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 fifth installment of a multi-part interview.)
Did you ever check out "The Missing Peace"?
Steve: "Honestly, I haven't. I haven't heard anything that they did. I know that they did an album; I know from other people telling me that they're going to do another album; but I haven't heard anything that they did. Because it was such a… the way it ended in 2016, I really, purposely wasn't following them and trying to find out what they were doing or anything like that. I really did disconnect myself from that whole scene and tried to just kind of reinvent myself and do some other stuff, so I wasn't really following them. I had no idea where they were touring or what happened, but I did know that they did an album. I knew about that."
Hypothetically, what do you say if you ever get a call from Phil and Tracii?
Steve: "You know what? The only thing left to do with L.A. GUNS is get the original five members back together. I'm starting my relationship up again with Kelly because he's been off the road for a long time, but we remained really good friends. We were really tight during the old days, me and him, so I'm starting this up with him. Me and him, we come now as a package. It's Nickels and Riley, man — we're a rhythm section, and if I went anywhere, he would come with me. That would be something that I would demand. That's pretty much the only thing left for L.A. GUNS, is for the five original members [to reunite]. But I think the fans are smart enough, and people have watched these two guys bash each other, and not just lightly bash each other — say that one can't sing the songs, never sang the songs right; the other one saying that the guy is just lost. They bashed each others for so many years, and the original guys saw them bash each other when we were the original band from '87 all the way up to '92. We watched those two go at each other, and it was the main reason why the original band broke up and got back together and broke up and got back together — it was because Phil and Tracii don't really like each other. That's why me and Nickels, we're laughing about it, because these guys are with each other, they've got to live with each other, and there's no buffer — there's no Steve there to be a buffer or anybody else. It's like, we'll see how long they go. They're putting up a nice facade that they're getting along and everything's great, so that's cool — more power to them. We're not going to compete with them and do 100 shows. We're just going to do this M3 show and then consider some other festivals if they want us to do them."
You've mentioned that you own half of the L.A. GUNS name. Do you and Tracii have to pay each other a certain percentage of your earnings?
Steve: "We don't ever share what each guy is doing. We just own the name together, and we own the badge together. We did that together as partners, and we were partners when we did that. We were solid, and it was something that he insisted on and I insisted on, and it was just something that we did [because] we had plans to stay together for a long, long time. It didn't happen, but that's how it came about — we were the last two original members standing, and we were the ones that ended up with the name."
Your relationship with Tracii severed when he left L.A. GUNS to focus on BRIDES OF DESTRUCTION.
Steve: "We just did 'Waking The Dead'. Andy Johns produced it; we had the whole Alice Cooper world tour; the label was ready for us — in Europe, they made all of this merchandise and everything; and he tells us at the photo shoot for the record that he's leaving. That photo shoot for 'Waking The Dead' was right after he told us. You know how fortunate it is that I do own half the name, because he thought that we were just going to sit? Phil and I were absolutely not going to do that. He was going to be that type of person and leave, and if he owned the whole name, he would have made us just sit and not do anything, so thank God I owned the name, because Phil got to work for the next 15 years, and I just kept the band going. I kept the band working.
"L.A. GUNS has become it's own soap opera. It has been for a long, long time, and that's why so many members have come in and out of L.A. GUNS. I think that it's become a soap opera mainly because of Phil and Tracii. I think if those guys were really tight from the very beginning, this band would still be the five original guys and we would still be playing and we would still be doing really well and we wouldn't have to do any shitholes. I think that the band could have been a lot bigger."
Since you both own the name, you clearly have the right to use it at M3 — but what do you say to people who think you shouldn't?
Steve: "People have to understand, if there's two original guys that co-wrote and played on everything and [were] in every photo... We were part of the original lineup through the whole thing, and then me, I went on for another 25 years after that in different incarnations, keeping L.A. GUNS going, so the whole thing is, we're proud of our music — we're proud of the legacy of L.A. GUNS and what we did, and we're not afraid to go play our songs. That's exactly what we're going to do. The songs outlive the members, and the songs are what the whole real legacy is about the band.
"We're not going to compete with those guys, [where] they play one club and then we go through there two months later. We're not going to do any small venues or anything in sports bars. We will do M3. These guys have turned it down, they've canceled two years in a row and they've caused a lot of strife over there, when those people have only been cool with us. If they really want me and Kelly to come, and they do, then we're going to go and do it, and we're going to have fun doing it. We talked about it; we said it could be really fun; we know it's going to cause a lot of shit on the Internet, and it did — as soon as they announced that we were going to do it, it went off. But we're cool with it, and we're just going to have fun. We guarantee anybody who comes will have a blast."
Photo credit: Cole Riley