BLACKBIRD ANGELS – “We Just Wanted To Make Music Without Any Gigantic Game Plan”

October 25, 2023, a month ago

By Aaron Small

feature hard rock blackbird angels

BLACKBIRD ANGELS – “We Just Wanted To Make Music Without Any Gigantic Game Plan”

During the pandemic and its resulting lockdown, when live music ceased to exist, Tracii Guns (L.A. Guns, Brides Of Destruction, Devil City Angels) and Todd Kerns (Slash Featuring Myles Kennedy & The Conspirators, Toque, The Age Of Electric) collaborated remotely, creating new music rooted firmly in the ‘70s rock scene, and heavily inspired by Led Zeppelin. With the addition of Adam Hamilton (L.A. Guns) on drums, Blackbird Angels was born. 

Frontiers Music released their debut album, Solsorte, in September 2023. Although Blackbird Angels has not yet played live, when they do take the stage, Tracii, Todd, and Adam will be joined by Johnny Martin (L.A. Guns), and Sam Bam Koltun (Faster Pussycat, Crossbone Skully).

“SMKC is all-encompassing,” begins Todd Kerns. “When you do it, it’s 100%. It’s not like something you do casually. When we make a record, that’s all we can do. And when we’re touring, that’s all we can do – in the best way possible. But as soon as that comes off my plate, it opens up an entire world of possibilities. Then you throw Covid in there, and the possibilities become even more broad – Minefield, Heroes And Monsters, Blackbird Angels – all of that stemmed from Covid. If life was normal, I don’t think any of those things would have happened because there wouldn’t have been time, or any opportunity to even see that kind of thing through. In retrospect now, I’m really happy I was able to do it. It’s really interesting how these things present themselves. Being able to utilize the voice and the old songwriting muscles and see where it goes.”

When the debut album from Blackbird Angels came out last month, although it contained 11 killer songs, unfortunately it didn’t gain that much traction. “It’s a classic example of when people do these kinds of projects – which is always a very taboo word,” admits Todd. “People keep asking, ‘Is this a band, or is it a project?’ Well, we’re not really in a position to do much as far as touring goes because of everyone’s schedule being what they are. So, you put it out, and it gets a lot of love. It’s been received very well, but there’s only so much you can do with it when the following Friday something else comes out with a gargantuan advertising campaign. It’s the nature of the way music happens these days. Tracii and I both sort of went into this thing with the idea of, we’re doing this cause we want to do it. It’s not really about making gazillions of dollars. It’s the opportunity to be able to make music. We both still talk about – when a window of opportunity opens, hopefully we can do something with it. We just announced the return of the Conspirators, Slash, and Myles. It takes away even more windows of opportunity. It doesn’t mean that it won’t lead to more music and more opportunities. It’s sort of bizarre… like making music for music’s sake, and not really thinking of it in a business sense or opportunistic sense.” 

“Nothing makes me happier than five years later, somebody walking up to me with a record. People walk up to me with the Static In Stereo record from 2001 and tell me how important that record is to them, and that it changed their lives. At the time, that thing was a monster to make! We really had a hard time finding traction in a new world of downloading and everything else. But the fact that it’s important to somebody means the world to me! And that’s going to happen with Blackbird Angels as well. We just wanted to make music without any gigantic game plan. That in and of itself makes it a success, that we ever wrote and made music in the first place. Especially considering that Tracii and I have known each other for a long time and have always wanted to do something together. If anything, it feels like we barely even opened the door at this point. Who knows what it could lead to?”

Tracii has been quoted as saying, “Todd and I have wanted to make a record for about ten years now and we finally did it and it’s everything I hoped for.” That’s quite a statement and compliment. “I think it is too,” affirms Todd. “Tracii’s somebody I’ve always greatly admired. Even as a kid, we played L.A. Guns songs in cover bands. He’s always been really good to me and really complimentary; well before I was with Slash. We were jamming together back then. A lot of it comes down to the fact that there’s a huge portion of the audience that doesn’t know me as a vocalist, or as a writer. So, these opportunities have really worked as a statement of, this is what I can do. Tracii has almost intimated that he wanted people to know that I have that kind of ability as well, and I really appreciate his support. I’m sure we’ll make more music; he’s an awesome dude. And we happen to have a little bit of chemistry there.”

For the Blackbird Angels album, Tracii’s playing guitar and bass, Adam Hamilton’s on the drums, and Todd is just singing. “That’s correct, yeah. They were just sending over music. I never really put a lot of thought into who was playing what. The first song was ‘Mine (All Mine)’; that was just a piece of music at the time. There wasn’t a whole lot of discussion to be honest. It was sort of like, I did my thing, sent it over, and ‘Wow, that’s great! Here’s another one,’ until there was an album of material amassed. At some point I thought, it’s interesting just singing on this, I’m not playing any guitar or bass. But there’s also something really enjoyable to me… one of my favorite things to do is take music and find a melody and lyric, and craft it into a song. Within the Myles and Slash world, there’s a not a whole lot of room, because Slash comes in with 1,000 riffs. And it’s Myles’ job to do what he does on top of that. So, if I bring in a riff, now we have 1,001 riffs,” laughs Todd. “The band is called Slash in giant letters; it most assuredly should be his music, and Myles should do what Myles does. So, this opportunity, for me, makes it really enjoyable to put a period at the end of a sentence.”

The opening song on Solsorte, “Shut Up (You Know I Love You)” could easily be a Todd Kerns solo track. Then, the Led Zeppelin influence kicks in! “Yeah, that’s definitely Tracii. He came at me with the idea, ‘I want to make a straight-up, Led Zeppelin old-school rock and roll record.’ That’s the direction we steered our ship in. But there’s a few steps along the way where it goes in different directions; ‘Only Everything’ is a little different. There’s a few deviations, but I think you could basically say we tried to shoot in a ‘70s hard rock kind of way. That’s probably why I felt the liberty to sing without worrying about, is it too over the top? He just let me take the reins off and run with it. There’s definitely a lot of Page-isms, and some Plant-isms and Bonham-isms; it’s all sort of there. It’s fun to play in that little world! It’s owned by the greats, but guys like us definitely like to play in that field.”

Sometimes when an artist from an established band releases a solo album, it’s not that different from their main outlet. That being said, there’s no reference to L.A. Guns at all in Blackbird Angels. “It’s funny you say that because some people have said stuff to me like, ‘This one reminds me of L.A. Guns.’ Well, Tracii Guns is L.A. Guns. So, if anything does remind anybody of L.A. Guns, it most assuredly should. But I would have to disagree with them and agree with you. I don’t think there’s a lot of blatantly obvious L.A. Guns references in there. If anything, I feel like Tracii’s really stretched out and basically did what he said he wanted to do as far as a manifesto of ’70s rock and Led Zeppelin-ish. To me, that’s fairly obvious.”

Tracii has always been an incredible soloist, and the fact that he’s self-taught makes it even more remarkable. There’s two songs on Solsorte that stand out as far as guitar solos – “Worth The Wait” and “On And On / Over And Over”. People just don’t play like that anymore. “Yeah, I think he was swinging for the fences himself. There’s a Tracii Guns kind of style, and in those two that you mentioned, he steps away from what he normally does and allows himself to do something different. He’s a very interesting player in that… not only is he able to do a lot more than people are aware of, he’s growing all the time.”

Todd wrote all the lyrics for Blackbird Angels. The song “Better Than This” stands apart due to the line, “I don’t know if there’s a God, but I’m sure if there is, I think he’d want us all to do better than this.” That was penned a couple of years ago, and it was vital then. Now, in October 2023 with all that’s currently happening, it’s even more potent. “Well, I’m glad you found something in that. At the time, I distinctly remember writing that down before there was a Blackbird Angels, just cause I was so taken with how heavy everything was. Not being a particularly political-minded person, we’d been through so much with Covid and riots. It just sort of felt like… objectively looking at it all, you just kind of thought, it blows my mind! And what I love about music, and guys like you and I who love music so much, is the unification of it; the way it brings people together. I was saying the other day, as much as I love watching sports, there’s something interesting about the fact that a team can go through a long slump of losing, but it’s not really like that in music. The second you step on stage, there’s not a chance you’re not going to win. It’s not set up the same way when you go to see a game, your team might not win. There’s a very good chance if you go and see, ‘insert your favorite band here,’ they’re going to win. And you’re going to win because it’s a celebration of the music, and it’s a celebration of what you love about that particular artist.” 

“I think that’s what I had a really weird understanding of with music; it’s always celebratory. Even the bleakest music is a celebration. Slayer is heavy as shit, but watching the audience get a lot out of it means the world to me. What blows my mind is, we live in a day and age, especially in the country that I live in. I’m sure Canada has its own – of course it does. Politically, we all have so much opposition in whichever direction. It’s really interesting that you could be somewhere where people are arguing about all this stuff, and then put on Back In Black, and the whole place says, ‘Yeah, this is a killer album!’ Just put some music on and watch people having this level of disagreement, be able to find common ground. I think this and you think that, but we both love this song. The message is sort of a layman way of looking at the world and saying, it’s got to be better than this. Especially, like you say, right now. As far removed as we are from the conflicts that are happening, it’s still the same thing of, I can’t believe, after all this time, we can’t find the common ground. It’s 2023. I’m always a hyper-optimist though. I really do believe that when you take a hard look and try to do the math on how bad things were 100 years ago, things are better than they were. Maybe it’s a sense of one step forward, two steps back… it’s a slow progress towards things being better. But I really am quite optimistic. Singing about it in lyrics, Tracii was quite surprised that I was digging deep with songs like ‘The Last Song’. I’d rather comment on things than just boy meets girl, not that there’s anything wrong with that, cause that’s a tried and true storyline. There’s so many great things you could write about, but I have a tendency to write about whatever’s on my mind, whatever’s going on around me.”

Lightening it up a little, it’s rather ironic that “The Last Song” is not the last song; “Scream Bloody Murder” is the final track. “Yeah, ‘The Last Song’, I had literally written down on a To Do List, it just said ‘The Last Song’; you have to finish that last song. For whatever reason, the fact that I had written that started turning into gymnastics in my brain. The song itself says, ‘What’s the last song you’ll ever hear? What’s the last song you’ll ever sing?’ I thought that was such an interesting notion. A friend of mine said his daughter was born to a certain song. Music is so important to us. Or even someone in hospice getting ready to check out, they’re playing a 200-song playlist of their favorite songs. It’s a bizarre thing to imagine that the person passed away to ‘Stairway To Heaven’, or ‘Eat The Rich’, or whatever song. It’s kind of heavy, but in a celebratory way.”

Calling the band Tracii Guns & Todd Kerns would have provided instant name recognition, as opposed to establishing a new identity, namely Blackbird Angels. “It’s funny you say that, cause I was sort of the same way. Even in Heroes And Monsters, I was pitching Burns, Hunt & Kerns, which sounded like a law firm. I was thinking more like Beck, Bogert & Appice back in the ‘70s. I like that kind of designation of a supergroup – these three guys’ names carried weight enough to call it that. You’re not wrong, but I was never sure, is this a Tracii Guns solo project? It became less of that, but when he brought it up to me that he wanted to do this record, he never spent a lot of time worrying about what it was called, until we got towards the end of the idea. Then he went, ‘I want to call it this.’ Ok, I like it. It’s a cool rock ‘n’ roll kind of name. With the addition of Johnny Martin and Sam Bam, this idea of the image of the band. If we’re able to play shows, this is what it would be. At the end of the day, it’s grown-ass men feeling like 15-year-olds in the basement. Jamming and drawing logos of our band, it’s very much the same energy. Not a lot of beard-stroking about how people are going to perceive it or what people are going to think. This is fun to us, so it’ll be fun to somebody else. I think that’s the beauty of most things. If we never do it again, we did that one awesome record, and that was a lot of fun!” 

“So many of my friends and so many people I know worry so much about what people think and perception, their brand and all that kind of stuff. I really don’t. I really just don’t care. Maybe it’s an age thing? I feel like I’m good at what I do. I feel like I have strengths. Being allowed to just swing for the fences and make music… I’m grateful that I wake up every day and that’s what I do. I definitely had periods of my life where I had to wake up and go to work and do some job that takes me away from the things I want to do. It almost feels like a fantasy idea; we’ll call the band this. It’s just fun, making music and slapping a title on it. Like you say, it might have been a better business idea to have it be Tracii Guns & Todd Kerns, or Guns & Kerns – but that sounds like a bad Guns N’ Roses tribute band,” laughs Todd. “It creates a different mindset. Funny thing is, I do consider myself fairly business minded. Not that I didn’t want to draw focus to Blackbird Angels, cause that’s not the case at all. But it was a really fun, sort of teenagers starting a band vibe, and that was the prevailing attitude we treated the whole thing with.”

The album title, Solsorte, is the Danish word for Blackbirds. “Tracii knows Danish. He had to learn Danish to become a Danish citizen when he was living there. He splits his time between California and Denmark.” And Todd just happens to play in another band with Myles Kennedy, who is also part of Alter Bridge. And Alter Bridge has an album called Blackbird. “Yeah, it’s funny cause somebody brought that up and I go, ‘I hadn’t even thought of that.’ But it is one of those bizarre things. I’ve seen that image in tattoos on people who are really passionate about that record. Keep in mind, there’s a Beatles song from 50 years ago called ‘Blackbird’.” 

“It’s funny cause Tracii took the picture that is the album cover. He literally saw some Blackbirds out his window, grabbed his phone, and as he went to take the picture, the birds flew away. He sent me the photo; it wasn’t black and white. It’s been treated for the album cover. But I said, ‘That’s a great photo! That could be the album cover.’ That’s how organically everything came together. It’s an interesting time when you don’t have managers and agents and A&R guys; everybody with their fingers in the pie. It’s just a few guys making music and really having fun with it.”

(All photos courtesy of Enzo Mazzeo)

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