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 third of a multi-part interview.)
How did the M3 invitation come about?
Steve: "I got a call last year from the M3 people. I'm really good friends with the promoters over there, and they treated us great over the years. I had to cancel in 2016 because Phil was going to do a show with Tracii somewhere else, so there's the first cancellation. 201 comes along and I'm working on these projects, not even thinking about touring, bands or anything. The M3 people call me and they say, 'Can you come to M3, and maybe get some old alumni?' I said, 'What happened? They were booked?' I guess they booked, and they canceled really close to the show. [Editor's note: L.A GUNS pulled out of their 2018 M3 appearance three weeks before the event, allegedly due to a disagreement over their allotted time slot.] The promoters called me and said, 'Can you do it?' I told them, 'Thanks for the offer. There's no way I can come in and wipe up their mess like that. It looks kind of desperate too. No, I don't really want to do it.'
"They called me again this year, and they said, 'We want you to come with some old alumni' — pretty much the same pitch. They said, 'We really, really want you to come, Steve. The other guys [referring to the current lineup of L.A. GUNS] don't want to do it.' They have always had problems with bills — being on a bill with people that they didn't think they should be opening for, and they have never understood the dynamics of bills and how people put them together. If you've sold double-platinum and the other person has sold single-platinum, that person's got to go on before that one. It's just an automatic thing. They weren't going to do it this year either, so M3 called me. This is two months ago. Now, two years have gone by since I've been playing out on tour, and they call me and said, 'Can you come?' Again, out of the blue — I couldn't believe it. Eric [Baker], the promoter, he was saying, 'We really want you to come. Maybe you can get [former L.A. GUNS guitarist] Stacey Blades and some old alumni. Just think about it.'
"I sat back, and I called Kelly Nickels. I said, 'Can you believe this? They really want us to come. Do you want to do this?' He said, 'Yes, I want to do it.' When Kelly said yes, that was me saying, 'Okay, then we can do this,' because I've got another original member with me, and we'll take Scotty Griffin, who's been in the band for, like, 13 years. We're going to announce who the singer is in the next month or so. It came out of nowhere. I wasn't looking to take a second L.A. GUNS out. This promoter's coming at me from one of the best festivals two years in a row, saying, 'Will you come down here?' With Nickels, I feel better doing it. He's another original member; he wrote a lot of the songs that we did. I feel good doing it, and right now, it's one show. It's one show that we have booked, [but] it's caused so much shit on the Internet, it's not even funny. I don't get involved with that — I can't get in a pissing war on the Internet with anybody. I can't go back and forth if they say something bad about me, but people tell me — and I don't even read it, really — 'Oh, did you hear about this and that?' I know [Tracii] has been bashing me and Kel on the Internet, and it sucks. It's humorous in a way, but it's really so childish that Kelly and I can't even believe it, some of the stuff that they're saying about us. But it is what it is, and right now, it's just one show. We told the agency that if there were other festivals that came up and they wanted us to come, we would consider it — we would consider the high-end soft-ticket shows, like casinos and fairs. We will never go back to doing small clubs. I know those guys are out doing small clubs, and I did it for years — I did it for decades — and it's hard. It's a really hard life going and doing a place 400 miles outside of Pittsburgh, and it's a small, little place with no equipment. It's a demoralizing thing, and I don't want to do that anymore. If me and Kelly do other shows, they'll have to be high-end shows like festivals and casinos, maybe fairs, where there's a soft-ticket because of a lot of other bands on there. We just want to go have fun and play L.A. GUNS music, and that's how we're going to treat this."
So, just to clarify, you're not using M3 to launch a competing incarnation of L.A. GUNS?
Steve: "If I wanted to do a second L.A. GUNS, legally, I own half the name, so I would have done it immediately in 2017. As soon as [Phil and Tracii] started doing dates [together], I would have said, 'Okay, I'm going to take out a second L.A. GUNS.' It wasn't even in my orbit. I wasn't even thinking along those lines. I was going to do some other stuff that I didn't have a chance to do... For all of 2017 and 2018, I had zero intention of taking a second L.A. GUNS out. It wasn't even something like, 'Maybe I could do...' No. I wasn't even there. I was doing all of this other stuff, really enjoying it too, because I never took a break. When [M3] came up two months ago, that was absolutely the very first time I even thought about it, so it wasn't any grand plan — 'I'm going to take out a second L.A. GUNS, and I'm going to go do 120 shows and try to match these...' No, I'm not going to do that. It was absolutely out of nowhere, left field, not even thinking about it and enjoying what I was doing. I'm still going to enjoy it and do all that stuff I'm doing right now and do this one show. If something else comes out of it, that's cool. We'll consider it. We'll see what it's about."
Even though you and Tracii share the rights to use the L.A. GUNS moniker, did you consider performing at M3 under your own name or as something like COCKED & LOADED?
Steve: "No, I didn't, because M3 specifically wanted me to bring L.A. GUNS there. They know there were so many incarnations of the band over the years with me and Tracii and me and Phil with different players, that they knew that there was a number of people that they could suggest and I could probably think of too that would want to go and do this one-off. They wanted L.A. GUNS, and they wanted L.A. GUNS music, and they wanted me to bring it. That's why I posted something on Facebook that some people would rather headline a sports bar and go on at 12:30 at night instead of being associated with a great bill like M3. No matter where you end up with that bill, just being associated with it is good for the band."
You've mentioned in other interviews that L.A. GUNS has a long history of questioning their billing on events like M3 or complaining about having to perform too early.
Steve: "It's so silly, because heavy metal bands and hard rock bands from the '80s and even the '90s, we have very little to use as platforms [nowadays]. We have very, very little platforms to go out and say that we're here, and that we're on this bill, and the bill is something that hundreds of bands would want to get on. If you're talking about a good festival and you're going to have to go on when it's still daylight on, but you're on this great festival and you go over well, it only helps the band. It never hurts the band. For [Tracii] to say he doesn't want to go on in the daylight... we have done many shows in the daylight and kicked ass, and it helps the band. It only hurts the band when you don't do it. When you don't do a high-profile show, it doesn't do anything for the band. You want to be associated with these high-end festivals. If they want you, it's an honor to go, because you don't have a lot to go on right now — you're not getting radio, you're not getting TV, [and] even when you record, you can only sell so many albums, because you don't have the big machine around you. If you're going to get a festival to come after you and say, 'You're one of the bands that we want on here,' out of a lot of other bands that would love to be on there, you've got to go. You've got to use it. They're going to set up a web site; it's going to help the band. You're part of this really great ticket. That was my job in L.A. GUNS, to push and make people understand [that] we have to go on before certain artists. If we're going to be on this bill, that's the way they go — they go by how many albums these bands sold. That's what they're looking at right now. They're not looking at current popularity or currently you're better than another band; they're going on what strengths you came off of or how many albums you sold. It was a constant fight with Tracii and it was a constant fight with Phil for them to understand to keep going — to push and to make things happen — you've got to do some things where you're not going to like everybody on the bill. Nobody's ever going to love everybody on the bill, but these are brothers of ours that came up with us in L.A., and whether we like their music or not, these are guys that went through the same wars with us, and they're friends, so it doesn't go over well with them too to know that Phil and Tracii won't open up for them. It's just not a really good business move, I don't think, at all."
Photo credit: Cole Riley