Sunday, February 18, 2018

War and 'Peace:' Phil Lewis & Tracii Guns Return to Rock

L.A. Guns, 2017 (Phil Lewis second from left)

Can life offer you a second (or third) chance to get something right? Sure, it can; just ask L.A. Guns singer Phil Lewis.

A little over four years ago, Lewis began the slow process of reuniting with L.A. Guns guitarist/founding member Tracii Guns. Those who have followed the group’s roller-coaster 35-year career know the significance – and utter surprise – of the two musicians joining forces again after years of splits, intermittent returns and public acrimony that tore the band’s fanbase in two. While they first found success together as part of the raucous L.A. club scene of the late 80s, the duo’s unexpected return to the stage first occurred at – of all places – a Toys for Tots charity concert in Las Vegas in December 2013.

“We both agreed to do something without getting paid, and it was just good karma,” Lewis explains. “Tracii’s band agreed to do it, and the promoter called me up and said, ‘Will you get up and do a few songs?’ It was a worthy cause; how could I say no? Bear in mind that hadn’t seen Tracii in years – not even by accident running into him at a store or a club. It was like he’d fallen off the planet. We didn’t rehearse, and I didn’t do a soundcheck. I just showed up like an hour or so before the gig. I walked in the dressing room, and there he was by himself – sitting in the corner, minding his own business and drinking a glass of milk. I was like, ‘Oh my God! That is my nemesis of 15 years!’ He looked like a kid, like a sweet boy. It turned out it wasn’t milk; it was a White Russian!”

With the show succeeding in breaking down the wall between the estranged pair, it wasn’t long before they started working on new music together. This eventually led to Lewis’ third official stint with the guitarist since the singer first joined L.A. Guns in 1987.

“I had a solo acoustic show a week [following the Toys for Tots gig], and I asked Tracii if he’d be interested in just coming and playing little acoustic guitar solos. He was up for it, so we got together the day of the show. We were working out which songs we were going to play, and he’s like, ‘We’re going to be playing one of my new ones.’ He played me ‘Speed,’ and I was like, ‘Wow! Whoa! That’s really, really good.’ He played me one song after another, and everything he played me was absolutely amazing work. He says, ‘Do you want to get involved? Do you want to do it?’ The timing was great; Tracii wanted to go in the studio to make an album. I was jonesing to make one, to be honest. I was totally excited. Once we started putting it together, it sounded great. Before we knew it, we had a classic-sounding L.A. Guns record.”

Cover of L.A. Guns' 2017 release, The Missing Peace

That record is The Missing Peace, released last October by Frontiers Music. As strong as anything released by the band during their late 80s/early 90s commercial peak, the 12-song collection ranges from instant L.A. Guns classics (“It’s All The Same To Me,” “Speed,” “Don’t Bring A Knife To A Gunfight”) to the closing one-two punch of the epic, strings-infused ballads “The Missing Peace” and “Gave It All Away.” In Lewis’ mind, the musical experimentation exhibited on the final two tracks is as much a cornerstone of the L.A. Guns experience as the straight-ahead Rock numbers that earned the group their international success.  

“Tracii was always big on taking chances with songs like [the 1989 tracks] ‘Malaria’ and ‘Magdalaine’ and these big musical interludes. That’s exactly what we’re doing on this new record as well, mixed in with some rocking three-and-a-half-minute Rock/Pop songs. It makes a really great record.”

Far from an overnight success, L.A. Guns paid their dues in Los Angeles for five years before the release of their eponymous debut album in 1988. Before settling on what many fans consider to be the classic L.A. Guns lineup – Lewis, Guns, bassist Kelly Nickels, guitarist Mick Cripps and former W.A.S.P./Keel/Steppenwolf drummer Steve Riley – the band went through a conveyer belt of musicians including Weirdos/Germs drummer Nickey “Beat” Alexander, Mau-Mau’s/Joneses drummer-turned-singer Paul Mars Black, one-time Dog D’Amour member Robert Stoddard and – for a brief time – Axl Rose. With the addition of Lewis (formerly of the UK Glam Rock group Girl with future Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen), L.A. Guns soon hit the big leagues. The band’s 1989 sophomore release, Cocked & Loaded, reached the Billboard Top 40 and scored a massive hit with “The Ballad Of Jayne.” Then, everything began going very wrong.

With subsequent albums failing to match Cocked & Loaded’s success (an issue helped along by the rise of Grunge) and internal squabbles wearing the band down, the ensuing two decades saw L.A. Guns jump from label to label and lineup to lineup. The long list of members to pass through the group since the mid 90s includes former 7% Solution singer Ralph Saenz (who later found notoriety as “Michael Starr” of the Glam Metal parody act Steel Panther), Love/Hate’s Jizzy Pearl, bassist/producer Mark “Muddy” Dutton (Burning Tree/Chris Robinson Brotherhood), Faster Pussycat’s Brent Muscat and female vocalist Dilana Robichaux (Rock Star: Supernova). To make matters even crazier, recent years saw two versions of L.A. Guns – one featuring Lewis and Riley, the other featuring Guns and a revolving door of players (including the brief returns of Black and Alexander) – playing on the road. This is only a brief taste of the insanity; it would take a full book to properly explain the twists and turns in the L.A. Guns story.    

With Lewis and Guns rekindling their personal and professional connection, where does that leave the singer’s version of the band with Riley? Is there a chance of that incarnation of L.A. Guns also existing in 2018?

“I doubt it,” Lewis replies. “It’s nothing to do with me. When I was out of the band, Tracii and Riley registered the band’s name and split it 50-50 with no stipulations whatsoever. They’re both free to use it, but it was a terribly low time in the band’s history when there were two versions of the same band at the same time playing. It was very confusing, but we did get the dubious award for the highest band member [turnover] in Spinal Tap history. I think we’ve got 47 people out there saying that they were once members of L.A. Guns.

“Things had kind of gotten a bit stale [with Riley],” he adds. “We hadn’t put anything out for over five years since [2012’s] Hollywood Forever, which I thought was a great record. I was always bugging Steve to get back in the studio, but he just wasn’t into it.” (Lewis is quick to add that he gave Riley his notice “a least a year before” recording The Missing Peace.)

The current L.A. Guns lineup is rounded out by bassist Johnny Martin and drummer Shane Fitzgibbon – both from Guns’ incarnation of the band – and second guitarist Michael Grant, formerly of the Lewis/Riley version.

(While Nickels’ musical whereabouts are currently unknown, Cripps resurfaced in recent years as a member of The Brutalists, a Dr. Feelgood-esque, Pub Rock-inspired outfit that’s worth checking out.)

After 35 years and various interpersonal bust-ups along the way, L.A. Guns are experiencing the here and now with a long-overdue sense of harmony and stability. The past was tumultuous, but the present finds Lewis thrilled to be back with his old partner.  

“It’s magic playing with Tracii again. We do have that Mick Jagger-Keith Richards/Steven Tyler-Joe Perry thing. I know we have that, because I never feel that same way when I play with any other guitar player. He says the same thing about me.”

L.A. Guns perform February 25 at the Tupelo Music Hall in Derry, NH. Go HERE for tickets and info. 


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