For those of us raised in Los Angeles (not counting Silver Lake transplants who are too cool, or lazy, to drive west of Vine) partying and playing music on the Sunset Strip is a right of passage. Love it or loathe it, we all have at least one West Hollywood experience that we'll never forget: playing video games with Motorhead's Lemmy or swapping cooking recipes with Pantera's Vinnie Paul at the Rainbow; smoking a joint with Faith No More's Mike “Puffy” Bordin outside the Troubadour; dodging groupies' air-born panties outside Tower Records while interviewing Ozzy Osbourne; drinking too much tequila and inevitably starting a mosh pit during Guns N' Roses' “Night Train” as Slash rocks the stage during a secret show at the Roxy… yep, all true, and that's not even scratching
my the surface.
L.A. band Warner Drive can relate. “As a kid, before I really started playing music, I loved the scene,” Warner Drive frontman Jonny Law told L.A. Weekly. “I wanted to emulate a lot of it — the bad boys and the trouble with the law and all that stuff. But when I started playing music, I wanted to be different. I realized pretty quick that the business and the industry was changing and you couldn't just be a rock star anymore. You couldn't just drink and be creative and screw around all the time. You had to have business savvy.”
Warner Drive has seen it all, done a lot of it, and still emerged as one of the Strip's next-big-thing rock bands. Tonight the band headlines the Viper Room as part of the third annual Sunset Strip Music Festival, which kicked off Thursday with a tribute to its 2010 honoree Slash at the House of Blues, and later a headlining gig by Filter at the Roxy.
We caught up with Warner Drive's Jonny Law and drummer Jonny U prior to the band's Viper Room gig to chat Hollywood business savvy, meeting one's idols, and why their band will never pay-to-play.
L.A. Weekly: From an L.A. born and raised musician's point of view, what was it like growing up with the history of the West Hollywood rock scene, the wild stories, and now being right in the midst of it?
Jonny Law: As a kid, before I really started playing music, I loved the scene. I wanted to emulate a lot of it — the bad boys and the trouble with the law and all that stuff. But when I started playing music, I wanted to be different. I realized pretty quick that the business and the industry was changing and you couldn't just be a rock star anymore. You couldn't just drink and be creative and screw around all the time. You had to have business savvy. Which was weird because growing up, those were the bands that I idolized. Everything was in my backyard. It was kind of ironic that when I actually started making a real go at playing music, I really didn't want any of that stuff. I wanted to separate myself from trouble and partying too much. My vision of what a rock star was not what I'm doing, that's for damn sure. It's a whole new world. Everyone says it's such a bad time in the industry, but realistically it's a time in the industry where there's never been so much good music available to the public. There's more music out there than there's ever been. Your chance of making a living as a working musician today is 100 times greater than it was in the past. But your chance of hitting it huge is 100 times less than it was in the past. The whole scene's different. From a musician's standpoint and from someone who grew up here, I saw pretty quick that you couldn't just be a rock star. You couldn't just be the creative party guy.
Or throw TVs out the window just for shits and giggles.
Jonny Law: Exactly. That's not to say we don't have fun and we don't do those kinds of things, but there's a time and a place. We definitely know how to be responsible and get down to business because that's what this is about. We gotta get down to business if we want to make a career doing what we love. With that said, if anyone would have told me that we'd be going out and playing on tour with bands like Jet or Ratt, the Killers, Fuel, CKY — we've toured with all these bands — but if you'd have told me that I'd be doing that when I was a kid, I would have said there's no way, you've gotta be kidding me. It's totally humbling and surreal at times. There's no situation I enjoy more than being up on stage in front of a ton of people when we're opening for a national band and you're either gonna crash and burn and get bottles thrown at you, or you're going to win people over. I love that. The adrenaline. That's not to say that I don't love playing for our fans at home, I do. I love selling out the Roxy, the House of Blues, the Key Club, and having 90% of those people be our fans because that's a different energy. That's an energy where everyone knows your songs and knows you and it's more of a party feel. Playing with CKY or Jet, when there are thousands of people there who know nothing about you and want to hate you, to get up there and win those people over, that's a whole different feeling.
Starting a band in L.A. and finding the right combination of personalities and talent… back in the day bands like Guns N' Roses placed want ads in the Penny Saver or whatnot… what was your experience putting together a band and recruiting musicians?
Jonny Law: I never had to answer a want ad or put out a want ad. I got really lucky. Warner Drive started with four kids who all were neighbors and lived on Warner Drive — [laughs] that's where the name came from — and a few of the guys moved on. One of them had serious drug problems by the time we were 15, one of them had two kids by the time he was 19, so that whole aspect about our roots is kind of gone. But I got very lucky in that we had built up the band and had built up enough of a reputation around town that when it was time for me to get new band members, I didn't have to look very hard. It was a really seamless transition. I count my lucky stars that I have these guys in my band. Our personalities are fantastic. We spend three weeks out of every month on the road in a van together and for the most part we all get along really well [laughs].
A lot of what this festival is about is celebrating West Hollywood and celebrating the Sunset Strip. What do you think is the enduring allure of the Strip after all these years?
Jonny Law: The heritage gives it it's reputation. Everywhere in the world people know about the Viper Room, the Roxy, the Whisky. They know that The Doors came out of the Whisky, they know that River Phoenix died at the Viper Room. There's something about the heritage of the Sunset Strip and what's happened here that really hasn't happened in too many places in the world. Sunset Strip has been the center of rock-and-roll for decades. If we have anything to do about it, I'd love to be the next band that breaks and becomes really successful from here and one day people talk about us, 10 or 20 or 30 years from now going, “Yeah man, Warner Drive used to be the house band here at the Viper Room.” We'll see. The pay-to-play thing that happened on the Strip in the late '90s really killed the scene. It stopped being about the music. Now, with people like Nic Adler who really want to see something different happen and want to get it back to the way it used to be, there's more integrity. I definitely feel like something's changing and there are a few bands out there on the Strip that are making noise and catching people's attention. The scene is coming back. The time is right. It's ripe for a change.Jonny U: The Viper Room and the Roxy are probably our two homes. We hang at the Viper Room when we're not playing there and when we play at the Roxy it's like family. I really respect Nic Adler and everything that he's done with the Roxy. It still feels like a rock club when you go there. I think the Whisky could be a really cool place but the problem is they do the pay-to-play thing. It seems so un-genuine to what the history is. There was a time when all these awesome bands made their start there and now it's gotten to a point where bands are borderline embarrassed to say that they play at the Whisky. Places like the Viper Room and the Roxy, I think the reason why they've survived so much is because they're not a pay-to-play venues. For the most part, if you pay your dues and your band can draw, you can get a show at these places. I think that's why ultimately they outshine the Whisky, even though the Whisky has got a lot of history. Another difference about the Whisky from the other clubs is that [security is] really rough going in. They'll take your chain wallet and the won't let you do this or that. People just don't like to go places where they're bullied by the security.
Warner Drive has an EP coming out in October called Feeling Lucky but I heard you might be changing that name.
Jonny Law: Yeah, we have something interesting up our sleeves. I had a vision when we were on the road. We don't want to say too much yet because we don't know how far we're going to go with it but it could be a really fun surprise. Not just for our fans, but it's a whole new idea about how to put out a CD. I don't think anyone's done this before and I'm researching it pretty heavily to make sure. If that's the case it should be a really fun release.
What's one of your favorite memories of the Sunset Strip? Whether it was being underage and trying to sneak into a gig or selling out your first show…
Jonny U: One of them is my very first Warner Drive show, March 20, 2009, and we sold out the Roxy. There was a line all the way down from the Roxy to Frankie & Johnnie's Pizza. I knew that they were a popular local band but I really just had no idea. That was probably my favorite experience as far as the Sunset Strip goes, even though we've played there several times since and every time has been great. We played the Roxy with CKY not too long ago, and with Camp Freddy. But that first show was the first time I ever played a sold out show on the Sunset Strip. It was kind of a big deal for me.
Jonny Law: There are so many because I did grow up here and I've seen so many amazing bands. I saw Katy Perry play at the Knitting Factory in front of 10 people before she blew up, I've seen huge bands play at tiny venues. It's been amazing to grow up here and see all that. Some of the most surreal moments I've had as a musician weren't even so much on the Sunset Strip. I know Slash is really heavily involved in what's going on this year with the Sunset Strip Music Festival. Warner Drive did our first record with Mike Clink who did all the Guns N' Roses records, and Slash's locker is in Mike's studio. I remember the first day I walked in to the studio, there were Les Pauls in cases lining the walls. Hundreds and hundreds of Les Pauls. All of them had “Slash” spray painted across them. I remember looking at them and being like, “Oh my God. This is the real fuckin' deal. This is amazing.”
This one time we were in the studio with Mike and Slash came in to visit. We were in pre-production at the time, we're in the jam room and we're playing, and I look out and see this guy leaned over the console with Mike, and he's jamming out to what we're doing. I look over at my bass player — and we didn't stop playing — but I mouthed, “That's Slash!” [Laughs] And my bass player's like, “Yeah it is!” Those moments have been pretty surreal, especially working with someone like Mike who is an A-list producer. When you meet people like Slash, you want those people to view you as a peer rather than as a fan, you know? But it's so hard when you do grow up idolizing those guys. I think I even said to Slash the first time I met him, “Look, I'm trying to be cool here but I am a huge fuckin' fan.” [Laughs] So those memories really stick out. L.A. is an amazing place.
Is the Viper Room a significant venue to you guys?
Jonny U: The Viper Room, out of all the places we've ever played, actually is probably the best. Whenever people travel in from other states to see the band they always come when we're playing the Viper Room. It's definitely a great place for us and a place we consider home. We hang out there when we're not playing. [Tonight's show] should be a really good time. I'm from Philadelphia so when I moved here the Strip was a big deal. And now I'm actually in a band that is headlining on one of the nights of the Sunset Strip Music Festival, the biggest Sunset Strip party that you could have, I think that's a pretty cool thing. I've lived it. I'm grateful. When I was a kid I thought Guns N' Roses was absolutely amazing. I've never met Slash but I think it's awesome to be a part of anything that has to do with Slash. What's cool about Slash, as popular as he is, he doesn't put himself out there all the time. He's not on reality shows trying to get recognition. He's just playing music. If his bands happen to get successful then they do. I think it's great that he's being honored in this city. He grew up here so it must be a tremendous honor. He never sold out. God bless him for that. I'd love to know what Slash's opinion of modern day Sunset Strip is. That would be interesting.
Read what Slash had to say about the Sunset Strip then and now here in our interview, “Guitar Icon Slash Talks 2010 Sunset Strip Music Festival Honor, Hollywood Survival Tips, and Stealing His First Top Hat.”
The Sunset Strip Music Festival launched Thursday, August 26, with a benefit in Slash's honor at the House of Blues and culminates Saturday, August 28, featuring over 50 bands including Slash with Myles Kennedy and Fergie, performing songs off his new self-titled solo album, and grand finale headliners the Smashing Pumpkins. More details on the Sunset Strip Music Festival's full lineup and set times here.