American rock legends Lillian Axe made a welcome return to these shores (as part of their first UK tour in 29 years!) and the first date of that jaunt was at Bilston’s The Robin (reviewed here). In honour of this auspicious occasion The Midlands Rocks managed to corner guitarist and songwriter Steve Blaze and vocalist Brent Graham for an in-depth chat that focused on their critically acclaimed new album, From Womb To Tomb (reviewed here).
The band’s history has been well documented so we needn’t go into that here, but I wonder if we could fill in a few blanks. Can you tell me about your earliest musical memories?
Steve Blaze: I started playing guitar aged six. I remember the day I walked into the backyard of my house and my parents had brought me an acoustic guitar for my sixth birthday, I can still see it. It was an acoustic guitar in a cardboard box, and they had it sitting on the picnic table in the backyard. I started taking guitar lessons right away, and about three of four months into taking lessons in school, the teacher told my parents I’d out grown the class, and I needed to go take private lessons. So, that’s what I did, and I had lessons playing flamenco for years.
Then what was your introduction to rock and metal?
Steve: At the age of about 12 I started listening to the radio. It was mainly AM, with a few stations, and that was it. So, I started listening to the songs rather than the guitar playing, I didn’t care to much about the guitar, because I was focused in on learning the songs. We didn’t have CD players or even tapes, if you were lucky your parents might have some vinyl, so guitar to me was all I was playing. Radio in the ‘70s was when the songwriters were the best. You had Simon and Garfunkel, Don McLean, Bread, The Eagles…so that’s what I got into. Then hearing Alice Cooper, with my love of horror and the paranormal, Alice Cooper came along with School’s Out in ‘72, and that was it. My dad brought me School’s Out on vinyl, I open the desk with the ladies panties wrapped ‘round the vinyl. That was the introduction, then I got into early Sabbath, Priest, Black Oak Arkansas. Anything that was hard rock in the mid-70’s, but I always leaned towards the great songs; I didn’t care if it was hard rock or pop, just the great songs and beautiful harmonies, and that’s what influenced me from the beginning.
Brent Graham: I started out as a drummer and, going back to how I started in music, I got a Mickey Mouse drum set, and I had a brother in the next room who was a drummer, so I’d go over to watch him. So, I was always dabbling in music, and we decided to form a band around the age 13. That was when the ‘80s hard rock was coming out, and I started getting into that. There were so many bands I listened to as a kid, some who weren’t hard rock. Outfield were one of my favourite bands, because of the harmonies, then hard rock; Skid Row, Dokken, Queensryche, that’s the era I grew up in, and as I got older, I went back to the older stuff; Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and now I’m going back to listen to the singer/songwriters…
Is Steve introducing you to all that stuff?
Brent: I think so. He and I have talked about becoming an acoustic duo, as a side project, where we can go out and play those types of songs. Steve and I have always harmonised real well together, so it’d be easy for us to go and do something like that. Being around Steve has broadened my horizons.
Lillian Axe hail from New Orleans. While it has a rich musical history, I don’t really think of it as a rock environment.
Steve: It’s more known for blues and swamp pop, and things like that. The first hard rock started off with us and a band called Zebra. It was more in the style of Queen and Led Zeppelin, and before Lillian Axe was signed, we were playing covers of Aerosmith and Judas Priest, and Zebra was covering all Zeppelin stuff, Bowie and Moody Blues, so when we were coming up, we were the first people in Louisiana doing hard rock stuff. It’s been a blessing and a curse, it’s cool because we’re kind of unique down there, but by the same token, the media, the press and the booking agents, all cater to the blues and what brings in people with the money. It’s strange we can go out and sell a million records and we wn’t get the front page of a magazine, but the new blues guy, who has only done two shows, they’ll put him on the cover.
Do you think coming from that environment has helped you shape a unique sound?
Steve: Yes, because nobody else was doing it. We were the band setting the trends, all the other bands were coming up, and we let them open for us, and that’s always been a good thing. We’ve never been a band who fit any mould, they call us prog metal now, it was hair metal, then AOR, and epic metal. Enough, you know you’re doing the right thing when nobody can really pin you down.
Coming bang up to date; this is your first UK tour in 29 years. What took you so long to come back?
Steve: I was waiting on Brent! We played a festival date 10 years ago, but touring through? Not since the mid-90’s, and I can’t wait to see all the people. It’s cool because some of these people who’ve been following us for years, they never had a chance to see us play. I know when we played FireFest, there was just a sea of people who were just so thankful that we came over. That’s the fulfilling part, so I’m really jazzed up about this week.
The tour is a hectic schedule; seven gigs in seven days. What’s your survival plan?
Steve: Well, last time we were in Europe, we did 17 shows in 19 days. We are warriors. Some bands are like, ‘Oh my God, it’s three hours between cities’, for us that’s like going to the grocery store. I think the longest drive here is eight hours or something, we drove to Gatlinburg on the way here to a festival, 18 hours, but we enjoy it. We like being around each other, we rarely bicker. We’ve been doing this a long time, and all that matters is the hour-and-a-half that we’re on stage.
And how will you look after your voice?
Brent: I’ve thought about it a lot. We originally were going to have one day off, and that was,’OK, great’, and then we thought, while we’re over there were going to make the best of it, so now were playing the whole seven days. I’ve got advice from people who have done it their whole life, and just stay hydrated, and just get some rest. So far, the rest hasn’t worked out too well, but hopefully, that’ll get better. But, staying hydrated is the big one.
You’ve brought New York’s Riot Act along as a support act. How do you think the bands will mesh together on this tour?
Steve: A piece of cake. We’ve met the guys, and they’re all wonderful, so it’s going to be fun. I was a fan of theirs when I was in high school, I’ve just met the guys and they’re all very, very nice. We’ve played with everybody from Judas Priest to Alice Cooper to the Stray Cats, we’re the easiest people to get along with. We hang out with the fans after the show, sign everything, and that’s why we’ve been appreciated by our fans, and we love hanging out with other bands. That’s how we got our new drummer, Wayne [Stokely]. He was drumming with our support band for three months, we hung out, got to be friends, and now he’s our drummer.
Now you are signed to Global Rock Records. You were the first band on their roster. Was that a risk?
Steve: Let me tell you something, I’ve had two major label deals, six indies, and this is my ninth record deal, every one of them is a risk. You go with your gut, and when we signed for this album, they reissued our whole back catalogue, that tells me they’re in for the long haul. They’ve been wonderful so far, the president and A&R have been wonderful so far; upfront, honest, and they’ve done what they said they were going to do. But it’s like dating, you never know what you’re going to get, you check ‘em out the first couple of dates, the next time you find out she’s the one…or she has a criminal past, and four husbands! But seriously, so far, we are very, very pleased.
Your new album, From Womb To Tomb, dropped recently. How long did it take from birth to conception?
Steve: The concept was always in my head for years and years and years. A friend reminded me that I told him the title From Womb To Tomb nine years ago, but I’m always into timing, I don’t rush things, I go with my gut instinct, and I’m glad because it got to this point with having Brent on vocals, and Wayne drumming, it took that to make it the way it turned out to be. We started recording about three years ago, but we did it in a unique way, we stopped after Psychoschizophrenia doing one instrument at a time. On that album and Poetic [Justice] we’d work on three or four songs and then do the rest, but on this album it’s one song at a time, and they’re recorded in the same order that the songs are on the album. We wanted the whole concept to be: the first song is ‘Breathe’; it’s about this part of the human experience, let’s get our heads into that. What can we do to make this song portray that idea? And then we’ll move onto the next one. Maybe three or four of the songs were already written, that I was waiting to use, and some were written brand new. We already had half the album recorded and several of the songs hadn’t been written yet. Some of the writing was spontaneous, and I think that’s why the album flows as well as it does. It’s not only about sounding fluid, it’s the overall essence of the record, when you listen to it from top to bottom, there are all those intangible things; it’s the whole emotions you feel when you listen to it. Even though it sounds spontaneous, the whole idea of how to do it was put together a while ago.
In many ways From Womb To Tomb reminds me of an old school concept album, like Pink Floyd’s The Wall or The Who’s Quadrophenia.
Steve: Concept records can go one of two ways, they can be ridiculously boring because it can be the same song for an hour, and I wanted there to be more chapters, but they have to flow together, I think The Wall has always been an album that has been at the forefront of my mind, and giving me ideas to make it as powerful. We have interludes, which I’ve always been a big fan of, we do them live on stage, and having those fluid moments sets people up for the transition. We’ve been joking around that our next album will be a double, but we’ll see.
For the past 10 years many bands were just focusing on single tracks, but it seems that the whole Idea of a full-length album is making a comeback.
Steve: It seems like people are hungry for something of substance, I sure hope so.
Brent: I think it has something to do with the resurgence of vinyl. When I go to record stores, I see a lot of young kids buying vinyl, they’re buying this album that’s meant to be played, there’s no skipping around, unless you want to be getting up and down, there’s no remote control for the vinyl player. So, when people buy these records they’re listening to them like they were originally intended.
Earlier we talked about your musical influences. I wonder what inspiration did you draw on for this album?
Steve: I feel like my brain is a big blender, I don’t just get influenced by music, I get influenced a lot by visual things. I see everything, I suck it up, and it all goes in here, then when it’s time to get creative, I hit the switch and it throws out everything I’ve see. I get a lot of my visuals from movies, from weather, but musically, I’m influenced by everything. However, Queen are one band we get linked to where influences are concerned. Some people down in Louisiana say Zebra were like Led Zeppelin and we were like Queen. I don’t know musically if we sound like them, but in terms of taking risks, Queen to me were the greatest band ever. The way they approached things, they just didn’t care. I listen to a lot of soundtracks and many people have said they can see this album as a movie. I think it’s cool that different people see different things.
The album also reminds me of Pet Sounds. Not so much musically, but because it is multi-layered.
Steve: Pet Sounds was considered highly innovative because of the layers, and that’s the thing, we work with lots of layers that you might not even hear, but you’ll feel them, people say they’ve listened to this for the 75th time and they hear things they’ve never heard before. I think that’s cool.
So how will you go about replicating the album live? There’s only so much you can do on stage?
Steve: Another thing I learned from Queen; I don’t know if you heard ‘Ogre Battle’ from Queen II? It’s full of layers of guitars, and has harmonies all over it, but when they played it live they did the best possible version they could do. When we play, we don’t use backing tracks, if a song has a piano part, I’ll play it on guitar. If we ever get to the point where we can, we might take a keyboard player out with us, but as for the layers, they’re there to make things sound big. But when you’re playing it live, you’re feeling it, you don’t have to add keyboards underneath. There will be some songs that are impossible to play unless we take a keyboard player, so we’ll either do a guitar version, or we just won’t play it live.
Would you ever consider orchestrating these song with a full symphony orchestra?
Steve: Yes. We’ve talked about it, that would be an amazing thing to dowith this album from top to bottom with an orchestra and a choir, and maybe some other songs from our past that have beautiful string sections. We would like to do that.
I wonder if having Brent in the band has opened up new vocal avenues for you?
Steve: Not only did it open up new vocal avenues, it brought a whole new attitude, a whole new ability. I don’t really write to fit a singer, I know he’ll be able to do it, but I hear him singing it when I’m writing. If I ever write something that he’s uncomfortable with, we’ll just readapt it, but I don’t think that’ll ever be an issue, we haven’t had anything come even close. I look at the voice as an instrument, and it is the most important instrument.
How was it singing the tracks of From Tomb To Womb?
Brent: Well, Steve always wants to capture emotion, it’s more about lets get the feel, it’s like if you’re singing a melancholic song, you’ve got to get in that mindset. Singing these songs on the new record, some were easier for me than others, there were some parts that were done in one take. Steve wrote the songs so he knows how he wants it to sound, and how he wants certain words pronounced. I wouldn’t say it was a challenge doing it, I had a great time recording it, it was gruelling sometimes because we were aiming for that one special performance, so I had to sing a line 20 times, because once it’s out in the world, if you’re not happy, it’s too late. I really enjoyed making this record, I’m not only proud of what I did on it, but I’m proud of the whole record. It’s probably one of my greatest achievements.
And how was it making Steve’s ideas three-dimensional?
Brent: We did a raw demo, and if he has the lyrics he sings them and gives them to me, or if he doesn’t have lyrics yet, he’ll hum a melody line, and he’ll tell me exactly what he’s trying to capture in this song. So, for most of the songs I had them months before we went into the studio, so I sang along with them at home, and try to get that vibe that he’s trying to capture, and I think that helped tremendously. I think there was only a few songs we got a week before we were going to record them so we had to spend more time in the studio. Steve would guide me and say ‘I need more attitude; I need your strong voice’. He knows what he wants, and look at his track record, his success speaks for itself.
Steve: It’s also about the kind of person who is performing it. If I write a song about death or happiness or whatever, it’s not like I’m writing a song about robbing a bank. He doesn’t know what that’s like, I don’t know what that’s like, and that’s another thing about having like-minded people, and we talk about the song content a lot, and probably to excess, just to get him in the mindset. Outside of the band he’s one of my best friends, so we think alike, we have the same ideas, goals, and morals, so it’s not like I’m relaying ideas that are alien to him. I tell him to put his own emotion to it. My job is just to get the performance out. I’m pretty set on the melody lines, because I write them like an instrument, we’ll play around here and there, but I’ve worked with these melodies a lot. We do experiment in the studio with the harmonies, which is kind of fun, but it is tedious, and people don’t understand that. And it’s for no other reason than getting that perfect performance. He can go back and listen to that record, and I can guarantee there’s not a line on there that anybody can say that shouldn’t be on there. All I care about is right now. When we go back and listen to it, we’re not thinking about the hours and hours we spent on one little part, and nobody cares about all the time we put in, all they care about is what happens when they listen to it.
You self-produced the record. How is it being objective about your own work?
Steve: One thing I’ve always been blessed with is having good engineers, and that’s the most important thing for me. It’s all about having that engineer who you have ESP with. As far as producing it, being as I wrote the stuff, the arrangements are pretty solid, and in the case of ‘Ascension’, I thought what am I going to do to make this ending a crescendo, and not bring you down again, but leave you hanging up there. My job as a producer is not to change the songs, if I was producing somebody else’s record I may have some suggestions, but it’s about getting the best performances, and the best pieces and to work with the engineer to piece the puzzle, and that’s the hardest thing sometimes.
How are involved are you in the band’s artistic direction? The sleeve that houses From Womb To Tomb is very striking.
Steve: Our album covers have always had a lot of thought and have been unique to that album. This cover was done by Todd Schmidt. He and I worked on the concept, he’s the one who put it all together, and made it beautiful. I wanted the lyrics in the booklet, I wanted black and white, because of the contrast with life and death. I didn’t want things to be too obvious, and Todd came up with the idea of an inverted tree.
This past year Lillian Axe have had a really strong presence in the media and online. Is it because of the new band members, and does it feel like a symbolic rebirth?
Steve: Yes, in many ways it is. This album is symbolic of, let’s say, a new chapter. We always try to give the fans something, whether it’s me and Brent giving a man cave show during Covid. During Covid we were performing shows from my garage every weekend, just to let people know we’re here and still working, and we’re going to keep continue doing that, and sometimes that’s the only way you can reach people is through that media presence, and plus, we enjoy doing it. We do meet and greets after every show, hang out and sign stuff. I think it’s important.
Brent: I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of the bands I grew up listening to, and pretty much all of them have been kind and generous, and that goes a long way. It makes me want to be more of a fan and buy their new album when it comes out. I know since I’ve been in the band, we love meeting people and respond to them on line. We do our best to engage with our fans, and we like them to feel like their part of a family, and that’s a special feeling.
Finally, what are your short term and long term plans for Lillian Axe?
Steve: Short term, we’ve got some club and festival dates when we get home. We’re probably going to enter into a new management deal, we’re working on another video, and we’ll be playing as much as possible, starting to write the next album, and build on the past 35 years another 35. Long term, we’re hoping that this album catches and sells well for us. The response has been really, really good so far, but things are different now. If we’d have sold as many copies in one week of From Womb To Tomb as we did when Poetic Justice came out, we’d be number one on the Billboard chart. We realise things have changed, so we’re going to roll with it, I know that once this record is out there and the word spreads, it’s going to exponentially grow.