Phil Lewis is the quintessential rock and roll gentleman. The man has exuded charisma and star power dating back to his days in the early eighties rock group GIRL and his distinctive English vocals helped L.A. Guns stand out from the pack of bands rising from the Sunset Strip. L.A. Guns released a great new album this week entitled HOLLYWOOD FOREVER and it expands on the foundation they laid with their last record Tales From The Strip (also produced by legendary Stones/Zeppelin producer Andy Johns). Hollywood Forever is as classic and atmospheric as the world-famous L.A. cemetery it takes its name from and features several soon-to-be-staple L.A. Guns favorites like “You Better Not Love Me” and “Venus Bomb” and really shows the focus and cohesion the band has achieved over the years with the current lineup. I recently caught up with Mr. Lewis who, as always, was more than willing to talk about the current band and even answered a few of my questions about the old catalog. Read on….
Legendary Rock Interviews: How is your California day going today sir?
Phil Lewis: Beautiful, another perfect day in paradise.
LRI: The new album sounds fantastic. We talked to your guitarist Stacey Blades while you were recording it and he told us it was something you were really taking your time with. Is it difficult to take your time working so hard on an album while still playing so many gigs?
Phil: Thank you, I’m glad you like it. It’s been a while since we put something out and the last record was very well received so it was definitely a challenge. We wanted to stick with the sound and be the band we are, there’s no point in us changing to try sounding like something we’re not. It was a fun process, we wrote in all in within January and then we had writer’s boot camp and we all had to bring in like two songs a week and helped out on each other’s songs. After about five weeks we accumulated about twenty songs which we tracked and then started to thin it out a little bit. We got it down to seventeen.
LRI: Stacey was telling us it was fairly easy to come up with material because of the many styles the band covers, did you find that to be true?
Phil: Easy???!!! It might be easy for Stacey but it wasn’t bloody easy for me, I can tell you that John (laughs). We’ve all worked incredible hard on the material we brought in, at times I was working for eight hours on one particular idea. I know it sounds like the same shift as a real job but I’m telling you my legs were starting to buckle under and I was walking funny because I was just sitting there playing guitar for so long. I do agree with what Stacey was saying about the band having diversity, it’s one of the things I do appreciate about L.A. Guns. We manage to be able to cover so many different styles of music for better or for worse. It keeps things interesting for us and interesting for our fans. We spent days just running through sequencing and getting the song order down but it’s turned out great and everyone seems to like it.
LRI: Did your producer Andy Johns bring even more musicality to the proceedings?
Phil: It’s great to be working with somebody who knows what they’re talking about and it’s always nice working with someone who tracked the vocal for “Stairway To Heaven”. His discography is mind-blowing, he’s been doing this for so long and is just such a mine of information and is so interesting. He’s a really funny guy and is also very encouraging. Andy sat me down at the end of this project and said “Listen Phil, I think we made a really good fuckin record”. That’s just such high praise to me and such a good omen for what we’re trying to do. I just stopped and thought about how he didn’t have to say that. He’s worked on such legendary material that we just have to take that as an extreme compliment.
LRI: “You Better Not Love Me” is such an obvious leadoff single and would belong on any hits package from this point forward. Is that another “good girl/bad boy” L.A. Guns classic? Sort of the opposite of “Never Enough”?
Phil: (laughs). It is a bit of a “bad boy” song isn’t it? I’m so bloody sick of “I love you baby, love me honey please” and all of those sappy sort of love songs so that’s a bit of a twist. We’ve got a couple of love songs on the record as well (laughs), believe me, but I thought why not do the opposite with that one . It’s sort of a cheeky sentiment.
LRI: What was the inspiration for the oddly titled “Eel Pie”?
Phil: It’s such a controversial track you know. It’s nonsense. The song itself is sort of a nonsensical song. It’s a silly rhyme that we developed a theme around and it’s a song Scotty (Griffin, bass) and I wrote together. If you’ve ever met Scotty you know that he’s a very funny guy and humor is like paramount in his life. I think quite a bit of Scotty and my humor is embroiled in that particular track.
LRI: I love the song “I Won’t Play”. Who came in with that?
Phil: To be honest, that’s a track that Steve Riley brought in. I think it goes way back, he and a buddy wrote that back in the seventies. He brought that into writer’s boot camp and originally I wanted him to sing it but we just ran out of time. It’s cool and very, very 70s as is a lot of material on the record with the exception of “You Better Not Love Me” which is very vintage 80s sounding. A song like “Queenie” is something I’ve had kicking around in my head for quite a while but just never had lyrics for. It was actually the first song I brought in to the guys for this album. It’s amazing that, under pressure, we all stepped up and did really good. The hardest part, to me, is always writing. It doesn’t matter how good something sounds if it’s a shit song.
WATCH THE OFFICIAL VIDEO FOR “YOU BETTER NOT LOVE ME” ….LINK BELOW
LRI: Was the world-famous “Hollywood Forever” cemetery an influence on not only the cover art but the title track as well?
Phil: Certainly, it was an influence. I’ve done many a photo shoot down there and it’s a great place to go to with an acoustic guitar and sit while working out stuff. The people up there are very cool and the album is sort of loosely based on the cemetery yes. The song “Requiem” on the record is absolutely about the cemetery and some of the legends surrounding it.
LRI: It’s awesome that you and your label Cleopatra have put it out on vinyl. Sounds great, the packaging is amazing and it will probably add up to some additional sales, it’s the only format I will actually pick up.
Phil: Really? I think a lot of people are starting to get that way. I’m really happy about that because it really does sound better, much, much better than CDs or MP3s. Of course, we all like the artwork better too. With the big twelve-inch cover you can really delve into it. We shot three songs for videos as well, “You Better Not Love Me”, “Arana Negra (Black Spider)” and “Requiem”.
LRI: Those old L.A. Guns home videos are so memorable. I remember the one you hosted while piloting and Bruce Dickinson has got nothing on you. Do you still have your pilot’s license?
Phil: I can still fly but my license has lapsed. One of our highlights last year was when a rich friend let us borrow their private jet to get to a gig in the midwest. I presented my credentials to the pilot and he let me fly the bloody thing, it was awesome, I took off, I flew it and landed it and proved I knew what I was doing (laughs).
LRI: Everyone’s aware of your resume as well as Steve’s and what you guys bring to L.A. Guns but I was wondering what you think Stacey and Scott bring to the band?
Phil: First and foremost, youth. They’re ten years younger than Steve and I and are very enthusiastic and hungry which is always nice and on top of it they are incredibly gifted musicians. It’s astounding how good of a guitar player Stacey has become over the years and it’s mind-blowing to hear how good his playing and writing is. Scott’s bass playing is not too shabby either and working with Andy Johns has only made him better because Andy himself is a bass player. He takes that part of the recording process very seriously and definitely got Scotty to sort of step it up rather than just plunking along with the chords. Scotty is really playing proper bass parts so it sounds really symphonic for a small four piece band. We achieved a pretty big sound.
LRI: Listening back to the progression from your old bands GIRL to Torme to even the debut L.A. Guns album in 1988 it is clear how far you’ve come with HOLLYWOOD FOREVER. I was always struck by the genius of how seamlessly you fit into an L.A. band, British accent aside. Was it a difficult transition for a native Brit to fit into the Sunset Strip scene?
Phil: Well, it was a dream come true really because I was practically teleported from that miserable situation in London. I was just about to get the heave-ho from Torme, my whole life was going poorly and I was living with someone I couldn’t stand. My whole situation was just terrible and I got the call to come out to California and audition for the band. I was like “That’s it. I’m not going back”. I was seriously only supposed to be here for two weeks and it turned out to be forever.
LRI: Hollywood Forever (laughs).
Phil: (laughs) Yes, there’s definitely a double meaning there. I was really so delighted to be out of London that coming over here and acting the part of rockstar really wasn’t that much of a challenge to be honest with you (laughs). I was on cloud nine so it was pretty easy.
LRI: You have such an amazingly distinctive voice and accent that it I sort of think it had to be something of a factor in the band’s success.
Phil: Thank you. It’s so funny because I really don’t think about it since I’ve been out here so long. I’ve really become a Hollywood guy through and through and was definitely a big part of that Sunset Strip scene and am eligible so to speak but I just have an English accent.
LRI: The Cheap Trick guys were on the second album, Cocked and Loaded. Do you remember how that came about or what songs they contributed on?
Phil: They were great, first off. They had done some touring with us and really took us under their wing and when they were in town while we were recording it just was so much fun having them down. They helped out tracking background vocals and writing background vocal parts and stuff like that. Really can’t remember which songs in particular.
LRI: Your former guitarist mentioned that one of them was “Sleazy Come Eazy Go”
Phil: Could’ve been, could’ve been though I’m not sure how he’d know since he was never there for any of the backing vocal sections.
LRI: By the time you recorded Hollywood Vampires were there any visible chinks in the armor or were things still pretty good as far as band chemistry?
Phil: Chinks in the armor??? Are you kidding me, Michael James Jackson, the producer and Tracii conspired to kick me out of the band. They called Steve into a meeting. I had some throat issues at the time, I had a sore throat and laryngitis. I was working on a song and recorded a scratch track. I told everyone involved “This is just an idea, I’m not singing full-out” and they took that scratch track and played it for Steve behind my back and said “Phil’s falling apart, we need to replace him” and Tracii wanted to get the guy from Little Caesar in to replace me. I’d say that’s a bit of a dent in the armor wouldn’t you?
LRI: Wow. I had no idea Ron Young was that close to being a member of L.A. Guns….I guess the problems with the old lineup have been going on a lot longer than most people realize.
Phil: The dysfunction and drama goes back a long, long time. It’s not just a recent turn of events with Tracii. It goes way back.
LRI: Viscous Circle was the last album of the original Polydor deal in 1995 and it definitely had its’ moments despite being under-appreciated in general. Did it signal the end of that era as far as you were concerned?
Phil: Yeah, I mean Steve wasn’t in the band anymore. Tracii never showed up to work on the album. He just didn’t. I’m not saying it to be cocky but it was more of a solo project for me than a real band effort. Tracii couldn’t be bothered to work on it, he wasn’t interested. He didn’t write any of it, he didn’t want to. All he did was come in right at the end to put down his solos when no one else was in the studio and we’d come in the next day and just say “Oh, okay, I guess that’s fine.” He’d already decided he had something better to do and just wasn’t into it at all.
LRI: Were you pessimistic about the climate in general for hard rock bands at that time in the mid-90s?
Phil: That had already sunk in after the release of Hollywood Vampires. That was supposed to be our huge, multiplatinum breakthrough album and that didn’t happen. By the time Viscous Circle came out the meter had totally run out for sure.
LRI: Nowadays things are cool between you, Steve, Mick Cripps (ex-guitars) and Kelly Nickels (ex-bassist). How was it having Kelly come down to contribute a bit to HOLLYWOOD FOREVER?
Phil: It was cool, very cool. We’ve got quite a bit of video of the making of the new album and there’s some footage of that. Kelly’s in quite a lot of it actually and jams out with Stacey on a really cool 60s sounding track called “Venus Bomb”. Mick wasn’t able to come down, I kind of get the vibe that music just isn’t really his thing any more and that’s cool. It was cool having Kelly down to the studio and he sometimes pops in for a song or two when we play on the east coast.
LRI: You guys gig on a pretty regular basis, lots of it your own headlining shows. That’s great for the fans but it can be a lot to undertake can’t it?
Phil: It can be yes. Last year we did over a hundred gigs and a lot of traveling and it can be a lot of work but I also think it really contributes to what we’ve done here on this record and helps with our mission in general. It’s grueling but we know we’re a better band as a result of it all. It’s our job and we just bloody well do it (laughs). All the confidence that comes from playing out as a band and doing that work on the road helped the album immensely. The Beatles are a huge inspiration, of course, and in a certain respect it’s kind of like what they did in Hamburg grinding out set after set, night after night. You just keep at it and you write quickly and record while you’re in that touring mode and just capture some of that magic. We will always be a live band and a lot of times that means we’ll be doing it ourselves. There was a point not too long ago that they were scrambling to put us on the Poison/Def Leppard tour but in a lot of ways it was a big relief when I heard we didn’t get it because I knew we’d be playing short sets. To have to play short, really short sets, all summer and not get a chance to show off HOLLYWOOD FOREVER would have been difficult in its own right as compared to going out and doing our own thing. We would have been lucky to play one new song and now we just have the opportunity to really give the fans a full show. Don’t get me wrong, we know those big tours are very popular and very flashy but right now, with a new album to support, it’s probably best we do our own shows. We do our own thing and have a word of mouth following and all our shows are really well-attended these days so it really shouldn’t be a problem. I know we’re playing smaller places but we’re packing them in and I realize I will probably eat these words but I’m just sort of over being the opening band.
LRI: Stacey said that some of your European tours you were literally all losing weight and getting run down playing places with no air conditioning and 100 plus temperatures. My last question to you….as tough as that is, do you ever think “Hey, this beats the hell out of punching a time clock at a factory or a bank?”
Phil: Yes, bloody hell yes. That’s putting it mildly. 120 degrees in a sold-out club in London town is my idea of heaven to be honest with you John. I just love the sound of that and I don’t think of that as work at all. I’m very lucky and I know it because I have had day jobs. I haven’t just flit around from one band to another when L.A. Guns wasn’t active. I took a job in the 90s at a FOX T.V. station editing video and audio and did that for almost four years. It was the usual daily grind and I did it and it was fine or whatever but I do feel really blessed these days to be back in L.A. Guns making music with great guys rather than in a cubicle or a production studio.