Musical responsibility - an interview with Steve Blaze of Lillian Axe
In a city that's produced jazz greats like Louis Armstrong, Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, and Jelly Roll Morton - just to name a few - it's difficult not think of jazz when New Orleans comes to mind. But to most of the rest of the world, jazz is even secondary to Mardi Gras as being what the city is famous for. But the fact of the matter is that there's a lot more to Paris than the Eiffel Tower...the Golden Gate Bridge is not the only cool thing to see in San Francisco...and riding on a gondola is not the only activity to do while visiting Italy. Likewise, New Orleans is not just about Mardi Gras and jazz music alone.
Better Than Ezra and Down are a couple of non-jazz bands who hail from New Orleans and have done quite well for themselves. Likewise, NOLA hard rockers Lillian Axe are also one of the city's success stories and just as much a part of the New Orleans music scene as say Kermit Ruffins or Wynton Marsalis. Formed in the early 1980's and despite a seemingly revolving door of band members, Lillian Axe has stood the test of time and managed to continually put out album after album of guitar crunching anthems as well as beautifully soaring ballads.
On Valentine's Day this year, the Lillian Axe boys will be handing New Orleans and the rest of the world a gem of a studio project. XI The Days Before Tomorrow is the name of the band's 11th studio album, and guitarist, producer, and song writer Steve Blazeis confident that this is the best Lillian Axe album thus far...
"I really think so. You know, you get that kind of feeling that it's starting to be molded and put into shape and everything just starts to align correctly, the sounds are good, you're happy and don't have regrets. It's just one of those things - you really don't realize it until you have the art work and the final copy in your hands and you can actually take the eight, nine months of work that you put into it and kind of digest it and sit back and look at it as a work. And I was very, very happy. A lot of people put in a lot of effort on that record."
Playing Devil's Advocate for a moment, has Blaze ever felt that way about any of the previous albums when they've came out?
"You know, I haven't felt as confident about a record ever. With like the first two records we were still new to the business. It's like I always tend to worry - because I have so many different hats in this band - I tend to worry about the mechanical aspect of it and the operational, and the label, and all that kind of stuff, all the other different aspects of putting out a record and don't ever really sit back and just say, 'Hey, forget about that for one second...sit back and listen to your record and see what you've done.' And I've done that on this album. I guess the more that we do this - the more experience that we get - the more I realize that if we do as much as we can, the label does, the people who work for us, the publicist, the radio guys, the band, the rest of it - you can micromanage it so hard that at the end of the day there's really just have to let it do it's thing. Put it in God's hands, let him guide me, let him take the album. So I tended to on this record, because of the fact that I have really good people working around me to be able to not get so caught up in the label aspect and the distribution and all that kind of stuff - that's going to happen no matter, I have enough people pushing me and making sure I'm doing everything right. And I'm such a control freak anyway that that's going to happen no matter what. But I haven't felt this - not necessarily confident - but I've felt better at the end of the day that I had really been apart of creating a very concise, cohesive, powerful record. I feel great about all of them but sometimes you're like, 'Well, I'm not totally sold on the mix - I wish we had more time to mix, I wish I'd done this a little differently.' At the end of the day though I'm always about 99% really, really completely satisfied with the work."
Blaze continues: "I was telling someone the other day it's kind of a shame because when you do this for such a long period of time you tend to get a little jaded, a little desensitized, and you get to the point where it is almost impossible to sit back objectively and just listen to the record like it was somebody else's, like if somebody just went, 'Hey, listen to this album.' But I was on my way back from New Orleans last night and I listened to the whole record again for like the 200th time, and I had to call Brian on the phone and wake him up, and [say] 'Dude, I just got to tell you man, you were phenomenal on this record. I'm really, really proud of you, you did such a great job.'"
Going in to write and record the new album, XI The Days Before Tomorrow, Lillian Axe was working with a new label and a new vocalist - do these factors create a freshness factor even for a band that's been around since the early 80s?
"Every time you have a fresh start on something it's kind of a two-edged sword. On one hand you feel like this is going to be the start of a new chapter because that's all this is just a big long journey with tons of rooms in it and they're all connected, you just move forward. And then there's the whole other element which is that you have to go and get the approval of the fans in the world again. We've become a world of critics, everybody's opinion has to be known has to be heard whether it's a valid one or not, whether it's an educated one or not. And people can be your biggest fan in the world and they still feel like they have to give an opinion and it always comes in kind of a very speculative, almost negative, like, 'Ok, let me go ahead and see , I'll let you know if this cool or not.'" [Blaze laughs] "You know what I'm saying? If you love the band and if you love the past 10 records and we have a new singer, I'm still writing the songs, I want you to get excited, not: 'Alright, I have some reservations here, there's a new singer - let me call some people up and let's see what we think...' And you get that sometimes and it's kind of funny but that's the whole other side is like you know that you are moving forward and you are trying to advance but I'm not going to get a singer that's not going to work. If I know about him I'm not going to go, 'Oh we'll just take this guy, he's ok.' It took us a year to get to where we knew we needed to be. And that took some faith, but it happens all the time you see bands all over the place with new singers. Poor Quiet Riot, I feel for them because you know what? You don't know if he's the right guy until you go out and do shows with you, you don't know if he's the right guy until you tour with him, put him on a record. It's hard when you have to make a replacement like that to deal with it and make sure that it is the proper thing because you don't know what somebody's like until you get in bed with him - you have no idea. So that's what happened with Ronny Munroe - people were like, 'You can't keep a singer!' No, no, no, that isn't it. And you don't know, you can't just like go out and go, 'We had a hamburger together and we got along great - you're going to be my new singer.' There are so many different things that have to be taken into consideration, so on that aspect I think the concern over making the rest of the world happy with your choice is almost as equally on your mind as is the excitement as a new start. And until you actually - you know with Brian's first record, the guy's phenomenal - I know he sings great, he's a great front man, he's a great human being. But you don't know exactly. What if we're on the road and, I don't know, he has to paint himself black and sleep in the nude..." [laughs] "I don't know, you never know the kind of weirdo things that people do. And you have to spend a lot of time together, and we did and it was great. And then I sit back and listen to record, like I told you last night, and I had to call him and tell him what a great job he did. He's moving me and we were sweating this thing every day in the studio and working hard, screaming and yelling and fighting and laughing to make this record. At the end of the day it was a good thing and the good outweighs the obstacles."
In a field where the ego can so easily become inflated, it's refreshing to see someone who is so humbled and appreciative of his band-mates:
"Some people jokingly say that Lillian has always been about Steve and no it hasn't. It's about me, Ken, Eric, Sam, whoever was the singer, now it's about Brian. It's about the crew, it's about our families, and my manager and publicist, it's about our girlfriends and wives and kids, those are the people - we all have a part in this, whatever it is, whether it's inspiration, support, being in that studio, being on that road, setting up gear. I don't do that by myself, I have a lot of help, and I have a lot of responsibility and I may be the quarterback so to speak but I'm 1/100th of the whole piece. I've got a great band and those guys are phenomenal musicians and it's a team. I tell them all the time, by no means do I think that it's all about me - it's nothing about me and the big scheme of things it's about God and my life. So everybody has a piece of this."
Are there any things that Blaze does to continue to grow as a guitarist, a song writer, and a producer?
"Honest to God, people must think I must practice three or four hours a day but I don't. I don't sit down and think I've got to run through my scales. I've been playing since I was six so I think that although I may be able to do things differently and improve on my technique and that, I think maybe years ago I established who I was and how I expressed myself with my guitar. But as a writer that all stems from just living my life and growing, and I'll say a huge part of my experience comes from my two-year old, my little boy. He has been a total inspiration for everything that I do at this point and that really helps me as far as the growth thing is concerned, as far as learning about life. You take a whole different outlook on things when the only thing you think about is getting home to hang out with my little two-year old. You start looking the other things that aren't as important in life and then you look at the things that are incredibly more important now. All of my songs - I've been accused of this, mostly now but back in the beginning I kind of showed just little pieces here and there, but I've always been accused of: 'you write some pretty dark, deep stuff,' I think people just don't understand that when they use the word dark that it comes across to people incorrectly. Dark can be a beautiful thing too. You can't misconstrue that and think that dark means evil. When you start digging in and getting in deep to what life is and what we're here for, it gets really scary and people don't really want to face that. But everything I write about, even if the topic is kind of upsetting or makes you think or makes you sad or angry, there's always a silver lining and there's always a positive twist to it in the end. For example, I wrote this song Bow Your Head about this little boy who had this rare skin disease. I wrote the song about six or seven months ago and he just died a couple weeks ago. And saddest song I think I've ever written - or one of them at least - it makes me cry when I listen to it. But my wife was telling me, 'Oh my God, when they hear this song it's going to make them upset.' And I told her I don't want to do that. But at the end of the day I'm talking about angels coming down and taking this baby's pain away from him and then taking him back home."
"But talking about inspiration, I get inspired by movies a lot, I get inspired by traveling, any experience that upsets me more than anything. Because when something upsets me I know that I can write about it and I'll turn it around and bring it to people's attention but still create a solution for it as well - I feel I have to fix all the wrongs. So that's kind of where I am, I don't really have any secrets or anything, something's it's just a phrase that inspires me or I'll meet somebody, or I'll see a news story or something. It's always something where I feel like if I don't write a song about this then I'm not going to be able to sleep," chuckles Blaze. "I'm not a politician - maybe I should have been - so I can't lobby for passing bills and laws, but what I'd rather do is change people on the inside so that they strength and they have the ability to change their lives and understand things with a more open view - less pessimistic - and go, 'Yeah, you know that did really suck, that was a bad situation but you know what? I just got inspired that every though this is going on, this is a beautiful planet and there's some good people out there, there's not all bad, and there's a way that I can be at peace with these kinds of things.' Because that's the problem, I think a lot of it is that I'm not at peace with the way a lot of the people are on this planet; the way they treat each other and that's how I express it. Hopefully there are songs that I've written over the years that have helped people get through their lives going through bad times, it's a heavy thing, it's a lot of responsibility but because I accept the responsibility. I'm not a musician that just [says], 'Hey man, I'm making music, I don't have any responsibility to our fans.' But you do to a certain degree. If I was sitting on a street corner playing for myself then that would be a different story, but I'm actually selling records, I'm actually admitting that I'm trying to do something for positivity, so I do have a responsibility to be honest."
"Any time that you are a product of what you do and of sorts you have a responsibility there. I'm not buying that I'm not a role model. If you're not a role model then don't do interviews, don't go be a sports announcer, don't use your personality as a method for you to make money. Just go do your thing and go, 'I don't want the responsibility of being a role model so no interviews, I don't want to be in the public.' There are guys that that's what they live for is having people tell them how great they are and being in the public eye."
Although the new album won't hit stores until Valentine's Day, February 14, the official record release party was held on Saturday, February 4 at The Howlin' Wolf in New Orleans. When teasing Blaze that everyone there will probably being telling him how great he is he laughed and then said in earnest, "Actually, I'd rather them tell me how great the album is."
"But I'm not going to lie to you, everyone on the planet wants to be accepted, everybody wants to be appreciated. I want to just be able to keep on doing this, I want to keep making music, I want to keep on having the ability to make records until I pass away; whatever it takes. And it's a great thing when you're able move a lot of people."
And when will Lillian Axe begin moving live audiences with the new material?
"Our agent's putting together a package tour right now for the next few months. We know we're playing a festival in Europe in October and we're trying to go to Europe before then. And we're trying to put together a couple of different U.S. tours between now and summertime. So we're just waiting to find out, we should know in the next couple of weeks when and where we're going to be."
In 2010, Lillian Axe was the first hard rock band to be inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. Is this an achievement, not just musically, but also because of being honored by your home state as well?
"It is very personal because we've never gotten the respect or appreciation from New Orleans, from the press there, from the magazines, from the newspapers - and just us, there's another band from down here that's a phenomenal band and done so much for the rock scene and never gotten any respect from the city where we both started. It's sad and it angers me to a point. But the state recognizes us; we're in there with Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino and Chubby Checker, and you know that's the real test of appreciation. And that's vindication from all the lack [of press] because we're a rock band, we don't play jazz or blues or zydeco, 'So let's snub them...' And it's sickening, but on a personal level, we've had longevity - we've been around for a long time, set the pace for a lot of people around here, and we're at our peak right now as a band - this is the strongest thing we've ever done and we have plenty more to go so that really allows me to feel that end of the day, if nothing else happens musically for the rest of my life that is a huge compliment and shows me that we are appreciated. It's all about the fans, we've got great fans all over the world, that's one thing I'm excited about tonight because people are coming in from a lot of places and I just hope I have time to see and hang with everybody because I know that it's going to be insane."
The new Lillian Axe album, XI The Days Before Tomorrow, will be hitting stores on Tuesday, February 14, or click here to pre-order your copy today.
And stay tuned for more information on Lillian Axe on tour.