INTERVIEW: Steve Riley – L.A. Guns
There are of course two versions of L.A. Guns going around at the moment, something that we got used to a few years ago when Steve Riley and Phil Lewis led one version of the band and Tracii Guns had his own version out on the road before Tracii gave up the name leaving just the one with Phil and Steve. Quite unexpectedly then in 2016 Phil and Tracii shook and made up, and decided to use the L.A. Guns name again, leaving Steve Riley in the lurch. I guess the expectation was that Steve might go away but he hasn’t, and after some great singles Steve Riley and Kelly Nickels (both members of the classic line-up) have produced a killer record ‘Renegades’ very much capturing the sound of ‘vintage’ L.A. Guns. We caught up with Steve to find out all about it.
Mark: Steve it’s Mark from The Rockpit down in Australia, how are you?
Steve: I’m doing good Mark, how are you mate?
Mark: I’m doing great thanks mate, especially after listening to the new album ’Renegades’ – it’s great to hear the full record after some great singles in the lead up.
Steve: Oh right on!
Mark: It sounds great too, you must be really pleased with how it came out?’
Steve: Oh man we really are, we’re really happy with the way it’s been accepted by the fans. The first three singles we released with this virus thing, we would have been out on the road, and the album would have been out earlier, but Mark and everyone over at Golden Robot Records down there have done a wonderful job spreading out the three singles and now on November 13th the full album will come out and we’re just stoked with the acceptance of it. We’ve been getting half a million Spotify streams and the fans really like it. We’re just thrilled by that, and we’re really happy with what we did on the album too, you know.
Mark: I must admit Steve when I heard ‘Crawl’ I though, wow this is great, you’ll be doing hard to top that, but the ‘Well Oiled Machine’ came out you did. It’s classic sounding L.A. Guns with a twist that reminds me of the L.A. Guns that I love.
Steve: Mark that makes me feel really good because Kelly Nickels and myself really wanted to stay true to the L.A. Guns sound. We didn’t want to take a quick left turn and try to do something totally different. We know that the songs have their own identity on this ‘Renegades’ album, but we really wanted to stay true to the feel of what we were in the 80’s and the 90’s. And I think we achieved that, the fans are telling us that we really pulled it off. And that means a lot to us.
Mark: It has that attitude as well, that almost ‘sneer’ about it that I used to love about the band back in the day. We’ll get to those great songs in a moment, but I’ve been looking forward to a chat with you as I think over the years I’ve spoken to everyone except you and Mick from the ‘Classic’ line-up. Bands split up all the time of course and I know that you must get sick of this question, but I think us Rock fans seem to get stuck on the notion that ‘classic line-ups’ of bands have to stay faithful to each other, but life isn’t like that is it? By my reckoning you must be the only member of the band who never ‘jumped ship’?
Steve: That’s true brother, that’s absolutely true. When I joined I knew the band was good –you know I came right out of W.A.S.P. to L.A. Guns and I love that ‘classic line-up’ and I still dig all the guys from the classic line-up. I really never have said a cross word about anybody on the internet or in interviews ‘cos I really dig what we have done together. And I was the guy that not only kept the band going but I really, really tried to keep any and all classic members in the band. I tried to talk them into knowing that we had something really good going here and to not stray off and do somethig different ‘Let’s keep doing this, we can do this forever – we have such a great sound, a great look and a great catalogue.’ And I tried my best to talk all the classic members into staying, and you know, one or the other, or maybe a couple they split – and I just kept going whether it was with Tracii alone, or whether it was with Phil alone, or both of them. Or right now with me and Kelly just keeping the ship going. But you’ll never hear us say anything bad about the other guys man, even if they say shit about us we don’t care, but we’ll never really put anybody down. I’ll never put anybody down from any band that I’ve ever played in because it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t add up. I just never got into that mud-slinging, I don’t ever go there.
Mark: Exactly, and that’s a really refreshing attitude I remember over the years talking to Phil and there was always a little moment where he’d throw a few barbs at Tracii, and then of course last time you were on the receiving end. And I get that if it comes from passion, but I love it that you have the attitude that you do.
Steve: It’s funny because in the 15 or 16 years I played alone with Phil, and Tracii was out of the band he just tore him up in the press And I never went there, but he did that for years and then I don’t know why but now they’re back together again. But I just don’t like that, I never liked it, talking shit about the other guys in the press just isn’t a good way to go.
Mark: Do you feel additional pressure in this two L.A. Guns situation? The other two guys are out there making music, and I’m not sure if you’ve heard what they’re doing but you must hear back from the fans and their take on things? I must admit I enjoyed their last two albums and I have to say I loved ‘Renegades’.
Steve: Not really, I don’t see it like that. You know what the thing is I don’t think a lot of people realise that Kelly wrote ‘Ballad of Jayne’, he wrote our biggest hit, and we were all co-writers on everything that we did in the 80’s, it was a real band effort, and if you look at the credits for all of those songs it has all five band members on there. And that’s for a reason – it’s because everybody really did bring something to the table and to the production. We wanted it to be a democratic way of getting ahead together, if something went well, everybody did well together. So the thing was me and Kelly we were always song writing, we were always a big part of L.A. Guns especially as we were the ‘engine’ that pushed it, the bass player and drums, the engine that pushed the whole thing. I think people thought that we might have been minor players in the early days but we were right there, we had our noses right to the ground with everybody. So having Kelly back with me is really special. We always stayed best friends, but having him back, not only as my battery mate in the rhythm section but as a writer is special. He brought in the three songs we released as singles – those are his ideas, so he’s a really prolific song-writer and so is everyone else that we’re playing with. Kurt and Scott and myself – we brought in a bunch of material too, but those first three singles were Kelly Nickels’ ideas. Having him back in the band and writing and playing with him, and anything that you see too – any artwork – in the albums, the CD’s, the patches, the T-shirts – that’s all Kelly. He does it all. So having my best friend back with me – it’s a special thing.
Mark: That sounds great. Taking it all the way back I think the first time I saw you guys play was with that Classic line up at a place called Rock City in Nottingham.
Mark: But one of my all-time favourite shows I can still remember to this day was a couple of years after that – it was the triple bill with L.A. Guns, Skid Row and Love/Hate.
Steve: That was a great, great bill. A killer bill man, I remember that was a great show – all three bands were just on fire at that time. I have special memories of that – we actually went all through Europe and Scandinavia then came over to the UK. Everybody on that bill, they’re all friends of mine, I was great friends with Jizzy and the guys in Love/Hate and all of the guys in Skid Row.
Mark: Getting back to the new album, it doesn’t stop with the singles – the ballads are fantastic too. Who brought ‘Don’t Walk Away’ to the party?
Steve: That’s my song! I wrote that one and I’d been sitting on that song for a long time. I think it’s one that I might have introduced to the guys a couple of times over the last couple of decades – that’s been how long I’ve been sitting on it! This time when I brought it in to pre-production Kurt worked on the chorus just a little bit, the chorus is similar to what I had but he put a twist into it too, that turned it into such a great song. I brought in ‘Can’t Walk Away’ and Kurt brought in the other ballad ‘Would’ which is a tremendous song.
Mark: All great lighter numbers, but the great thing is there’s no filler on there, some great rockers too and ‘Don’t Want to Know’ the closer – you must be itching to play that one live – it’s like a real Rock and Roll party?
Steve: That’s another one of my songs! I brought in the ballad ‘Can’t Walk Away’ and ‘Don’t Want to Know’ – those are two songs that I had written and was sitting on for years and they worked out great on the album. ‘Don’t Want to Know’ is just a kick-ass song that if we were playing live would hit you like a steamroller!
Mark: That’s a complete coincidence Steve! I didn’t know that at all as I don’t have the writing credits here, but they were my two picks of the album.
Steve: Thank you.
Mark: It doesn’t stop there though – then you have the moodier ‘Lost Boys’ which is great, and ‘Witchcraft’ another great song. It’s just ten great tracks of vintage L.A. Guns!
Steve: I agree. When I listen back to it I totally agree, I don’t think that we have a throwaway song on there – I think they all have their own special little thing that’s happening with them and I think that the album moves really nicely too, I think from song to song it has a really nice feel to it and it doesn’t get boring. I got to produce the album too so I had a lot of fun doing it and I really do think everyone involved stepped up to the plate on this.
Mark: You did a great job Steve it sounds great. You mentioned before that Covid had delayed things, how long have you had it all in the bag? When was it all mixed and complete? I was ready to come over and see you play at a Festival that I couldn’t get to when our borders closed, but then got pushed back anyway. Was it ready for those summer dates?
Steve: Yeah, you know what we did, we were very lucky we did the big Festival here in Maryland in May 2019 – that was the first show that the four of us had done together and it went over so well. Somebody had filmed it and they put it on the internet, everybody was blown away because everyone was thinking that what me and Kelly were gonna do was gonna be some sort of weak situation of L.A. Guns. But when they saw it – everything kinda snowballed. New Breed Management a big Management company here in L.A. they signed us right away and they brought us to Golden Robot Records and Mark signed us over there. And what we did was we did a pre-production over the internet, the four of us, because I’m in L.A. and Kelly’s in New York, Kurt lives in Florida and Scotty lives in Las Vegas, so we’re like scattered all over the States. So we thought we’d not do the old type of pre-production where we all got together on tight budget, instead in the summer of 2019 we started sending each other songs. We ended up with about 35-40 songs that the four of us were sitting on and we chose these ten over a couple of months period and started working on them tougher. We did that for a couple of months and I’d never worked like that before so it was very interesting swapping ideas over the internet! (laughs) And then I had the guys fly out here and we did a two-day marathon pre-production, and it came together so well, there was such a great chemistry and we knew right away that these ten songs were gonna work. And after the two day pre-production, the next day we went in and we did seven straight days of recording, this is in November of 2019.Then I had the guys fly home and I mixed it with the engineer, and we did about a week of mixing and mastering. So it was a very old school thing and we’d finished by the second week of December we were done with it. We had fooled around with the idea of maybe waiting till 2020 to do all that so thankfully we didn’t do that as we may not have been able to do the album! (laughs). And by the end of 2019 it was all done, the artwork, everything, so we were able to get into this crazy year with the finished product already done. We were so fortunate that we made the right call and went at it otherwise we would have been screwed if we’d tried to do it this year.
Mark: So how are you going with the crazy situation over there at the moment? I have friends in L.A. who have been suffering big time.
Steve: Oh Mark, it’s crazy. It is crazy bro right now because everybody is feeling it and it’s just not like one section of people, it’s everyone. So every one of our gigs got postponed. We haven’t done one show. But nothing got cancelled for any of the bands that I know of here in L.A. –all of our schedules got pushed into 2021 and so everyone’s just been sitting around. We were so lucky that we had our product ready to go and Mark at Golden Robot decided ‘Let’s give the fans something new because this is going to go on all year right now.’ So every two months ‘Let’s give them a new single’ – so we started in March or April with the ‘Crawl’ single, then we waited 2, 2 and a half months for ‘Well Oiled Machine’ and another 2 months for ‘Renegades.’ And now we’re into that fourth period right now where the album will come out on November 13th. So we were one of the lucky bands, we had something to work all through the year, and I think Golden Robot played that perfectly. And so now we’ve got our fingers crossed that we can start our shows, and I’ve got the schedule here, it’s the full schedule of Festivals, Theatres and Casinos starting in March 2021. But who the hell knows?! We still don’t know what’s gonna go on. We’re just hoping that we can pull this off and get out there. It’s crazy bro! This year’s been nuts!
Mark: It has and all over the world it’s so different, in the UK they’ve had car park concerts, outside of the venue in car parks, in Europe they’ve tried drive-in shows, and then here in the West of Australia we have our live music back but not yet at full capacity and only of course for local acts as our borders are still closed.
Steve: But that’s good, that’s great for those guys and you all. At least you got something going on. Over here even Scotty Griffin the lead guitar player, he lives in Vegas and we did a ‘Zoom’ the other day with everyone in the band and the label to talk about the release and I asked Scotty “Is Vegas opening up at all? Are there any shows, what’s going on there?” And he said no, he’s doing this cover band just to stay sharp, it’s a punk rock thing in a small little dive bar and he said only a certain amount of people can get in. So it’s all fucked up mate, nobody’s really been able to do anything and we’re waiting for this vaccine, but when’s that gonna happen? I don’t know? 2021? I heard some shit yesterday that even Guns ‘n’ Roses – the tour that they had pushed from this year to next year, 2021 that they’re thinking of pushing it to 2022 and not even trying to do 2021! That scared me you know, I hope that doesn’t happen.
Mark: Take it all the way back for us know Steve. How young were you and was there a defining moment when you knew that music was going to be your life?
Steve: Well I’m going to be 65 in January and I started playing drums when I was like 5 or 6 years old! (laughs) So it’s kinda scary I’ve been playing drums for almost 60 years! (laughs) You know what, when I started playing drums honestly I was too young to realise this was what I was gonna do my whole life. But I loved it so much and I really, really wanted to be able to master playing the drums and learn how to play them in any style and learn how to play in any way I wanted, whether it was double-kick or it was jazz or straight Rock and Roll, it didn’t matter. But when I knew it was gonna be a career for me was pretty much when I left Boston, right after High School. I was 17 and I left home to go and play with club bands down in Washington D.C. that was like ’73, ’74. Then I knew no matter what, even if a band was going to falter I was gonna go on – I was gonna find something else. I didn’t know what it might be but I knew I was never gonna throw my hands up and say “Well, that’s that!” and go off and do something different. I knew that I was going to keep moving, so I think that’s when it really happened. But then in ’75 I got to do an album that Todd Rundgren produced with a band in the Midwest, here in L.A. and when we did that album, that really was the spark! It was like “Oh man, this is absolutely what I wanna do!” And you know I made my way to L.A. from that point on – I got to L.A. in ’77 and, you know, I just kept pushing. It didn’t matter if it was a one-off album with somebody and then I had to move onto something else. But I think that ’75 album with Roadmaster that Todd Rundgren produced I think that was the spark when I realised that this was really, really my thing and what I wanted to do, and I just had to be strong. I knew that not all the bands I was gonna be in were gonna work and then I lucked out when I got into Keel and then W.A.S.P. and into L.A. Guns. That’s a fortunate thing for someone to be able to make that triple-hold like that. It doesn’t always work out, there’s a lot of luck involved. You can have a lot of talent, but there’s a lot of luck in timing too. But once I got into Keel then W.A.S.P. wanted me and then L.A. Guns wanted me I was very fortunate, but I just never stopped. I just go out and get on with the business of playing music.
Mark: And long may that continue.
Steve: Thank you.
Mark: We do have a traditional closing question that I ask everyone the first time we speak. It’s one of those questions we’ve been asking for eleven years now, but one that somehow seems more relevant under the circumstances we are living in at the moment. A nice simple question to close then Steve: what is the meaning of life?
Steve: I’ll tell you what bro, the meaning of life is happiness. You’ve got to be happy in this world. You’ve got to really dig what you’re doing and who you are. I really think that’s the meaning of life. If you really like who you are and what you’re doing I think that is the secret to everything. And I really believe that was my secret to making it through, and my meaning of life was really falling in love with the drums, playing the drums, and living for it. So that and (the fact) that I tried to stay true to being a cool person and not being a mud-slinger or treating anybody bad. If you can get into that mode of loving what you’re doing and dig on it I really think that you can get through any situation.
Mark: Now that Steve, is a really cool answer. Thank you so much for your time. People I know who have met you told me you were the coolest member of L.A. Guns and just the nicest guy and I think you’ve just proved that to me. Stay safe and catch you soon.
Steve: Oh thanks mate. Thank you for the call I really appreciate it. Be safe brother, I’ll talk to you soon.