interview by Michael McCarthy
A year ago I caught Enuff Z’Nuff live and interviewed Chip Z’Nuff. The band was opening for Tracii Guns’ L.A. Guns, but Chip had me interview him outside in his van while they were onstage. When I went back into the venue after Tracii’s band was still playing, I watched them, but the whole time I kept thinking it would be so much better if Phil Lewis, the band’s singer throughout the heavy metal heydays, was up there singing instead. If there was one reunion I wanted to see, it was L.A. Guns with Phil Lewis and Tracii Guns. They were one of the very few bands I never caught back in the day and I’ve always wished that I had. (I would have, had I had the opportunity, but it just never arose.) So, imagine how tickled pink I was when I heard that they had reunited and were putting out a new album. Just having the chance to see them live together would be awesome enough, but, of course, I love it when artists put out new music because I have an insatiable thirst for it. Well, the album, appropriately entitled The Missing Peace, comes out this Friday, the 13th of October 2017, and it is as good as anything they’ve ever put out. The combination of guitarists Michael Grant and Tracii Guns is a veritable force to be reckoned with, the two putting forth a sound that’s somehow raw and aggressive while also being very precise. Meanwhile, Phil Lewis has never sounded better. If anything, I like his voice a little more now. It’s a little smokier, making it all the more flavorful. Like a bottle of fine wine, it has aged very well. And the rhythm section of Johnny Martin on bass and Shane Fitzgibbons on drums is tight and powerful. If you liked the band’s self-titled debut and their sophomore effort Cocked and Loaded, then you’ll be drooling over The Missing Peace. It’s that damn good. Of course, some of you are probably thinking that this is just a cash grab for the guys or something like that, but, no, there’s way too much passion on this record for it to just be some paint-by-numbers, money in the bank. But don’t take my word for it – read my interview with Phil below and you’ll see it all started with a charitable endeavor.
MM: I don’t recognize the area code I’m calling you at today. Are you still based out of the L.A. Area?
PL: You’re calling Vegas right now. That is pretty much a suburb of L.A.
MM: [Laughs] So, first of all, does it feel like a huge weight has been lifted off your chest now that there’s just one L.A. Guns and you guys aren’t competing against each other?
PL: Yeah, you’re right. I’ve gotta say that having two versions of the same band out at the same time is probably the lowest point in the band’s history. Something I’m not very proud of. There are 47 – I lost count – up to 47 musicians, people out there who claim to at one time been in L.A. Guns.
PL: That’s some kind of record. [Laughs] A dubious record, perhaps. A checkered past. Not terribly proud of it. But none of that matters now, does it?
MM: No, not really.
PL: Now that we’ve established what is and isn’t L.A. Guns. The nucleus of L.A. Guns is clearly me and Tracii. And that seems to have manifested itself, actually, over the space of the last couple of years, culminating with this new record.
MM: When did you and Tracii reconcile and how did it come about?
PL: It was at Christmas time 2014. There was an event taking place in Vegas. Toys for Tots. Raising money for needy kids around Christmas. You bring an unopened toy or donate at the show. Tracii and his band – his version – volunteered to play the event. And the organizer, knowing I was in town, called me and said, why don’t you get up and do a few songs. It would be good for the event and give some people something to talk about. And it did seem like a good idea, you know? As opposed to some cynical cash grab. “We’ll give you this much money if you play…” No, it was actually very innocent. Neither of us were getting paid. And we didn’t rehearse. We didn’t even soundcheck. I just showed up like shortly before the set and we went in the dressing room, hanging out, and it was no big deal. I played. I played like four songs. There was a vibe. There was a magic. Just the crowd reaction. It was impossible not to notice. And we spoke afterward, cordially, and I said that I had some solo acoustic shows coming up in the near future after this event and would he mind coming and just noodling a little acoustic guitar. And he said he’d be happy to. So, we made an appointment to meet over at his house and work on some songs. And that was around the time that he started playing me some of his ideas for a new album that he’d been cooking in his head for a while. And I really liked the ideas that he was playing me. At first, it was like, yeah, I’d be happy to sing on a few songs for you. Because he already had the deal with Frontiers before the word reunion had ever been uttered.
MM: Oh, OK. I didn’t realize that.
PL: Once I started to listen to what he had in mind I didn’t want to share this record with anyone. I wanted to be 100% involved in it. That’s pretty much the genesis of the reunion.
MM: If you don’t mind my asking, why isn’t Steve Riley in the band at this point?
PL: I gave my notice with Steve about a year… Around the time that this was going down I’d become disillusioned with his version. We put out a record called Hollywood Forever –
MM: – Yeah, I really liked it.
PL: I really liked the record, too. And I wanted to do another one. And he just wouldn’t budge. He didn’t want to do it. He thought that making new records was a waste of money. It was a waste of energy. I just could not get him to get involved. So, I gave him my notice. I said that I’d play with him until New Year’s Eve 2016 and at that point I was either gonna go off and put a solo band together or just go out and do acoustic shows. As it ended up, I ended up working with Tracii. The band he had was great. Johnny Martin on bass, Shane Fitzgibbons on drums. We just needed another guitar player. And I had Michael Grant from my version, who I suggested. And the thing went up like a house on fire. The chemistry between Tracii and Michael was fantastic. One thing Tracii can do is he knows how to find good musicians. And with Johnny and Shane, absolutely no exceptions. They’re amazing. So, that was the band. It’s me and Tracii. It’s L.A. Guns. He didn’t want to work with Steve Riley. He didn’t feel that Riley – I mean, you’d have to ask him – but I got the impression that he didn’t feel that Riley was up to this record. Shane, he’s a young guy. He’s strong. He’s a really strong drummer. And he dishes it out every night. And just wondering whether Steve was really up to the challenge of it. He didn’t want to do a new record and I wondered if he’d even be enthusiastic about promoting one. I didn’t see much of a future there. But it wasn’t like me and Tracii got together and talked about a reunion and I was like, well, fuck this, I’m leaving. It wasn’t like that at all.
MM: On the Haulix page where they sent us to stream the new album it doesn’t say who produced the album. It just says “ask Tracii” in the space there. Who produced it?
PL: Oh, no, Tracii produced it. He gets 100% credit. Full credit for production on this. This is his baby. Something he’s held very close to his heart for quite some time. Even before I was on the scene. These wonderful Randy Rhodes style musical interludes. He’s been working on that stuff for years. And this really is his moment. And I’m really proud to be part of it. I give him full credit for production on this one.
MM: Is the album called The Missing Peace in reference to the fact that there wasn’t peace for a while there?
PL: Ah, nothing gets by you. [Both laugh] That’s a good title. He came up with that as well. He’s on fire right now. I’m just amazed how super dialed-in he is. And how enthusiastic he is about this project. Me and him are getting on great. It’s like a second honeymoon. We’re just having a great time. Playing live, working in the studio, working on new material. It’s good. If you do things for the right reasons, good things will come from it.
MM: I know Michael and Tracii are both lead guitarists. So, how is the guitar being divvied up?
PL: Michael, to say that he’s a lead guitarist is to do him a little bit of injustice. Michael is actually a pretty spectacular frontman. He had his own band. Like one of those nu-metal bands, Endeverafter, that he formed and fronted. I ran into Michael by accident in a rehearsal room when we were auditioning guitar players and it wasn’t going very well. And I just saw him and I liked his look and I invited him to learn a couple of songs and he was like, sure, I’m interested. He was playing that night at the Viper Room on Sunset and he was actually doing a really, really good Prince cover band. He was fronting, singing and playing and he was amazing. His voice and his stage presence. When I first saw him, he didn’t do much in the way of shredding. Like guitar shredding. Because there wasn’t much call for it in the act that he had. So, when I saw him the next day, I was like, yeah, man, I really enjoyed it. But can you shred? He goes, oh, yeah, you’re not gonna have any worries there. And we started playing and he started shredding. It was like, oh my god, this guy is amazing. His father’s a musician. He’s been playing guitar since he was two years old.
MM: That’s incredible.
PL: There’s absolutely nothing he doesn’t know about guitar. He can listen to a song once and play it. And Tracii is also a musical virtuoso but in a different kind of a way. But the chemistry between them – Michael has so much respect for Tracii’s playing. You could just see it when they play together. And Tracii is one of these guys; he’s not like a Rick Derringer, who refuses to let anybody else solo. He lets Michael. He lets Michael fly. There’s a few times in the set and Tracii just steps back and he goes, go. And he’s smiling from ear to ear. And it’s just amazing. These impromptu jams, the two of them strike up in the middle of a song. It’s fun for me and it’s fun for them. And, actually, believe it or not, fun for the crowd. There are no self-indulgent solos. It’s [not] just a guitar player going widdly, widdly, widdly. It’s not. Everything we do showcases the virtuoso abilities of those guys in the jam context. So, it’s cool. It’s never boring. It’s got a groove to it. Who knows how long they can go on for? Sometimes a couple of minutes. Sometimes it can go on for ten. But it’s never dull.
MM: So, what are the plans to tour behind the new album?
PL: Well, the record was supposed to have come out in June. We had an American tour to coincide with that. The record didn’t come out, but the tour did. So, we were working our asses off all summer. We’ve taken a little bit of a break just before this release in a few days. We’ve done a few shows, but we’ve slowed down a bit at the end of August. And we’re ready to pick it up and go to Japan on Thursday. We’re playing Loud Park on Saturday. We come back then we’ve got a few East coast shows. Then over to the UK, Italy and back home for Christmas. Back to do shows in Vegas and in Hollywood.
MM: Are you going to play the Wolf Den in Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut? They fly in bands and put them up in their posh hotel –
PL: – Yes, it sounds familiar. I don’t know offhand if we’re booked to do it, but it’s close to you?
MM: Well, it’s a couple hours away, but I don’t mind going down there.
PL: I’ll tell you what – I don’t know if we are, but if you see that we are, you’ve got my number, give me a text or give me a call and I’ll sort you out for it.
MM: Awesome, thanks. Have you guys played the Frontiers Festival yet?
PL: We did one in Italy earlier this year. And that went very well. They’re a very respected label in Italy. My observation was that the bands – Steelheart, Tyketto – they’re a little bit more melodic than we are. But it all went well. There was a good vibe backstage. It was a great turnout. So, yeah, I’m happy to be with this label at the moment and they’re real happy with us. They’ve made it no secret that this is one of the most important records for them of the year. And they’re going all out to do everything they can for the record.
MM: Do you happen to know if the rumor that they signed Def Leppard is true?
PL: No, I have no idea. That’s funny. Wow.
MM: I just thought you might know because of your connection to Phil with Girl.
PL: No. We’re doing something at a Frontiers event in L.A. in a couple of weeks. Warrant are playing so I assume that they must be working together. So, that was news to me. But as far as Def Leppard goes, I don’t know.
MM: If you were putting together a package tour and you would be the headliner, who are a couple of bands you’d like to bring out with you?
PL: Not necessarily the headliner, but I would love to do a tour with The Darkness.
MM: Oh, they’re awesome.
PL: I think L.A. Guns and The Darkness – and I couldn’t care less who opens for who or what or whatever. That would be the kind of bill that I would really be happy and honored to play. We’re trying to avoid the usual suspects. I don’t want to mention names by name but let’s just say, like the M3 rock line-up of bands. We’re trying to avoid that. We’re trying to do something a little bit different. And we’ve got nothing against those guys, and good luck to them all, they’re really good at what they do. We’re trying to separate ourselves a little bit from that crowd.
MM: You’ve definitely got a different sound. It’s darker and –
PL: – I always thought so. We got lumped into hair metal thanks to those guys and I always thought that was a little bit of a disservice, but it’s the same thing like The Police and Elvis Costello got lumped into the punk rock genre. Which, of course, they’re not. But that happens. If you just happen to be around at the same time as a movement you tend to get sucked up into it. That’s just the nature of the business, I guess.
MM: On Spotify there are a ton of live albums and compilations by you guys. I believe that you re-recorded songs for Greatest Hits and Black Beauties and Cocked and Re-Loaded, but there are all these compilations. So, are those the only two albums you re-recorded songs for or are there other ones?
PL: Um, that was something that we did for Cleopatra a long time ago. That was back around 2000. And I can’t really remember, to be honest with you, if we did any more than that. I don’t recall every re-recording – well, we never re-recorded Hollywood Vampires – we have re-recorded songs from Cocked and Loaded, but I don’t know if we did the whole record top to bottom or not. I do know that after 30 years our master tapes from the first record revert back to us and Tracii and I are very keen to get into the studio and remix it properly the way we would’ve liked it to sound. The sound of the record has a vibe and I appreciate that and understand that it was the soundtrack to people’s lives. But, sonically, I felt we could’ve done a lot better. Like Cocked and Loaded is so much more of a thicker sounding record and we’re gonna have a go at seeing if we can thicken up the first record now that we’re getting tapes back, hopefully in the next few months.
MM: It sounds interesting. Now, you put out a couple albums of covers. The first one I thought was insanely good. I loved that one. One of your best albums, I think. But then the second one I thought was kind of lackluster. Was that an album that you made as an album or was that like covers from assorted –
PL: – You nailed it. The first one Rips The Covers Off was specifically a project that we went in and recorded from scratch. The second one was just a bunch of covers that had been lying around that was compiled by a label and made to look like an album effort. But it really wasn’t. So, you’re spot on right about that. And it’s unfortunate but that’s what labels will do to get people to buy their product. The first one, Rips The Covers Off, was a strong record and I can understand why you’d go, well, this is a strong record, too. But it’s not. It’s nowhere near the quality. The cover record we did with Andy Johns [Rips The Covers Off] is sonically consistent, as opposed to the other one – I don’t even know what it’s called – where every song sounds like it was recorded at a different studio at a different time. It has no continuity whatsoever. So, good observation.
MM: Are you binge-watching anything right now?
PL: That’s a good question. I did binge watch Sons of Anarchy and I loved it. I binge watched a Netflix show called Peaky Blinders, which is about a gang of bookies in Birmingham just after the first world war. It was utterly compelling.
MM: I’ll have to check that one out.
PL: That’s really good. And at the moment I’m binge watching A Journey of Selfridge. You know the guy from Chicago who moved to London and he opened the store Selfridge’s. And I sucked up Hell on Wheels, that’s another one. I have a lot of time traveling, between shows on the road, in flights. So, yeah, you know, TV, and Game of Thrones are very, very important.
MM: What song is stuck in your head right now besides your own music?
PL: A new song or any song?
MM: Any song?
PL: I love Robert Palmer. I love his voice. I love his songs. I’m a vinyl freak. 90% of what I listen to at home is on a turntable. I’ve just got this song – it’s off of Heavy Nova – it’s called “Early in the Morning” and it’s just this fucking fantastic groove. Robert Palmer passed away several years ago. Not only was he an amazing singer and songwriter but he was a bass player, too, and he just knows the groove. And that’s the song I tend to listen to several times a day. And if you really want to dig down and see how eclectic I am, I recently played the entire Harry Connick Jr. She album from top to bottom. And that blows my mind. I know Harry Connick is in no shape or form to be considered a rock or metal artist, but check this one out. There is some amazing guitar. It’s a rock record. And he’s just sort of singing it in a bluesy, bluesy style. I really recommend it. It’s something different, you know?
MM: Yeah, I’ll check it out.
PL: What about you? You tell me something.
MM: About what?
PL: What’s stuck in your head?
MM: What’s stuck in my head right now is a song called “No Horses” by the band Garbage.
PL: Oh, I love Garbage! Is that an old one or a new one?
MM: It’s a new one. They just put it out as a one-off single when they were touring with Blondie this summer.
PL: I love Shirley Manson.
MM: It’s an epic song about the end of the world. So, it’s pretty heavy.
PL: Did Butch [Vig] produce it?
MM: Either he did or someone else in the band did because they produce all of their own stuff.
PL: Ah, I’m gonna look that up right away. I haven’t heard anything new from those guys in a while. I’m gonna check that out right away.
MM: And their most recent album, if you like that song, is called Strange Little Birds and that’s really good, too.
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