Steve Blaze and Brian Jones talk music, history and the future
By Rob “The Metal Master” McNees & Amy McNees
Foreward: In the past thirty years there has probably not been a bigger supporter of the Houston metal scene than Rob “The Metal Master” McNees. It is only natural that he would transition from fan and supporter, to reporter. Accompanied by his wife, photographer and journalist Amy, the couple has provided this stellar debut interview with the band that has always been a staple on the Texas metal circuit; Louisiana Music Hall of Famers Lillian Axe.
Rob and Amy sat down with band founder and guitarist Steve Blaze and vocalist Brian Jones on March 16, 2013 when the band rolled into Houston to take over the Concert Pub North.
-Wendy Jasper. Senior Staff Writer, Rivethead Magazine
Rob: What made Steve Blaze decide that he was going to be in rock and roll? What was the thing? Everybody has a defining moment, something that you saw or something you heard. What was it?
Steve: My parents gave me a guitar for my sixth birthday. So I was kind of, you know, coerced into doing that against any knowledge that I was going to do anything like that. They bought me a guitar and I started guitar lessons right away. I was doing classical and flamenco for a while. I think as far as what made me really knew I wanted to be in a hard rock band was when I saw Alice Cooper on TV. When I was a kid my dad and I saw him in concert. Now I liked music and I started listening to AM radio top songs.
Rob: That is all there was for the longest time. I mean…
Steve: When I started listening to the radio in the 70s is where I really learned about song writing. It was bands like the Bee Gees, Bread, Don McLean, Gordon Lightfoot, Elton John that were song writers. It wasn’t really hard rock bands. The only hard rock bands were like Sabbath and Zeppelin. I started really getting into just songs and the craft of writing songs, the melody and what not, before I actually really wanted to be in a hard rock band. When I first learned about bands like Sabbath and Priest and bands like that, that were doing heavy stuff, they were applying those melodies from these songwriters to a harder edge sound. I would listen to the Sabbath Paranoid album. In my kitchen we had a stereo system. I would put a record on in the living room and the speakers were in the kitchen. So my mom would be in the kitchen cooking and cleaning and I would be in there singing Electric Funeral to her while she was making pot roast. That is when I really decided, and so the first thing was trying to translate my classical guitar playing and reading and knowledge of how to write and read and all that into learning how to feel and develop my ear and write songs. The first part of that was really like mimicking Kiss and Sabbath with the way they look and the way they sing. Alice Cooper was really the first with how they took melody and basically what I was listening to, classical music, in just a whole different way to present it to people. Melody is melody period, you know. You can take the same melody line and make a country song, a jazz song, a pop song, a rap song…maybe not a rap song but a metal song, a hard rock song, out of any melody just with placing the right things around it. I just really got into that when I was like seventeen and started the guitar club in my high school. I started getting into Rush and stuff like that and got in my first band when I was 18. I started learning covers and playing gigs and then developed into writing my own stuff and in ’83 started Lillian Axe. The rest was all history, a giant bible of events.
BECAUSE THE MUSIC MATTERS!!!
Rob: How about you, Brian? What was your defining moment?
Brian: Listening to bands like Thin Lizzy, Steppenwolf, bands my dad raised me on, Alice Cooper…that came later on. I just remember my dad always playing them. I guess I was 7 or 8 when I started playing guitar, listening to bands like Steppenwolf and Thin Lizzy. That’s all I ever wanted to do. I was just inundated with music. I couldn’t think of anything else. Everybody else wanted to be a fireman, a policeman or what not. I always wanted to be a musician. I started at the age of 14. I started gigging for money. That’s all I ever did and here I am now. I started in music kind of like Steve said. He obviously has more of a classical background in his playing and stuff. I was trained somewhat on guitar and my parents were very supportive, so I just kind of took that road and I couldn’t ever stop. I never really saw myself doing anything else. I mean I went to college and I have a college degree in information business systems, which is networking, but this is what I have always wanted to do.
Rob: Think of all the athletes in the world who give up everything to pursue sports and they flunk out and then it’s like the end for them.
Brian: I was always the kid that just came home from school and just stayed in their room, you know, just practicing guitar and listening to music. It is always what I wanted to do. I kind of sacrificed my friendships when I was younger, kept to myself, and played music.
Rob: It’s weird, you know. We live in a digital age now. I don’t know how old you are. I’m almost 50, so I remember staying up late on Friday nights watching Midnight Special. I remember Saturdays waiting for Don Kersh’s rock concert.
Brian: That’s what I saw Alice Cooper on.
Rob: That’s what I’m talking about. I mean, maybe rock wasn’t nearly as visual. I mean you had Kiss and Alice Cooper. That’s what I remember growing up seeing, and I don’t think the kids today have that.
Steve: They don’t.
Rob: They have YouTube and this and that.
Steve: They’re inundated with everything so they become numb to the special, but you know they are missing out on the excitement of even seeing that on TV or even going and finding a magazine with one picture of Alice Cooper in it.
Rob: So you plastered him all over your wall.
Steve: Absolutely. I bought every copy they had in the place you know; and going to the record store and finding that one copy Billion Dollar Babies left. They don’t understand that. They are spoiled and they get everything. Everything is thrown at them and that’s why I think the music business is in the tank right now.
Amy: I had the pleasure of taking our daughter a couple of years ago at the rodeo here in Houston and she dressed the part. She put on the wig and the Paul Stanley makeup. She actually got second place at school in her costume contest.
Steve: Oh really?
Amy: Yes she did.
Steve: I am amazed any schools let them do that.
Amy: Nobody knew who that was (Paul Stanley) except her teachers. They were like, “Oh wow! Kiss! That’s so cool!”
Steve: Isn’t that sad?
Amy: Very sad. Kids these days are so deprived. I grew up in the 80s watching MTV when it was MTV and not the garbage it is now. That’s why I try to keep her into that kind of music. Too many kids these days are infused with the pop culture garbage.
Steve: It’s horrible.
Amy: I hate it. I hate it.
Steve: The Rihannas and the Chris Browns and the Beyonces and all that kind of stuff?
Amy: Beyonce who?
Brian: I do like Pink, though. Pink writes her own stuff.
Rob: So, I was reading your blog about your European tour. I actually had the pleasure to go to Europe one time in my life. The passions that the Europeans have for music is unbelievable. I mean, the South Americans have it too. Everybody except our country. There are a few people like us who have the passion but it is few and far between. When you get to go to Europe, what does that do for you, the artist, to have people just screaming the lyrics in a room full of people as opposed to a handful of people?
Steve: You know, I got an email today from a guy from Bangladesh and then I got one the other day from a girl from Tehran.
Rob: That could actually be detrimental to their health!
Steve: It seems like it could be risky for them. The way that they feel music…you know, when you go over there and you see the people coming after the shows and how much it means to them. We were in Amsterdam and we were doing an acoustic show and this guy got up and sang Bow Your Head with us. He was like, almost in tears. It’s an emotional song anyway. People overseas tell you how much music means to them. It’s a different nerve than when people tell you that over here because like I said before, we’re very spoiled and we take a lot of things for granted, especially the younger generation. At that age we did too, but it’s different. We weren’t with things media-wise. We weren’t bullshitted and lied to like the media does to everybody now. I know some kids that are so ridiculously spoiled and it has turned them into little assholes. A lot of it has to do with a lack of parental skills
Rob: That’s a big factor in this day and time.
Steve: I am not going to let my kid do that. I’m already teaching him what not to do. Of course he’s spoiled as shit but that’s a really big problem that we have to do with. People ask, “Why do you think the music industry is in the tank?” There is nothing special. Sure there are ten million bands. There weren’t ten million bands when I was a kid. I was lucky to find four or five that I cared about but I was looking all the time. Record labels didn’t just put out 50 records and just throw the shit out there. They believed in an artist. They nurtured them and built them. It’s not like that anymore. It’s a shame. We have had to write our own rules. We’ve done it and we’ll keep doing what we feel is best for us.
Rob: As an artist I know you’re married and have a young son and we touched on that a minute ago. Is it hard? How do you deal with that and explain that and make it work?
Steve: It is what I do. When my son was first born I had to go out a couple of times, and we keep it to 3 to 4 weeks tops. You notice most tours work like that. Not only is it financially stressful and I don’t care if you’re doing arenas or clubs. It’s stressful financially period. The bigger place you go the more expenses you have and nobody is going home like they used to. We try to keep it where we’re not killing ourselves. On the personal side if you don’t have your family and your family life and your personal life it affects everything else. Last tour we went out to Europe and did the America Rocks tour. We were gone for a good bit and that was really hard because it was getting to the point where my son was talking a lot. That was a hard thing, especially Europe, because they charge you to pick up the phone. You’re lucky to be able to get a phone signal in some places and the roaming rates everywhere…I had a $1,200 phone bill for three weeks just from a couple of minutes a day. But that is part of what we do you know, all the years and years of it when we first started going out on the road and being away from girlfriends and family…that kind of sets you up now where you know how to handle it a little bit better. It is not necessarily easy.
Brian: It’s never easy. He and I are the only fathers in the band. Of course he’s got Jude, who is three. I have three which are 5, 3, and 2 so needless he and I shared a few tears on the tour. Like today, for instance, my daughter was in the ER. That hit home for me because I’ve never had to deal with it.
Rob: Is everything okay?
Brian: Yeah, she’s fine. Her white blood cell count was a little up. I went up to Steve crying about it. That was very stressful.
Steve: Well the fact of the matter is we like our families. A lot of people are like, “Oh go on a vacation for a little while!”
Brian: Steve’s a home body with his children and his wife. I am the same way. When I’m not gigging I’m home. He is the same way, and we love spending time with our families. We’re already family but on the road we are all we have.
Rob: Well as a fan I think it keep you, the artist, more grounded as opposed to the Axel Rose thing. You have families and you more or less live the same lifestyles that we live.
Steve: When you have a responsibility that goes that deep to the core it teaches you how to be responsible with what we’re doing out here. If someone came up to me and said, “Hey, have a cocktail,” I would feel guilty about it because all I would think about is not wanting my son to see me drinking, even if it’s harmless. I mean that’s a little over the top, but that’s just how I feel.
Brian: I have not had a sip in several years. We’re the only guys who don’t drink.
Steve: I’m a control freak too and I have a lot of responsibilities from this band so if I would up doing that I shouldn’t be doing not only would I be letting my family down but I would also be letting the band down. There is too much to do. The older you get, the more you get through that. I mean we had all that fun when we were younger. Now we have fun coming and doing this. We have more fun playing now. Before it was like everything around it was so much more fun, you know.
Rob: I knew you guys had the record deal, right? So young guys…
Steve: (laughs) We’ve had eight record deals!
Rob: So you guys went to L.A., right? You did the whole thing, you left Baton Rouge so you guys could go to the big California…sex, drugs, rock and roll, right?
Steve: Yeah there was a good nine to ten years of all that.
Brian: But you never did the drugs part?
Steve: No I never did it. It was always around, and some of the other guys at the time did that. I was pretty much doing the next thing for the band, making sure everything was taken care of business wise and that we were growing. I never liked drinking. I never liked what it did to me. I’m thankful for that because if I liked it, it might have taken me another direction.
Rob: Explain how you got the Angel gig. In 1979 was my first concert, with Angel and Ted Nugent at the Summit in Houston. Angel was the first band I ever saw live. I went by myself. I don’t have any siblings or anything. I’m intimidated and freaked out going in this place. I walk in and there’s a fog floating around. People are smoking. The lights went out and then Angel showed up, you know, and to this day I am still a huge fan. How did that happen for you? I mean, I know you guys…I don’t know if there’s anything still going…I mean, it never officially stopped. I know Fred lives in Vegas and he does stuff there.
Steve: In ’95 we took a break with Lillian Axe. I was writing for what would have been the next record, and a lot of songs wound up showing up on Waters Rising seven years later. We had just finished touring for Psychoschizophrenia. I was really finding my path writing and where I was taking the band for the next album. I think it freaked a couple of the guys out a little bit because for lack of better term it was a little darker.
Brian: Yeah it was a lot different from She Likes It On Top.
Steve: But you know what? I don’t know about that because it was the next chapter but I mean I was getting a craftier style poking inside of me. Everybody always throws that term out there, if that makes sense. You know, the tongue and cheek stuff and the innuendo stuff I was more or less like…spiritually digging into things that other people would not normally write about. I think some of the other guys wanted to be more poppy Stone Temple Pilots kind of thing.
Rob: It was the 90’s.
Steve: And I was like, okay, everybody wanted to go and do different things so I went off and did Near Life Experience, which was really crazy stuff. I did that for a few years and then started feeling like, you know, we gotta get Lillian back. The fans wouldn’t let up on us. So we went to Japan, we put out a B-side album Fields of Yesterday, and kind of got the band back together again. We started doing shows, more or less like reunion shows, and people were really liking it a lot. I was talking to Gordon Gebert who was playing keyboards at one time and he was writing a book on rock & roll war stories. He wanted me to give him a story for his book. We started talking and he said, “Yeah, I’m playing in Angel.” I was like, “What?!” I have loved listening to Angel since I was a kid. I had all their records and posters in my room. I liked them better than KISS when I was a kid. I was like, “You’re in Angel? Are you serious? I didn’t even know if they were together anymore.” He said, “Actually, we’re looking for a guitar player. Would you be interested in auditioning?” I said, “Is the pope Catholic? Absolutely!” So they flew me over there and I auditioned. At two songs into it I could tell there were like…you got the gig, you got the gig. I knew the stuff better than they did. After they had other guys come and audition the manager came up to me and told me to just hang out, you got the gig. I was like, “Okay, great, let’s do it!” We rehearsed, we did several weeks of shows, and then we drove back. A year later we did some more shows…but it got to the point where Frank was really bummed out at the way the industry was going, how hard it was. I guess he wanted to be jumping back into the auditorium again, and it just doesn’t work like that, not anymore. I kept suggesting to go ahead and do a new record of the best of the old things, re-record them with the new band. As much as I loved the old recordings, sonically they were terrible. Let’s go ahead with new technology and put the new recording with the new band on a new label. They tried to put out a new album that was horrible. I told them to get the band solidified first. Then let the kids of today hear the old stuff recorded edgier, louder, and fuller, and we’ll take it from there. He didn’t want to do it. Randy Gregg was out playing in another band. I was doing Lillian. Gordon was playing keyboards and then we got Michael T. Ross. We actually did some Angel shows without keyboards. Gordon just could not “gel” with everybody so we got Michael T. Ross to take over. We have not done anything in years. If they called me up and wanted to do it and I had the time I would be glad to but Lillian takes up all my time.
This is not enough Lillian Axe coverage for you? Then read Wendy Jasper's in-depth expose article right here! More dish! More dirt! More Axe!
Features - Lillian Axe
Rob: As a member of the Louisiana Rock & Roll Hall of Fame of Music, I am going to say that was probably very unexpected.
Steve: We never even thought that they even had one. To be honest with you, the city of New Orleans and the state never supported rock bands. They don’t ever give anybody any respect, even to this day, so when it came down that we were told by a friend of ours who knew the president and they wanted to induct us, I was like, “Really?!” I did my research and saw that there were no hard rock bands in it, so we were the first hard rock band to be in there with Fats Domino and Louis Armstrong, and the list goes on. That was one of those vindicating moments where you feel like all the bullshit you put up with from everybody and the lack of respect from your own state..now the fans…that’s a different story. The fans have always been great. Our fans are great worldwide. They get it and they feel what we are doing. That has been the one accolade that we have received that has really meant a lot. It shows that you are being appreciated on a larger level than by the local radio stations that don’t play it, the local newspapers that don’t give a shit, so that’s a great thing. We’re humbled.
Rob: You actually have a new album out on AFM records.
Steve: In the states it’s actually called CME records. It’s distributed through Sony Red, and we’re part of Megaforce. We have a new record coming out in the summer time. It’s a live unplugged album, and a DVD and Blu-Ray that goes along with it. We did a contest a month ago and 60 contest winners got to come to New Orleans to the studio where we record. We had 100 chairs, a stage, lighting, and seven cameras. We recorded an unplugged show, an hour of questions and answers, and two one-hour shows with material from every record in a storyteller format. I talked about the songs. The crowd got to ask us all questions. It was a 5 and a half hour long thing. It was a religious experience for everybody. We had it catered. Everybody was really amazing. From what I heard we did a real good job of capturing the moments that night. We had a violin player come in. We had Johnny Vines, our very original singer, sing a song, the whole crowd sang Nobody Knows by themselves, we had a song called Bow Your Head I wrote about a little boy that passed away. His whole family was there, including his mother. It was a really emotional night. It was great to do all these songs unplugged. It took about three months of careful planning to pull this off.
Rob(to Brian): Your story is your dad took you to see Lillian Axe, right? And you became a fan. Tell us about that.
Brian: I ended up going to the Lillian Axe to the Max show. It was one of my top 3 favorite bands. For no rhyme or reason I just loved Lillian Axe. At the time they were playing a lot in Houston. This was right after Steve signed his deal with MCA. I started going to shows when I was 11. Steve was always real gracious and always talked to me. I was that little kid asking a bunch of questions. I know I had to get on his nerves but he was always took his time with me. I probably saw him a good 14 or 15 times. We maintained a good friendship over the years. I would call him and keep in touch with him. After he got married to Julie I spoke with him prior to him having Jude, his son. We just kept in touch and it came about. Like I said, this is music I grew up on. Today when I still talk about it, it is very surreal, even for my friends, even more so than me. I am with them all the time. I don’t take it for granted. I mean, sometimes I get frustrated at myself at not doing as good as I want to do. And I don’t mind saying this and Steve wouldn’t mind either, but with someone like Ron, who is an amazing singer, is someone I look up to. It’s hard to step in someone’s shoes like that. I try not to necessarily emulate what they do but keep the integrity of the song and bring your own perspective in it. Inevitably, Steve wrote these songs and they just put a voice to it. That is always a hard thing to do and you always have it in the back of your mind. Steve warned me that some fans will be more warming to you than others because you are the new guy. Luckily I have been very blessed. I am very thankful to God because I really haven’t had any issues. Everyone has been very welcoming to me. But to answer your question, I had heard that Derek left the band, I think he wanted to stop touring. He wanted to gig but to do it more locally. I called Steve and put my name in the hat. At the time I had a cover band called Papercut Massacre on Windup records and we had just been dropped. I was kind of down in the dumps. It was the latter part of 2009, and I believe we spoke in mid-2010. I sent him some stuff, he sent me some stuff. I got an audition, and it was very nerve-racking and scary. I played in front of thousands of people with Papercut Massacre, but I had never been so scared in my life. I was totally freaked out that day. He kept me wondering for about eight months.
Steve: When you are working on your third singer it is the most difficult element to replace.
Rob: Well that is the recognizable thing. That is what everyone knows and hears.
Steve: No matter what anybody says, that really is the most crucial element. Can you take the band to where it is going for the next chapter? I have dealt with plenty of great singers and talented musicians. It is the personal side of them that always seems to be the fault of me. I wanted to make sure I knew him as a person and find out if he was going to be able to handle himself in certain situations and be here for the long haul. When you audition for a band, you should know everything about it. Once you join a band it’s a family, it’s not a job. It should be an integral part of your life. To me it’s God, family, and my band.
Rob: The interesting thing is you guys did something that as far as I know has never been done before. You got together with your original band, but instead of getting rid of the band you have now you all came up with a new name, Circle of Light, and put out music. As far as I know I have never heard of any band doing a reunion of original members and basically starting as another band.
Steve: It was a weird situation because what happened is when MCA signed me, they just signed me. They pretty much put me in a situation where you either sign with a new label and you can reform the band or see you later, you can go back to your band. For whatever their reasons were they wanted me to do a whole new band. Whether or not I agreed with it, those were the cards that were dealt to me. It was a pretty heavy decision to make. At the time there were things going on with the original lineup. We were not going to last very long because there was way too much stuff going on inside. Do I take the opportunity and move on or do I stay and in three months we could be dissolved? I made the determination and we went on. Twenty-something years later I was able to mend the fences and get them back and say, “Hey look, there’s a bunch of songs that we were playing in the very early days that I never used on any Lillian Axe records. Let’s reform them, get together, call the band Circle of Light, which is one of the songs, and go do a record. And we did. People love it.
Rob: I just think that’s amazing because like I said, as far as I know I have never heard of that happening before. It’s a great story.
Steve: Not only musically is it great but on an emotional and spiritual level it is great too. These guys have been my friends for several years and it was great to have them back. They were hurt by the situation. Everybody was. You take situations, you make the best out of them, you make the best decisions, and try not to hurt other people. I had to weigh a lot of things out.
Afterward - As you can see, not only has Lillian Axe maintained the fan base that they have enjoyed for so many years, but they are reaching out to new audiences and building a larger base with each show. This band is a family and they consider their fans a big part of that family; and who better than The Metal Master and company to pull such honest and forthright answers out of one of the South’s most popular bands! -WJ