With their epic new single, L.A. Guns launch their iconic brand of street smart glam into outer space
L.A. Guns singer Phil Lewis is amused as he describes how the band’s new song, “Let You Down,” came about after the current COVID-19 pandemic forced the band to cancel all their shows.
“We’re so bored!” he says with a laugh. “We’re a touring band. We play 100 shows a year, easily. We don’t know what else to do with ourselves.” Their solution? “Let’s put a single out!”
But “Let You Down,” released on May 6, isn’t just some slapdash song. It might even be argued that it’s one of the best singles in L.A. Guns’ history. Starting with a sparse guitar part, the song builds with haunting atmospherics into an epic power ballad. For the vocals, Lewis veers between languid, intimate murmurs and unrestrained howls, exuding damaged romance and danger.
“It’s a beautiful song; it really is. I consider it like sonic art. It’s immersive. I was real excited about putting it out,” Lewis says. “I think when people see L.A. Guns have released a song, they’re expecting it to be a balls-out rocker. Singles tend to be that. [Instead], it’s a 6-minute soundscape. I think it’s refreshing, myself.”
Lewis can pinpoint exactly what inspired the band to create this type of track. “I’m really big into spacey guitar rock at the moment,” he says. “The meandering pieces that sometimes can go on for hours. I’ve been telling Tracii [Guns, lead guitarist] how much I liked it and that I think he’d do a really, really good one. I felt like the opening notes sequence is very space rock-ish.”
Writing “Let You Down” may have come easily, but actually recording it required quite a bit of work and discipline. The pandemic prevented Lewis from recording his vocals in an actual recording studio, so instead, he built a full-fledged vocal booth under the stairs in his home in Las Vegas, then recorded his vocals on his own before sending them off to be placed into the final track.
The end result sounds as powerful as anything Lewis has ever recorded, with his voice sounding as strong as ever. He says he’s been careful to make sure that this is the case.
“You’ve got to take care of yourself. Not blow yourself out after a show,” he says. “Just relax and calm down quietly. Especially if you’ve got to do it the next four or five nights in a row. Of course, it’s really hard, because after the show you’ve got the adrenaline and everybody wants to hang out and have fun and party. I have to step back sometimes.”
Lewis admits he wasn’t always this responsible. “On those first tours [in the late ‘80s], I didn’t know what I was doing. I mean, I blew it out at first, let me tell you!” he says. “But it’s a horrible feeling when you’re responsible for the entire production not going anywhere because you fucked your voice up and you’re going to need two or three days for it to recover. It costs a lot of money sitting around not doing anything. Just a couple of those was enough to teach me not to fuck around.”
L.A. Guns went on to earn a reputation for being particularly hardworking band, and Lewis credits his longtime bandmate for keeping them on track. “Tracii’s got a lot to do with that. He’s a workaholic. He does not stop. He’s always working on ideas, working on songs, recording tracks. He’s very, very motivated. I’m inspired by that.
“I’ve recorded with other musicians and it’s fun,” Lewis continues. “But nothing gets me nervous, gets my palms sweaty, like working with Tracii, because he just doesn’t mess around. It’s a little nerve-wracking but obviously it works.”
Lewis recalls that the two of them clicked right from the day they met. In the early ‘80s, Lewis had begun his singing career in his native London, gaining notice for his work with various bands (including Girl, which also featured future Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen). Meanwhile, L.A. Guns had formed in Los Angeles in 1983, but by 1997 they were looking for a new singer and invited Lewis to audition.
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“I was really, really interested because the L.A. scene had just started bubbling,” Lewis says. “So I flew out and met the guys. The next day, we were in the rehearsal room and going to knock out some songs. Everyone’s plugging in and tuning. As a singer, there’s really not much for me to do: I just go up to the microphone and make sure that it’s on, the usual ‘check, check, one, two.’ Which I did. And Tracii looked up and he goes, ‘That’s it, you’ll do, you’ve got the gig!’ And that was it! I hadn’t sung a note. It was funny.”
Lewis says that he was later told the decision to hire him had actually been made before he’d even arrived in L.A., thanks to the reputation he’d already built in England. “Anyone who had that kind of confidence in me, well, I was inspired by that.”
Even though he was thrilled to get the job, Lewis recalls that his initial expectations were relatively low. “I thought with a bit of luck, I might have a year in Los Angeles. And it would be a fun year.” It quickly became apparent that things were going to turn out much better than that, though. When L.A. Guns put out their 1988 self-titled debut album, “it sold 10,000 copies in the first day, and it just snowballed from there.” L.A. Guns went on to achieve gold record status (500,000 million sales).
Still, Lewis recalls that even this impressive debut didn’t really seem like quite enough at the time. “Back then it was no big deal, because our contemporaries like Bon Jovi and Cinderella and Poison, they were selling a hundred times more than we were. They’re all multi-platinum acts.
“We were groomed for that. We were going to be one of those multi-platinum acts like Def Leppard or Cinderella. And we were on this steady trajectory with the label, we were on a roll: the first record came out, it went gold. Second one came out, it did very well.” This is an understatement: that second album, Cocked & Loaded (1989), also achieved gold record status, and featured several major hits, including “The Ballad of Jayne,” “Never Enough,” and “Rip and Tear,” which all remain fan favorites to this day.
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Lewis recalls the band’s optimism as they released their next album, Hollywood Vampires, in 1991: “Okay so, the third one is going the big one, this is the one that’s going to take us out of gold territory and put us into platinum.” But unfortunately for L.A. Guns and their metal peers, “That was just about the time the whole bubble burst.”
That’s because Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” also came out in 1991, and it ushered in the grunge era that effectively steamrolled the entire existing music scene. For several years, other kinds of rock music weren’t deemed acceptable anymore – least of all the glam-adjacent metal bands like L.A. Guns.
Lewis stills sounds rather stressed as he recalls that time. “The whole hair scene went tits up in what seemed like a month. We were in a little bit of shock. It’s like, ‘No – it’s all over.’ [Hollywood Vampires] came out with a bit of a fizzle, really. That was pretty much the end of it.”
After that, “I did throw in the towel. I did retire. I quit the business,” Lewis says. “I had a kid and I got a real job – a good one, and I was good at it.” Difficult as it may be to imagine Phil Lewis doing a “regular” job, he clearly has happy memories of it, even if it wasn’t the same as his original rock star plan. “I was an audio editor for Fox Sports channel,” he says, “They were really, really good to me. They took me under their wing. I enjoyed it.”
But around 1999, Lewis says his former bandmates began talking about reuniting. He was initially reluctant to re-enter the music business, though. “I was like, ‘Are you sure? Really? I’ve got a proper job here and I’ve put it all behind me.’ I remember going, ‘All right, I’ll give up my nice job and see how long it lasts.’” As with the first time he joined L.A. Guns, Lewis believed his time in the band might last “maybe two years at the most.”
Fortunately, Lewis was shown once again that he should’ve been more optimistic. “That was 20 years ago and I’ve been a working musician since. I guess that’s what I’m supposed to be!” he says. True, in the past two decades, the band has had had its ups and downs – at one point, there were two versions of L.A. Guns, one led by Lewis, the other by Tracii Guns – but the members reconciled in 2016 and have been together ever since, releasing two albums (2017’s The Missing Peace and 2019’s The Devil You Know). Lewis confirms that they’re also working on another album now, though he says that there isn’t an official title for it yet.
The band have also toured relentlessly in recent years, but Lewis is adamant that this isn’t some nostalgia trip for the band and their fans. “I know we came out a hundred years ago in the ‘80s and that hair metal scene – we were a big part of that. But that’s not all,” he says. “We’ve definitely evolved. We’re not going out there and just playing “Never Enough” and “The Ballad of Jayne.” Of course, we are doing [those songs]; it’s what is expected of us. But we’re doing something else, as well. And it seems that our following are happy with that mixture. It’s good when you put in something new and they gobble it up.”
L.A. Guns fans may appreciate their new work, but Lewis also knows that they’d be disappointed if the ’80s hits don’t get played at their shows – and he’s fine with that. “I don’t get bored because of the caliber of the musicianship in this band. They’re just such incredible players. It’s always inspiring.”
As Lewis talks about playing with his bandmates, it seems clear that any past tensions are behind them. “So many bands, they’re locked in and they’ve got the concrete boots on staring straight out, and they may as well be a solo act – there’s no interaction between each band member. That’s just not us. We look at each other a lot, we smile at each other, we make eye contact on stage.”
Given that tight connection to each other, it’s a shame that the band members must be apart as they work on their next album. But Lewis is confident that it’ll turn out fine, given how working remotely went while creating “Let You Down.” “I’m looking forward to going back in the studio with the guys. But I don’t have to now. I feel we’ve got it all sorted out. If [“Let You Down”] is the first thing we can do out the gate, pthen obviously we’re doing it right.” Given their successful triumphs over many adversities – and continuing success – it’s clear that L.A. Guns are doing many things right.
VIDEO: L.A. Guns “Let You Down”