NIGHT RANGER – Rock Rock Never Stop
Night Ranger (l-r): Joel Hoekstra, Brad Gillis, Jack Blades, Kelly Keagy and Eric Levy
Authoring compositions for June 2014 studio full-length High Road, vocalist / drummer Kelly Keagy, vocalist / bassist Jack Blades, and guitarist Brad Gillis – founding members of San Francisco, California-based hard rock outfit Night Ranger – opted not to pen any material beforehand. High Road is Night Ranger’s 11th studio effort overall, early outings not having been written in such fashion.
“That was kind of a different idea for us, to actually not have any songs pre-written,” confirms Kelly Keagy. “The three of us got in a room, and created this music – we were all there from the beginning. On this album as well as Somewhere In California (June 2011), the three of us basically wrote everything. We would just go into the studio, which was our own studio – we didn’t have to pay for time or anything. We could just set up and jam. We’d just start with a lyric, or just a melody – we just played out ideas that we had, just random ideas, and then we just started to develop those ideas as it went along. That’s what we did on the last record, too. It had worked so well on Somewhere In California, that we thought ‘Let’s just try this again. Let’s just go in there and be really creative, and just kind of make it up.’ That’s what we did, and then as we developed the songs, or the songs came along…
“We had seven or eight ideas, and then we started to look at what the collection looked like. What the statements were gonna be, and what the lyrics and stuff like that were gonna be, and musically and all that. Then we started to look at ‘Okay. What are we missing here?,’ be it a mid-tempo song, or this kind of a lyric. Usually, when we get to the end of the record, we realise that we need that one song that’s just different from the record, and that’s what happened with the song ‘High Road’. Colin Blades – who is Jack’s son – was around the studio as well, and he had this idea about the song. It wasn’t written; it was just a melodic idea, and some chord changes.
“It just kind of sat there for a while, because we were on tour. It took us a while to finish this record, because we were doing so much touring. When we came back to that idea, we realised that it was the perfect thing for it. Jack wrote the first verse and a chorus, and then we put the thing together in one day. It ended up being the first single, did ‘High Road’. It just felt like it should be a lead single, and so that’s why we chose that song. Plus, it has a really catchy chorus, and it’s pretty rocking. It’s got a great message.”
Individual endeavours have occupied members somewhat in the past, but this hasn’t been the case so much of late. “We try to be as creative as possible individually – outside of the band – but lately, we haven’t been doing anything else but Night Ranger,” the sticksman concurs. “The last three or four years, it’s just been a lot of… These two records. We recorded an acoustic live record (24 Strings & A Drummer – Live & Acoustic, October 2012), so we’ve been pretty busy with the band. It’s been really fun to kind of be outside, and do some charity work, and stuff outside of the band. I’m part of the Musicians Hall Of Fame in Nashville; I’ve been involved with that just lately, and so that’s been keeping me busy along with Night Ranger. I’m definitely thinking about doing another project, which might be associated with the Musicians Hall Of Fame. It’ll be a little bit different; it might be an album with a collection of songs outside of what Night Ranger does.”
With regards to Night Ranger’s material, songwriting strength has been referenced. “When we first got the band together, we always thought that if we wanna do this, then we wanna do it as strong and as positive as possible,” Kelly remembers. “As far as the songs, the songs have to mean something to us personally, or some sort of situation that we witnessed or something – the lyrics really have to make sense. We have to really believe in what we’re singing, even if it’s just a fun lyric, a party atmosphere or whatever, or any situation like that. It has to come from us, and we always thought that it should be that way throughout our career. We should always believe in it, and never just settle. That’s why sometimes it takes us a little longer to do records, because we’re not willing to accept second-rate songs. If they’re just fun songs, they still have to be strong musically.”
Night Ranger has inevitably written tunes in the past deemed average upon completion, tunes ultimately discarded in favour of better fare. “On Somewhere In California we had a couple of songs that were fun to play, but they just didn’t mean anything, and so we just kind of dropped them,” the percussionist cites. “There are all sorts of stuff like that, probably from every album. There are at least one or two songs that are left over, and we might come back and revisit the songs. For instance, it’s so funny.
“On High Road, there was a chorus that we had in 1980 that we always liked, but we could never find a place for on any album that we’ve ever done. When we were in the studio working on one of these tracks, the old chorus of ‘Hang On’ came up, which is one of the tracks on the record. It fit the music, and it fit the whole idea of the song, and how the song moved along musically. We used that old chorus, and put it in there. We do go back and revisit old songs that have just been thrown out; we’re like ‘Is there anything we can use musically?’ It’s an interesting process, to be able to actually go back and listen to something, and go ‘Is that gonna work now?,’ or ‘Yeah. It’s just too old of an idea, so forget it.’”
‘Interesting’ is how Kelly deems the process of crafting albums. “It’s kind of a weird thing, because you’re just opening yourself up, and just trying to create something from nothing,” he ponders. “Sometimes choruses come though, and sometimes it’s a little bit harder, but we’re always open to a new idea – it was really nice having Colin Blades come in with that idea, for example. It just works. It’s like ‘That’s good. Let’s work on that.’”
“I would go in there, or Jack would, after the music was done. After a lot of the music was written between the three of us, then Jack and I would go in there, and try to sketch out melody ideas for a verse and a chorus, and how this whole thing is gonna roll from verse to chorus like that. We then started to think ‘What are we gonna write about? What do you wanna sing? What lyrically makes sense in here?’ It’s just one of those long processes. A lot of times, Jack would take a lyric idea, and he’d finish a verse off, or he’d come in and say ‘I’ve got this verse, what do you think?’ It’s this big, long process that we just move along throughout the weeks and months, and try to sketch out. Answering your question, I think that I was involved in just about every single song.”
High Road’s lyrical meanderings delve into everyday feelings and situations. “We try to cover all of the bases that Night Ranger would do normally, which would be personal things like relationships between people, and then also it might be…,” the lyricist augments. “We have a song called ‘Knock Knock’, which is just kind of a crazy party song about guys showing up at your door at two in the morning, wanting to party. You’re like ‘Oh, man. I’ve had enough. Okay, I’ll go with you.’ I don’t know if you’ve ever been in that situation where friends show up at your door, but you just go with it, and you have a great time, and so the song’s like that. Then there are songs like ‘High Road’, which has that great message in it, about ‘Hey, you’ve gotta be positive. You’ve gotta keep things positive, because there’s enough negativity in the world.’
“Then there’s a song called ‘Don’t Live Here Anymore’, which is the first ballad on the record. It’s about letting go of anger, about forgetting about what you normally do when somebody or something upsets you, and you’re pissed and you’re angry. It’s like ‘That man don’t live here anymore. I’m just gonna let that go; I’m gonna move on.’ Then there’s the song ‘Hang On’, which is just a basic situation of when things get tough in the world, and you feel like you just wanna give up. You’ve gotta hang on to that last positive moment, and that’ll get you out of it.
“Then there’s ‘Brothers’, which ends the album; ‘Brothers’ is all about trying to make everybody see that with the way things are in the world, if we can just lean on each other, then we can help each other that way. A lot of this stuff, sometimes it might seem like a fantasy, but that’s just our hope. When you’re writing songs, you always hope that you can do something to inspire people. That’s what we tried to do on this record, and we try to do that on every record. We try to have some songs in there that people are gonna listen to and go ‘Man, I relate to that song,’ and ‘Yeah, I think he’s right when he says that I gotta keep going. What else? Suicide isn’t an option,’ or whatever it might be.”
Age as well as experience is generally reflected in the nature of resultant lyrical content. “Inspiration comes from weird places and in weird ways, so you’ve just got to go with it,” Kelly figures. “It does have to do with how much life you’ve lived, though. We’ve been together for 35 years – the three of us, namely Brad, Jack, and myself – so there’s a lot to tap into there. We’ve done a lot of roadwork, and been in a lot of odd situations – and good situations, too. We try to bring all of those things together into a collection of ideas on an album, and sometimes you hit it, but sometimes you don’t. Like I said, hopefully we’ve captured something. Hopefully somebody happens to hear it, and go ‘Yeah, I like that’ or ‘I agree with that.’ That’s what we try to do.”
Guitarist Joel Hoekstra and keyboardist Eric Levy round out Night Ranger’s line-up, the pair also having made respective contributions towards High Road. “Joel and Eric had some good things,” the singer compliments. “Joel came up with the guitar riff for ‘I’m Coming Home’; he came up with that iconic guitar riff that’s so hooky. We were all jamming together in the studio, and he came up with that. We just started to roll with it, and we ended up having some really great moments in that musically. When we then got to write the lyric, Jack and I were just kind of like mumbling some words, and mumbling some melodies. We came up with that idea of when you’re away from home and your family, and stuff like that. The time comes for you to head back and go back, and it’s that whole excitement of like ‘Yeah, I’m gonna get home. I’m coming home.’
“That was great, and then Eric came in with this piano, kind of ballad situation. It was the basic hook in the song ‘Only For You Only’, a ballad that Jack sang – I usually sing the ballads. While we were writing this thing and Eric had brought this part in, it was so beautiful that we were just really struck by how amazing this piano part was. I was kind of singing it, because I always seem to sing the ballads on the records. I just put my foot down though, and told Jack ‘Look, you should sing this because for one, I sing all of the ballads.’ I thought that when we were writing it, he had a good handle on it. After lyrics came into it, Jack really had a feel for it, and so I made him do it. That’s kind of how it happens with us; whoever has a good feel, we let them try to do the vocal, and the same thing with the guitar solos. We’re really open to all of those ideas, of letting somebody try something. It’s like a team that way.”
As is the case with previous Night Ranger full-lengths, lead vocal duties are shared between Kelly and Jack Blades. “The song ‘High Road’ Jack sings, and he just nailed it so well and so right,” Kelly praises. “Then on the second song ‘Knock Knock Never Stop’, it definitely sounded good for us as one of those hard rocking party songs, driving on the freeway songs, so that felt right for us to split – I sing the second verse, and then we sing the chorus together. Then there’s the ballad ‘Only For You Only’, and Jack sings that. I sing ‘Don’t Live Here Anymore’. I sing ‘Brothers’; that seemed like it needed a sweetness to it, so I sang that. There’s a song called ‘Rollin’ On’, which is a pretty hard rocking song. We kind of split that a little bit too, the choruses and stuff like that.
“Our thought is to make it interesting. We don’t have just one singer – we have two – so let’s have those flavours come in and out of each song, and make it three-dimensional instead of one-dimensional, with guitar players playing and two singers. These days, I think it’s really important to keep the interest of the listener. We’ve got two singers, and we’ve got two great lead guitar players. That’s important, you know.”
Drums were cut in Nashville with Toby Wright, meanwhile. “I think that on this record, it was interesting,” the drummer observes. “Usually I come up with parts on the spot when we’re writing, and so we record everything, but the kind of drummer I am, I just play. Unfortunately, I don’t sit there and think out every single part in every song. I just get in there, and I kind of let the music speak to me, and then I just feel what needs to be played. I’m a really basic drummer. I try not to get in the way too much, and let the song speak for itself. I just make the power of the music come through with the drums, and just reinforce those grooves and stuff, and just make it simple.
“I don’t know if you know who Toby Wright is, but he did Alice In Chains back in the 90s. He’s an old friend of ours, and he lives in Nashville now. We had done a lot of the demos out in California, but I live in Nashville like I said. I thought ‘Well, why don’t I take these tracks – take the music – into the studio in Nashville, and cut these drums?’ I went into this really old studio called Sound Emporium in Nashville, an old place from the 60s. It had a really nice, big old room and it had great, great old microphones – an old collection of mikes – but Toby got an amazing sound on it, this really big drum sound. We brought the drums in there, cut seven tracks in one day, and went back and cut four more a month later. We had the basic tracks that way.”
Albeit a drummer, Kelly identifies as a vocalist first and foremost. “I think I’m a singer that plays drums,” he judges. “I did start doing both at the same time when I was a young lad, so I kind of developed both of them. I think a passion though, it gets split in a lot of ways a lot of times. Live, definitely. The energy has to flow naturally, and so sometimes emotionally it gets split up, but I try to do them both justice. I am a meat and potatoes kind of drummer, though. I’m a very simple drummer, so that helps vocally. It helps me to be able to create vocally more interesting things. I’m really a big fan of bluesy type vocals, and r ’n’ b. I’m usually the one that does stuff like that, but I definitely look at the challenge of singing and playing drums as one of my biggest challenges.”
Stepping behind the drumkit and supplying vocals in tandem – particularly live – seems theoretically an impossible task to some, but is one which the vocalist mastered a number of years ago. “If you learn and you start out in the beginning, then you kind of get that whole how to split up your brain and do it, but it should come naturally,” he explains. “I hit the drums pretty hard, but at the same time. I think I’ve developed a technique to get a big sound out of the drums without having to pound too hard, because when you’re singing, you’ve gotta have enough air to do both.”
Although drum parts were laid down in Nashville, the majority of lead vocals were recorded in California. “We recorded most of the lead vocals at Jack’s studio, a studio called Cock And Bottle,” Kelly divulges. “The name comes from an old English pub sign that Jack had gotten at an antique store somewhere – we put it up in the studio, and called the studio that. I did a lot of background vocals in my house too, though. The three of us have studios, so we were able to split up some of those duties so that we could get a lot of work done faster. I did some of the vocals at home, at my house, like ‘I’m Coming Home’. ‘Don’t Live Here Anymore’, I did it at the studio in California. All of Jack’s vocals were done in California, and a lot of the background stuff was done in California as well.
“There’s probably about three songs I did in my studio that I sang, so we split some of that stuff up. Drums were done in Nashville, but what we did is we put the songs together and then the arrangements, and recorded them that way. Everybody had their own version of it though, their own copy, and then we could embellish them. We came up with an idea, but we went into the studio in California and put it down. Over the course of touring like eight months, we could keep working, and not have to wait until we got out to California.”
Nowadays, Night Ranger self-produces its full-lengths. “We started doing that just out of need,” the sticksman reckons. “It’s just that when we made a record, we didn’t want to have to wait for a producer to be available. Eventually we just started producing them, and started to enjoy the process of producing, making the decisions and choices ourselves. A lot of times, when you have a producer – an outside person that’s not involved with the band – a lot of times maybe they don’t get what we’re trying to portray in a song.
“If you then look at it the other way too, a lot of times a producer is good to have – an outside ear that can maybe suggest some things that you wouldn’t think about. There are some benefits to having a producer, but I think that out of need in the last 15 years, we’ve just decided to do it ourselves. We’ve done so much work in the studio, and all of us have produced things outside – our solo careers, and stuff like that. I think that we kind of got it, though; we kind of got the idea now.”
Engineering duties for High Road fell to Anthony Fox. “Anthony Fox is a big part of this thing,” Kelly lauds. “He engineered the last record, too. He would come in at the end of the record, and he’d cut the vocals. He would help us produce the vocals, and get the right performances. He would then really just saturate himself with the songs over those ten days or so. He would then be ready to mix the songs, because he could really tell where everything was. He could find all of those bit parts that were in there; he could hear them come up, like little overdub parts that we wanted to come out. It was really great having Anthony in there; he’s such a great asset to this project. We look forward to working with him again, because he’s got such a great ear – he’s an amazing engineer.
“Also having Toby Wright there when we were cutting the drums in Nashville early on, it kind of set the bar for the sound of this record – the drums and the vocals, all those big sounds. Basically, he cut the drums, so he set the bar of ‘Okay, this is how big the record is gonna be, so now the guitars have to come up to this level, and the vocals and the background vocals. The sounds have to be this brilliant to compete with what we’ve created with the drums.’ Those two guys – Anthony Fox and Toby Wright – were very important to this project.”
‘Knock Knock Never Stop’ concludes High Road’s pair of lead compositions. “That was a jam idea where the three of us were in the studio, and just started to come up with a riff,” the percussionist discloses. “I think Brad probably came up with an idea on the guitar part. We just started to jam on it and expand on it, and that’s how it came together. We just basically get in there, musically mess around, and jam and play grooves. Once we have a single part – like say if we have a verse – then it’s like ‘Where can this go now? What kind of chord changes can we do to go into this pre-chorus and a chorus?’ We just start to expand on it, and so it just starts to go out from there.”
The other lead composition in question is High Road’s title track of course, music videos having been filmed for both ‘High Road’ and ‘Knock Knock Never Stop’. “I think that we wanted to have ‘High Road’ be the first single,” Kelly recalls. “We wanted to musically have it be palatable to listen to, but to have that message be the point – that chorus, that vocal message – so that one was recorded really quickly, once we had a handle on the song. We knew exactly what everybody was gonna play, so we cut that thing in one day. We cut it in one day, sang everything, came back a week later, and was ready to mix at that point. On the two videos, we did those in about six hours. They’re just simple performance videos – we didn’t really wanna get too elaborate visually. We wanted it to just be ‘Okay, here’s the band. You haven’t seen the band in awhile, so here we are.’ We’re just performing that song in a barn in Petaluma, California, and just made it seem real natural. Cool and just simple, that’s what that was.”
Critiquing High Road against past Night Ranger efforts, Kelly naturally views the outing in a favourable light. “I think that this record is probably one of our best, because lyrically and musically I think we did a lot of great things,” the wordsmith estimates. “I think over the course of 35 years, it’s really hard to keep trying and to do new ideas, and not make them seem like we’re just repeating. I think that’s our biggest gripe about making records, that we can’t just repeat but it’s still gotta sound like Night Ranger. I think that everything we do is always gonna sound like Night Ranger when we play together, so we want to keep that going. It sounds like we’re moving ahead and moving forward though, because we just feel like if we don’t keep moving forward, there’s just no point in making records any more. We might as well just keep playing live. A lot of bands decide to do that because they don’t have much to say any more, but I feel like we still have energy to write and record records, and so we’re just gonna keep doing it.”
High Road’s cover artwork pays homage to past Night Ranger cover artworks. “With the artwork, we wanted to have some little tidbits in there from every single album we’ve ever done,” Kelly tells. “There are little bits in the album cover that have to do with every single album; there’s a picture, some sort of icon, or logo from every album. It’s all stuck around there somewhere. We wanted to give our fans a little treat, and so we thought it would be interesting to do a play on every single piece of art that we’ve done for our albums. We wanted to put it all throughout the cover; we just wanted to make it interesting, and come up with different ideas for it.”
High Road was released on June 6th, 2014 in Europe (excluding the United Kingdom), on the 9th in the United Kingdom, and subsequently on the 10th in North America, all via Frontiers Music Srl.
Interview published in June 2014.
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