LILLIAN AXE – Striving For A Better Tomorrow I/II
It’s not an easy going music industry in modern times. With thousands of choices at most people’s fingertips, gaining (and keeping) a music fan’s attention when a new release hits the streets or touring your part of the country can be a challenge to maintain. So imagine you’ve been releasing a series of critically acclaimed efforts, even from your late 80’s commercial hard rock beginnings- and yet you’ve not achieved the breakthrough you probably deserve while other bands with lesser songwriting skills or talent seem to ascend the ranks.
This is the story of Lillian Axe in a nutshell. Developing a sound that’s addictive, harmonious, and straddling the line between hard rock and heavy metal, this Louisiana band seem to live in what comedian Rodney Dangerfield was well noted for in his routines- ‘they can’t get no respect’. It’s 2012 and they have a new record deal with AFM Records in Europe (CME for North America). Their latest album "XI- The Days Before Tomorrow" possesses killer hooks, thought provoking lyrics and wonderful melodies from their newest singer Brian Jones.
Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with guitarist Steve Blaze while he was traveling on the streets of New Orleans. The hour long conversation proves to me his commitment for Lillian Axe is as high now as when he began in the mid 1980’s with the group- which is promising and should be a reminder to the younger generation that if you really want something, you need to put your heart and soul every day into the achievement of your dreams.
Can you bring the readers up to speed with the vocalist changes that have happened over the past few years- from the departure of Derrick LeFevre in 2009 to the recruitment of Metal Church singer Ronny Munroe in 2010 and your latest shift to relative unknown Brian Jones for the new album "XI- The Days Before Tomorrow"?
"Absolutely. When Derrick decided to leave the band it was really bad timing because we were about two weeks before recording his vocal tracks for the "Deep Red Shadows" album. He wanted to stay local and not do the touring and the traveling- just get out of the rat race so to speak. It was quite a shock to us but in the music business you have to roll with the punches and things do happen like this. We sat back to take a look at things, he decided to do the record and a few shows, but I knew it was going to be a long process to replace him. There’s so many different facets involved- you can’t just jump into it. So we did exactly what I knew we shouldn’t have done- jump into a situation with Ronny Munroe probably quicker than we should have. Now Ronny I met a few times prior- he’s a phenomenal singer, a great guy and I love him to death. When we got together and started going through things, I realized he was a different stylistic singer than Ron Taylor and Derrick LeFevre were- he’s a pro and very good, so this could work out. It was a perfect fit on certain levels, then we started getting into the songs and for whatever reason there were other things going on, Ronny lived very far away from us- he was going to have to do some things in Seattle and the fit just wasn’t there. In some aspects we were a different type of band than Ronny is used to- more of a heavy rock band more so than a metal band. We rehearsed, we did one show with Ronny at B.B. King’s in New York City, and I thought it went well but I could see it didn’t gel. I don’t think it worked for him, not that it couldn’t have, but we both respected each other enough to know it wouldn’t work out.
I don’t let things knock me down- I get back up and start fighting again. Keep moving, we just started looking. I was more intent than ever that we didn’t rush the situation. Then I got a phone call from Brian Jones- I knew Brian as a fan, a guy I knew through my brother Craig. He would call me up every now and then every couple months, told me he loved the new record. Brian had been a fan of Lillian Axe since he was 14 years old, his dad was taking him to Lillian shows. He claimed we were in his top 2 favorite bands. I knew he was a really good guitar player, a high energy kid with a good attitude- then he said he could sing for us. Well, I had heard that story before- so the next step was I asked him to send me some stuff, and it was really good. So we got him in the studio to do some old Lillian Axe material and some newer material. He did it and I was wowed- it was fresh, good and does justice to the catalog of material we have. I milked this guy for six months before I told him he had the gig. We moved carefully with this- I was not jumping into a situation where we find out three months down the road he wasn’t going to work out. I wanted him to understand everything about what he was getting into and what I was getting into. We looked at some other people that were good seasoned singers with track records- but everything pointed to Brian. All of a sudden your fans know what’s best for you- but it just kept coming back to Brian Jones. We rehearsed with the whole band, let’s do a whole set list like we are getting ready for a show- we did that and he nailed it. He’s a really good-hearted person, quirky as I am, a fireball of energy and he knocked it out. He’s a great guitar player, a good songwriter and I’m really fortunate to find him."
How did the writing and recording process go for the new album? Are there times that riffs come up from the archives and finally flesh themselves out in these new songs or at this point do you prefer to set out with fresh material from the start?
"On this record, I definitely wanted to make it all fresh- but, I have such a large catalog of material that I’ve written over the years, even with another project I had called Near Life Experience, I write songs. It’s another one of those intangible things that people start talking about looking at some material like that- so on this album there are two songs that were written back in those Near Life Experience days, otherwise everything on the record is brand new. When we got into it, I got into a nice creative realm that things were flowing well- "Death Comes Tomorrow" and "Gather Up The Snow" started off as tiny ideas that got developed into songs. You know those kind of things where you noodle around, record it on your Iphone or Itouch, then flesh it out later. I went back into the phone, I listened to these parts and then wrote the songs. I’ve been writing songs since I was in sixth grade. Having written 99% of the songs for Lillian over the last 20 something years, I sometimes hum ideas and record them on the phone. The album writing went smooth, I liken the way this album sounds and the creative process in my head to when I wrote "Psychoschizophrenia". That is probably my favorite album up into this point. Then I demo the songs- I’m not just a riff guy, this is just the start point. Everything else has to flow into my head, I’m a composer, and everything is integral. Before I even present it to the band I have the song streamlined down to the best arrangement and then the band throw their feedback on it- parts that are too long, too short, we experiment with a little bit of discipline. We can knock out all tracking within a few days. The great part is we try everything, some of it works, some of it doesn’t. It adds a whole new dimension to certain songs."
In "Babylon" the line that strikes me to the core is ‘when the dead walk the earth it’s a sign for the innocent’ – it appears to me this song is a wake up call for humanity mixed in with nature and spirituality. What are you trying to convey lyrically through this song- and what are some of your other current favorites on the record?
"That’s a good observation, I’m glad you see it like that. They call the rise of the country of Iraq the rebirth of Babylon. As far as the original Babylon, the cradle of life and the re-emergence. It basically made me think of where we have come in civilization, and spirituality- it’s so diluted and confusing out there. There are so many different religious trains of thought, religions fighting each other. I have a friend of mine who has a television show named Billy The Exterminator- he and I got into this long conversation into all about what it is going on into zombies walking the earth- this is a wake up call, it’s almost become… television and the internet sensationalizes everything to make people almost numb to what’s happening all around us. We are bombarded by everything- we have twenty shows about ghost hunters battling spirits. We aren’t even paying attention to a lot of crazy things going on with this planet. At any given time you can go on the internet or into the book store and find things about aliens, spirituality, the end of time- and everyone has their own unique take. I want order in my life, I don’t like chaos. I want to understand this, dive into it, and know what’s going on. There’s so much confusion to focus in and get a grip on life."
Its an understatement to say that Lillian Axe have had their fair share of troubles with record labels through the years either not following through in properly promoting the band or just going out of business. What have you learned most through the years that keeps the band moving forward and not losing hope in these changing, digital music/ download driven times?
"The most important thing is it’s a testament to how much we believe in what we are doing. You are right- the words understatement, underrated, underappreciated- we’ve heard them all for the past 25 years. If I had a nickel for every time we were called the most underrated hard rock band- if a record company goes out of business and doesn’t do their job, I can’t let people hold me down. They aren’t going to keep me from creating music. Even though we’ve gone through so much we’ve accomplished a lot. Maybe this is what it takes to move me in the right direction. The fact that we were on MCA in 1989 and 1990, if we had had massive success back then maybe we would have been a band that turned into a bunch of junkies. I look at this as a long journey, we’ve been through amazing experiences. I’m doing this because we love creating music, I’m not going to let a music company take me out of the equation. We are now on solid labels, even at a time when the record industry is on the brink of devastation, it’s nice to be able to get records out to people across the planet. I just don’t give up."
I read in previous interviews that growing up you were very academically inclined. Was your family very supportive of your music endeavors in those early years?
"Yes- I’m the oldest of nine children. My parents have been very supportive. At one point my mom and dad weren’t quite sure, they were worried because I was working really hard in the early days before we got our first record deal that I had to pay my dues. They saw me out traveling in a van, making little to no money, I had long hair and playing this hard rock music- they wanted me to be sure I knew this is what I wanted to do. I had two years in college as a pre-med major, great grades and I could do anything I wanted. Later on in life you may look back and think I should have finished college, just to have that degree- but at that time you have to pay your dues now. It’s a fine line to make a decision on what to do. I do think that every move in life you make takes you to the next place. You just have to make the best one at that time. My dad passed away about eight years ago but the first time they played our first video on Headbangers’ Ball on MTV, my dad was so excited- he was more excited than I was about it. They were proud of everything I did- they wanted me to be okay and not have to struggle for things like they did. Being the oldest of nine kids, my dad worked very hard, sometimes three different jobs at one time to make sure all of our needs were taken care of. That was the greatest gift in the world, to get an education. Even if you are playing music, if you can’t understand a music contract, the numbers, the English language- you aren’t going to be able to function well. You aren’t going to be able to write good lyrics- as an artist you need to express yourself articulately."
Who were some of your initial guitar heroes and influences? I’ve read through previous interviews your appreciation for Randy Rhoads and Brian May, what about each sparked your creativity and desire to get deeper into the guitar?
"When I first started playing guitar when I was six, I was playing classical and flamenco guitar. At an early age I was really into melody and the dynamics. I was born with this kind of lullaby mentality- even when I was a little kid, I always had a little bit of sadness for people. I could sense people were sad and I had a strong sensitivity. A lot of people say the melodies even today within our songs are very lullaby-ish, very melodic and soothing. I think I was born like that, it made me really get into sad and beautiful music at the same time. When I was ten years old my dad and I were watching television and we saw Alice Cooper in concert- right then and there the whole dynamic of melodic, powerful music was there. When I got into rock music I was more into the songs than the guitar players. In the 70’s that was the best decade of music- it was all about songwriters instead of individual talent. I feel like that about my music- it’s more important that I write a great song rather than having necessarily a great solo. It’s just another element for the song. From there they I got into the dynamics of Queen, Black Sabbath- I was into the stuff that took you all over the place, majestic. At that point I started noticing Brian May, Randy Rhoads- really melodic playing, and I could feel the emotion behind what they are playing. There’s an element that’s important to me is the conviction that they play with it. You don’t necessarily have to be fast- I like creators and people that take your individual guitar talent to write all across the board."