Interview With A Lifer: Steve Riley of L.A. Guns

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Written By: Rene
Mar 01 2013

Steve Riley of L.A. Guns

Back in the day, music was separated into its various camps, you had punks on one side, head bangers on the other, people were listening to OZ and Def Leppard, the new grumblings of Thrash coming from the bay or back east with Exodus and Anthrax, the punks were listening to Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, the evil kids were listening to Venom and Celtic Frost but, in general, things weren't nearly as fractured as they have become now, where it's almost as polarized as a goddamned presidential election.

Seriously, punks are now against punks, metal heads against metal head; anarcho and kvlt have become labels, badges of honor where it's no longer about the music and the brotherhood but the collective mentality of which one is a member.

It seems, some have forgotten what makes music so important to people in this world, it could be the beat, the face melting lead, the anthem, the could really be a million and one things, but in the end, it's just the music.

But once in awhile, these very same people hear something which reminds them of what it was like to just enjoy music; for some of us who were around at the time, bands like Mötley Crüe, Dokken, W.A.S.P and L.A. Guns were just as important to us as the Dead Kennedys, Hüsker Dü, Misfits, Bad Brains, Exodus, Testament, Metallica, Venom, all just depended on how we felt and what we wanted to lay down on the turntable.

When we were angry against the system, we threw down with punk, when we wanted to get aggro we put on a bit of thrash, when we wanted to party, well...we Shouted at the Devil.

L.A. Guns was right smack dab in the middle of the whole Hollywood scene, the melting pot of punks and head bangers, of big hair and studded leather and they have kept going, playing rock in roll in every venue imaginable without ever letting up; think about that for a moment, a quarter century of showing people a damn good time!

No matter how hardcore some feel, few can compare to these guys, they are true lifers who will keep rocking even long after their bones are dust!

The following interview was a collaborative effort by Josh Lent and myself, and we're honored legendary drummer Steve Riley gave us a few moments of his time...

ThrashHead: You were born in Massachusetts, did you grow up there and what ultimately took you to L.A.?

Steve: I was born in Revere. Yeah I graduated from Revere High school and after I graduated, I moved out of Boston then I started playing and working my way cross-country to L.A.

ThrashHead: You have been on some incredible albums, when you look back at your library of work you must be beyond proud, but for those young drummers here wanting to know what life on the frontlines is really about, to you, what does dedicating your life to rock n roll mean?

Steve: Well, I tell you what, if you're going to do this, you're going to have to go all the way; the first thing you need to do is get your instrument down to feel totally confident in your playing abilities, you have to be confident which means you have to practice, you have to be playing with people, you just got to keep playing to get that confidence in you.

And second, putting yourself in that position, it's not always about talent, it's about timing and luck too; you have to put yourself in a position in an area and a situation which will help you make connections.

There's a lot of luck and timing involved, apart from talent.

ThrashHead: Right, being at the right place at the right time.

Steve: Yes, putting yourself in that right place, you can't stay in the Midwest if you want to get a big record deal, there aren't going to be that many eyes on you there, there's not many record companies there, so you are going to have to go to either one of the two coasts to get something going. You have to put yourself in that place to see something happen.

ThrashHead: Speaking of albums, your latest "Hollywood Forever" is great, It's classic LA Guns but yet doesn't seem dated. It looks like most of the song writing credits go to you and Phil. Is that key to capturing your signature sound? Can you elaborate on the song writing process?

Steve: Yeah you know, Phil Lewis is so underrated because he's the guy who comes in to finish up the songs, we'll come up with a lot of the music, and we'll hand it over to him and he'll come up with a melody and lyrics which is a very difficult thing to do, to be able to finish a song off.

That's what he's been doing right from the beginning with L.A. Guns so, we have a natural sound with Phil Lewis, an actual writing process with him also, he's just terrific with finishing up songs, putting on that finishing touch on the melody, phrasing and lyrics and all the rest which has to go on top of the music; that's why we sound consistent too, I don't think there's too many American bands that have British singers, that makes us stick out a bit out too, we have had a British singer from the very beginning, he has a very distinct sound. He's a great singer and has a very distinctive sound, so we sound consistent all the time; I have to hand that to Phil Lewis because he just knows how to finish songs off.

ThrashHead: Getting back to that consistency you talk about, L.A. GUNS has always had a gift of being able to successfully navigate through the slower songs, darker songs, those songs that really rock and even heavier tunes, how do you attribute your flexibility as musicians?

Steve: You know we don't put any barriers up, we know we have a certain style and it's a straight ahead rock n roll style but we love to branch out and stretch our arms a little bit too you know.

We like to do stuff like Magdalaine and Malaria, big pieces that we know aren't going to be singles, they aren't going to be radio songs, but are great album cuts; you know Phil and I had done a lot of things before we joined L.A. Guns, we're products of the late 60's and 70's, you know for how long we've been doing this and we really treasure that, albums that just had album cuts on it. You're not thinking about a single at all with it, it's just you stretching out, doing something and trying something new too.

Most of our singles are consistent because they were conceived to be singles or for videos, but we have always had that ability to take an album and at least three or four songs out of it and stretch with it, do something out of the norm on our albums, so that's something we're proud of; we're never afraid to stretch.

ThrashHead: That just kind of alluded to the answer for my next question, because with Phil's roots in the U.K. Glam scene, Girl, to origins of the band being tied to the L.A. punk scene and you with your time in W.A.S.P., KEEL, Roadmaster, The Lawyers and The B'zz. I have to imagine that these factors still seed the creative process and attitude of the band?

Steve: Absolutely! We fell into this whole thing we love, we've been around now for over 25 years and basically been in this classic rock thing, we've always been in this classic rock genre, we've always respected those who have come before, all these great bands from the 60's and 70's, it's basically rub off of us, you know we are now part of that mold too, that classic rock mold, after being around for this long.

We absolutely live on the Beatles, the Stones, Zeppelin, Sabbath, Deep Purple, we love all that stuff.

ThrashHead: Does that flexibility explain why the new album sounds so fresh? It doesn't have that sound you might get from another album coming out from a band that has such a long history, but almost like a debut piece in of itself, because it rocks so hard, it is musically a great album.

Steve: Thank you very much! I think it sounds fresh because, believe it or not, you know the budgets are so small now, the days of big heavy budgets and half a million dollar to go to an album and take your time on it and writing, the studio, all of this stuff are gone...what we did, and what we have been doing with Andy Johns, he's Produced the last four albums for us, you know he's a master from Zeppelin, Van Halen, the Stones, what we've been doing because budgets are tighter, we do a great pre-production, we go into a rehearsal studio and we put everything together there, we don't go into a recording studio to write, that's how you used to be able to do it because budgets were unlimited, but the thing is now, if we do a great pre-production we can go into a studio and bang it out, we're not going "let's do a part for this song", we're totally ready when we go into the studio.

One thing I would tell everybody nowadays is do a great pre-production so when you do go into the recording studio you're not going to be screwing around writing, figuring out how to put songs together, everything will be ready to go and that's how we do albums now, so they have a nice clean sound, you can tell we haven't been in there labeling for months on months on tracks, it's pretty much live, then put down the drums and the bass, and then obviously we'll start overdubbing some stuff over that, but it's a little window we're working in, about three weeks of recording, a week and a half of mixing and we're done with it. Basically, it's like how they used to do albums in the 60's and 70's, they'd go in and bang it out because they'd be ready to do it. I think that's how we can keep a freshness to it, because we're totally ready to record.

ThrashHead: So, you're essentially saying that bands need to get their act together, they have to be prepared, in order to have that small amount of time they have to work for them rather than against them...

Steve: Absolutely! It's almost a must, it has to happen now, it's only the triple A list people who get to go in there and get unlimited studio time; with a small budget the time is very valuable, you can't go in there trying to write songs, you have to be ready, you have to be totally ready from your pre-production and rehearsal studio and say "ok, we're ready to record now" and that's what we do, we very rarely work on something in the recording studio saying "let's change this, let's change that." we're already ready with what we've done in pre-production and we go straight to the tape with that.

ThrashHead: About the album a little more, I expect that Stacey leaving so soon after recording the new album came as a major blow. How much of his leaving had to do with living in Tracii's shadow? He even wrote a book called 'Confessions of a Replacement Rockstar ' the title alone says a lot, did his leaving have anything to do with that...

Steve: Yeah, Stacey wrote that; he did a couple of things on his own, he did an instrumental album, he did that book, we don't have any limits on what anyone wants to do away from the band as long as it doesn't conflict with the schedule, no problem with that. Just to be clear, Stacey Blades quit the band, very rarely is anybody fired from L.A. Guns, me and Phil get along with everybody too well, it's usually somebody leaving, right now he had to leave because he said he couldn't tour anymore the way we tour. It's not easy, you really have to dig in to tour and he just couldn't do it anymore physically, he was a little burned out from it; we're still really good's just the fact that me and Phil, we're lifers, nothing will stop us, it doesn't matter, we love L.A. Guns, we love the music we have created, we love the fact that we can tour the world playing our own material, we don't play any covers, we just play our own material, that in of itself is a big accomplishment, being able to tour with our material.

Phil and I are lifers, when Stacey wanted to leave yeah, it was a little bit of a blow, we weren't expecting it, but we had to jump quick, to see how we were going to do this, and we did, we grabbed Michael Grant, it sounds great! The people will see this too when we play live, the band sounds simply terrific!

ThrashHead: We're super excited to catch up you guys, and talking about touring, do you ever have that kind of love/hate relationship with the road, because it is heavy, I've been looking at your schedule and it almost looks like what you would expect of a new band promoting their first album, it's back to back shows, it's being a hardcore road warrior, getting out there hitting the scene as hard as you can.

Steve: You know what, it's not a hate relationship, I love many of our friends are amazed by how we were able to tour in the 80's and 90's, everything was carte blanche, it was great, you had buses and full on crews of seven people, your own equipment. Now, it's more of flying in and you're getting equipment rented for you to the specifications that you need, but it's still not your own equipment, it's not a very easy way to tour, but it is the way to tour right now... maybe it is a love/hate relationship but only because it's a little difficult due to that; we just love going around the world and playing live, I don't know if I'd ever get sick of that.

ThrashHead: It's like you said, you guys are lifers, that's what your life is about, getting up there in front of people and just jamming, making people happy by enjoying your music.

Steve: Absolutely!! And we have a real good time doing it too! We have a great time recording also, this is our life we can't even see us doing anything else.

Like I said, in the 70's Phil and I had done a bunch of records before we got into the 80's and the whole movement in Los Angeles, we had already done a ton of stuff. I was doing the Stephenwolf thing, Roadmaster, The Lawyers, the B'zz, they were all one album off bands, but we were always recording, he was doing Girl and Tormé and then we got into this 80's thing with L.A. Guns, W.A.S.P., Keel, Motley and Ratt, but I think people sometimes forget that Phil and I aren't really products of this, we had already been recording, we were fortunate enough to be a part of that and we love it, but we had already been doing a lot of stuff before that.

We have a different attitude, we know how hard it is to get things going and we feel for bands of nowadays because it was already hard to do something back then as well with the record companies and record stores, now it's super tough for new rock bands because of this pop scene that's going on, the pop and rap scene has dominated everything for the last ten years at least, it's super hard for a new band to get off the ground right now.

We don't take for granted that we are able to tour, we feel very fortunate.

ThrashHead: Yeah, myself and another writer were discussing this not long ago, it seems like in the past 20 years, with the advent of digital music and downloads, a lot of the music scene is moving more towards the pre-fabricated music, where they will have the face, then they'll bring in writers, then they'll package it and then spew it out onto the music world rather than letting the rock n roll dictate where a band should go...

Steve: Absolutely, absolutely...what's happening too, there is no more development of people, there is no more finding a band, and the first album does ok, but everyone's happy and they're ready to take the second step.

Right now, you can't get even out a gate unless you come out with a hit, there is no more development with a label working with you, helping you expand... you know, like we did with the first W.A.S.P. album to "The Last Command", we did the same thing with the First L.A. Guns to "Cocked and Loaded", the record company was with us, and we were able to develop into a really good band, that's all over now, it's not happening anymore which is a shame, that development is very important to a band; it's like "either you have a hit or we're moving on" and that's the way it is.

ThrashHead: Yeah, it doesn't even have to be a hit with digital downloading, well it does, but what I miss the most as a fan growing up listening to you guys back in the 80's was if a rock band made it, that meant you could usually put an album on a turn table and each song rocked, some maybe not as much as others; now it's all about one hit wonders, you give me one hit that I can get onto commercials, reality shows, onto the radio stations and that's all we need, who cares about the rest of the album? I miss the days where you had albums like this album you just put out, where you have rocking songs from side A to side B and pretty much each one you can crank the volume to. It seems that there are rarely albums where all the songs are good...

Steve: Yeah, they're not taking any chances either, we're fortunate now because we're signed to a smaller label now, the last four-five albums have been with smaller labels because of the pop scene dominating the larger labels, it's really ironic that you hear rock n roll in the background of all the sports shows, TV shows, commercials and you hear all this rock music, the people love it and it's selling products, but it's not on the radio or MTV anymore; I think it's because people are afraid, they follow trends and the trend right now is pop that's where they are at, they want to see more American Idol, that's what they want to do, they want to see that type of cookie cutter music where it's written by somebody else, there's no band, there's just a singer or a couple of singers...I don't know, it's a very sterile kind of thing...I miss that too, putting on a full album and wondering; "where is this album going to go, where is it going to take me?". It's a mess right now because that's where we are at.

ThrashHead: Yeah, also picking up a good vinyl, checking out the cover, maybe finding a poster tucked away inside with the vinyl, even the artwork on the back, like on "Hollywood Forever"...

Steve: I'm glad you like that!

ThrashHead: What inspired the artwork on the back? It's got that 70's vibe to it...

Steve: You know that's more Phil's job, I run a lot of the business side of things, I have from the very beginning, I pretty much run all the business in the band, but Phil when it comes down to sequencing an album, artwork or what have you, Phil pretty much rules on that, we let him go for it, instead of being a round table and taking forever, he takes care of that. Phil put the cover together, I love the front cover cause it looks like an old Sabbath cover or something, the back cover was like something from that old book that was out... Rock Dreams, it was paintings of all these rock heroes hanging around a bar with Elvis, Mick Jagger, and Bob Dylan, and it was a painting of them hanging out, and that's pretty much the idea we had on that, like that book that come out in the early seventies, it was a photograph turned into a painting and it's a cool little look.

ThrashHead: Yeah, very cool! About the business side of things, you also have a DVD that just came out jammed packed with all kinds of goodies. There's like 20+ tracks on there! What can you tell me about that?

Steve: We're going to be supporting that, the album came out last June, so we figure we're going to be supporting Hollywood Forever all the way up to the holidays of 2013, this month we had the DVD release, it contains a whole show at the M3 Rock Festival in Baltimore, it's on a huge stage, we sound and look great, it's got that entire set, then we added three videos from the album as well.

There's also a behind the scenes documentary on the making of Hollywood Forever, in the studio, Andy Johns is in there too. We have concert footage, behind the scenes, videos, it's a nice little package, I hope people will check it out because it's a fun little thing! We'll be supporting that as well throughout the year and see how much people will dig on that!

ThrashHead: Right on! You said you had those three videos you're putting on this DVD, and being that I'm reminded of classic L.A. Guns videos, this is digging back, but remember the 'Bitch is Back' video with Phil doing his thing on the streets in Hollywood? It was hilarious, because of the looks on some people's faces, but so fucking cool at the same time. Who's idea was it and how did it come about? It's still a classic to this day...

Steve: The rest of the videos we did for that album we did before we went out on tour and we were able to go into the studio to shoot them and edit them and make sure they were cool, but later, because that was a long, extended tour for that album, actually for the first three albums they were long tours, we had been out on the road and Polygram said they needed another video and Phil came up with that idea, "let's do it where we can do it all within a day" we could have him on Hollywood Boulevard that cuts to the other four guys in the black studio playing our instruments; we needed to come up with something quick and that just shows you that with Phil Lewis he's got that kinda touch to do something like was totally his idea to do "Bitch is Back" like that, it came out good, we had no idea it would turn out that way because we were like "wow, we're not spending much time on this, it's going to be really quick and rough around the edges" hindsight it came out really cool because of that you know?

ThrashHead: Yeah, I remember seeing it back in the day, you could tell just by the people standing around him on the boulevard, they were tripping out because it looked so spontaneous, like he just jumped in there and started doing this in front of people...

Steve: (Laughs) Yeah, he did, ballsy too because only a lead singer could do that, not many people could do it without being worried about the crowd and the can tell he's not even paying attention to the crowd he's just doing his thing out there. You're right, you can see the people around him looking at him wondering; "what the hell is all this about?!"

(both laugh)

ThrashHead: That's a classic rock n roll moment, Hollywood style!

Steve: Exactly.

ThrashHead: Do you think having a music video as important today as it used to be?

Steve: No, that's why we kept in budget on the new videos, we rented a big soundstage and did the three videos on the DVD all at once, it's just not worth it to throw 150 thousand into a video right now just to get it played once on MTV where they will play it on That Metal Show, or maybe one of the hard rock shows they have late at night. You don't get the legs off of a video that you used to so it's kind of ridiculous to throw a lot of money into videos right now because there isn't that constant air play like there used to be where it can help an album.

We know bands that still do expensive videos and they are complaining "ah geez, they only played it once." but that's the way it is right now...we did three videos which were done specifically for the DVD because we knew weren't going to get any airplay on TV. Those videos are specifically for the fans.

ThrashHead: Of course, if those videos are released on YouTube or Vimeo by the label, a band can always leverage the power of social media, MTV was never really about the music anyway, they are now completely absorbed in their reality programming and have been a sort of middle man...

Steve: Yeah

ThrashHead: ... now that those older outlets for showing videos are gone, a band can reach out directly to the public and share...maybe that's the new MTV and bands can say to the old media outlets "Screw you, we're going straight to the public!" Our job of course, websites and fans who truly support their favorite bands, is to get the videos out onto every website we can, get it shared across all the social media websites and have people saying "L.A. Guns still kicks some major ass!"

Steve: Ah man, that's cool!

ThrashHead: Last question here, it's a question we always ask the legends, something for the fans, and with somebody like you I just can't pass up the opportunity, but do you have a memory which you could call your most rock n roll moment?

Steve: I do! I have had so many fortunate moments, I've been very privileged with so many bands, I think maybe, the biggest rock n roll moment was when I was still in W.A.S.P. ... and we were doing that whole blood and guts thing, that first the way, when I talk about W.A.S.P.. I have nothing but respect for them, I think they are great, we were great musically and we had some great moments too where we just blew other bands off of the stage like Maiden and Kiss, a lot of them, we'd go on before them and we'd just tear it up...but with W.A.S.P. we went over to Japan, I had just joined the band, just before they left L.A. they had just done their first album, I was still in the studio doing the Keel album and they had fired their drummer and they called me in the studio and asked me if I wanted to go and I had to leave in two weeks for Europe, so we went over to Europe and Japan too, it was my first time; at the time W.A.S.P. was a sensation before anybody could believe it, we were gold in Japan, and doing really well. That was a big moment when I went to Tokyo and we had to do a press conference and we walked out on this stage in front of a crowd, packed with photographers it was like a Beatles thing...I'll never forget that.

I have already been working and doing stuff but with that type of reception, that coverage and all those photographers, it was unbelievable, I couldn't believe it looking out over the crowd. I have had many memories with L.A. Guns and other bands too, but I don't think that I'll ever forget that W.A.S.P. thing, it was insane!

ThrashHead: It was that first moment when you realized "Jesus, I'm a rock n roller, this is it!"

Steve: Yeah!

ThrashHead: It had to have been astounding, that answer says everything; the emotional aspect of it, you've been doing this for several years, you've paid your dues and there you are with hundreds of people staring at you and you're the center of attention.

Steve: I gotta tell you, the thing with me, I've been playing drums since I was seven, I'm 57 now so I've been playing for fifty years, it just boggles my mind! (laughs) I never started playing the drums wanting to be a rock star, I just wanted to play drums and earn a living, it never crossed my mind, "I want to be a rock star! I want to be a rock star!" I just wanted to be a working drummer.

Phil and I feel that we have accomplished what we wanted to, which was becoming working musicians where we could do what we wanted all the time which is singing and playing drums while earning a living, playing our own material. I never was somebody who wanted to be like that rock star or like that other rock star, so when the W.A.S.P. thing happened, I had already been recording and playing gigs, but that was just huge thing; I think I made the right decision going from Keel to W.A.S.P., so....(laughs)

ThrashHead: Hell yeah, those are some of the best albums I've ever owned! What you just said can resonate across so many levels as well. So, what you're saying is that's the true victory for any artist; to be able to do what you really want to do and everything else is just icing on the cake.

Steve: Absolutely! If a lot of people can get out of their heads that they want to be stars instead of "I want to be a musician" then I think a lot more would come their way. I mean, we have friends in other bands, a lot of them won't do small venues, they'll pass on it, whereas us, we'll go right from an arena opening up for Whitesnake or Iron Maiden and we'll go right back to a smaller venue and play it without even hesitating and we've a lot of friends who won't do that...that goes back to that whole thinking of that we do it because we like to do it, not from what comes from it, we just don't hesitate going from big to small venue, I know many people who turn down so much work because it's not an arena or huge theater.. "naw, we don't want to do that, we've already done arenas, we don't want to go back to clubs." where we will play anywhere and everywhere. I mean, if somebody wants to hear our music, we're there!

ThrashHead: That in of itself gives a good message to the fans right there about what kind of guys you are, if somebody can put faith and belief into a band, it can certainly be a band like L.A. Guns, because even though you guys play large venues, you also get right back into the thick of things, up close and personal with people.

Steve: We also do signings every show, we set aside a few minutes after each show, we'll go out and do a signing at the merch booth, you don't have to buy anything from us to sign; we go out there to meet our fans, spend time with them because we know exactly how important that is... I am still freaking out when I meet someone like Ginger Baker, 'cause we're both on Ludwig drums and I had the opportunity to meet him, he's one of my heroes and I bow down to him; he took time out to meet me, talk to me, figure out who I am, it meant a hell of a lot to me, so I know how important it is for fans of L.A. Guns or W.A.S.P. to want to come by, say hello, shake your hand, and say "I dig this"; it means a lot to them and to us, so after each show you'll see us at the booth! 

One Way Ticket To Love (L.A Guns) by kimknon


L.A. Guns - Over the Edge (with lyrics) by Srdjan 

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