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Night Ranger’s Kelly Keagy Refuses to Choose Favorite Song on New Album, Gets Excited to Make New Fans on Summer Tour

David Livingston, Getty Images
David Livingston, Getty Images

Veteran California rockers Night Ranger will be back out on the road this summer as part of a massive triple bill also featuring fellow ’80s rockers Foreigner as part of an evening of countless hits headlined by Journey.

Night Ranger comes to the stage armed with ‘Somewhere in California,’ an extremely strong new album that employs their much-loved classic rock sound heavily throughout.

Ultimate Classic Rock had the chance to chat with Night Ranger drummer/vocalist Kelly Keagy on the eve of the band’s Japanese tour. He was very gracious with his time, talking with us about a number of subjects, including his role in the shelved third Damn Yankees album.

I recently wrote up a single review for ‘Growing Up in California’ and gave it five stars. Some of my colleagues here at Ultimate Classic Rock questioned that rating. Do you think that I went overboard?

[Laughs] That’s funny. Tell those sons of bitches…. No, actually, I think it’s one of the best records we’ve made in a long, long time. So five stars, five and a half, six, that’s about where I’d put it.

My rationalization was, I think it’s the strongest single I’ve heard from Night Ranger since the reunion in 1996.

I totally agree!

In the press kit for this new album, the term “classic Night Ranger” is thrown around a lot in regards to the sound of the record. When you’re heading into the studio, what are the elements that you really focus on that in your mind, to embody that “classic Night Ranger” sound?

Well, that’s kind of like ‘Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,’ ‘Sing Me Away,’ hard rock [with] pop choruses, dual lead guitars and the vocals. Those three elements, I think, is what we’ve developed to be a “classic Night Ranger” sound. From the first three albums that we did, we tried to come up with catchy choruses, but at the same time say something interesting — if it was about a relationship or if it was about life in general. But the dual lead guitar, the vocals, that’s basically the classic Night Ranger sound.

Talking about the last album ‘Hole in the Sun’ for a moment, fan reaction was a bit mixed. I think that the harder-edged sound might have thrown some people. How much did the reception to that album influence  ‘Somewhere in California?’

Well, I think the last two records, ‘Seven’ and Hole in the Sun,’ both had a little bit more modern touches to them, and that’s what we were intending on doing with those records. We have the motto “grow or die,” you know? We didn’t want to just sit in one place and keep making the same record over and over again. So we decided to experiment a little bit on those records, and that’s what we did. We kind of follow our instincts on that and just go with it. We don’t really come in with a pre-planned idea like “okay, we’re going to do this.”

Especially on this new record, we came in and just jammed on stuff. We didn’t have any pre-written songs except for ‘Growing Up in California,’ which was written ahead of time. That song was written by Jack [Blades] and Will Evankovich. Basically, they were writing songs for Jack’s [next] solo record, that hasn’t been released yet. And knowing that we were coming up on an album, Jack played that song for Brad [Gillis] and I. We said “God, it sounds so much like Night Ranger, why don’t we use this?”

We hadn’t had any songs written for the album, so it was like ‘okay, that will be the first song’ and then in December, we came up here to Sonoma County in the studio. For a month, we just sat in here and just jammed and recorded everything, making up stuff on the spot. “Oh yeah, you got a lick? Okay, let’s play on that lick for five minutes.” Then we’d just expand on that idea and keep it moving ahead. That’s how it came about with this album.

There’s definitely some stuff on this new album like ‘Lay It On Me’ where you guys are just jamming. What are some of your favorites?

Well, I gotta tell ya, I think that as every song blossomed, I became more and more in love with each song while we wrote them. A lot of the songs were just musical ideas in the beginning, with maybe a chorus written on it, or a verse and no chorus. So as they developed over the few months of recording a record, I fell in love with every single song in some way.

It would be like the chorus in ‘Fall For Your Heart,’ I love the way that chorus splits and it has a sing-songy chorus in the beginning. Then I split off and sing different lyrics, so it’s almost like two choruses in one, which I thought was the neatest idea to try and do. It’s hard, by the way, to come up with how to fit the lyric in there, and the melody, and have everything overlapping. I love ‘Growing Up in California,’ I think that’s a classic Night Ranger song, it’s like ‘Don’t Tell Me You Love Me.’

Any others particularly stand out for you?

I think the ballad ['Time of Our Lives'] is wonderful. We wrote that with Colin Blades, who is Jack’s son, Jack and myself and Brad. Some of the other songs were jammed out with [Night Ranger guitarist] Joel Hoekstra helping us write them. We jammed out on the end of it, and some of them we had to cut off in two minutes, because it was just these ongoing patterns that just kept going and going. The long answer to this one would be that I think if you try to pick one song, it’s impossible because I love the way this album blossomed into its own on each song.

You’ve also laid down a couple of covers as bonus tracks for this album, which I haven’t heard. I’m curious to know, did you take the lead vocal on the cover of AC/DC’s ‘Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap?’

No, that’s Jack! It was so weird, because Ted Nugent was here while we were cutting the ‘Coming of Age’ track [as a bonus track], and Ted was a part of that too. He was in here, and it’s like Jack channeled Bon Scott! We started doing that song live – we threw it in and never rehearsed it, we just threw it in one night and the crowd loved it. We’re all about trying to please the crowd, so we just went with it. Then it ended up being like “well, let’s try and see if we can cut that song, see what it would sound like.” Jack just came in, started singing it and we were just all floored, man. He just laid it down and we were like “oh my God, that’s so great!”

Having seen Night Ranger in the past few years, did you throw that cover into the middle of Night Ranger’s ‘This Boy Needs to Rock’ where you’d been doing ‘Highway Star’ by Deep Purple?

Where we dropped it in, this is so funny, we did it right at the end of the night a couple of times, after we got to the end of ‘Don’t Tell Me You Love Me’ where it goes “boh boh boh boh boh” and then we just went [Keagy imitates 'Dirty Deeds' opening riff] and broke into it one night. We even surprised ourselves, so that’s where we’ve been putting it, at the end there. I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do that on this tour with Journey and Foreigner because we only get about 40 minutes, so we’re going to be concentrating a lot on our older hits and one or two of the new songs.

What was it like having Nugent in studio with Night Ranger?

Oh man, it was such a blast with Ted. The surprise in ‘Coming of Age’ was that we were talking with him about coming in and playing the original solo on ‘Coming of Age.’ But then we said “well, what if we broke into ‘Stranglehold’ and you played some of the solo from ‘Stranglehold?’” He was like “oh, are you kidding!” So we recorded it one day and right where the normal solo starts in ‘Coming of Age’ is where ‘Stranglehold’ comes in. We just sat there and said “play as long as you want, we don’t care how long the solo is – it’s not about how long the song is, just take it and run with it.” He was so all over it, we had a great time with Ted.

You were almost a part of Damn Yankees for the aborted third album that they were working on. How did you get into that mix? It had to be exciting for you working with that particular lineup which also included Damon Johnson of Brother Cane.

That was really fun. We rehearsed for like 10 days, it was Ted, Damon, myself and Jack, it came about that Tommy had gone back to Styx and wasn’t available. So there was this idea from John Kalodner to put another version of Damn Yankees together. So we came up here to see if we could do it, you know? The songs were written and we rehearsed it, but then when they got ready to actually record a record, it turns out that contractually, they had to have some of the original members back in the band, so I didn’t get a chance to record with them.

Nothing was ever recorded?

They did a cover of ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ and I got to do that and sing it as well. It never got released, so I’d sure like to hear what happened with that. There was a lot of strange things — the producer wasn’t quite right for these types of projects and also timing, everybody was getting ready to go back on the road with their respective projects, so it didn’t happen. But I was able to sit in the room and jam with these guys for 10 days, so I was happy as hell.

Getting back to the new album, you mentioned Joel Hoekstra. This is the first Night Ranger studio album he’s been part of. You’re also breaking in a new keyboard player. What did these guys add to the process?

Well, both of them, their musical abilities are unbelievable. [Keyboardist] Eric Levy, he comes from a jam band called Garage Mahal, which was like a funk/jazz/fusion thing, a totally unbelievable band. He brought in this incredible ability to take regular rock and roll ideas, twist them around and just make them totally be distinct and different.

Of course Joel, playing with us for the last four or five years, he’s got a wealth of great blues ideas and jazz fusion as well. So having those different kinds of directions come in and make things twist and turn within a pop/rock structure was really helpful. You know, Joel was a writer on a few songs — there’s another song that’s floating around out there that we’re threatening to put on as a bonus track, it’s called ‘L.A. No Name.’ It’s an acoustic instrumental song that Joel and Brad brought into the mix, that’s pretty incredible too. These guys really added a lot to the project.

What are some of the new songs that you’re looking to work up for the live shows that you will play this summer outside of the Journey tour?

Well, we’ve been rehearsing for the past four days up here at the studio. Right now, we’ve got five songs worked up for the Japanese headlining tour that we’re doing. We’ve got ‘Growing Up in California,’ ‘Lay It on Me,’ ‘No Time to Lose,’ ‘Bye Bye Baby’ and ‘Rock and Roll Tonight’ worked up. We did work on the ballad a little bit, but we thought “you know, we have so many of our classic ballads, there’s no room for a ballad right now.” So that will probably come later — if the thing ever gets any sort of action, we’ll have that one in there too. But we’re so excited about the new album that we wanted to work up as many new songs as possible.

‘Rock and Roll Tonight’ is certainly one of the great jams on this new album.

I agree, man. Three and a half minute jam with 80 different riffs in it! [Laughs] That was a Brad Gillis lick, he came in one day, “oh, I’ve got this idea” [Kelly imitates song riff] and it was like “YEAH!” We jumped all over that one. Plus, we were thinking that we needed a new opener, instead of the one that we have, which is “Tonight, tonight, tonight / This boy needs to rock,” we wanted to have another up-tempo rock tune that just was about a “let’s get it started” kind of thing.

This summer’s tour with Journey and Foreigner will be great exposure for your band. I really can see this tour putting you in front of a bunch of classic rock fans that might not be aware that Night Ranger is still making music.

I’d agree. The last three years, that’s kind of been the case. We did an 18 city tour with Journey in ’09 and at the end of that, we did an REO/Styx package at the end of the year. We would turn to the audience and say “how many people have seen Night Ranger?” and it would be like 85 percent hands that hadn’t seen us . We were like “well, wow, that’s really good to be able to play in front of six to ten thousand people a night and turn them on to our music.” So it was like starting over, but at the same time, it was such a treat because we turned people on to what Night Ranger was about, other than ‘Sister Christian’ and some of those songs that have been played a lot. We’re looking forward to it.

You’re touring with two bands this summer that have successfully replaced their lead singers. You were one of the early people from that same era to do the same thing in the ’90s when you put together a new lineup of Night Ranger while Jack was off doing the Damn Yankees thing. At a time when you couldn’t just find a replacement on Youtube, what was the process like, putting a new version of a classic band together?

Well, it was a bit tough, because when you have that kind of history and you try to do that, it’s hit or miss. I know that Journey has had their bouts with it and their fans a lot of times don’t like that idea. You know, how can you replace Jack Blades, or how can you replace Steve Perry in a band that’s had a large amount of success. So, it’s kind of a crapshoot. But you want to keep working, and you want to move ahead and keep growing, so sometimes you just have to throw opinions aside, follow your instincts and follow your heart.

I’ve heard the fans affectionately call that Night Ranger ‘Feeding Off The Mojo’ album ‘Not Ranger,’ but I think that it really holds up well, particularly the stuff like ‘The Night Has A Way’ and ‘Precious Time.’

I agree. I thought the whole album had a lot of really great songs on it. We wrote that with Gary Moon, myself, and Brad. Some others were in on the process as well, I’m very proud of that record. They can call it whatever they want, but at the end of the day, we’ve got to be proud of it and I was. I never try and downplay that record at all, because I think it was just [hurt by] the times when it came out. We didn’t have a big record company behind it to push it, but I think it probably could have made a dent.

When you look at the main body of work from the band, is there a Night Ranger album that you feel is under-appreciated?

I definitely think that ‘Man in Motion’ had a bunch of great songs on it at the end of the ’80s. I think that the last two records, ‘Seven’ and ‘Neverland’ from 1996 and 1998, it’s all about timing a lot of times, but there’s a few songs on those records that I always go to when I listen to them.

Around the time that ‘Hole in the Sun’ came out, you were starting work on a new solo album. What’s the latest on that?

You know, what I’ve been doing, I put out two [solo] albums in the last 10 years. I’ve been slowly writing and I have like six great songs put aside that I’m going to work on. I live in Tennessee now, in Nashville, so there’s a bunch of great writers around there. I figure, after I get done with this project and the touring season’s done, I’m going to get back in there and open up some of these sessions and finish the tunes.

When you, Jack and Brad got together initially as “Stereo,” pre-Night Ranger, how long did it take you to realize that there might be a better band name out there?

Well, I think that once we got through the initial period of putting that band together, with Jim Pew as the keyboard player — it was Brad, myself, Jack, Jim Pew and the sax player from Sly and the Family Stone, who came from [another pre-Night Ranger project] Rubicon. Jerry Martini, he was part of it too, so we had a sax player in the band as well. Fitz [keyboardist Alan 'Fitz' Fitzgerald] was living with Jack at the time in between playing with Ronnie Montrose and Gamma. Fitz was playing bass guitar with that and living at Jack’s house when he’d come off the road for a few weeks at a time.

So when Gamma dissolved, he came to see us with Stereo and said “hey man, maybe we oughta do a band together, I know this guitar player in Sacramento.” so we started to flirt with the idea about another band. And when it came about, we decided on the name ‘Ranger’ and we stuck with that name for a while and did some shows around the Bay Area.

Right before we were getting ready to release the album, and we had 10,000 copies of the album printed up as ‘Ranger,’ there was some sort of an ad in Billboard that somebody put in that said “20 years of country music, Ranger” and we were like “YIKES, somebody else has the name!”

So we had to scrap the cover… the original cover was just the name. We already had the song ‘Night Ranger’ written for the album. We didn’t intend it to be a theme song or anything, but that was the only go-to name that we could think of. [It was] like “well, you’ve got a week to come up with a new name before the release date” and that meant coming up with a new cover, new fonts, new lettering and all of that stuff. We were like “holy shit!” So all of that came about within about a week or two of the album being shipped to radio.

Watch Night Ranger Talk About Their New Album ‘Somewhere in California.’

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