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Taking The High Road: An Exclusive Interview With Brad Gillis Of NIGHT RANGER

By Larry Petro, News Monkey
Wednesday, June 18, 2014 @ 11:45 AM

"You know music is a heavy thing man, it gets people through the best and worst of times"

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Interview By Duane Vickers

When I was offered the opportunity to interview one of the members of NIGHT RANGER, I jumped at the chance. Ever since catching them on their Midnight Madness tour in 1984, they’ve been my favorite band and their music has been and continues to be an inspiration to me so when I found out that it would be lead guitarist and founding member Brad Gillis, I was thrilled! Brad’s signature tone and his often imitated mastery of the “whammy-bar” technique along with his dynamic stage presence combined with the vocals from founding members, bassist and lead vocalist Jack Blades and drummer and lead vocalist Kelly Keagy, have been the driving force behind NIGHT RANGER and have given the band their own “summertime, fun rock” sound since the their 1982 debut release, Dawn Patrol. Making things even more special was being able to speak with Brad the week of the release of NIGHT RANGER’s eleventh studio album, High Road, which the band is currently on tour in support of. Through the years I’ve had the fortune to meet Brad at a couple of NIGHT RANGER shows and he’s always been very gracious with his time and today’s interview was certainly no exception. Brad phoned in from the band’s tour stop in Oswego, Illinois. Check it out!

KNAC.COM: Hey Brad I appreciate you calling in. I tell you, you guys have been going at it for 30 plus years and as a fan I’ve been with you every step of the way and for us to be here talking about new NIGHT RANGER, it really is a good day.

GILLIS: Ah, thanks buddy! I tell you we had a long bus ride last night and I didn’t get much sleep and got mixed up on the time so my apologies.

KNAC.COM: Oh, not a problem at all. You’ve got a new album out, High Road

GILLIS: Yeah we’re pretty excited about that man you know it’s pretty crazy for a band that’s been together since 1980 to be releasing another record so we’re very excited about it.

KNAC.COM: June 10th when it dropped was like Christmas for me and I tell you, you guys have hit it out of the park with this one. I know that it took you guys about a year to get it out with all of the touring but how did the album come together and what was some of the inspiration behind it?

GILLIS: Well you know it was kind of a blessing that it took so long for us to do and basically with going out on the road and doing shows and then coming back into the studio and working on it some more, it really gave us the luxury of time to hone it in and get it right. And also Duane, we like to do records about every year and a half to two years so we knew it was time to get another one out so basically that’s how that came about. We got together and with the success of the Somewhere In California record and people diggin’ on that, we knew we had to come back with that same format, you know that we’re known for with the big chorus, and hooky harmonies and melodic sense of songs and get back to the 80's roots of nice melodies and twin guitars and that kind of stuff and we just felt good that we had a good thing going so we’re all pretty excited about the whole deal.

KNAC.COM: Every album that NIGHT RANGER has put out is uniquely different yet distinctly NIGHT RANGER and this one is really no exception, I mean 30 plus years into it and you’re still delivering timely material but you maintain that NIGHT RANGER sound, that Bay Area California vibe sound, is it a lot of work to maintain that classic sound?

GILLIS: Not really, it’s kind of in our blood and when you do something for so long, you kind of get into that format. Jack (Blades) and Kelly (Keagy) write all of the lyrics, they’ve got some good stories to tell and their melodies are strong and we always try to hit that big chorus home man. Then I come in with a lot of guitar riffs and licks and song ideas and then Jack and Kelly and I get together over at Jack’s and we just start slammin’ around different ideas or Jack will have a chorus idea with a couple of chords and we’ll throw that around and after the day’s done we go through the five, six or seven ideas that we come up with from the day and we figure out which ones are happening and start honing those in. With this record we went through the nucleus of the band Jack, Kelly and me getting the ideas together and then we brought Joel (Hoekstra) and Eric (Levy), the newest members of the band in for their ideas and their feel and the next thing you know we have a NIGHT RANGER tune. We went thru about 15 to 18 tunes and picked the best 12 out and then with the bonus track and like I said we kind of have the luxury of time Duane, after a month or two of going on the road and coming back and getting back up to Jack’s and going thru the songs again and picking out the best stuff. We took our time, we almost missed our deadline getting it to the record company for the release date and it just came down to the wire, but we ended up doing it and finishing it off and getting it in on time. We always hate waiting that couple of months between finishing and the release date for everyone else to hear it but June 10th came around and everybody started hearing it and there’s all these reviews and then we’re all doing interviews and people are digging the record, it makes it all worth it.

KNAC.COM: The album is full of classic NIGHT RANGER material, it has some good time rock tunes like “Knock Knock Never Stop” and “Rollin' On” and then it has some deep kind of emotionally charged songs like “Hang On” and “Only For You”. Jack and Kelly really pushed themselves I think to nail the vocals on the album and it really shows.

GILLIS: Yeah, I gotta tell you man, we’ve been together so long to the point where these guys have got it down and it really shows. They take their time getting all the vocals right and after we finished the record, we took time on our production to make it sound huge. Like I said we’re really excited about it and all of the reviews we’ve been reading have been great, nothing really negative at all and it’s kind of moving up on the iTunes chart and all of these different charts and selling. We’re trying to pop a couple of these songs into the live set, we’re already doing “High Road” and we’re going to be popping “Knock Knock Never Stop” in there pretty soon, we’ve been rehearsing it a little bit at sound check. We’re going to try and learn like four or five, not really to throw into the NIGHT RANGER live set in the States but when we go to Japan later on in the year in October, they love to hear all of the new stuff so we’re gonna have five or six ready for them and give 'em about a two hour show in Japan and just keep this ball rollin'. We’re on the road right now, I’m in Illinois and we’re playing tonight and then we’ve got a ten hour bus ride down to Mississippi to open up for BOSTON and back home on Monday so the machines’ rollin’.

KNAC.COM: That’s one thing about NIGHT RANGER, you guys were never a heavy metal band and you certainly aren’t a pop band but you’ve got the chops to hang with anybody and I guess that’s really served you well because you can play shows with anybody from the classic rock bands from the 70’s to the metal bands from the 80’s.

GILLIS: Well I gotta tell you, we’ve stuck to our format which is just a good rock n' roll band, like you said, we aren’t heavy metal and we’re not pop but we’re somewhere in between. You know people used to ask us how do you describe your album and instead of heavy metal I’d say we’re stainless steel (laughs) just to be a little different. But our longevity has held because of our hits and being able to play for a whole wider audience. We had a great show last night and we’ll have another good one tonight and gosh we’ve got probably another fifty shows til the end of the year. We’ve been very lucky with William Morris booking agency to keep us out here rolling on. We thank our lucky stars that after thirty two years from our first release that we’re still making records and touring. We have a blast, everyone has a blast out on the road, we all joke around and have fun and keep the humor up and we get on stage and slam it down and give 110% and I gotta tell ya man I was thinking about it last night in the middle of the show, looking at the audience I was thinking man I’m a lucky guy to still be doing this. What else would I be doing? Even if I joined another band I wouldn’t be able to go out and play all these hits that I play every night. People ask “Do you get bored with it” I say “Hell no”, there’s people out there singing all these big choruses on the big hits, it’s just a great feeling man. I’ve got a great unit and we’re just driving along at 80 mph and we’re diggin’ it.

KNAC.COM: It’s not a bad thing to be Brad Gillis, you’re one of the premier guitarists to come out of the 80s. In fact, when I see one of those best of guitarist lists and you’re not on it I don’t consider it credible at all. I can air guitar some Brad Gillis as good as anyone out there, but Joel Hoekstra is a great guitarist and you guys seem to work really well together and have great chemistry on stage. What’s it been like working with Joel and trading a few leads here and there?

GILLIS: (Laughing)...Oh man, Joel is a fantastic guitar player, he’s all around man, an all around great player. He and I hang, we’re like best buddies and we get up there and trade off back and forth on songs like “Eddie’s Commin’ Out Tonight” and we do dual harmonies on the end of “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me” and we trade off on "(You Can Still) Rock In America” and it’s a blast to have such a pro guy like him on stage. He’s smiling all night long and just enjoying it and the guy’s got a mane of hair on him that won’t quit that he shakes around on stage and all the chicks dig him. But I gotta tell you man, it’s great to have him in the band I think he’s been with us seven or eight years now.

KNAC.COM: Every band seems to go through some lineup changes. Of course you had the original lineup with you, Jack and Kelly with Jeff (Watson) and Fitz (Alan Fitzgerald) and then Reb (Beach) played with you for a while and you’ve had a couple of other guys in there but the lineup you’ve got now with Joel and Eric, I mean I’ve seen you guys countless times with just about every lineup you’ve had and you sound tighter than ever and all seem like you’re really having a good time doing it out there.

GILLIS: Well, we are having a good time and we thoroughly enjoy this lineup, and Eric is just so low key man and just a great guy to hang with and a great keyboard player. And with this lineup we have a blast touring, we all get along and joke around, we make it fun you know what I mean? I guess like any job, when things get old or stale and you’re not diggin’ who you’re working with, you move on to another job or you try to at least. Some people get stuck in a rut and can’t leave and that’s what they do and it’s too bad but we have never felt that way or had that problem because everyone gets along, we hang together and we go out and have band dinners together and joke around and I gotta tell you man, we’ve got some funny guys in this band. Jack and Kelly and Joel and his many voices, he’s hilarious (Laughs) and we go out and goof off and it’s just a blast to hang with these people. And people ask how do you all get along with touring all the time and doing records? It’s all about getting along with your comrades.

KNAC.COM: I saw the DVD for 24 Strings And A Drummer and it looked like you were all just cuttin’ up and having a great time doing it.

GILLIS: Yeah man that was kind of a blast too because we had all of our friends and family up there for that one and it was only like a little over a hundred people and we decided to go in and change up some of the hits around acoustically and it was kind of tough to do especially trying to do some of these leads on acoustic and transform everything an octave lower and move around the fret board and we worked it all out in rehearsals and then came in and did it and it was just a blast and we turned it in to like a storytellers and we had all these stories from the 80s and how these songs came about and what “Sister Christian” is all about. Pretty much people know now that “Sister Christian” is written by Kelly our drummer and it’s about his sister Christy and watching her grow up, a coming of age kind of thing. And Kelly is singing it to us back in the studio in about 82-ish and we’re learning it and we always thought he was singing “Sister Christian” not “Sister Christy” and he decided to change it around to “Sister Christian” and I gotta tell you Duane, that song has pretty much given us our longevity being in all these movies and commercials and this and that here and there, it’s amazing how one song can keep a band rollin’.

KNAC.COM: Right, ya know, you see “Sister Christian” and a lot of people that aren’t so much the hardcore NIGHT RANGER fans, they recognize “Sister Christian” and I go back to some of the earlier albums and some of the songs that you guys have put out like “Chippin’ Away” and “Halfway To The Sun” and “Faces”, it’s some of my favorite stuff. (Brad laughs) Is there any chance of you ever working some of that back into the setlist at all because you have to play the hits of course and you want to work in the new album, but some of the diehards out there would die to see some of that stuff.

GILLIS: (Laughing) That’s funny, “Chippin Away”, wow! That’s so funny because that song hasn’t been brought up for years because you know we have so many of these B sides that I guess we could be playing but ya know we have to play our hits and we do throw in a couple of DAMN YANKEES hits and it comes across real well and you gotta realize that sometimes when we do some of these bigger festivals with three or four bands and we’re right in the middle or headlining or wherever we’re at, and a lot of people won’t know these B sides and so we want to give them songs that they know. It’s really tough being on stage and looking out there and playing a song that people don’t know and it’s like the deer in the headlights kind of thing so you tend to strategically place your setlist to your audience. But when we know we’re playing a diehard NIGHT RANGER audience, we do throw some of our B sides in there like a “7 Wishes” or we pull some out of the hat actually.

KNAC.COM: I guess that wasn’t so much a question as it was a request. I’ll be at your show in a couple weeks so see what you can do (laughs).

GILLIS: Yeah, yeah well we throw “Rumors In The Air” in here and there but as far as getting in to some of these different cuts, you know I’ll run it by the band. We kind of looked into our repertoire in the past to see if we could pull out something that we haven’t played in a while. It’s so funny you know we go way, way back and we start joking around in sound check with things like (Singing) “Penny I got your number” (Laughs) and we pretty much end up laughing and joking about it, and we’ve tried to be a little different here lately and we’ll throw out a little OZZY, we’ll do “Crazy Train” and people love that. It’s all about wooing and swaying your audience, you know? We’re just lucky to have our five hits under our belt to be able to play every night. You know we throw “Secret Of My Success” in there once in a while but with this new record we’re not going to be doing too many cuts off of it, we’ll probably be doing “High Road” and we’re kind of learning “Knock Knock Never Stop” now at our sound check and we’ll start throwing that in and we’re trying to figure out what other songs to learn too so we’re kind of waiting to hear more feedback from people listening to the record to see what maybe the third, fourth and fifth cuts off the record are that we should be learning and playing.

KNAC.COM: The record industry not being what it used to and going the way of the internet, you guys have done a great job through the social media of putting the news out there about the new album and you’ve released a couple of videos for “High Road” and “Knock Knock Never Stop” that are out there on Youtube. I always felt like that back in the day videos gave the fans more of connection with the band. What were you thoughts on releasing those two videos?

GILLIS: Well, you gotta realize when we started out and released our first video, which we actually did for a great deal, it was $10,000 for that first “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me” video and back then even though it sounds like a lot of money, it wasn’t because some people have spent over a million dollars on videos. We released that right at the inception of MTV and we were lucky enough that when we released that song they played us over and over again on heavy rotation on MTV only because they didn’t have any content, people were just starting to do videos and we got right in there from the get go. Where that really helped us out was putting a face to the band and people could see the band and you know you could show off playing your lead guitar, and see the solos and who’s singing what and it really helped out the band. We’re just glad that we’re still being able to put out videos and records and going in and doing “Knock Knock Never Stop” and “High Road” was a blast. We did it real cheap because nobody wants to spend a lot of money right now because there’s no big budgets to be had from record companies. We just kind of drove out basic videos of the songs and just had fun with it, and that’s what it’s all about, having fun.

This band is all about having fun and it’s feel good summertime music that you play on your radio while cruising down the road kind of a thing and we’ve always stuck to that format. And it’s the perfect release time for us with “High Road” because it’s the start of summer and we’re just hoping people just get back to that 80s fun time where music was fun and everyone singing along in their car really enjoying a summer time record. We’re glad to have it out now and with a couple of videos and like I said the response is great so far and all of the reviewers have been giving us great reviews and we feel like we hit a home run. In this day and age Duane you gotta realize man it’s a whole different world especially for 80s rock and we’re just lucky to be charting up there on a few of these charts and the record's starting to sell pretty good so we’ve got to take what’s been handed to us and keep this ball rollin’ and so far, so good.

KNAC.COM: I appreciate that you guys keep releasing new material. You had Somewhere In California in 2011 and 24 Strings And A Drummer in 2012 and now High Road and that kind of brings me to another question. You guys have got to have a lot of unreleased material out there and maybe some alternate versions of songs that you have. Have you guys ever considered releasing a box set because you have so much material?

GILLIS: Well I tell you not really because of our heavy touring schedule and the amount of time that it takes us to do a record, we’ve pretty much got a full dance card. We do have some leftover songs from this record and a couple of ideas left over from the last record that we really haven’t touched on to try and hone in and release. You know we go with what’s fresh and what we’re diggin’ and what we think sounds big and try to finish those off but you know that’s an idea to think about because we do have a lot of songs that are still sitting in the can, but who knows maybe in another year and a half or so when we go to do another record, we can go back to those, but as far as alternate releases of old songs we kind of did that with 24 Strings And A Drummer, doing things acoustically and that was pretty fun to do that. But you know time is an issue with us because we do tour a lot and we’ve got to have some home down time man after being on the road for a while here and there and doing this and that and recording for a week or two and you know everybody needs to take a break. We’re not spring chickens anymore and we’re all family people and times have changed since the 80's.

KNAC.COM: You guys are holding up well and you know a lot of bands are going back and doing some of their more popular albums in their entirety on tour. I know MOTLEY (CRUE) did Dr. Feelgood and STYX did Grand Illusion. Have you ever had any discussions about doing a return to Midnight Madness for a tour?

GILLIS: You…know… we’ve talked about it but I think we’re not as big as those bands. I call ourselves a glorified B band. I think we’re two hits shy of being an A band. And for us to go out and do all of these cuts from Midnight Madness, I think the diehards would love it but I think we still need to go in and throw in the hits from the other records and just stack the deck you know? And I think we’ve got a great set now and we’re rollin’ with it because we throw in all of the hits from all the big records and try not to dig too deep on the B cuts and like I said throw in a couple of DAMN YANKEES and an OZZY song and it works out well and sometimes we break it down in the middle of the set and we do an acoustic set where we throw in “Goodbye” and “High Enough” acoustically or “Let Him Run” and then get back into the heavy set, so we do try to change it up especially if we know we’re hitting two towns in the same area in a year we try to mix it up so we’re not playing the same set. We’re trying to do the best we can to entertain as many people as we can and not bore anybody on stage.

KNAC.COM: Well getting back to the new album, the title track “High Road”, as soon as I plugged it in, it’s classic NIGHT RANGER. I understand that was actually the last track that went on the album?

GILLIS: Yes it was, we had finished about eleven or twelve songs and I actually had gone home and Jack’s son Colin was fiddlin’ around with this idea for this song “High Road” and he was just humming a little bit of the verse and maybe a couple of words from the chorus and Jack and Kelly heard him playing it they were like “wow you’ve kind of got something there”, so I guess they sat down together and started fiddlin’ around with it and then I came back the next day to do some more recording and they said “hey man check this idea out” and I was like “wow that’s great, let’s work on that”, so we went in and slammed down the drums and rough bass and started finishing it off and you know sometimes the last song on the record are the best songs. The same deal happened with Dawn Patrol, “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me” came in last and actually with Somewhere In California, “Growing Up In California” was the last song on the record because Jack had written it for his solo record and I heard that song and I’m like “That’s a NIGHT RANGER song” and he said “Do you think so”? And I said “man, we could slam that thing” and he said “Oh..OK”, so we went in and redid a bunch of stuff on that song and the next thing you know it’s the title cut and first single off of Somewhere In California, so sometimes you know the best songs come last, you gotta hone those in and it’s kind of exciting you get that last song and you’re like “this is going to be the champ of the record” and you put that little extra effort in because you know it’s the last song and you want it to be great and once you’re done with that it’s over and you’ve got to release what you’ve got, and the next thing you know it’s a single.

KNAC.COM: Well I’ve been running around the house singing it the last couple of days so you’ve definitely done it right. You know when I looked at the album cover itself, probably the diehards will notice, you’ve touched on some elements from some of your past albums in the artwork. Who’s idea was that?

GILLIS: Well that would be mine (laughs). Yeah, I said to the band management “why don’t we put some elements from some of our different records on there and see if people can find them”. And we kinda threw them in there hidden and people are starting to find them. One fan of ours from Norway, his name is Thomas, he actually took the album cover and circled all of the elements and found all five of them so it was kind of cool. But we had a lot of fun with the artwork, we wanted to give it a Bay Area feel because we are a Bay Area band, that’s where we came from originally. I think the whole package is great and people are digging it, it’s finally got released and we’re just touching on it right now with people buying and listening to it and getting back to us on it so this next week the tour's gonna be a blast to see how it’s charting. I think it’s getting pretty high on the iTunes charts and on different charts and it’s going and so in this day and age for a band that’s an 80s band that’s been around for thirty plus years to be charting and selling records it’s amazing to us and we’re just loving it and diggin’ it and we’re gonna make the best of it and it should add excitement to our live shows.

KNAC.COM: So the plan is to hit the road and you guys are hitting it pretty hard this summer I know and after that just keep cranking albums out right?

GILLIS: Yeah man, we’re just gonna keep this machine rollin’. We’ve got a big year all over the States, going to Japan, coming back and doing Honolulu and Maui which is going to be a blast and we head from Maui to Florida to do EPCOT for three nights. You know everybody’s excited about it, we’re excited about Japan because Japan has always been great for us, we’ve always been huge in Japan. We haven’t played Honolulu in years when we used to play that coliseum there. We used to sell that out back in the day and we’ve never played Maui so we’re looking forward to playing an outdoor festival there and like I said we’re rollin’ man, we’re gonna have a great year.

KNAC.COM: Well Brad I know you have a show to do tonight and I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that your music has meant so much to me over the years, I saw the Midnight Madness tour when I was fourteen and you know NIGHT RANGER has been with me through the good times and the bad times and its made the good times better and helped me through the bad times and I certainly appreciate it and I appreciate your time and everything that you guys are doing and I’ll be at your show in a couple of weeks and look forward to meeting with you at the meet and greet, I can’t wait for that show.

GILLIS: Yeah, definitely Duane, come say Hi and Thanks for the kudos. You know music is a heavy thing man, it gets people through the best and worst of times, when people are down they put on their favorite song to uplift them and when people want to go out and party they put on their favorite song to get em goin’ and it’s a very powerful tool that we’re glad to put out there, thanks for all the love man.

KNAC.COM: Absolutely and all the success in the world with the new record.

GILLIS: Thank’s buddy, I will talk to you soon, look forward to seeing you in a couple weeks.

You can pick up a copy of High Road in the KNAC.COM More Store right HERE.

Check out the videos for "High Road" and "Knock Knock Never Stop" right HERE and right HERE, respectively.

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