Call it “hair metal,” “glam metal,” or “sleaze rock,” but the unique sound that came from the Sunset Strip in 80s Los Angeles was once the dominant vibe of commercial radio. Guns N’ Roses’ sonic masterpiece, Appetite for Destruction, emerged as the high point of the genre, which subsequently expanded and diluted as record labels rushed forth to cash in on the cultural hysteria. Weaker, lighter fare, packaged as “metal” and “hard rock,” found overexposure on MTV and by the decade’s end, the music industry was already searching for the next big thing.
The 90s saw hair metal reduced to butt-of-joke status as gravely serious bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana rolled out music that was low on image but high on intensity. Some hold that grunge killed hair metal, but the fallacy of that statement is that hair metal never died- it simply returned to its hardcore fans. In that process, many of the 80s’ biggest names failed to move on to the next millennium, but of those that did, none made music with the consistency and caliber of L.A. Guns.
One of the seminal bands of Hollywood’s glam metal movement, L.A. Guns, whose debut album sold over a million copies, has survived more personnel changes than a movie theater, and after nearly 30 years, founder and guitarist Tracii Guns is commemorating the band’s legacy with their first ever acoustic album- L.A. Guns: Acoustic Gypsy Live.
What makes this release worthy of a listen? Simply this- it is a meticulously-arranged, high quality rock album, and that’s all a music fan ever needs. There are no gimmicks like guest appearances from rappers or pop stars, nor is there a glitzy video full of scantily-clad women caressing pieces of fruit. The music stands on its own, rich in production and deep in musicianship. Recorded at L.A.’s famed Hotel Cafe, Acoustic Gypsy is a bluesy, 14-track set that includes their commercial hits, some live favorites, and a pair of soulful covers (Boudleaux Bryant’s “Love Hurts” and Otis Redding’s “These Arms of Mine”) that expose Tracii’s reverence for the music that preceded him.
With this week’s release of Acoustic Gypsy and a tour to follow, I sat down with Tracii to get his thoughts on making the album, his opinion of grunge and his all-time fantasy collaboration. I was prepared for neither his answers nor his stunning announcement at the end of the interview.
Joe Daly: Let’s talk about the new album- this is your first acoustic album in 29 years, so why now?
Tracii Guns: Well, I’d never really thought about it before. I’ve had a lot of suggestions brought to me through the years, like instrumental records and solo records, but never really an acoustic project. With L.A. Guns, we just didn’t have enough material to make a brand new, original record and our managers at the time- Jason Kramer and Jason Rothberg said, “Hey, you know we’ve got a good connection over at the Hotel Cafe. What do you think about doing an acoustic album?” At first we weren’t sure. Nobody in the band played acoustically, other than myself, and I don’t play that much acoustic guitar. So I thought about it and I figured that if I could put a big band together with a lot of guys playing different instruments and stuff like that that it would be not just a re-recording of the songs, but it would be something creative and something that could give old songs a different angle. I thought that if we could pull it off, it could be a great idea.
It was about five months between the initial contact and the two gigs when we were going to record it live and it was kind of a nerve-wracking four months for me before I hired the guys and everybody decided what instrument they were going to play. Then we did a little over a solid week of long rehearsals. There are a lot of chord inversions and things so it doesn’t just sound like a campfire thing, and when we got it together and it happened, it turned out to be really good. I’m actually pretty happy with it.
When you say “campfire thing,” I assume you mean you weren’t just going to play the original electric versions of the songs on acoustic guitars. So how did you deconstruct the songs and then re-imagine them? What was your approach to arranging the material?
Yeah, I thought, “If I had the chance to physically go into the studio and do acoustic versions of the songs, then how would I approach it?” The first thing I thought of was piano, organ and strings, and stuff like that. I had to ask myself “How do I make these songs sound as full as they would sound with a giant, big, fat guitar covering everything,” which is generally how those songs were written. And so the best way to do it was to really color it. Since the invention of things like Garageband and home recording stuff, for years now I’ve really had the opportunity to experiment with music and try different things, so I had a pretty good idea of how to color each song, and it was just kind of experimenting once we all got in there.
Ninety percent of the time, the original idea of how to do a song worked well, and then obviously I had input from the other players who were right on the money with some great suggestions. These guys all have tons of experience in even acoustic music, so yeah, there was definitely a thought process that went into it and had I had even a bigger budget, I could have gone a bit more nuts, but I think that it ended up being very appropriate for what the songs called for. We were asked back in the “Unplugged” days for L.A. Guns to do a VH1 “Unplugged” and the thought was that we would never rehearse it- we’d just run into the studio with these acoustic guitars and hack the songs to bits. So that was the only other time it was brought up, and we said “No.” Sometimes for something to be great, you’ve got to wait a long time. The timing has to be right, and there’s a lot of experience that goes into writing hair metal on acoustic instruments. (laughs)
The album sounds very heavy- did you tune down at all? How did you bring the heaviness through an acoustic sound?
We generally tune to E flat live in the rock set, so we tuned to E flat but I think that what really gives it that warmth and that bottom end is that we have electric bass on it, which just makes such a huge difference. We didn’t call up an acoustic guitar company and say, “Hey, can you send me over an acoustic bass because we’re doing an acoustic thing.” I mean, you want full bass in everything. I don’t care what kind of music it is, bass is the thing that makes you feel like you’re in a bathtub, you know?
So we had electric bass, the tuning is low and the melodies are high, so you have great separation between the instruments and the vocals. You really get a mini-orchestra feel when everything’s separated like that. And I also think that the with the aggressiveness of the actual musicians who are used to playing rock in a live situation, we hit it hard. We weren’t able to turn the amplifiers up, so on tunes like “Sex Action” I think everybody was probably hitting it hard.
You certainly had no shortage of material to choose from- how did you end up with the final setlist?
Oh, boy. That was the thing that was really nerve-wracking. There were other songs like “Malaria” and “Magdalaine” and some other things I was looking at. There was a song on Shrinking Violet called “Barbed Wire” that I thought would have been really cool for something like this and in the end, when I’d just play it on acoustic, it sounded really mundane, and I realized it wouldn’t work. Obviously there were hit songs that we had to do, and crowd favorites that we had to do. With something like this, it is kind of a greatest hits thing, so I thought there were probably eight songs that were necessary. Then we wanted to do the Otis Redding song (“These Arms of Mine”), which is something that (singer) Jizzy (Pearl) and I always wanted to do, and this was a perfect outlet for that. The only song that Jizzy and I had written in the last two years was “Little Soldier” and we had written that acoustically- we had never played it electrically, so that one made sense. “Love Hurts” was really soothing for Jizzy’s voice, so we thought that was a great idea, and then the rockers like “Never Enough,” “Sex Action,” and “Rip and Tear” were kind of an afterthought. We thought, “Hey, let’s throw some of these rockers on there,” and we went over those the last two days of rehearsal. We changed the rhythms up a little bit to make them feel a little bit warmer, because when we just plaid them straight, like the electric versions, it really got lost in translation so I think we managed to change the rhythms appropriately and give it more of a woody sound and have it make more sense for that kind of instrumentation.
I’m glad you hit on the covers (“Love Hurts,” “These Arms of Mine”)- those were pretty unusual. Were there other covers that you were considering that didn’t make the cut? Was it tough narrowing it down to just those two?
Yeah, in a way it was because there were obvious choices, like a Stones song, and there was a Zeppelin song that we were gonna do- “Hey, Hey What Can I Do.” We talked about that a lot, but those things are kind of a bit too obvious. We wanted stuff that a typical L.A. Guns fan, not like the hardcore fan, but just a regular fan who goes out to buy the record- we wanted to give them a surprise. Something different, something they wouldn’t expect. So once we decided not to do “Angie” and “Hey Hey What Can I Do,” we asked “Well what songs do we love that make sense for us?” With Teddy (Andreadis) playing piano, we had to ask what makes sense for that as well. We were even thinking about doing “Baby I Love You,” by Aretha Franklin, which I think would have been better suited for an electric sound. Had we decided to do a double record, then the whole other CD would have been covers, because there are so many cool cover songs that you could do acoustically. Even Jim Croce or Harry Chapin- that’s stuff we listen to, but that’s a whole different record.
Loads of people are now looking back and saying that grunge killed hair metal. Is that a fair statement?
No, it’s not a fair statement and it’s very telling of the macho attitude of the rock bands from the 80s, who put the blame on anybody but themselves. Most of my peers want to be right as opposed to being smart, so there’s the great hair metal bands of the 80s all pointing fingers. It’s the only genre where the camaraderie among bands is zero. (laughs) It’s really weird. I think that good music is good music, period. One of the things with hip hop and R&B is that these cats get popular because they tell stories. Real stories that people can relate to. A good love song never gets old because people fall in and out of love every day.
The thing with grunge, and I really don’t know exactly what that is, but when I think of grunge I think of Alice in Chains. These are songs that had a little bit more insight than getting in the back of a car and banging a chick, you know? I think there’s a huge audience that didn’t like what all the 80s bands were doing, and then these (grunge) bands came out, and they were a bit more realistic and a little bit more heartfelt. They were a lot less macho and I think that they related to people on a one-on-one basis. It wasn’t about the pyrotechnics and things like that. People are always waiting for something new. I mean, Zeppelin, and the Beatles, and Hendrix, and the Stones, and Pink Floyd and Janis- they already got it right and everything after was just a spin on that stuff.
You mentioned the competition amongst 80s bands, but at the same time, it seems as though so many of the artists have all passed through each other’s band at some point or another.
Apart from L.A. Guns, what’s been your favorite “side project,” for lack of a better term?
Well, the Brides of Destruction was one of the highlights of my life, musically. In a way, it was nice to be in a band that I actually put together, with a partner who was actually on my ass, to motivate me in different ways, to open my eyes in different directions and to give more thought to a live performance in the way of a show as opposed to the old method. I’m from the school of thought where you put drums and amps on stage and you’re a great band if you’re a great band, and if you’re a shitty band then it’s pretty obvious.
Nikki (Sixx) made it apparent to me that if you’re a great band and you have this (showmanship), it’s even better. So that was fun. It was fun having guys come down to the studio and paint our amplifiers and build our mike stands and props and all that stuff. Which we had in L.A. Guns at certain points in our career, but it always seemed like a pain in the ass. While we should be sound checking or writing songs, there was always a crew on stage putting something together for hours. And I always felt that that took away from what I truly love, and that’s just to play.
But that was exciting. I got to play the Download festival and play Motley Crue songs, and our own original songs, and L.A. Guns songs. So that one encompassed everything that I had done twenty years before into that one band, and I was really proud to play in a band with Nikki Sixx. It was a great experience for me.
Is there anyone that you haven’t collaborated with yet who’s on your hit list? Who’s your dream collaboration?
Well, I doubt it will every happen because everyone’s getting older, but I’ve always wanted to do a really traditional 50s rock and roll record with Glenn Danzig. He just has that crooning voice and I love a lot of the stuff that he’s done on his own, I love the Misfits stuff that he did, and it would be another direction for him. But he doesn’t really do side projects. I reached out to him, and he wanted me to play guitar in Danzig which I thought would be cool. But a guy like that, with a voice like that really lends itself to the Righteous Brothers and stuff like that… I can really visualize what that would sound like, with big, giant clean guitars, weepy bass and the kind of mono-recorded drums and Glen’s romantic, dark voice. That’s really the only thing, the only guy that I’d really like to do something with.
Other than that, I have another band besides L.A. Guns with a guy named Bronxstyle Bob (Tracii Guns and the Bastard Blues Band) who had a couple hits in the early 90s. He’s a really big black guy with a really soulful kind of Stevie Wonder style, and we’re writing some really heavy duty Jimi Hendrix-meets-Sly and the Family Stone stuff right now. Once we get enough stuff together we’ll probably start pursuing that stuff a little bit more.
So can we expect an album?
Yeah- we have a bunch of original stuff and we’ve got some stuff recorded already. We’ve got a couple soundtrack things like a “Summer in the City” cover that we did for a movie called Freaky Deaky, and we just recorded a Stephen Malkmus song, and Stephen Malkmus recorded an L.A. Guns song, and that’s coming out as a split single. So we have a lot of very strange, different, odd recordings. We’re just waiting until we have enough material that it makes sense to do an album. By definition of an album, I mean there should be some cohesion. So we’re just taking our time and playing with different guys and it’s an ongoing process. Once it’s right, it will get out.
Who’s your favorite in the new crop of bands?
The Heavy. It’s a British band and the singer’s name is Kevin Swaby. They’re only channel so far has been through cheesy commercials in the Super Bowl, but they really are a mix of a psychedelic 60s rhythm section with a very R&B, funny lyrics. The guy’s voice is so soulful, and they’ve got a little punk rock edge to them. They’ve been around for about five or six years, I guess, and they really captured my attention in the last six or seven months. To me it sounds like Led Zeppelin with Stevie Wonder singing. It’s just awesome. That’s really about all I’ve been listening to.
So you’re getting ready to head out on tour with L.A. Guns. Where are you going and what kind of venues are you hitting?
This brings up one thing we haven’t touched on yet- we have a new singer now. Jizzy left the band about three days before the album came out. He was tired of the grind- we’re like a little army unit the way we work hard, and he put in his two years. There’s no hard feelings over it, and we announced yesterday that Dilana, from the Rockstar: Supernova show is our new singer. So that’s what we’ve been doing. We’ll start our tour on October 21 in San Antonio, and we’ll go through Texas and then on a diagonal line straight up to the northeast, and we’re gonna be in that area for about three weeks, then we’re going to hit the southeast, and then the south from the end of November, through December. So that’s what’s next.
With the new singer, are there going to be any stylistic changes from what people are used to on the albums? Did you have to change anything you did with Jizzy to fit the new vocals?
Dilana really has her own style. She’s very bluesy- upper mid-register, and when she hits those high notes, it sounds clear as a bell. Women just have a different set of vocal cords. A lot of L.A. Guns stuff is sung in that register, anyway. You hear guys singing in L.A. Guns and it sounds like they’re straining, and the really cool thing with Dilana is that those higher registers are really clean. But the thing is that we’re doing a rock set- we’re not doing an acoustic set, and there was no intention to do an acoustic set unless for some strange reason the record went through the roof. But we’re on the verge of some really great things, so for us to do an acoustic thing live… maybe down the road, it’s not out of the question, but for now, we’re sticking to the rock set and we’re probably going to be adding some songs that we haven’t played live in years, because she can sing some of these songs that other people couldn’t. We just got started. We had our audition process yesterday and she got the gig, so we’ve got a solid three weeks of banging our heads together to get the set together. It’s pretty exciting having a chick in L.A. Guns. I can’t wait to see the look on people’s faces with a girl singing “Sex Action.” (laughs)
It’s fun and scary, (laughs) but we can’t wait. We’re ready to get back out on the road- it’s gonna be a lot of fun.