MUSIC, NOT A COMMODITY
An Interview with Steve Blaze of LILLIAN AXE
Interview by Ray Van Horn, Jr. - September 2007
This is the second installment of a combined interview session with The Metal Minute. If youíve yet to read the ďTake 5Ē portion of my interview with Steve Blaze, bounce on over to www.metalminute.com henceforth!
I want to bring up your time in Angel for a second. Obviously they were running
biggest during the seventies which was a bitch of a time for hard rock even in
its beginning stages. Your time there was in a different period, but what do you
recall best about being in Angel?
Steve Blaze: I remember Angel when I was a young teenager. I donít even remember how I got into them, but I had "On Earth as It Is in Heaven," and the album was great, because you flipped it upside down and the logo stayed the same both ways! I always did think that was the most remarkable logo in rock. I really just thought the band was way ahead of their years, and most people know Angel from the "White Hot" album being a poppy, glammy record, but they donít know the early material, and thatís the stuff that was really progressive, especially for that time! I had all the posters, I had all the vinyl, I had everything, man; I loved that band! Then back in 1999, I met Gordon, who was playing keyboards and writing a book and wanted me to give him some Lillian Axe road stories for his book. So we started talking and next thing you know, he tells me heís playing keyboards for Angel and I was like ĎI love Angel, man! Theyíre my favorite band!í Thatís when he said ĎWell, Greg Giuffriaís playing and Iím playing keys.í I was like, ĎWow, is Punky Meadows (guitars) doing it?í He said ĎNo, oh my God, you need to come audition for this band!í Iím like, ĎDude, Iíd love to do that!í So they flew me in to New York and I was on top of that audition! I knew songs they didnít even remember! Within a couple songs, I could tell they were just looking at each other saying ĎYep, this is the guy!í I was with them for seven, eight years, we didnít do a whole lot of stuff, though weíve done a few runs in the States, a couple in Europe, and Iím pretty much sitting back waiting for Frank (DiMino, vocalist) to get the business prospect together so we can start doing a new record, because we have songs written! Theyíre ready to record, so itís just on-hold for right now.
RoughEdge.com: In the early days of Lillian Axe, you guys ran through a lot of bars in the South just to get your name out there. I can imagine that was a hell of a ride (laughs), so take us on a little leg on one of those early tours.
Steve Blaze: Well, you know the first album came out in 1988 and we went on tour with Krokus. Actually, we did a little run with Lita Ford right before the album came out, and then we went out with Krokus for two months. The great part about it is, before we got signed, Lillian Axe toured and played constantly! We were all over the place! Back in that time, man, there were a lot more rock venues and the attitude of the public was more special at that time. And it didnít have six thousand classifications for metal like the way it is now, and that really irks me, because you can be a fan of Poison and you can be a fan of Lamb of God at the same time. It doesnít matter; itís all rock'n'roll and itís all different flavors. When I see people that act ignorant and say ďIím only into black-death-Norwegian-thrash metal,í I mean, Christ! Dude, youíre missing the world! Music is not about being in a particular gang or cult or something; itís about experiencing spiritual feelings from the music that can from anything, man! I listen to classical music to Elton John to Chevelle to Sabbath to Devildriver. I like it all. Back when metal started getting popular on the radio and they ran Queensryche and Motley Crue, we were unsigned and we would still be playing five to six hundred people on a Monday night! All these people would go out and support heavy metal and it was great! When our first album came out and we hit across the States on tour with Krokus, it was crazy, I have to tell you, because it was our first bus. When your first bus pulls up and itís just come off the road with Guns Ďn Roses and then we were on that bus, I canít even tell you the feeling; I just felt like this was the greatest thing in the world. Now you get on a tour bus and itís like, ĎMan this thing is small,í or whatever, ĎIím going to be on this thing for two months?í Even though itís a nice, big, beautiful luxury bus, you know what itís going to be like in a couple of weeks! This time it was just such a wonderful feeling and weíre pulling into venues and you know how the rock fans were in the day, man! Theyíd be hanging out waiting outside the clubs for you, theyíd be bringing you food and gifts and jewelry and t-shirts, and then youíd do the show, and yeah, it was about the excesses of life, but it wasnít excessive like how it became excessive in the nineties, where it was all about depression and downers. It was excessive in the complete opposite direction. Back when we started touring, it was all about positive energy, even though there were lots of girls and drinking and drugs everywhere around you; it wasnít as abused and it wasnít done in a negative fashion. Throughout the nineties it seemed to go from one end of the spectrum to the other and that was about different drugs and breakups and misery, suicide, and all that. That was pretty depressing! Now, I think itís somewhere in the middle; I donít think people know where to go. Thereís no new fresh base for music anymore; it all sounds the same. Weíve got ten billion bands out there; everybody that has a microphone is cutting albums for people to buy them (laughs).
And ripping now has created really a big glut of everything. Thereís nothing special anymore and thatís why people donít seem to be caring about it anymore. Yeah, Iíll download two songs and listen to whatever, manÖ We need the spirit of rock to get back, man, the big shows, the volume and the loudness, just the strength and power of what this style of music has to offer! Itís not a commodity, man. Iím not out there selling toothpaste! Weíre out there trying to move people and change their lives and give them something to give them a spark that makes them happier and able to deal with the crap we have to deal with on a daily basis.
RoughEdge.com: What about when you were just coming up, before the record deal? What was the Lillian Axe road show all about then?
Steve Blaze: Yeah, it was nuts, but the good thing about it is, I never did drugs, and Iím not going to say I never took a drink in my life, but I wasnít getting drunk every night. Maybe once a month I mightíve had some frigging milk drink or a fuzzy navel or White Russian, just because it tasted like a malt. I never did all the hardcore stuff, but it was around everywhere. My focus was always on the writing and trying to suck everything in and absorb everything around me, and you canít absorb too much ifÖitís like a sponge thatís clogged up alreadyÖit doesnít have much room to absorb anything if itís not porous and has space to take it in. If Iíd been all screwed up, I wouldnít have been able to enjoy and learn the way that I did. I just was so focused on the business and meeting people and kind of feeling what everybody was experiencing at that time that I never developed any addictions or bad habits, but it was always around. I saw people getting into that. There was always a lot of drinking and partying going on in our camp, but it was cool because the guys who did it did it respectfully, had control of it and didnít try to get me involved. It was like, ĎLet Steve do his thing, man, heís handling the business; letís go have fun!í I did it and I didnít have any problem with it and I enjoyed doing it. Itís allowed me to understand the business a little bit more. Sometimes Iím like, ĎMan, I shouldíve just stayed drugged all that time instead of learning this nasty business!í (laughs). But I feel like it was a great learning experience so far, and Iím always learning new things. Iím given the opportunity now where I understand whatís going on out there as opposed to a lot of musicians who are just clueless because they never took the time to get involved in it, you know?
RoughEdge.com: Iím sure that was interesting coming up with one of your first running mates, Ratt, who was considered one of the ultimate party bands of the day. You also got involved with Milton Berleís nephew, Marshall, who signed you guys. What was that like? Iím sure that was a great, big whirlwind!
Steve Blaze: It really was, because what happened was Lillian Axe was starting to get really popular all through the South as an unsigned band, and at that time there werenít a whole lot of cover bands doing a lot of real metal, like UFO, Sabbath and the Scorpions. Once we started putting some originals into the set, kind of like a half-and-half set, we got really popular, so a promoter asked us to play on five Ratt shows that were coming through the South. Queensryche was the opener on four of them, Poison on one. We did two shows and next thing you know, the security guy for Ratt comes up to me and says ĎMarshall Berle would like to get your phone number and give you a shout.í So I give him the phone number and it was a Friday and Saturday night show and I was home on Monday morning early when he called and woke me up. At the time, Marshall Berle was a big manager; he was with Crue and he was with Ratt, two of the biggest rock acts going at that time. Everybody knew who the managers were, and he goes ĎHey, Steve, this Marshall Berle; I really like your band. Do you want a record deal?í Isnít that the one question every band prays to hear?
RoughEdge.com: UmmmÖyeah! (laughs)
Steve Blaze: I canít even believe this but Iím being all cool, like, ĎYeah, of course!í (laughs) Iím really screaming on the inside, but I said ĎYes sir, we do.í So we start talking and he tells me Robbin Crosby wants to get into producing and he really liked the band. Then we did three more shows and Marshall flew me out to L.A. where I had dinner at The Friarís Club with him and Milton Berle and a couple of other older guys. I remember Milton going ĎLillian Axe, what kind of name is that?í It was really cool, because I was pretty wide-eyed, but I wasnít really starstruck yet because I was trying to make sure I made the right business moves. But when theyíre picking you up in limos and everythingís paid for and theyíre telling you youíre going to be the next big thing, you kind of believe them! From there we talked to Robbin, and Robbin flew down to Mississippi where I was living at the time, and we got together and had five days in preproduction then we went back and did the album in Los Angeles.
RoughEdge.com: Iíll bet you wish you had a soundbyte of Miltonís quote right about now: "Lillian Axe? What kind of name is that?"
Steve Blaze: I really do! I kind of would like to hear how I reacted to that! Sometimes now Iím pinching myself and saying ĎCome on, Steve, get excited!í but sometimes Iím so over it! (laughs) Iím so business-oriented and focused on our band. Like today, for instance, I had six interviews and Iím so focused on not missing an interview and making sure Iíve got everything in order that sometimes I donít sit back and smell the roses, so to speak, you know? Sometimes I donít just sit back and allow myself to enjoy things as much as I should. Iíve got to sit back and find that kid in me again, you know what Iím saying? I think sometimes you get bogged down with the ups and downs of the business aspect that you forget about the beauty and uniqueness of what youíre doing and why youíre doing it, because the industry is made to be such a commodity-driven thing. All youíre thinking about is Ďhow many records am I going to sell?í and let me tell you something; itís not about wanting to go out sell half a million records so I can bank. Itís about selling half a million records so I can go do another record! I want to sell half a million records so thatíll show me people really get it! Itíll show me the fans really understand what weíre trying to do. Yet youíre fighting the machine the whole time! Does this store have your new record in it? No? Why not? Do they have enough records? This oneís sold out but they havenít reordered. Youíre always thinking about these things, constantly, and sometimes the business aspect of the machine takes over and really makes it difficult for the artist to enjoy it.
RoughEdge.com: I remember the original Headbangers Ball pushing you guys really hard back then, and to me, Lillian Axe was really one of the early metal casualties when MCA broke ties with you in 1990. Did that sudden surge and fall feel like betrayal at all?
Steve Blaze: You know, it really is, and Iíve been betrayed in so many ways, but on the flipside of that, Iíve also been very supported, usually by the fans, and Iím learning, very much so, by a lot of journalists and radio people. As Iím doing a lot of new interviews, Iíve run into a lot of people that are like, ĎMan, Iíve been a fan,í and they know all about the history and they really get it, people who know music and understand and appreciate it, as opposed to certain people that are the bean-counters, so to speak. When we were at MCA, I remember when ďShow a Little LoveĒ (Love and War) started getting some ads at radio and they took me into the office of the national head of radio and he told me ĎMan, this song is going to be a hit!!!í The next thing you know, two weeks later they werenít working it anymore! And honestly, we werenít the only casualty; they would throw a bunch of stuff out there and whatever sticks, great, but weíre going to put as little into it as possible into it. Thatís the problem, there are lots of labels and they want to put as little into it and with the least amount of development and just pray that it sticks. Back when I was a little kid, I was smart enough to not pay attention when I started getting into music, and back in the seventies and early eighties, they were developing their artists! Even a label with 500 bands on it, you had people who worked them and they pushed them and they bled for those acts! Thatís one thing Iím happy about with Metro City, itís almost like theyíre another band member! They really believe and if something goes wrong, they take it like theyíre in the band, and I really appreciate that.
RoughEdge.com: Those three years of touring that Lillian Axe did behind the "Poetic Justice" albumÖ You guys literally hit the road for that one, playing Europe and Japan and Iím sure you had your share of dingy hellholes elsewhere. Give us a brief little tour diary of that moment of time for you.
Steve Blaze: Before "Poetic Justice" came outówhich was our first album with Grand Slamm/IRSóthey put us on a six-week radio tour the same year when Ron Taylor (former vocalist) and I drove around with different radio routes all across the country and in Europe and met everybody and did interviews. We did acoustic sets for 15 people and some for 400 people. We signed autographs, we met people at every stop, we did radio live, we did TV, we just promoted the heck out of the record and it worked and it showed why we had a lot of radio and sales success. Then we went on tour as a band and we did, man, we beat it down! We toured heavy. The one thing I regretted is that things went by way too quick. When ďTrue BelieverĒ was peaking, we shouldíve had a video, because we wouldíve gotten MTV play still at that time. Instead, they jumped right to the next single, which I thought was a bad move, and they did a couple of other singles, which didnít have the same impact as ďTrue Believer.Ē I think they were the wrong singles, and then it was back in the studio to do "Psychoschizophrenia." You canít work a record for six months and then stop and put us in the studio again! Weíve got to stay on it and stick with it! "Psychoschizophrenia" saw us on the road for about six months straight; I think I was home for a night on that tour. It was really bad, States-Europe-States-Europe-States. It drove us crazy and thatís pretty what led to needing to take a bit of a break.
RoughEdge.com: I donít blame you; thatís harsh!
Steve Blaze: Iím not complaining about it because I love touring, but there is a smart way to tour. The more you do it, the more you learn how to do it, and what weíre getting ready to do is not the way to do it! (laughs) Itís like 36 cities in 40 days! Iím definitely not following my own advice by any means!
RoughEdge.com: (laughs) Letís talk more about "Waters Rising." Essentially you have a new crew with Ron having left and now you have Derek LeFevre at the helm. Did you find the process of regenerating this band easy or difficult?
Steve Blaze: There were obstacles already in place. The first obstacle was we hadnít had a studio record out in a long time. How are you going to capture new fans, how are you going to get the old ones back? That was the first obstacle to think about. The second was we had a new singer. What is the existing fan base going to think about that? The hardest people to please and the most obstinate, I guess, was the fans that had become our friends. I literally had a few people that were friends of mine and some who were friends of the friends of the band; they werenít listening to us anymore. Iíd hear, ĎWhat do you mean itís not you and Ron together? Iím not going to listen to you anymore!í Iím like, ĎCome on, man, youíve got to be kidding!í Then I got this outpouring of people, man, and they were like, ĎSteve, whatever you do, weíre there for you! We canít wait to hear it, we know itís going to be a good record.í Thatís the stuff that made me move on. As long as I know Iím doing the right thing, Iím moving on. If Iím my only listener in the world, Iím going to move on. Some people would say ĎYou should do the record, but call it something different!í Lillian Axe is not about me or Ron Taylor or Sam (Poitevent, guitars) or anybody. Itís about the essence of the band, itís about the spirit of the music, itís about the material that we made for the last 15 years. Thatís what the band is about, so Iím not going to put it aside, Iím not going to start it over, Iím going to keep it going and Iím going to make it bigger and better than it was before. Now it may be a bit of an uphill battle to get everybody reacquainted and to bring on the new fans, but you know what? The album will bring on a whole legion of new fans. Now all weíve got to do is just fight the machine, make sure itís in the stores, make sure the tour goes well, make sure we are in everybodyís face, because once the record is listened to, I really think itís going to capture people. Thatís where we are right now.
RoughEdge.com: I like that you hypothetically return to ďFields of YesterdayĒ in song form, and I think itís one of your most impressive tracks on "Waters Rising." You have progressive shades of The Beatles, Pink Floyd and even Enuff ZíNuff with the Lillian kitsch to it all.
Steve Blaze: Itís cool you say that, because I did an interview about three hours ago and they said the same exact thing and the interview I did before that one said the same thing. I have repeating, recurring thoughts from all of you journalists that ďFields of YesterdayĒ is a standout track and itís beautiful. I talk to people who are knowledgeable about music and they get it. You get it, you understand it, and you donít look at it like, ĎUgh, itís eight-and-a-half minutes! I canít have sex with my girlfriend to this song, what am I going to do?í Itís not like that; you understand the textures and the dynamics and the intensity of the song and itís nice to hear, because sometimes people donít understand an epic arrangement of a song like that. They tend to want to get the quick fix and lyrically itís pretty deep! When you hear people who really understand it, that means a lot. It makes me feel like all this work we did and making sure that it was recorded as well as we could, that it all paid off.
RoughEdge.com: I agree and I think what youíre fighting with the other extreme of fans is that this is a 24-7 hurry-up society. Iím always on a crusade against the iPod because I think itís dumbing down our culture and appreciation of art, almost as if itís trying to kill off the album itself as an art form.
Steve Blaze: That is one of the downloading detriments; itís about a song, whereas itís a beautiful thing to be able to pick up (laughs)Öwe used to be able to say the album sleeve, but thatís goneóthe artwork and open it up and read the lyrics along while youíre listening. You can take a look at the artwork and have it kind of enhance how you feel about the band or it makes you think about the album. Itís like when you watch a movie, youíve got the visuals with the sound, and thatís so powerful. If there was no music in a movie, it would have no emotion; it would be just such a difficult thing to watch. Thatís why I love soundtracks so much. Same thing with a record, man, you listen to the album, and even if I know the lyrics, reading the lyrics off of a CD liner note gives me a visual of what the bandís thinking about. Thatís why I think the liner notes and the packaging are an important element, and thatís why we spend a lot of time doing it.
RoughEdge.com: I always think of the first time I had Yesí "90125," a Christmas present from my aunt, and I remember sitting on the floor in my bedroom with that vinyl sleeve in my lap, just studying the words with the music, just letting go and soaking it all upÖ
Steve Blaze: Absolutely, man, and if you think about it, back in the days of vinyl, you really were kind of limited to how much you could put on the inside of an album! With CDs itís great, because you can get these foldouts, and we have a foldout poster type of thing with "Waters Rising" and itís cool. We wanted to do it like that because I wanted people to be able to sit thereÖwhen you look at the liner notes, man, weíve got so much information! We have lyrics and thank yous and ideas and thoughts (laughs), everything! You might need a magnifying glass to see it all, but thatís all part of the intrigue and fun of it, to sit there and read the lyrics. When you read a lyric and you donít hear the song and how it works in the song, you get it, but itís more like poetry. When you hear the lyric with the music, that meaning takes on such an amplified quality. I can see a line and speak it, but then when I sing it with the music, oh, man, it just opens it wide up! I understand exactly what heís saying right there, you know?
RoughEdge.com: Those period costumes you guys are wearing on the album are coolÖ
Steve Blaze: Yeah, itís an Alice in Wonderland theme. We were like, you know, "Waters Rising" is about that inner turmoil and the craziness that we go through that takes over if we donít get ourselves grounded on the inside. This is what it would be if the five of us lost it, you know? Itís like staring off into this apple like weíre trying to figure out the meaning of life. Eric (Morris, bass) is about to fall asleep, Kenís about to put a knife into this doll, Samís playing with a butterfly, Derekís sitting there looking like heís stonedÖthatís what Lillian Axe would look like with lobotomies! (laughs). So the whole Alice in Wonderland thing was inspired by my girlfriend, who loves it and got me hooked on it. Actually, a lot of the clothes we got on eBay. We wanted to find vintage clothes in that timeframe and see if it would work, and we found the coolest stuff, and it really did work. I mean, look at the stuff, man! None of it matches anything, but itís so un-matching that it matches perfectly.
RoughEdge.com: I wanted to touch on Near Life Experience real quick; whatís going on with that band, if anything?
Steve Blaze: We are in the middle of recording a new record. We did two albums that we just put out ourselves, but we are going to shop this one and hopefully get picked up and get it out there to the world. I have a lot of great personal love for this band. Iím singing in it, which I really love and enjoy doing, and itís just a little bit different approach. Actually, ďDeep in the Black,Ē which is a song on the new Lillian record, was kind of written for either band. I didnít know which band it would work with, and itís kind of funny because a lot of my songs work with both bands, but sound completely different if I recorded them with each band. Itís all a chemistry thing. Weíll really try to get this thing out there so we can shop it; obviously weíll go to our label and Lillianís present label too, but itís a lot of fun because Iíve really enjoyed singing, but itís a lot of responsibility to add that on to what Iím doing already. It makes Lillianís responsibility a little lighter onstage (laughs) than when in Near Life fronting and playing guitar! (laughs)
RoughEdge.com: Would you say at this point in Lillian Axeís careeróeven with that short hiatus to catch your breathóthat you feel like youíre just getting revved up with this thing?
Steve Blaze: Yeah, absolutely. I made a promise awhile back that I would do this again. Iím already starting to write for the next record. Thatís the good thing about having a relationship with a label thatís in it for the long haul, where we are a priority and where weíre going to grow together. Iím glad everybody really feels that this album is just the next step, because the next record is going to be even more out there than this one.
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