The Voice In “The Dirt”: A Conversation With Timmy Craven of Motley Inc.

There are worse things in life than being a dead-on ringer of a young version of a handsome blonde singer in one of the world’s biggest hard rock bands. It’s a tough gig, but welcome to Timmy Craven ‘s world.

For a couple of hours on stage as vocalist for Motley Crue tribute band, Motley Inc., the California-born and bred Craven gets to vicariously live the life of Vince Neil — or at least the performance part, anyway — the longtime Motley Crue frontman with the unique vocal delivery who helped propel the group to multi-platinum status in the 1980s. The Crue retired from touring in 2014, but it wasn’t the last we’d hear from them. For more than a decade, bassist and founder Nikki Sixx’s best-selling autobiography, “The Heroin Diaries,” was rumored to be in pre-production for a theatrical release. Finally, in 2018, it was confirmed that the rumor had become a reality, and a Netflix original movie based on the book was on the way in early 2019.

Enter Craven, who found himself on the other end of a phone conversation in which he was asked to enter a recording studio with famed producer Howard Benson to record the Vince Neil vocal tracks that would be used in the movie, appropriately titled “The Dirt.” Craven jumped at the chance, and the rest is motion picture history.

Craven took time out from his schedule to give ListenIowa some inside “dirt” on the movie and his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be involved.

Let’s start from the beginning. Where did you grow up, and what music was playing around your house?
I grew up here in Southern California. I was born here and have never left. Beaches, deserts, mountains, and the Hollywood music scene. What more can you ask for? My parents listened to all types of music, so I was subjected to a wide range. Anything from Hank Williams, Mickey Gilley, Elton John, Oak Ridge Boys, Beatles, Elvis, Beach Boys, KISS, Partridge Family, and Shawn Cassidy to name a few. Mom had an awesome 45 (rpm) collection, which I think she still has.

Was there anything about being a vocalist that appealed to you at that point, or did that come later?
I never thought about being a singer. As kids, most of us wanted to be drummers or guitarists. I was kind of a goofy kid, so I didn’t have the rhythm or coordination to play instruments. My choir teacher said my voice was higher then most kids’, so she gave me solo singing parts, and it took off from there. Before you know it, I had all the lead singing parts in Christmas plays, etc.

Who were some of the defining bands that influenced you in these formative years, and what was it about these acts that drew you to them?
KISS had the image that drew every kid in. The guitars, the makeup and the mystery. Elton John had the upbeat songs that were fun to listen to. “Crocodile Rock,” “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting,” and my favorite that I just couldn’t get out of my head was “Benny and the Jets.” I would mess around and see how long I could hold out the “jetssssssssssss” at the end of the chorus. Then came the late 1970s and 80s. Queen’s sound was influential. Freddie Mercury was a great entertainer and front man. The 80’s metal bands were more my style when they hit the scene. The high screams, which were easy for me to mimic and sing along with, really helped mold me into the vocalist I am today. There were so many great bands and influences that I give credit to — and then came this band called Motley Crue.

Were you in any bands growing up?
I was in my first band in seventh grade. We thought we were musicians but didn’t know anything. We knew how to dress and act the part, but that was it. After high school is when things started coming together. I had a job, so I had cash to buy microphones and pay for a rehearsal hall. I worked with a guy who was a drummer, and we put ads in the paper to find a guitar player and bass player. We found them and started an original band called Sky Groove Red. The guitar player we had worked in distributing adult entertainment videos, so obviously we had an in into all the AVN (Adult Video Network) parties. That was fun because we were always around pretty women, and being the singer, I was an 18-year-old kid in heaven in the 1990s. The funny thing was that I was brought up in a religious family and didn’t want to catch anything, so I focused more on my dirt bike than the women. (laughs) It was a fun band, and I learned a lot from our guitar player. We made a five-song demo, and that was my first time in a studio, and I also got a taste of paying to play here in Hollywood. That sucked, so after a few years the drummer and I decided to start a cover party band. This was a blast because I lived in a beach community and we had a regular gig at a local bar and we got pretty popular and got paid, which led to playing more places. I played with this drummer for about five or six years then moved and started another cover band called Swallowed. It was another fun party band, and I hooked up with some really good musicians. But I had a new baby, new job, and more responsibility and quit because we pretty much played for free because our bar tab was through the roof every night we played. (laughs) This music thing also took up a lot of my free time. After a year or two, though, I missed playing, which is like a drug to me. My bass player suggested that we start a tribute band. The Atomic Punks were staying busy and making money as the best Van Halen tribute band out there, so we thought we would try it out. The only problem we had was which band do we pay tribute to and make it good? There were all kinds of tributes starting to pop up here in Southern California, but nobody was doing Motley Crue, and that’s how this all got started.

Had anyone been telling you prior to Motley Inc. that you sound like Vince Neil?
No. When I started my first band with my co-worker who was the drummer, he didn’t know that I could sing. But, because of my high speaking voice he thought that I would have a range and be able to do all the high 80s-type rock.

How did the gig as Vince Neil in Motley Inc. come about?
This was all kind of cool how it went down. I had been playing in the Motley tribute band  that we had built up as one of the best Motley tributes out there. I was in that band for about eight years, and we got a replacement member who had a different agenda then the rest of us. Without getting into too much detail, money ended up missing — amongst other things — and it wasn’t fun anymore. The bass player that I had been playing with for years in the band and in prior bands, got picked up by Pretty Boy Floyd and was getting ready to tour. It wasn’t fun anymore, and I didn’t want to deal with the drama, so I quit. I cancelled all my social media accounts and was throwing in the towel on music for good. I was good friends with the singer of the Atomic Punks, and he told the guys that I was available, and the wheels started to spin. The Punks’ manager contacted my fiancee’ on social media and demanded that I call him in regards to a business opportunity. I called, met with him, and two weeks later we were booking shows without a name — me with the members of the Atomic Punks, a band that I used to go see when I was in my cover bands. It’s funny how that worked out.

Did you see any actual Motley Crue gigs over the years and have an idea of what Vince did live?
Yes, I grew up close to West Covina and Glendora where Motley was from and tried to sneak out to go to the US Festival in 1983. I also tried to sneak out to see Motley at Tower Records where Tommy threw his drum through the window. I watched MTV and was glued to Circus Magazine and went to shows as I got older. I don’t think my hips move the way Vince used to move his. (laughs)

What’s your take on Vince as a vocalist, both in concert and in the studio?
Motley would not Motley without him. He is a great vocalist both live and in the studio.

What do you have to do differently with your natural vocals to mimic his technique?
Nothing, really, with my range and the years of using my voice prior to the tribute bands; it’s basically my natural voice.

And then came “The Dirt.” A hell of an opportunity, to say the least.
I didn’t audition or even think about doing the movie. I am so thankful to everyone involved for this opportunity to be cemented into Motley history and be a part of “The Dirt.” I guess the producers from the movie contacted Michael Starr from Steel Panther and wanted him to do the vocals since he had done movie work before. Michael is an excellent singer but said that he couldn’t sing it like the producers wanted but knew the guy who could. Steel Panther’s manager, Joe Lester, called me and asked if I was interested in doing the vocals for “The Dirt” and if he could pass on my number. I said to him, “Yeah, right, why do they want me?” After they checked me out and watched Motley, Inc. videos on the Internet, one of the music producers, Chris Swanson, called me and said that the guys from Motley and all involved wanted me.

So then you went into the studio to begin recording tracks with famed producer Howard Benson. Were you intimidated at all?
No. I felt honored. Howard is so down to earth and very easy to work with. He has a vocal studio in his house, and it was a relaxed setting; it felt like we were just hanging out. Basically Howard worked looking like he just got out of bed — pajamas, messed up hair and all. (laughs) It was kind of funny but at the same time very relaxed. It made me feel comfortable thinking that here we are working on a big movie and a professional studio and the boss just rolls out of bed, doesn’t bother to get dressed and starts recording. (laughs) Howard and I talked on the phone for a few weeks prior to recording so I felt like I had known him for a while. We talked about our game plan because one of the songs we recorded for the movie was a song that Vince had never sang. The world was going to hear a never-before-heard song by Vince Neil, but it was me singing so we had to make it sound awesome.

Howard called you their “secret weapon” in one interview regarding “The Dirt.”
Awesome. He is a good guy and we created a great friendship. We call each other every now and then just to say “hi.” During the Malibu fires, we talked a bunch because the flames were on the hillside in his backyard threatening his house. Forget the music memorabilia, save Howard’s Philadelphia Eagles collection. (laughs)

Speaking of Howard, and off the track a bit, he also mentioned in the same interview that you are a member of the LAPD underwater rescue unit?
Yes, not necessarily for LAPD, but I am a scuba instructor and an avid scuba diver here in Los Angeles. Whenever I go someplace where there is water, I try to take my dive gear just so I can explore and maybe dive with the sharks. I work with, and teach, public safety/law enforcement divers how to dive, and in the event of a waterborne accident I also get wet and rescue people and/or search for dead bodies, evidence, and investigate boating accidents here in Southern California.

What was the process like in the studio? Were you watching a director’s cut of the movie while singing, or simply recording the song to a backing track and/or live band?
I basically just showed up to the home studio for the first song we recorded, which was a cover of Billy Squier’s “My Kind of Lover.” From there we went to West Valley Recording Studio, which is Howard’s big, full-blown studio where he does all his recording for his records. There we spent four or five days working on perfecting songs and recording the other songs. The music tracks were already laid down by Phil X, who is Bon Jovi’s guitar player and has worked with Howard for years on different projects. Joe Rickard did the drum tracks. I basically just had to sing to the music tracks, and then we would go over it three or four times to rough it up a bit because it sounded too perfect, almost like a record instead of a live show.

Did you cut entire tracks, or simply what was needed for the film?
We did the entire tracks for all the songs, and the movie producers and editors used what they wanted. I think they pretty much used the entire recording of “Take Me To The Top” in the movie because it plays through a bunch of continuous scenes.

How long did the process take?
It took five or six days over a two- or three-month span. We ended up doing a total of four songs, but probably two or three different versions of those songs to give the movie producers different options. Howard was constantly on the phone with the producers and Nikki (Sixx) to make sure they were happy with what we were doing.

Did anyone from the band actually show up to the studio while you were working?
No, but Howard was on the phone with Nikki most of the time.

Any funny or especially memorable moments take place when you were there with Howard?
Oh, yes! Lots of stories and a lot of good talks. I was in Howard’s vocal booth, which doesn’t have windows. It’s basically a professionally modified closet with a table and a microphone plumbed in. Howard kept coming in to make sure that Vince Neil wasn’t in there. Both Howard and I love cars, and he believes his car can take my car in a race, so much so that he went out and bought a new one with a bigger motor just to make sure he wins. (laughs) We still need to take it the track.

Has Vince given his seal of approval to your vocal performance in the movie, either directly or otherwise?
I really haven’t heard anything. He was one of the producers of the movie, so I guess I have his approval.

So what was your take on the movie, then, once you saw the finished product?
I got to see the movie months prior to it being release at a private screening with the cast and crew. I liked it, especially after reading the book and being a Motley fan. Honestly, if they included everything, the movie would be over eight hours instead if 1 hour and 48 minutes. Jeff Tremaine (director) and Erik Olsen (producer) were great and cool guys to be around. I think they did an awesome job and deserve all the credit they are receiving.

Now that the movie has been released, looking back, what did you learn about this other side of the entertainment industry?
I learned a lot about how the music business works and how passionate people are about music. This movie has opened up more opportunities, and I am so grateful to the guys of Motley Crue, their management, and all people involved for trusting me and believing in me to do this job.

Does Motley Crue belong in the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame?
Yes, they sure do! Rock n’ roll is Motley Crue, and the term “rock star life” is Motley Crue. They opened the eyes of the world as to what being a rock star was all about. People make mistakes and poor decisions in their lives, but we learn from them and move on. All the bands back then did stuff I’m sure they regret, but that’s life. Even now, people are still learning from the things Motley did, especially when it comes to opiate addiction. Nikki survived for a reason — so that people can be educated. Motley Crue gave their lives to rock n’ roll and will be in the Hall some day.

Do you think they’ll get back together and tour again, despite their “blood oath” that they are finished?
We can only wish. But not likely. They came in together and went out together.

Do you have any favorite Crue tracks to sing with Motley, Inc.?
Can I list all of them? (laughs) I really love “Live Wire,” basically because it was one of the first Motley songs written and recorded, and the energy behind that song is amazing. “Louder than Hell” is another fun one because only true Motley fans know that one. “Wild Side” and “Girls,  Girls, Girls” are also crowd pleasers and fun to perform. I can’t go without mentioning “Home Sweet Home,” too.  Everyone has heard a version of that at one point or another. The meaning behind it hits home with a lot of people.

Speaking of “dirt,” any to dish on your Motley Inc. brethren? 
(laughs) Some wear wigs, some play in a Van Halen band. But seriously, all of them are great musicians, and I am honored to be playing with such great guys. I would be nothing or wouldn’t have gotten “The Dirt” gig without them.