L.A. GUNS are one of the great American hard rock bands of the last 30 years. Since the self-titled debut in 1988 to the widely praised 2017 comeback album “The Missing Peace,” the grizzled vets of the music industry carved out one of the most unique stories in the history of rock. From their humble beginnings to their legendary feuds to their triumphant reunion, one thing is for certain‚ Tracii Guns and Phil Lewis never stopped putting their heart and soul into their music. It’s that authenticity that garnered them legions of dedicated fans around the globe, which in turn fuels their creative fire. Hot on the heels of the success of the last record, they’re ready to unleash the next exciting chapter in the band’s rich history. “The Devil You Know,” releasing March 29th via Frontiers Music srl, thrusts the band forward into exciting new musical territory. An unrelenting thrill ride from start to finish, the album incorporates influences from Black Sabbath to Led Zeppelin to Kyuss to The Hellacopters, all while staying true to the unique rock sound that is L.A. Guns. With Phil’ Lewis’ stunning and unique vocals and Guns’ mind-bending guitar playing on full display, this album is proof that rock ‘n’ roll is alive and well in 2019!
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Phil Lewis to discuss the making of the band’s dynamic new album. Along the way, Lewis offers up an inside look at his career, creative evolution and the origins of the band’s iconic logo.
Thanks for speaking with me today, Phil. I know you are busier than ever, so I appreciate your time and the hard work you all have been putting in on these recent albums!
That was very nice! Thank you very much and we appreciate your support.
I want to start at the very beginning. How did music take hold of you in your early life and what went into finding your creative voice?
The early days were fun. As you know, I’ve been doing this for a while now! [laughs] I started in London in the early ‘80s and I put various bands together and, quite by shock, ended up with a record deal, which made me a legit musician. By fate, luck and passion I am still managing to do it decades later. I consider it a blessing! I grew up in London in the ‘70s. I was a teenager, about 15 years old in 1976, when I could go and see bands like Queen and Deep Purple in pubs and small rooms, literally. I saw Black Sabbath at The Albert Hall. It was an absolutely magical time. I picked up an old acoustic guitar, learned some chords and then started signing over those chords. At that point, I started to learn covers. What I thought would be difficult came quite easily to me. Before I knew it, I was doing solo open mic nights, singing and helping out other bands. It evolved very naturally. I don’t have a musical background or a musical education of any kind at all, aside from a love of the craft. My first singing lessons were screaming along to “Stairway to Heaven” in my car, like most people! [laughs] It kind of went from there!
There were a lot of factors involved with creating the artist we see today. Which of those factors played the biggest role in your development?
You know, my days in GIRL were a blur. They were fun days; they were experimental days. We were listening to bands like Siouxsie and The Banshees and Japan. We also had the American influence, the Tom Petty factor, going into it. So, it was wonderful at that age to be given an opportunity to record a record. Ya know, we just made it up. We didn’t do any covers. Actually, that’s not true because we did a KISS cover. It was great fun! My first serious musical education was when I started working with Bernie Tormé after GIRL. Musically, he was leagues ahead of what we were doing. It was tremendous and he was a great musical mentor to me. I enjoyed working with him a lot and I learned a lot. To this day, that education of those early days with him carries through. The GIRL stuff was great, but it was all impromptu, you know. It happened, it sounded good. Bernie really knew what he was doing, and he knew how to get it. I learned a lot from him. I also learned a lot from Andy Johns, of course, who produced something like five of our records. I also learned a lot from Tracii Guns. He’s someone who is dedicated to it, regardless of whether he was going to live in a mansion or a shoebox. No matter what, our course was set, and it’s been very good to us. It’s our salvation, you know. I don’t know what would’ve happened if I hadn’t embraced music. I don’t know where I would have gone. It was a no-brainer for me, and it was obvious what I was going to do. It’s tricky explaining that to my career master at school — “Hey, I want to be a rockstar!” But I got it! In the end, I won. It only took me 40 years, but I won! [laughs]
You make it look easy!
Well, thank you. It’s a discipline. It’s like these people who work out on treadmills or lift enormous weights. They make it look easy too but there is a lot that goes in behind that appearance, believe me!
You’ve seen your fair share of ups and downs along the way. What inspires you as an artist these days?
I was in a lineup with the Steve Riley version of LA Guns and we were together for a long time. We did a few albums and I was quite happy but then things started slowing down. He didn’t want to record any new music and just wanted to go out on these Hair Metal package tours. I wasn’t quite ready for that. That is one step before retirement, as far as I’m concerned, so I gave him my notice that I was going to quit. I gave him a year, well, like eight months and I was even thinking about going back and playing acoustic or putting a three-piece band together. I just needed to get out. It was around that time that I ran into Tracii and the talk of a reunion came about. Once I heard his ideas, what he had lined up and what he wanted to do recording-wise, along with his enthusiasm, it was infectious! It was immediately infectious. It just reminds me so much of those early days when I first moved to LA back in 1988. I remember we were both sitting on a city bus on the way to the studio and writing lyrics to “Electric Gypsy.” It was fun then and it’s fun now. That’s what inspires me.
From a business standpoint, what keeps a band like LA Guns moving forward in today’s climate?
Well, certainly not recorded music. We know that going in and if we break even, we’re lucky. Really lucky, you know. We are fortunate that we have a good live following. It’s taking a risk, but we think we’re going to do a lot better if we stick our necks out instead of just playing it safe or playing the old nuggets like “Sex Action,” “Ballad of Jayne” or “Never Enough.” We do that as well but we’re not going to get any new fans doing that. We’re not going to get any crossover or any new people by doing that. It seems to us, logically, that if we put out this intriguing new music, then it’s going to reflect in our attendance. Even if we don’t sell millions of copies of the records, the influence will get out and I think that’s where it’s going to show.
“The Missing Peace” kicked off a new era for LA Guns. Now, in March 2019, you will unleash “The Devil You Know.” What can you tell us about the headspace you were in with these records and the impact they had on you.
To be honest, my head is still spinning from it. I couldn’t believe how quickly we rallied together to start work on this second record. It’s the second record with this lineup and I believe it’s the 12th LA Guns record. It just goes to show the enthusiasm and energy that is happening for us at the moment. We’re on a roll and there is no doubt about it. It’s great to do new music and it’s also great to see that the reunion has been so appreciated. I wish we would have gotten together sooner but maybe we needed some time apart to grow up and do our own thing. It just feels right and we’re doing it all for the right reasons. We’re not doing a nostalgia tour. We didn’t get back together and put together a covers record or a greatest hits record with a new song at the end. This is legit. It’s a new, hungry band. The nucleus is the old band but it’s very much the same feeling I had when Tracii and I first partnered up back in the late ‘80s.
You mentioned taking risks with this new record – tell us about that aspect of it.
The record is classic, but it also has a new vibe. It’s new but not modern. We wouldn’t use an auto-tuner. We wouldn’t use drum loops. It’s very organic and stripped down. It’s what happens when you get four extremely dedicated musicians together and three of them are incredibly talented. It’s a stew! It cooks and it’s darn good eatin’! [laughs]
Well said! [laughs] Each album features its own share of challenges. What were the biggest obstacles you faced with “The Devil You Know?”
It’s always a little bit terrifying when all the tracks are recorded and it’s like, “Alright, Phil. You’re up!” It’s daunting because the tracks are so good and beautifully recorded. It was like, “Feets don’t fail me now!” [laughs] Like the last record, I flew to New York to record with Mitch Davis. We got down to a week’s worth of serious monastic, hyper-focused eight-hour days in the studio. There was no socializing, no drinking or partying. It was simply a week’s worth of intense recording. Sometimes I would be so scared that I’d throw up before I got on the subway to take the 16 stops into Manhattan from Long Island. I was scared because I didn’t want to fuck it up! I knew I was going to be singing stuff higher, louder and better than I had ever done. With that said, I know it was going to take a lot of work, so I was a little bit scared of it. By golly, about halfway through it, there was no greater feeling than when I nailed it. We wired the tracks back to Tracii and the guys and they said, “Yep, that’s it! That’s what we want.” It was the greatest feeling in the world. I’ve got to say, when it’s all done and it’s my job and I have to do a whole record’s worth of vocals in four days, it’s slightly terrifying! [laughs]
What can you tell us about the songwriting process for LA Guns these days?
It’s a group effort. Mitch Davis is involved as well in the writing. He’s a brilliant lyricist. Him and Tracii were working before the reunion. When I came back, he said, “Why don’t you and Mitch get together and see if it’s going to work in this environment.” I did and Mitch is amazing! He’s an incredible musician, great engineer and a very dedicated lyricist. It was really, really good being around somebody, like myself, who focuses so much on the vocals. The guys get into the studio and we put the tracks together. They go in and lay them down and, when they are done, they will do a rough mix to send out to New York and we do the vocals there. Then it’s all sent back to LA and Greg Worth mixes it. He’s the same guy who mixed “The Missing Peace.” So, it’s the same team as the last record and it seems to be working very well.
I also want to ask about the album art for “The Missing Peace” and “The Devil You Know.” I did some digging and couldn’t find much about the creation of the iconic LA Guns logo. What are you recollections of how that came about?
I remember it very vividly. I had joined the band and been in the band about six months. We were doing a photoshoot in downtown with our good friend, John Scarpati. We were saying that we wanted a logo and he said that he knew somebody. He said, “Just tell us want you want and he can do it.” We said, “Well, we want skulls. We want pistols. We want the Hollywood sign, of course. We want the whole LA/Hollywood backdrop.” He goes, “OK, I will tell my buddy, Tyler.” A couple of days later, it wasn’t long, he called us up. He said, “OK, I’ve got something to show you. I think you’re going to like it!” We went down to John’s studio and he ceremoniously unveiled it and we were all absolutely blown away! It was exactly, exactly what we had in mind! This artist, Tyler, had put all of our suggestions together and gave us exactly what we wanted. You know, I don’t even remember meeting him and we never saw him again after that! His work never showed up and we never saw anything else that he did. You can see on the original that it has Tyler on it. It’s an utter mystery. I remember the unveiling like yesterday and just how blown away we were! We were thrilled and he nailed it. Mysteriously, he disappeared back into the ether. Kahla (www.artbykahla.com) works in much the same way. We tell her what we want. We give her a shopping list of things. We had several album titles, so she had to work on some ideas that we ended up scraping but once we told her what we wanted, she did an absolutely fantastic job too. Hopefully, this one won’t disappear into the ether … since I’m married to her, you know! [laughs] I’ve been telling her just how well her work is being received and she’s very happy to hear that! She actually got a commission yesterday from someone who is doing a comic book. She’s a commercial artist, so she’s excited and they are actually negotiating doing something right now, so that worked out well!
Looking back on your career, how have you evolved as an artist?
Well, you know, it’s peaks and valleys, highs and lows. I knew it was going to be rough. When it’s great, it’s great and when it’s not it’s a fucking nightmare! [laughs] But, you weather it. I always thought of it as more of an adventure than a career. It’s great right now because people, like yourself, are loving the work we have done but it hasn’t always been that way. I’ve been slagged off horribly and, quite often, with good reason! You just have to have a thick skin or as Tom Petty calls it, “Rhino Skin.” That’s kind of my theme song, that and the “James Bond Theme.” Those are the two things that go through my head when I’m driving and thinking about my career! [laughs] I’ve had some absolutely fantastic times and, for somebody who isn’t musically trained, I’m very proud of the body of work I’ve put out.
Do you feel there are misconceptions about yourself?
No, not really. When I was growing up in the early metal scene, like I said, GIRL was listening to Japan and Siouxsie and The Banshees. So, I was a little misconceived in the early days as being a new-waver and not really a rocker but I sorted that perception in no time at all!
There are a lot of bands, peers of LA Guns, who are putting out great music right now. Speaking to LA Guns specifically, are releases like these getting the attention they deserve?
Yeah, I do! You should see my interview schedule! For example, I’ve been doing this since noon today and yesterday too! So, yeah, I think there is definitely some traction. This is great. I think “The Missing Peace” opened a lot of doors for us and people gave us a second chance when they heard that. We’re not fuckin’ around! You can hear that. We’re not trying to do a country song. We’re LA Guns! We’re not trying to do some type of crossover or some hideous cover of “Like A Virgin.” We’re doing what we’ve always done, doing what we do best and it’s going down like gangbusters. I don’t care what other bands are doing. Good luck to them, that’s great. I just care about this one and I’m really happy about the way things are going.
What’s the best way for us as fans to support the band and help keep the art moving forward?
Come to the shows, bring your friends, buy merch and spread the word! It’s really that simple!
Where do you see LA Guns and yourself headed in the future? Is there still uncharted territory you’ve yet to discover?
Yeah, I hope so. You know, rust never sleeps. I don’t want to stop or ever sit back and say, “Ah, that’s it. I’m done.” I don’t see there ever being an LA Guns farewell tour. The circus bands do that and it’s a gimmick. It’s a trick to get people to come out and see you. I don’t think anyone would legitimately buy that in our case because we’ve made it clear that we’re not going anywhere!
One last question before I let you go, Phil. What’s the best lesson we can take from your journey as an artist?
Oh, I don’t know. Be intrepid. Be brave. A ship is safe in the harbor but that’s not what ships were built for. Look, fortune favors the brave, so be brave. It’s difficult no matter what path you take, be it the life of a musician or an accountant. To be taken seriously, you have to have faith in yourself and accept that it’s going to be a bumpy road. You’re going to get your ass kicked a couple of times but it’s character building! If you stick with it long enough, you’ll succeed!
I followed LA Guns since I was a kid and it’s been quite a ride. Thanks for all the hard work you have put in. Any chance we might get an autobiography out of you and Tracii Guns at some point?
Yeah, of course. I hope so. We’ve got a good story. It’ll be like the Bible. There’s the Old Testament and The New Testament! [laughs]
Well, even if it sells a fraction of the copies that bestseller has, you’ll be in good shape!
That’s right! [laughs]
Thanks again for your time today. I can’t wait to see you out on the road! Take care, Phil.
I appreciate it, Jason! Take care.
L.A. GUNS will release ‘The Devil You Know’ on March 29th, 2019 via Frontiers Records. Visit the official website of the band at www.lagunsmusic.com for all the latest news and tour dates!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.