morrison Signature Les Paul

Billy Idol Official Website

Billy and Billy in the Studio Videos

Joey Feldman Website

Rock Against MS Foundation

Axe-FX Effects Processors

Friedman Amplification

Custom Audio Electronics

Rocktron All Access Switchers

Seymour Duncan JB-59 Pickups

Village Recording Studio


Just can't get enough? Check out...