RGM caught up with Night Ranger founding member Jack Blades by phone from the USA on the day of his flight to the UK to headline the Hard Rock Hell AOR festival in Wales. The band will also play a co-headline show with Skid Row in London on a flying visit to our shores. Night Ranger formed in the early 80's and have sold a very impressive seventeen million records worldwide and continue to release albums and maintain a very busy touring schedule to this day. Jack was very generous with his time as we discussed all things Night Ranger and touched on his various other projects. So crack open your favoured brew and settle back as RGM talks to Jack Blades:
RGM: Hi Jack How's It going, you're in Florida I believe?
Very good mate. I’m in Orlando and getting a red eye tonight to London (Tuesday) for Hard Rock Hell and the Shepherds Bush show on Sunday.
RGM: You’re playing with Skid Row, have you played shows with those guys before?
Yes many, many times, I know Snake and all the guys. I actually know Sebastian really well, I know he’s not with the band now, but it’s going to be Old Home Week. There are a few bands at HRH I know, Bulletboys and Great White I think are playing. As I said it’s like Old Home Week at these festivals.
RGM: I guess you’ve done these types of festivals and the cruises many times.
Yes, we did the KISS cruise which was really great with Gene, Paul, Eric Singer and the guys and the Monsters of Rock cruise. I’m usually not a fan of cruises I can tell you that.
RGM: I kinda thought the only thing that might get me on any kind of cruise would be the bands.
It turned out a lot better than you might think, everybody is there to enjoy themselves and have a good time. I was worried that people would be in your face all the time but everybody is really respectful. Most times we do an acoustic show and an electric show it’s really fun. We have a great time doing it. They look after us really well… but hey man we’re looking forward to the UK.
RGM Since you signed with Frontiers you’ve been to the UK quite often?
We’re trying to get to Europe as often as we can it’s just so costly for our entire band, crew and gear to get over there, we’ve tried as much as possible. Unfortunately, our manager back in the 80’s kept us in the USA, we did go to Japan a lot, I think he went for where the big money was if you know what I mean (laughs). Instead of doing what Bon Jovi and Motley did which was just keep going and going to Europe, even if you’re not making money, then suddenly you don’t have to worry about it as you’re making enough dough to make it happen.
RGM. I seem to remember you came over once to support someone?
Foreigner in 1985, I think we played Wembley Arena and then we did all the festivals like Rock AM Ring with Foreigner, Saga and those bands. We really enjoyed it a lot but that was it until we signed with Frontiers.
RGM You were on many fans wish lists for a long time.
Yeah, Damn Yankees never came over, we went to Japan. It’s nice you know, we’ll play a couple old Damn Yankees songs, people get a kick out of that. They’ll see one-fourth of the Yanks, Me (laughing).
RGM: You’ll have to get that third Damn Yankees album out and then you can tour Europe with them (laughing)
Well there you go, someday, you never know.
RGM: You said you’re in Florida at the moment playing at Epcot I assume?
Yes, we’ve done this for about the last six or seven years and it’s kinda like a vacation for the crew. We get to stay in one place, we’re not travelling every day and we get to play a residency here at Epcot and it’s really, really nice, the crew bring their families and everybody enjoys the parks for four or five days.
RGM: You’re mixing it up with acoustic and electric sets?
Exactly what we do, we’re playing new songs and old songs. We played ‘Night Ranger’ the other night and we haven’t played that in a long time. People now know we do it and they plan trips and vacations around it so it’s really fun.
RGM: Can I take you back to the beginning and Rubicon who were pretty successful playing California Jam and having a hit single?
Rubicon was a seven-piece horn band, like a funk rock band. Cal Jam was a big day with 250.000 people, it was good, and we had a hit single, but nothing like the success of Night Ranger or Damn Yankees. It was a good band and a good launching pad. I was in the band and we auditioned Brad Gillis who played on the records and near the end, Kelly Keagy joined as the touring drummer so it was the genesis of what became Night Ranger.
RGM: You were obviously looking to go in a more hard rock direction with Night Ranger?
Yeah, Rubicon was more a Sly and the Family Stone kinda funky rock band. Rubicon was formed by sax player Jerry Martini of Sly and the Family Stone to be a funk rock band. When Rubicon broke up in 1979 Brad, Kelly and I stayed together and my roommate at the time, Alan Fitzgerald the bass player with Montrose and keyboard player with Sammy Hagar had just come off a Sammy Hagar tour and he said hey I know a kid in Sacramento (Jeff Watson), you bring your rhythm section. I’ll grab this other guy and we’ll forge ahead. This was 1980 and that’s when Ranger was born.
RGM: Is it an urban myth that the first album was actually pressed up as Ranger?
Yeah, there were about 10.000 copies of an actual vinyl album. True story, about a week before release there was a full page add in Billboard for The Rangers. They’d had the name forever and their grandfathers started the band way back. We thought we’re screwed and expected a cease and desist order any moment. I’d written the song ‘Night Ranger’ so I called everybody up and said 'Hey man, we’ve got the logo and all this stuff let ’s just put ‘Night’ above it. Everybody says it’ll be terrible, I’m like no…it’ll be great' and hang up the phone. I’m thinking this is a terrible idea (laughing). That’s what we did, they destroyed the 10.000 copies and that was the end of that.
RGM: I bet you wish you still had one of those?
I actually know someone who has one. A guy called Russell who plays in bands in the Bay Area, he sort of dangles that over my head (laughs).
RGM: In Rubicon you were a very funky bass player, lots of slapping and stuff so where did your influences come from and how did that change for Night Ranger?
I was big into Larry Graham, Graham Central Station, Sly and the Family Stone, Brothers Johnson so I played everything with my thumb, I never used my fingers, slapping with my thumb or playing the notes with my thumb that’s kinda what I did. Growing up I was heavily into English rock bands, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin so when we decided to form this rock band I put a thumb pick on. Also as I was the frontman of the band and singing I wanted to do down strokes. I didn’t want the bass up by my chin doing walking bass type stuff. That’s how I’ve played since 1980 and there’s not a lot of guys who use a thumb pick. Nils Lofgren and I talk about that, we think we’re the only guys who use an actual thumb pick. Nils wears this necklace of thumb picks; I have four picks dangling off my tuning pegs which works perfectly for me.
RGM: Did it feel like a natural change for you?
Yes, strapped on the thumb pick and started pumping eighth notes (laughs). When we formed Night Ranger we were all Thin Lizzy fans. If you think about Night Ranger and Lizzy in 1980 they (Thin Lizzy) were at their height for Americans, we just loved them. Our friends Huey Lewis & The News, when we were starting out as Night Ranger, were Huey Lewis and American Express and his favourite band was Thin Lizzy. If you think about it Night Ranger had two guitar players doing harmonies, a frontman bass player that sings, the only difference is we stuck a keyboard player in the mix. We lucked out as we had twin guitars and twin lead singers. How much better can you get?
RGM: And Huey Lewis had a connection to Thin Lizzy.
Yeah, he played with them exactly. You know when we broke up Rubicon Brad, Kelly and myself formed a club band called Stereo and played the San Francisco clubs. Huey Lewis at that time was Huey Lewis and American Express and he’d just come back from England and he was putting his thing together and they had to change their name. We were hanging out and playing little eighty seater clubs, a pretty cool time back in 1980. Neal Schon would walk in, we’d be hanging with Neal, Carlos Santana, Greg Rolie, the Journey and Santana guys. It was a pretty special time back then.
RGM: When ‘Dawn Patrol’ was released you seemed to break big pretty quickly with hit singles and touring.
As I said it was a special time, we released our first record in October 1982 and we made a video with our friends from UCLA Film School, who checked out all the gear over the weekend and we made a guerrilla video for ‘Don’t Tell Me You Love Me’ and gave it to MTV, who had like six videos at that time. They started playing our video like fourteen times a day, we went on tour, we’d come into a town and MTV was so new, and everyone was so into it, we’d be like TV stars, like frickin’ Johnny Depp or something.
RGM: What are your thoughts on those early albums; do you have a favourite period?
Well Yeah, I always liked ‘Midnight Madness / Seven Wishes’ We released ‘Dawn Patrol’ and went straight out on tour and the record starts to sell tons of records and the next thing you know the record company (Boardwalk) is bankrupt so they pull us off the road. So we went straight into the studio to do the ‘Midnight Madness’ record. We were lucky as a lot of bands have the sophomore jinx, you save all your good songs for the first record and your second record tanks because you don’t have the songs. Our second record sold four times as many copies, millions you know. Then straight into ‘Seven Wishes’ I have a soft spot in my heart for the songs ‘Seven Wishes’, ‘Goodbye’ and Four In The Morning’ there is a lot of great music on the ‘Seven Wishes’ album. Same with ‘When I Close My Eyes’ from 'Midnight Madness' one of my favourite songs I've written for Night Ranger.
RGM: You don’t lack for good material when putting together a set list?
Yeah, it gets pretty interesting. Do you wanna play that one, do you wanna play this one. Especially now, with the three new albums. We wanna play ‘High Road’ ‘Growing Up In California’ and from the new album ‘Somehow Someway,’ I love the song ‘Truth’, ‘Day and Night’ there’s all the new tunes, so where do you put in the deep cuts like ‘Rumours In The Air’, ‘Passion Play’? Which is nice as we do like to switch it up, we don’t do the same set every night, much to the chagrin of the crew? They never know what’s coming up next as I’ll just call off songs. We’re one of those bands that can actually do that, we never use tapes or loops or anything like that, everything you hear coming off of the stage is coming from the five guys on the stage. There’s no artificial sweetening added if you know what I mean?
RGM: Absolutely, bands have been getting called recently for using backing vocal tapes especially.
Yeah, our shows can turn into Springsteen gigs, two and a half hour shows cause we’ll pull out songs and throw them in. Then we’ll do something we grew up listening to, we don’t give a shit, we’ll play anything we wanna play. That’s the joy of having done this for over thirty-five years and I think we’ve earnt the right to just be who we are. We’re at the stage where its fun, I’ll stop doing it when it stops being fun.
RGM: You’re also very much a going concern, touring and releasing new material. You’re far from a heritage type act?
Well yeah, I hope to be doing this when I’m ninety. The most inspiring thing I’ve ever seen was Brad, Lita Ford and I went to see Les Paul for his ninetieth birthday party at a club in NYC called Iridium, playing his songs, doing his thing. I chose to be a musician; I’ve been a musician all my adult life from like twenty. This is what I do, who I am and what I’ll do for the rest of my life. I’m happiest writing a song in my room, strumming the guitar, playing the piano, going on tour, we’re gypsies man, we’ve lived on the road our entire adult lives.
RGM: It would be great if you could play more shows with Revolution Saints?
Hey yeah, it’s fun. Doug Aldrich what a great guitar player and Deen is a monster in fact when Kelly had his heart issues and his heart valve replacement we had Deen play with Night Ranger. Oh My God! We had so much fun; Deen is like part of the family I’ve known him since he was like seventeen in a group called Wild Dogs from Portland, Oregon. Back in 1984 when Night Ranger was rockin’ Kelly used to give him cymbals to help him out as they were such a young band just starting out. So who knows, you just never know.
RGM: Would you like to have more songwriting input to a possible third Revolution Saints record?
Yeah, Yeah I think if we did another one I’d like to contribute a little bit more to the writing, It’d be fun to shake things up a bit.
RGM: How do you write, do you sit down and do it or wait for inspiration to come to you?
It depends; I’m not that guy who decides to go write a song. I don’t write on the road ‘(You Can Still) Rock In America’ was an exception. I observe and everything gets ingested into my world, into my brain, while I’m travelling or whatever, I’ll be at home and it all comes out.
RGM: Here at RGM we cover a lot of country artists and you hear of the Nashville writers clocking on and sitting down to write?
I’ve done that with those guys out there a few times but it’s not best for me. It’s not who I am. I’m gonna get a coffee at 8 in the morning, start writing at 10 till 5, go have dinner and do it all again tomorrow isn’t really me.
RGM: How are your plans looking for this year?
We’re still rollin’ our 35th-anniversary tour from last year into this year. When we get back from the UK we’re straight into shows here, lots of festivals and our own shows. We’ve lots of shows booked, a lot of work and we’re getting lots of our own shows which is great as we can stretch out. There’s too much music in the Night Ranger catalogue for a 35 min show. When you’re the opening act on a big tour you get 35-40 mins…Sing Me Away, When You Close Your Eyes, Sister Christian, Don’t Tell Me You Love Me, Rock In America…Hello and goodnight you know? There’s a lot more to Night Ranger than that. It’s great but that's thirty minutes of music right there.
RGM: I noticed you’ve been involved in the Rock N’ Roll Fantasy Camp recently, how was that?
Yeah, that was a couple of weeks ago. I’d actually helped David Fishof (Fantasy Camp founder) run the camps 2002-05 working with people like Roger Daltrey so I hadn’t done it in years and years. I’d sorta retired but David was like ‘Come on you guys’ so we went back and did this one and it was a lot of fun. The fans had a great time, they really enjoyed it. We had like fourteen bands learned a Night Ranger song. The only deal was when we got to the Whisky we did ‘When You Close Your Eyes’ like nine times it was like frickin’ Groundhog Day. Next time everyone picks a different Night Ranger song (laughing). I love this song but I’m starting to not love this song (laughs).
RGM: In the little time you have away from Night Ranger / Revolution Saints etc what do you listen to?
I listen to everything I’ll play Katy Perry, I’ll pull out an old Sabbath album. I’ll listen to anything; I love all types of music. I’m sorta engulfed in Night Ranger music so I don’t, to tell you the truth, often sit down to listen to music. At any given moment I've got a song running in my head. We talked about Huey Lewis earlier and I’m trying to get ‘The Heart of Rock N’ Roll’ out of my head You Know? (laughs). You mother****er now that’s stuck in my head (laughs).
Interview by David Vousden.