Lillian Axe and Angel guitarist Steve Blaze talks the latest on Axe, Angel and working with Robbin Crosby
2012 has worked out to be a pretty good year for Steve Blaze and his band Lillian Axe. They saw the release of their latest album, “IX The Days Before Tomorrow”, a seriously solid collection of music that reflects not only their penchant for melody and songs but also Blaze’s own ridiculous guitar skills and crunch. Lillian Axe spent the summer getting exposure on the America Rocks Tour and are now supporting the album with a European tour running through September before heading back home to Louisiana to do a festival at the end of the month. They then play Firefest in the U.K. in October so they are busy. New vocalist Brian Jones is fitting in seamlessly with the guys, handling the cuts from Lillian Axe’s catalog like “Show A Little Love” and “Dream of A Lifetime” as well as any of the new material and the fans are getting a chance to see an energized band touring behind a new album they are very proud of. I recently caught up with Steve and talked about everything going on with his band, his old friends Robbin Crosby and Jani Lane and even a little about his filling in for Punky Meadows as guitarist in one of my (and his) all time favorite bands ANGEL. Read on…..
LRI: Hi Steve. Your new album has been out for a while now and it’s great but I still chuckle when I see some of the people who are talking about the band in 1989 terms. Some of the tweets you get are pretty funny. It’s a Lillian Axe album but it’s a 2012 album.
Steve Blaze: (laughs). It’s okay, I get it. That’s how some people are and when you get lumped into a stereotype of an “80s” band or a “hair band” it can be tough to break out of that sometimes you know. When we were in our twenties we had songs that were a little more on the lighter side lyrically or that had a lighter edge but then again, at that point girls and relationships were what we were going through back then. We also had a side to us, even then, that was a bit more introspective or thought provoking. As you change and grow up as a person you find different things that are effecting you and moving you to create, that’s just human nature. We develop musically but to be honest, it’s all still rock. We still play a lot of those early songs people wanna hear and it goes over great. It goes over as good as ever, maybe a little harder and heavier but true to the spirit of the original tunes for sure. At the same time, why would we want to just duplicate the same music or inspirations we had 20 years ago, that seems forced when bands do that. The people who tweet and say “Hey, this doesn’t sound like “Love and War” probably haven’t listened to anything we’ve done since the first one or two albums really. There’s been a whole lot of living and a whole lot of music since then.
LRI: I know there have been a few lineup changes over those years, namely with your vocalists but how stable has the core of the band been as of late?
Steve: This lineup has been very stable, we have a new singer in Brian and I’m the original member but the rest of this band has been together for years and years. Brian is our third singer in 24 years, which is a long, long time in the grand scheme of things. Most marriages don’t last a third of that time. Every rock band worth it’s weight has been through some changes and it’s just a part of life. What you have to do is just pick up and move on with a replacement that fits the chemistry so it’s as flawless a transition as possible. If you really think about it this last ten years has probably been about the most stable of any of the Lillian Axe lineups. Things aren’t always easy but the essence of the band remains intact. I started the band and have stayed throughout and while I don’t think it would go anywhere without me it has always been about the music and the songs first and foremost and not about any particular member, myself included.
LRI: The songs and all of the band’s performances are great but your personal contribution has never sounded better in my recollection. I’m no guitar buff by any means but I love tasty playing. That was one of the things that drew me in to a song like “Show a Little Love” years ago and that aspect and tunefulness is still there in spades. Is it tough to create more and more complicated and engrossing material and still keep some of those simplicities that made us all like your guitar playing to begin with?
Steve: Well, thank you first of all. That’s something that’s always on my mind. There’s been times where people ask me to do solo records or just do a whole guitar centered record and just solo, solo, solo and that’s not where my head is or what my writing is about. I learned that and was influenced in a huge way by Brian May. You play to fit the song. If the song calls for a long solo or a passage feels right for all of the speed and technique that all of the guitar players like than so be it but if it doesn’t it just doesn’t. If it requires that than you better believe it will be there but there’s songs that just don’t need all that or whatever. I’m all about the song and the lasting impression of whether my notes fit that piece not whether or not I’m being featured on great guitar solos. I do enjoy playing more than anything and a lot of our music does involve that emotional, living, electric guitar and I am more than happy to oblige as long as the song and the band comes first. I try to make sure that every solo I do could almost be songs themselves and that when they come there’s melody and fire and passion to them rather than just rote exercises of speed or technique.
LRI: When I talked with Bruce Kulick he said he was almost always going for that lead vocal or lead fill spot where the solo sings in that space of the song.
Steve: Yeah, it’s almost like the solo, the guitar solo, fills in the space of the lead singer when he’s not singing on that part of the track. It needs to be that melodic and that memorable because you’re introducing a new instrument that takes up that lead section. That really is the point of “lead guitar”. Those melodies need to be memorable and hooky and be able to stand on their own. On a ballad, I want those melodies and those notes to scream and cry and really convey whatever emotion the song is calling for. There’s a lot involved in it and the players I really enjoy are the ones that have that kind of approach.
LRI: Speaking of vocals Brian really has a powerful but clean voice and can handle a lot of different emotional ranges. One song on “The Days Before Tomorrow” that really stands out to me is “Take The Bullet”. How did that song come together?
Steve: It’s funny you noticed Brian’s performance on that one because that’s the very first song that he recorded for the album. It was almost his trial by fire or “test” song before he was even in the band. We wanted to see how he would react to that tune which was also the very first song written from the new crop of material for our album. That song is dedicated to our armed forces and all of our troops. I’ve been lucky enough to have formed friendships with a lot of the good people who serve and I say lucky enough because they are really fantastic and amazing people. They are the real heroes and stars. The situations over in Afghanistan are difficult and dangerous and a lot of people don’t see them or adulate them the same way they view other people like musicians onstage performing which is insane. We are willing to donate guitars, music, anything we can to make life easier for the people who do so much for everyone else. There’s so much going on over there and it’s been going on for so long that so much of what happens gets pushed aside and forgotten but the soldiers are still sacrificing for every single one of us. Other things that aren’t really as newsworthy get passed along as news and the least anyone in any form of a public eye can do is to at the very least bring some attention to the situation.
LRI: The new album is so much different that I will admit I looked up some of your Youtube clips to see how Brian handled the old stuff and was very pleasantly surprised. Are the fans coming out to hear the old stuff just as important to you?
Steve: Of course, that’s the thing about Brian, he’s very diverse and he can do the old stuff very close to the sound of the original recordings but still bring something original to the proceedings. It’s worked out very well. I understand that the people coming to see us are going to hold those original Lillian Axe albums near and dear to their heart. All we’re asking is for them to listen to the new material based on what it is rather than what it’s not. Just give it a chance and judge on it’s own merits in 2012 no matter how much you love the old school stuff. The people we’ve talked to that have been willing to do that have loved ” The Days Before Tomorrow”, it’s a great record. We’re not the only band that’s made a great record but we have made a great record(laughs). I’m not saying it for any other reason other than the fact that I am really, truly happy with it. For me, a lot of it has to do not only with the songs but with Sylvia Massey’s mix and production. It just sounds better than anything we’ve ever done sonically.
LRI: You were a young guy when you started this band and you managed to get a record deal and make some waves despite being from your own little scene there in New Orleans. I talk to so many bands that came up at the same time in L.A. What was that scene like and was it an exciting time for you personally?
Steve: Oh yeah, there were tons of clubs and tons of rock bands in the New Orleans scene, it wasn’t just us by any stretch. You could play a venue every day in Louisiana for a month and not get through all of them. Zebra had been out a couple years before us and really paved the way for a lot of live musicians in that area, they were a great band. We started playing a little heavier, more hard rock stuff and we sort of started a little path there with that style of music. It was a great time.
LRI: For the uninitiated or the new fans, how did you happen upon the name Lillian Axe?
Steve: I saw the movie CREEPSHOW in the theater and there was a scene where a creepy old bridesmaid skeleton was floating in this little boy’s window and I just thought it was awesome. I can remember leaving the movie and the street corner I was on and the name “Lillian” just popped into my name, it sounded like a senile old lady. I was on my way to our singer’s house and I just said “Lillian Axe” and it just clicked.
LRI: You’ve played lots of shows with Alice Cooper and he’s a friend of yours. Was Alice Cooper an influence at that point on you or your train of thought?
Steve: Alice has been an influence on me since I was about ten years old! “School’s Out” was the first record I ever bought and he’s the reason I went from playing classical flamenco guitar to wanting to be a rock star. I was a big horror movie fan too so to me Alice was just it. He was and is a big influence on me.
LRI: You were on MCA at the same time as Alice was back in the 80s correct?
Steve: Yeah, we used to share MCA horror stories out on the road. They didn’t really treat Alice very well either, in fact, he told us one time that the president of MCA told him he didn’t ever wanna see him again (laughs). That made me feel a little bit better about our own troubles with MCA. There were a lot of bands that got screwed over and under-promoted by MCA at that time.
LRI: Music Cemetery of America?
Steve: (laughs) Yeah, pretty much. I have to look at those years in retrospect as a huge learning experience and something that for whatever reason we had to go through, I guess it was God’s plan to put me through that. Hopefully, it’s made me stronger, I know it’s made me wiser.
LRI: In some respects the fact that Lillian Axe remained at cult status rather than a massive band allowed you to continue and persist or linger in the consciousness without ever falling from grace or having your sales go from being a huge band to a flop. Sometimes that can cast a big shadow that these arena level bands can’t live up to while you’ve been allowed you to just steadily build a fan base.
Steve: Exactly. That’s exactly right, that’s the great side to it all and the positive side to it as well. We never received that massive mainstream success that would have embedded us in people’s minds and bound us to a certain time frame. We’ve just continued making records over the years and keeping old fans and turning on new ones. There is nothing wrong with having great success but some bands have managed to respond to that success better than others. It’s sometimes a hard thing for bands to go through which is a shame because look, not everything you’re going to release is going to make a big splash, that kind of success doesn’t happen all the time and to expect a band that once sold a lot to always live up to those expectations can be a pretty unfair and unrealistic expectation.
LRI: You’ve worked with another couple of people near and dear to my heart in Robbin Crosby and Jani Lane, who experienced that type of success but are sadly no longer with us, both because of their own inner demons. What do you take away from something like that Steve?
Steve: What I take away from it is that it doesn’t really matter what level of popularity you attain at the end of the day. It’s not really what’s most important because you can achieve massive fame and if your soul isn’t right or your spirit isn’t right you will never be happy. You can’t be happy with just those things. You can be happy with that kind of adulation and success but you can’t rely on that to make you happy. Those guys weren’t happy man. Robbin was SUCH a great guy too, very humble, very sweet but I just know that he was always insecure. He was insecure about almost everything, he was insecure about being a big guy. I said to him “Robbin, man you’re livin the dream, enjoy it man” but he just never could, he was just unhappy and not comfortable in his own skin. The last time I saw Jani it was bad. We did a few shows with him when he was doing his solo thing and it scared me. He just stared right through me as if he didn’t even recognize me. He looked at me for like ten minutes and he was just so unhappy and everything in the dressing room and I felt so bad for him. I could see it coming. Jani called me in the middle of the night one night trying to score and I was just blown away like “Dude, you know I don’t do that kind of thing, let’s go hit up Ihop for some pancakes or something and hang out” and he was like “Alright man, sorry, I’ll see you tomorrow” or whatever. The fact is it’s just a shame, it’s a shame, both of those guys were great talents and deep down inside really great guys but that type of thing happens. All you can just do is pray for them and pray for their souls and for anybody that you see struggling with that type of addiction because you never know what’s going to be the next tiny incident that’s going to trigger a catastrophe like that. Both of those guys were fighting with the insecurity that everybody fights with. I don’t care if you’re Gene Simmons or the guy at the gas station, we all battle with insecurity and wanting to be loved and respected.
LRI: It’s a rough place no matter who you are.
Steve: It is. That’s one of the problems I have with the general public and society in general. When you go on Yahoo News and read about someone or even Blabbermouth it’s just all negativity and ugliness. Ugly things being said about people’s hard times or health problems or even people’s hard, hard work. It affects people, are you really going to say it doesn’t affect you? I’m one of those guys where I will get a hundred positive comments and I will notice and really think about the one crappy one. It happens, it happens to everyone. People don’t realize, at least you’d think they don’t realize they pain and harm they cause just by vocalizing their thoughts or opening their mouths. That’s what the song “Lava on My Tongue” is about from this album. There is power in speech and words and it’s important to be mindful of your anger and the negative energy you can put out there with it.
LRI: Bobby Blotzer told us that he spoke to Robbin who said that he literally felt like he was being chased by a demon or the devil and that he wanted to get away but just couldn’t. Bobby also said the saddest thing was that Robbin was probably the most level headed, normal guy of the bunch. When you worked with him on your self-titled debut was he starting to show some warning signs that he was in over his head?
Steve: He was starting to show some signs. This was around the time of the “Reach For The Sky” record for them and that was the last record he was really involved in if I remember right. You could start to sense a bit of a downward decline around that time. He never did anything in front of us because he respected the fact that we didn’t do that stuff but I was good friends with Robbin and could kind of tell that he was doing something when he wasn’t around us. When he was around us he was very normal and together and very professional. I remember I ran into him before he passed and it was very sad. He looked like Grizzly Adams and I gave him a little bit of money and I remember him saying “If Jon Ster’s not working out, I wanna come play guitar for the band” I told him “Well, everything’s fine now but if something comes up of course but why don’t you get something started and do something on your own or start your own band or something?” I think at that point he was just battling with far too many other demons. The whole time I knew the guy and we worked with him he was just such a sweetheart, he would always take us out to eat and never let us pay for food or want for anything. He just had a huge heart and was one of the really good guys in the industry.
LRI: There is NO way I am ending this interview without talking to you about your time in one of my favorite bands ANGEL. You filled the massive white boots for Punky Meadows when Frank and Barry resurrected the band and you played masterfully. I was wondering… were you were a big fan of the guys growing up?
Steve: Well thank you for saying that. Yeah, I was also a huge fan of the guys. I had all of their albums, on vinyl. First I bought “On Earth As It Is In Heaven” and was just blown away and then I went out and got “Helluva Band” and then the first album which, at that time, was just really, really hard to find for some reason. I had every record on vinyl from there on and was just a huge, huge fan and then Gordon G.G Gebert was interviewing me for one of his books or something and happened to mention Angel and that they were looking for a new guitar player because another guy they had wasn’t working out. He was playing keyboards for them for a while and said “Man, you should come up and audition” so I did and the rest is history from there.
LRI: Despite Angel never being a massive, massive band the fanbase is incredibly loyal and hardcore. Punky Meadows was and will always be a guitar hero no matter how reclusive and private he is now. What did it honestly feel like playing those songs and stepping into the white shirt and hearing the intro heading onstage?
Steve: At first. We thought, “You know what? We’re just going to wear all black”….(laughs). Then we did this show in St. Louis and they wanted us to do more of the traditional Angel “all white” show and we kind of went “Ok, that’s fine, whatever” because to us it’s really not about the costumes as much as it’s about the music. I’ve gotta tell you it takes a certain amount of balls to go out onstage wearing all white in front of a paying, drinking crowd on a Saturday night but we did it as of course the guys did all those years ago. I’ve got nothing but respect for Punky. I’ve always loved his playing and his style and his vibrato and so stepping in for him was GREAT for me. I play most of his solos exactly as they were on the album, I might add my own style on some of the riffing parts but I really try to stay true to his form on the solos because they’re so good. I did it to pay homage to him because I’m such a fan but I also said to myself that I would put my own stamp on the playing where its allowed and when it feels right.
LRI: I’ve never talked to Barry or Gregg or Punky but I have had really in-depth conversations about the band with Frank and Felix who were just amazing guys. It is cool that the albums have been reissued but it is so frustrating being a fan of the band when what we really wanna see is a little more touring or new music. I go to shows wearing my ANGEL shirt and people just freak out so there is obviously something of a demand or interest there. What is the roadblock to getting the music back out there and giving the fans what they want?
Steve: Frank and I have conversations about that all the time, I’ve been telling him for years that we need to get the name and the music and the band back out there but the whole business end of this “music business” is what’s so difficult and challenging. Musically, the guys are as good as ever, honestly, we go back and forth on what the best way to go about it is or what the next best move is.
LRI: I think the demand is there for a series of big shows that are strategically planned and filmed for a DVD. We want a DVD. It is a damn shame that all the bands in the universe have DVDs and live show packages but all we have from Angel are the old Casablanca promo clips, as awesome as they are.
Steve: DVD’s are tricky though. They cost a lot of money if they’re done right, you have to not only get the video but the audio just right. You have to have the right venue, the right crowd. I mean, had we shot that show in St.Louis professionally that would have been close to the right circumstances. Things have to be just right.
LRI: You’re busy with Lillian Axe and Frank has his own business and a band with Oz from Stryper out in Las Vegas called Vinyl Tattoo. Do you think it’s important to Frank to keep singing and playing for the sheer enjoyment of it or does he just have a really strong work ethic?
Steve: Both. That’s one of the reasons Frank and I get along so well. I am probably even more of a perfectionist but I think that’s something we share, he cares about his craft. We are both very motivated individuals who would rather pick up and do something rather than sitting around waiting for someone else to do it for us.
LRI: If the stars lined up and Gregg, Felix, Frank and Barry were all on the same page, even for one show only but Punky was still a holdout would you be willing to step out and be a part of such a thing?
Steve: Well, it all depends on how Frank would feel about it but yeah, absolutely. If Punky is not with them then I am the guitar player in ANGEL so yeah I’d do it. If they could somehow get Punky to do it that would be wonderful and I’d be the first one out there to be checking it out, for sure. I’m always telling Frank that I wouldn’t consider Angel a dead issue. Let’s test the waters and get out there, do a new record and pump some life into it. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t, it’s a great band and the guys are still capable of great music.
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