INTERVIEW BY MARKO SYRJÄLÄ
Keel is an American hard rock/metal band originally formed in 1984 in Los Angeles. The band is best known for their rock anthem “The Right to Rock” and albums THE RIGHT TO ROCK and FINAL FRONTIER. (Gene Simmons produced both albums). Their classic line-up included vocalist Ron Keel, guitarists Marc Ferrari and Bryan Jay, bassist Kenny Chaisson and drummer Dwain Miller. The band stayed together until 1988, when Ferrari and Jay decided to leave the group. The band replaced them with keyboardist Scott Warren and guitarist Tony Palmucci. Keel released one more album, LARGER THAN LIVE, before the band disbanded in late 1989. The classic lineup did a brief reunion in 1988. Then the band released a collection of unreleased material under album title BACK IN ACTION, but it wasn’t until 2008 before they made an actual return. The new Keel studio album STREETS OF ROCK’N ROLL saw the light of day in early 2010. I had the pleasure to sit down with Ron Keel in Stockholm in September of 2010 and discuss the reunion, the future of Keel, and various other topics, including Ron Keel’s other bands and projects: Fair Game, Iron Horse, Saber Tiger, Ron’s country music years and working with Gene in the ’80s and… read on!
BACK IN THE SCANDINAVIAN GROOVE
First of all, welcome back to Scandinavia after twenty-four years!
Thank you. We just talked with the guys about that. It’s really been so long since we’ve been here, “laughs.”
Many bands play at the Stockholm Rockout festival, many of whom must be your old friends from the past years?
Right, there are many old friends of ours here. Udo Dirkscheiner, we did the entire “Metal Heart” tour with Accept in the ’80s. So we’re looking forward to seeing Udo tonight. He’s certainly a good friend of ours and gave us a great opportunity to tour with Accept back in the day. We have a lot of friends on the bill. These kinds of festivals are great for the bands because there’s a lot of history with a lot of these guys who some of us have been friends with for three decades or more. So I mean the guys in Great White, ’81, ’82 when I met those guys, and we’ve been through to hell and back, and the camaraderie amongst the bands is really cool. And back in the day, it was a little more competitive, and some of the singers and musicians will tell you differently, they’ll tell you oh no, we’ve all been great friends–we would cut each other’s throats back then. Everybody was competing against everybody for sales, for chicks, you know, to make it. You wanted to beat out everybody else.
I can only imagine how hard competition there must have been between the bands all the time…
Yeah, and that was one of the reasons that it was such a special musical time in Hollywood in the early ’80s because there was that competition. Everybody was trying to be better than everybody else. Ratt had Jake. E. Lee, so Steeler had to get Yngwie Malmsteen, I mean it was—and that’s why this is the reasoning behind that move to bring Yngwie to the bands because he was the best guitar player in the world and I wanted the best. So it was a stiff competition, and we hated each other. Now there’s a lot of love. There are many hugs and high fives backstage at these festivals, like the Stockholm Rock Out telling old stories and seeing old friends again. That’s one of the special parts about this.
STREETS OF ROCK ’N ROLL
Let’s talk about your new album, STREETS OF ROCK’N ROLL. What finally made you make some new music with Keel after all these years?
It just happened; it was out of control for us. And that was not intentional. When we put the band back together, we announced it on November 1, 2008. We had been talking about it for years because we stayed good friends. The guys in the band and I have stayed tight and maintained a really strong friendship over the years. But the reason I didn’t continue to tour or record as Keel, because it’s my last name. I didn’t feel it would be right without Marc and Bryan, and Dwain. And I held off. I’m glad I waited. I’m glad I did that. I certainly could have cashed in through the years and done that, but it certainly was the right move to wait until the time was right. The band’s twenty-fifth anniversary seemed appropriate, and we wanted to put the band back together, and actually, it’s like starting a car that’s been sitting in the garage for 20 years, you know. Suddenly, how to work together, build and rebuild a business, become a company or business again together like business partners, and then actually getting into rehearsals and playing the songs again together for the first time in 20 years. Bryan and I worked on a couple of songs for TV and movies, and it was very cliché ’80s rock. I mean, that’s what we were trying to create. Because when you’re working for TV and movies, you have to be very specific about the style and the lyrical content. They have to hear it and know exactly that’s ’80s metal, you have to use every cliché lyric in the book, and it had to be readily identifiable. So Bryan and I wrote these two songs and recorded them. It was hit the ground running and looking for a good time. And once we finished them, we realized that Keel sucks, these were just Keel songs, and we were doing the same thing we’ve always done. No different; it felt great. It was a great creative thing for Bryan and me to undertake together. So okay, we do have some new Keel songs now. Then we got into rehearsal, and things just exploded. The first rehearsal was incredible; the energy, excitement, fun, it was just incredible. And Marc started hitting around. I got a few new song ideas, you know, I said “well, send me some shit,” so he sent me the music for “Come Hell or High Water” and “The Devil May Care,” and I put lyrics to them and put a vocal in my home studio, it happened very quickly. And suddenly, now we’ve got four songs, and I thought this might develop into a whole album of new material. So at that point, it’s obvious we’re going to be reuniting to play some shows during the summer of 2009, and it would be nice to have a CD, you know. It kind of started as maybe we should have a CD to promote these shows. It didn’t end up that way; the CD didn’t come out until this year because we didn’t want to rush it. The time frame, once we—let me rewind a little bit. We wanted to make sure we had more than four songs, so we got together and started writing, and the stuff just poured out of us. It was like the creative process. It was like a storm.
Is everything on the album completely new material, or did you use some older unused stuff as well?
Just the title track “Streets of Rock and Roll” was a song that Bryan had recorded in a previous band, and it had a different name. But I had the title “Streets of Rock and Roll”; I thought it was a great name for a song. And I had started writing lyrics, and then when Bryan brought that song to the table, that’s a special song that he wrote himself. Bryan doesn’t write a lot of lyrics. In fact, it’s the only lyrics I think that Bryan’s ever written, to my knowledge. But that song told the story of what happened to us back in the day and why we’re back. It literally told, and Bryan wrote the song probably. I’m guessing it was in the early ’90s. It might have been in the late ’80s even, probably ’90, ’91 Bryan wrote the song. So it’s almost 20 years old, but it captured what we’re all about now, what we’re doing with the lyrics about the guy who pretty literally loses everything and fights to get it back. You know that became the theme for the new album. So then we had five songs, and I had to ask Bryan.
I went to him and said, you know I want to change the song’s name; I want to call it “Streets of Rock and Roll.” It was like the melody worked perfectly. The lyrics fit it. I said I wanted to call it “Streets of Rock and Roll” to make it the title track. He goes no, no. So I sang it for him, and then he finally gave in and realized it was brilliant. But that’s the only—everything else on the album is fresh and new stuff that just came right out of us. It was like 20 years of unfinished business just got done. We knew we had some strong material, and the recording process was very much old school like we used to do. We don’t know any other way to do it. I’m not one of those guys—I don’t have a fancy home recording studio in my house, I have a basic home studio that I can create in and generate ideas, but when it’s time to do it for real, I want to enlist the help of people like Pat Regan who produced this album and Paul Shortino who produced the vocals with me. I want to bring in the professionals and leave that to them and let me just create and sing and build that vibe. We tracked the record in about five days, just like we used to do back in the day. Dwain would play drums, and he’s very quick. He’s always been quick.
Can he finish drum tracks with just one take?
One take. When we did the FINAL FRONTIER album, it was late ’85 when we recorded it with Gene Simmons. It was Dwain’s first album session ever. I think he was 18 years old when he did that record, and I didn’t tell Gene any of this. I was sitting next to Gene, and Dwain made all the drum tracks in the morning, finished it, then moved the drum kit to a different room upstairs and did the whole album again in the afternoon. He did the whole album twice in one day, and when he got done, I turned to Gene and said that’s his first session. He says the guy’s that talented. So Dwain would play on this new session on the STREETS OF ROCK’N ROLL, Dwain played the drums first take, Geno would play the bass along with it, and whoever wrote the song, whoever wrote the primary riff to the song whether it was Marc, Bryan or myself, would play the rhythm guitar. So you’d record kind of as a three-piece power trio, and then we’d stack the guitars, everybody would stack their rhythm guitars on top of that, and I went back to Vegas to do the vocals with Paul Shortino in his studio and Bryan and Marc got to work on the solos. So they’re in L.A. working on the solos at the same time I’m in Vegas working on the vocals, and now with the technology the way it is, you can send stuff back and forth, you know. So it was really, I can’t say it wasn’t hard work, but it was effortless. It was the easiest hard work I’ve ever done.
It must have been very different to work this album than the ’80s because now you don’t have any pressure from anybody; you just did what you wanted. It must have been different this time, right?
Yeah, our only competition on this one this time out was ourselves. We wanted to make sure that if we were going to do it, we would do it right, and we were going to do it better than we’d ever done it.
Well, this might be a little too early of a question to ask, but is STREETS OF ROCK’N ROLL going to be the very last Keel release?
You’re going to get different answers from different guys in the band. If you ask me, you know, I’m starting to believe that there will be another one. I’m starting to feel for the last. It’s been out for what seven months now, eight months, I would have told you this is the exclamation point on our career, and this is it. You know it doesn’t get any better. And just really, the challenge of doing a better album than this one would be a big mountain to climb for us. So I thought, this is it, this is great, I’m really proud of it; I love this album, and let’s call it a day. I think we’ll keep playing, I think we’ll continue to perform and tour, but just recently, in the last couple of weeks, I’ve started to envision there might be another one in there. We have so much happened, and I believe that 2011 will be a great year to come back to Europe again. I think that we have a good shot at coming back to Europe again next year. I believe that we’re going to have some additional major appearances in the States. I think we’ll see a return to Japan in 2011, so in addition to doing my autobiography’s coming out, and we have a TV show in development. There’s a lot of stuff happening, and it only makes sense to try and keep it going as long as we can. If we have great songs, that’s the most important thing. Can we come up with a batch of songs as strong as these, and if we do that once we have those songs, we’ll know that it’s time to pull the trigger and make a new Keel album.
THE PRESSURE, THE BREAKUP, AND FAIR GAME
Well, it seems that you’re now having a great time with the band, but it wasn’t always like that. What caused Keel to disband in the late 80’s early 90’s slowly?
As in any band or any band history internal struggles and some bands, it happens whether you succeed or fail. The common denominator among most bands is that they break up or there’s a disagreement, and they go their separate ways. Some bands can continue with just one original member. After the self-titled album, there were some mistakes made, and now, looking back on it, I can see it a little bit clearer than when we were in the middle of it. What was going wrong? There was only one single off that album, “Somebody’s Waiting,” and the prominent formula for success was you got to build off one, two, or three singles. The RIGHT TO ROCK album was only one single, “The Right to Rock,” easier said than done with that 12 inch that you have, that winner radio, but there was never a video to support it. We got some airplay on that, but it wasn’t a real legitimate single release. On the FINAL FRONTIER album, we did have “Because the Night” and “Tears of Fire,” which both were pretty big hits for us at radio and MTV as well, and that record did fairly well, and it almost put us over. But when the third album didn’t go double platinum, everybody started to point the finger at everybody else. Do you know why it didn’t happen for us? Why isn’t it selling platinum? Is it the songs? I didn’t think so. I think that album had some great songs. The production by Michael Wagener was great. The tour, well, we were out with Bon Jovi, but we only had 14 days. The problem with touring, we were supposed to tour with Metallica, and James broke his hand, and the tour was canceled. So we sat for a long time waiting for another tour. By the time we got another tour is was too late. So these were factors that contributed to that not being as successful as we’d hoped to be because the record company, MCA, spent a lot of money; they spent a shitload of money, like five million dollars or some stupid number. And we would have had to sell ten million records just to recoup or break even. Everybody started to point the finger, and it was the management, we fired our manager, and then we got out of the record deal. We spent a year in legal turmoil just trying to get released from our deal because they were killing us. The record company president was making a nice tidy sum of about three million dollars a year off Keel, and we were making $150 a week. So it was a bad situation and those kinds of things, you know, looking back, I think we all wish we would have hung together. Marc was the first to go.
As you know, he formed Cold Sweat, which was a great band, and they did a great album. Marc felt it was time for him to pursue his own vision and lead his own band and drive his own car, so to speak, Ferrari. I supported him that we stayed friends, good luck, we love you, but it was never the same after that. It was never the same and never is when you fuck with that original chemistry or that energy you’ve got with these guys. It’s not the same, and you can call it Keel all you want to, but it’s not Keel.
How do you like the album LARGER THAN LIVE, recorded with a renewed lineup in the late ’80s?
LARGER THAN LIFE is a great album too. I love that record. I got to produce the album. I thought the concept was great, half live and half studio. Scott Warren did the keyboard work on it. He was great. He, later on, played with Heaven and Hell and Dio and all that. Tony Palmucci played lead guitar, and he came in to finish up when Bryan left. Bryan left during the sessions for this album. We were half done with the solos, so Bryan played a few solos, but I brought Tony in. He played with Dee Snider for the last ten years, great guitar player. So great songs, I got to produce the record myself. So I do love that record, and it’s an important piece of history, but it was done. We were done already. It was unfortunate, and I, just like with Steeler, I kept fighting for a long time after anybody left. This is my band, you know, it’s not, no band is your band, it’s our band. If it’s not a band, if it’s my band, it isn’t a band. That’s why it’s one thing. I’ve always been a bad guy. I love being in teamwork with the guys and sharing the experience and sharing the load and just the camaraderie and the friendship and having a good time together. So Keel started as a project in 1984. I intend no more of this band shit because these guys are going to either quit or get drunk or die, I can’t depend on these guys, and I got to count on myself. So we would put a band together, the other guys behind me, they don’t matter, and of course, it turned into—but due to the character and the talent of the guys involved it, I realized not shortly after we recorded LAY DOWN THE LAW this isn’t a project at all, this is a band. This is what a band is all about; this is what a band is supposed to be. And that’s why once this was done, I moved on to something else and didn’t continue performing as Keel.
So when you decided that band was completely done back then?
I had a vision; I knew where I was going next. It clicked in my mind that I would put an all-female band together because if I hadn’t known where to go or what to do next, I probably would have kept it going.
Are you talking about the band Fair Game?
Yeah, Fair Game. And that’s why I did not want to recreate Keel; I wanted to do something totally different that had never been done before. But I’ve always been a big fan of female rock bands. I love the Runaways. When I was 15 years old, they were hot; they were young, simple, loud and rebellious, and self-destructive, and all the things that I admired in a woman. And I got to be friends with Lita Ford in the L.A. days, I got to work with Joan Jett, she actually played on the FINAL FRONTIER album, and I got to write with Vixen, I just wrote the title track to their REV IT UP CD. So that was really the trigger. It was during the Vixen sessions that I thought, what if I had a band like this behind me because it had never been done.
I’ve always been intrigued by a challenge that has never been done before. There had never been a hard rock frontman with a female band behind him that took it seriously and delivered the goods. At the time in 1990, we all thought this kind of music, 80s rock or whatever you want to call it, and we thought it would live forever, you know. No one could have predicted the crash, so to speak of 1990 when all of a sudden, I started to see it with Fair Game when I was trying to land a record deal. I was like; I’m Ron Keel, I’m going to get a record deal, I’m going to get this band to where I need it to go, we’re going to get a shot, we’re going to get an opportunity. It didn’t happen, and nobody was signing any bands like that anymore. They all knew it was coming before any of us did. Nirvana and Pearl Jam and all those bands put the final nail in our coffin. This kind of music could very well have died for good at that time. Some bands continued to slug it out. There were even some bands that were signed in the early ’90s, XYZ, and some bands came out that had some hits and had some success, but for the most part, it was over. And some bands continued to slug it out, the Bon Jovi’s and the Van Halen’s and Aerosmith, I mean they even went through their struggles.
THE CURSE OF THE ’90s
I’ve been wondering and asking this from many bands, but when the times started to change, many of the leading bands at the time, like Motley Crue, Judas Priest, Anthrax, Iron Maiden, and a couple of others, changed the lead vocalist at the time and they went down. So I think that thing to bring the whole team down a little bit; what do you like about my theory?
That’s correct. That’s a good point. I never thought of that. But when a band like that, when Motley Crue changed its vocalist and Corabi’s great, it’s not Vince, you know. That’s a big factor. When some of the big bands changed the lead vocalist, it changed the whole sound, and the voice of the band is different and the voice of the generation, the voice of the music. That’s a good point. I do think now we’ve come out like a tunnel on the other end in this decade at this time to where the music has survived.
I was really amazed, and I got here. I came down to meet you guys in the lobby at the hotel for the interview, and there were many young people in the lobby. They were like 18 years old maybe, and they’re like we were when we were 18, and they knew who I was. I thought these kids had got to know. I just got off the plane, and I’m dressed like this, you know. But to see that the new generation is very inspiring. We know now that this kind of music will survive and continue to have a place, whereas we didn’t have a place at one time. It was during the ’90s. It was not cool to be us. I luckily had other ways to express myself and other ways to keep creating and making music and having fun and making money and all that, but a lot of guys didn’t, a lot of guys got heavy into drugs or just quit the business altogether and went to have a real job or whatever you want to call it.
So-called real life…
Yeah. But now we’ve got this new generation of fans that we see at the shows, which is really cool. And we got these video games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero that are exposing a new generation of kids to the music that inspired us. They’re getting to hear AC/DC, Van Halen, and Aerosmith, kind of like we did when we were growing up. And for them, it’s fresh new exciting music, and rock and roll is always about it. It’s the music of the young and the young at heart. It’s about rebellion and sex, and you know, fighting your way to wherever you want to go, so I do believe that we’ve seen the darkest that it’s going to get, and now it’s back, and it’s here to stay. I never thought I’d say that either; I thought it was gone. I really believed for ten years, and it’s gone; it’s done. I mean, I’m really glad to sit here and hear myself say that it’s back.
Many ’80s bands, I have been talking about the same kind of things. The fact is that albums don’t sell too much anymore, but the shows are selling well, and there are lots of new young fans there.
The albums aren’t selling, but they’re sure getting a lot of illegal downloads, you know. I was honored when we hit the 50,000 illegal downloads. It was like, wow, that’s good, and I think they should give you a platinum record for that now. You know, if I had a million sales, give me platinum for 50,000—when 50,000 people steal my shit, give me something, you know, give me a platinum record.
Yeah, we need some new listing rules here, “laughs.”
THE COUNTRY-YEARS AND IRON HORSE
Tell me something about the band Iron Horse?
What do you want to know, man? Six years.
How did the band get started in the first place?
There’s a lot of history in that band. Iron Horse was formed in 2000, about ten years after Fair Game. The ’90s were the country years.
I know. Would you tell more about that period and how it did change for the Iron Horse thing?
I’d been on the road for most of the ’90s working really hard, literally six nights a week traveling the world. I was in Europe in ’98 and ’99 and all over Europe with my country band, the Rattlers. We performed on the military bases for the U.S. troops all over the place, working very hard and making really good money, and I was paying my musicians really good money. Great band, great players, they’re making really good money, and they’re getting to fly all over the world, see the world, get to eat the food, and stay in nice hotels. You get to play music, all you got to play for an hour a day, and all they could do is bitch: “I don’t like this food,” “I can’t eat this shit,” “what is this hotel” or whatever? Sometimes we had to be flying to a remote location to play for a small crowd because that’s all that was stationed at that particular military base, but they were great audiences, and they loved us, and the money was great. We were touring all over—this was before 9/11—the military tours were really good to me in ’98 and ’99, and I just really got burned out. I got tired of the bullshit with musicians, and I thought I was going to take a year off, and when the tour was over, I stayed in Italy. We ended the tour in Italy, and I just stayed, ate a lot of pizza, drank a lot of wine. I’m done, you know. I don’t ever want to deal with a musician ever again. But that lasted about three weeks, and I got the itch to play again. I got the itch to play. It’s just what I do. It’s who I am, I can tell myself I was done, but after about three weeks—I met a guy that was a guitar player. His wife was in the U.S. Navy there at the military base. We started playing acoustic guitars together, writing some songs. One Sunday night, we did an acoustic show at this little pub, it was about a 500 seat pub called Mama Elio’s Pub, and we did an acoustic gig, just the two of us. And after we got done playing this little old lady, her name’s Mama Elio. She’s like 80 years old, and she just loved it. She comes up and says. We want you to play here. We’ll pay you a million a week. That’s a million lira, which is nothing.
Sounds interesting (laughs).
Yeah, I thought a million a week, that’s great. And we want you to play here Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, four nights a week, and it was a million a week a piece; it wasn’t a million for the whole band, it was a million for me every week. How cool is that? And so we thought we have to keep—she’s only going to pay three million, so we have to keep it a three-piece band. Well, I can play bass, and Lee can play guitar. Who’s going to play drums? The bartender got on the phone and talked Italian, he got on the telephone, and when he hung up, he said I have a drummer for you. I said, all right. Fifteen minutes later, this guy Gaetano Nicolosi walked in and immediately didn’t speak any English. We had to have a translator for band gigs and rehearsals because he didn’t speak any English, but he was magic. It was a very strong talent and heart, and we played at Mama Elio’s Pub for six months for the Italian audiences, and I don’t think they even understood the lyrics to a lot of the songs I was doing. We would play metal, rock, country; you name it. We played whatever we wanted to play. The Italian people just loved the voice. If you could sing well and entertain them—plus I’ve got the wireless headset, and I’ve got the wireless on my guitar, and I’m running all over the club jumping up and down on the tables. I think people would drive for hundreds of miles just to see the crazy American, go to see the crazy American running around singing this crazy stuff and putting on a show. It was an absolutely great experience for me, and during that time, when I started to write songs, the songs started to come out. And those are the songs that became the foundation for Iron Horse. One day I realized I’d got some songs. These songs ended up on that first album, what I am going to do with it, and I literally woke up in the middle of the night and said Iron Horse. I’m going to put a band together.
I brought Gaetano to America with me. It’s time to come home, you know, my year in Italy was over. I brought Gaetano back to the States with me. I called Geno, who had been my bass player in my previous band, and I said I’m going to put a new band together called Iron Horse, and you’re going to play bass, and Gaetano’s going to play drums. And I had this kid Robert Marcello from Sweden, from Stockholm. He had been emailing me if you ever needed a guitar player. He sent me his stuff; it was like Yngwie, the next generation of him, literally.
I actually saw him performing with Danger Danger some years ago.
He plays with everybody. He wants to play with every metal band. That’s his goal. He said if you ever need a guitar player, let me know. I emailed him back; honest to God, let’s do this. It would be cool to have a Southern rock band with an Italian drummer and a Swedish guitar player.
There are rumors around that maybe Iron Horse isn’t completely done yet. Is that correct?
No, I don’t think so. We got back together last year, did a reunion show. I think we have some unfinished business. You know, I’ve tried to focus on the Keel reunion the last couple of years because I don’t want to confuse the bands any more than I’ve already confused them. They don’t know what the hell I’m doing from one year to the next, so I’ve tried; I have not done any other rock projects or shows except for Keel. Right before the Keel reunion, I had a great band called K2, which was kind of like a Ron Keel tribute band. We played music from my entire career: Iron Horse, Fair Game, Steeler, and Keel. We looked at all those songs from my entire career; it was a great band and great musicians, and good friends in Las Vegas. But I didn’t want the fans to be confused, so I put that on the back burner to focus on the Keel reunion.
SABER TIGER PROJECT
There’s an exciting project called Saber Tiger, tell us something about that.
Saber Tiger was right in the middle of my country year, so I was singing country music in Arizona. One night I came home from the bar where I was singing. Fax on my desk said the entities of the record company Fandango Records and Akihito Kinoshita, the guitar player, the Japanese Yngwie, they called it. He is the Yngwie of Japan. They did contact me and said, “Yeah, well, we want you to sing on this record. How much will you charge to sing on this album?” They’re looking for an American singer with a good track record in Japan. I had a good name, and the fans and the business in Japan. They really liked me and respected me. Plus, it was a little bit mysterious because I didn’t continue. I just disappeared. I literally disappeared and went to sing country music, and everybody was wondering where I was or what I was doing. It wasn’t like I was—so there was this mystery.
How did they actually find you? I mean, you had been out of the rock/metal scene for years at that point?
That’s a good question. I believe it was… I think Marc had something to do with it? I think they might have contacted him, and he gave them my number. It was back in the day when my phone number, my fax number were the same, and I think Marc might have had something to do with giving them my phone number. That’s a good question. But I called them, and they said call us, and it was two in the morning. I just got home from my gig. So it was, I guess, the right time there. I called Japan, and I got the only guy at the label that spoke English, and he asked the same thing the fax had asked, how much you would charge us? I hadn’t even heard the music yet, and I didn’t know what kind of music it was or what—they just wanted to talk about money, how much are you going to charge us to sing on this record. I said I’d do it for $75,000, and they said we’ll call you right back. $75,000 was a lot of money, you know. They called me back, “We’ll give you $30,000” I’m there. Let’s do it. And that’s when I started to hear the music, and it was a grilling session. They were paying me well; $30,000 was a lot of money, especially at the time for me. I was making $50 a night singing in the country clubs.
Did they also pay for all the costs, flights, hotels, etc., for you?
Yeah, my family, wife, and kids brought us all to Japan and took really good care of us. At first, they would send me the music and Japanese lyrics. I convinced them they needed English lyrics, that I should be writing the lyrics to this project. So they let me do that. The melodies were all written out on sheet music for me. I had to copy Akihito Kinoshita, who composed the music and the melodies; I had to follow his melodies exactly. So I had the challenge of matching my phrases to syllables of my phrases with the sheet music that they’d given me. Whatever the music, I had to come up with the right amount of phrases. And some of the songs were very long, six-seven minutes long. So I had to write all the lyrics, and with that restriction, no freedom to experiment with the melody at all, which ended up being great because his melodies are brilliant. And we went to do the session. It was tough. The first three days, I asked to go over a few days early so that I could become acclimated; I never got acclimated. I was sick the whole time, not sick like with a cold, just throwing up. I felt like I was upside down on the other side of the world. And I’d been to Japan a bunch of times. I’m in Europe now, I don’t feel like I’m upside down, but this time in Japan, I felt like I was upside down. And I think I probably lost about 15 pounds during the sessions. They worked me very hard; I was in there with a translator. I would sing a verse of the chorus, take a pause, the translator and the producers would talk in Japanese, and then they would come back to me and give me their feedback or their input and say they want you to sing it more mysterious. How do you sing mysterious? Whatever. But after I got the first couple of songs under my belt, I knew what they wanted, and I just went to work every day to sessions and delivered the goods. It ended up being something that I’m extremely proud of. The very last note of the last song when they said, okay, you’re done, I literally fell to the floor in the studio, literally 15 pounds lighter, sweating pew, just lying there. I couldn’t sleep the whole time I was there. That was the thing, the first night of the sessions, I was up all night long just throwing up all night long, and I called at 8:00 in the morning. I hadn’t been to sleep. I was dead. I was dying. I called them and—no, actually this wasn’t the first night, this was the second night, the second night. I had already finished the first song on day one, and I got the first song under my belt, I went back to the hotel, and that’s when I was sick all night throwing up, fever 105F fever, sweat, and shakes… terrible. And I called the record company at 8:00 in the morning and said I couldn’t do it. I haven’t slept, I don’t feel good, I can’t do this. And they said that’s okay, at 11:00 we’ll come to pick up your wife and kids, take them to the amusement park and take them shopping and you can rest at the hotel. I said, okay, that’s cool. And literally, I didn’t have a shower at 11:00 when they called. I’m sitting there still shaking, puking, and sweating. They called at 11:00; okay, we’re here to pick up your wife and children. Something told me—I’ll be right down. I hung up the phone and literally put my sweats on, put on a sweatshirt, wrapped a bandana around my head, and I walked down to the lobby. I walked up to them, they were sitting there, and they didn’t expect to see me. I said, let’s go. They said, what are you doing? Go back to bed, and we’re going to take your wife and kids. I said no, we’re going to the studio now, let’s go. I went to the studio, and I don’t know where it came from. I even said, let’s do this song, “Ride Like The Wind,” which is probably the most difficult song on the record. The highest screaming of the album, and I said, let’s do this song. They go, “You’re crazy,” I said, let’s do it. I got it, I got behind the microphone, and it was magic. It was beautiful.
As you said, there is some really difficult vocal stuff on that album.
Yeah, and they wanted that really powerful gravelly tone, just pushing hard on everything. But after I got that song done, then it was cool. I did it, and I felt like I had done something that day. You know that was a very special day. I felt like I had done something, and after that, it was just going to work every day and just kind of hammer away at the tunes for the remainder of the session until we got that done. You know, to this day, I still love listening to that album. It’s great driving music. It’s obviously the heaviest album I’ve ever done, and I’m very proud of it, and I still listen to it to this day with great memories of that session. It was tough, but it’s like climbing Mount Everest. I mean, it’s tough, but it’s worth it.
You never did any of the songs live with those Japanese guys?
No, but I did some of those songs with Iron Horse. I didn’t tour with Saber Tiger, but with Iron Horse, we did, and also K2, my band K2, in Las Vegas. So I did something different with each project, you know, which was kind of the deal with both Iron Horse and K2. Iron Horse played Keel music, Steeler, Fair Game, Saber Tiger. You know a little bit of everything from throughout my career and my country music as well. So we would do Saber Tiger, and then we’d do a country song. That was the cool thing about Iron Horse, there was no prejudice or restrictions, and it was playing good music. And the fans enjoyed it. There were a lot of Iron Horse fans because I was in that band for six years, and a lot of them never heard Keel. We built a following for ourselves as Iron Horse. It wasn’t because—some people got to know Iron Horse because Ron Keel was the singer—but many people who attended a lot of the shows that we did, we did six, seven hundred shows, I think, they became Keel fans once they heard Iron Horse. It was just strange. And it was a great experience, and I love those guys and that music. You know I enjoy everything I did here, you’re sitting here looking at my CDs. They are all really different. I mean, it’s not like 12 copies of the same CD; they’re really different. Each one’s got its own life, its own identity, and its own personality.
ALMOST BACK IN ACTION
What’s the story behind Keel’s BACK IN ACTION –album?
We had an offer from a label to re-release LARGER THAN LIVE, D-Rock Records, and they wanted to re-release LARGER THAN LIVE, they made us a nice substantial offer financially to do that, but they wanted some bonus material.
Which year was this?
That was in 1998. They wanted some bonus material. And I started listening to some of the other released tracks that we had, demos or outtakes, and it’s just whatever we had laying around that hadn’t been released. And I realized that we got some good stuff, and a lot of it was unfinished. When we did demos for FINAL FRONTIER and the self-titled KEEL, we didn’t do any background vocals; we didn’t do any guitar solos. To make sure, we would demo what 30 songs from whatever and pick the best 12 or whatever to record for the album. So the rest of the stuff, the demos, were still there, but they didn’t have any background vocals or guitar solos. We never determined the guitar solos until after the song was recorded. So that’s what we did with BACK IN ACTION.
I called Marc, and I said, man, we got this and that, we got all these songs, maybe they want to put it out. And it allowed us to get back together in the studio for a weekend. It was a kind of family reunion because we hadn’t seen each other for a long time. It had been what–nine years since the band broke up, so we got back together in the studio in Phoenix and put those finishing touches on the songs, did the background vocals, had the solos, I did the lead vocal on “Reason to Rock” which never had lyrics or vocals before. And it allowed us just to get back together. It was not a reunion. It’s from that day at the studio, yeah. It’s not like we said. Let’s put the band back together and do a new album or play live. It was just a way for us to, first of all, get back together and have some fun and create something together and give it as a gift to our fans, and hopefully, people would put it in the right context, and it is very raw and sloppy in spots. But it’s got a certain character about it, and some people enjoy it. I’d like to see maybe some in the future. We might re-release it with LARGER THAN LIVE as a double CD set or something; you never know. I’d like to keep it in circulation.
Whatever happened for Kenny Chaisson and why he isn’t a part of your reunion thing?
Kenny’s living in Phoenix, working in the real world, focused on his job and family. So he’s still with us in spirit, and I still talk to him a little more than others, but we wish him all the best. It was great to bring Geno along onboard for the reunion. We do have one new guy cause he’s all excited. He’s never been to Sweden before. He’s excited to live this life and be a part of the band all of a sudden. So, we put him in the back of the car, made him carry all his luggage, and made jokes about him. He’s great; he’s been with me for 12 years now, so it’s nice to have his energy, enthusiasm, and excitement about the band.
WORKING WITH GENE SIMMONS
Okay, maybe the one last question. Because I’m a huge KISS fan by myself, I had asked about your studio sessions with him when he was your producer for RIGHT TO ROCK and FINAL FRONTIER albums?
When we got signed, we got a record deal, the president of the record company Danny Goldberg gave me a list of potential producers, just a handwritten sheet with maybe five, ten names on it, I don’t remember? I remember seeing the piece of paper and saying Gene Simmons, that was it for me. Just immediately because seven years before that, I’d been at a KISS concert, my first concert was KISS, and I’m in the front row getting blood spilled over me and caught his guitar pick. KISS was a big influence, certainly a favorite band of mine. I thought how cool it would that be to have Gene Simmons produced the first major Keel album. And they set up a meeting at a Beverly Hills hotel with Gene, and I went to his room. We talked a bit at the hotel.
We were still finishing LAY DOWN THE LAW, the first Keel album. The only new song we had and one piece of music recorded, and I had lyrics for it. This was a song called “The Right To Rock,” It didn’t even have any vocal on the tape. So I had to put it in his boom box and hit play and sing the song and say, Gene, it’s my turn to spit all over him, and I yelled “The Right to Rock” right there like as close as you, and I are in his hotel room, and about halfway through the song he hit stop. He stopped the player, looked at me, and said I’m going to produce this record. We’re going to start Tuesday. And that’s how it started, man. He was obviously a big help to us in so many ways. Having his name associated with us, many KISS fans bought that album, a lot of KISS fans, a lot of rock fans in general. We had instant credibility because of Gene’s name. He could make a phone call and make things happen. He would call Ozzy: “Ozzy, you need to take Keel on tour with you,” you know stuff like that. It taught us a lot about making a great album about the songs and creating and capturing the magic at the studio to create that atmosphere and try anything.
We were very disciplined and rehearsed, but we were also flexible, and we weren’t scared to try new ideas in the studio. That combination of discipline and flexibility was the key, and that’s something that Gene brought to us. I made sure that we were tight and well-rehearsed in every key pattern and bassline; everything was mapped out in the music and the basic song structure. But he wasn’t afraid to during the recording stop. “Hold on. I want to put a bridge here. We can put a bridge after the song” or whatever. So there’s an additional break on a bridge that wasn’t rehearsed and never planned. Stuff like that. So those lessons that he taught us 25 years ago are still with us. He’s a mentor and a teacher. He was with us in spirit during the recording of this new album. He’s constantly in my mind looking over my shoulder and guiding me “laughs.”
Have you still been in touch with him?
Yeah. We do see each other from time to time. I saw him when he did his solo show in Las Vegas a while back. I got to sit with him like you and me are here sitting talking about old times. He actually sent us a message when we announced the reunion wishing us well, and so we have nothing but love for Gene and the KISS camp. I love all those guys.
Okay. Thanks for your time Ron!
Thanks to you, man!
FOR MORE INFO, GO TO:
KEEL LIVE PICTURES FROM STOCKHOLM 2010