Interview with PHIL LEWIS of L.A. GUNS
Interviewer – Sarah Sykes
L.A. GUNS was formed in 1982 by guitar player Tracii Guns and, then unknown singer, Axl Rose on lead vocals.
The “classic lineup” of Guns, former Girl singer Phil Lewis, drummer Steve Riley, guitar player Mick Cripps and bassist Kelly Nickels have sold 6.5 million records, including 1988’s L.A. Guns and 1990’s Cocked and Loaded, both of which were certified Gold. Cocked and Loadedcontained the hit single “Ballad of Jayne” that went to #33 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and #25 on the Mainstream Rock charts.
After a nearly 15-year break, Philip Lewis and Tracii Guns are back together for another chapter in their partnership that began in 1986, 4 years after Tracii formed L.A. GUNS in 1982.
Sarah Sykes caught up with Phil recently for a chat about the Tour and other stuff.
Hi Phil, it’s great to be able to chat with you today. The Missing Peace sounds like it’d fit somewhere in between Cocked & Loaded and Hollywood Vampires. How did you manage to capture that vibe 30 years on?
We didn’t set out to do that, it’s just the way it turned out. I just suppose that when you get me and Tracii in the same room together, we pick up where we left off. You say it could be between Cocked & Loaded and Hollywood Vampires because you know those records, but we released another record after Hollywood Vampires, called Vicious Circle, which is an amazing record, but it didn’t do that well, because the band had pretty much split up by the time it was released. It’s definitely worth checking out though, so for me, I see The Missing Peace as being an extension of that record, or even Waking the Dead, which is the last record Tracii and I did together before this current release, about 16 years ago. They all had the same vibe, but they’re not the same. We always go out of our way to make every song that we do a little bit different. We don’t want to be a one-dimensional band (no offence to one-dimensional bands), and they’re great at it, but it’s not our thing. It just naturally comes that way, really. The Missing Peace is a very broad spectrum of music, it’s got those three-minute balls to the wall songs – Speed, Sticky Fingers, Baby Gotta Fever – and then it’s got these musical epics, like The Missing Peace and Gave It All Away, it’s really broad, and I thought Hollywood Vampires was a broad record too. I think we started to get our depth during Cocked & Loaded, and by Hollywood Vampires we’d started to write songs like Magdalaine, it was apparent we weren’t just gonna be a fast cars, girls and drugs band. It was gonna be a lot more serious, and that is very much the vibe of this new record, I think.
I can definitely see how some of the slower songs on Hollywood Vampires have progressed into The Missing Peace.
Yeah, I love that record. It’s one of my proudest moments, when that came out. You know, Over the Edge, just the way it started. It was a magic. Over the Edge is in Point Break, that old Patrick Swayze movie, and there was just something mind-blowing about sitting in a movie theatre in that time watching the movie. I remember sitting in a full theatre, and I didn’t know when the song was gonna come into the movie, and it just slid in, and it’s the coolest part of the film. It was magic. I was pinching myself, I couldn’t believe it, it was such an amazing moment for me.
Wow, that’s a really amazing experience to have had. So, did you have any particular influences for this record? There’s that little nod to Deep Purple in Speed, but then you’ve got a little bit of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden in some of the songs there as well.
Yeah, there’s definitely a bit of that in there. I mean, there’s certainly a shout-out on Speed, we nicked one of their song titles, Highway Star, it’s very much a homage – a bit cheeky I suppose – but the line really sticks out. I guess some people would think ‘oh those L.A. Guns, they’re just ripping people off now’, but you’re going to have your haters no matter what! Of course we love Deep Purple though! The song The Flood is Just the Fault of the Rain, we wanted to get some of the vibe of House of the Rising Sun – The Animals version of the House of the Rising Sun – we wanted to capture that theatre of the mind, something that takes you to a different place. But then towards the end of the record we do start getting into that serious Maiden and Priest territory, something kinda new for us – the metal thing, which we haven’t done in a while. It’s great fun, and it makes for a really interesting live show.
Oh definitely, I can’t wait! It should be very interesting. What’s the song you’re most proud of on The Missing Peace?
Oh, it changes a lot. I think, for anybody that hasn’t heard The Missing Peace, that may have heard Speed, or may have heard a couple of songs from it, you’re doing yourself an injustice. You’ve gotta get yourself the CD or the LP and you’ve gotta sit down, switch off your phone, concentrate, and listen, like we used to do in the 70s when we bought LPs. People have forgotten how to listen now. You’ve gotta listen to it from beginning to end, so that you hear it in full context. We spent a long, long time working out a running order, that’s tremendously important for us, so I think for the first-time listener it really is important. You’ll get the full benefit from the record if you do listen to it from beginning to end, and then after that, pick your specific favourite songs. To answer your question, Speed is my favourite. When that came up, when we nailed it and recorded it, it was like ‘yeah we’re onto something here’. It didn’t take long to write, or record and it just reinforced what we were doing. It’s just a gem for me.
Oh, definitely. I listened to that song a lot when you dropped it, it’s definitely a great one. How have the shows in the US and Europe been since you began touring with Tracii again?
Oh, they’ve been well attended and well-reviewed. People love seeing Tracii and I playing together. We like playing together – we bring out the best in each other. There’s a chemistry between us that’s infectious, the band gets it, it’s just a good rock ‘n’ roll thing. One of those partnerships – Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, Joe Perry and Steven Tyler, Roger Daltreyand Pete Townshend – like Lennon and McCartney – I’ve played with hundreds of different musicians and guitar players, but nobody makes me work as hard as Tracii does. The shows have been great though, very well attended. We’ve done a lot of festivals. But every now and then, as fate would have it, we’ll be playing in the middle of nowhere on a Tuesday night and there won’t be many people in the crowd. It doesn’t happen too often, but you know, it does happen once in a while, but it cracks us up a bit, and gives us a bit of a reality check. But we tell the people, whether it’s 20, or 20,000, they’re gonna get the same set. We might be a bit goofier when there’s only a gaggle, but you know, we still take it incredibly seriously. I think 98% of the gigs we’ve done since this reunion have been sold out, but every now and then, a little wart shows up, and we just have fun with that! We played this one in Aberdeen Scotland, in the middle of absolutely nowhere, February, and it was in a big old drafty theatre, there weren’t many people there. But, every single person at that Aberdeen show, came to our sold-out Glasgow show the night after, some 125 miles away. Not just a few – but everybody. It just goes to show that even on quiet rainy nights in the middle of nowhere, we’re still delivering the goods.
That’s amazing actually!
It’s fun actually. When me and Tracii started, we played a lot of empty houses, a lot of empty shows. It’s a rite of passage you know, then before we knew it our band exploded, we had gold records, we were on tour with AC/DC, Ted Nugent and whoever… Cheap Trick. But for the first year or so, we were driving round in vans to local shows, playing to 15 or 20 people, and it was fun.
Yeah, it’s got to be kind of nice to have a bit of a more intimate crowd sometimes.
Yeah, it was fun, it was bonding, those early days really set my friendship with Tracii in stone.
Oh yeah absolutely! How have people received the new songs on tour? From all the reviews I’ve seen, and my own opinion, a lot of people really liked it, but at the same time, a lot of people like new music then only want to see the old songs live.
It’s difficult. It’s a tricky balance! We play five songs from the new record. We don’t play all five in one night, we mix it up, we try and mix up our set – we’ve got three sets, it just depends on how long they give us. If they only give us half an hour, chances are we’re only gonna put one new one in, which will invariably be Speed. If we get a little longer we add The Flood, but if we get even more we choose, we play Sticky Fingers, Baby Gotta Fever and of course Devil Made Me Do It, we always play that! It’s always tricky, we’ve all been at concerts where the band’s like ‘we’ll we’re gonna play a new one!’ and it’s like ‘oh shit, time for a beer’, we try and avoid that though. I reckon we’ve done well so far, the songs that we’ve been doing off the new record sound as close to the recordings as we can get, and pretty amazing, if I don’t mind saying so myself. You wanna tie a knot in it. If I say we’re gonna do a new one, it’ll be worth the wait.
Last time you were in Australia, the tour collapsed, basically, because the promotor screwed you guys over. Has that put you off coming back?
Oh no, not at all! You know, we knew, the moment we got off the plane, I think in 2011, that we were stranded. We waited at the airport for an hour and a half before the fucker showed up, and he showed up in a Taxi! We’re a band! We’d just gotten off an 18-hour flight, we had guitars, we had luggage and he’s like ‘oh, we’ll get a few more cabs and I’ll get a mate with a van’, and it was just so disorganised. Then we went to the hotel, took us an hour and a half to get checked in because none of his credit cards worked, then he ended up using his mum’s or something. Then that night we were supposed to drive down to Melbourne, from Sydney, and we all got on the “luxury coach”, which ended up being an old bus from the 50s! There were fistfights going on between the promoter and the crew because they hadn’t been paid and we’re like ‘what the hell is going on?!’ – he got arrested halfway actually. The bus driver called the law at the truck stop, so he was carted off to jail. Then we get down to Melbourne, walk to the venue, and there’s no equipment, no backline, no drums – just a guy mopping the stage! There’s very clearly no event taking place that night. That’s all fun and games, and rock ‘n’ roll silliness if you’re not on the other side of the world. We were in deep shit. We were booked to stay in Australia for 10 days, we had a bunch of shows, and for us to change our tickets so we could go home, it was gonna cost $2000 per member, so 10 grand all up. Our options were either come up with $10,000 to change the flights, or come up with even more than $10,000 to stay in Australia and do nothing for 10 days!
Oh man, you couldn’t win!
We got hold of the bastard and held him out of the 7th floor of the window of the hotel and he found the money to change our flights, and we got $10,000 and flew out the next day. It was a hell of an adventure.
Yeah, I’m glad it hasn’t put you off coming back. And the two shows you did end up playing at Back in the Day, a lot of my mates still talk about how amazing they were!
Oh yeah, that was fantastic. My two mates Dean and Mandy came to the rescue. We put on a good show, a rockin’ little show and thanks to them it wasn’t a complete disaster. It was fun. That’s the way it should’ve been. It was all fucked up to begin with, this thing. ‘Cause originally it was gonna be L.A. Guns and Quiet Riot but then Quiet Riot smelt a rat and pulled out, we didn’t, Steve Riley, our drummer and manager at the time asked if we could still come over and the promoter was like ‘yeah, yeah, yeah! It’s no problem, come over, we’re gonna have a great time!’. I had been to Australia before that and had a fantastic time, we played three or four shows, a pub in Brisbane, the University in Sydney somewhere, so hopefully this one will be a lot like the first and the nightmare memory of the last time will be expunged.
I’m sure it will, it seems a lot more organised this time.
Yeah it definitely is. That was some funny shit, well, it would’ve been funny if it wasn’t so serious.
This may be slightly premature – but do you see yourselves coming back after this tour?
Yeah, I hope so. We’re definitely gonna do good in the main cities, we’re gonna do good in Sydney, and in Melbourne. Perth, not so much. I’ve been doing interviews, not getting a lot of feedback from Perth. Unfortunately, we had to cancel the dates in New Zealand because the ticket sales aren’t astounding, and it’s a long way to go for a door deal. I know we’ll do great in the three cities though, they’re practically sold out. We’ll stick with that for now. But hopefully when we come back next time, we can be a bit more ambitious and add Perth and perhaps one New Zealand show. It’s a shame we’ve had to pull it back a little, but now we’ve got more time to hang out, see the sights, make some friends.
Yeah hopefully cities like Perth and Adelaide can come through in the future. They are notorious for holding out on shows, in general.
Yeah, I’m sure they will. And that’s certainly something that we’d do on the next tour. We’re not taking it personally at all, there’s markets like in the States too. It’s just a long way for us to go for it to be a dud. It’s no big deal if it’s 60 miles, but if it’s 6000 it’s a different story.
In the past couple of years you’ve played a lot of festivals, like Hair Nation, Hard Rock Hell Sleaze – and there’s just been a lot of glam and sleaze records released in general do you think there’s been a resurgence in the genre recently?
Don’t forget the Monsters of Rock cruise as well! Yeah, it’s huge, and it’s all the people that were 18 and 19 when our first record came out, and they’re parents now, and some of them are grandparents! It’s the same 18 and 19-year olds just with bigger bellies, less hair and bank accounts. And I love ‘em, the love’s still there, and I love doing these events. As much as it is to see the band, it’s also a vibe, especially on the cruise, it doesn’t matter who’s playing, or when, it’s just fun to be on the boat with your mates, and with your idols, all enjoying the same music, in a gloriously peaceful setting. Everyone behaves themselves, we drink, yeah, but there’s never any funny stuff, it always goes real smooth, love doing ‘em.
Do you reckon there’s many young fans, or just older?
Yeah, it seems like the audience is going in both directions, they’re getting older and they’re getting younger. And quite right too. If I was a millennial, I’d feel deprived. No Deep Purple, no Led Zeppelin, no Black Sabbath, they’re such an integral part of my childhood, that I can understand why they wanna come and see bands like L.A. Guns, Guns N’ Roses, Foo Fighters. It’s still exciting. Four guys, on stage, ripping and tearing it up!
For people that haven’t seen you guys live, what’s the best part of your show?
Well, it depends on how long they give us. If we get half an hour, 45 minutes, an hour, 90 minutes. Ideally, we’d play for two hours, then we’d play a lot of songs. We jam a lot. We don’t really do boring ‘exercise in dexterity’ solos though. We don’t believe in that. But we do impromptu jams at the drop of a hat. We never know when they’re gonna come out, it might be in the middle, between, it’s just always the chance we’ll do that. For the most part though, we’ll try and add one, two, maybe three songs from the new record. But there’s some songs we call nuggets – Sex Action, Over the Edge, Never Enough, Electric Gypsy, that we have to play. I think if we didn’t play like Sex Action or Electric Gypsy, people would be pissed off, so we get that, and we’re happy to do that. But we do like to mix it up, and we like to put songs from Waking the Dead and Vicious Circle, that weren’t as commercially as big, but still sound really good. They are very much for the life-long L.A. Guns fan. There’s definitely something for everyone in there – a grand night out!
Well of course, that’s one fantastic thing to get from it as well. I reckon your voice has managed to stay really strong on this record – do you do anything special to look after it?
Honestly, I’m better now than I was in the 80s. I didn’t really know what I was doing then, I was shouting a lot. Especially in the Girl days, it wasn’t really singing, just kinda yelling. It’s something I’ve been focusing on and working on for a long time. I didn’t have any upbringing in music at all, the only reason I became a singer was because I lost a bet. I sang, like anyone else, in the car I’d be singing along with the radio, and sometimes I would notice that I’d hit the notes, but you know anyone can say ‘I’m a good singer!’. It’s a different story when you’re in a vocal booth and the red light comes on and it’s just you. I’ve been doing that for a while now and it makes you a better musician. They say it takes 5000 hours to hone a skill, and I’d say I qualify for that. The vocals on The Missing Peace, my performance, I have to credit Mitch Davis, who’s studio I recorded at over the space of two weekends in New York City. Mitch was very involved in the pre-production, the writing and the direction of the songs. It was an absolute pleasure being in the studio, just me and him, as opposed to being in the studio with Tracii and the rest of the guys in the band who are like ‘oh yeah, sounds good Phil!’, but they’re sitting on their phones, or they’re ordering food, they’re not really paying attention, just being polite. It was good to get the riff-raff out and work so closely with Mitch Davis, very clever guy. We worked our asses off and I gotta give him credit for bringing out the best in me as far as the vocals go.
Lasts one – what do you think are the best and worst things to happen since the 80s?
I think having kids is a good thing. Especially for an arrogant, stuck up prick like I was, in the 80s. When the bubble burst, around the time Hollywood Vampires came out, when the metal bubble burst, that was a pretty bad time. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, I learnt a lot from that, and I learnt a lot from being a parent. It’s a game of snakes and ladders. You can go on a few spaces, hit a ladder and up you go. You know, you’ve got an album that’s doing well, or you’ve got a lineup that’s doing well, then boom, you hit a snake and something happens, someone gets sick, you have a fight, or a member leaves. It’s simply just a big game of snakes and ladders. The good things are getting record deals and when you get in a car, turn on the radio and hear your voice, or that magic moment I told you about in the movie theatre, when I was watching Point Break and Over the Edge came on. Those are all the things that are amazing, but they’re short lived. It’s better not to let those things go to your head. I think through it all, the highs and the lows, and the snakes and ladders, I’ve turned out pretty well balanced. I’m no spring chicken, but to be doing what I’m doing for so long after doing it for so long, I do consider myself very fortunate, and very blessed. Someone said to me, ‘you don’t give up the road, the road gives up you’, and the road’s just not ready to give me up yet. And that’s good, because I’m not ready to go home.
Well, thanks for talking to me today, it’s been an absolute pleasure!
You’re very welcome!
2018 Australia and New Zealand Tour Dates
May 17th BRISBANE, Wooly Mammoth
May 18th MELBOURNE, Max Watts
May 19th SYDNEY, Max Watts