WITH NEW ALBUM ‘BLACK DIAMONDS ABOUT TO DROP, PHIL LEWIS FROM L.A. GUNS TELLS HIS STORY.

‘I’m loving the music, I’m loving having my mate back, I’m loving what time and experience has brought us’

Interview by Victoria Llewelyn

Phil Lewis started the band Girl with guitarist Gerry Laffy in 1978 with an advertisement in Melody Maker for a “peroxide guitar hero,” and Phil Collen (current guitarist of Def Leppard) answered. They were soon joined by drummer Dave Gaynor and bassist Mark Megary. Megary was replaced shortly thereafter by Laffy’s brother, Simon Laffy. They signed a record deal with Don Arden’s label, Jet Records in 1979 and released their first album, Sheer Greed, in 1980. Why do we need to go back this far? Well when L.A. Guns released their snarly, sleazy debut album back in 1988, a cover of Girl’s ‘Hollywood Tease’ would find it’s way onto that. 

Multiple albums, tours, break-ups and reunions later, the core of the band, namely Phil and guitarist Tracii Guns alongside bassist Johnny Martin, drummer Adam Hamilton and guitarist Ace Von Johnson, L.A. Guns are about to drop their 14th studio album ‘Black Diamonds‘. Phil took time out to chat to Victoria about all things L.A. Guns and working with his long time foil Tracii.

MGM: ‘Black Diamonds’ will be the fourth studio album released since you and Tracii Guns got back together as a band, alongside two live albums as well, and this has all been since 2017. That’s putting out a lot of music at a serious rate! It seems since you got back together there’s been a fresh burst of ideas and creativity, and that doesn’t seem to be slowing down. How do you maintain this?

PL: Thank you for the compliment! Tracii and I are just making up for lost time! We didn’t speak to each other for almost 15 years, and when we finally did get together, buried the hatchet and realised how stupid we’d been, all we wanted to do was get back to making music the way we had before. There’s an amazing chemistry between him and I, and I’d missed it. We had both missed it.
Tracii is a prolific writer, he literally never stops. He’s already working on songs for the next record. He will play guitar all day, every day, and not even think about it. We have a great team that take his ideas and turn them into these fantastic sounding tracks, everyone contributes, and it’s working great.
We look at this as a new band now, a version 2.0 if you like, the same name but a greatly modified machine.

MGM: With version 1.0 being the original LA Guns on the Sunset Strip scene decades ago, what comparisons do you draw between how it was then and how it is now? Other than age and experience, what have been the poignant changes between the two bands as you see them?

PL: They are vastly different. The first one, where we got the record deal and did our first tour of the States – me as an English lad as well – it was incredibly exciting. To find myself landed in the middle of LA in full swing at that time was the biggest thrill, especially coming from dull England where all the music was Boy George, or Live Aid – that stuff made me nauseous. I’d be listening to the charts in England around the late 80s and thinking – this is just stupid shit, is this really what I’m up against? There was no chance of getting to do what I wanted to do. So, for me to get to come out to Hollywood and land right on that pitch, the house was swinging, Venice Beach was a twenty minute motorcycle ride away, it was the stuff of dreams.

We got signed, the record came out and it sold, and sold, and sold, but we were in a very corporate environment which didn’t feel comfortable at all. The big band on Polygram at the time was Bon Jovi, who were releasing records and promptly selling 12 million copies. We were being designed for that. Polygram had a very specific business strategy for us, and it took all the fun out of it. It was made very clear that we were on a business plan, we were expected to provide hit singles, the hair had to look perfect and so forth; before we knew it, we were struggling to hang on to the soul of the band because it was getting picked apart by accountants, publicists, managers, managers’ wives, everybody had an opinion. We were in this sausage machine getting ready to join the likes of Bon Jovi, Cinderella and Poison, and the euphoria had completely waned.

Then Kurt Cobain turned up and turned over the apple cart for all of us! All the suits jumped ship; they were all looking for the next Nirvana. Rock and Roll became passe and uncool, they didn’t want us and to be honest we didn’t want them either. By 1993 I was over it, I assumed I’d never work in the music business again and it was time to get a real job. I didn’t hate it; I’d had a great run and I’d got out of England. I had a kid and became a square family guy for a while, paying rent and bills, I had nice friends, work was all right, and I honestly, honestly thought that was it, I was done.

In 2000 we did a full band reunion, and whilst it was nice to get out of my job and back on stage, to get back in the studio and record, the time wasn’t right, and we just couldn’t get much traction. It was 2017 when we decided to go for it again, by which time Tracii already had a fine band, they sounded so good. He started playing me some of his ideas he’d been working on and that gave us the basic framework for ‘The Missing Peace’, the first of the ‘new’ records. We haven’t sold millions and millions of records, it’s very different now, the numbers are nowhere near, but I’m loving the music, I’m loving having my mate back, I’m loving what time and experience has brought us and we don’t have the corporate issues to deal with now that we had back then.

MGM: How is Tracii doing and what’s your relationship like now?

PL: When we first met back up, we were bewildered – we couldn’t explain why it had taken us so long. We should have sorted things out so much earlier. We were back to the way we’d always been as soon as we started making plans for the reunion. Tracii was going through this really horrible relationship break up and he was a bit of a basket case on that summer tour. I felt very much like his personal therapist. He needed the support, and I made sure I was there for him. We were all trying our hardest to get him through it on that tour, because it was important for all of us to be on the tour, and it was important for him not to be sitting at home by himself drowning in this awful business he had to deal with. It made everything pretty challenging and there were times when I wondered if that was our reunion done before it had got started, because he was so desperately unhappy.

I’ve been in a similar position myself, and to be that unhappy on a tour bus, it’s tough, but in many ways it’s the best place to be as well because you’re surrounded by your mates and you’re immersed in what you love the most, your music. I think we helped him get through, and he’s out the other side now. It’s all over and he’s like the jolly bean that I remember again. His objective has always been to walk into a room and light it up, and for a while he wasn’t doing that because he was somewhere else.

MGM: The new album, ‘Black Diamonds’, has a lot of very emotional content and many of the songs do appear semi-autobiographical. Is this intentional, reflective of a new chapter? What plans do you have for the album?

PL: If you look at the track listing on ‘Black Diamonds’, if you read into the lyrics, you can deduce the breakup themes very easily. It reflects how we were feeling, how Tracii was feeling, and certainly the darkness of the music he was giving us to work with. There’s also a lot of jolly stuff on there, and if you peel back the layers you can see that’s how it’s been. It was a rough time, now we have this great new album out and are very much inspired to continue because of it, and Tracii’s change of outlook. We’re going to be just fine!

Our original manager quit, he decided he’d had enough of management and was finding it increasingly frustrating to try and get things done whilst we were trying to support Tracii. We have new management now and some dates lined up already to tour the album. It feels like a new chapter. We would love to come back over to the UK, but we have to look at things as a business and the bottom line is we need to stay where the money is for the time being. There’s plenty of work here right now and it’s got to make financial sense, so we’ll just have to see where it goes. To bring eight or nine guys over, put them up or put them in a tour bus, logistically it gets very expensive. But we’d love to do it if we could.

MGM: How has it been to get back to playing live? LA Guns have always been known for being a touring band, and you guys did something like 50 dates last year. To go straight back into a schedule like that after an enforced silence for two years where nobody could play anywhere, that must have been a bit of a whirlwind.

PL: I haven’t done anything like that since I was in my 30s! There was a lot of discipline involved. It was two solid months; we had a few weeks either side so all in all around three months full on work! Also, we have to remember, that for Tracii and myself, as the band leaders, the time when we make our money is always during those last two weeks or so. Up to that point all the money we’ve made has already been accounted for, paying off all our expenses and paying the band. If we fuck things up in the last two weeks, everyone gets paid, everyone gets home alright, but Tracii and I come home skint. We really had to discipline ourselves to keep the standard high, to focus, and we pulled it off. It’s been a long while since I’ve done five, six, seven shows in a row, back-to-back, every night, and I have to say, I’ve given myself a pat on the back for it! Not bad for an old boy!

It’s so important to end on a high note, and we did, but it was a relief as well. The pressure was immense, and we all needed some time apart after that. It’s all settled again now.

MGM: Over here in the UK there is something of a resurgence in sleaze bands going on; a lot of new, younger bands citing their influences as bands we’d recognise from the late 80s and early 90s before the arrival of grunge. What’s your take on this? Would you be glad to see it return?

PL: Hell yeah! I think it’s great! I was never a big grunge fan anyway, so yeah, these are my people! There’ll never be a grunge revival. That bubble, that late 80s bubble, that’s going to resonate. And I’ll tell you why in three letters – F-U-N. It’s fun! And that’s infectious, isn’t it? People want to gravitate towards it. It was like this with ‘Girl’, my first band, we weren’t very good but God, we knew how we wanted to look, and who we were influenced by, and how we wanted to behave! It was amazing!

I’m definitely first-wave; late 70s glam, Hanoi Rocks, early Def Leppard, it was such a fun time. We’ve played at HRH Sleaze, in Sheffield, it was a magic night, and we’d love to come back and do it all again, to support the scene.

MGM: After around 45 years in this industry, having done what you have, sounding just as good now as you did when you started, and being one of the very few musicians from the UK that actually got to live that dream, to go to LA and go for the big time, how do you reflect on what you’ve achieved? If you could speak to your 20-year-old self now, what words of advice would you give that young guy ready to go on this huge adventure?

PL: I think my skills are even better now than when I started. A long road, a lot of self-discipline, a lot of gigs, a lot of recording. If I hadn’t got better by now there’d be something wrong!

It’s funny, because I didn’t embark on it as a lifelong career. My thoughts were ‘let’s go and have some fun with this!’ If you look at bands like Maiden and Def Leppard, they have such a legacy, if they were a novel, they’d be a ten-book catalogue, whereas my first band, Girl, would be a one page poem. That’s how it was supposed to be and I’m glad Girl didn’t blow up and become massive as that would have been a nightmare for me at that time and would have really interfered with my ambitions.

Tracii specifically wanted me for LA Guns, and I’m glad he did because I was right for the band, and he was the right guitar player that I’d been looking for. And I’m still out here, all these years later, still doing it, still loving it, and very much inspired by the response we’ve been getting to new stuff we’re putting out.

If I could talk to my younger self, I’d say – embrace it! Wrap your arms around it and hold it tight, because during so many dark times in my life that music has been my salvation. I see a lot of 20-year-olds with no focus. I always had focus. I always had a band, was always working on songs, always putting something together. I didn’t realise it at the time, but it was having that focus that saved me because there was always somewhere to go, and something to concentrate on.

I didn’t have a lot of career choices when I left school. I could have joined the army I suppose, I could have been a postman. I was not even remotely interested in doing anything academic. I wanted to be in a band since the first time I saw Alice Cooper sing ‘School’s Out’ on Top Of The Pops. I walked in from soccer practice, saw that, dropped to my knees and I never played football again after that! That was the turning point for me and I’ve no regrets whatsoever.

I want 20-year-olds to look at me and go, fuck, if he can do it then why can’t I do it? I’ll be the Godfather of Sleaze, I’ll happily take that crown!

‘Black Diamonds’ is due for release on 14th April 2023 on CD and limited edition LP.

 

 
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