The glory days of the Sunset Strip produced bigger names than L.A. Guns, but none can match the number of rock-solid albums triggered by the combustible duo of singer Philip Lewis and guitarist Tracii Guns.
Motley Crue? Two or three essential albums. Roth-era Van Halen? Five. Guns N’ Roses? One. Ratt? Quiet Riot? Poison? I love those bands’ signature records, but with due respect, they barely compete collectively with the six-deep stack of L.A. Guns’ 1988 self-titled debut, “Cocked & Loaded,” “Hollywood Vampires,” “Man in the Moon,” “Waking the Dead” and 2017’s “The Missing Peace.” Fighting words, I suppose, but the simple math rests my case.
With new album “The Devil You Know” set for release Friday (March 29) and seemingly primed to continue L.A. Guns’ winning streak, I phoned Phil Lewis at his home in Las Vegas to discuss the band’s ongoing, white-hot re-ignition.
Why the rush to release “The Devil You Know” a mere 15 months after “The Missing Peace?” It seems like the latter still has momentum and nobody would fault you for taking more time between albums.
We wrote it on the road. A lot of bands have a hard time writing on the road. A lot of bands need to come off the road and go on a country retreat and get their head in the right place. We don’t have that kind of luxury and we don’t really need it. Tracii is sitting on the guitar all day noodling away on the bus, plugged into his phone and it starts there. And because we’re all in such close proximity, we hear it immediately and it’s like, “Oh, yeah, do that bit again.” Or, “Oh yeah, that would make a great verse.” Before you know it, you’ve patched a song together.
So the engine was revving?
Yeah. We were in Australia (on a previous tour) and had a day off so me and (tour manager) Scotty went to the animal sanctuary to see the kaolas and the ‘roos, and by the time we got back, (bassist) Johnny (Martin) and Tracii had written “Rage.” We’ve got a great work ethic and Tracii is a slave driver, man. He wants the best out of everybody and it’s always been like that with him. I think that’s a big part of our chemistry.
That on-the-fly approach seems to have lent a certain energy and rawness to “The Devil You Know.”
It’s a fun album. We put a lot of work into it. It’s very different from “The Missing Peace.” Songs from “The Missing Peace” had been lying around with Tracii for quite some time before the reunion, whereas this one was written from scratch with all of us on exactly the same start line. It’s a lot more punky, stripped down, no keyboards or strings. It’s speedy, aggressive and pissed off, but fun.
Expectations were pretty high for “The Missing Peace” considering you and Tracii hadn’t worked together in so long. In hindsight, how do you feel about that album’s reception?
I think that plays a huge part in why we’ve done this new record so quickly. (The reception) was very inspiring. We knew going in that we weren’t going to sell millions of copies and that’s not the point. That’s not why we do it. But to see it being nominated for so many album-of-the-year awards was such a great compliment and, of course, it’s very inspiring. We already had the deal lined up with Frontiers Records for another album so we thought, “Why wait? Let’s do it!”
I dare say “The Missing Peace” is my third-favorite L.A. Guns album.
What are your three favorites?
I’d say the first two and “The Missing Peace,” although “Man in the Moon” and “Waking the Dead” are criminally underrated.
OK, that’s fair. There are so many parallels between the first two records and “The Missing Peace” and this new one. As far as I’m concerned, L.A. Guns 2.0 is really a new band with an old name. As I said a minute ago, a lot of (“The Missing Peace”) stuff had been lying around before the reunion and it was very much the same with the debut album. When I joined the band in ’88, it was something of a salvage job for me to interpret the other guy’s (Paul Black) lyrics and write new ones, and basically make it my own. “Sex Action” used to be called “Looking Over My Shoulder.” Not that there was much salvage required on “The Missing Peace.” And on “Cocked & Loaded,” we all started (writing) at the same time so that’s a parallel as well on this one.
As far as your 2000-era output, I’m partial to “Man in the Moon” and “Waking the Dead,” but a lot of your fans cite “Tales from the Strip” among your top-notch albums. Obviously, that album didn’t feature Tracii.
As proud as I am of “Tales from the Strip,” it’s not an L.A. Guns record and I just have to come to that conclusion. People have been asking, “Why aren’t you doing certain songs?” and obviously it’s because (Tracii) wasn’t involved and I wouldn’t expect him to play those songs. I think it’s really rotten that Axl makes Slash and those guys play songs off “Chinese Democracy.” It’s not Guns N’ Roses! It’s a fine album, but it’s not a Guns N’ Roses album. It’s an Axl Rose record — and a fucking good one! — but it’s not a Guns N’ Roses record. That’s kinda how I feel about stuff I did without Tracii. I like the studio, I like writing, I like the whole process and that was one of my issues that I had with my former lineup. After we released “Hollywood Forever,” which I thought was a great record, everything kinda slowed down and the fire went out. I was trying to light it up again and get us back in the studio and get us writing again and doing something new and exciting, but they wouldn’t budge, man. Even before the reunion, I’d given in my notice because I wanted to do something even if it meant going out by myself with an acoustic guitar. I’d rather do that than the rut we’d gotten into.
When you and Tracii decided to reunite, how was it settled that you would keep bassist Johnny Martin and drummer Shane Fitzgibbon from his band and guitarist Michael Grant from your own? Obviously, Michael didn’t work out for whatever reason and you’ve since added Ace Von Johnson, but how did that initial reunion lineup gel?
As soon as I heard Johnny and Shane play, it was a no-brainer. They’re really fucking good players and they’re great guys. They’re nice guys and that’s really important when you’re going to be spending a lot of time with somebody on the road. Compatibility is really important. Unfortunately, that flew out the window with Michael Grant.
What happened with Grant?
Him and I just did not get along. It was like running a marathon with a stone in my shoe. It was an easy, paying gig for him. I gave him five years’ worth of work and that’s what it was for him. Work. He wasn’t excited. For him, it was better than not working at all. With Shane and Johnny, they’re an integral part of the band. At this stage of my life and my career, I don’t see why I should fuck around and be around people who aren’t 100 percent inspiring and making me laugh. With Johnny and Shane, it’s just an honor. Those guys are amazing.
[2Fast2Die sidebar: Mere hours after this interview, it was announced Shane Fitzgibbon was leaving L.A. Guns — on amicable terms, for a change — and being replaced by former Brides of Destruction/Ace Frehley drummer, Scot Coogan]
On one of your recent tours, I noticed you wore a jacket featuring a picture of Lemmy on the back. Were you close with him? Do you at least have a great Lemmy story?
Oh, my God! I’ve got so many Lemmy stories. I knew Lemmy since I was 12-years-old in London. Growing up, him and my old man were buddies. My old man used to lend him money and hold his passport as collateral. OK, a funny story: I was about 14 or 15 and Lemmy comes over and I’m playing with a slot car racing set and I said, “Do you want to play, mate?” And he goes, “You’re a bit old for that aren’t ya?” And I was, like, “Yeah, ya know what? Maybe I am.” So he goes, “I’ll tell ya what. Pack it up in a box and I’ll trade ya something for it.” So I said, “OK, OK.” And I’m thinking he’s gonna give me a guitar or something. So he comes back about half-an-hour later and I’ve got the slot cars all boxed up and he goes, “Well, there you are” and he gives me a little packet that fits into the palm of my hand. So I’m, like, “What’s this?” And he goes, “Well, open it … carefully!” He gave me, like, three grams of coke! (laughs). He goes, “Yeah, you’re gonna have fun with that!”
Wow! Goodbye slot cars, hello cocaine!
(Laughing) Yeah! Another time he came over … My old man had a music shop where he bought and sold guitars, lent money and stuff like that. So, Lemmy came over to the shop one day and he brought this really gorgeous girl with him. She must’ve been about 20, 21 and she didn’t speak a word of English because she’s from Switzerland. So he goes, “OK, I’m just gonna leave her with you for a little while. Take care of her and I’ll pick up her up later.” I’m thinking he’ll be back in an hour or so. He left her with me for three days! Oh, my God! What a treat. I had my own apartment above the shop so, well, yeah … I made the best of that situation. He was the best wicked uncle you could ask for.
What was your first impression of America when you arrived from Britain?
I think the first time I came over was with (Swedish actress/sex symbol) Britt Ekland. It must’ve been the late ‘70s. It was the palm trees that got me! All these massive palm trees and this gorgeous skyline. It was the nature that struck me first. It was everything the Crosby, Stills & Nash and Joni Mitchell songs said it was. It was just an incredible, big, hippie paradise. By relative standards, I’m sure it was already tainted, but I caught the end of it. When I came back in the ‘80s – maybe eight years later – to join up with Tracii, it was very different from the hippie paradise that it was in the ‘70s. But still, just amazing! Actually, it was even better because I was a part of it. Now I’m in Vegas, but I was back in L.A. the other day because we were shooting a video for “The Devil You Know” in Topanga Canyon and it’s heartbreaking, ya know? All these rock-n-roll landmarks are gone and the ones that are still there are basically just quick stops on these $20 van tours that people sign up for. Sadly enough, even the Whisky and Rainbow are just another quick stop on Sunset. Breaks my heart, but that’s just the way it goes. L.A. has changed a lot, but the same could be said of Austin or London. You just have to accept that.
Your voice is a constant source of compliment, which is quite an achievement after all these decades. Are you a stickler to a strict regime or just blessed with great vocal cords?
I do a few things to maintain it and I do a lot of things to NOT fuck it up (laughs). I do my warm-ups. It’s not much. Maybe 15 minutes before I go on to loosen up the cords a bit. The guys always take the piss out of me ‘cause of my “nay, nay, naying” from the back of the bus. But it’s paid off. My voice has served me well over decades so the least I can do is make a little bit of an effort. I don’t hold court after a show, I don’t do interviews after a show, I don’t do meet-and-greets after a show. I just keep my trap shut and go to bed. I’m strict about that and it’s paid off. In fact, I did the vocals (for “Devil You Know”) with Mitch Davis in New York when we had 10 days off between shows. I literally flew in from our last show, landed in New York, did the vocals and then flew to Chicago, got on the bus and we played Indiana the following night. You gotta be in good shape to do that!
L.A. Guns plays March 29 in Santa Ana, CA. “The Devil You Know” tour kicks off April 4 in West Dundee, IL. Follow Phil and Tracii’s L.A. Guns on Twitter and Facebook, and visit the official L.A. Guns website for tour dates, merch and more.