Jason Christopher

‘Vibrations Are High’ for L.A. Guns

The illustrious metal album, Black Diamond, is out now.

On their new album, L.A. Guns continue to build upon and strengthen their legacy of dirty, street-smart, sinewy hard rock that grooves and punches like… well, a slap in the face. (Those who love the band will get the reference.) Black Diamonds is the band’s 14th studio effort and fourth since their 2017 reunion, which saw them reclaim their place as world-class purveyors of the genre. Now this record is not only the high point of this run of comeback albums, but also rises to the top among the group’s entire catalog. 

L.A. Guns is led by the visionary and founding guitarist Tracii Guns alongside singer Phil Lewis who has been with the band since the 1988. In 2023 the band also includes bassist Johnny Martin and drummer Adam Hamilton.

Black Diamonds shines with spitfire strength, drips with attitude, and at times recalls the spirit of seventies hard rock. The Guns are never at a loss for memorable riffs, even while Lewis is commanding the mic and listeners’ attention. Martin and Hamilton both provide a solid foundation to the record and stand out individually, as well.

“You Betray” opens the proceedings with gritty guitars, Lewis expanding into several registers, and Martin and Hamilton locking in tight. “Diamonds” then begins as a delicate, acoustic ballad before the full band breaks in, making for an emotive track featuring Guns’ rich solo and Lewis’ hearfelt vocals. Later, “Gonna Lose” brings Led Zeppelin to mind, and standout track “Shattered Glass” follows with that tour de force voice and all-in-your-face with heavy riffs, fluid drums, and powerful bass lines.

On their first album, they showcased that they were a dangerous band with a bevy of sleazy ear-worms including “Show No Mercy,” “Sex Action,” “One More Reason,” and “Shoot for Thrills.” Sophmore effort Cocked & Loaded didn’t disappoint and featured the driving “Never Enough” and a showing off their softer side with the now-classic “Ballad of Jayne.”

A slew of stellar, heavy albums followed, and then Guns and Lewis reunited in 2017 with The Missing Peace, a superb slab of molten rock that was embraced by fans and saw several Billboard Chart entries. Now, over the past six years, L.A. Guns has not let up and instead has gotten better on each abum. Black Diamonds furthers the upward trajectory for a band that continues to deliver edgy yet tuneful songs. Do you yourself a favor by spinning Black Diamonds, reading our conversation with Tracii Guns about it, and then delving deeper into the band’s heralded canon. 

Black Diamonds hits hard from the start with “You Betray.” Was that your intent?

I always like to take the track that I think is the most blood shaking, that’s going to take the listener in, and [put it first]. Then people are going to pay attention to what’s next.

“Diamonds” continues the band’s legacy of heartfelt ballads that start soft and end hard. Tell us about your love of these types of songs.

I’ve always got to go there. It’s a personal thing really, like “Magdalaine” (from Cocked & Loaded), for example. Like Jimmy Page would say [in an English accent], “There’s just something about the light and the shade, the way they dynamically work together, and the acoustic guitar and the big drums and electric guitars come in and bam.” That’s the theory and that’s the reason for it: to be really explosive you have to have something that’s really low, quiet, and pretty… then it’s uglier. It’s a relationship in sound.

I love beautiful music. I love Enya and I love the really mellow Elton John stuff and a lot of things like that. How do you incorporate that in L.A. Guns? It’s quite the task. A lot of the British guys, the seventies guitarists, were influenceed by this guy Bert Jansch who was a pioneer on acoustic guitar, folk-like, but there was jazz and blues obvious in his style. I’ve been listening to Bert Jansch since we were recording Hollywood Vampires. Michael James Jackson was the producer and was a really big fan of Bert Jansch. He felt that my style, which I had already taken from Bert at the time, meant turning me on to Bert, and, really, since Hollywood Vampires I’ve really tried to find a way to incorporate it. Whether we want to call it an acoustic sound or an atmospheric guitar, it really stems from the Bert Jansch thing and the Jimmy Page thing. Jimmy was a big borrower from Bert, as well. 

Is it difficult to write the softer songs?

“Diamonds” is my favorite song on the album. Most of the music I did write when I was in Denmark… there’s just a certain mood when I write in Denmark. It’s raining all the time, it’s cold, and my room that I write in is very small. It has one window and all you really see is clouds and rain and trees. When I play acoustically in that room it tends to be dark or melancholy. I’ve always got to catch myself at some point and say, “Hey, we’ve got to add to this and balance that out somehow.” I have to come up with the other parts to lift it up and get it in the L.A. Guns bill. “Diamonds” was a big one that took time, took rewriting. I’d come up with a complete arrangement but be like, “Yeah, it’s close, but it isn’t right.” It’s very adult sounding and mature musically. I don’t like to go for that much in L.A. Guns. We keep L.A. Guns a little bit immature, but that is a big one. There’s a lot of music happening, a lot of guitars going on.

“Shattered Glass” has a killer chord progression. The riff is just completely in your face  and the vocal is very cool. To me, it’s a standout track. How do you feel about the tune? 

“Shattered Glass” is a really interesting song. How I write, especially the last few years, I’m not writing specifically for L.A. Guns – I kind of write for myself. Everything starts out as a sixties-garage-band-sounding, fuzzy thing. The first recording I did of that it was more like Chicago [Note: here he hums the riff to “25 or 6 to 4.”] with a really fuzzy guitar and a wah-wah pedal. All the songs kind of start like that. Then it goes into this Spanish kind of swimming guitar around the verse .When the real drums get going, then the heavy guitars get put on top, then together Phil sings and everything takes on the L.A. Guns life. 

I know people really love that song and I think I really loved it too when I first got Phil’s vocal on it because the dynamics are really extreme. It’s kind of like punk rock and then you have this psycho-murder-ballad kind of verse. I’ve got to be honest, Phil and I are really bored of that song already [Laughs]. We’re talking about putting the live set list together and I’m like, “Hey, man, we got over a quarter million views, we’ve got to do that live.” Phil was like, “If you say so.”

Does that happen a lot – where you’ve listened to the album so much before it’s out that you’re over some of it already?

No, it doesn’t happen often. It’s just that there is something about that song. Phil and I tend to agree musically all the time. I had to bite the bullet the other day and say that song is boring, but whatever – we know people like it. The solo is killer! [Laughs]

“Gonna Lose” has a Led Zeppelin vibe. Was that intentional?

I love that song. Yeah, the dynamics are taken straight from “Ramble On.” That was the first song I wrote for the album. I was getting ready to come back to L.A. from Denmark; I think I was leaving the next day and I had that idea in my head and just opened my laptop and got the baby to bed and was like, “Hey, I’ve got to record this before I go to sleep.” I had this little weird recording of it for a few months and then when it came to life I was was like, “Wow, this is some serious stuff!” When I listen on the record – which I do over and over again, I always do that when a record’s finished – that one’s the one that I think really catches me the most. It’s really fun to listen to. The drums are insane. Adam Hamilton, I don’t know what kind of vitamins he took between the last record and this record, but my God…. The drums on this album are crazy.

When I’m putting the music together I really take liberties with what I want to hear, so sometimes it sounds exactly like The Who or Led Zeppelin or Hendrix. I just want to hear that stuff. That’s just the way it is now. We write music that we can listen to and enjoy as if we we’re buying a new record. I certainly don’t feel like I have anything to prove to anyone but myself at this point, and Phil feels the same way. 

What goes into the lyric writing process?

When we first reunited and we had all this excitement, everything was super positive and we got a record deal right away with Frontiers. I sent him The Missing Peace music – all of them, “12 songs are here. Have fun.” He writes back, “I just don’t have anything to write about. I’m so happy right now, how are we going to do this?” Luckily my friend Mitch Davis, who I’ve worked with in the past before the reunion, is an amazing songwriter, so him and Phil kind of do that stuff together. Mitch always starts the vocals and lyrics and melodies, then he and Phil get together and they finish that stuff. They actually then go to New York where Mitch lives and they record in Mitch’s studio. The process is really bulletproof and we come out with stuff where Phil’s able to relate to the lyrics. It’s very stress free, which is important.

I don’t know how Phil does it, I’ve got to be honest. A lot of the verses are his mid-range where he’s like really full voice and and he’s not screaming full voice as much as normal. “You Betray,” right out of the box, is like a real crooning kind of thing and then when it kicks in he’s at the top of his range. I love that. He just has those pipes. He does take care of himself – his voice and his throat. When we’re on tour he doesn’t talk almost the whole time. He has his routine and he does the same thing when he’s home and he’s recording. He cares and that’s why it’s great

You were gone from L.A. Guns for a while. What led to your reunion in 2017?

I had bailed for awhile. You get too close to your band, your marriage to these other males, where everything is so serious, every little detail somebody gets mad about. We really feel like we’re a new band now even  though obviously Phil and I have been playing together for way too long, but the post-reunion album frenzy is exciting. I think people are stil excited that we’re back together. It’s a great thing. The vibrations are high, man!

It has been 35 years since you released your debut album. Do you ever stop and think about the longevity and how far you’ve come to this time?

When we started touring, one of the only VHS tapes we had on the bus was Rolling Stones 25×5. Their career was 25 years old at that point and I thought to myself, “God damn these guys are old.” I was like 22 or whatever and I thought, “I hope L.A. Guns is around 25 years.” When we hit that 25 year mark a long time ago I was like, “Well, alright!” It has stayed on my mind all this time. When I do look back it’s kind of interesting – it just doesn’t seem like that first album was that long ago, though, obviously it was. If you put both my children together they’re not anywhere near the age as that first record in relation to time, so I don’t think I’ve really changed much.