RON KEEL - “ I’m Not Retiring Any Time Soon!"
September 2, 2014, 5 years ago
2014 is shaping up to be one of the busiest of Ron Keel's entire career. Here we are a little more than halfway done with the year, and Keel has already issued his first-ever solo album (Metal Cowboy), an autobiography (Even Keel: Life On the Streets of Rock & Roll), hosts a weekly radio show (Streets of Rock & Roll), and is seemingly continuously playing shows as either a solo act or with his long-time band, Keel. BraveWords correspondent Greg Prato recently spoke with Keel, about his many projects, his love of metal and country music, and his memories of the '80s.
BraveWords: What made you choose to write an autobiography, Even Keel, at this point?
Ron Keel: "I think the only reason anyone should write a non-fiction book is if they’ve got a good story to tell, or important or interesting information to convey. And I’m always telling stories…whether in interviews, sitting at a bar or around a campfire, whatever. Songwriters and entertainers are usually storytellers by nature anyway. About ten years ago, I started writing my stories down, usually on long flights or road trips to pass the time, and found I really enjoyed the process. If I hadn’t put a hard deadline on publishing this year, I would have kept on writing for at least another ten years – but I really wanted to release the book simultaneously with my new album which is pretty much my autobiography set to music."
BraveWords: Let's discuss the new album, Metal Cowboy.
Ron Keel: "Whether everyone understands it or not, I really love both metal and country, and I’ve been blessed with some measure of success in both genres. But I wanted to create a place where I could really be myself musically and decorate it with stuff I like to hear. I gotta have strong powerful guitar riffs, pounding drums, screaming vocals, anthem choruses – but on Metal Cowboy, I wanted to balance the crunch of the guitars with a little twang, and include some of that Wild West attitude with a lot of slide guitar courtesy of Frank Hannon from Tesla, and the dobro tracks by Travis Toy from Rascal Flatts. I put my money where my mouth is with this one, financing the entire project and releasing it on my own. I wanted to own it and be able to call my own shots. I think I’ve earned that. Sales, fan feedback, and media response has been great – I’m very gratified that a lot of people seem to be enjoying it as much as I do."
BraveWords: Country seems to be much more accepted in the realm of rock nowadays...although if you think about it, quite a few artists have combined both together over the years on select songs, such as the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, etc.
Ron Keel: "I think it’s okay to PLAY it – like you mentioned, the Stones and so many other artists in rock n roll history have incorporated country elements into their music – but you can’t SAY it. Once you mention the 'C' word (country), for some reason some rock fans think you’re a traitor. It’s all about classification, which is just another form of prejudice. When I was growing up, Sabbath and the Eagles were on the same charts, and in the same section in the record store."
BraveWords: Let's discuss your country and metal roots.
Ron Keel: "Anyone’s musical roots are cultural – I don’t like hip-hop because that’s not my culture, not because it’s bad or good or wrong or right, it just ain’t my thing. I was raised from a very young age listening to a healthy balance of country music because my mom and dad were hardcore hillbilly, but my sister was a teenager blasting Beatles and Stones and I was drawn to rock & roll because of the energy, the electricity, the sexuality. Then when I started to learn how to play various instruments, I had a lot of classical and jazz training in school because that’s what the teachers taught – then came funk, and the blues, and I enjoyed the challenges that all of those styles represent for a young musician. When you’re a kid and all you want to do is play music, you have this insatiable appetite for all kinds of items on the menu and I filled up on just about everything I heard in the 70’s. By the time I became a man, I had been broke, homeless, in jail, and divorced – so the gritty reality of those country songs started to make a little more sense to me at that point."
BraveWords: I remember back in 1986, it seemed like The Final Frontier was poised to break the band commercially (as it peaked just outside the top-40 in the US - at # 53) on Billboard. What do you think prevented the album from going higher - especially since the album's sound fit in perfectly with the style of metal and rock that MTV and radio was playing at the time?
Ron Keel: "I go deep into this in the book, and I attribute it to the choice of 'Because the Night' for the first single. I felt the same way then – I thought it was a huge mistake to follow the success of 'The Right to Rock,' which is an epic metal anthem, with a cover song that was also a borderline ballad. 'Because the Night' is a great song, our version is killer, and still a fan favorite in concert, but if I’d known they would release it as the lead single from The Final Frontier, I wouldn’t have recorded it. There were a hundred bean counters in suits saying 'Just trust us,' and we didn’t have much choice."
BraveWords: How would you describe Gene Simmons as a producer? (Simmons produced Keel's The Right to Rock and The Final Frontier)
Ron Keel: "You know, I think the marketing, make-up and money masks the fact that Gene is really a genuinely great human being with an intense passion for music, and also a deep knowledge and respect for rock & roll history. Not only what Gene did for my career, but what he taught me about making great albums – those lessons are still with me in every recording session I do."
BraveWords: I was surprised Keel never opened for Kiss in the '80s. Was this ever discussed?
Ron Keel: "Believe me, I begged. I’m not sure why it never happened either, but never say never – maybe that’s one more dream that will come true. I can tell you, Gene was very active in trying to help us get gigs – I remember him on the phone with Ozzy, telling Ozzy he should give us the opening slot. Ozzy ended up going with some band called Metallica, but Gene gave it his best shot!"
BraveWords: Something else I was surprised about - since Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley used to collaborate quite a bit with outside songwriters during the '80s, that you didn't collaborate with either on a Kiss tune, while such others as Tommy Thayer and Kane Roberts did. Was this ever discussed or attempted?
Ron Keel: "It should have I guess, because Gene gave me a lot of input on his songs which we recorded, and he of course had a lot of input on our tunes, and we worked really well together, but it was probably a matter of time. When we were in the studio recording those albums, we were focused on the task at hand and there wasn’t much opportunity to just sit around with instruments and notebooks and create, we were pretty busy making albums. And when it was time to get away from the sessions, we’d go out to eat, or go to a club or a concert, or go to Gene’s place and watch KISS video clips."
BraveWords: A few years ago, I wrote the book The Eric Carr Story. Did you ever cross paths with Eric?
Ron Keel: "Eric hung out a few times during the recording sessions, but we never got to know each other well. My impression of him was that of a really nice guy, quiet and humble when he was not behind the kit."
BraveWords: Who were some bands that Keel toured with back in the '80s, and what are some standout memories of those tours?
Ron Keel: "Of course the final leg of the Bon Jovi/Slippery When Wet tour stands out – they were at their peak, these were huge arenas sold out for two or three nights (we did three nights back to back at Madison Square Garden on that tour). Another high point for us was our sold out headline tour of Japan in 1986, opening for Van Halen at the Texxas Jam that same year. Coming back to my old hometown of Phoenix opening up for Mötley Crüe in the same arena where I used to fight my way to the front row and dream of being up there centerstage. The 80’s were great, but I’m very fortunate to still be experiencing peaks that are just as gratifying – like last year’s Monsters Of Rock Cruise, when we did two badass Keel gigs, I did my solo gig, I got to sing with the guys in Cinderella, did the all-star jam with Frank Hannon, and capped it off when Lita Ford asked me to join her onstage to do the Ozzy part on 'Close My Eyes Forever'. This year we celebrated Keel’s 30th anniversary by killing it on the main stage at the M3 Festival in Baltimore, and you can’t put a price tag on kicking that much ass."
BraveWords: What are your thoughts on Steeler, and working with Yngwie Malmsteen at the time?
Ron Keel: "Steeler has a special place in metal history and certainly a special place in the hearts of the fans. Of course I tell the entire story of Steeler in my book, focusing on the positives and skipping over some of the speed bumps, but Steeler was part of a magical time in rock history during the heyday of the Hollywood metal scene, and nothing can change that. And the album we released (1983's Steeler) has become a cornerstone of that era, so I’m very proud of that fact. Yngwie and I were both too stubborn to compromise, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway – he would still have quit the band to join Alcatrazz when he got the call from Graham Bonnet, no matter what the situation with Steeler might have been."
BraveWords: Which albums from your career would you suggest new listeners to check out first?
Ron Keel: "For fans of 80’s style commercial hard rock, nothing beats Keel’s 2010 reunion album, Streets of Rock & Roll. It has all the best elements from our 80’s music, we made no attempt to ‘modernize’ our sound in any way or become something that we’re not – but we’ve all come leaps and bounds as songwriters since the 80’s, the guys are playing even better than they were back then, I have never been better vocally that I was on that album, and we had a lot to prove coming back after taking two decades off so we brought the rock with a vengeance on Streets of Rock & Roll. And if you are a new listener, without any preconceived notions of who you think I should be, I hope you’ll check out my solo album Metal Cowboy. You can listen to many of the songs at ronkeel.com , and decide for yourself if it strikes a chord with you. After selling a few million albums, I fully understand that means there are billions of people on the planet who don’t like me, don’t know who I am, or just don’t care – and I’m cool with that. I’m making music for myself and anybody else that might want to listen."
BraveWords: Which album from your career are you the most proud of, and why?
Ron Keel: "That’s gonna be a tough toss-up between the two albums I just mentioned, the latest Keel album Streets Of Rock & Roll, and my new solo album Metal Cowboy. Because after all the years, all the miles, all the wear and tear we’ve fought through, to be better now than you’ve ever been is the greatest accomplishment any of us can hope for. There will come a time when my best years are behind me, but I’m not there yet."
BraveWords: Let's also discuss your radio show, Streets of Rock & Roll. How did you get started hosting it, and how do you like doing it?
Ron Keel: "My dad told me, 'God gave you two ears, and only one mouth, so you should do twice as much listening as you do talking.' I think I got it backwards…I love to sing, and talk, and tell stories, and radio has offered a wonderful opportunity to entertain people all over the world on a weekly basis. I’m a big fan of talk radio. Being a songwriter and musician, I’ve always got at least five songs bouncing around in my brain, so I’ve always turned to talk radio to clear my head. I’m a big fan of hosts like George Noory from Coast to Coast AM, Dennis Miller, sports talk host Jim Rome – and I wanted to bring what I enjoyed about their shows into a rock-n-talk format. The music is still the bottom line, but we’ve had some epic on-air discussions with people like Eddie Trunk, Vince Neil, Lita Ford, Joe Elliott is on next week, authors such as yourself (Ron was kind enough to interview yours truly about my latest book Overlooked/Underappreciated: 354 Recordings That Demand Your Attention, recently on an episode of his radio show), TV stars, industry insiders. We started out two and a half years ago just being able to listen on my web site, and now we’ve got over 50 FM/AM/online stations and although it is a lot of work producing, hosting, and working the show I really enjoy it and just take it one week at a time."
BraveWords: What are your future plans, and does it include more work/recordings with Keel?
Ron Keel: "This year it’s all about the road – 40,000 miles and counting, coast to coast and beyond, doing as many shows as I can. I spent most of last year writing and recording the album, and I knew 2014 was going to be a lot of traveling and playing live but I’m going to enjoy the ride as long as it lasts. A lot of gigs on the books in the months to come, including the Monsters Of Rock Alumni Cruise in November, and I’ll be on the 2015 cruise with both Keel and as a solo artist. Working on the film Hair I Go Again as well as producing music for the soundtrack. I’ve had so many dreams come true, I did what I set out to do as a kid on the streets dreaming of being a rock star, I’ve seen the world, great friends and great times, so I think this may be an appropriate time and place to announce…I’m not retiring any time soon!"