NIGHT RANGER – Three Decades Strong from California
To those who believe melodic hard rock or AOR-style music is outdated, unfashionable, and too soft for their tastes, I think people need to experience the new Night Ranger album. Many who look at this act on the surface will remember their huge crossover top 10 single "Sister Christian", as well as the record label politics that came into play as MCA shoved more subsequent ‘ballad’ singles at consumers during their mid 1980’s heydays.
People who have been ardent fans of this California band from the start though know they not only possess keen insight and strong vocal harmonies, but very memorable hooks with up tempo hits such as "Don’t Tell Me You Love Me", "Four In The Morning", and "You Can Still Rock In America". Main members Jack Blades, Brad Gillis and Kelly Keagy have been back together for the past half a decade- and with a new release this year plus a huge worldwide tour on the horizon, I believed it was necessary to get one of the members on the phone and discuss anything that came to mind.
Here’s drummer/vocalist Kelly Keagy, a very engaging and friendly musician who still has his head and heart on the ground while reaching people with his songs.
"Somewhere In California" is the latest Night Ranger album. It appears to me that with the comforts of a label who really believe in your sound, you created a record that benefits from a lively, in your face production but also takes into account the early Night Ranger recordings. What are your thoughts on the songwriting and recording of this album?
When we went in to the rehearsal studio to work on material, it was kind of an interesting situation. Because we would usually come in with finished songs, or almost finished songs. This time we thought we would experiment a little bit, just get in the room together and play. Walk in with ideas and jam them out like the old days. It turned out that the ideas were really solid- Brad would come in with a riff everyday and we would expand on it. We ended up writing 2 or 3 songs a day- not lyrically though or melody-wise. That was weird about it, we made it up as we went along and it really turned out to be a really great situation for where we are at in our career. We got really excited about it- this went through December into January, and we got ideas about what we wanted to say about lyrics and melodies, every day we pounded away, 6 to 7 days a week. We would just keep working because we wanted to get it done.
"Growin’ Up In California" is the first video/single from the record- and it has a similar "You Can Still Rock In America" ethic with bright vocal harmonies. Was this an easy choice for making a video and how do you feel the concept and shoot turned out?
We wanted to make it be all about California since we are all from here, we grew up here and that’s what the song is based on. Just like putting this band together 30 years ago. We wanted to make it funny, light and easy just like the song is. When we brought the director in, he got that idea right away. We should make it be about the coast line, some of the icons of California. It was pretty easy to make.
Being a drummer and a lead vocalist, are there times where certain material you sing and drum takes a lot out of you physically in a live set? Do you have to pace yourself as far as when to go full tilt and when you need to lay back on some of the higher parts?
Absolutely. You have to prepare yourself mentally for something like this. Especially because the energy level is always high. I learned a long time ago I had to split up my air duties- how to breathe and really punch the drums and still have air vocally. It’s pretty challenging, but I look at it as a positive challenge. It’s not like work- anybody who thinks this job is like work shouldn’t be in this business. It’s such a fun job, we are so thankful and so fortunate to be able to do this 30 years afterwards.
Would the band ever consider returning to any fan favorite deep cuts from the Big Life or Man In Motion albums such as "Color Of Your Smile" or "Halfway To The Sun" in the future set lists?
I don’t know- re-cutting them? It’s not like we haven’t tried. The last tour of Japan a couple of years ago we worked up "Halfway To The Sun". I don’t think we’ve ever played "Color Of Your Smile" ever live- we made a video of it, at the same time we did "The Secret Of My Success" we did that video. After that, we get caught up in newer material, and wanting to play those older songs that are expected of us to play- so that’s what we have to balance.
Is it tough to decide what markets you play in domestically and across the world? With the accessibility of social media and the internet community, I’m sure more fans would love for you to play closer to them than having to travel hours at times (for instance, the last time you’ve played the Boston market was in support of "Neverland" in 1997- normally relegating the band to the CT casino marketplace).
It really depends on the promoters openness to come there. You have to be asked to come to a market, it’s not like a band says we want to play here and here and there- a lot of times it’s about if the market place wants you to come there and play. We are going to play major cities most of the time. We are always ready to jump and play anywhere- we are that kind of band.
You are going to be playing an extensive set of dates between Japan, Europe and America over the next 5 months- especially with some of the biggest melodic hard rock/AOR bands in the business. What can fans expect from Night Ranger- and how will it feel playing in the Far East again soon after the earthquake and tsunami devastation they’ve faced this past spring?
When it happened, we called over there, the promoter Mr. Udo and asked him… we were very concerned with the fans over there. We wanted to go over there and support the people of Japan in any way we could. He embraced that- so it will be a special time for us. We need to go over there and do whatever we can, we want to be a part of the relief. It’s going to be a heightened energy level, they are very strong people and they don’t look at it like they need help. We want to be with our brothers and sisters of Japan. And then we are going right to Europe, we haven’t played there in 25 years so we are really looking forward to that. That will be a great experience for us, then we come back to America in July to tour with Foreigner and Journey. Both bands are old buddies of ours, we have known them for 25-30 years, a great time seeing Mick, Neal, Deen, all the bands- it’ll be a real highlight.
Are there any plans down the line for another Kelly Keagy solo album? I remember the last album "I’m Alive" doing very well and having a lot of strong material like "World Before And After", "Life Worth Remembering" and the title track.
That’s really nice of you to say. We are going to ride this and see how far we can go with this album and when the time comes for me to do another solo album after all the touring is done, if we don’t make another Night Ranger record right away I will do another record. I have a lot of songs already ready, I’d love to make it.
Describe the difference in yourself as a songwriter back when writing songs for Midnight Madness or 7 Wishes compared to today when you’re writing songs for your solo albums versus Night Ranger?
I don’t think there’s a whole lot of difference, but there are certain subjects that I like to cover on my solo albums versus the band- where you have to write with 4 other people influencing the direction. I think when you do solo stuff, you can go in and grab emotions and feelings inside yourself and tap into them. When you are in a band sometimes you have to follow where the vibe is going. I think that kind of dictates it.
How do you maintain a balance between your professional music life and stay grounded within your personal endeavors? Do you feel like you have to be in better physical shape as you get older to maintain peak performance on the road?
Absolutely. Mentally and physically. I mean I have to work pretty hard, I have asthma and stuff like that- aside from just working out. I have to make sure my lungs are in good shape. The older you get, you have to deal with more things than just going to the gym. When you are doing a bunch of dates in a row you really have to be on top of your game. The older you get, the more you want to relax, and I don’t want to do that- I want to be strong and give great performances every night. We have to work out every day. You have to make sure you focus and keep your family totally in touch with what you are doing. You have visits, you keep that going, aside from keeping in touch.
What drummer has inspired you the most throughout the years, and what would you have said to him/her if you had the chance to meet him/her in person?
One of my big heroes in the late 1960’s was Don Brewer of Grand Funk Railroad. We did some shows with them at least once a year over the past 5 years. And I did have a chance to go up to him and say, ‘being in a high energy rock and roll band and being a drummer/singer, you inspired me so much’. If you have seen them play, there’s a guy that has tremendous feel and sings great, he sang one of their biggest hits "We’re An American Band". I was really excited to go up to him and thank him for his energy and influence.
What type of music do you think Night Ranger fans would be surprised you listen to on a regular basis?
Let me see. I’m not sure. We all have different tastes. I like to listen to different music than what I play. In the 1970’s I listened to a lot of jazz, and blues. Those influences and styles of music lend themselves well to what we do. Once in a while I tap into classical, because I want to hear what the masters did back in the day and how that relates to rock n’ roll. Sometimes it’s hard to hear it- you can hear where music melodically relates to modern music.
Do you still keep in contact with former members like Alan Fitzgerald and Jeff Watson?
I haven’t talked to Jeff in a while but I wish him well- I haven’t talked to him since he left the band. Fitz has been working really hard on the road with Van Halen and Bruce Springsteen. We are all pretty busy so we don’t get to talk to them very much through the years.
What have been some of the best fan stories through the years regarding Night Ranger songs? I would imagine many listeners take certain material and have some heart warming, touching stories to relate to you…
Yes. I had this person come up to me at a show and tell me this story that when they graduated high school back in 1984- the song "Sister Christian" was playing on the radio a lot. They told me after the graduation finished, they turned on the radio and that song was on- soon there was a whole parking lot of a high school listening to the song play in the summer air. It was a great visual as well. Having people come to our shows and during those times remember when they met their partners, going out on first dates- it’s great to see our songs have made an impact.
Do some of the old MTV videos Night Ranger used to do make you laugh or cringe a little bit? Or was it a case of live rock bands learning as you went along to adapt to the age of video?
Totally. We were kids in a candy store- sometimes we look back and laugh. It’s hard to separate ourselves from that. It was in the beginning of the video age- MTV was in its second year. It was an amazing opportunity for us to be on the ground floor with that.
Do you believe in 2011 people are more accepting of melodic hard rock and AOR style bands than maybe as recently as 5 or 10 years ago. Has social media and the internet changed up the views and appreciation worldwide?
Yes, I definitely think with YouTube and sharing on the internet- I think the messages bands are putting out are what people want. People don’t want to deal with reality on the negative side so much. We always want to escape- music is a good thing to get away from your troubles. Melodic music from the 70’s and 80’s did that. The times are changing- reality can be cool, but can we have a positive message here and something that will lift our spirits.
Just as a fun question, what song would you fight to get out of the Night Ranger set list and what song would you fight for to replace this with?
Ha ha… I don’t know. That would take some thought. Most of the songs I enjoy playing, lyrically and musically. There aren’t too many… there’s a song we open the show with… "This Boy Needs To Rock", and it’s like a rock n roll song- at our age, we want to find something to replace it with. It’s a good opener because of the middle section we break into Deep Purple- it would be hard to replace because of that bit but the ‘tonight, tonight’ refrain… night after night can get kind of boring.