Let's face it; line-up changes (i.e. breakups and reunions), have long been a 'necessary evil' within the histories of the Glam and Hair Metal sub-genres. While many groups, particularly those of a certain vintage, can speak of multiple departures, few have successfully endured as many as Los Angeles, California-based veterans L.A. Guns. Accordingly, when drummer Steve Riley and bassist Kelly Nickels, both veterans of the group's 'classic' era, reunited in 2019, it was a truly noteworthy event. The resulting fruits of their labors--Renegades, 2020-- will undoubtedly be met with a certain level of acclaim as the group attempts to re-assert themselves amid the hierarchy of industry. Recently, the charismatic Nickels, always a man of many words and interesting stories, was kind enough to speak with us regarding, among many other things, the inclusion of frontman Kurt Frohlich.
Todd: For the uninitiated, how did this particular re-union take place? Was it all based on the M3 performance?
Kelly: “He just kind of hit me up at a good time in my life where my daughter was just going to college and I had the time to do it. We talked about what we wanted to do, how we wanted to make sure we'd get a couple other people in the band and take it from there. It was only supposed to be one show, really. It was mostly just for M3. We wanted to wait and see what happened after that. ...I always had a great time playing with Steve. Always got along super well with him. I always got along well with everybody, really. ...I never had a problem with Steve, so to get right back into it, it was like nothing ever happened or if no time had gone by at all, really.”
Todd: Prior to the M3 performance, how much prep time did you all have? Were you nervous about going back?
Kelly: “Before M3, we only had a couple days of rehearsal about a month before and we didn't get any sound check, but everybody knew their parts and the feedback was really good. We got offered a record deal from that show alone, so it definitely all started with M3. We didn't really know where it would go or what we wanted to do with it, but it was like 'Let's just do this. It'll be fun to get out of the house and do a concert.' I hadn't been on stage in twenty-five years. ...I had an opportunity to do something I'd loved back then and the timing was right.
...Most of it that it really didn't bother me at all. I was a little nervous the morning of the show. I didn't want to mess up any of the parts and we don't get to rehearse that often. The starts and the stops are the ones that you want to make sure everybody's on the same page with...that was my biggest concern...making sure everybody is on the same page. We just talked about it. It was even like we we're practicing. We were like 'We're going to end this one like this', plus I had notes onstage. ...I wanted to make sure I wasn't the one who messed it up (laughs).”
Todd: Once you were officially back aboard, was it difficult to find the right people for the remaining positions?
Kelly: “Actually, no. When Steve first called me and mentioned this, he already had two other people in mind that had both fallen out for their own reasons, so I was a little concerned. But then he told me 'I didn't know (guitarist and ex-bassist) Scotty (Griffin) could play guitar like that'. And when he said 'Scott's the only guitar player', I was like 'Okay, that's good.' Then he mentioned that he knows this guy named Kurt from Florida, so we heard some of his demos and then flew him out to LA. And the chemistry with everybody was instant. It was fantastic because everybody was on the same page. Everybody really wants to be in the band and to have fun doing it. And since we gotten the record deal (with Oakland, California-based Golden Robot Records), it was time to get serious, write some new material together and work on it all. It was a great experience. Everybody was laid back and open to ideas and suggestions. From day one, it was a matter of everyone learning the songs.”
Todd: When you guested on Hollywood Forever (2012), was there a chance you were going to rejoin the group?
Kelly: “No. It was a one-off. We'd been talking about how it would be fun. I was going to be in L.A. for a bit anyway, so I talked with (former guitarist) Stacey Blades and Steve about doing it. I was also really excited to get a chance to work with (Producer) Andy Johns. Although it had a rocky start, it turned out good. I was happy to play on it and it was great to work with Andy. It was a real fun experience with getting to see the guys again.”
Todd: At this point, why does there need to be two different versions of the group? From an outside perspective, it seems as if having a single definitive version of the group containing all of the members of the classic line-up.
Kelly: “They didn't want us to be in the group, so when they got their reunion together, they didn't invite us. ...I really don't think about what they do. It's totally fine. I get why people like them and why people want to stick up for them and argue with us about it all, but I just want to play, man. ...I get tired of hearing it, but it's okay. I understand the loyalty. I'm loyal to my bands, too. I have my favorite bands and if this was the situation, I don't know what I'd do. We get it, but at the same time, at this stage, we're just going to play and have fun and put a lot of work into the name and the band. We were there, too. ...We're all either in our mid-50's or early 60s' and you get another chance to go play again, it's hard to not take it. Changing the name and everything was just too complicated. There's been too much put into it. It's too much to try to get everybody to learn what the new band's name is this, especially when you don't have that advertising budget you had back then. People still don't understand what the two versions are. ...The first thing I did when I joined was re-design the logo so that we can differentiate ourselves from them as much as possible, which is why we have a new shield logo. And I always put our names on everything so you know who's in it. ...You know who's in this version of the band and you know there are two versions of the band. It's a Rock 'n' Roll soap opera. It's unfortunate that it had to come to this, but at the same time, we deserve the right to play. We have the right to play all those songs. We worked awfully hard on all those songs. We did all those songs when we were out there and definitely earned our parts.”
Todd: On a personal level, how much of the material did you remember? Was there a lot you needed to re-learn?
Kelly: “I remembered a lot of the basics, but there was a couple of songs I had to go back and re-learn. ...I had to build up the stamina to play the forty-five minute M3 set. When you don't play that much, you don't have the stamina to be able to play a song the whole way through. Since I had to play ten songs the whole way through, I had to build up the stamina. I started working on it two months before. I started by playing one whole song, then playing two songs and then playing three and four songs in a row so I could build up the stamina in my arm to get through the whole set without cramping up (laughs). ...Steve asked me to join in November (2018), so I had six months to think it through and get ready and make sure that we were doing it right. And all I really had to do is practice, which is fine. I've always had a bass with me and I've kept on playing over the years. I've taught kids and I still have students, so I've always been playing. ...So jumping on stage was nothing. I got right back on it.”
Todd: Once Kurt began rehearsing with the group, what advice did you have for him regarding 'emulating' Phil?
Kelly: “I told him 'Don't be Phil.' I said 'Phil is Phil and you are you and you have to do it your way. You just have to own it. Phil's got his thing, but you need to do these songs your way, man.' I was like 'Learn the lyrics, get inside his head and think what it's about, but you have to put your own spin on it.' I think having him try to sound like Phil would make us a cover band. He's doing his own take on the songs, so it's going to be different.”
Todd: In regards to the songwriting, did everyone sit down together and write the new materials as a single unit?
Kelly: “No because we all live in different states. We started by E-Mailing songs back and forth. Some of the guys had a few songs they'd already written along with the writing of the new songs. I personally wrote three of them. Everybody brought in what they had and we came up with the ten best that we felt would be good for the record. I wanted it to be an energetic record. I wanted to make sure it was cool and rocking because when we play it live, I want to keep that energy going. That's one of the most important things to me. We didn't want it to all be mid-tempo, so eight of the songs are upbeat, moving and rocking. There's also two ballads on it. As far as the sound is concerned, I think it all came out naturally. It's got a pumped up, Trashy feel to it. It feels raw, but it also definitely feels like it's rooted in the old L.A. Guns style. But is also has fresh vocals on it and a different guitar player, so it has a twist to it. I definitely think we stayed in our genre and stayed in our wheelhouse. We didn't become a Death Metal band, a Ska band or a Thrash Metal band. We kept it all sounding like L.A. Guns.”
Todd: How do you feel the “Crawl” single was received? Were you ever concerned how some fans would react?
Kelly: “I think it's been pretty well-received, man. The record company's really happy with it. It's gotten good reviews and the people who are open to it seem to like it. ...But there's also people who won't even give us a chance. You can't please everybody and we know that. But that's what happens when you're an up-and-coming artist, so you have to be able to take criticism and keep going. Not everybody likes the Rolling Stones, so you have to do your own thing and have confidence in whatever it is you're doing. And you also need to enjoy what you're doing. In the end, whoever comes along for the ride is welcome. You just have to deal with what it all is.”
Todd: Did you seriously consider re-handling lead vocals à la “Nothing Better To Do” on Vicious Circle (1994)?
Kelly: “No. That should've never happened in the first place. I have written the song and we were in the studio recording it. Everybody else had gone out to dinner, but I stayed behind with the engineer and we laid some vocals down on that track. It came together really fast. When they came back from dinner, I played it for them and I was like 'Hey, man you could do something like this', but it was already done. Phil was like 'I'm not going to be doing that thing. It's all over' and I was like 'Oh, man. Are you kidding me?' It was an accident and it should've never happened in the first place, but he thought it was what it was, and so we left it. ...It was a fluke.”
Todd: When you've had the chance to tour, what type of set list have you used? Are playing just the old classics?
Kelly: “So far, we're only doing songs from the records that I played on, that Steve and I both played on, so we're sticking to the first five records. We definitely want to start incorporating some of the new stuff because it's rocking. There are some really good rockers on there, so I think we're definitely going to introduce some of the new material along with some of the best of the older stuff. We really do have a pretty good-size catalog to choose from now, but we're also looking forward to playing some of the new stuff as well, because it's so good.”
Todd: Once the group began gaining commercial traction, what was your impression of where the group was 'headed'? Did you have any real foresight regarding the success you would have with Cocked & Loaded (1989)?
Kelly: “I thought we had something cool. I thought it was some good Rock 'n' Roll. I thought Phil could carry a tune and (founding guitarist) Tracii (Guns) could definitely play guitar. I thought we all could play, really. Did I think we were going to be the biggest band in the entire world? Probably not, but I thought I could make enough money to eat for a little while or where I'm going to come up with a couple bucks for some food, man. We were just trying to get off the street. You never know how it goes, but we were fortunate enough to have gotten where we are. The fact that we're still talking about it thirty-four years later... We were very lucky to be a part of that scene, that moment in time in history in the L.A. scene. It was a lot of fun and we did the best we could, man. You just have do the best you can because you don't know where you're going to end up. When you're a musician, you don't know what band you're going to end up in. When I met Tracii and (original drummer) Nick ('Beat' Alexander), we got along really well. We started jamming together and it just took it from there. Then we got Phil and Steve and it started to turn into something and then we got a seven album deal with PolyGram Records. We knew we could be a fun touring band because we had a lot of good energy. We were just trying to be cool and have a good time. ...You really have to take it for what it is and get what you can get out of it, man.”
Todd: In retrospect, what were some of the biggest misconceptions you had regarding the music industry after first joining the group? Were there a lot of different things that you'd ultimately find yourself disappointed with?
Kelly: “I thought when we had our first ad in Surfer magazine or something that the whole world knew who we were and that wasn't the case. It took a long time and it took a lot of shows and a lot of interviews, meetings and meet-and-greets. It took a lot to keep it together. It takes time to build up an audience and for people to see you and decide if they like you or not. ...The business side of it was tough because none of us were really business-minded before we got into the band. Steve did a great job, but none of us were like Mick Jagger who wanted to be an accountant. That helps to make sure you don't get ripped off. ...Most of the lawyers and outside people took advantage of us. There were some good ones, but most of them were in it for the wrong reasons or they try to tell you they're in it for you. You're out on the road, doing your stuff like interviews and meet-and-greets and you're backstage. You're also traveling and you're tired from playing and you don't even know where you are. And when all the money starts coming in, you expect them to take care of it for you, but they just do what they want with it. It's hard to keep track of it when you're burned out and frazzled. Plus, you don't even need money when you're on tour because your hotel room's paid for and there's food at the gigs. My rent was being paid and that was all I cared about. Now, you can check your bank on your phone or your computer, but back then, there was no computer and there was no cell phones. ...Everything was a concerted effort. We had to pull over and got to a pay phone to call our management. And we didn't really have anybody on our side who always had our back. When you're doing what we did, you put your faith in those people, but then they do whatever they want.”
Todd: In hindsight, what led to you originally leaving the group? Am I correct in remembering your departure coincided with (frontman) Phil Lewis also opting to depart? Was this what ultimately pushed you over the edge?
Kelly: “I'd say I was at that point already. ...I could have hung out a little bit longer. We were auditioning a lot of different singers and I wasn't really digging it. I wasn't really feeling it with all the new singers. I didn't think we had really found anyone that was unique enough where we could really do something. ...I just thought it was time to try something else, so I got into computer graphics. In '93, I went out and got a Mac and started working with it, doing side work. I just felt like it was kind of time to go. When group's like Soundgarden came out, there was a whole different scene with attitudes, fashion and music all changing. I think Nirvana was for sure the catalyst. When they just started started to explode, you could tell how everything was changing and that the mood has shifted. It was onto something else. But we did play in Seattle shortly after and it was a great night. It was packed, so people were still out there, but it was like 'Do we hide or do we keep playing? Then when we can still quit when it won't look like we're trying to hang on to something?' I always wanted to try and make L.A. Guns the best and I felt like it had all plateaued at that point. I didn't want to cut my hair and start wearing flannel, so it was time to give it a break. I also had a child and a stepdaughter and I wanted to be there for that. I never really pursued it too much later. I never took being a musician seriously again. ...It just wasn't happening.”
Hollywood Forever (2012)
Tales From The Strip (2005)
Rip The Covers Off (2004)
Waking The Dead (2002)
Man In The Moon (2001)
Shrinking Violet (1999)
American Hardcore (1996)
Viscous Circle (1994)
Cuts (EP) (2002)
Hollywood Vampires (1991)
Cocked & Loaded (1989)
L.A. Guns (1988)
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