Bang Tango frontman Joe Leste has been free of alcohol for about 200 days. He still smokes weed like a madman, he says with a chuckle, but claims that his wild partying days are behind him, and he now prefers to spend his free time with his wife and dogs in Phoenix, where he’s lived for the last 15 years.
“I’m not the most interesting man in the world anymore, since I quit drinking,” he says. But he certainly isn’t the least.
Bang Tango formed in Los Angeles in 1987, in the middle of the neon-lit debauched days of the Sunset Strip–centered sleaze-rock scene. Their debut album, Psycho Café, was released in 1989 and spawned the minor MTV hit “Someone Like You.” Their sophomore effort, Dancin’ on Coals, came out two years later but underperformed commercially, prompting MCA Records to decide not to release the band's third record, 1994's Love After Death, in the United States. To this day, Love After Death has never seen a proper domestic release — which is a real shame, because those latter songs sound great live. But money talks.
“We got stuck, we were misplaced,” Leste says. “You had a very eclectic group of different bands, and if you played the Sunset Strip in that period of time, you were just considered sleaze rock. You got lumped in — it’s a real bummer. Especially for a band like ourselves, and there were a lot more, too. I’m not a believer in sitting around and crying about the past, though.”
Some might say that should be the end of that. A major-label deal wasn’t enough to propel Bang Tango into the big leagues alongside the likes of Poison and Skid Row. But Joe Leste is one determined Californian. He realized that, while the upper reaches of the Billboard charts are unlikely, the people who do like Bang Tango are loyal, and the band’s releases were treated very well by the critics. There is an audience for the music, even if it’s not stadium-filling.
“Bang Tango is my baby,” Leste says. “We make music to make music. We play shows to play shows. We don’t rely on it in a financial way in any shape or form. It’s like if you ride motocross. You go out and lump that bike out on the weekends, and continue doing it no matter what. I love doing it, and I’ve been with the same guys for a long time now. We just enjoy the company of being around each other, hanging out like a group of guys, and playing shows.”
Bang Tango has gone in and out of existence over the past couple of decades. At the start of the new millennium, Leste formed the Beautiful Creatures with future Guns N’ Roses guitarist DJ Ashba. In 2017, Leste has both Beautiful Creatures and Bang Tango active. Besides the occasional special event, he is the only original member of Bang Tango remaining — but he's proud of the lineup he currently works with.
“Rowan Robertson, my guitar player, used to play with Dio,” Leste says. “Lance Eric is the bass player and Timmy Russell is our drummer. We’re a fun band. There are so many issues going on in the world and the United States, and we’re there to try to ease the pain. We’re there to have fun. We’re not political. We just want to rock & roll, man.”
Oh, that’s for sure. There’s nothing deep or brow-furrowing about Bang Tango, even if the music is more dynamic and soulful that it was ever given credit for. But Leste is pragmatic and extremely optimistic. He’s grateful that people dig his tunes, and for the fact that he can play on nostalgia-heavy bills such as Hair Nation and the Monsters of Rock Cruise.
“It’s like a big family reunion,” Leste says. “I grew up with the guys in Faster Pussycat, Ratt and L.A. Guns. Now, did I own anybody’s music when I was younger? No. But we’re all kind of the same age, so we probably were all listening to old Aerosmith and Rolling Stones.”
In 2015, a feature-length Bang Tango documentary, Attack of Life, was released to little fanfare. It’s now available to watch on YouTube. The film tells the predictable tale of a band with a cult following that didn’t shift enough units and eventually imploded, before resurfacing with Leste and a revolving lineup of musicians. The singer does not like the film but, weirdly enough, director Drew Fortier joined Bang Tango as second guitarist shortly after its completion.
“Back in my drinking days I made a lot of stupid mistakes, one of which was letting Drew do that movie,” he says. “Drew’s a good friend of mine — I don’t have anything bad to say about him. But the whole thing ends with us at an empty arena. It’s like, ‘Thanks, Drew.’ Bang Tango played great shows after that, but he didn’t have that on there. Most of the guys in the band were very let down by it. Some people complimented it. I guess it’s very self-deprecating."
On Friday, Bang Tango plays the Whisky A Go-Go, one of the band’s old haunts. (Though Fortier is still a member of the band, Leste says, he won't be appearing at this show.) In fact, Bang Tango were signed after a showcase at the Whisky back in the day. Clearly, it’s a room filled with great memories, a special venue for a man happy to have any sort of legacy at all.
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“I used to think about bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Led Zeppelin,” Leste says. “You go through a period where you think, ‘How do these guys keep going?’ Then you go through a period where you think, ‘Nah, I don’t wanna see them.’ Then 10 years later, they’re still doing it and you think, ‘Wow, I’ve gotta go see them.’ I look at it like that. I’m a strong believer that perseverance pays off.”
Later during the the interview, Leste swears, unprompted, that he’s never done porn, then does a vocal impersonation of Cheech, Chong and Janis Joplin engaging in a threesome. With new material from Bang Tango and Beautiful Creatures on the horizon, it’s clear that the singer is his same old wild, manic, driven self. Who needs booze?
Bang Tango play the Whisky a Go-Go on Friday, Jan. 20.