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 first of a multi-part interview.)
Q: Let's start in 2015, when Phil and Tracii began to make amends. How did you find out, and how did it make you feel?
Steve: "We were right in the middle of a year-long [run] of dates. [Phil] told me he was talking with [Tracii]. It's funny — it's two guys that don't like each other. I'm the guy that knows this — I played with them both, separately and together. I think most of the fans know that, because they bashed each other. Then it led to [Phil] saying, 'I'm going to do some shows with him.' When he told me that, it was a little bit of shock and disappointment. I knew that what I was going to do was just make a sprint to the finish line, which was New Year's Eve 2016, because that's what we were booked up to. The deal was, we had M3 booked [in 2016], and we had to cancel because they were going to do a show [together]. That's when it became real — when Phil said, 'Pull that show. I can't do it.' The M3 people are really, really good friends of me and the band, and they've been so good to us and had us so many years on both the big stage and the second stage. They just treated us great, and each time we played, they gave us more money. It was a very nice deal, and it's one of the premier shows, so when I had to cancel that, I knew it was real. It was disappointment, but what are you going to do? I've been through every kind of soap opera with the band anyways up to that point."
Q: After Phil had a few shows with Tracii under his belt, did you have any further conversations with him about the future?
Steve: "He came right to me and said, 'I'm going to try to do these shows with him, but be prepared — I don't know how long it's going to [last].' This is how much they don't like each other. Right up to that point, he still came to me and said, 'I don't know how long I'm going to be able to deal with Tracii.' It was kind of a moneygrab, and they went for it. I didn't sit down with him after he said he was going to do shows with him, [but] I knew, right then, that I was just going to try to get through [our existing commitments]. We had a number of shows, including a European tour booked. [I was] just trying to get through them and do the best we can, and make a sprint to the finish line and get back to L.A. It was tense, because he had gone to the press and announced that he was going to do these dates right in the middle of our tour, so for the last five or six months of our touring, I had to answer question after question about what I thought about it. I thought that he could have waited a little bit longer, but they jumped right into it, and it was another bad, impulsive move that those guys make."
Q: What was the vibe like in late 2016 as Phil and guitarist Michael Grant went back and forth doing double-duty with Tracii's lineup and with yours?
Steve: "It was really just a disappointment, because Phil and I had gotten Michael and [bassist] Kenny Kweens, and we knew we sounded and looked really good. It was a really cohesive unit — one of the best that we've made after the original [lineup]. We felt good about that lineup, and we had a lot of great dates booked. It was definitely tense. It was nothing where we were yelling at each other or anything; we just knew that this form of the band was going to end. We were just going to finish these dates. I thought we had something nice going — we had a nice agency booking us all over the world, and it was going great."
Q: Was the 2016 New Year's Eve show that L.A. GUNS played at the Whisky A Go Go the last time you saw Phil?
Steve: "That's the very last time, yes. We did a great show that night. Everybody dug in, and we just did what we had to do. It was sort of really getting through the show and just making sure that we didn't deliver a shitty show. I was proud of that — that we went out really sounding good. That was pretty much it. We came back to L.A., and I kind of disconnected from touring and anything like that.
"I was the one constant in L.A. GUNS. I'm the one guy that was [there] through all of it, with just Tracii alone [referring to the period of 1995-1999, when Lewis wasn't in the band], or with just Phil alone, or with both of them. I always did the business of the band. I didn't take a break for, like, 30 years. I was just nonstop keeping the band going, no matter what I had to do just to keep us working and recording and making things happen. By that point, if [Phil's] going do dates with Tracii, then I'm going to take a break and I'm not going to even do anything musically. I'm going to come back to L.A., and I got immersed in some stuff that I wasn't able to do all those years. I just didn't have any time, because I was doing the business for L.A. GUNS too. To take the break, it was much needed, but I don't know if I would have taken it on my own if it didn't happen the way it did."
Q: That said, what have you been up to for the past two years?
Steve: "As soon as [Phil] said that he was going to do dates with Tracii, I had to start thinking outside of the box, because I knew when I came to New Year's Eve and came back to L.A., I wanted to be prepped on what was going to happen. I have a songwriting partner in Chicago, Tommy Holland. We did a couple of things together — he was in STEPPENWOLF with me, and he did the B'ZZ album with me, so we have a long history. We've written a lot of songs — a good 25, 30 songs that were never released, but they're really good songs. They range from, like, a bit of hard rock to sort of mellow rock, and it's a real accessible kind of music. I really was always wanting to place these songs, so in 2016, a screenwriter friend of mine told me he was doing this goth-horror movie, and he wanted me to submit some songs, and I did. Short story was that they just loved the songs — they're going to use three of the songs in the movie, and out of nowhere, they asked me to do a screen test for one of the parts for the movie. I said, 'Okay, I'll do it.' I got it, and the next thing I knew, I was flying to New Orleans because they were doing it on location, and I'm shooting this movie. I've got two nice scenes in it, but I placed the songs in that, and then I started working also on a documentary about the '90s singers that have all died. I've got that all put together. It's sort of like a pet project, and it's ready to be pitched. It's a nice documentary about all of the singers that we lost in the '90s, and how that generation lost their voice. I was going to do a book on it, and then these people that I met out here [in L.A.] said, 'No, it will make a great doc,' and I put a great doc together with interviews and everything. I [also] did this half-hour thing with Vice on 'Munchies [Guide To Hollywood]', and now, me and Kelly are getting ready to pitch a half-hour show with Vice right now and with Amazon, so we've been working on stuff. This [M3] gig that came up that's caused so much commotion, it came out of nowhere."
Photo credit: Cole Riley