By Lori Smerilson Carson –
Ever since their debut album L.A. Guns hit the airwaves upon its release in 1988, the band has built a library of historical outstanding records. Their latest album CHECKERED PAST due to be released on November 12th, sums up their over thirty years of making amazing music and propels these extraordinarily talented musicians into continuing their success. Having gone through two versions and then reuniting, the band currently is comprised of Lead Singer Phil Lewis, Lead Guitarist and founder Tracii Guns, Rhythm Guitarist Ace Von Johnson, Bassist Johnny Martin and Drummer Adam Hamilton.
Catching up with Phil Lewis, he revealed some details about the new music and the new videos, as well as some things he was doing during the pandemic lockdown, and what is coming down the line for L.A. Guns fans can look forward to.
Ohio Music Experience: The last time we spoke, your single “Let You Down” had just come out, but you were working on the rest of the album.
Phil Lewis: Yeah.
Ohio Music Experience: How did the process go? You were kind of back and forth because everyone was in lockdown. Where you guys able to get together?
Lewis: No, there was no getting together. It was all done remotely and it was very different from the traditional way that songs are written and bands get together in a room and they hash out various ideas, and they add to it and its very much a group effort and it’s fun. It can be frustrating at times. This wasn’t anything like that. This was like Tracii for the most part, came up with most of the music. Johnny certainly contributed to some for sure, but everything was written and recorded before I got to even hear it.
Ohio Music Experience: Oh wow!
Lewis: Yeah, very different because usually it’s like the vocals after everyone’s recorded every bit of drums, guitars and all of that, and its usually the vocals right at the end. Of course, I know that because the pressure is insurmountable sometimes. It can be, but no, this was done ass backwards. The song was finished before you know, when it landed on my doorstep, so it was just a question of me and Mitch Davis getting our heads together and putting some good lyrics and vocals together and giving it the kind of attention that it deserved because I think given the fact that you know, Tracii put that stuff together in a couple of weeks, Its pretty good. I mean, the songs are great and they’ve just got a good feel to them. So, it wasn’t pulling teeth by any means. In fact, once the ball got rolling, the stuff pretty much wrote itself, and there were like Zoom calls during my recording, but I didn’t go to the studio. I did it at my house. I didn’t do it on any fancy equipment either. I just did it on a regular lap top and I had just an entry level, like three channel interface and just got on with it. So, I’d have to rewind the tape or the session ten or fifteen seconds before I had to come in so that I could run from my computer or my laptop into the booth that I set up under the stairs, get the headphones on, get up to the mic, get ready and be ready for my first line or whatever I was doing. So, it made me fit. It was a lot of (he laughed) hopping from one room to another, but it was fun and challenging and it was just very different, and I’m not sure that I ever really want to go back into a studio because I like it. You know, I like the fact that I could do it anytime I wanted and there was no pressure. I didn’t have a deadline. I was just pretty much on my own. Left to my own devices and I enjoyed it a lot. And then all the files, Tracii’s files, Johnny’s files and mine were all sent over to Adam Hamilton. Adam as you know was the bass player in L.A. Guns for quite some time and then he was the rhythm guitarist, and now he’s the drummer. We had to use Adam on drums because he’s got a set up. He’s got a studio set up and he was compiling it, so it made sense. You know, he’s got a great drum set up. He’s got a good drum sound and all the files were going over to him, so it didn’t sit too well with our current touring drummer at the time, Scot Coogan so, I don’t know if you saw or not, but he quit. He quit a couple of weeks ago and that’s ok you know, good reason. He’s got other stuff to do and it wouldn’t be a lot of fun going out and promoting a record that you had absolutely nothing to do with. Though he did shoot the videos. Did you see the videos “Cannonball” and “Get Along” yet?
Ohio Music Experience: Yes.
Lewis: Ok. So, he played on those and bless him you know, and he learned the parts and played basically Adam’s parts. And that’s not fair you know? That’s rotten and believe me, I would have loved to have had Scotty play because I like his playing and I think his vocals are fantastic too, but he was just unfortunately one of the casualties of this awful pandemic and I don’t know I mean, I had to get my shit together and remember how to you know, be a recording engineer, and get the vocals going as good as they could get and yeah, not bad. I’m pretty pleased with myself. You know, stuff that I hadn’t done before like with big high-definition file exchanges. Lots of that. Learning the process of exchanging those and you know, because sometimes I would do like ten or eleven takes of a song or of a verse sometimes. So, they got to be pretty big files and what I do is just leave them to Adam and Mitch, just to pick the best ones. The ones they think that work the best and work their magic with the editing and effects. There was no effects when I recorded it. I didn’t have any effects. I didn’t have any sort of reverb or delay. Just dry as a bone and actually when I’m recording, I kind of like it that way so you’re not kidding yourself. Its dry and its right there, so yeah, a very, very different process. Quite a bit of learning. Bit of a learning curve, and I didn’t hate it. All things considered, challenging, but I think the end result speaks for itself. I think it sounds like a real record and it sounds like a band in a room playing together, but this time it wasn’t. This time it was a very, very different beast and I didn’t hate it. I could do it again, and I did some other stuff as well. I did a couple of songs for the Pete Way tribute album since I was all set up with the Checkered Past set up. So, it served me well and I’m actually seriously thinking about never going in a studio again because I’ve got everything I need right in my home.
Ohio Music Experience: So, now you’re an official work at home, right?
Lewis: Yeah, yeah. I like it. I like it a lot.
Ohio Music Experience: How did the tribute to Pete Way come about that you sang on that?
Lewis: His widow Jenny Way got in touch with me and sent me over a couple of songs. She said that Mike Clink was producing it and so, I asked for the basics. I said, send me a track with no vocals. Send me a lyric sheet and then send me something with a guide vocal which is what Pete, how he envisioned it, and I just ran with it. It didn’t take long. After you know, like (The) Missing Peace, there was some pretty intricate stuff going on there. The Pete Way stuff I could do in my head in like ten minutes, but it’s fun. I mean, its party rock. I just read his book. Oh my God, that fuck. The most harrowing read. I like biographies. I’m kind of going through a biography of the seventies. Like you know Peter Frampton, Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin’s manager, Elton John’s book I’m reading it at the moment. My old manager Don Arden which is Sharon’s dad. Sharon Osbourne’s dad. Yeah, it’s interesting learning so much about the people that I knew, but I really didn’t know that obviously you know, like the kind of details that you do find out in a biography, an autobiography, and there are moments during Pete’s book I actually physically felt sick. It was just, he’s just such a fucking mess and not just a mess to himself, it was contagious. Anyone that he was around. People were literally dying around him and it was just so dark and honestly, I’ve never been more relieved to finish a book. And I loved him. I loved him. I really, really did and I’m so glad that I got to know him and I was friends with him at his best like in the early eighties. My band Girl went on tour with UFO and he was young and fresh and he wasn’t fucked up on dope and just a great funny guy to be around, but always a bit edgy. He was always pushing it (he laughed), pushing his luck. But yeah, God rest his soul.
Ohio Music Experience: You did mention the last time that you were trying to catch up on books you had bought, but didn’t have the time to sit down and read.
Lewis: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, I’ve got this sort of idea that you know, eventually if I ever do retire, I’ve got a lot of reading to do, but this has been virtually the same as being in retirement. So, I got started and that reading the biographies and working on the record, really helped pass time.
Ohio Music Experience: Would you recommend any books in particular to fans reading this article?
Lewis: I think that it all depends on your interests. Like as I said, I just read Don Arden’s book and I loved it and because I know him so well, he was such a notorious character in London, 60’s 70’s and 80’s, I found his book very fascinating. I really enjoyed Peter Grant’s book. He managed Led Zeppelin and basically, just started off as a roadie. Just driving them around and he was actually employed by Don Arden. So, it was all this degrees of separation in the books that I’m reading. Like Peter Frampton’s book was really, really good. Just a little harrowing where he was the biggest artist in the world and one day he looked around and goes, where’s my money? He should have been like rolling in it, but you know, some of the deals that he set up and the people he had representing him were just syphoning off. It’s a horror story in many ways. So yeah, you know, fully emersed in all of that. I got like Steven Tyler and Billy Idol up next once I finish Elton, but yeah, doing a lot of reading. Enjoying it. It’s Friday today. I’ve been doing five interviews a day since Monday. It’s been solid. I’ve talked myself horse, but the reaction has been so positive. I’m really enjoying it, so it’s good. It feels a little bit like being back at work.
Ohio Music Experience: Was there a theme or anything that inspired your lyrics to the songs on the album?
Lewis: I think the inspiration comes from the music. You know, you hear a song and you just know that certain lyrics are gonna be applicable for the music. The tempo, the tenure of it. Is it a heavy song? Is it light? Is it folky? Does it sound like Black Sabbath? You know, those are the things that are much more of a lyrical influence than say, oh. Oh, I’m not getting on very well with my girlfriend and I’m feeling sorry for myself. None of its especially personal. None of the songs are about anyone in case anyone wonders ‘cause they do come across as being very personal. A little autobiographical I’ll admit, but for the most part, just a really good project to sink my teeth into while we’ve been on lock down.
Ohio Music Experience: I did notice in the song “Knock Me Down”, it reminded me a little of the songs off the debut album or even Cocked & Loaded. It sounded like it was a relationship thing, but very positive.
Lewis: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
Ohio Music Experience: What would you say inspired that? Is it like you say, the music?
Lewis: Definitely, yeah. Definitely the music yeah sure, always. And what fits lyrically. I mean, the songs aren’t about anyone.
Ohio Music Experience: Just kind of storytelling, right?
Lewis: Yes. Exactly.
Ohio Music Experience: You did mention the last time that you were also getting back into your vinyl collection.
Ohio Music Experience: Was there anything in particular that you were listening to that was inspirational would you say?
Lewis: Yeah, I mean. My record collection is mostly rock from the ‘70’s. You know, like AC/DC, (The) Doobie Brothers, (The) Rolling Stones. All the classic rock stuff, but I have other stuff too that probably rockers wouldn’t be too keen about like I love Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music ‘cause you know, I’m English and grew up with that, so I get it. It’s not what they describe as alternative here. Its regular. I grew up with it and I love it. So, a lot of that, different styles. Now, I’ve got to say though, my record collection has pretty much been out on pause because I discovered an app. A program called TIDAL. It’s a music streaming service, but it’s a high-quality stream and its every bit as good as vinyl. The reason I was so into vinyl is because you know, CDs just don’t sound that good. Cassettes or certain downloads don’t sound anywhere near as good as an LP, but I got to say, LPs really can’t touch what TIDAL’s putting out. So, got all my records down there. They look fantastic, but I haven’t played them for quite some time because I’m so enamored with this new app and it’s got every song. I looked into some really, really obscure stuff and sure enough, there it is. Its right there on TIDAL. You can sign up for just the regular music streaming and its about seven or eight bucks a month, or for an extra twelve dollars on top of that, you can get the high-definition streaming and it sounds amazing and I just put it through exactly the same system as I play my records through and its every bit as good if not better because you know, you don’t have to get up and flip the LP and it’s no crackles or scratches. And I kind of like crackles and scratches, but a lot of this stuff has been remastered for TIDAL specifically for the high def streaming and it just sounds absolutely fantastic.
Ohio Music Experience: So, is Checkered Past going to be on there too?
Lewis: Well, “Let You Down” is already on there. It’s funny because I was up on Oregon with my wife and hanging out with her dad who’s a big high fi buff and he took me to his shop. His high fi shop, downtown Portland and you know, these are high end systems that can go from anything from like thirty to one hundred thousand dollars. There are no bargains in there. It’s the very, very best money can buy and they had turntables, but you know, when they were showing off their systems, their thirty-five-thousand-dollar systems, they were using TIDAL. So, they gave me the I-pad and said, “pick whatever you like.” So, sure enough I looked up L.A. Guns to see what was there, and there it is “Let You Down” popped up and it sounded pretty good. I mean, it couldn’t compete with like the remastered you know, like Vladimir Horowitz piano concertos in Russia. That is just so pristine, but it wasn’t bad. And it’s certainly not bad at all under the circumstances when you think about you know, it was recorded on a like two-hundred-dollar microphone through a laptop. I was pretty proud and so, I played it to the store and they were like, eh, not bad. Not bad. So, that was what sold me on TIDAL and I highly recommend it.
Ohio Music Experience: I’ll have to check that out. I know we talked about this before, but what would you recommend to up-and-coming musicians now that you’ve gone through these different types of situations musically in your career?
Lewis: Yeah, get a vasectomy. Any musician, that’s the first thing they should do. If they want to be serious about this and see it through, there’s no room for families. It’s not a family game. Certainly not in the beginning, and if you knock someone up and you’re putting a band together, a young band, it’s over. You’re done. You might have these romantic notions of doing both, but it’s simply impossible and you know, it’s a shame. I mean, I had a couple of kids and I wasn’t really expecting, but I was so well into my career at that time, I could weather it, but the two things don’t go well together at all, families and bands. I’ve never known it worked. Certainly, never worked for me.
Ohio Music Experience: Do you guys have any plans for any more videos or anything?
Lewis: No, but we’ll talk about the videos because they were also done remotely. The guys, Tracii, Johnny and Scot did their filming in Los Angeles. I did mine, Ace flew out from Tennessee to Vegas and we did ours in Vegas, and that was all complied and put together and they weren’t sure about “Cannonball”. They were like, “well we don’t know.” They were really focused on “Get Along”, the Italian Frontiers label. They’re a little bit more AOR than most indie labels so, they kind of liked the sweeter, folkier stuff then the heavy. So, I had to persuade them to do “Cannonball” because we had already released “Knock You Down” off the record, but we didn’t make a video for it and I’m glad ‘cause I had no ideas, but I had so many ideas for “Cannonball”. So originally, they were like well, we’re just going to film you against the green screen and then we’re gonna inter cut with some footage from the bad streets of Hollywood, L.A. and it was like, what the fuck’s that got to do with cannonballs and high seas and pirate ships? And they’re like, “well, we don’t really have the budget.” I said, look. This is what I want to do and I was very, very specific. I already had it in my head how I wanted it to look, even down to the edits. And they weren’t sure at first and when I got to the video shoot, there wasn’t a lot of time and so, I had to do things really quickly. I had like four costume changes in that song and basically, I had like ninety minutes to do my part, so it was really, really hectic, but fortunately the director was on my wavelength. He picked up on it real quickly and I gave him a totally written synopsis of what I wanted before I’d even met him. So, we were all on the same page and it was just a question of me pulling it off and him capturing it and making it look as good as he could, and it was fun.
Ohio Music Experience: It looked like it was. Now the photo on the album with the checkered floor. How did that all come about?
Lewis: Kahla, my wife has done all the covers since the reunion. She did (The) Missing Peace, The Devil You Know and she did Checkered Past and once we were locked in and agreed with the title because at one point, we were gonna call the album Cannonballs and it was just kind of like a cheeky, you know tongue in cheek, sort of AC/DC. We were gonna have like a pair of balls hanging over the mussel of the cannon. Full of inuendo and unfortunately we were talked out of you know, don’t try and be funny ‘cause you’re not. You’re not AC/DC. So, we wanted to come up with another title and a title that had like a little bit of a double meaning as (The) Missing Peace’s dealt with love and peace. Devil You Know, we’re certainly two devils and we know each other, and Checkered Past, and no one can deny it. We’ve got pretty much 35 years of that.
Ohio Music Experience: The tour it looks like is a bit out west and doing the Monsters of Rock Cruise?
Lewis: Not touring just got some one offs the day the record comes out. You know, just local stuff in and around L.A. We’ve got a couple of shows in Vegas. Two consecutive nights in Vegas and then culminating with our New Year’s Eve at the Whisky which we’ve traditionally done for the last, I did it even in the old version. Obviously, nothing happened last year because everything was down, but yeah back from my home from home. Looking forward to it, and then next year in February, we’re on the Monsters of Rock Cruise. Then we’ve got a summer tour line up with Tom Kiefer. It’s Faster Pussycat, L.A, Guns and Tom Kiefer which I think will be a lot of fun.
Ohio Music Experience: That’s going to go around the country?
Lewis: Yep, yep. All over. Dates are getting added every day.
Ohio Music Experience: Wonderful! That’s something for fans to look forward to.
Lewis: Indeed, yeah.
Ohio Music Experience: Was there anything else that you wanted fans to look forward to?
Lewis: Well, look us up online (lagunsmusic.com). There’s a whole bunch of merch that Scotty our manager has put together relating to the record. If that’s your kind of thing. We made T-shirts of the album cover already so, it’s available and you know, stuff like beer coasters and those home things that you put beer bottles in. Stuff like that. There’s quite a lot going on merch wise so, if that’s your thing, you should check that out and yeah, give this album a shot.