Kelly Nickels of L.A. Guns Shares Tales of Loud Bass, AC/DC & Keith Richards (INTERVIEW)

They were the cool band. Dressed in black leather with black hair when everyone else was squeezing into spandex and going broke buying hairspray, L.A. Guns were like the biker gang that scared you and infatuated you at the same time. Not as harsh as Slayer, the band fell somewhere on the edge of rock, metal and electrified blues. Releasing their debut album barely two years after forming, L.A. Guns was a hit while their second record, 1989’s Cocked & Loaded, eluded the sophomore curse with such songs as “The Ballad Of Jayne,” “Malaria” and “Rip & Tear.” It was after their third album, Hollywood Vampires, that things began to get a little dicey. People quit or were kicked out and eventually there became two versions of LA Guns: one featuring founding member Tracii Guns and singer Phil Lewis; the other with drummer Steve Riley. And that’s where we stand today. 

Bass player Kelly Nickels, who was in the so-called classic version of the band before cutting out to work on other projects and raise a family, came back to LA Guns when Riley reached out to him to play M3 in 2019. With an upcoming new album, tentatively titled Renegades [the release date hasn’t been announced yet], and a kicking single, “Crawl,” already on the airwaves, this version of LA Guns – which also features Scott Griffin on guitar and former Anti-Idol frontman Kurt Frohlich on vocals – was ready to get out there and kick up some rock & roll rowdiness … except Coronavirus got in the way and now the band has to wait this out until venues can open safely. 

Nickels, who was born outside of Toulouse in southern France and moving to the US when he was two years old, spoke with me recently about coming back to rock & roll, the upcoming album, picking up the bass and some fun stories featuring AC/DC and Keith Richards.

Are you tired out yet from doing all these interviews?

(laughs) This is hour three I think but I’m not going to complain. Everybody is so nice and I’m very fortunate to be in this position. It’s good to be back.

What drew you back in?

Well, it was a phone call from Steve. He had been asked by the guys who run M3 to put a version of the band together. I think they’d asked him for three years in a row to come and put a version of the band together to come play the festival and he finally agreed to do it and gave me a call in November of 2018. So we talked for a while and we tried to figure out if we could do it and do a good job; if this was what we wanted to do. And we decided to do it. Steve already knew Scott and Scott was a great guitar player and it turned out he could rip it. He knew Kurt and got Kurt involved somehow and we had a good time. But it was a lot of work. We all live in different states so it was tricky to rehearse a lot for it. We hadn’t rehearsed for like a month and a half before the M3 gig. So we got together in LA for two days to go over the set and everybody just had to learn the songs and do their homework and I think we pulled it off. 

Did you know Kurt beforehand?

No, I didn’t know anything about Kurt till this project came together and he was suggested for the lead singer role. But he’s a sweetheart, super-talented guy, really great guitar player, good songwriter, great singer, easy-going. It’s a joy and a pleasure to work with him and to be on the same team with him.

What can you tell us about the new album you guys have coming out? How did those songs start coming together?

Well, from that M3 show that we did we ended up with a record deal from Golden Robot Records and when we got the record deal they wanted us to go in the studio and do the record pretty quickly. So we had to talk about it and decide whether that was the right move to do. Just because you got a record deal doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do, because we hadn’t spent that much time together. But we started throwing around songs and writing songs and sending them back and forth on the internet till we found ten that we all agreed upon. So there are ten songs on the record – two ballads and eight rockers. We had a couple of days of rehearsal in LA and seven days to do the record. So we did our homework, we learned our parts as best we could, then we jammed them out and went in and recorded it.

Was that different for you, writing songs via the internet?

Yeah, well, we don’t have the luxury of being together cause we’re in four different states so you have to work with what you’ve got. Kurt’s got a studio in his home, I’ve got a small studio as well, everybody has a small studio, so we could write our ideas down and send them back and forth and fine-tune them and keep honing them till they were full songs and ready to go on a record. But you’ve got to do what you can with what you’ve got, you know.

Is there a Kelly Nickels-penned song among them or did you have your hand in each one?

I wrote “Crawl” and I wrote three songs all together. But everybody added little bits to everybody’s music so everybody wrote a few, everybody got a few songs on the record. We were very democratic and split everything four ways, equal shares for everyone. Everyone wanted it to be good, you know. We felt like a pretty good bit of pressure about putting out a record with all that is going on between the two versions and everything. But we definitely wanted to make sure we could do a good record and as soon as we started hearing some of the songs that we were all submitting, we felt that it was going to be okay. So we fine-tuned them and really worked hard on them and came into the studio prepared to make sure that we could make the most out of it.

When did you write “Crawl”?

“Crawl” is the first song I’ve written in twenty-five years and I wrote it for this record. I had nothing ready to go but I feel like when I have a deadline, it’s easier for me to finish a song than when I just putz around. I’ll come up with a riff or an idea and I put it down but I don’t finish the whole song. So knowing that we had a date to go into the studio and everything had to be submitted by a certain time really pushed me to finish it. Then Kurt and Scott and Steve, we all added little bits to everybody’s songs to make them complete.

If that song is any indication, the rest of the record is going to be rocking.

Yep, I think you’re going to be happy. It’s got a really good energy, really good rockers. We tried to stay true to what we do. We didn’t become a thrash band, we didn’t change our stripes. We tried to keep it real and it has a good kind of punk edge to it and we wanted to make sure it was an upbeat record too.

Do we know when this album will be coming out?

We don’t have a date on the release yet. We’re actually thinking of releasing another single and try to possibly do a video before the album comes out. So we’re trying to figure out if that’s possible and how to get all of us together, cause there’s going to be some issues of logistics that we’ve got to get through. So we’re trying to hang on a little bit. We have a lot of shows that are being rescheduled. We’d love to do it but we’re playing it by ear like everybody else and make sure it’s safe for people to go out and have a good time, you know. So everyone should check us out on the website at www.laguns.net. All the updates go there first. We have a bunch of cool merch and anything that we’re doing or thinking about doing, I post up there. We have Facebook but I post everything on the website first so everyone can go there and you’ll hear it from the horse’s mouth. As soon as I know something, I post it. 

Was it easy for you to fall back into these old songs when you started playing them again?

Yeah, absolutely, I’ve played them so many times. I’ve always got along well with Steve, I’ve always got along really well with everybody anyway, even at the time we all got along. But it was a good time in my life where my daughter was going to college and I started to have some free time where I thought I could do this again and it’d be great to go back out and play. It was always a fun experience, I met cool people, good things happened and I was really looking forward to being able to get out and play again and I felt like totally comfortable at M3. I was probably more nervous the day before but I was totally fine with getting onstage. And that was our first show in front of thousands of people. It’s not really where you want your first show (laughs), but you just got to put your boots on and get in it.

What did LA Guns have that no one else had during those Sunset Strip days?

Wow, that’s an interesting question. I don’t know, I think we had our own energy and our own vibe and I think we put out some decent songs that weren’t typical and I think we definitely did the best we could. We knew our instruments and we played and we just tried to write the best songs that we could at the time as young songwriters and tried to deliver. I think our live show was important for us. I think we were always pretty good live and that really carried us till like “Ballad Of Jayne” came out and went on the radio. That changed things a bit but the live show was good, good energy and had good musicianship, an amazing guitar player. I don’t know other than that, you know (laughs).

In the LA Guns catalog, what song do you remember was the hardest to get right in the studio?

Oh man, you’re making me think (laughs). You know, I don’t know, cause each record had it’s own vibe and it’s own kind of feeling at the time, so maybe a different state of mind and where you were at in your head those days. I don’t think anything was super difficult to finish. “Magdalaine” was tough, it was all in triplets, technically-wise, but we had time to really practice and get them down back then. You had months and months to really fine-tune it so you’d go in the studio really knowing your stuff. Sometimes the engineers or the producer would change your parts and that happened to me a lot. On Hollywood Vampires, we changed a lot of bass lines in the studio so everything that I had been playing for months we decided to change, for the good, but at the time I don’t know if I thought it was for the good. But you’re there and you got to try to deliver. So you’ve got to stay open as a musician and stay flexible. You’re exposed so you try to adapt and keep going.

Did you start off on bass?

I pretty much started off on bass. I was really into motorcycles as a kid, and still am, and wanted to be a motorcycle racer but that didn’t happen. My brother was already playing guitar, we had a friend with drums in a basement right around the block so they said, “You should get a bass.” So my dad took me to the guitar store and we bought a hundred dollar little bass and I started learning it and finding out more about music and touring and the traveling part. You can have success and you can have a cool lifestyle and it all seemed to fit with what I wanted to do in life. I really wanted to make sure I traveled in my youth and tried to figure out a good way to do that. Then music came into my life and as I said, I learned more about touring and the whole thing of being a musician and it just seemed to fit what I wanted to do in life, be kind of free and play music and meet people and see the world. So it all kind of worked out pretty good.

I notice you play with a pick. Why was that your choice when so many bass players just play with their fingers?

I can play really well with my fingers when I sit down but for me it’s easier to play with a pick standing up so that’s why I play with a pick mostly. But I play a lot with my fingers as well but usually sitting down it’s easier to play with your fingers. Standing up, I like a pick and I just like the vibe of it.

What is your bass of choice nowadays? 

I’m lucky, I have amazing bass, a Fender Precision with a Jazz neck on it. It plays like butter. It’s the same bass I played back in the day. I still have it, it’s still a beautiful instrument. I tried to play some other basses and I haven’t played a bass that plays nicer than this one. So it’s pretty much my main bass, and pretty much my only bass. I have a couple basses in storage that I haven’t been able to get out of storage yet but I just take this one with me everywhere and hope that it doesn’t fall apart (laughs).

LA Guns opened for bands like AC/DC and Def Leppard early on and a couple of those guys are no longer with us. Do you have any special memories of Malcolm Young and Steve Clark?

Well, I remember we were at a hotel once and I had Angus in a shopping cart and I think Mick [Cripps, drummer] had Malcolm in a shopping cart and we were racing down the street (laughs). They were all super nice guys, from the bands to the crew; they all treated us really great, they were super kind. Steve Clark, I fairly remember meeting. I thought he looked like he was in pretty bad shape. I remember kind of thinking he looked rough at the time. I mean, we all looked rough but he looked really rough; but they were nice guys as well. Usually the really big bands that we ever played with, they were all super great. They had nothing to fear, they had nothing to worry about. As soon as they’d come on you forgot about the opening act (laughs); it’s all about the headliner. 

When AC/DC comes on, you forget that you saw anybody opening up. They were confident in what they were doing. They had a bar underneath the stage and go down there and have a couple of shots while Angus is doing his solo. And they had a mirror ball where on “Money Talks” all these dollar bills with Angus’ face would fall down and they let me push the button. And I broke a guitar onstage one night and I gave it to Malcolm’s guitar tech and we opened up for them at Madison Square Garden and when we walked offstage, the whole band was there to congratulate us cause it was our first time playing the Garden. And the guy gave me the guitar body back all autographed by the band. I still have it. But check this out, they wrote, “To Sid” – they called me Sid Vicious – they wrote, “To Sid, Thanks for a smashing good time, AC/DC” and they all signed it so I have all their autographs. It’s a cherished item and it was such a cool gesture. I got to see AC/DC when I was a kid with Bon Scott open up for Ted Nugent at Madison Square Garden. So for me to be able to open up for AC/DC years later was really like full circle, especially at Madison Square Garden. So having seen them with Bon Scott and then being able to open for them years later was a great moment.

Who was the first real rock star you ever met?

I met Keith Richards a few years ago so I’ll say Keith (laughs)

Didn’t you meet anyone growing up in New York? 

I really got into music late but I definitely saw KISS, I saw Bob Seger, 38 Special, Johnny and Edgar Winter. I remember seeing Johnny Ramone in the Village one time and that was pretty cool (laughs).

When you started playing in bands in New York, were you playing something different or more typical of the scene at the time?

I think we were kind of typical at the time but I just felt like I wasn’t going to get a record deal in New York. So I went to California in 1984 with my best friend. We went out for a couple of weeks. We had round trip tickets and $200 and we spent two weeks in LA, we ended up with a limousine ride back to the airport, so we had a great time. So I decided to move there and I moved there in 1986. But New York is kind of like a weird thing, you know. I feel a lot of musicians in New York are happy to just play in New York and I felt like in LA they were more willing to play all over the world. So I don’t know, I felt the vibe was better in California and as I was hungry and really, really wanted to get a deal and be in a band and start this whole thing and I definitely wanted to go to LA to see if I could make it happen. I mean, there was good energy, there were bands that were being signed and I knew it could happen in LA so I ended up going with a band from New York and they stayed for a few weeks and then came back to New York and I stayed in LA by myself. I made some friends, slept on couches, slept at the beach, I slept in empty buildings, I slept in construction zones, we starved and just followed a dream.

But you’re back in New York again

I moved back here about ten years ago. I lived in California for twenty-five years and kind of felt like I needed a break. I grew up in New York and really just wanted to come back and enjoy the four seasons and see old friends and stuff. So I’ve been back for a little while.

Are you finding it really different with this virus going on?

You know, life for me is not that different. I kind of spend a lot of time alone anyway and I’m always kind of working on the computer or I try to stay busy; I’m into photography and stuff so I always try to find a way to keep myself busy. So this is not too strange for me but I know it’s strange for a lot of people and it’s weird but hopefully it will pass.

The second record that LA Guns put out, Cocked & Loaded, didn’t have the sophomore curse: it charted better, Tom Werman was a producer, you had some cool rock stars play on it. What do you remember when you look back at that album?

The joy of having the first one was incredible after you’ve tried so hard to get to that point where you get the record deal and are finally in the studio. Then we felt like we were having some success so we felt some pressure and had a little bit bigger budget, were a little more serious this time. It’s like, you’re only as good as your last song or whatever. But you’re starting to get used to the lifestyle and the dough and you want to keep that going so you always want to make sure you’re doing the best you can. You keep your head on straight and we were lucky, Robin Zander and Rick Nielsen from Cheap Trick came down and sang on some songs, it was a lot of fun and another good experience but it was a lot of pressure because it’s your lifestyle and it’s everything that is happening and you want to keep going on touring and you want to keep doing this so you’re going to make sure it’s good. You always got to try your best to make sure it’s good or else it’s over.

“Over The Edge” from your third album, Hollywood Vampires, has some really cool, unique elements to it.

Yeah, it’s one of my favorite songs. I didn’t have much to do with that one. I think Phil and Tracii wrote that one but I always enjoyed playing it live and I thought it was one of our more unique, kind of cool songs. I think everybody did a great job on it. That and “Magdalaine” I think are two of my favorites and we’re lucky to have it. We do it in the show, we did it at M3, we opened with it on Halloween night when we played at Universal Amphitheatre at Universal Studios and we played with Ice-T’s band, Body Count, who opened up and we all came out with masks and makeup on. We came out to that song and it was just great.

What was the first song you obsessed over as a kid?

Wow, I was in a record store in Paris when I was like fifteen or sixteen and “Angie” by the Rolling Stones came on in the record store and I listened to the song and I was like, wow, this is such a cool song. I went up and I asked the guy, “Hey Man, what band is this?” and he looked at me and goes, “It’s the Rolling Stones, man,” with this French accent and everything (laughs). So I’ve totally always been a huge Rolling Stones fan. But I remember that one distinctively like changing my life cause it’s such a beautiful song, a cool vibe, and I had to find out more and more about them.

You said you had met Keith. What was he like when you met him?

Oh man, he was the happiest guy, big smile, and I got to chat with him for a few minutes. I said, “Hey man, I got this book with me. I don’t know if you know anything about it.” He looked at it and he goes, “Anything about it? I fucking wrote it.” And I go, “Good, I’m in the right place.” (laughs) So I asked him if he wouldn’t mind signing it and he did and we had a cool little chat for a few minutes. It’s really like a crazy experience meeting Keith Richards cause you don’t want to step on his toes, you don’t want to knock over his coffee or whatever, you don’t want to mess up anything. It’s kind of like being in a tornado for a minute. It’s overwhelming. I think Keith’s personality overshadows his guitar playing sometimes and what an amazing musician he is and I just tried to tell him that, just thank you for the beautiful, incredible music. He gave a little thump on his chest, like he got what I was trying to say without like coming to tears. But he’s like the only person I’ve ever met that really moved me and I really appreciated their body of work as opposed to just meeting somebody for a random reason, like, “Hey, that guy is cool.” So that was an incredible experience.

 

Group photos courtesy of Dustin Hardman & Golden Robot RecordsT

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