Below is the first part of my two-part interview with the lead singer and bassist of Night Ranger, Jack Blades. You can read part two here and check out my review of Night Ranger’s new album, High Road.
The new Night Ranger album, High Road, is your first studio album since 2011’s Somewhere in California. How does it differ from the previous album and what should fans expect from High Road?
I think all albums differ in that the music you record represents how you feel at that present time. So, in 2011 we did the Somewhere In California record. 2014, this record is kind of an extension of that. I think we explore new territories without straying far, at all, from the Night Ranger sound. I think it’s good old-fashion American kick-ass rock and roll.
On this album you have a nice mix of double-guitar rock songs and really good ballads too.
Yeah, Night Ranger’s always got those ballads somewhere on the record since “Sister Christian” came out (laughs).
I think the band has a good knack at coming up with twin lead guitar harmonies, twin vocals, big choruses, all that kind of stuff. It’s kind of what Night Ranger does…what we’ve been doing since 1982 when we released the Dawn Patrol album.
Night Ranger was originally founded by you, Kelly and Brad. How did the three of you originally meet?
Brad and I were originally in a band called Rubicon. It was founded by the saxophone player of Sly and the Family Stone back in 1976. Actually, there was another guitar player, and he left, and we auditioned other guitar players – I was in the band first – and Brad Gillis came in. Brad just blew everybody away. He was this 19-year-old guitar player, and I was 21, or something like that, and everybody loved him. So, we formed a band and made two albums with Rubicon on 20th Century Fox Records and at the end, Kelly was our touring drummer. Rubicon had hired Kelly as the touring drummer. So in 1979 when that band split up, the three of us stayed together because we really hit it off, played well together, had a good time together, and all that. We were all such good friends, we stayed together and formed a little club band called Stereo. And at that time my roommate was the keyboard and bass player for Montrose with Sammy Hagar, Alan Fitzgerald, and he said, “Hey man, I know this kid in Sacramento. Why don’t we form a rock band?” And so the five of us got together and formed Night Ranger back in 1980.
Who do you consider to be your biggest musical influences?
I would have to say…I know so many people say it, but I don’t see how I can get around the fact of The Beatles being very influential in my life. To this day, I remember walking into the Walgreens or the five and dime store in 1964 and buying that first single, “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” It was a 45 with a black and white cover, and I remember it like it was yesterday. The Beatles have been a major influence on me. The Beatles and Sly and the Family Stone. I know that’s a wide range there, man. But it’s some good funk and some good melodies. But if you think about it, that’s where I’m at.
It’s good to have that diversity.
That’s what I mean. It’s all good grooves – and I’m a bass player so you’ve gotta have a good groove. It’s that good funky groove. It’s that American feeling. And it’s big choruses and rock and roll (laughs). I mean, that’s what works.
The first time I saw Night Ranger live was on last year’s KISS Kruise. At the time, I was really only familiar with your mega-hit “Sister Christian,” so I wasn’t sure what to expect. But you guys were amazing and had a much harder edge than I expected. What was it like performing two concerts for a rabid group of KISS fans?
We were wondering how that was going to turn out, ya know? Because the KISS Army are definitely fans of KISS. But the way that the KISS fans embraced us I thought was just wonderful. Out there, all of a sudden, everyone was wearing Night Ranger t-shirts, people were singing along to the songs, loving it, and everything like that. We loved it. It’s rock and roll, man. Music transcends all forms of everything, and on that cruise it was just wonderful how the audience totally accepted and embraced us, and of course, that just made us want to play even better and harder, and have more fun. It just became this sort of…like, we’re feeding off the audience, the audience is feeding off of us; it just went back and forth and back and forth. It was just wonderful.
Would you and the guys return for this year’s KISS Kruise or a future one?
Oh yeah! Absolutely. We’d love to go back. Hell, we’d love to play with KISS on a tour. We almost played with KISS on their tour with Def Leppard but I don’t know what happened.
It’s funny you should mention that because it was rumored that Night Ranger was going to join KISS and Def Leppard on their tour this summer. I guess that just never came to fruition.
Yeah, which is really unfortunate because I think that would have been a great package.
You co-wrote several songs on Journey’s first studio album without Steve Perry at the helm, Arrival. What was it like working with the band on these tracks?
Well, Neal and I are really good friends. We’re really good buddies, and we’ve been friends for years and years and years. We’ve written a lot of music together on outside projects – he did a couple things on my solo record. I’ve written with him. In fact, his newest solo record, So U, I co-wrote most of the songs with him and the lyrics, and everything like that. Neal’s just a great guy. He’s a buddy of mine. So, it’s really easy. Neal and I work great together.
And Jon is just a phenomenal musician, a phenomenal writer. It’s just easy when you’ve done this for so many years and you know the guys for so many years. We’ve known them since the…hell, I met Neal in 1979. I’ve known Jonathan since he joined the band in the 80s. It’s easy when you know each other. There’s no getting to know each other while you’re writing a song. In other words it’s like, “Hey man! Let’s throw down on this one. What do you think? Bam, bam, bam,” and then it just comes right out. And Neal and I write really fast together. I mean it’s like boom, boom, boom, and it’s done. That’s kinda how we do it.
While we’re talking about songwriting, you’ve co-written songs for numerous artists, including Aerosmith, Cher, Alice Cooper, and Ozzy Osbourne, just to name a few. What songs have you written that you are most proud of?
Oh man…the Damn Yankees songs like “High Enough,” “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” my own song. There are so many songs that…I love that song I wrote with Cher, “Whenever You’re Near.” I love the Aerosmith “Shut Up and Dance” thing we did. Co-writing with Ozzy…with the Alice Cooper stuff, there were a couple great songs we wrote with Alice.
I don’t know, man. It’s hard to say because every time I’ve written a song with someone, it’s been a positive experience, we’ve had a great time and good stuff has come out of it. Ya know…the Armageddon soundtrack, I had a couple songs on that: One of them I co-wrote with Journey and the other one I co-wrote with Aerosmith. I don’t know, man. It’s hard to say. I just love it all.
What’s the songwriting process like for you? Do the lyrics come first or is it the melody?
Well, with me, it’s all over the map. Sometimes it’s the melody, sometimes it’s the hook, sometimes it’s the line of a lyric, sometimes it’s the music. Sometimes it’s the progression of a great groove and then you fill in the blanks. It just depends. I’m not a set guy where I take a bunch of poetry and then put it to music, although I’d love to do that.
I think Bernie Taupin and Elton John are the best examples of that. Those people I just revere. The songwriting there between Bernie and Elton. Bernie just sat there and wrote these great pieces of poetry, really, and he handed them to Elton; and Elton sits down in front of his piano, and the next thing you know, “Tiny Dancer” was born – all those kinds of wonderful songs.
I mean, for me, it’s whatever mood I’m in at that time. Writing songs is a little bit different now than it was in the past because, when your’e first starting out you’re writing songs from the point of view of a 20-year-old. Now, at this stage in the game in our career, you can’t write a song like, “Hey baby, baby give it to me now. I’m gonna nail you now.” And “Come on baby, I want you” and all that. It’s like, people would go, “Creepy” (laughs). It would be pretty funny.
So, it’s a bit of a challenge right now. For me, at least, I have to think of what do I want to say that I haven’t already said…or that I want to say in a different way? And songs like “High Road” come to mind, ya know? “I’m on a high road, after midnight, and I don’t think I’ll ever go home. I’m on the right road, got the freedom, and I’ll never, no, never give up.” And songs like “Don’t Live Here Anymore,” which is about drug addiction and how you can change – I’m not that same person I was, ya know, people can always change. A song like “Only For You Only” – “This song is just for you” – things like that. “Rollin’ on, till the day I die. Yes, I’m comin’ home.” It’s about being on the road and I can’t wait to get home because I’ve spent all my time on the road and I’ve done it all – whiskey shots and honky-tonks and everything but I’m done. “Yes, I’m comin’ home.” It’s over, I’m comin’ home, man. I mean, that wonderful feeling when you’ve been on tour for 18 months and you’re like I’m comin’ home.
So, it’s a bit of a challenge now, but I like it. I like the challenge and I think that Night Ranger…that we’ve risen to the occasion with this album, with the lyrics and with the songs.
In addition to being a bassist, songwriter and lead singer, you’re also a producer. What’s it like producing your solo work compared to producing a Night Ranger album?
I think it’s a bit easier when it’s your own work because when you’re in a band, you’re running a democracy and you’ve got a bunch of board members who have to vote on everything (laughs) to see what’s going on. When you’re doing solo records you can just be like, “Here’s what I’m doing.” No one’s there to tell you shouldn’t or “What about this?” This is your record. If you’re doing it, obviously you like it. So it’s easier when you’re doing your solo record.
Although, with Night Ranger it’s been pretty easy because we all kind of see the same vision. We all have different visions, competing visions, each one of us, but I think we acquiesce. And we definitely tip our hats to each other’s vision and no one in this band…Kelly, Brad and I, no one’s ever hard-nosed to the point of saying, “It’s gotta be like this. Forget it!” That’s not how it works with us. It’s like, hey man, we’re all in a band, we’ve gotta stand or fall with this thing. And really, we’re all pretty honest. It’s like with the Damn Yankees; we just checked our egos at the door, and it’s the same thing with Night Ranger.
I think all of those experiences have helped me in the long run because…all these other bands I’ve played in, the Yanks and everything, because I’ve been able to utilize all those things while in Night Ranger. And it’s like, when you give everyone freedom, then they’re not pushing their bad idea anymore – they just want what’s best for the record. So, that’s how the Night Ranger thing works out. Everyone’s like, “What’s best for this record?”