RON KEEL - “You Gotta Play And Live Like You're On A One-Day Contract ... Fulfill Your End Of The Deal Today!”
October 26, 2020, 12 months ago
Just a few weeks ago, the Ron Keel Band graced the stage for a unique online-only concert experience brought to the world by BraveWords’ new Streaming For Vengeance platform, bringing the greatest live events safely to your living room and hand-held devices as we weather through the biggest storm to the music industry since the guitar was invented! This ain't the first rodeo for seasoned veteran and leader Ron Keel, who's been toiling in this biz since the early '80s with Steeler, which featured a youthful Yngwie Malmsteen on guitar. Of course this morphed into his namesake Keel, who made great headway - particularly with the major hit 'The Right To Rock' - and the rest is, as they say, history. So we fast-forward to the present, where the sights and sounds look a helluva lot different.
“The response was incredible and you know that's how I roll,” Keel begins from his South Dakota home about his band's Streaming For Vengeance performance. “I make a production out of everything, and I figure if we've got one shot to play for these fans around the world, I want to do it right, and make it sound and look as good as possible, and choose the songs that hopefully represent what I'm all about now and what Ron Keel Band is all about. Also, I want to give the fans those songs that brought me here, you know, The Right To Rock and Tears of Fire and all those classic Keel hits, and the new stuff as well. ‘If it's worth doing, it's worth overdoing,’ is a David Lee Roth quote I use quite often.”
BraveWords: I love that. So, let's maybe have a little dose of reality, because everyone is trying to rework things in the music business. In terms of “Ron Keel incorporated”, how devastating has this been to your business? Or are you making the best of things?
Keel: “You know, it's really strange for me to even discuss that because I feel guilty with 2020 being the best of my career, and the best year of my life, so far. In August alone, we had the Streaming For Vengeance show on BraveWords, we're on the cover of ION indie magazine, we had a big feature in Rock Candy magazine, eight big shows, five headline shows, the Sturgis Rally, so many good things that happened just last month. Making the best of things - isn't that what we always have to do no matter what goes on in the economy, or politics, or the world, or our culture? It's our job to evolve, grow, and change - and like you said, make the best of things. I was prepared probably more than most artists for the online action because several years ago my wife was diagnosed with cancer, and when that happened, immediately that's a life changer. Everything changes and all your plans go out the door. I had to tell my band I can't tour this year, I'm going to have to stay home with her and be at her side through chemotherapy, radiation, and nine surgeries. I joined a platform online called Patreon, where we deliver exclusive content to the fans around the world. Audio, video, interactive experiences, merch discounts, personal online chats, house concerts and all of that, because I knew I wanted to keep entertaining. I've gotta do what I do, and if I have to do it from home, I'll find a way. And I did find a way to do that, so when the COVID-19 pandemic hit earlier this year, first of all I was lucky because I had already gotten the Monsters Of Rock cruise under my belt, we went to Cozumel and Belize and had some great shows on the MORC, and then I got to do my first tour of Australia, which was fantastic. It was Enuff Z' Nuff, myself, and Janet Gardner, and a local Australian band called Crosson. So, I got the Australian tour under my belt, which was a dream come true, and I got that off the bucket list, and when we got home I just barely made in time for the lockdown and the travel ban. I was expecting to be home for a few months promoting the album and doing what I do from home, entertaining the fans. Now the downside of the cancellations - we've had our share, and most bands have - we were poised for a really big year because of the new album and because of our perfect fit at a lot of events like bike events, the Sturgis Rally, county fairs, state fairs, places where people might not even know who the hell Ron Keel is, but they want to be entertained, and you've got a crowd of thousands out there that want to hear these great southern rock classics that are on the new album, and we mix in all the Keel songs and all the songs from throughout my career as well. So we had our share of cancellations, and financially that doesn't really affect me, but I feel bad for the guys in my band and my crew, because that's where I put all the money that comes in from the road. The big production as you can see from that live stream, a great six-piece band, a fantastic three-man crew, a big truck that hauls all that gear, and that train that blows smoke, and the risers and the ramps and the stairs, the back line full of amplifiers. I pay my guys well, so there's not usually much left for me at the end of the gig because I take care of my band, I take care of my expenses, but I feel bad for those guys because that's their livelihood. For me, it's just a chance to continue to do what I love to do. The live performances keep me young, keep me healthy, and keep me motivated, and I try to make up for that with some of the online activities, and the solo acoustic shows. I feel for all my friends in Las Vegas, L.A., New York, and all around the world that haven't done a gig this year. I'm looking at about 30 shows in 2020, most of them in South Dakota where we never really fully shut down. We had the big fair, with Ron Keel Band, Big & Rich, 38 Special, and Hairball, and we were able to play the Sturgis Rally, and had a great turnout for five shows. I'm so blessed and thankful for those opportunities. It has been a great year for me, I hate to even admit that. The online activity has escalated, membership is up, and fan interaction is up because everybody's online. Like I said earlier, we were prepared for that because when Renee went through cancer, we started sanitizing every door knob and remote control and the light switches, and we had a cabinet full of surgical masks. When this thing hit, we were already used to the quarantine and I was able to adapt very quickly and somewhat easily.”
BraveWords: Well I can relate. BraveWords, the magazine started in 1994 and the website launched in 2000. How is it that Google analytics tells me that in the last year our traffic has doubled? I've never been so busy in my life. But we are the lucky ones. David Ellefson echoed the same sentiments to me recently; that you might be the rocking boys on stage, but behind you there are dozens of people who make this all happen. And poof, it’s all gone.
Keel: “I miss the little things. I have an elderly uncle, who is the eldest Keel, he's 85 and it was his birthday recently. I talked to him on the phone and that kind of hit home, that he's 85 and when am I going to get to visit him again? He's in that high risk group, with his health and his age. I can't fly to Florida and go visit him because I'm afraid that I might cause him harm. Those little things are the toughest part of the whole deal. The music will live on, the music industry, like yourself - like Bravewords, like the Ron Keel Band. We will evolve, we will find a way. If we want to entertain people there are ways to do that, but I don't know that anything's going to match the thrill of being in a sold-out arena, whether you're in the crowd or on stage. Feeling that energy and holding that arena in the palm of your hand, like I love to do - which is one of the greatest feelings of my life and my career. I know the bands feel the same way when they're out there. It's not the same at a drive-in concert, or online. It's going to be an uphill battle, I don't know if it will ever go back. I don't know what lies ahead for all of us, we just have to continue to stay positive, stay strong, and evolve, and adapt with the changing times.”
BraveWords: We're just taking it day by day. I think I'd go insane if I started to overthink everything.
Keel: “I've always done that too man, I've always felt like I'm on a one-day contract. I had an experience when I was 19 years old, I had a keyboard player in my band and he was a musical genius, he was the leader of the band and just an amazing talent - and I watched him die in rehearsal, right in front of me. He had a cerebral hemorrhage and a heart attack at the same time, and fell over dead, right on the organ. He was healthy, there were no drugs involved, it was just a hereditary disease he didn't even know he had. Kevin was his name, and he taught me that day - play every song like it's your last because you never know when the clock's going to strike and you're done. He taught me that and that lesson has stayed with me for 40 years. You gotta play and live like you're on a one-day contract, and fulfill your end of the deal today.”
BraveWords: Let's talk about creativity. Where you're located now is gorgeous wild-west backdrop. What fuels the creative juices? What gets the wheels turning, those hands and wrists going these days?
Keel: “It's in my heart and it's in my head, and I can't control it. It's very much like a body function, if you will. Whether it's crying or taking a shit, or whatever. When it's time, it's time and I will put everything on the back burner - if I have a song in my head or in my heart, I will put the phone down, get off the computer and play that song. There's always a guitar within reach. There's always a notebook, a voice recorder on the phone, so I'm always capturing these ideas whether it's a song title, or a riff, or a lyric, or just a concept for a song. I love that creative process but I realize that life goes by the speed of rock n' roll and I can't always just stop. So, I'll capture those ideas, catalogue them, and come back at some point here in the next month after our shows are done. We've got one more gig in Kansas City and then I've got a solo acoustic gig. But then for the winter time most of these things shut down for us here in the wild midwest, and I'll start listening to all these ideas and riffs and I'll go through my notebooks full of song ideas and I will create whatever happens next for me. I love that process and I think I've gotten very comfortable with my system of songwriting. I also pass on my philosophy of how to write - how I do it anyway - to my fans at Patreon. We'll have songwriting workshops and I'll take you through the very first inspiration, where the very first song came from, through the final vocal in the recording session - how I adapt my ideas throughout that process. I do love that and the most important thing is that some of those great songs that I've written like ‘The Right To Rock’, ‘Just Like Tennessee’, I've written a handful of songs that have had a lot of records out, but those really special, magical songs that stand the test of time, you set the bar pretty high and you're always trying to reach it, and you realize that every song you write can't be on that level, but it's got to be special, it’s got to be important. It’s got to mean something to me, and hopefully I can share it with people who want to listen, and hopefully they will feel the same way that I do.”
BraveWords: Well, you resonated with this little metalhead kid in his young teens with The Right To Rock and the rebellious video that came with it! It was right up there with ‘We're Not Gonna Take It’, giving you empowerment. How do you think that legacy has weathered the storm over time? And the early material too, because two more reissues came out let last year (1986’s The Final Frontier and the self-titled Keel in 1987).
Keel: “Correct - on Rock Candy. The reissues came out last November. Yeah, that's a lifetime song. ‘Right To Rock’ was one of those phrases and it starts with the title. What it meant then, what it means now, it's a timeless message. And the word Rock is a synonym for Live - you got the right to live, the right to express yourself, the right to rock, the right to be free - it's like the Bill Of Rights, so-to-speak, for anybody who wants to express themself musically or in any art form, or skill, or business. You've got the right to pursue that dream and do it your way or not do it at all.”
BraveWords: Did you work with Derek Oliver and his team on those reissues?
Keel: “I did not. The hard part was - and god bless Derek Oliver for getting that done - was the red tape that he had to go through with Universal, which own those properties. It was a long process of a couple of years of negotiations and paperwork and I did an interview with Malcolm Dome for the liner notes, and so did Marc Ferrari, and Malcolm just kind of took the interview content and created that brilliant 16-page booklet with those liner notes. I didn't have any input on the photos, or the layout, or the remastering. I didn't hear the final master, I didn't see or hear anything until they sent me the discs and I was blown away by the quality of the remasters and the packaging. It's so cool to have those albums get a new lease on life, especially for the fans who grew up listening to that music. Now they have those new remastered CDs in hand that sound absolutely fantastic. You can hear the air passing by the drum stick on its way to the drum, I mean the sound is incredible. I'm really pleased with that. I can't thank Rock Candy enough for making it happen.”
BraveWords: Just to dig a little bit deeper, it's quite interesting what Rock Candy is doing in trying to get the rights and get lawyers involved - because this stuff is deep in the archives of major labels, and rock music is sadly not the biggest priority these days.
Keel: “So many great records that they have repackaged and remastered for the fans who grew up with that stuff. I'm just glad to be part of the mix. Derek Oliver's been a big supporter of mine from day one, even when ‘Lay Down The Law’ came out, before we were even signed, he started giving us rave reviews. He got it, he heard it, he supported it, and we've had a good rapport and a good relationship ever since.”
BraveWords: Any contact with Malmsteen and getting that Steeler material reissued? I don't think Rock Candy has dealt with that, have they?
Keel: “Oh good luck with that! The Steeler album has never been out of print. It's now owned and distributed by The Orchard. There's never been a proper remaster, but the album has always continued to be available for the fans. The Orchard bought the entire Shrapnel catalogue a few years back.”
BraveWords: One last funny question, because I had no idea about the Sabbath connection, but there's this quote where you said that technically you're still in Black Sabbath. I know this is probably beating down a dead horse, but I found that very humourous.
Keel: “Well it's true. It's been 36 years and I realize they never actually called or fired me or anything, but it's just a joke. I was a member of the band, I had a signed contract, I had extensive meetings with Tony (Iommi) and Geezer (Butler), and Don Arden who was their Manager at the time. I was really wrapped up in that world and that experience in March of 1984, and just to be a small, tiny thread in the huge, massive tapestry that is Black Sabbath - the original heavy metal band - it's a huge honour. It gave me the chance to record and release a Sabbath tribute album earlier this year called ‘Emerald Sabbath’ where I was able to do three songs on that record, and cover three different vocalists. I got to do an Ozzy (Osbourne) song, ‘Hole In The Sky’, I got to do an Ian Gillan song ‘Trashed’ from the ‘Born Again’ album, and I got to cover Ronnie James Dio with ‘Die Young’ which was a very successful music video that we released a couple of months back. And Rudy Sarzo did the bass track, Vinnie Appice on drums - I mean Vinnie was THE guy, he was on ‘Heaven And Hell’. To be able to do that session with Vinne Appice and Rudy Sarzo, and my guitar player DC (Dave Cothern) it was a dream come true. It's the closest I'm ever going to get to singing on a Sabbath record but I'll take it and I'm very proud of the results.”
BraveWords: You were truly in the eye of a hurricane. Both Ozzy and Dio were out of the picture, but I tell you, Born Again is one of my favourite records. And Eternal Idol, I just love listening to the Ray Gillan demos. And you're part of that fantastic mix before they finally got their act together with Tony Martin, at least for consistent singers. That must make your heart pulse.
Keel: “It's nice to look back on what might have been, but I feel privileged that even my small interaction with Tony and Geezer and the Sabbath camp has made me, by default, an extended member of the family. I'm able to do projects like Emerald Sabbath, include a Black Sabbath song or two and the Ron Keel Band show as well.”
BraveWords: What's going on in the next few months? As it gets cold, are you going to crawl into your bear cave and rework material from your notes?
Keel: “Yes. I am looking forward to that creative process. Unlike many of my peers, I haven't had a moment all year to just sit back and play, or sing, or write. It's always been a grind, it's rehearsing, doing the shows, the online activity, promoting the new record with hundreds of interviews, media, shooting music videos - there's a lot of stuff behind the scenes that goes into our business. I'm looking forward to putting some of that to rest. We're going to continue to maintain our profile online, we're going to continue to pepper the internet with great content over the course of the next six months, in fact we are remixing the audio and remastering the audio from our BraveWords live stream. It sounded great, but I'd like to make it as great as it can be. We're remastering the audio, no fixes, we're going to keep all the wrong notes, and I think there was one lyrical snafu that I had during the course of that show. We'll keep it natural, keep it real, but we're remastering that audio, and we'll take some pieces throughout the next six months and farm out some music videos from that live stream Streaming for Vengeance and also make that an on-demand broadcast for out fans at Patreon. I've thought about putting a Blu-ray or DVD together, and I know that's old school but I still have a lot of fans who enjoy that, and they want the signed copy and all that. We've got a great handful of music videos that we've done since my last DVD collection and they include that live Streaming for Vengeance concert. I'd have to pay the licensing fees for ‘Because The Night’ because that was a (Bruce Springsteen/Patti Smith) cover song, but the rest is all mine. We're considered putting that out on Blu-ray, maybe just a limited edition for the holidays.”
BraveWords: Why don't you put it out on vinyl too for us old school collectors?
Keel: “I think that vinyl is a great call. I think the band did incredible, my guys played their asses off, they were really tight, and I think it would be release-quality. I'm looking forward to getting the remastered audio back - the vocal was really loud, out front and in your face so I was bare naked out there with very little effects, but we're going to fix that. My engineer, the same guy who produced my albums over the last five years is remixing that now.”
In closing, Keel simply states that he’s “enjoying the ride, I enjoy exploring new territory and building and creating new things. I think we all have to evolve in order to survive. Think of Queen - the same band that did ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ also did ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ - and there's nothing similar about those at all, but they all fit under that framework that is Queen. Not that I'm comparing myself to Freddy (Mercury) but I like to have that diversity in my life and my career and I'll go from a metal song to a country song and then somewhere in the middle there's that southern rock spirit.”