There was a golden era in rock...exemplified by glitzy glamour, edgy songs, catchy guitar riffs and eyeliner melting in the hot sun.. It was the 1980's and the LA glam metal scene was cutting its teeth on the Sunset Strip and turning out sleaze rock and no one did it better than LA Guns. Formed by Tracii Guns in 1983 it would be five years before the public would experience what is now known as the classic era and line-up of the band.
After a myriad of changes in members, LA Guns recorded their first album and released it in 1988 on Vertigo Records. Spawning such memorable singles like 'One More Reason' and 'Sex Action', their debut went gold and was the precursor to what is perhaps considered their seminal release 'Cocked And Loaded', and if there was ever an apropos name for an album this was it.
'Cocked And Loaded' charted higher on the Billboard 200 than their first album and it contained the smash radio and video hits 'Never Enough' and 'The Ballad Of Jayne' which skyrocketed the album straight to gold and eventually platinum status and put the band right in the cross hairs of the burgeoning LA rock scene. Noted as the commercial peak of LA Guns' career, it was also one of the influential releases that forged an entire musical genre...the look, the feel and the gritty nature of the band earmarked the musical landscape at the time and earned a permanent spot in the annals of the LA scene of rock and roll.
Recently, I had the chance to talk with Tracii Guns, the renaissance man of rock, in LA as he was preparing for the next round of tours and support for the just released deluxe reissue of 'Shrinking Violet'. Tracii is busier than ever. His clip is full, the safety is off and the next musical adventure is within his sight.
Good Afternoon Tracii...how are things shaking in LA?
Oh it's great, it's been so cold here for months, then all of a sudden it got really hot here..
Well, since I am calling you from the South, you should make a trip down here as we are in a heat wave!
Yeah really! I love the South and I grew up here, so I am used to it being hot ...so I'm enjoying it!
So enough about the weather, (laughing)...let's talk about how Tracii Guns got to be, well...Tracii Guns! There is an enormous amount of bio info out there about you but not a lot about how you started in the business from the get go. You started LA Guns in 1983 and haven't stopped since - can you give us a bit of a look back into how you got into the LA scene to begin with?
Well, I've been playing guitar my whole life, actually since I was six years old.. that was when I started taking it seriously. As I was living in LA, by the time I was in my early teens I was doing studio work - my family had friends in the rock and roll business....no one really big or anything but I was working really young and you know I have been really fortunate , the LA scene kinda came to me...I was in a band in high school and junior high school...and my high school band eventually turned into LA Guns when I was 16 or 17. I always worked with a lot of people and becoming a part of the LA scene was just a natural progression, because that's where you played. Places like the Troubador, The Roxy and The Whiskey and you meet everybody. It was great and really healthy and everybody was into rock because rock was really progressing, it was turning into..kind of like going from Journey and Aerosmith and Black Sabbath into a more refined heavy kind of melodic rock.
I always liked the kind of dirtier stuff. When I was 12 years old, that's when punk rock started happening. That was when the Sex Pistols started coming out - there was a big Huntington Beach scene here with The Germs and The Weirdos and all of these bands and I really liked Devo as much as I liked Ozzy and the Scorpions, and I kind of liked everything. But what I didn't like was the stuff that was over produced. I didn't like certain things...like REO Speedwagon and Journey that I just felt would have been better off had they left it a little less slick. So when I started having to write songs, and got a record deal when I was 20 with Polygram, I really didn't want to jump on with everyone else...because at the time more than Motley Crue and Ratt..bands like Bon Jovi were starting, again the more melodic stuff was starting to happen again but I really wanted to stay clear of that really big power sound.
I really dug what David Lee Roth was doing then with Steve Vai. I started thinking, wow a cross between that band, early Motley Crue and the NY Dolls would be so cool! And that was after Guns N' Roses.....with Guns N' Roses we went for a real heavy Aerosmith sound...but when I got back to LA Guns it was more about trying to incorporate a real street kinda dirty image with some catchy tunes...without leaving out the fact that people like really good songs; they don't just like shredding guitar and big drums..that's what musicians like! There was a lot of chemistry going into it based on what I had learned through the years...
Speaking of which, you have had a 20+ year career in what is a very tough business.
Yeah, it sure is.
So, with that knowledge ...you were still groundbreaking in the LA scene and many bands are resurging if you will that look and feel.. What advice would you give to someone trying to do it now?
That's how a lot of bands start...real good bands start as kids playing together and they usually pick a couple of bands they model themselves after and it's really healthy you know because in becoming a star, well, that's what musicians like to do, so you imitate your favorite stars and you believe you are them and by believing you are them and yet you are still doing your own thing. You are a star because if you believe you are a star and you really have what it takes to do it, then other people are going to view you that way too..and you don't have to be a prick or egotistical you know..it's the people that really believe in themselves and are really critical of what they do and what other people do and they just wanna be cool and long lasting ..they are the ones that rise. They wanna be good at what they do. Really define at an early age what you love because that's when you are really absorbing music. For me my writing was the most focused at that time.
So tell us about the re-release of 'Shrinking Violet'? What prompted that?
Sure! 'Shrinking Violet' was originally done in 1999 - the first time Jizzy Pearl was with LA Guns, we did it with a friend of mine, Tom Mathers with the label Perris Records. What we wanted to do was to have some new music to go with us on tour with Poison, and Poison hadn't played for a long time and it was a big tour..all outdoor arenas, etc between 5,000 to 15,000 people a night. And we thought it would be a great way to make some money out there because we didn't make a lot of money on that tour. We wanted to have stuff to sell beside t-shirts and we also wanted people to take Jizzy home with LA Guns musically.
So we did that but we never released it and we didn't put it through any distribution channels at all. We did mail order and a few Mom and Pop shops that Tom Mathers knew so it wasn't like a real big commercial record at all. There wasn't any advertising or marketing for it. And Jizzy rejoined LA Guns a year ago, and then Dean from Steve Vai's record label Favored Nations contacted me through Facebook saying, "hey we know Jizzy is back in the band, we wanna do a new record with you guys" and I was really into the idea but then as we got talking Dean asked me "Whatever happened with that record you did 10 years ago?" I told him, well it was a small release on a small independent record label and we started talking about that and since I own the masters and it was already done, it was an easy thing to get up on iTunes, get up on their distribution, which is really big - get it worldwide and in the stores and finish off that record and give people a chance to hear it.
People seem to gravitate towards that record because it's kind of a classic rock sounding record..it's timeless - it doesn't really have an 80's or 70's sound, it just kind of does its own thing. So that's why we decided on that and of course we took into consideration that the less money we spent on recording could be used in PR and marketing the record. We're going to do some television and some twisted and weird stuff (chuckling) nothing too twisted and weird you know but we're going to have some parties and have a lot of fun with it!
What still motivates you and keeps you going after more than 20 years?
You know the thing with music, musicians and myths - it's a real volatile combination. When I was a kid the idea was to start your own Led Zeppelin. A band that seemed like they had been around for a 100 years and would be around for another 100 years...four members that are not interchangeable - a big magical thing. I think that's what musicians from the 70's and 80's really envisioned for themselves in a really unrealistic way but that was just the goal for everybody.
But growing up in a musical family, there were country artists, classical, folk artists you know a big combination of music from where I come from and the idea of my family and what I grew up with was to play with as many people as you can to become the best musician you can be. And as a result people will gravitate to you and your progression of music..so it's really important for me to always be doing something outside of LA Guns as well as LA Guns because LA Guns is my baby, that's my vision, I can do whatever I want with it...I can create any sound, have different players, line-ups, experiment but at the same time in order for me 25 years down the line - in order for me to play 'Sex Action' and 'Ballad Of Jayne' over and over again live and still sound fresh is for me to actually get away from those songs for a while and work on other music with other people with other goals in mind.
Some things I do for charity, some for money but I really take the gift I have been given and try to maximize it and try to use it in the most credible way possible, even if I do a tribute record I make sure it's really good..I don't do anything half ass - and I would encourage other musicians not to do that as well. Because no one ever remembers the good stuff they remember the horrible fatalities of people who choke on vomit you know, so it's important to not be shitty at the end of day.
So when you're dealing with very public issues that LA Guns has in the past, how do you rise above that stuff?
Well, you gotta weave a good story especially since this is your life. All of those little frictions and dirty laundry - arguments in public is a part of your legend and your story and it is a part of what humanizes heroes and stars...everyone wants their heroes and stars to have errors and faults and be human because your fans grow with you and they relate with what you go through and they don't feel like they are alienated.....people relate to you being human...and fuck ups are the best way to relate to people because everyone fucks up!
Is there a singular musical moment that you are most proud of?
Honestly there is......there have been a lot of great shows, great recordings but I tell you something when I played with the Brides Of Destruction in England in 2004, you know Nikki Sixx is sooooo instrumental in my development as a musician; when I was 16, 17 years old that's when I got to play 'Shout At The Devil', 'Livewire' and 'One More Reason To Die' and 'Never Enough' and eight songs we had written together...in front of 10,000 people and the crowd was just going nuts. I remember it was like 115 degrees in that tent and we were wearing leather and makeup and stupid hair on stage and playing louder than fucking anything and it was so worth my whole career of 20 years before that point to just do that show, you know what I mean?
I can imagine..it must have been an amazing thrill. Crowds with that much intensity must just skyrocket you when you perform.
It was...and the reviews we got from the show were off the fucking charts and it was one of the most satisfying moments in my life and those are the things that I enjoy doing..as much as I love doing the 70-100 club shows a year and some bigger festivals, it's a great job, I meet a lot of great people and I get to play guitar and I improve constantly.. but it's the big shows where you have created something out of nowhere and all of a sudden it's a spectacle and people really dig it and that's very satisfying. You can't buy a crowd like that..there's only one way to get there and that's by being good enough and to have those people respond in a positive way..you've won...it should satisfy your success meter or whatever you want to call it..happy people become successful. When people who are waiting to be successful to then be happy it never happens.
Ok, it sounds like someone has been reading The Secret?
I have read The Secret ! I did! I do remember learning to wake up being grateful for what you have and to visualize what you want...it was a very good book.
Ok, you have been involved on some level with Guns N' Roses, Contraband, Brides Of Destruction; tell our readers which was the most challenging experience in a good way?
I'll tell you, the Contraband project was really challenging because it was something put together by my manager, Alan Kovac, who started a new label and he managed all of the artists who were on that record. It was outside writers and cover songs so it was like we didn't even get cassettes of the songs before we hit the studio, so it was a matter of just showing up at the studio and just playing, you know what I mean? It was like "whoa, ok hold on, let me listen to the songs a few times!" and umm, none of the artists involved with the record had any input musically, or choice wise I should say, as we all played our instruments the way we play and it was fun and we actually went out and played some shows but it was difficult and challenging because it was during the time of 'Hollywood Vampires' and we had a heavy schedule and we were touring like crazy! And I was flying all over the world to get back to LA to do videos and interviews and record that record and I also met my girlfriend way back then who I am still with now so there was a lot going on in my life at the time. It was a challenge, it was fun and it ended up being a highlight for sure.
LA Guns is often considered one of the bands to really jump start the glam scene, did you and the band have any idea that you were ushering in a new vibe or was it more organic?
You know, I think when Axl was in LA Guns before he did Guns N' Roses that was a defining moment for both of us personally. It was like we were two guys who had a vision, he had grown up with Izzy and I had lived with Izzy for about a year when he joined LA Guns, now Izzy Stradlin was a real visionary in terms of what should be next. What is cool, what is not cool, what is going to last, what is not going to last, and we both we got this kind of education from Izzy's attitude..so at that point Axl and I would talk about not sounding like anyone else but drawing from our influences...but making it our own and if we had a part in a song that sounded like anybody else we would change it immediately! 'Cause we both knew we had what it took to change things and get it sounding as original as possible.
By the time we got into Guns N' Roses, we decided we wanted to be a heavy Aerosmith..we're going to have a funky swagger, with big giant distorted guitars and a higher octave lead vocal..that was ground breaking at that point. Led Zeppelin had a lot of the same qualities but they didn't have a punk rock attitude that we were trying to inject..by the time I got to LA Guns again and got up with Mick Cripps, who was the other guitar player in LA Guns, he was also a real music visionary, wanting to do things over the top and in a campy way and not a cheesy way. Meaning that ok if what is happening right now is a glam, look we have to do something more evil with it. We have to wear more leather and be dirtier and make sure nothing looks store bought and our makeup has to be all over our face and not pretty, you know what I mean?
There was a lot of discussion about doing things that other people were doing but doing it better and different. So umm..there was every intention in my mind since working with Axl of always trying to break the status quo. We could be another Aerosmith or Stones, we could do that but then you're just a copy cat. How do you not be a copy cat? Especially when everything that was cool had almost already been done. So there was always a little bit more thought behind it...you spend an extra ten minutes in writing, an extra ten minutes in a photo shoot so that you don't look like every other rocker who has worked with that photographer..and you present yourself differently and hope that in terms of what you are pioneering that people respect you. It's a lot like the Ramones, they didn't sell the most records in the world but they were pioneering and they really made their mark and everyone knows who they are and that's a good way to be.
Agreed..may not musically be the best in everyone's opinion but they knew how to market themselves.
Right! And you know what is kind of smart and lucky at the same time is Slash. This guy created a character that he lives and breathes that is the most original thing a human being has become - he's almost like a super hero, he's so identifiable....like Superman. Umm, leaps and bounds above his ability as a musician, I mean he's a great musician, but the way he naturally marketed himself was outstanding! And a real commitment, he's made such a commitment to his image that it's just mind boggling and amazing and one of the most clever and cool things that I believe has ever happened to rock..he's like a Little Richard!
Speaking of legends, I noticed that Iggy Pop had some glowing remarks about you on the new cd... tell us about that and who in your career impressed you or was a mentor?
Yeah, Iggy has always been a believer in raw and rough and the diamond in the rough theory. I first met him when we were rehearsing for the 'Cocked And Loaded' tour - we were in the same studio and at that point and time, he asked me to play just after Alice Cooper asked me to play and so I couldn't do it obviously but he was such a genuine cool dirty guy. Jumping ahead a bit, when we started the Brides, that was the one thing Nikki said which was that he wasn't dirty enough personally, and I was like "Nikki, you're the biggest dirtball in the world!" and he was like, "Yeah but you just walk in and look like you're a mess" and I said, "Well that's because I AM a mess!" <laughing> "What are you trying to do?"
But that's the kind of quality Iggy and Keith Richards have, you can put 3 piece suits and $1000.00 fedoras on these guys and they still look so cool....an old soul and if I've achieved 1% of that in my life then that's a real compliment to me and when you have someone like Iggy Pop define you in their own vision in the same way you define that person then it really makes you feel like you're doing something right. He knows how much I appreciate it...it's just a really fucking cool thing to do as a friend.
So, who has been your mentor?
My whole career has been guided by "What would Jimmy Page do?" because he is the whole reason why I got into electric guitar period! And wanting to create a musical path, a magic sound and push myself...I always refer to his catalogue of an encyclopedia of every rock style imaginable but having said that there are two guys that really blew me out of the water and they are completely different.
One is John Frusciante, of the Chili Peppers, I met him right when he joined the Chili Peppers, we were in the same studio which is where I meet most people, he was 18 years old and I was 22 and they were tearing it up and he was on fire! When 'Mother's Milk' came out it was my favorite record and it was all I listened to. He was able to be so dynamic, so funky, so clean, so heavy at his age and had such amazing qualities like Jimmy Page but in a different format.
Around the same time I got into Pantera and saw what Dimebag was doing with metal and he had taken it to a point where it was still really heavy but melodic too, and it was still really nasty without being this, you know, this technically proficient perfection, it was just so over the top. He would take Randy Rhoads and Eddie Van Halen to the extreme ...and I really noticed that, it was an amazing clarifying moment for me. As a musician it doesn't happen enough, and most of the time for me now it's like a local band with a bunch of guys in their 30's and 40's playing GG Allin punked up rock that gets my attention - it just has to be original and they have to be good at what they are doing and I get off on it.
So, what was it like working with Gilby Clarke?
I've known Gilby since I was about 17 or 18 and I always knew he was a great soundman because that's what he used to do. He had built a studio at his house and asked to do a record and for me to trust him and we did it in about a month and 1/2 at his place and it turned out really well and obviously if you have an opportunity to create music with one of your best friends it's a pleasant experience.
A lot of times you're going into the studio with complete strangers and you have a different point of view on what you are trying to achieve and what they are trying to achieve and since Gilby had grown up with Guns N' Roses he knew exactly what it should be like. It was cool to have one of my best friends involved as a producer and engineer...we did it on 16 bit ADAT tapes which are like the worst format ever invented for recording and it turned out great. The live tracks were done by my friend Wex in Texas, he runs a club there called the Dead Horse which is by far my absolute favorite place to play..it has this cool sweaty NY punk vibe to it and the crowds are always great and packed, going out of their minds and we recorded our live album there. So we added those three tracks and we have 11 more and we're not sure what we're going to do with them yet.
Having listened to the cd, the live tracks are amazingly good which doesn't always happen!
I know, you just can't suck...now with Youtube, etc you have to be on top of your game.
What are you listening to?
Kind of the old standards really...a buddy of mine Josh Schultz made a record and played everything on it and it's amazing..I still listen to Elton John and Jimi Hendrix, early Aerosmith the stuff that's better than everything else... Vast is another band constantly on my playlist, Rev. Horton Heat, Turbonegro is another band that pushes the limits and I just really dig them.
Well, Tracii this has been great...do you have any final thoughts or plugs for our readers?
Thanks so much...well, I have this 70's band with Matt Sorum, Frankie Perez, Phil Soussan and we just did a benefit for Music Cares and we raised $30,000 and the band is called Carnival Of Dogs and we're going to be doing a lot of shows this year. It's a pretty spectacular band..we do Cheap Trick, the Stooges, Hendrix and we do it well so be on the lookout for it!
As first published in All Access Magazine www.allaccessmagazine.com