LA Guns - Tracii Guns talks about the band’s incredible new album Checkered Past - Winter 2021
Iconic hard rockers LA Guns have announced the release of their new studio album Chequered Past. Written and recorded while the world was still in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic, the new studio album sees guitarist Tracii Guns, vocalist Phil Lewis and company continuing the darker lyrical tone of the proceedings studio albums The Devil You know and The Missing Piece whilst incorporating their classic rock influences into the mix. Interestingly, fans will see that the track listing is divided up into sets or sweets were sonic style is explored across multiple songs before moving onto the next, making for a remarkable listening experience. And it’s on a warm Los Angeles day that we catch up with Tracii to talk about how Checkered Past came together. Of course, we are met with the warmest of welcomes and we see Tracii proudly wearing a T-shirt that simply says BEST DAD EVER. Throughout lockdown he has become a dad again - a son called Ole - and it’s so heartwarming to see Tracii brimming with pride! We make ourselves comfortable and our conversation begins…
It’s an enormously exciting time with the imminent release of LA Guns’ new album Checkered Past. What sort of thoughts are going through your mind at album release time?
It’s funny because I’m thinking more about the show that we’re playing that night on release day. You don’t really have much control over what happens when you release a record these days. You hope that people are aware of it. That’s the thing, I think I did my job – I think the record is top notch, it’s for every LA Guns fan, it should be right up their alley so I’m more concerned about being extremely nervous about playing guitar after two years. I’ve had a baby that’s fully talking now since the last time I played. So much has happened. But yeah, February 2020 and a month later we were locked down in Denmark and it never ended, it just kept going. So I just started writing and recording and raising a child. It was strange but a great time!
Absolutely! It’s crazy to think it’s been that long. But it’s fantastic that you’ve become a dad! You’re obviously someone who is used to being away from home but becoming a dad again, the timing was perfect in the sense that it allowed you to be at home.
I remember when I had my first son, who’s thirteen now, and I just had to take the time off. I had to save up all my pennies and say ‘okay, now for six months I have to be home’. This time I really was forced into it. We had touring plans and recording plans and travel plans with the baby and all these things. But we really got lucky in the sense that we were able to put our nest together and be with him every day. But looking back, it was still psychologically strange. I mean, although I was certainly busy and we were busy inside the house, I was living in a new country, no idea when we could go back to the States, no idea what the future was other than this little baby and so for that reason there were times I was melancholy. Something doesn’t feel well in the world, something’s rotten in Denmark as they say.
Before we come onto some of the specific songs, I’d like to ask you about the writing and recording of the album, because of course this all took place during lockdown. Clearly everything was done remotely but tell me about your experience of creating an album in this environment.
Well, luckily, I had been recording my own albums and working with people on my own recordings since 2011. So, the last three or four albums - like the last LA Guns album, I did an album with a band called Sunbomb - all those records I had written and demoed up on a laptop in advance. So, the thing we’re talking on right now [the laptops – Ed] was where I actually recorded all my guitars and I would send files to drummers, have them play and have them email me back. So I was very used to the process. When this went down it was like calling individual people and saying, ‘look, we have to finish this record. We have to start this record then finish this record and there’s a good chance that I’m never going to see any of you during this process’. When I was younger that would have never worked because we used to go into a rehearsal space, and I would have music arrangements like on a cassette but with nothing complete and nothing done. But with technology today, I pretty much complete the arrangements and all of the recording of the guitars and things like that before Phil [Lewis, vocals – Ed] even gets the music, before he gets to start writing lyrics and stuff. He writes with a guy named Mitch Davis who’s in New York and Phil lives in Las Vegas. So normally, like on the past two records, they would get together, and Phil would ultimately fly to New York and record his vocals with Mitch in Mitch’s studio, which is a really nice studio with all the things that we need to do things properly. Well, this time Phil had to build a vocal booth in his house to do it properly and so he, Mitch Davis and Adam Hamilton, who ended up playing drums and mixing things on the album, they remotely helped Phil build a vocal studio in his house to make sure that it was of the highest quality, that Phil had all the right equipment and that he knew how to use the recording software. Phil had to really take a crash course before he even sang one note! And that was probably the thing that took the longest in the process of completing the record: number one – getting Phil a studio together and number two – getting the lyrics finished and in rough form so I could hear them and so we could throw ideas back and forth. Then he would have to spend days doing rough go throughs, singing, which is typical but not normally days. Normally you kind of have your act together, going to the studio and you run through it ten or twenty times and the vocals are done. But in this case, Phil had no instant feedback other than texting the odd, ‘hey, listen to this, what do you think?’. So that was definitely a process but because we weren’t in the same room, like four or five people, there was no urgency. Nobody was getting frustrated. Nobody would say ‘hey, let’s try this, let’s do that’, all these ideas and no ‘by the way I’m hungry’, or ‘I’ve got to leave for an hour’, you know all that crap that happens. We took our time, and it was relatively smooth. Johnny recorded his bass and so did Ace. They recorded their stuff with our friend, Sam Bam Koltun who’s a really great guitarist but he’s also a great engineer. So the team is really set up to do this sort of thing. SoI didn’t have any stress and that’s nice!
That must be really nice when you say no urgency, no frustration, it’s nice to hear that there were some really positive experiences. It’s really interesting to hear about Phil having that real learning experience too on top of his day job.
Imagine the Stones down in South of France, this makeshift studio and everybody’s running around and having a great time and making an album and all of a sudden they say ‘Mick, you have to stay in your hotel room and make your own vocal booth to finish a record’. You know, that’s basically this scenario. It could have turned out bad, and when I say bad, I mean bad in relation to our label as they have deadlines. They have to put the titles with their distributors well in advance and if a record is not delivered in time for that date, then it’s a really big clerical nightmare for the distributors, all the streaming services, the artists and the mastering guys. It got towards October 1st 2020, and the label contacted me and said, ‘hey, your turn in date is November 1st’ and I said ‘well, that’s not going to happen, we’re just not prepared’. There was a little friction there but they pushed it back to March. So, with that said we really did have things together and earlier in the year we had already released a first single. We realised where the pandemic was concerned ‘well this isn’t gonna go away, let’s put out a single now and get people excited during this horrible time’. It never went away! The pandemic just kept going. So from releasing that first song to turning in the record was ten to eleven months. It took time and I took my time.
It’s great to hear some of the positives of recording in this way but there have of course been some drawbacks resulting from need to record the album remotely in that you weren’t able to include Scot Coogan because he didn’t have the technology or set-up to record drums remotely, and all the studios were closed. Shane Fitzgibbon who played on The Missing Peace and The Devil You Know has done an incredible job, but was it hard to make the decision not to include Scot?
That’s what we were really facing. We knew Adam was going to engineer drums, whether it was Coogan or himself, but Adam has a daughter who’s very immune compromised and he couldn’t take any chances having anybody going in and that, so it was a real bummer for everyone. On the flip side, Adam did a great job so that’s just one of the casualties of the pandemic definitely.
Your hands were tied here but it must have been a hard decision to make not to include Scot?
It was the only decision and the only thing hard about it was talking to Scot saying ‘hey, it’s not possible’, and he was disappointed, but he still did the videos and stuff. He’s still excited about the music and everything like that. But, yes, it was a hard decision and now Scot’s not even in the band. He’s a great guy, a great musician and a great vocalist. He has all these great qualities and I played with him for years. We moved forwards and we do we’ve got to do.
You’ve mentioned Adam Hamilton and I think we’ve got to take our hats off to Adam who co-produced and compiled the record. To be able to pull together contributions from all band members who worked on their parts in Denmark, New York and Las Vegas, and to put all those pieces perfectly in to place to create an album that absolutely sounds like you’re all in the same room together is incredible. You must be delighted with the results?
Incredible! We have secret weapons in this band. Mitch Davis is a secret weapon and Adam Hamilton is a secret weapon. These guys are such top experts at what they do. I can’t see us having the success, and when I say success, I mean being able to put out records of this calibre, that’s the success. It’s being able to say ‘wow, listen to that record, listen to what we all did together’ and those two guys… Adam playing drums, I mean he used to be the bass player in LA Guns - that’s the crazy thing! And he played drums on the original Brides of Destruction demo, and he engineered that. That was in 2002 or something. We just have such a great working relationship and I think that also has to do with the success of the outcome. We really know what we like when it comes to LA Guns. We know what textures need to be there, for Phil to deliver his emotion and that’s what it comes down too. For me it’s like ‘okay, I’ll write in this style this or I’ll write in that style but does it highlight Phil’s emotion? Is it going to be in an uncomfortable key? Are these changes comfortable for what Phil does? Is it gonna sound like LA Guns?’. To have guys like Mitch and Adam there saying ‘yes, we can do this’ or maybe ‘that’s not such a great idea’ or ‘let’s stay this way or that way’, it’s just like being in a scientific laboratory to create music where there is so much experience in the decision making that we’re able to put out stuff and we’re able to put out stuff that sounds fresh but still has a timeless thing about it. Nobody’s going for any trends here. I mean, I’m fifty-five years old for Christ’s sake – it’s too late for trends so we just try to be great!
Let’s move onto the music because what you done with this album is something quite unique and massively inspiring in the sense that you’ve created a record that presents groupings of different sonic styles. We’re given hard-rock chunky riffs with tracks like Cannonball, there’s a Stones-y vibe to tracks like Knock Me Down, Living Right Now is a track that The Sex Pistols should have written and Let You Down has the most beautifully emotive ambience. This all makes for a wholly immersive listening experience and it seems like a band passionate about continuing to push boundaries and to move forward. Where did the inspiration come from to take this approach and how important is it for you to show the versatility of LA Guns?
For me, the bands that I grew up on were versatile: Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, even Smashing Pumpkins to a degree. Let’s look at Whole Lotta Love: it’s such a big impact, heavy song. But when you listen to Led Zeppelin II or Who’ Next [The 5th album from The Who in 1971 - Ed], and other bands from that time, they had big popular songs that hooked you into the record. You’d listen to the record and it’s like a whole experience. Like you said, it’s immersive. You immerse yourself in the imagery and the audio. So it’s not just about the songs with classic rock music, it’s about it attaching to that time in your life. It’s about connecting emotionally with the listener and then being able to relate to the song. So, it’s a very old way of thinking but then we talk about the diversity and styles and inspirations and things like that. I wrote everything while I was in Denmark and we have two homes in Denmark. We have one on the west coast and one on the east coast in Jutland. On the west coast when I was writing, we have this little black guest house next to our summer house with my wife’s family and it’s so ‘yo ho ho ho’ right on the North Sea, the wind and rain blowing. A lot of those summer houses are painted a black tar and they have thatched rooves and things like that. It has this real Hobbit, Viking feeling, like you’re in a surreal movie. That allowed the things that are really beautiful and dark and melancholy and things like that. But the more upbeat rock stuff was written at our apartment on the east coast. I had like a sunroof over my work area where the clouds passed by and the sun would beam through. That apartment, we were on the roof of an ancient building where we lived at the time. And it gave me that real ‘being in the sky’ kind of feeling. You know yourself being in England that the weather’s fast. In that space, it was me and my wife and my kid. That was a small apartment and I’m writing, and you know my kid was three months, four months, five months old, screaming and yelling and you’re going through all that. So those are the only two environments I really worked in when writing, and it was interesting because I’d write and record something on the west coast and then I do solos on the east coast where there was a more Tolkien vibe (laughs!). And then there were things that I recorded here when I finally came back and it was more clinical here in LA. The studio is here and because I have a proper studio, there’s room, the space, there’s experimenting that can happen. So it was a big project. A lot of things and elements and moods and conversations went into getting this music finalised.
I absolutely understand that the music is a massive reflection of the different environments you were in. Let’s pick up now on your latest single Get Along which is currently my favourite track of the whole album. Such a wonderful Zeppelin-esque acoustic track which builds to provide the most gorgeously melodic guitar solo. All I wanted to do was pick up a guitar and join in. But what’s wonderful is that it’s already had nearly 150,000 views on You Tube and the praise the track is receiving from your fans is outstanding: “Wow, this is exactly what I want to hear”, “Absolutely fantastic”, “Yet another amazing song”, “Love it, love it, love it!” and “This just blows me away!”. How does it make you feel to hear such comments?
Well, it’s frustrating in a way because like you said you wanted to play guitar right when you heard it because it’s really inviting, it’s like a warm jacket that song, it’s comforting. It’s ‘hygge’ – that’s a Danish word for that kind of feeling. When Phil first got the mix back of that song, he called me right away and asked me to show him how to play it on guitar. It’s always been frustrating being in LA Guns because I know the calibre of music, I know the calibre of the emotional response from people that are subjected to our music, and it only gets better through time which I feel is unique too. We really put effort into creating from record to record a new experience by some old friends; that’s the way I look at it. It’s like we’re entertainment directors and we don’t want to take you to the same island every time, right? So yeah, this all started when we put Let You Down out a year and a half ago with people really just feeling it. That’s the best way to describe it, that they become part of the music. The frustrating part is that we come from a time where there were lots of bands and we were friends with a lot of bands and there were certain successes and failures along the way. Yet here we are over thirty years later and, I feel like we’re smashing apart the stereotypes and anyone that’s paying attention realises it too. The frustrating part is that the only people not paying attention to this music is the music business. I would never take away from anyone else’s art, but our art is very valid and it’s very people friendly and I’m very proud of the music we make. I love our fans and they’ve really taken us up a few levels in the past five, six years. They’ve really put us on a new plateau and it’s nice. I don’t compete with small time stuff, I compete with the best of the best and I know what we do is the best of the best so it would be nice for a real radio station to play one of our songs someday. It would be awesome!
I’d like to move on to LA Guns in a live setting. Before we talk about your forthcoming shows I just wanted to take a moment to reflect on the amazing Cocked & Loaded live album released earlier this year. At a time when no bands were touring you released this record but it was so much more than a album of live tracks – it was a full concert experience, for example, between songs we have dialogue with the audience and the opportunity is taken to introduce every member of the band. For me it was very much like being invited by the band to come to an LA Guns show. Was it a conscious thing to create a full concert experience in this album?
It was. That was our second of two live streams during the pandemic and in the second one, we were allowed to have fifty people in the venue. It was a one thousand seat venue, and we could have fifty people at tables, and we really wanted it to come across like we were in everyone’s living room playing Cocked & Loaded because we were streaming. Phil, he’s talking to the people that were there – thank God there were people there in the room – to get any kind of response that really helped him to be authentic and not just shouting out into space. But the real clincher was when Adam got the tracks first and he goes ‘let me listen to these before you get the tracks’ and I’m like ‘okay, you get them first’ and he put it together in a presentation for me and snippets of certain parts and he was just so enthusiastic about it. I was excited to hear what we’d done, and he sent me all the stuff. I’m like ‘send me the album, let me listen’ and I was surprised at how well we played and how authentic it was because it’s nerve-wracking playing on a live stream, in kind of a big empty room. You don’t know what people are doing. Are they eating MacDonalds on their couch watching? (Laughs!) You think about all these things and then the label gets a hold of it, and we talked about how we aren’t able to put out a studio album. That makes no sense as we can’t go out and support it. Why don’t we give the people something to do at home? Some music, something that our fans are already listening to but now they have a live version and it’s more of a souvenir from a time. Like ‘that’s the live record they put out during the pandemic’ and so all those kinds of discussions happen. It’s a reason for reaching your audience and a reason to keep in touch and a reason to let them know that all is not doomed and all of these different emotions that people have gone through in the last two years.
The great news for fans is that you have some live dates on the horizon in the United States starting with an album release show at Indio in California November 12 and you end the year with a New Year’s Eve show at the Whiskey A Go Go. How much are you looking forward to the shows?
I’m really looking forward to them! Number one, I want to play and number two, I’m curious to see how the chemistry is going to be after not playing. We start rehearsals tomorrow and we have three full rehearsals, so I guess I’ll find out then, but it feels like completely new territory - even though I’ve done these things a thousand times or more and I think that’s the exciting part. It’s like ‘Aarggh! What are we doing?! We’re adults!” but we’re going to go and do it and it’s going to be fun and people are gonna have a great time. They’re gonna hear songs that they grew up on and they’re gonna hear the stuff that they’re enjoying now. That’s toughest part of playing live now: Las Vegas says you don’t play more than eighty minutes, that’s a rule. You don’t play more than eighty minutes because people get bored and fidgety and it’s true because I couldn’t sit though a concert that lasted much longer than an hour. So I try to look at the catalogue of music that we have, and you have to try to fit all that music in together somehow and keep it just over an hour. So that means I cut a lot of the noodling and jamming out and we get to the songs and it’s interesting, it’s always interesting.
Are you more nervous for these shows than you have been? Like you said, you have done this a thousand times but has the time away from the stage created a nervousness or is it simply excitement?
No there is a bit of mystery there. Stamina in LA Guns is important. We’re a pretty high energy band so I had to set the pace in a way where we could get a little bit of oxygen breaks here and there, to catch our breath. But it’s a mystery and it’s a good nervous energy. These are the kinds of chemicals in our body that make us perform. Well, I was talking to Ace yesterday and he goes ‘I’m just putting it out there, I’m a little nervous about the shows’ and to make him feel a little better I go ‘I’m as nervous as hell, dude – I’m scared shitless!’ and I think that kind of family environment we have in the band is very healthy and makes it fun and we don’t ever go through the motions that’s for sure. Yeah, were gonna go do it, were gonna have a great time and then it’s off to next year I suppose.
What is the LA Guns calendar looking like for early next year? Are you planning more shows?
We are doing a cruise in February, the Monsters of Rock Cruise which is so fun. You do three shows basically while you’re on the cruise. You play three different venues and it’ll be my son’s second birthday and he is gonna go on the cruise and Alice Cooper is gonna take a picture with him. So, it’s like a vacation where you get to play your music. So that’s cool! But then we aren’t doing anything till June/July. There’s a tour coming together, sort of a bigger thing and then we’ll do the same kind of thing again at the end of the year that we’re doing right now. We always do a couple shows in Vegas, a Whisky on New Years and anything else. But it’s a different time, not because of the pandemic, we have stuff to do – we’re adults. We don’t want to live on a tour bus for half the year, every year. We all have families and things like that, so we are gonna try from now on to make the most from the touring that we do and just have a good time with it. So, there won’t be a lot of sludging through the little towns and on weekdays, trying to get from big place to big place. Its just a decision we had to make.
As our conversation comes to a close we reflect on what an incredible album Chequered Past really is and also how it was possible to produce an album so diverse yet cohesive in such difficult times. But the most important thing that we take away from today’s interview is the importance of family and how the most precious commodity in life is in fact time. Tracii has every right to wear his T-shirt incredibly proudly because there’s perhaps nothing more ‘rock’ them being a great dad.
To find out more head over to www.lagunsmusic.com and in the meantime check out the video to Get Along below.