A Conversation with LA Guns Frontman Phil Lewis

LA Guns is one of the original Sunset Strip glam rock bands and are coming up on their 40th anniversary. Never willing to rest on their history, LA Guns, led by founder Tracii Guns and iconic singer Phil Lewis, is about to release their 14th record, Checkered Past. Phil Lewis recently took some time to talk about the new record and all things LA Guns.

Please press the PLAY icon below to hear the MisplacedStraws.com Conversation with Phil Lewis –

On choosing the title Checkered Past Since this reunion, 2016, I think we did it, it’s been important for us to come up with an appropriate title. We figured that after 15 years of estrangement, the title for the first record after that called The Missing Peace was very appropriate, and “piece” please spelled like “love and peace”. So we like to think of ourselves as being quite witty, and the title of Checked Past fits into that very, very well, because God knows we show have one. :39

On how the record was put together during the pandemic – Well, we were able to get together remotely. It was a very, very different beast, it’s not a traditional record by any means. We all had to build a recording studio in each of our houses, dwellings, wherever we were living, record it, and then fly it back out over to Adam Hamilton, who was putting down drums and compiling all the files. So there’s a lot of technology and nothing like the traditional, where you go and all the guys get in a room and, “What ideas”, or, “I got this song”, and, “Let’s try this” and, “I like that. Let’s just change the chorus to this”. There was none of that. There was no tweaking. It is what it is. Tracii came up with the music in about 10 days, and it was just up to the rest of us to get up to speed, and I think we did a really, really great job. It doesn’t sound fragmented, it sounds like we’re all (together). But this will be the first time that I’ve released an album that I never sang live. I’ve never sung any of these songs live, any of them. I think we did “Let You Down” last year, we did a live stream and we pull it out just saying it sounded great. We’re adding new songs to the set, we’re gonna add “Cannonball”, “Get Along”, and “Let You Down” into our set coming up. So two of those, I’ve never done live. I’m not worried about it since I’ve recorded it, I know it like the back of my hand, but it’s a strange, strange way of doing it. A strange concept and I didn’t hate it actually. Certainly, during the darkest days of lockdown, it was a great distraction, it was great to have something to do and take one’s mind off of the dreadful situation, and the fact that we haven’t done a gig in, well, I grew a mustache to show how long it was since I did a gig, and it took on a life of its own. 1:46

On the heavier musical and lyrical tone of this record – I think (we) leave Tracii to do the music and just let him do the music. I’m done bringing in my four-chord masterpieces and having him interpret it. I just leave that to him, stuff that he finds challenging to write and to play, and just leave him to that department. My job is to come in and make it cohesive and to send these great riffs and arrangements into songs. The songs in many ways don’t entirely write themselves, but when you hear a song, and I’ll give you an example, a song like “Living Right Now”, which is one of my favorites, just the way it kicks in, it’s sort of punky, I got a punk rock vibe to it. So consequently, the lyrics are a little bit cheeky and a bit sort of punky leaning, and I’ve gotta say I probably sound more English on that song than I ever did in any of my Girl stuff, just having fun, just riffing with it. Then something epic and dark like “Let you down”, that had to be something serious and heart-wrenching, because the music lends to lyrics along those lines, so. I think I know what you’re trying to say. I think it’s not so much heavier because there are some really lovely light moments like “Get Along”, it’s focused. It’s really more focused on it than it ever was, because in Mark 1, we were all writing, we were all bringing songs in, and nothing wrong with that, but I just think it’s just stronger when you’ve got one lyricist and one writer, and that’s how we like to do it. 4:39

On writing for the musical themes Tracii created – One wants to be inspired, and it’s a never-ending source of inspiration all the stuff that Tracii’s coming up with. He does it so quickly, it’s just like second nature to him. Obviously, the other part takes considerably longer. But he doesn’t get in the way of that. He is not lyrically inclined, he just leaves that and focuses on what he knows and what he does best. Plus he’s got a well-earned and fair production credit on this record because it was definitely his vision right from the get-go. I think in many ways, him being part of a democracy held him back, I think he’s much happier being a tyrant. 7:28

On the current lineup of LA Guns – The thing about LA Guns is we’re not like Iron Maiden or Def Leppard, we were never in the same pay grade. LA Guns has to be fluid because we were certainly not an A-list. I don’t know what you put it, but in our history, we weren’t able to offer people retainers, and so when other offers came along, we’d lose players, and that was just the nature of it, and I call it fluidity. It’s just there’s so many musicians out there and there’s no shortage, and if we need one, it doesn’t take us long to find one. We’re notoriously the band that has had over 50 members, but when you’ve got two versions running at the same time that’s no great feat. I know our legacy at times is laughable, and rock n’ roll at times is funny, but it’s just so solid now. I’ve got to say that since the reunion, Johnny Martin has been there, and in many ways, I feel like I joined Johnny and Tracii’s band because they were working together before the reunion before I got involved, so I got tremendous respect for Johnny because he was very welcoming in having me back in the band. He could have been pissy about it, I don’t know, but he wasn’t. He was great, he and I got on immediately and I really love him as a person, and I love his playing. He has contributed to music, it’s not entirely true that Tracii did it all. Johnny came up with the incredible fantastic riff for “Cannonball”. So it’s not like a closed shop, we have other people have. Johnny certainly has the right to contribute if he so desires. Ace (Von Johnson) is great. We had Michael Grant for a while, and I just felt with Michael needed to be in his own band. He needed to front his own band, he’s very much a frontman, and he was playing second fiddle, and I think he was really frustrated by it, and it made for some tense touring. I let him go because of it, and it was a bit of a scramble to find somebody else, we tried Johnny Monaco from Enuff Z’nuff and it was great, I love Johnny, and he certainly had no problem playing it, and in fact, it was too easy for him, he said he felt like a surgeon putting on a Band-Aid. So he didn’t last long, and I always wanted Ace. I thought Ace would be the perfect backup for Tracii. For some reason around that time, before we got Monico, I couldn’t persuade Tracii to get on board with it. Then all of a sudden, he was the one that came up and said, “Why don’t we get Ace?” I was like, “Dude”. We did, and just as I thought, he fit in perfectly, he’s got the right look, he’s got the right attitude, he’s fun to tour with, just a terrific guy and brings the average age of the band down to a little bit more respectable (number). Scot Coogan is a great drummer, and I love playing with him. He quit about two weeks ago. Because he didn’t play on the record, he didn’t play a note, he just feels that his involvement, it was just nothing. He plays with Stephen Pearcy, he plays with Tiffany, he’s not gonna starve. He’s got lots of other stuff. So he very politely said that he was gonna bow out and he enjoyed the time and who knows we might get back together down the line, but Adam played the drums on the record because Adam had the studio, which had the drum set up. If Coogan had that setup, then we would have used him, but it was just out of our hands. We understand it’s a fair parting and no animosity whatsoever. So we’ve got Shane (Fitzgibbon) back, who played on The Missing Peace and The Devil. It’s great to have him. The reason Shane left when he did it was he got the dream gig of a lifetime working for Kayne West, he’s like Kayne’s right-hand man, he’s this personal recording engineer. So we couldn’t financially come anywhere near competing with that. So with our blessing, he moved on, but he’s been doing that for a while now, and he spoke to the boss and the boss is okay with him doing a little moonlighting, in fact, the boss has been very cool and lets us use this warehouse to rehearse. So Kayne’s big time in our good books right now, A for letting us have Shane back and B for the use of his facilities. 9:16

On if lingering effects from the Steve Riley lawsuit still affect the band – It does, and unfortunately, it required us going to court, spending a lot of money on lawyers, and it actually required him to spend a lot of money on lawyers when if he could have just been a gentleman about it in the first place and put his name to make it clear. But he was adamant in interviews that he goes, “No, we’re not changing our name, where should we? We’ve got every bit as right, as much right to it as they do”, and it was fucked up, and so it was necessary for us to spend a shit load of money to resolve this. Now it’s resolved, I don’t give a fuck. He can go out. It doesn’t bother me as long as he’s got that Riley prefix, there’s no confusion. They were exploiting it and it was put together to exploit confusion. It was put together for horrible, horrible reasons, and when you do something for all the wrong reasons, it rarely works out. Since the reunion, we’ve been on such a role and it was kind of fucked up that we had to stop and deal with that, but the pandemic actually worked in our favor because it stopped both of us from playing and it’s resolved and now we just move on. 15:44

On what drives LA Guns to keep making new music when their peers are content to just tour – I think we really love music, and a lot of our peers really love fame. They are happy to go out playing last century’s music as a nostalgia act and do very well with it. They’re happy. They’re making money. They’re doing what they love. I’ve got absolutely no problem with that whatsoever. Tracii and I, we do it for the love, the sheer love of music. We know full well when embarking on any of these records that most of it is not gonna be played live, 70% of it is never gonna see the light of a concert hall. But that’s not the point. The point is that we are musicians, we’re creative, we enjoy the process, and it’s fucking great, the adulation we’re getting right now from this record, it was a lot of work, a huge formidable body of work put together under very trying conditions. It’s nice to feel proud about something. At the time when “Never Enough” came out. I was very proud, but that was the last century. I need something new to keep it interesting and so does Tracii, and it’s what we do. We make money, not a lot of money, not like the money we used to make, but it is a nice source of income. Especially when we can’t gig, we are working musicians and we’re not involved in a nostalgia circus. 17:48

On what the upcoming LA Guns tour may look like – We’re gonna do some local shows in the LA, Vegas area when the record drops it, half a dozen shows. We do a couple of shows in Vegas, four or five shows in the LA area, and culminating with the Whisky on New Year’s Eve, which is our slot. It’s kind of traditional for us to play that, obviously, we couldn’t do it last year because everything was down. Looking forward to getting back on tour, and to our home from home and playing these shows. Next year, we have a summer tour lined up with Tom Keifer we’re looking forward to. It’s kind of a co-headlining, so we’re not just playing like 35 minutes. We play a proper set and Tom’s happy to have us and we’re big Keifer fans, so that’ll be something. So there will be a lot of fun. That’s kind of what we got lined up so far. 20:01

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