interview by Michael McCarthy
L.A. Guns just released their much-praised album, The Missing Peace, on October 17, 2017, but they’re already back with a new one, a raw, aggressive record called The Devil You Know. It’s due out this Friday, March 29th, 2019, and I can’t recommend it enough. Guitarist Tracii Guns and frontman Phil Lewis have concocted something special with this one. Don’t get me wrong, The Missing Peace was fantastic and I still listen to it. Absolutely. But there’s something magical about The Devil You Know, which finds Tracii, Phil and company firing on all cylinders. Scorching guitars, edgy, in-your-face vocals and a nice, tight rhythm section make this one a winner all around. To my ears, it’s like a blend of their self-titled debut and their criminally under-rated album Vicious Circle, the latter being my favorite L.A. Guns record. The new album also gets props for its diverse songwriting, which finds them trying new things, like the Black Sabbath-inspired “The Devil You Know” and the spine-tingling, epic “Another Season in Hell.”
“That’s the last mistake that I made,” Phil sings on “ Another Season…” as he recounts the reasons why the person whose perspective he’s singing from has fallen into the great abyss. If “The Devil You Know” incites one to turn to the dark side, “Another Season in Hell” is a cautionary tale warning you about what’s in store for you if you do. Suffice to say, Phil definitely came out of his comfort zone and wrote about new things this time around.
One could get the impression that The Missing Peace was the album they thought they needed to make when they reunited, whereas The Devil You Know finds them in a more creative place, stretching their wings to their full capacity, just making the record they wanted to make without worrying about how their middle-aged fans – like me – would react. So, if you’re a stuck in the ’80s listener who generally hates any new music their old favorite bands release nowadays then perhaps this one would turn you off. (You’d probably like The Missing Peace, though.) That said, if you have an open mind and enjoy hearing new music by the bands you grew up with, you’re going to love this record. And if you’re a younger listener who’s looking to find other bands in the Mötley Crüe vein after seeing The Dirt, The Devil You Know would make a great introduction to the world of L.A. Guns, one of the very best bands to emerge from L.A. at the time that Mötley did. Listen to some of L.A. Guns new songs below and read the interview with Phil, during which we discuss the making of The Devil You Know at length.
MM: I know that Tracii produced the new album, but the credits also indicate that vocals were produced by someone named Mitch Davis. Did Mitch produce all of the vocals or just some of them?
PL: Yeah, it was exactly the same procedure as the last record. The guys recorded the drums, bass and guitars and when they have a decent enough handful of mixes, or when it’s all done, then it’s my turn. I’ll fly to New York and I’ll check into a little flea bed motel in Long Island and take the subway into Manhattan, 16 stops each way, and live like a monk, you know? Wear sweatpants and a hoodie and no socializing, no drinking, no partying at all. Just four or five days of intense vocal recording. We basically work our asses off. We do about three songs a day. Three or four songs a day. And I do each song about seven or eight times and there’s lots and lots of comparing. So, yeah, he is the principle vocal producer and he engineers it, too, of course. It’s hard work and we get a lot done. I’m so happy with the vocals and happy with everything on any of our albums because it’s so great to have a collaborator. Somebody who gets it, a singer/songwriter, engineer that is very patient. Because sometimes it can be very frustrating. Yeah, we work hard and it pays off.
MM: Do you have the lyrics already written before you head to New York or do you write them while you’re there?
PL: No, the lyrics will probably be done before I get there. Mitch, of course, is involved in that as well. And so the more homework I can do before I get to New York, the better because it’s so busy. It’s slightly terrifying to be honest. But, no, I like to have the lyrics all done before I go. So that when I get there we just focus on the singing. There might be minor changes, but for the most part it’s all done before I leave.
MM: I was really impressed by the lyrics on this album.
PL: Amazing. You know, Mitch just really got me out of that whole vampire, gypsy vocabulary that became a little bit of a rut. To have somebody really come in with some fresh, new, aggressive lyrics was really a breath of fresh air.
MM: Did you guys write this album on the road at all? Because it’s coming shortly behind the last one.
PL: Yeah, every day. Tracii likes killing time. He plays guitar all the time. We’ve got hours to kill on the tour bus and before a soundcheck before a gig. And he just sits and plays his guitar, you know? He gets his guitar and he’s messing around and plugs into Garage Band and puts some music together the whole time. With Johnny and Shane in close proximity, it doesn’t take long before it shapes up and turns into a song.
MM: So, Johnny and Shane contributed to the songwriting?
PL: Yes, bigtime. Absolutely. They’re a huge influence. It’s a team effort. Shane engineered the majority of the album. Eighty five percent of the album. So, yeah, it’s totally an in-house team.
MM: I feel like you’re really showing your punk influences on your sleeves on this album. Did you allow yourself to be more heavily-influenced by punk this time around?
PL: You know, I think Tracii and Johnny have roots deep in punk rock. It has that kind of feel, obviously, but these guys are eminent musicians and it would be doing the music a disservice to even consider it a punk record because it’s really so elaborate and layered. But certainly a [punk] sensibility, no question about it. You know, The Missing Peace had a lot of strings and a lot of embellishments on it and there’s nothing like that on this one. It’s a real, stripped-down, nuts and bolts, raw-sounding record.
MM: In our previous interview, you had given guitarist Michael Grant high praise, talking about how he’s a great frontman as well as a guitarist and such. But now he’s out and Ace Von Johnson is in. Did having two lead guitarists prove disastrous with Michael or what happened there?
PL: No, it was just time for Michael to move on and do his own thing. He’d been under my wing for five years, you know. I’d been working with him for three and a half years before the reunion and it just really felt that it was time. He did his own thing. He’s a little bit younger than the rest of us and I don’t think his heart was really in it. It struck me as something he was just doing to pay his rent. And I really wanted someone to be happy to have the gig and I wanted Ace from the get go from the beginning of the reunion, but he was committed and he couldn’t do it. He was a man of integrity. But the opportunity opened up and I’m happy that he’s happy.
MM: That’s cool. So, how did you know him?
PL: We’re all like circuit buddies. We’ve known him on the road. He’s a Hollywood guy. I don’t even remember the first time I met him because he’s been around for so long.
MM: On the song “Rage” you sing that you’re a “zen motherfucker” and that you “meditate,” whereas the person the song is directed at is just rage. But eventually you sing that you’re a lot like them. So, is that a roundabout way of saying that you have a lot of rage and that’s why you meditate?
PL: Um, yeah, you know, look, these songs are not all biographical. They invoke the music that we’re given, invoke an attitude. And then it sort of comes out during the lyric writing process. Without being too specific. It’s not a folk song. You get the idea. And it’s just that song. To sing “I’m a zen motherfucker,” I really had a lot of fun doing that. If it sounds like I’m having a lot of fun with those vocals, you’re absolutely, spot-on right because it was great. Hard work, and as I said, slightly terrifying, and I really had to get into a very zen state to do it. It’s so satisfying and I’m so happy. It’s a lot of pressure after it’s all recorded and it’s like, all right, Phil, the ball’s in your court, don’t fuck it up. [Both laugh]
MM: On “Stay Away” you mention “like any film where the girl and monster play” and on “Loaded Bomb” you sing, “it’s the Hollywood crap/The make believe trap.” So, would I be correct to assume that you have a lot of negative feelings about L.A. or Hollywood at least?
PL: You know, I’m realistic about it. Damn, when I first came over in ’88, it was like heaven on earth. You know, you just scratch beneath the surface it really doesn’t take long to see how dirty and sleazy and opportunistic it is. The underbelly. That’s what I’m going for on that. You’re not feeling well. It’s a little bit desperate. It’s a little bit sad, actually. But it fits well with the whole theme. It’s like you’re selling your soul to the devil. It seems like such a good idea at the time and then it’s like, uh oh.
MM: I lived out there for a few years myself, so I get it.
PL: Yeah, I mean, it was great, but that’s all done. That’s all over. Those days are gone forever.
MM: How long have you been living in Vegas now?
PL: About five years. Obviously, I have left L.A., but it’s so close. It’s just a few hours drive. I go to L.A. a lot. We just shot the video for “The Devil You Know” and I’ve gotta go back in for rehearsals and anytime we’ve got a show in Hollywood, of course. It’s a great place to visit. It’s kind of a shell. And there are just too many people there who have no business to be there and it’s a bit claustrophobic. I mean, the traffic and everything. It’s just too much. So, I came into Vegas. I thought I’d give it a year and see if I liked it and I did and I ended up staying.
MM: What is it that you like about Vegas?
PL: Geographically, it’s really handy. If I’ve gotta get to Chicago or Florida or Texas, it’s got a great airport. And I didn’t move to Vegas to be part of a music scene. I didn’t come here to even look for a job. It was just somewhere I thought I’d try and see if I liked it and it turns out I do.
MM: Was “The Devil You Know” inspired by Black Sabbath and Judas Priest? Lyrically, I feel like you kind of crossed a bridge into darker territory with that one.
PL: [Laughs] Yeah, of course. It totally is. Me and Tracii, we are die-hard, classic, ’70s rock fans. And we consider “The Devil” like Sabbath. It’s always a good subject and it’s one that goes really good with the music. I mean, “The Devil You Know,” it’s could be on one of those Sabbath albums. It could be on Sabbath 4. Once again, it starts with a piece of music like that and it invokes that kind of imagery. It does for me, anyway. Those lyrics and that riff, it just goes together perfectly.
MM: What are your plans to tour behind the new album?
PL: It will be extensive touring. We’ve had a few months off. We haven’t played a show this year at all. The last show we played was Christmas. Two nights on Christmas. So, this is the longest I haven’t toured in years. So, I’m really looking forward to getting back on the road. We’ve been getting stellar reviews for this album and, yeah, it’s great to go out and know that it’s gonna be [successful]. That’s a wonderful feeling. So, yeah, not too much lined up at the moment. Sixteen shows, but a lot more in the works at the moment. We’re trying to avoid packages and festivals. Because it doesn’t give us a lot of time. A 35 minute, 40 minute set, it’s no good to us. We’ve got so much material. We’ve got old material that we have to play and new material that we want to play and going on at 4 o’clock in the afternoon for 35 minutes isn’t gonna do it. And we’ve ruffled some feathers turning down opportunities for gigs because we don’t want to do it. What we want is to play two nights consecutively at a venue. We’d like to play a Friday and a Saturday. And the first night we’ll do the classic stuff. And the second night we do the new stuff and stuff that we like, like “Killing Machine” and stuff that we enjoy. Don’t get me wrong, we enjoy doing the old stuff, too. But there’s stuff that is a bit deeper. So, yeah, those gigs are in the pipeline, Scotty, our manager, knows what we like to do and we’re looking forward to it accordingly.
MM: The last time we talked you mentioned that you would be getting the rights to your original albums back after 30 years. Has it reached that point yet?
PL: Yes, it has. And we’re in negotiations with the label. The problem is just finding them. Physically finding the tapes. These are huge corporations and these are 30 year old master tapes. And if you can do something with them, if they’re still playable, then, absolutely, I can’t wait to get back in. But at the moment, the last we heard is that they’re in a warehouse in Indiana.
MM: The last time we talked I asked if you’d been binge-watching anything and you’d been watching Peaky Blinders, Sons of Anarchy and A Journey of Selfridge. What have you been watching lately?
PL: Well, not much, to be honest with you. I haven’t had much TV. The Crown is quite compelling. The story of Queen Elizabeth in the ’50s. Growing up in England, that’s my parents’ generation. So, I’m quite drawn to that. Obviously, you can tell from Peaky Blinders that I love history. I love to be immersed in times gone by. I’m not especially enamored by what’s going on out there today. I don’t give a fuck about Kardashians or the stuff that passes for entertainment nowadays. But I do like salacious history. The Crown is pretty good. They did a good job.
MM: You had also mentioned Game of Thrones. Are you eagerly awaiting the final episodes?
PL: I am, yeah. I’ll be sad when it’s over. No matter what, it’s gonna be disappointing. I mean, that was something that my wife Kayla got me into late and, as you know, it’s an epic, epic show so I’ve done a lot of watching. So, when it does come to that, for the season to be out, then I’ll watch the season prior to it just to get up to speed. I can’t stand having to wait for the next week. It’s torture. So, I’ll wait [for the whole season] to be out.
MM: Are you looking forward to the Motley Crue biopic The Dirt that’s going to be out on Friday?
PL: Yeah. Yes, I am. I absolutely am. They’re an incorrigible bunch of rogues. But it might – it just might – inspire a younger generation to pick up a guitar or a bass or start a band. I know people are like, oh, they’re just a bunch of lunatics. Yeah, I know that, you know that, we know that. But some 13-year-old kid wherever, he doesn’t know that. And it could be the epiphany that he gets watching it like when I saw Humble Pie in Hyde Park in 1971. I remain the perpetual optimist. Yeah, I’m not gonna knock that movie. The trailer – I mean, it’s corny but so are they are. You don’t want War & Peace. You don’t want it to be a serious, high-brow movie. It’s a bunch of lunatics. I’m happy for them. I wish them well. I’m not a big fan of the band to be honest, but I’m excited when something like this goes from an idea to a movie. I mean, it doesn’t have a release, it’s on Netflix. But that will do.
MM: Yeah. And I kind of look at Motley Crue as the gateway drug. People start listening to them and then they get curious about bands like yours and what else is out there.
PL: That’s how I feel about it, too. And good luck to them.
MM: Last time you recommended Robert Palmer’s Heavy Nova, which I really liked. You also mentioned mention Harry Connick Jr.’s She album and I recognize that it’s a great album, but for my tastes the Robert Palmer album is something I’d listen to more regularly.
PL: The Harry Connick, I just wanted to point out that people think that he’s like a Sinatra impersonator. And he is. But he definitely has a rock side to him. I didn’t expect you to fall in love with the record like I did, but just to raise your eyebrows. There are some heavy riffs in there and that’s not what you’d expect from Harry Connick, Jr.
MM: Sure. And I must say you were right about Robert Palmer being a great bass player. I was blown away by his playing on that.
PL: Oh, yeah, he’s incredible. Incredible. A great musician and very under-rated. People didn’t know that. They just saw him in a suit, swaying around with those strange mannequins and you don’t know just how great a player he was.
MM: What would you recommend this time?
PL: Well, I’m just going through my LPs here. I was just talking to my friend Dave Ling from Classic Rock over in England and he asked me a very difficult question. He goes, “Favorite Rolling Stones song?”
MM: That’s a tough one.
PL: It is a tough one. It’s a motherfucker. So, I pulled out all my LPs. I’ve got one, two, three, four – I’ve got about 15 starting with Flowers, the second release, I’ve got Greatest Hits, I’ve got Sticky Fingers, I’ve got Goat’s Head Soup, Exile on Main Street. I’ve got Let it Bleed and – what would you choose? What would be your favorite Stones song?
MM: Favorite Stones song? I would probably go with “Wild Horses” because I’m a sucker for ballads.
PL: Yeah, you like that? I went with “Gimme Shelter.” I like “Gimme Shelter.” It’s just got that spine-tingling riff at the beginning and it starts so innocuously and then it builds and lyrically it’s up there with “Street Fighting Man.” And it’s a song about revolution and change and a little bit scary. And then, of course, it’s got that breakdown guitar in the middle and it’s got big, huge, breaks, and that woman’s voice – I can’t remember her name – on the outro. And it’s about as perfect a song as it gets. And it’s a rock song, but it’s a protest song, and it’s got this great energy from it. So, I was listening to a whole bunch of Stones, trying to figure out which one would be my favorite. And I listened to my Free records last night, Paul Kossoff and Paul Rodgers, Andy Fraser – amazing. When you think about those old records, they’re like 50-year-old records. They’re blues rock songs. But when you think those guys were in their early 20s when they were recorded it’s amazing how seasoned they sound, being so young.
MM: You were going to check out Garbage’s latest album after I’d recommended it to you. Did you ever check that out?
PL: What was it called?
MM: Strange Little Birds.
PL: Oh, yes, yes, a classic – Shirley Manson, she nails it every time. Yeah, excellent stuff.
MM: Final question. If you could resurrect any one musician and they’d be happy to be back, who would you bring back?
PL: I think Phil Lynott [ed. note: from the band Thin Lizzy]. He wasn’t done. He got so slumped in family and drugs and it was too soon. That’s such a difficult question. I often imagine what an incredible producer Jimi Hendrix would’ve gone on to be. Somewhere between those two. Yeah.
Editor’s Note: Since this interview was conducted on 3/20/19, it has been announced that Shane Fitzgibbon is no longer the band’s drummer. Instead, Scot Coogan from The Brides of Destruction will pound the skins.
L.A. GUNS STARRING PHIL LEWIS AND TRACII GUNS:
3/29: Santa Ana, CA @ Yost Theater
4/4: West Dundee, IL @ Rochaus
4/5: Cincinnati, OH @ Riverfront Live
4/6: Flint, MI @ The Machine Shop
4/8: Sellersville, PA @ Sellersville Theater
4/9: Teaneck, NJ @
4/11: Derry, NH @ Tupelo Music Hall
4/12: Baltimore, MD @ Fishhead Cantina
4/13: New Bedford, MA @ The Vault at Greasy Luck
4/16: New York, NY @ Iridium
4/18: Hopewell, VA @ Beacon Theater
4/19: Greenville, SC @ The Firmament
4/20: Lancaster, PA @ Chameleon Club
5/24: Tempe, AZ @ Marquee Theater
6/14: Los Angeles, CA @ The Whisky
6/15: Los Angeles, CA @ The Whisky
6/22: Jackson, MS @ Hideaway
6/28: Savanna, IL @ Poopy’s
6/29: St. Louis, MO @ Del Mar Hall
7/11: Welland, ON @ Hair in The Fair Festival**Festival
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