Night Ranger’s Jack Blades Talks New Music: ‘We Can Do Whatever We Want’
This fall, Night Ranger mark 35 years together. The debut album 'Dawn Patrol' arrived in November 1982 and they quickly found themselves out on the road, touring relentlessly as songs like “Sing Me Away” and “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me” (Night Ranger's first Top 40 hit) began to get airplay on both radio and MTV.
“Sometimes it feels like it’s been 35 days,” Jack Blades said with a big laugh, during a recent conversation with Ultimate Classic Rock. “All of the sudden, I turn around and I went, ‘Whoa, you mean it was just 35 years ago that we released "Dawn Patrol"?’ It’s crazy, but it’s what happens in life: Everything speeds up. And, with rock and roll, we’ve just been putting out records. Who would have thought that 35 years later, I’d be sitting here talking about a new album!”
'Don't Let Up' is the 12th studio project from the San Francisco-bred band and one that’s appropriately named, when you consider that it’s the third album the group has released since 2011. “It’s like the trilogy of the new Night Ranger, basically,” the veteran vocalist/bassist wisecracks, giving a nod to 'Somewhere in California,' which was released that year and 2014’s 'High Road.'
Night Ranger still features core original members Blades, drummer/vocalist Kelly Keagy and guitarist Brad Gillis, plus keyboardist Eric Levy and guitarist Keri Kelli -- the latter of whom is band's newest arrival, having joined prior to the recording of 'Don't Let Up.' Over that time frame, they focused on getting back to the basics.
“We decided to go back to how we made records when we really first started,” Blades says. “And that was getting in a room and just jamming out songs. Basically, that’s what Kelly, Brad and I did. We just got in a room and started firing up song after song for the album.”
The advance track “Day and Night” offers a hard-edged preview of what fans can expect from the new album, which arrives in stores today. Ultimate Classic Rock is pleased to present the exclusive premiere of the video for the song, which can be found on the deluxe edition of 'Don't Let Up.'
“It’s really what Night Ranger is: It’s a live band,” Blades says. “We wanted to make a record that sounds like our live show. We wanted everything to be energetic and up and rockin’ -- because that’s what Night Ranger is. If you’ve come to our shows, it’s like straight-ahead American rock and roll, case closed. So, we wanted to make a record that sounded like that. That’s what we did with 'Don’t Let Up' and I think that the video for ‘Day and Night’ is very much along the lines of what Night Ranger is all about. It’s in a live setting. We filmed a lot of it when we filmed our live DVD, '35 Years and a Night in Chicago,' which we put out last winter. I think everybody’s going to really enjoy it.”
Listening to “Somehow, Someway,” which leads off the record, something struck me about a few songs on this record: You have the traditional guitar solo and right about the time where a song would kick back into the next verse or chorus or whatever, you guys keep jamming. “Day and Night” is another example. The songs are tight, but it doesn’t sound like you guys were afraid to stretch out in certain spots where it called for it.
Yeah, you know what? At this stage of the game, we don’t have to write three-minute long pop songs. [Laughs.] At this stage of the game, we can do whatever we want to do. If we want to stretch it a little harder here, we can stretch it a little more here. We can do this there; we can double up a chorus. We can add another solo. As long as it’s creative and as long as what we’re doing means something to the song. That’s what we did on this record. We didn’t put any constraints on ourselves like a time limit. [We didn’t feel] like we have to do verse / chorus / bridge / solo / chorus / out. It’s like “Day and Night,” where it comes back in again. Things like that.
“Running Out of Time,” the second chorus, we break it down and just take all of the music out and just sing it. Usually people save that for the end of the song, we’re like, “F--- it, let’s do it here!” [Laughs.] It’s things like that that I think in a lot of ways, as long as it’s not boring to our fans and stuff like that -- since it’s been 35 years, I think we’ve kind of earned the right to be able to twist some things around a little bit.
Listen to Night Ranger Perform 'Somehow Someway'
How much did Keri coming into the mix change things up?
It helped out in a lot of ways. I don’t think he’s made a record in a while. I think Keri had a lot of pent-up creativity to let out and I think that we were able to harness that in a positive way. Plus, when you have a new guy who you haven’t recorded with before -- I mean, we’ve played with Keri for a few years now, but you haven’t recorded with him. It’s almost like having a new girlfriend. It’s like, you try out this, you try out that. [Blades makes an excited sound.] It’s like, yeah, let’s go for it. C’mon! So, I think in that respect, I think it really sort of helped it. But to make sure that everything was rounded out, Keri and Eric have a deep respect for the legacy of Night Ranger and for the musical episodes that Night Ranger has been through and our maneuvers that we’ve done over the years. So, they are very respectful of that. When they approach a Night Ranger song, they approach it with who we are in mind. I think that’s a winning combination and this five-man band right now is just really firing on all eight cylinders.
“We Can Work It Out” is another highlight on this new album.
I had come up with this idea for the song. I called up Kelly and I said, “Hey man, we should just do the entire song as a duet” -- and it’s basically what the song is. It’s both of us harmonizing and singing pretty much the whole song together. I thought it was funny, I mean, I’m like, what am I going to call this thing? [Blades sings the song lyrics.] I didn’t want to call it, “Let’s Stop Thinking About It,” you know? And then I’m thinking, “We Can Work It Out,” there’s that famous Beatles song, but I’m like, “Oh well, what the hell. We might as well just say what it is, since that’s the chorus."
I think it’s funny. I read a thing on a fan site that they were saying, “Oh God, I just saw the track listing, it looks like they did a cover of the Beatles’ 'We Can Work It Out'” and I was so tempted to write back at him, “You’re going to be surprised!” But I didn’t. I thought I’d let the people be surprised when they hear it. Because I think on the track listing, people are thinking that we did a cover song on the album, which it’s going to be fun when they discover it’s not.
It had to be fun for you to take that kind of vocal approach. I just got the reissue for Paul McCartney’s Flowers in the Dirt album, which has the demos that he and Elvis Costello did for the record. Just hearing those guys with a couple of guitars or just a piano sitting around and singing songs, I could have heard a whole album of stuff like that. It’s really cool when guys like you and Kelly get a chance to sit down and strip it back like that.
Exactly, exactly. For the bonus track in Japan, we stripped it back even further and made it completely acoustic and actually, you should try to get a copy of that and check that one out, because I love that version almost as much -- you know, almost more than the other version that’s on the U.S. record! [Laughs.] It’s fun to do that. You know, sometimes we do some acoustic shows where we do Night Ranger unplugged and man, I’ve got to tell you, those are the most fun shows. We get up there and just laugh and joke and bag on each other and it’s just so much fun.
That stripped-down stuff, it’s wonderful. Fortunately for Night Ranger, we’ve always focused on songs. When you strip down all of the other music on a Night Ranger song, you can still sing the song. When we first started out, my philosophy was that if I can’t sit there with an acoustic guitar and sing the song, a verse and chorus, and have somebody get it, then it’s not worth even being a song. That’s kind of our criteria for what we’ve always done with Night Ranger.
Listen to Revolution Saints Perform 'Back on My Trail'
I was happy to hear that you’ll be getting back together with Deen Castronovo and Doug Aldrich for another Revolution Saints album. Where are things at with that?
Deen’s going to go over to Italy and cut the drums there and then I’m flying over and then we’re going to play the Frontiers Festival. And then yeah, we’re just going to fire that thing up. Look, I’ve been really blessed, the people that I’ve been able to play with. Whenever I’ve done something outside of Night Ranger, you know, with Tommy Shaw and Ted [Nugent] with the Damn Yankees, Neal Schon’s a real good friend of mine, I’ve written a bunch of songs, three or four songs for Journey albums and Neal’s done stuff on my solo records, I’ve done stuff on his solo records. Tak Matsumoto with the B’z, I mean, when Eric Martin and I did the TMG record, Tak is one of the greatest guitar players I’ve played with.
And now, I mean, with the musicianship in Rev Saints, it’s like, forget about it. Deen is a phenomenal drummer. Doug Aldrich’s right in there with all of the guitarists that I’ve played with. He’s right up there at the top with all of the rest of them. He’s just one kick-ass guitarist. So it’s really fun for me not to have to be the lead singer of the band, I’ll tell you that much. I get to be the bass player. I get to be the Jack Bruce of this band. You know, I’ll sing a song here and there, but it’s like, Deen’s the singer in this thing and I love it.
Are you guys going to get to write together for this one?
We’re trying to come up with some things. It’s kind of jammed right now, and I’m really jammed. So, I don’t have a lot of time. I think that’s what needs to be done with Revolution Saints, is that we need to interject ourselves a little bit more in there with the writing process.
You mentioned Tommy Shaw. Is there any sort of hope that we might see that next Shaw/Blades record at some point? I know that the last time we spoke, you said it was about three-quarters done.
I know, and the last time we spoke, that was the last time we worked on it. So, it’s still three-quarters done! [Laughs.] I’m hoping [that we can get it done] someday. It wouldn’t take much. It would only take a couple of weeks to push that one over the finish line. I’m hoping that we can maybe get that done sometime. That’s what I think.
It seems like you and Tommy had a lot of fun during the period that you were writing songs for all sorts of folks. One of the ones I was thinking of today, was “Shut Up and Dance” for Aerosmith.
That was a blast, when we wrote with Steven [Tyler] and Joe [Perry]. We went down to Joe’s place and it was just killer. You know, Steven is so rhythmic. He’s a drummer, so everything is rhythmic with him. It all has to start with a cool groove. So, we start out with that [Blades imitates the groove] -- it all started out with a cool groove. It was the same thing with the other song that we wrote for the Armageddon soundtrack, which was “What Kind of Love Are You On?” We wrote that song and it was like, [Blades imitates riff], “What kind of love are you on?” Everything is really groove-oriented.
And it was the same thing when we wrote “Walk on Water,” which was on their Big Ones greatest hits album. That was a fun time. Tommy and I were just writing with everybody, Ozzy [Osbourne], Alice Cooper, Vince Neil, Aerosmith and then boom, I was writing Journey songs like “Higher Place,” co-writing that with Neal and Jon Cain and loving every minute of it. That stuff is just great. The Aerosmith guys, that was a hoot. I was just listening to some of that stuff the other day and I was like, “I forgot we even did that one!” [Laughs.] There were certain things that I was like, “S--- yeah, I haven’t listened to that in years!”
Listen to Aerosmith Perform 'Walk on Water'
“Walk on Water” is such a cool tune. It must be fun to write hooks like that and “Shut Up and Dance” outside of your normal area. You have different things to work with when you’re handing stuff like that over to Steven Tyler and Joe Perry.
Yeah and it’s fun, because when you’re working with them, it’s not like you’re [starstruck] by Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. It’s like, Steven and Joe and you’re in a room and then you’re going out to dinner and you’re like, "here, pull my finger" and "here, let’s do this." They’re joking around and it’s just fun. We had a really good time when we went to the South Shore and did that stuff, and it turned out that we came up with some really good musical maneuvers. I’m really proud of that stuff.
You got the chance to play with Ringo Starr in the late ‘90s. How did that come about?
Mark Hudson is a friend and Mark was producing the Ringo record [1998’s Vertical Man]. He was doing a lot of stuff with Ringo at that time. So, he grabbed Gary Burr and myself, because we were songwriters, we’d written some songs together and everything. Gary Burr is a Nashville Hall of Fame songwriter who is a real good friend of mine. He grabbed Gary and me and he said, “Come on, we’re going to do this thing with Ringo!” That was so much fun. We went over to England and rehearsed for two weeks, did VH-1 Storytellers back in the states, did Letterman, Leno, filmed a video in London.
Joe Walsh was with us, [Bad Company's] Simon Kirke on drums -- that was some good times, man! Especially with Ringo! After a while, he’d start telling us Beatles stories, once he got used to us and everything like that. We were hearing some killer Beatles stories, straight from the horse’s mouth and I’m telling you, it was a like a bunch of kids sitting at the feet of the guru!
It was pretty cool. I gotta admit, I felt like at that point that God, like I did something right and God was like, “Okay kid, I’m going to throw you a bone. You’ve been doing alright so far, so I’m going to let you do this with a Beatle.” It was a dream come true.
As a Beatles fan, did it give you a different perspective after that?
It gave me a better perspective. Because being a bass player and playing with Ringo, because Ringo has such a deep sort of middle groove. All of those people who say that Ringo was the luckiest guy in the world? They’re full of s---, man! Ringo is a freakin’ killer drummer, man. He’s got a groove that’s like a groove. He’s got this middle pocket that he sits in, that you’ve got to be in there with him and it’s just like – it gave me a bigger, newfound respect.
You know, one time we were up there rehearsing with the band before Ringo had shown up. I think it was me and Hudson and Joe Walsh was playing guitar. We were just fooling around with “Ticket to Ride” and Hudson and I are singing it. Ringo walks in the back room of the rehearsal studio. He’s standing there and he’s walking in with his wife Barbara, nodding his head. All of the sudden, he hears what we’re playing, tilts his head to the right and to the left and comes running around, runs from the back of the room, all of the way up to the front, jumps on his drums and starts [playing along]. I’m sitting there singing, looking over my shoulder and that’s Ringo Starr playing the real drum part to it. I might as well have died and gone to heaven right there on the spot.
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