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 oft-quarreling vocalist Phil Lewis and guitarist Tracii Guns at last reunited in 2016, it was, to say the least, a truly noteworthy event. The resulting fruits of their labors--The Missing Peace, 2017-- was met with near-universal acclaim as the group re-asserted themselves within the hierarchy of industry. Recently, the charismatic Lewis, always a man of many words and interesting stories, was kind enough to once again speak with us regarding, among many other things, the release of their latest offering The Devil You Know.
Todd: What was the main catalyst behind reuniting with Tracii prior to the release of The Missing Peace (2017)?
Phil: “It was Christmas time in 2016 and we both were invited to play a charity event and in Las Vegas. We hadn't seen each other in something like twelve or fifteen years and with it being a charity event raising money for a really good cause, I had no good excuse not to do it. Otherwise, I really don't think we would have gotten back together. The event got us in the same room, it got us on the same stage and it definitely got us onto the same wavelength. We took it gradually from there. He started playing me some of his new ideas and the spark was ignited. It re-lit the flame. We never sat down and said 'We could be making some serious dough'. It was never about that, really. It happened for all the right reasons and we didn't get back together just to do a reunion and we didn't get back together just to put a record of greatest hits and maybe record one new song. We jumped in the deep end and put out not one but two and a half truly great records, if you include Made In Milan (2018)”
Todd: How difficult was it to re-capture the chemistry between yourself and Tracii? Did you have to 'work' at it?
Phil: “No. It was absolutely immediate. When I agreed to do the event, I was the surprise appearance. There was a bunch of different bands playing and it wasn't an entire set, but I got up to do three songs and I knew halfway through the first song. I was like 'This is it'. There is a certain chemistry that I just don't get with anyone else. It felt good then and it feels really, really good now. Me and Tracii, we always got on musically and socially, but the pressure of the business back in the '80s and the '90s...that will strain anybody's friendship. The pressure is intense sometimes and it can have catastrophic consequences. I think it was good that we had some time apart. I don't think it should've been that long, but I really felt like we owed it to the fans to at least give it a shot. They're the people that put us on the map, so we thought we'd give it a try. ...All I was doing was playing the hair circuit. I felt as if I wanted to do more and, of course, so did Tracii, so that's exactly what we're doing now.”
Todd: Ultimately, what happened? Did Tracii join your version of the group? As a fan, this is all very confusing.
Phil: “Tracii didn't join my line-up. I joined his, to be entirely accurate. ...I'd already given in my notice to (drummer) Steve (Riley) and the other guys. I admit that it's embarrassing, but I couldn't deal with it anymore. I was just going through the motions. It was all this weekend warrior stuff like bills on the Hair Metal festivals. I couldn't stand it anymore. I wanted to do new music and I wanted to branch out of the genre a little bit. I don't want to talk shit about Steve Riley because although we're not mates, we've been through hell together. We've done thousands of shows and traveled millions of miles and we always got on great. It's just that I wanted to do more and to be honest, he got a little lazy. So I said 'Look, I'm going to be leaving. I'm going to do my own thing in 2015.' It was just coincidence that the reunion with Tracii came about at that time when it did. I was always like 'Come on, man. Let’s do another one', but there was no budging, and we could have gotten a deal. I mean Frontiers (Records) will give anyone a deal. We could've got one (laughs), but there was just no moving.”
Phil: “What are you laughing at?”
Todd: That Frontiers will give a deal to anyone (laughs).
Todd: What prompted the group to release The Devil You Know so soon after the release of The Missing Peace? Was this something that was planned or was it all a result of having these opportunity to work with Tracii again?
Phil: “The Devil You Know was written on the road. We had some catching up to do. Tracii is a very prolific writer. When he sits at home, on the bus or any other time when he's not on stage, he's got his guitar on. He's sitting down and playing the guitar, just constantly counting out these original, and sometimes, corny new ideas, always constantly churning out stuff. It's inspiring, really. He wanted to do another record. He knew he had another record in him and that's what he wanted to do. Who was I to argue? I think it's fantastic. A lot of other bands would have rested on their laurels or perhaps done a covers or a Blues record, but no, we did another new record that's as good as The Missing Peace. It might actually be better. It's very different. The Missing Peace is lush. It's got strings in it and sonically, it's something we haven't done since perhaps Hollywood Vampires during those lush old expensive studio days. The Devil You Know is a lot Punkier and a lot grittier because we did it all on the road. We don't have any keyboard players and string arrangements, so it really doesn't call for that much embellishment. Before we knew it, we had a ton of new songs. We we're like 'Come on, let's go. Let's do it' and I'm glad we did. I don't know how long it will be before we do another one, but I'm really proud of the fact that we proved we could do it, ya know? We didn't do a cover record and we didn't do a Blues record. We're out here continuously proving the legitimacy of our band. That's how focused and dedicated we are to making our craft.”
Todd: How difficult is it to find the correct replacement members when the inevitable line-up changes do occur?
Phil: “I don't think so. We've got a totally new right chemistry now. We've got the right band. I always wanted (rhythm guitarist) Ace (Von Johnson) in the band. I know what you're talking about. The other guy (rhythm guitarist Adam Hamilton) didn't work out because it wasn't his thing. You can't have somebody in a band that isn't thrilled to be there, that isn't excited after a big show, that's just hanging out for a paycheck. I can't stand that and the line-up we have now isn't about that. This is the dream team, the dream line-up, the dream band that I've always wanted my whole life, my whole career. ...These guys are really fucking good, so I've got my work cut out for me. I've got to play my best game with all the guys. There's no mailing it in, and I absolutely love it.”
Todd: On both a personal and professional level, it must be absolutely refreshing to finally have a line-up that's all 'on the same page'. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to record with someone who isn't dedicated.
Phil: “Tracii is a good director. He's a good band leader. He put on his Producer cap and assumed all of the responsibilities that goes with that and showed great qualities of leadership. And, as I said, he didn't join my band, I joined his, technically. And it wasn't just his band. He had his Manager Scotty Ludwick lined up who is now our Manager. He's such a pro and such a huge part of this organization and of this team. I've just got to mention him in my interviews. And I've also got to mention Producer Mitch Davis (Baha Men, Techno Therapy, Tomlab), who collaborated and wrote with me. I record my vocals in New York during an intense three or four day session. I'll go and record half an album and then go back maybe two or three weeks later and finish up the other half. That's how we did The Missing Peace and that's how we did The Devil You Know. It's a little bit terrifying, but I love it. It's terrifying in the fact that the record's done, the music's done, the terms are done and now the focus is on me to not fuck it up. It puts me out of my comfort zone, ya know? I stay in a crappy motel on Long Island and take the subway into Manhattan, so it's a total New York immersion, but I don't have any distractions. I have no company, I don't drink and only eat takeout. It's all a very focused, monastic experience. ...Mitch is a perfectionist and a slave driver and I don't think Tracii wants to sit in the control room and listen to me doing vocals for anything more than ten minutes. It's not his thing, and that's cool. Whereas with Mitch, he's a great singer, he's a good songwriter and I learn a lot. Plus, his studio is amazing. It's a music emporium for every instrument imaginable, everything from tubas to toy pianos. Again, it's all so immersive. Once we'd started working together again, Tracii said 'I want you and Mitch to collaborate' and I'm glad he did.”
Todd: Although Tracii is obviously a very gifted Producer, it's a shame you aren't able to work with Andy Johns.
Phil: “It would be wonderful to make another record with Andy. We miss him, we love him and we respect him. We dedicated The Missing Peace to him. And it's always been one of me and Tracii's secret confessions...is that we really wish that Andy had produced Cocked & Loaded (1989). If we could get in a time machine and change one thing, that's what we would do. I can imagine Tracii embarking on a future career as a Producer and a good one, too. Me and Tracii don't see each other in the studio. It's all done by the time I see him. We're together creating it, but once those guys go in the studio, I'm not sitting there while they're doing drum tracks. I know what they're doing, so I don't have to be there because I'll be doing all my vocals on the other side of the world.”
Todd: Do you miss the era of the entire group recording together in the same room? That must have been so fun.
Phil: “We used to be that way. And it was fun and it was great, but with technology like file exchange now, you don't have to do that. Everything's recorded on computer. In the old days, it was tape so you had to be physically where the tape was. Now, you can record something and instantly stream it to fifty people. It's a completely different technology. And as fun as it was, it was that gang mentality, ya know? But, I mean, I've got to tell you...recording The Devil You Know cost about as much as the catering budgets for Cocked & Loaded (laughs).”
Todd: At this point in your career, what steps do you take to maintain your voice? Are there warming up and cooling down routines that you practice on a regular basis? I would imagine it's something you need to 'work at'.
Phil: “There are few rules I didn't know about in my early days. You've got to warm up, you've got to loosen up and you've got to stretch before you go on stage. You've also got to keep your trap shut after a show. You can't just sit there holding court. It's tempting because everyone wants to talk to you after a show, but you can't. You can sit there and perfect your sign language skills or go back to the bus. You've got to focus on the gig. You're not there to party, you're there to work, so I have a completely different ethic, work-wise. In the old days, we went on tour to party. Now, we go on tour to work. There's still a fair amount of partying involved, but they're certain times you can't and you certainly can't party every single night. Technically, I think I'm an exponentially better singer than I was thirty years ago. I didn't even really sing back then, I just shouted. But since I started following these disciplines, doing the stretches, warm-ups and stuff, I've become technically a much, much better singer. The vocals where I go in high and give everything away? ...I never thought I'd be able to do that.”
Todd: How much time do you need to devote to these processes? Pre-show, how soon do you need to start it all?
Phil: “Fifteen minutes. Now somebody, a real pro like (ex-Great White vocalist) Jack Russell, does it from the moment he wakes up. He's doing his warm-ups all day. He's really, really good. I've heard him at seven a.m. on radio shows and he sounds exactly like their records because he's so incredibly focused and knows what he's doing. Me? I'm okay as l long as I get that fifteen minutes. If I don't do it, it's immediately an issue. I can do two or three songs without warming up, but I can't do a ninety-minute set. There's just no way. And, of course, there's no smoking. You just can't smoke, but I've never been a smoker. I'm grateful that my voice has served me very well during a pretty expansive period of time when you think about it. ...It does deserve to be looked after.”
Todd: At what point did you stop playing rhythm guitar with the group? I remember you playing guitar on tours.
Phil: “When I realized how expensive it would be to hire someone to do it (laughs). I've always played a bit of guitar. I'm a writer and I bring songs in on a very, very elementary level. I wouldn't dare play an electrical guitar next to Tracii. We play acoustic together, but I wouldn't dream of playing an electric guitar next to him. But I did sufficiently get the job done and I enjoyed it. I liked my little era of being guitar hero and I've bought some beautiful guitars. Yeah, it's something I always wanted to do, but I don't miss it at all because carrying guitars around the world worrying if they're going to make it up the baggage carousel in one piece is awful. I don't miss that, so I don't think I'll be picking that up any time soon. ...Playing guitar alongside Tracii? Fuck that (laughs).”
Todd: When touring in support of The Devil You Know, what type of set list will you be working with? I would imagine there is a certain portion of your earlier catalog that simply must be played at every single performance.
Phil: “Well, we can't not trade the nuggets. We can't not play “Electric Gypsy”, “Never Enough”, “Sex Action” and “The Ballad Of Jayne”. We have to. It's not in the contract, but we'd be fools to not do it. It does limit the amount of new songs we can play, which is why we tend to not do packaged tours. After forty-five minutes, we're just getting started. ...I know we get the piss taken out of us just the same, but we'd much rather play a small crowd than an amphitheater. With a small crowd, we can play longer and quite often, play a second night. And that's the best, really. That's the ultimate. ...We distance ourselves from the pack a little by doing that, and there's a little bit of resentment and a bit of jealousy. People don't like to see other people doing well (laughs). None of our peers are releasing new records and getting anything quite the attention that we are because frankly, they're lazy. They're happy to go out and play songs that they wrote during the last century and we're not. We don't want to be in that soup, to be honest with you, so we're getting a little bit of flack for that. But we'll be all right. We just keep our heads down and focus on what we're doing with this new music. We'll be fine (laughs).”
Todd: It's actually refreshing to find an act from that era not content with relying entirely upon their past glories.
Phil: “The nostalgia act. We've never wanted to do that and we never will do that. It would have been so easy to do that, but the thing with that is that it wouldn't have lasted. After six months, we would have gotten frustrated because Tracii gets frustrated really easy. He needs new challenges or else he gets really angstful (laughs). He's already working on new material, so he just couldn't do that. He couldn't go out and play “Electric Gypsy” and “Sex Action” for the rest of his life. We'll be doing it for the rest of our lives (laughs) but not just that. ...We're still going to play “Rip And Tear”, whether he likes it or not, for the rest of our careers because it's unavoidable”
Todd: At this particular juncture in your career, do you have any chart or sales expectations for The Devil You Know? Is there a certain level or number that you'd secretly like for the band and the record to ultimately attain?
Phil: “Nope, nope, nope, nope (laughs). I couldn't give a toss. I just don't care. I don't expect it to sell anything, really. I know it's probably already being bootlegged and people will say 'Well, there's no point in doing it', 'Why bother?' and 'People expect music for free'. ...But I don't care about any of that. We're artists. We write music, we record music and we play music. That's what we do. I don't want to sit here and be cynical and write songs that make me say 'Oh, that might chart. These kids today, they just might like that.' I just can't do that. I don't care. We're not chasing a hit single. Other bands are. They're obsessed with crossing over into the Country market. Fuck that. I don't want to go anywhere near that. I don't care if it sells ten million copies. I'd like it to sell ten million, but I know it won't. I'd be happy with ten thousand. ...But that's just the way this band is. We haven't given up, we're still dreamers, we're still fans of the music and we we still enjoy playing. We enjoy writing new songs. We get a real kick out of people enjoying the new stuff. Quite often, there's an exodus when a band says 'We're going to play a new song now', but I don't think it's like that for us. I think people like our new stuff. They loved (the song) “Speed” (from The Missing Peace). We'd never played “Speed” before and once we started playing it, it was really immediate, ya know? By the end of the song, everyone had gone crazy.”
The Devil You Know (2019)
Made In Milan (CD/DVD) (2018)
The Missing Peace (2017)
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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