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 Riley, 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: How did this particular variation of the group come together? Was this something you had been planning?
Steve: “Kelly and I had already been together and I was absolutely going to continue with the band like I have for the last thirty years. There was no me stopping being in this band. ...Kelly came onboard in 2017 and we'd started writing songs when we got offered the M3 show. ...Once we started writing, we found (former bassist) Scott Griffin to play guitar. ...He's a great guitar player. And then we found (Sin City Sinners alumni) Kurt Frohlich to sing. The offer for the M3 show came to us and we took it and played to see how things were going to go with the new line-up It all started snowballing from that point on. ...That show was a real gas for us to do.”
Todd: Was it difficult to choose a set list for the M3 show? Were you able to concentrate beyond all the classics?
Steve: “That's pretty much it. When you're a classic band like we are, that comes with the territory, ya know? We've been doing this for over thirty years now, so we know that we have to do a lot of the classic material. Your set list is going to be three quarters or even more of the older material that the fans want to hear. If you're lucky, you can pepper the set with a couple of new songs, something new that you've been doing. At that point, we hadn't recorded Renegades yet, so the set was going to consist of one hundred percent older material. We tried to put a set together that would feature songs that hadn't been performed recently. So we tried to set it up so the set would be classic material, but with some of the songs being deep cuts like “Wild Obsession” (from Hollywood Vampires, 1991) and “Nothing Better To Do” (from Viscous Circle, 1994). We tried to change it up a bit, but it was basically 'Let's play the material we wrote during the early days. ...We can go out and blast away.”
Todd: From a business point of view, how do you 'deal'/'handle' there being two separate versions of the group?
Steve: “When Tracii quit in 2002, he went on and did a few other bands after that, but (vocalist) Phil (Lewis) and I had kept battling on as L.A. Guns. I never stopped trying to get classic guys to not quit. ...I was always there. I was the longest chain and I'm still the longest chain member of L.A. Guns. I never really quit the band, but everybody else has left the band for some reason or another. When Tracii decided to do a second L.A. Guns in 2006, that's when all of this started. It's been something I've just had to deal with because the two of us owned the name and the trademark. We're classic members and we're former partners, but there was nothing I could do to stop him. ...Phil and I just had to deal with it. So, for the last twenty years, I've been dealing with it and it's nothing new. It's not like 'Wow, this is a new situation where there's two bands that have the same name'. ...He'd already been doing it for a while because when he quit, Phil and I went on for fifteen years without him.”
Todd: From a personal and professional point of view, that must be incredibly frustrating to regularly work with.
Steve: “It is. It's totally frustrating. It's something that I don't want to happen and I wish would never have happened. Like I said, you wouldn't believe how much I tried to talk to the classic members out of not quitting the band. I would tell them 'We all have a good thing going here. Let's just keep on going'. When Tracii left in 2002, he left Phil and I up in the air, but it was a situation where we were determined to keep pushing forward. Of course we ended up doing another four or five albums before this all happened again with Phil leaving the band. ...So it's something that's frustrating, but there's really nothing you can do about it. It's like it is what it is.”
Todd: When it was time to choose a lead vocalist, was it a difficult decision or did you have somebody in mind?
Steve: “No. ...We could have done the really ball-breaking thing of auditioning fifteen or twenty guys guys. He was the first guy we winded up in the studio with. ...A friend of ours from Las Vegas said you should check out this guy named Kurt Frohlich. He was the very first guy we checked out and ended up being the guy that we wanted to play with, so we were lucky that it had happened like that. ...And we didn't want to veer off too far from the L.A. Guns sound and I think that we captured that on Renegades. You could tell with the first single “Crawl” that we we're staying true to the classic L.A. Guns sound. If you have a band that is well-known for a certain style and a certain sound, you pretty match have to stay true to that and that's what Kelly and I wanted to do with this. ...We wanted to stay true to the L.A. Guns sound and Kurt had always been a big fan of L.A. Guns sound, so he knew what it would take to do this. He didn't even have to alter his style, he just already had it. You really do want to stay as close as possible to who you are, and that's what we hope that we did with Renegades.”
Todd: How did the songwriting process for Renegades differ from your previous experiences during the classic era? Did you find it difficult to functionally work on new material without everyone being in the same location?
Steve: “It was a total different experience. Usually, everybody is living in the same town and you can work on stuff over weeks and weeks and try to piece things together. But everybody is living in a different place now. Kelly is in New York, Kurt is in Florida, (guitarist/ex-bassist) Scotty (Griffin) is in Vegas, and I'm in LA, so we had to utilize the internet big time. A lot of us were sitting on material that we'd written on our own, and we'd been exchanging ideas through the internet for about a couple of months after the M3 show. Kelly and I had some songs we'd already been sitting on, Kurt had some songs and so did Scotty. ...We just started exchanging ideas through the internet, going back and forth, and ended up with about thirty-five songs between the four of us. So when we got together in LA, we had a tight schedule. But we had already done two months of internet work together and we had two days of pre-Production in LA when I got them out here. We then did seven days of recording right in a row, so it was a nine-day stretch that we did. I sent everybody home, and Mixed it with the Engineer for four days. ...We Mastered it and ended up doing the whole thing in a total of two weeks, so it's not like we had a lot of time to overthink stuff. Kelly and I already knew what we wanted to do and we were totally prepared. And we knew what we had to do when everyone got here. I'm really very proud of everybody.”
Todd: Obviously not having everyone in the same city or even the same state complicates things rather severely. How big of an impact does not having the same recording budget have? Does it make things harder to get done?
Steve: “The days when you had the elbow room to have a big budget are long gone. You could have these pre-Production situations where everybody lived in the same town so we could see each other. Everybody could very easily show back up at the studio the next day so we could piece and write songs together. That's just not the case now, where a lot of bands, not just L.A. Guns, have members living outside of L.A., so this situation was a totally different animal. With everybody living in different areas, we had to present songs that we were sitting on, or maybe just the gist of a song. ...It was a totally different way of doing it with Renegades. And so we did that, like I said, for two months over the internet. When we did those two days of pre-Production before recording, we were already well into it. We cut it down to ten or twelve songs and we knew what we were going to do. We had already tasted it on the internet and worked on it through the internet with each other, so two days of pre-Production was spent polishing up the songs we really wanted to do. Basically, it was all about putting an ending and a beginning on them because the songs were pretty much done. So this was a whole different way of doing it. Every other album that I've done right up to Renegades was with everybody being in the same town. This was the very first time I'd done anything like this and it might be the way of the future of how because everybody lives all over the country. I'm kind of glad that I kind of got it out of the way because this might be the way of the future. ...I've tasted it now, so I think this might be the way we'll be doing our stuff in the future.”
Todd: What led to Scotty re-joining the group as a lead guitarist? Considering the amount of different players that you had previously worked with (most notably Mick Cripps), I was surprised to hear he was back on board.
Steve: “He took the job as bass player with L.A. Guns because it was a good opportunity to get in a band, get out on the road and record. But he's a guitar player and he's always been a guitar player. He's just never gotten the opportunity to do it. At the time, the bassist slot was open in L.A. Guns. We met him and he said 'Hey, man, I could pull this off', so we rehearsed with him. He's such a well-rounded musician that we kept him for a long time as bass player. When this opportunity came up, I called him and told him that Kelly's doing this with me and I thought he could play guitar. I was like 'Why don't you do what you really do?'. He was just so stoked about it. He's is a tremendous guitar player and I knew that already because when we would rehearse, he would pick up the guitar in the studio and screw around or even show the guitar player how to play a certain thing, so I knew he was already right there. That was his opportunity to be in L.A. Guns, and that was what was open, but when this came along and I got my ex-mate back with Kelly, he thought that he couldn't be in the band. It's probably one of the best decisions that Kelly and I could've made because he's such a great guitar player. It was a really, really good decision to get him to do this. ...He is just leaning into it right now and having a total blast.”
Todd: How close is the group to finally releasing Renegades? The singles seem to have been well-received, but having the entire record would be great. Is it delayed due to the inability to tour? COVID-19 has been too tough.
Steve: “We should be at the point of releasing the whole Renegades album, but because of everything being pushed back because of the pandemic, everyone is keeping their fingers crossed that it will happen soon. ...We'd like to get out and support it, but Kelly and don't want to do the old two-hundred day club run. We don't want to do that anymore. We've done it for years, and it's brutal, so we're going to stick to doing festivals, sheds, fairs and casinos where there's some other bands on the bill with us, the equipment's nice and the room is nice. Plus, there's also those odd satellite club shows that go with some of those gigs and we don't mind doing them, but we're not going to do the get in the van and drive down the country and do two-hundred and fifty club shows. We've done that for so many years and, like I said, it's brutal. Sometimes you don't go on until midnight or even 12:30 in the morning, and it's just a really hard schedule to keep up with. We'll do maybe twenty-five or thirty shows in the US and then go over to do some shows in Europe, the Pacific Rim and maybe in South America. At this point in our career, we just want to do some really nice gigs and stay away from the real brutal club run.”
Todd: Has you been pleased with the response to the Renegades singles? Has the general consensus been good?
Steve: “We're jazzed, bro. ...We know that there will be some people that don't dig it and that comes with the territory, but the majority of people have really dug it and I think that the response has been really, really good. I think that was because it sounds like an L.A. Guns song. It doesn't veer off into a different style or something that's way out of left field. It's not too heavy or too soft. It's pretty much the typical L.A. Guns style of writing you'd expect. Like I said, we know we're going to get some people that don't dig what we're doing and that we've got to deal with it...it all comes with this territory. But overall, we feel the response has been pretty good.”
Todd: At this particular stage in your career, what is the most difficult aspect of touring? Is it still the amount of travel? With the reduction in the financial resources, I would imagine it's much more difficult to get things done.
Steve: “The tour buses used to come into LA and pick up the band and crew and we'd bee off and running. It was pretty easy when you look back on it. It was a pretty easy thing to get on that tour bus. Everybody would move from one city to another, sleeping on the bus and sometimes getting into a hotel. When I look back on it, it looks pretty easy right now. ...From about 1995 onward, it became clear that you have to fly. You've got to fly into a city and maybe get on a really nice van to drive to the venue that you're going to play. That's pretty much that. It sounded so easy back in the day when we were on the bus saying 'Wow, it would be nice to fly to gigs?'. It's actually harder to do. You go to an airport, get on the flight with the whole airport experience, get there and get off the long flight and then try to get on the van and then drive over. That's actually a little bit more difficult. The toughest part of touring nowadays is the way you have to tour. You're not on tour buses all the time like you used to be, so it's a totally different setup now. ...But really, jumping in a van and doing, like I said, two-hundred and fifty club dates was insane. That's really, really tough to do. For the last ten to fifteen years, we would fly into an area, grab a van and then drive in a seven hundred mile radius to do three or four club shows. Then we'd fly back to LA, have maybe maybe a day or two if we were lucky and then get back on a plane and do the same thing over again. I must say, it's a really hard way to tour. ...The tour bus thing sounds really nice now (laughs).”
Todd: Truthfully, what separates this version of L.A. Guns from the Phil and Tracii-led version? Is one version more authentic than the other? How is what you do different from what the 'other version' of the group is doing?
Steve: “You know what? There's really no separation. When you're a Classic Rock band like we are and you have to lean on the older material that's really well known, there's not too much separation. One of the bands might step out and want to do something that's totally different, maybe heavier, or maybe even softer, but Kelly and I made a conscientious effort to stay true to the sound and to what L.A. Guns is. ...When you're a band that's this old, you end up leaning on a lot of the older material, ya know? And it's no secret that we make our bread and butter on the road. Our records are pretty much a promotional item we go out on tour with. You don't get a lot of airplay and you don't get a lot of record sales. They're even that many record stores anymore, so you use it as a promotional item. You show people that you've got fresh material and hopefully you can put one or two of those new songs in the set. We couldn't do that at M3 because we hadn't recorded anything yet, but we definitely intend on doing that when we can. We should have already been out by now, but everything's pushed back now. We definitely intend on putting a couple of the new songs in the set, but the record is really a promotional tool.”
Todd: How do you look back on your time as a member of W.A.S.P.? That must have been quite the experience.
Steve: “It was really fun, my bro. That was a great period in my life. That band was great, they really were. And I didn't think we were just theatrically great either. We were sonically great as well. (Vocalist/guitarist) Blackie (Lawless) wrote some great material with (former guitarist) Chris (Holmes). I look back at that time very fondly at that. We were opening for some headliners that really saw how to be on top of their game after following us on stage. We toured the world a bunch of times and did some really great albums. I'm still good friends with all of the guys from the band. ...It was a great period of my career. I really wish that band never broke up. I really wish we could have stayed together. ...I tried to talk Blackie out of disbanding that original lineup because it was so good. Like I said, I'm the only one who hasn't quit. I just try to keep pushing the band forward, ya know? I'm totally into the classic line-ups of bands and with W.A.S.P, that band was probably the best ever version of W.A.S.P . We made so much noise, man. I think we stormed around the wall and really tore it all out, ya know?”
Todd: To what do you attribute your personal longevity? Diet? Exercise? You've been doing this for a long time.
Steve: “I was never a real big partier. I drank and smoked a little weed, but I never got heavily into drugs. I've always been into working out, too. I've been playing the drums since I was six years old, so I've been playing drums for over fifty-five years. I knew that if I wanted to keep playing at a high level, I had to keep working out stay in shape, too. I've tried to not party too much, I've continued to work out and try to stay in shape so I can stay on top of my game. Drumming is a total different animal than any other instrument and if you get too lazy with yourself, you can really lose your edge, so I just try to stay in shape all the time. ...My workout is simple, too. I do some calisthenics, a little bit of weight lifting and I ride the stationary bike. I also do a lot of stretching too, You have to do tons of stretching so you can keep your body in tone. It's not this huge workout where I'm running ten miles a day. I'm not trying to build up too much, I'm just really religious about doing it all the time.”
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)
Vicious Circle (1994)
Cuts (EP) (2002)
Hollywood Vampires (1991)
Cocked & Loaded (1989)
L.A. Guns (1988)
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