Over the course of his four-decade career, drummer Steve Riley has toured with STEPPENWOLF, anchored the classic lineup of W.A.S.P. and recorded for notable producers Todd Rundgren (the self-titled 1976 debut by ROADMASTER) and Gene Simmons (KEEL's 1985 album "The Right To Rock"). He's best known, however, for his being the longest-tenured member of L.A. GUNS, a group he joined shortly before the release of their 1988 self-titled debut. (While he is pictured on the album, he did not actually perform on it.) Although the band has famously featured more than 50 members in its ranks through the years, with the exception of a two-year period in the early 1990s, Riley was the sole constant from 1987 until the end of 2016, when the group that he and vocalist Phil Lewis managed to keep alive for nearly 15 years without founding guitarist Tracii Guns (who quit the band in 2002, on the eve of the release of their acclaimed album "Waking The Dead") dissolved. Since then, Lewis and Guns — who, after years of acrimony, buried the hatchet in 2016 — have forged ahead as L.A. GUNS while Riley focused on other projects.
Recently, the M3 Rock Festival — one of the largest annual '80s rock-themed events in America, if not the world — announced its 2019 lineup, and alongside the likes of WHITESNAKE, SKID ROW and Vince Neil was a familiar name: L.A. GUNS. It soon became clear, though, that the band who takes the stage that day won't include Guns or Lewis, as the show will mark the first — and, as of now, the only — appearance of a group anchored by Riley, who still owns half of the L.A. GUNS name, and bassist Kelly Nickels, who played on the band's first four albums.
According to Riley, he never had any interest in starting a second version of L.A. GUNS, especially after the group featured two competing incarnations — one featuring him and Lewis, the other featuring Tracii — from 2006 to 2012. As he recently told BLABBERMOUTH.NET, though, when M3 invited him and Nickels to perform, he jumped at the opportunity to celebrate the legacy of a band to whom he dedicated nearly half of his life. (Editor's note: this is the fourth of a multi-part interview.)
When you and Kelly perform at M3, there will be two members of the classic L.A. GUNS lineup on stage, which is more than you can say about some other acts on the bill.
Steve: "The last real good studio album that we did as the original members, 'Hollywood Vampires', that came out [more than] 25 years ago, so people have to realize, we are true classic rock right now. The songs that we created and the name of the band [are] very important to a lot of people. They want to hear those songs, and they want to know it's with that band. [Now,] we're getting into that area where our music is going to rule over our membership. It's going to be the songs that live on. I had a little bit of trepidation doing the M3 show with alumni that weren't original members, but I was going to do it and maybe do it as a one-off because [M3 promoter] Eric Baker really wanted us to come, and he was thinking it would be great and [that I could] maybe get Jizzy Pearl and Stacey Blades. If that happened, it was going to probably end up being a definite one-off — just do it and go party down there and blast out. But with Kelly Nickels aboard with me right now, that gives me a lot more of a better feeling. If I was to do or even consider any other festival-type shows, that I would be doing it with Kelly, and he's totally into it."
After your M3 appearance was announced, Tracii posted a number of disparaging comments.
Steve: "Those guys said some stuff on the Internet about our playing, and it's so sophomoric and ridiculous. I don't know if I would ever really put down a former band member, whether it was L.A. GUNS, W.A.S.P., STEPPENWOLF, THE B'ZZ, KEEL, anybody. I would never say one of those players from that band was not a good player, because why would I play with him? Why would I record, why would I try to write songs with him? They're acting like a couple of high school kids, and they're on the internet all the time telling these little jabs. It's funny to us, but in a way, it's like, 'Wow, these guys are sad to be stooping this low and saying some of this stuff.' It's really insane."
You mentioned in another recent interview that Phil had insulted Kelly. Do you think Kelly agreed to perform with you at M3 because he had a chip on his shoulder?
Steve: "The last album that we did, [2012's] 'Hollywood Forever', we flew Kelly out from New York to sing backgrounds and play bass on one of the songs. We were just going to hang with him, and while he was out there, he indicated to both me and Phil [that] he's ready to come back — he wants to come back and start playing. I was really into it, and I said, 'We should consider this, Phil. He really wants to do it, and he's one of the OGs.' Phil was just totally against it — he didn't want to do it. But Kelly indicated that he wanted to get back to playing; he wanted to come back to L.A. GUNS. Phil bashed him on the Internet, but I don't think that had any [effect on his decision]. He wanted to come back before that, but I think that sure, when you read something like that and you get bashed on the Internet for no reason, you're, like, 'Wow, forget this guy. I don't really care what he thinks about what I'm going to do.' That's where he's at — it's like, 'Forget it. If he's going go that low and, just like a high school guy, write all this stuff on the Internet...' He said something about our playing, and it makes us laugh, that I can't play and Kelly never could play. It's like, really? We're the rhythm section that played on all of the [classic] records. We're the ones that co-wrote the songs and played the rhythms. We powered all of the L.A. GUNS stuff. We know what we can do. We don't have to get in a pissing war on the Internet and go back and forth with them."
Initially, it seemed as if vocalist Jacob Bunton (LYNAM, ADLER) would join you at M3. What happened?
Steve: "This thing happened, like, two months ago. I talked to Kelly and Scotty [Griffin] and made sure that if I did this, the band would be great — we would sound great together, the three of us. Jacob was somebody I talked to on the phone. We saw a YouTube video of him, and I asked him if he would like to come down. Kelly was going to come out here for the holidays, and [we asked Jacob], 'Would you like to come down? We'll check it out and see.' That never materialized. I guess he does a lot of movie scoring and he's in the studio a lot, and he just told me that he's busy. I understand — I told him, 'I totally get it if this is something you can't do.' We never rehearsed with him. He sounded like a great guy on the phone, [but] we never really got to first base with him and got into a studio to play. It was just me talking on the phone and then him telling me that he was really going to be tied up in the studio."
Do you currently have any singers in mind?
Steve: "We want somebody that can really sing good. The songs demand somebody that sings good anyways. We've got, like, about three or four people, and the holidays kind of stalled it a little bit, but we're going to probably find the guy within the next three, four weeks and then let everybody know who it is. It could be somebody who's established. It could also be somebody who's just been digging it for a long time and not getting anywhere and [has] the whole package but for some reason... It could really be either way, but we're open to both. We're going to have fun with this, but we're going to get somebody who can really sing great."
Even though Phil was with you for most of your 30 years in L.A. GUNS, you played with a number of different vocalists during the time that he wasn't in the band.
Steve: "It was a really weird period, because it was three successive years in a row that we did 'American Hardcore' with Chris Van Dahl, and then we did the ['Wasted'] EP with Ralph Saenz, and then we did the ['Shrinking Violet'] album with Jizzy."
You also worked with Joe Lesté (BANG TANGO, BEAUTIFUL CREATURES) around that time, right?
Steve: "He's an old friend. He came down — we were looking for a singer and he came down and jammed with us. He knew it and we knew it too — he could do a lot of stuff, but he just wasn't right for this at that moment. Jizzy happened to be there in the studio doing his own thing and we hooked up, and that's how Jizzy got in the band, because Ralph said he wanted to leave and go back to do [VAN HALEN tribute band] ATOMIC PUNKS."
The classic L.A. GUNS lineup was a quintet, but for most of the years you were in the band, the group was a quartet. Do you have a preference between the two?
Steve: "It kind of changed [along] the way. A lot of the lead singers from the '80s started playing rhythm guitar, and a lot of them started strapping guitars on and they were playing. Phil was one of those people, so when Phil started playing, we realized — because everybody's on a tight budget with this whole rock thing anyways — if you have four members, it's much easier to maintain a budget. That's when it changed, really, was when we knew that he could play guitar. Really, most singers can play guitar now, so it's kind of a different scene right now."
Photo credit: Cole Riley