NIGHT RANGER - Brad Gillis Talks About OZZY's Speak Of The Devil, 'Sister Christian' Madness, Hangin' Out Somewhere In California
July 29, 2011, 5 years ago
By Mitch Lafon
When the casual fan thinks NIGHT RANGER two words come to mind: 'Sister Christian', but for guitar aficionados those two words are: Brad Gillis. As a proven guitar hero, Gillis, has displayed his ‘metal’ chops with OZZY OSBOURNE, his more melodic riffs with FIONA and the best of both worlds in Night Ranger. The band has recently released the brilliant (and hard-rocking) new album, Somewhere In California. Gillis sat down with BraveWords.com recently to discuss the new music as well as the band’s upcoming summer tour with JOURNEY and FOREIGNER.
BraveWords.com: Night Ranger is a successful band. You’ve been around for many years. It would be easy for you to go out every summer and just play the hits. Why is it important for you to make new music?
Brad Gillis: “Well, you have to remember that we do this for a living. We do it all the time. We play so many live shows, so to have some fresh music in the set… to have something new is exciting for us. We like to create. We like to put something fresh out and I think we hit a home run with the new record. We put a lot of energy into it. We wanted to make it feel like that summer time, put the top down on the convertible and reliving the ‘80s kind of experience. We went to the formula (the first three records), which is the big three-part harmonies and the dual guitar assault with twin leads. We had so much for doing this record. It took us four and a half months compared to our normal two or three, but we wanted to get it right. We wanted every song to have a little bit of substance and to have something for everybody on this record. It’s exciting releasing this new record and going out and playing this stuff live.”
BraveWords.com: A lot of the older bands (BON JOVI for example) have toned it down over the years, but Night Ranger seems to have cranked up the amps on the new record. Was it important for you to make a true rock record and not just another collection of ballads?
Gillis: “We were conscious about just doing an up-tempo Night Ranger record. For years, we were known as a ballad band after 'Sister Christian' was released. The few albums we’ve done in the last ten years haven’t hit home and it seems like we hit home on this one. We went in with fresh blood with Joel Hoekstra (our new lead guitar player who has been with us for a few years), Eric Levy (our brand new keyboard player)… it’s that excitement and fresh blood in the band that we went into the studio with. You’ll notice that most of the music on the new CD is up-tempo… We’ve upped the energy and we try to exude that live. We give it 110% on stage and it’s very exciting. It’s been a great career for Night Ranger and it seems that every year (the last five or six years) that we’ve been upping the game. Every year, it’s a few more shows… we’re up to about a hundred shows this year. We’ve already done Mexico, Puerto Rico and we’ve just finished a European tour with Journey, Foreigner, KANSAS and SAGA (were on a few of them). We hadn’t been to Europe since 1985, so that was a blast. We even branched off and did a headline show in London. We sold it out and it was just amazing. Now, we’re gearing up for a three month/sixty show tour with Journey and Foreigner around the US.”
BraveWords.com: What can fans expect from Night Ranger on this tour? All the classics or are you tossing in the new songs?
Gillis: “Well, nobody wants to hear a bunch of new songs. We definitely want to throw in one or two, but we only have a forty-minute set. We’ll play 'Growin’ Up In California' because that’s been coming off great and melds right into the set right along 'Rock In America' and 'Don’t Tell Me You Love Me'. It’s the first single off our new record, so we’ll definitely be playing that live, but we’ll be changing things up every few shows. We have so much to choose from now that it’s hard to pick out a set list.”
BraveWords.com: In the last couple of years, you’ve been throwing in some Ozzy songs into the set list such as 'Crazy Train'…
Gillis: “Yeah, it’s something fun we like to do. Jack throws it out every once in a while. It’s not even on the set list, but if he gets grooving he’ll throw it out there and we’ll do a shortened version of Crazy Train. It’s really fun for me to play live because it brings back memories of playing with Ozzy in ’82. We like to throw things in once in a while. Sometimes we’ll do DAMN YANKEES and for a while we were playing (AC/DC’s) 'Highway To Hell'. You got to have fun, you know. It keeps things fresh in the band.”
BraveWords.com: Do you regret not having made a studio album with Ozzy?
Gillis: “Yeah. It would have been great to do that, but at that time… during the eleven months that I was playing with Ozzy we ended up doing that live record at the Ritz Nightclub in New York during the Speak Of The Devil Tour… The live Black Sabbath record and doing that was a blast, but towards the end was when Night Ranger was getting a record deal and I felt like I was hanging with a bunch of bros in Night Ranger. We had spent a couple of years trying to get a record deal and I rolled the dice, you know. Sure enough, we came out of the box with Don’t Tell Me You Love Me. We were all over MTV. Dawn Patrol (Night Ranger’s first release) and Speak Of The Devil (the live Black Sabbath record I did with Ozzy) were released the same week. I remember seeing on Album Network magazine that they were picks of the week and I had them both. That was a pretty exciting time in my life. Night Ranger went on to sell seventeen million records and I’m still in the band, so I think I made the right choice.”
BraveWords.com: Plus, Ozzy likes to change his personnel. You probably would have lasted one or two albums and then what?
Gillis: “Exactly and the Night Ranger guys were my bros from the get go. I felt that I was more part of the band and not just a sideman. When our first record came out, we had such a great run. We were out touring with ZZ TOP, CHEAP TRICK and all these bands. Then we released Midnight Madness and '(You Can Still) Rock In America' was all over MTV. Then 'Sister Christian' came out and that took us into a headline status. I’ll never forget pulling into La Crosse Wisconsin in ’84 and looking up at the marquee at the venue there and it said, ‘Night Ranger – Sold Out’. That was the pinnacle for Night Ranger. That gave us another great run for five years.”
BraveWords.com: Been thirty some years now…
Gillis: ‘Been a long career.’
BraveWords.com: So, what does this mean for the future? Do you plan on making more ‘new’ albums or was Somewhere in California one last record for the fans?
Gillis: “We’re on a roll right now. We’re hoping this record does really well and then maybe next year be able to go back to Europe, go down to South America and maybe Australia. We just want to keep this thing rolling. We don’t want to put out a record every year because it’s too soon, but maybe every other year. We’re going to ride with this one. It’s been getting great reviews and we’re digging what’s going on. We’re looking forward to next year and upping our game a notch.”
BraveWords.com: Jack Blades has written with or for everybody: GREAT WHITE, OZZY, TED NUGENT, TOMMY SHAW, AEROSMITH and ALICE COOPER… What can you tell me about Jack?
Gillis: “What was great on this record, Mitch, is that in December we went in with just some rough music ideas. We sat around and jammed on these ideas. Kelly and Jack were humming melodies. We were just getting things together, but once we started recording the music – Kelly and Jack started working on lyrics and we all went home for a couple of weeks. They started writing all these great choruses and lyrics for the record. We came back in to finish things up and all of a sudden everything came alive. It was exciting and I’ve got to admit Jack and Kelly came up with some great choruses. We got back to those original Night Ranger big chorus anthems that we had in the 1980’s. We were trying to get back to ‘old-school’ and I think we did.”
BraveWords.com: You mentioned ‘old-school’. Did you go back and ‘study’ your past albums to pick out parts or was the process more organic…
Gillis: “We just wanted to do a straight up rock n’ roll record. The last few records had been a little bit disjointed on direction. So, we just concentrated on what made Night Ranger big, which are big choruses and a twin guitar assault.”
BraveWords.com: So, you didn’t go back and study the back catalog…
Gillis: “We didn’t have to study because most of that catalog we’re still playing live. We just went back to what made Night Ranger big and that’s the 'Don’t Tell Me You Love Me' and '(You Can Still) Rock In America'… Those big up-tempos songs, so we just concentrated on going back to the roots of Night Ranger. We threw a great little ballad on there that Kelly sings and we’re looking forward to playing these songs live.”
BraveWords.com: You’ve done a bunch of projects outside of Night Ranger including a couple of solo albums. Is there anything else currently on your plate other than Night Ranger?
Gillis: “Well, I do a lot of music at home for ESPN and FoxSports. I’m constantly writing music beds and what happens is that sometimes I write some stuff that I feel is too good to give away to sports TV, so I put that stuff aside. A lot of those ideas are on the new Night Ranger album and I have a lot more that are still sitting here that I plan on doing a new solo record with, but the thing is that right now we’re all concentrating on what’s going on with Night Ranger. There’s such a big year ahead of us with doing all these shows and being on the road all summer. Basically, we’re going to spread the word about the new Night Ranger CD and kick-ass live. When we get off the road in late October is when I’ll have time to relax and start getting into a solo record.”
BraveWords.com: Are you amazed that you can say that you’ll go ‘until late October’? For many years, Night Ranger was in and out – a few shows here and there, but the band wasn’t really doing much…
Gillis: “We were doing the weekend warrior gigs back then. We’d play a couple of shows on Friday and Saturday (and sometimes Sunday), but we’d be home during the week (which is kind of nice). It gave us time to hang with the family and I could work on other music for here or there, but five or six years ago we were only doing thirty shows a year. Then we signed with the William Morris booking agency and all of a sudden our game went up and we’re doing fifty, sixty then seventy shows a year. This year we’re up to about hundred and who knows, but they’ll probably book more (possibly in January and February). We love playing live, touring and with a new record it makes things very exciting.”
BraveWords.com: Before you mentioned that you had the Ozzy and Night Ranger album released in the same week, but also around that time Black Sabbath released their Live Evil album. Did you feel any pressure because you knew the Sabbath album was coming out?
Gillis: “I just went in and did what I was told. I knew there was an album being released by Black Sabbath and Ozzy wanted to throw one back at them, basically. It was a blast going in and rehearsing for a week at SIR studios in New York. We had to get all that music together before going and doing those two shows at the Ritz. I still get a lot of compliments from fans that say, ‘hey I love the Speak Of The Devil record’. It was a blast doing it and no regrets on that.”
BraveWords.com: You replaced Randy Rhoads (which many consider to be the best guitarist ever) and then on the Speak Of The Devil album you’re replacing Tony Iommi’s licks. How did you feel about filling those shoes?
Gillis: “I got to tell you, Mitch. It was a cinderella story just getting the gig itself. I had no idea I’d even get the chance to audition much less being the only one called and then flying me from California to New York to sit around for five days with a cassette, a boom box and a little amplifier learning all of the material. My fifth day on the road, I do my first show with Ozzy in Binghamton, NY and it’s sold out. I’ve never even played with the band before. I did a soundcheck; probably six or seven of the eighteen song set list. Ozzy wasn’t even there for the soundcheck. They threw me into the fire and I tell you that was quite an experience. It was definitely draining on me. I was green before that. I had only done a few live shows with Rubicon. I hadn’t played much live with Night Ranger back then because we had been shopping for a record deal. Going on the road and all over the world (Japan, Europe, The United States) with Ozzy was unbelievable. Towards the end, Rudy Sarzo quit to join QUIET RIOT and things starting changing in the camp. I decided to roll the dice and go back to my buds in Night Ranger.”
BraveWords.com: Were you a Tony Iommi fan growing up?
Gillis: “Oh yeah. Everybody played those songs. When I was growing up and learning guitar (at twelve/ thirteen years old) back in the early ‘70s… My brother turned me on to all that music. He’s seven years older than me and he had all the latest and greatest… LED ZEPPELIN (I), SANTANA's Abraxas, JANIS JOPLIN, THE DOORS… Man, I used to sit in his room and just go over that stuff and learn it by ear. Of course, he had the Black Sabbath records and that was classic stuff growing up. It was mandatory for a guitar player to learn.”
BraveWords.com: So, there you are with your boom box learning all the songs. How did that affect your guitar playing? Did it make you a better player or simply a different player or did it do nothing?
Gillis: “I had to learn licks that I had never played before. I was in my room twelve hours a day doing what I could to learn this material and when I was stumped on something I’d go over and talk to Don Airey (the keyboard player) or Rudy Sarzo (the bass player) just to see if I was doing the stuff right. I had a live cassette from an Ozzy show with Randy on it with all the segue ways and everything that went on during the show… that’s what I learned from rather than learning the actual studio cuts because I wanted to know what they were playing live. It took a couple of weeks on the road to feel comfortable playing that stuff. Two weeks into the tour is when we did the King Biscuit Flower Hour live show from Memphis, Tennessee with Ozzy and I was so freaked out doing that live show because it was being broadcast nation-wide and here I had all the Night Ranger guys in the Bay Area listening to me too. The show turned out great and I ended up talking to Jack (Blades) and Kelly (Keagy) after the show and they’re like ‘wow, couldn’t believe that was you – it didn’t sound like you, but then it did’. They thought, ‘well, he’s not coming back to the band’.”
BraveWords.com: Did they have any thoughts about replacing you? Did Jack phone up and say, ‘it’s us or Ozzy’?
Gillis: “Night Ranger was shopping for a record deal. Night Ranger wasn’t even playing any live shows. We were just sending out the demo and trying to get a deal. The timing just worked out right. It was at the very end of the Ozzy tour that Night Ranger got a deal and that’s when I decided to roll the dice and go back to Night Ranger. Then Don’t Tell Me You Love Me came out on MTV…
BraveWords.com: And the rest is history…
Gillis: “Yeah and then we jumped on some great tours.”
BraveWords.com: Do you think that playing with Ozzy helped get Night Ranger signed?
Gillis: “Oh, yes – I’m sure it did. In fact, it was a condition that I rejoin the band for Night Ranger to be signed. I just felt in my heart that hanging with these guys and being a member of the band and not just a side-man… I knew we had a great record going on and I knew we’d get out there and kick-ass. Sure enough Dawn Patrol came out then came Midnight Madness and boom 'Sister Christian' came out and it took us straight to the top… straight to a headline situation and from ’84 to ’89 we were able to go out and do these big shows. We were doing roughly 250 shows a year.”
BraveWords.com: Ah, ’84 to ’89 – weren’t they the greatest years?
Gillis: “The ‘80s were great!”
BraveWords.com: Back to the new album – Somewhere In California. It’s 2011 – we have iTunes, YouTube, all kinds of Internet choices. Is the concept of the ‘new album’ out dated? Why not just release a new song from time to time?
Gillis: “I think it’s important for people to have a physical CD that they can throw into their car or their CD player at home. What’s great is that people have the option now of ordering the CD or downloading it straight to your iTunes, so you want to get into every world possible to promote your record and it just makes it very easy to do a one-click and throw on the album or just a song if you prefer.”
BraveWords.com: Does it bother you if people buy just one song rather than your whole new album?
Gillis: “Oh, sure, but at least you get the option. The physical CD is still the best thing to have.”
BraveWords.com: Would you, for example, at Christmas put out one new song?
Gillis: “Well, we just released a new record and that’s what we’re concentrating on. I would prefer to a couple more videos for the songs on the Somewhere In California record. Videos seem to get a lot of hits. We already have more than 50,000 hits on the 'Growin’ Up In California' video and it’s re-introduced Night Ranger to the public. People are like, ‘oh my gosh, I didn’t know you guys were still around’.”
BraveWords.com: You’re right. I knew Night Ranger still existed, but when I saw the video for the new song that peaked my interest. You really did up your game…
Gillis: “And that’s what we were trying to do. Night Ranger is all about up-tempo tunes with twin guitar assault and Jack’s lyrics about California with references to Rubicon, Sunset Blvd and The Rainbow Bar & Grill… California has so much to offer. We filmed half of that video up at Bodega Bay. The whole song has a fresh approach and maybe somebody who lives in Casper, Wyoming will take a second look at California and think, ‘man, that place looks cool’.
BraveWords.com: The Amazon.com bonus track is a new re-recorded version of the DAMN YANKEES’ song 'Coming Of Age'. What did you think of the Damn Yankees back in the day?
Gillis: “When we broke up, we all did our own thing and the Yankees took off and did very well. I’ll never forget going to one of their first shows up here in the Bay Area, and I saw them play their record with Ted, Tommy and Jack… towards the end they did a Night Ranger song, then a STYX song, then a Nugent song… Ted came up to me after the show and said, ‘hey Brad what are you doing tomorrow? I want you to teach me that Rock In America song,’ which was kind of cool too hear from the Nuge. They had a great run with a few records. Then we got the call in ’95 to get the original band back together and go to Japan to do a tour. That pretty much got Night Ranger back working again and every year it’s gotten bigger and better, bigger and better, bigger and better and now we’re celebrating the best year we’ve had since ’86.”
BraveWords.com: It’s nice to have 'Coming Of Age' with your guitar on it now.
Gillis: “It’s cool. Doing that song with Ted was great because we broke down 'Coming Of Age' in the middle into 'Stranglehold' and you can hear Ted doing all of those classic licks. He forgot to do the three-part harmony thing in the middle of his 'Stranglehold' solo, so I went in and threw those parts on. It was a blast working with Ted in the studio. He’s a great guy and it’s so cool to have him on the CD.”
BraveWords.com: So, who’s the better guitarist – you or Ted?
Gillis: “Hey now… Don’t go there.”
But do go to Somewhere In California and check out the band at Nightranger.com.