Lillian Axe: An interview with Steve Blaze

Going inside the '... Temple' with the NOLA hard-rock legends
By Peter Lindblad

Lillian Axe in 2014
True believers in Lillian Axe have had their faith restored in 2014.

Beginning with the Feb. 1 issuing of a comprehensive, limited-edition 13-CD box set entitled Convergence that houses all of their releases from 1988 to 2012, plus a bonus disc of unreleased material, this year also brought a two-CD/DVD document of a special night of acoustic live renderings of Lillian Axe favorites performed in the intimate environs of a Masonic temple before the band's most ardent admirers.

One Night in the Temple, on CME Records, takes the familiar "Storytellers'" and "Unplugged" formats to a whole new level, as Blaze and the boys fielded probing questions from the crowd and shared reflections, anecdotes and thoughts on a wide range of topics, including religion and the experiences that come with years of working in the shark-infested waters of the music industry. Stripped down to the bare essentials in a setting where that proverbial wall that separates artists from their flock is completely reduced to rubble, the songs included here – all the hits, like "True Believer," "Show a Little Love" and "Waters Rising," plus numbers voted on by fans – are all heart and soul, revealing an ability to construct rich, dark melodies and well-crafted harmonies befitting the emotional and spiritual depth of Lillian Axe's lyrics.

Their estimable instrumental chops on display, as Blaze, in particular, shows remarkable dexterity and feel in sketching out tasteful leads and solos, the New Orleans-based Lillian Axe is entirely in its element, their captivating performance filmed in high-definition and accompanied by live footage and videos for "Caged In" and "Death Comes Tomorrow." And they, perhaps more than most of their contemporaries, deserved to have this moment.

They've had videos played on MTV, they've had major record deals and worked with producers like Sylvia Massy, best known for her work with Tool on the albums Undertow and Opiate, and Ratt's Robbin Crosby. They were inducted into the Lousiana Music Hall of Fame in 2010, joining the ranks of Fats Domino, Louis Armstrong, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.

And yet, after spending years plying their trade, they had to endure the neglect of a label that seemed to want nothing to do with them, and then the onset of Grunge made it all but impossible for a heavy-metal acts like Lillian Axe to get a fair shot in the '90s. Blaze talked about the new live release and all the ups and downs Lillian Axe has experienced, from the days spent kicking around the U.S. club circuit  and opening for the likes of Poison, Queensryche and Ratt, to getting signed by Ratt manager Marshall Berle and MCA Records' Irving Azoff and sensing that their careers were about to takeoff, to bitter disappointments and finally, settling in with their present-day lives.

Lillian Axe issued the live release 'One Night
in the Temple'earlier in 2014
How did this acoustic live album evolve from the original plan for it?
Steve Blaze: I had an idea where I wanted to just have Brian, Sam and I in almost a sitting around the campfire type of setting, with about 15 or 20 fans, and we would just play songs, talk about them and just have it be something very small and intimate. I thought that’d be something cool to capture on video and on a record, and just break it down very intimately and see how that would work out. I just thought it was something that might be cool. I always thought it was nice to be able to just sit around and play and talk about the songs and answer the questions people had about the songs and just break them down to their roots I guess. And as we started to put that together, pretty much it was my call, but we decided to get the whole band involved, do it in the studio and let’s get production and let’s have a hundred people. It’s two hours long, it’s catered, and there’s a question-and-answer, we have a contest for it and the whole thing just blew up. It’s still very intimate, because everybody is in a semi-circle and sitting around us in a studio and we have a question-and-answer, and we hung out and we played music, had fun and we talked. And the whole six-hour event wound up being wonderfully captured with seven cameras with a high-def setting, and it took a whole lot of love and time putting this thing together. It really captured a special moment that we had that night, and we were just blessed. Fortunately, we had great people working on it, and the end result wound up being just a really special, magic moment for us.

And you’d never done anything like this before?
SB: No, we haven’t. We did a live album in 2002. This is our first DVD, and this is the first live thing we’ve done like that before. I mean, we’ve done acoustic shows here and there, a few, but we’ve done mostly acoustic specialty type things, like radio and in-stores and that kind of thing. But we’ve never taken a show with the whole band playing acoustically together in any fashion like that, except for twice back in like ’93, we did a couple like that, but it wasn’t to the degree of an event like this thing.
Lillian Axe - One Night in the Temple 2014
Was it difficult choosing the set list?
SB: You know, it’s always kind of tough, just what we’re going to do in any certain environment, because we have so many records, and we have so much to pick from, and you kind of sit back … we were fortunate enough in that we knew we were going to do 20 songs, so we knew we had a lot of time and that we could add a few things that we normally wouldn't be able to. But you sit down and you look at these, and you take about five or six songs that if you don’t play your fans will behead you. And you have to have those in there, and then you just start to kind of look at ones that will be unique. You toy around with the idea of some that you may not have done in the past, and once we rehearse and kind of get the feel for it, and we know it’s going to translate properly, just about every song that we have, we can get to translate correctly acoustically. And then it’s just a matter of which ones are we going to play better, which ones are going to have the indefinable aura about them that’s going to make them work and reach the people emotionally. And that’s it. Of course, we could have added another 20 or 30 songs and been happy, but I think we narrowed it down pretty well. We were pretty much able to cover from the first album all the way to the present, so it’s kind of a history lesson of the band, too. So I think it was not as difficult as most people might think it might have been.

In doing these songs acoustically, did you encounter any problems or did these songs lend themselves to that kind of treatment pretty easily?
SB: The only one that really … and we played this set the night before, and it was “Moonlight in Your Blood,” and I think we just had so much adrenaline that night that I think we played it a little too fast. I mean, I wasn’t really happy with it at the end of the night, and we had to pick one to kind of make the two discs even, and that was the one that I felt like just didn’t really translate as well as the other ones. So we just decided to cancel it from the night, but that was the only one, and we’re probably the only ones that would have noticed anything like that, but we’re pretty hard on ourselves. We just decided to leave that off the record.

Lillian Axe recorded its latest live
CD/DVD release in a Masonic temple
Did you have any history with this particular venue? Why was it the right spot?
SB: Yeah, we actually recorded the last album in this studio, and it’s a Masonic temple. It’s currently where the Masons will have their meetings. And we’ve just got a great relationship with the owner, David Heintz, and we’ve done so much work there. In addition to the Lillian Axe album, I recorded the Circle Of Light record there, and I’ve produced several bands there and I’ve brought many bands and artists into the studio to record. It’s just got a good, real comfortable feeling there. On a kind of a bummer note, about a month ago, the lease ran up and the new owners decided they didn’t want the studio in there anymore. So the studio was actually moved here, and had to find a new location. If anything, it’s kind of a bit of video pictorial of the studio and the kinds of things that were going on in there, so it’s maybe a little bit of a last swan song moment for the studio – kind of a drag, but things happen like that. We were able to get a great album out of there, and we’ve got this history with that place. It’ll always be there, but it has to move on to a new location now. 

Was there a moment from the video or that live set that sticks out to you that you’ll always remember?
SB: Yeah, there really were. The unique moment to me was having the parents of Tripp Roth, and the family of Tripp Roth in the crowd there. Tripp’s a little boy that passed away last year due to an affliction. He was born with a rare disease, and I wrote the song “Bow Your Head,” and the song was written about him and his struggles, and his family was there and it was just very emotional. Just to have them in the crowd, we had special seats on the side of the stage for them. We were able to perform that song and talk about it with the crowd. There were a lot of tears out there in the crowd during that song. We also a guest violin player, Annie Bridges. She played violin on "Bow Your Head." We also had Johnny Vines, the first singer for Lillian Axe before we got signed. He was there and he sang “Misery Loves Company” and he did a duet with Brian on “Nobody Knows.” And then we did a version of “Nobody Knows” where the crowd sang all the vocals by themselves. So moments like that were great. The cool thing about the DVD is that in between songs there’s interviews, backstage footage, rehearsal footage, there’s set-up footage, interviews about what we’re doing, and segments from the question-and-answer, so we really made it more of a documentary than anything. On the DVD, there’s some bonus features on the Blu-ray, there’s a bunch of extras, so there’s about five and half, six hours of material on the Blu-ray packaging, and about five on the DVD packaging. So we really crammed a lot of stuff on there.

Any questions on the Q&A part that took you by surprise?
SB: Not too bad. We actually, prior to the show, asked each one of them to send in five questions, so that we could be a little bit prepared. You don’t want anybody asking, “Who do you think you were in a previous life?” or anything like that (laughs). We wanted to be a little bit prepared, but no, the questions were pretty good. Some of them were personal, and that was fine, asking about our families and that kind of stuff, which we were more than happy to answer. A lot of them were about the songs and how we write, and about the recording, and what we think about certain things or advice we would have – that kind of stuff. So it was really good, and everybody, all five of us, were part of the Q&A. We all got the opportunity to talk, and they all got to ask whoever they wanted whatever questions they wanted. They were very respectful.

Seeing it for the first time, what was your reaction? Was it better in any way than you’d hoped?
SB: It really was. I always set the bar really high, so if it doesn’t hit that, it doesn’t go out. If it doesn’t meet my expectations, it stays until it gets there. And this was right off the bat. It was even better than I thought. Chris LeCoq is the guy that did the editing, and when he showed me the first edit, when I sat down with him, I was blown away by it. I was grinning ear to ear. The way his vision is and how he really relates well and sees things through our eyes, he did a fantastic job and when I sat down with him to work on the edit, there was minimal work on my end, because everything was really well done. But yeah, we were fortunate. It captured the magic and the spiritualism of that night, and he really worked it better than I actually thought he would. And even on the audio side, on the CD, I was amazed how good the sound was. The drums and bass were just striking, and when you have your rhythm section sounding great and is that tight, everything else just falls on in layers. It just fits right on top, and we didn’t spend a lot of time on editing and mixing. We wanted it to be perfect or as good as we could possibly get it, and at the end of the day, I’m extremely proud of the way it came out.

Going into it, did you have any input as to how it was filmed?
SB: I produced it. And everything we do, it goes through me. I have a great cast, but at the end of the day, it’s my responsibility to make sure the band’s vision is portrayed, and all of us in the band are of a very similar mindset. I’m basically the quarterback. So before it goes anywhere, I get with everybody and explain what we’re looking for, but I’m fortunate that I’ve surrounded myself with people that I don’t really have to coach that much. I mean, I’ve got a great engineer. The camera people were fantastic. Basically, I just told them to get lots of shots of everything – film everything, from the crowd to the gear, backstage, just follow us and film everything. I left it up to them to where they felt the best camera angles were. Those guys are professionals; I’m not a camera man. And I just told them what we were looking for and what we wanted and they were great. There were a lot of little details that had to be taken care of.  Not only the recording and mixing out to a different console, but the live mix inside the building itself and we had production, we had mics … all the way down to how many chairs we had. We had to make sure we had enough chairs for a hundred people. We had to make sure the food and the drinks were taken care of, and that everybody was stuffed and was fine, and at the end with the night, everybody knew what to do and how to handle the whole situation. It took months of preparation, and I gotta tell you, we were just blessed it went off without a hitch.

What was the hard-rock scene in Louisiana like in the early days, and how did you get the attention of Ratt’s management?
SB: Well, it was great when we first started. There were clubs everywhere. You could play a different club every night in Louisiana alone, and you would not even have to repeat a performance for another month or two. There were really like 20 or 30 rock clubs, and it was great because bands like Zebra were really good and really close, and Zebra grew up here and were really the ones who started the hard-rock movement with local bands and playing, and they went on to get signed and we were behind them. But they were playing a lot of Zeppelin and classic rock – what we call “classic rock” now, Bowie and the Moody Blues – and we were playing Priest and Sabbath and Van Halen and Ratt, and just like Zebra kind of started introducing their own songs into the set in and out of the cover songs, and that’s where we did that for three or four years. It was fantastic because it was a normal thing to go play in Hammond, La., on a Wednesday night for 500 people. People were going out and supporting the bands that were playing, and we had a huge following. And then we were asked to open up for Ratt, Queensryche and Poison … and then after the second show, the security guy or our tour manager or whatever, stage manager, for Ratt came up to me and said, “I need to get your phone number. Marshall Berle wants to talk to you.” (At the time, Marshall Berle was their manager). That was like one of those moments you talk about and just realize that, holy cow, this is really happening. You know, those were the two biggest rock bands at the time and everybody knew who their manager was. But I got a call two days later, and it’s Marshall. He said, “Steve, it’s Marshall Berle. Do you want a record deal?” Of course, at that time, when you’re in your early 20s, we’re not thinking about the possibility you could ever get screwed over by record companies. We were willing to take it, so we said, “Absolutely.”  So that’s where that began, and we did several shows, and then it was told to us that Robbin Crosby really liked the band and he wanted to produce us, and that Marshall met with Irving Azoff and signed us to MCA and the rest is just a roller-coaster ride.

What was it like working with Robbin Crosby?
SB: Robbin was great. I always tell people, Robbin was really … I call him kind of a fork in the road, because he really … I don’t know, just the whole fame and rock ‘n’ roll part of success, I don’t think he really adjusted to it or really embraced it. He was always such a good man, and he’d say I’m going to give you a call later, and he’d call and say, “I’m not a good guitar player.” I’d be like, “Robbin, you’re with one of the biggest bands in the world, buddy. Just relax. Quit worrying.” He was one of the nicest people in the world. I wanted him to be happy, you know. Great guy, very generous, we had fun working on the album, but I always felt that he didn’t quite really know how to accept the situation that he was in. And I don’t know if that’s what led to his problems, his addictions and whatnot, and it was really too bad, because of anybody I’ve ever met in this industry, he didn’t deserve to have that happen to him.

And this was before he really had his troubles?
SB: I would imagine. We never really ever saw that side of Robbin. I don’t know what went on with him there. I do have a funny story about him though. The last day of our pre-production, he came down to Jackson, Miss., and we had this room that was a rehearsal room that we rented out, and it was in a bad, bad part of town. I don’t know who set this up for us, but we were rehearsing and during the day, he and I went and ate Mexican food. And so, that night, after it was finished, he goes, “All right guys, we’ll do the video next week,” and he broke out the Crown Royal. Well, I was the only one that didn’t drink. For the other guys, Crown Royal was like orange juice. Robbin broke it open and just swigged and guzzled at least half the bottle of Crown, but Robbin was a big guy. And he just completely guzzled that sucker, and all the other guys are taking hits and whatnot. Next thing you know, Robbin went into the backroom and throws up all over the place, and he comes down and wipes his mouth off, like everything is okay. And I’m like, “Holy crap, man. Are you okay?” He said, “Yeah, man. I think my nachos must have had some meat in it today, and I’m a vegetarian.” It wasn’t the half a bottle of Crown he just swigged. It was that he got a little piece of meat in his nachos that made him throw up. And I was like, “Okay, buddy (laughs).” He was a wonderful guy. I just wish I’d gotten to know him more and I wish he was still around. 

What are your feelings about those first two records today?
SB: We’re proud of everything we’ve ever done. In retrospect, you look back and you realize that we were really learning a lot. I really felt that Love and War really was where I started to kind of blossom, because even though we had Robbin on site, I really … those guys gave me room to co-produce. They allowed me to. At the end of the day, my ideas were ... if I said, “No, we’re not doing it like that,” it wouldn’t have happened like that, but I took their advice, and I was learning from it.

Love + War is where I started to learn the edgier side of my psyche I guess, and I started to get more creative, and take a more hands-on role. The first album was like there are the big influences of the time that were a little more clean and polished and straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll, which is heavier than what bands were doing at that time. We changed things with some lyrics and stuff that I probably wouldn’t have changed, but hey, I trusted them, and they did a great job, and I’m cool with that. But at the end of the day, as we progressed, the second record, Love + War, some people still consider that to be our best record that we’ve ever done. It’s like that one record that everybody embraces. I’m very proud of that one. It’s been a whole journey from our debut album up to where we are right now. Every single piece of it has its own every unique special spot, so I’m happy with it. If I could go back and re-record the first album and it would still be like that, then I would have some changes in it sonically, but for that time and what we did and what we created, I thought it was great.  

Poetic Justice was released in 1992, and it had the single “True Believers.” You were on a new label with a couple of new band members. Explain how you ended up on Glamm/I.R.S. and if you thought at the time this album would be a breakthrough for the band?
SB: Well, it was not a secret that MCA didn’t do a thing for us or for the rock bands on the label. Irving Azoff, who signed us to MCA, had left before we’d even started recording the album. He signed us and he left. I think he went to form Giant. And there were other bands on the label and nobody was getting any push, especially us. Even Alice Cooper … when later on, we became friends with Alice, he and I had many conversations about MCA and how bad they treated him. But they’d just give up and just throw things up against the wall. I don’t think they wanted to be a rock label. I thought they were just trying to change and then they’d see what happens. I mean, Elton John was on the label, and they didn’t even seem like they were doing anything for him.

When we left the label in ’92, I knew we were going to get picked up again, because we were favored in the press and the fans liked us. We were still doing well, and I knew how solid we were, so I just started writing. And we just started putting it out there. We did showcases, and then (Brian  McAvoy) from Glamm Slamm/I.R.S. came to see us at a showcase, and said, “This is what I’m going to do and this is what we have,” and I’m telling you, he was the most eager … and I find that be so important and with all my relationships in the music business, the enthusiasm and the desire and appreciation of the band goes a long way with me. I mean, that’s how Brian Jones got my attention to become the singer. He loved the band. McAvoy loved the band. He wanted this band on his label, and he wanted it. And he didn’t have as much money to offer as some of the other labels were offering, but he had something intangible and that was his love and appreciation for us. So we signed with them, and they, out of the box, were all over the album and it showed. We sold records when the label was doing what a label is supposed to be doing. That’s when things were really good. We were all over radio. The only mistake we made I think was not getting a video for “True Believer” right when the thing started charting, but in retrospect, who knows?  We did two records there, and we moved on to the next chapter.

What are your favorite memories of recording Love + War and Poetic Justice?
SB: Well, one thing about Love + War was that an earthquake as we were doing vocals for “Show a Little Love” and I just remember that the whole studio shook. It wasn’t a big, bad earthquake, but it was the only one that I felt. Actually, there was one that hit the day before that, and then this must have been an aftershock or whatever. They were both freaky, one I was sleeping in our hotel and the other one was while we were doing the vocals, but on the whole, looking back on the essence of what we were doing right there, it was at the Enterprise in Burbank, and James Ingram, the singer or vocalist who won all those Grammys, he was recording right there. Ozzy was just finishing his recording. It was a big, expensive studio, and we spent a lot of money in that place, and it was where I really started to feel comfortable in taking a much more hands-on approach to everything. And we went to Poetic Justice, and that was great, because it was up in Baltimore, and we were in Sheffiel Audio/Visual – this huge complex with one of these big boards. And they just pulled out all the stops for us. I mean, they built a basketball hoop in the parking lot for us. We were out in these beautiful grounds out kind of in the woods. There wasn’t a lot of traffic in there. They really just changed for us. And we went back and did Psychoschizophrenia there … we really knew we were creating something there, and we were really writing and getting comfortable and my direction was starting to really solidify, and I was experimenting with a side of me that was always there that I didn’t know if I could really let out without the record company or radio saying, “No, that’s not what you should be doing now.” I think right up through … Justice was where we were really … I knew who we were and what we were going to be.

With Psychoschizophrenia, I know at that time Grunge was coming in. Did that record just not have a chance because of that?
SB: Well, our two biggest-selling records were right at the beginning of the Grunge scene. Poetic Justice came out right when the Grunge thing really hit. So if those records had come out five or six years earlier, I mean, God knows how big we could have been. You don’t know, but yeah, it really was, and it’s kind of a shame because we’d just started to get press and the music industry just … we called them “sheeple.” Nobody had an individual instinct. They just followed what everybody said … somebody just said, “Hair metal is dead,” and then it was like all the ignorant in the world just looked at him and said, “Oh well, you must be right.” And then everything started changing, and it was very juvenile. Nobody had enough inner strength, or I don’t know what you want to call it … guts? They just assumed it was done.

You don’t just try to kill off an era of music just so you have something new to say in the press. It was ridiculous, but there was such a big deal made of it. What should have happened was the labels said, “You know what? This kind of music is always going to be around. Keep supporting it, don’t all of a sudden shut out all of your rock ‘n’ roll bands and go find a bunch of new grunge bands.” And that’s what everybody did. And it was sinful. It just shows what a bunch of spineless people were running the industry. It’s still like that, but we did what we had to do. We write our music. That’s all we do. You’re not going to find us changing our style of music, and be the pitiful, whining all day long. We know how we are. We’re going to stick to it. That’s what we’ve been doing for 25 years.

How do you feel the material on the last four albums stacks up with that of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s work?
SB: I see it as just a part of the entire timeline. It fits perfectly. We had a little bit of a break. We were very stressed out in the industry, and we wanted to try to do different things. I knew we’d be getting back together, and we did, and several years had gone by, and we put out Fields of Yesterday, and this live record, and then it was like it had been nine years since Psychoschizophrenia, but I think Water’s Rising was the next logical step. I didn’t think about in any other way other than this is what is coming out of me right now. I don’t think about it. I don’t plan it. These are my ideas. This is what I want to hear. This is what I like to write.

It’s almost like two chapters of the band. There’s the first 11 or 10 years and then the last 15. And they both coincide well with each other. The first half is the first chapter and the second half is the second chapter, and you put them together. We still play “Dream of a Lifetime” or “Show a Little Love,” and it works just as well now as it did back then and it still sounds as heavy and modern as the stuff we’re doing now. It all comes together as a band, and it’s all in the way that we perform. It all works together. It’s just part of our growth. I probably personally listen more to the last four records than the first four, but I mean I like them more. There is a more metal, somber, darker edge to my writing. That’s just me. I hate to use those terms, but I actually look in the thesaurus to try to find words that mean the same thing (laughs). I don’t know how to say it, just maybe a different shade of the same color. The older you get, the more you want to scream about the things that bother you. I think the next record will be the most intense thing we’ve ever done, because of my ideas now and the way that I’ve got things orchestrated in my head as I’m starting to demo them. It’s going to be very deep and intense, from everything lyrically and conceptually to the types of orchestration and the things I plan on doing with the next record. 

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