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Kerbyís Exclusive Interview With L.A. Guns Drummer Steve Riley

By Jeff Kerby, Contributor
Sunday, September 24, 2006 @ 9:12 AM

"...thatís why rockers and str

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It is still kind of a shock to me to think that a band with as storied a past as L.A. Guns could have released a record of original material last year entitled Tales From The Strip that somehow manages to sound better than anything the group had ever recorded with founding band member and namesake Tracii Guns. It really did happen though, and I still actually play the first six songs on that record at least every couple of weeks or so---itís that goodóPhil Lewis even sounds exactly as he did back in the day when ďBallad of JayneĒ was occupying the airwaves and your Fiero was still the primary mode of transportation. In actuality, there may be many reasons for this renaissance of sorts--new guitarist Stacey Blades has undoubtedly had a huge impact on the original material created by the band since his predecessorís departure as has bassist Adam Hamilton, but behind it all thoughóliterallyóhas been drummer Steve Riley.

The percussionist is not only renowned for his work with his current band, but is still highly regarded as having been the drummer for W.A.S.P. in their heyday. Any self respecting headbanger has to know that at least the first two records from Blackie and the boys were absolutely blood drenched mayhem metal designed to rock the living hell out of anyone within a three block radius of the sound. Not surprisingly, the music the band created during that period has managed to stand up over time as well. To this day, those records have the ability to energize, motivate and become the dark life source youíve been missing since that pentagram patch unfortunately fell off your denim jacket back in the day. Basically, Riley is a true professional and a true player who has witnessed and experienced what has become known as the LA Scene from its inception in the early 80ís all the way through to its commercial success and eventual demise as well. Regardless of what goes on around the scene or what happens commercially, Riley always finds a way to make sure that he is behind a kit somewhere playing the music he loves. L.A. Guns new album entitled Live And Dangerous is a testament to that.

KNAC.COM: How much was recording this live album a chance for you to sit back and the take stock in the past? Or were you too involved in the actual performance to think about it?

RILEY: No, no. We think about it. We talk about it too, and if youíre in a place like the Whisky where you played for so many years before you made it and after you made it, it definitely makes you reminisce about things like that. It has to happen with everybody, and we definitely do it too.

KNAC.COM: Does it make you think that good music can sometimes survive the inevitable genre changes that are bound to occur any time peoplesí collective tastes are concerned?

RILEY: Well, at the beginning, you arenít even thinking like that. When it first happens with you, youíre just really in the moment, and youíre hoping that it lasts for even four or five yearsÖyou know, that would be unbelievable because most of us had been in and out of bands before we made it. There were a lot of quick stops. The focus is definitely on the moment when itís like that. Then, to think that you might even be doing it with the same band as well is insane.

KNAC.COM: Whatís insane to me, and Iíve written about it a lot, is how a band who supposedly lost its most vital member, could come up with a record in 2005 that is better than anything else they recorded--especially the first six songs. How does that happen?

RILEY: I know. I know it. We came out of the chute really strong on that album. The first six songs just blow my mind too. I like listing to it also. The thing is, is that we were always into committee writing in this band. Tracii would come in with these great riffs, and we all had some great riffs that we would bring in, but really then, we would just hand those songs over to Phil. Then, Phil would write those melodies and the phrasing and just put it all together. A lot of people can write great riffs, but you need somebody that can come in and do that stuff with each song. We knew that it was going to be strong when we were writing it because the songs were really nice and compact and we got in and out of the songs really nice. Then, when Andy Johns did his little number on it, we knew it was going to be a strong record. We were by no means going into it though saying, ďWe have to do a better record than Brides of Destruction.Ē or whatever. We just wanted to go in and do a really strong album.

KNAC.COM: Yeah, and when I wrote about the record at the time, I knew there was going to be a danger of people just thinking it was a case of latest record hype, butÖI still play it every week or so.

RILEY: I tell you, across the board the feedback we got was positive, and many of the writers touched on the fact that we donít have Tracii but that weíre still writing well. The fact is that it was just a really good album. It was kind of a surprise too because we didnít have a lot of time to work on it, and we didnít have a big budget. It was a quick process, but by the same token, I keep reading biographies about bands in the sixties who did it the same way. You know, you just go in, and you catch the moment, and you donít spend months and months and months on it and sort of diluting it. I just think weíre onto a way of doing stuff now and learning how to work with these smaller budgets and getting something out of it.

KNAC.COM: I know youíve seen both big budgets and small budgets, butÖis it a stretch to say that a band is sort of thrust into a grittier, edgier headspace that is a little more conducive to quality rock and roll when the chips are down?

RILEY: Yeah, man. I tell youórock ní roll is an immediate thing anyway. We ended up spending so much time on Hollywood Vampires, and the producer we had at the time had us going into like twelve to fourteen different rooms. It was ridiculous. There was just so much freedom because of the money and the time that a lot of the immediacy left the project. We still sort of salvaged it, and it has some nice stuff on it, but it has a different feel from the first couple of albums that we did together. Thatís what has brought a lot of the immediacy back into the material. The budget dictates that you have to do that. We find that we just donít have that kind of time to obsess about it.

KNAC.COM: Do you think that it is sort of like if someone punches you in the face, your immediate response is the most violent and emotionalÖwhereas, if they hit you and you canít retaliate for two weeks, the reaction probably wonít be quite the same?

RILEY: Absolutely. You start to over think yourself when you have that kind of time. Itís like, ďhey, I think Iíd like to redo that again.Ē Rock and roll is made up of mistakes, and I think thatís why everyone loves the Stones so much. Itís because it swings, and itís kind of funky and isnít perfect. Itís nice. That needs to be left into music. Unless you are some sort of a progressive band like a Dream Theater who works on their songs over and over and over--I think that for our type of music though, we just need to capture it right away and put it out.

KNAC.COM: How do you feel about getting the opportunity to have experienced what may have been the greatest rock scene everóthe one in L.A. during the 80ís? Arenít you thrilled that your career originated then versus now?

RILEY: I really am, bro. Iím really proud too that I got to experience the entire thing. I was with W.A.S.P. during the first half of it and L.A. Guns the second half. There was a good ten,eleven years there where the L.A. rock scene really did rule the world. I donít think I can think of any other sceneónot the Detroit scene or the New York scene or the Philly scene or the Seattle scene that lasted more than four or five strong years before petering out. This thing went on and on and on. We ruled T.V. We also ruled the arenas and radio. It was everywhere and was a real strong movement. I know we get ripped a lot because it was kind of a decadent period where everything was a little over the top, but it was fun. I think that is really the key to itóeverybody just had so much freakiní fun back then. To be part of a scene and watch the whole scene go down and what happened during it was just really cool.

KNAC.COM: Donít you think that this whole genre has such an advantage over the others when it comes to nostalgia and revivals because the whole vibe was based on fun? I mean, it isnít about Somalia or getting sexually abused.

RILEY: Absolutely, bro. Our whole scene was good for everyone. It was good for the fans. It was good for the radio people and the T.V. people. There was just a really good feeling going on at that time. Again, weíll get ribbed about it for a while, but things go in cycles, and the 80ís thing is kind of back en vogue right now. A lot of these younger bands who are really good right now are also paying their respect whereas in the 90ís it was kind of a joke to have liked anything from the 80ís. That has all kind of turned around now. What was funny though was that back in 90ís, all of the Seattle bands were at our gigs during the 80ís as fans--they were in a bunch of cover bands up in Seattle playing our shit and stuff. It was weird in the 90ís because it was just so shitty to like anything from the 80ís. That has totally turned around now, I think.

KNAC.COM: For the people, the bands from that era are always going to have a leg up on other movements because your music represents a time for many that embodied youth and happiness and getting fucked and fucked up. Listening to that music is probably as close as the majority of those people reliving that time.

RILEY: I agree, brutha. Itís funny because we always had our loyal following, but now, when we play out, we are seeing a younger audience too, and theyíre really into it. Iíve got a son who has friends who are in their early teens, and some of them are musicians, and they are really into L.A. Guns stuff, and itís wild. Weíre just fortunate that we can go into the studio and go and play out--weíre just really fortunate.

KNAC.COM: Iíll bet that participating in something like a meet and greet every night has to put you closer to the fans--how has your view of that changed any over the years?

RILEY: Itís kind of a must now that you have to do some kind of a meet and greet--go and meet the fans. We donít have a lot going for us as far as big support from big record companies or agencies. We may be doing stuff a rung down on the ladder, but weíre still pulling it off. You kinda have to reach out now too because the fans donít see you on TV or radio as much. When they come to see you live, itís also a chance for you to bring out new records because with the independent deals that weíre getting, the distribution sucks. A lot of people canít get the product, so that has become a big new thing too where we have to get the product out to the people on the road where they can get it. When you get behind the booth out there, itís wild. Itís really fun though. You definitely hear some stuff.

KNAC.COM: Iím sure some of what gets said comes from females tooÖI asked Phil awhile back how much of a roll that sex still played as far as his motivation to perform--he said it was still the driving force. Does something like that have to diminish or evolve into something else with age?

RILEY: No, itís still there. It goes hand in hand. Thatís funny too because I think thatís why rockers and strippers gravitate towards each other. (laughs) Itís like itís just this sexual thing in rock that is really fun because itís always up--itís never down. Itís not a down thing. Itís not a suicide thing where we hate our lives or anything and the world blows. Itís always pretty much an up thing. Occasionally, we may throw something else out, but the majority of the time, we are just trying to blow out some good rock.

KNAC.COM: That seems to have been true for you regardless of the band as well. Was it a relief though when you went from W.A.S.P. to L.A. Guns in that you didnít have to deal with all the theatrics and dramatics anymore? Was it a pain to put on all the makeup and costumes every night?

RILEY: It was definitely a chore in W.A.S.P. to have to go through that because you really have to prep for it. You also have kind of a uniform show where things have to go off just right like special effects and lights and all that shit. L.A. Guns was definitely a little looser. The last couple of years of W.A.S.P. around the time of Electric Circus, it got a little bombastic, a little bit. I thought W.A.S.P. made a bit of a mistake when I first joined in that we toured all over the world with the blood, guts and meat and got all kinds of notoriety. When we came back to the States on that tour though, we dropped it. We just ended up with this little bland show, and I never understood that. From that point, then the shows started to get a little bit bigger and bigger and more bombastic that the jump from W.A.S.P. during Inside The Electric Circus to L.A. Guns felt so stripped down and nice. We were a little decked out, but nothing like W.A.S.P. It was really nice to just go up there and blast through some songs without worrying about too much of a show thing going on.

KNAC.COM: Was there a lot of problem in the bands that you were in during the hair metal heyday with regard to professionalism and wanting to take the music seriously?

RILEY: You know, you live so close to these people. The quarters are already so close. Youíre on the bus and being shuttled everywhere together. Itís just inevitable, bro. Maybe that just comes from being more mature and looking at it like that. Yeah, we all want the band to be cool, but there are just so many personalities and behind the scenes shit going on that we did finally hit the breaking point. In Ď91 or Ď92, we just splintered. That was mainly just due to being overworked for like six straight years where it was just like push, push, push. We probably just had to get away from each other. It was kind of inevitable.

KNAC.COM: I can understand a band breaking up or being irritated with each other, but is it inevitable that a group of adults who shared so much for so long still canít talk to one another fifteen years after the fact? For example, the whole Chris Holmes-Blackie animosity. Does that strike you as really sad too?

RILEY: It is sad because during that time, you really become close although friendships are really fleeting in this business. Your friends with people as long as youíre playing with them, and then you arenít friends with them anymore. That happens quite often because so many bands donít make it as long as we did. What begins to happen when youíve been in the business as long as I have been is that you start to protect your privacy. I travel so much with the band and then when weíre writing and recording that when weíre off, I kind of separate a little, but just to get a breather. That came after years of being on the road where even when we got off, we still all hung around together all the time. I definitely put some separation on things now, but when Iím in it, Iím in it a hundred percent.

KNAC.COM: Is it easier for you to also manage all of the other people in your life like friends or girlfriends or wives? I can imagine that can be a harder part of the equation to deal with than the individual personalities in the band are.

RILEY: It is. It is, man. The band is such a fragile thing that when an outside influence comes into the fold, some people get really threatened by it all. I donít know. Being in those situations are always fragile. Of all the bands that Iíve been in, that has happened in all of them. It affects the stuff within the band. It happened big in W.A.S.P. with a couple of the guys, but it also happened in L.A. Guns too. Itís a sad pattern, but itís there.

KNAC.COM: From your point of view, do you think Blackie gets a disproportionate amount of blame in the media? Do you think the perception of him being difficult is an accurate one or a fair one?

RILEY: Well, heís a really good guy. I dig him. I just got done touring with him again last year. We had a good time together. The thing is, I think he catches a lot of flak because Wasp came out of the chutes so strong, and people really liked that first four guys the first couple of years, so when he disbanded that, I think it affected them. There was really no need to do that either though because we were riding high after The Last Command. There was no need for Randy to get fired or for me to get fired and Chris to get fired. There was no reason. We were a strong, strong band. We were blowing people off the stage. Not just with the show--but with the music. We were just blaring and blowing people out. I donít know if some people ever got over that because they really liked Chris. They really liked the band.

KNAC.COM: When you saw Chris in the pool during The Metal Years, what emotions did that stir in you?

RILEY: It was sad. He was just in a spiral because the last couple of years he was in W.A.S.P, he was just miserable not being treated well and things like that. He also had his own problems with the drinking and everything else too. Thatís what a lot of it was too. The biggest problem was his drinking. Regardless of how much everyone loved Wild Chris Holmes--heís still one of my best friends--the drinking was the big problem. We all knew that. It was something that needed to be addressed. It was probably the beginning of everything to fall apart and for Blackie to lose faith in him. He felt like he couldnít count on him. We could see it happening though--slowly but surely. His drinking was just off the charts. I was already in L.A. Guns by the time that came out, and I was just so sad watching it.

KNAC.COM: Were you glad to be gone by that time and not there to have a front row seat for the his degeneration?

RILEY: I feel kind of like I did see the end because I feel sort of like all of the W.A.S.P. things are pretty much Blackieís solo projects right now. There have been a lot of people revolving in there. I think that in my mind it was already coming to an end at the end of í87, and then I got fired and was lucky to end up in L.A. Guns. I was kind of glad I wasnít there for that because it got pretty ugly out there.

KNAC.COM: When you do get fired in a case like thatóI know you said you toured with Blackie just last yearówhat is your over/under period on the period of time that has to elapse so that you no longer feel like screaming at them?

RILEY: Yeah, it was awhile. I hadnít seen Blackie from í87Ö.well, until last year. It was about 18 or 19 years. The thing was, I had made up in my mind that when I saw him that I wasnít gonna be mad anymore. I landed on my feet, and he landed on his feet. There is no animosity, you know, we went around the world causing havoc together. When I saw him, we hugged. It was just really good to see each other.

KNAC.COM: Was it a lot easier for you to come to that point though given that you ended up in such a successful situation afterwards?

RILEY: Absolutely, when I first got into L.A. Guns, the first half of the scene was starting to slow down just a little bit, but then because of this new scene that was coming out with LA Guns, Guns ní Roses, Faster Pussycat and Jetboy. I didnít know anything about that because I was so busy with W.A.S.P that I couldnít tell Guns ní Roses from L.A. Guns. At the time, they were just local bands. When I got into LA Guns and it started taking off and started hitting stride, I was thankful. There is so much luck involved in this business. That was luck because those guys were big fans of W.A.S.P., so when I was out of that band, they sought me outÖit was cool.

KNAC.COM: What was it like to experience the mainstream success that a song like ďBallad of JayneĒ brings?

RILEY: Itís just really cool, bro, because you never think youíll get any kind of a song played that much. You really feel like you have accomplished something, and youíre very proud of it. You really canít believe it when it first happens.

KNAC.COM: Is there a part of you that wished the LA scene hadnít exploded into such a big cultural phenomenon so that maybe it could have lasted another four or five years?

RILEY: Well, it was just so big and everyone was making so much dough. It was just a really good time. It would be hard for me to say that I wished it was any other way. I heard Rikki Rachtman say something on one of those VH-1 specials recently that if you werenít there, you wouldnít understand it. It was unrealówhat would happen on Sunset Blvd. just couldnít be explained unless you were there. It was just that big and that spectacular. I was really lucky to have been part of it during the whole entire time.

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