Michael Cavacini

An award-winning arts and culture blog.

A Conversation With Night Ranger’s Brad Gillis

Photo by Ash Newell.

While in Las Vegas last week, I had the opportunity to interview Brad Gillis, the amazing lead guitarist of Night Ranger. We talked about the band’s new album, life on the road with Ozzy Osbourne, Journey’s Neal Schon, and much more.

Don’t Let Up is Night Ranger’s 12th studio album and it’s excellent. With so many classic rock bands resting on their laurels, what motivates you guys to keep putting out such stellar albums 35 years into your career?

First of all, this band still has a lot of energy. And that energy builds up and we wind up releasing it live, and that’s why we put 110% into our live shows. But we’re also a band that likes to write songs and keep things moving. It’s been great for us to write new material because it lets our creative side come out every year-and-a-half or two. Since we have a fairly big fan base and we’re pulling out 60-to-90 shows a year, I think it’s cool to continually release new music and give the fans something new. Also, I guess the main thing is the record company gives us a lot of money to do a new record. (laughs)

(Laughs) Can’t complain about that, right?

No. There’s something about getting paid to write music and perform live that’s very motivating for me.

And Night Ranger’s last few albums have really been terrific.

Yeah, I think we’ve been on a three-record roll. This new one is on par with the previous two, and it’s exciting to get these positive reviews from music outlets and writers that have enjoyed these records.

Before Night Ranger formed, you were in a band with Jack, Kelly and another person I interviewed, Johnny Colla of Huey Lewis & The News. Why did Rubicon break up and did you know Johnny would go on to achieve the success he did with Huey Lewis?

Well, you never know where someone’s gonna go when a band breaks up. Part of it is being at the right place at the right time. And, of course, you’ve got to be talented. Rubicon had a two-year run and the highlight of the whole experience was playing the California Jam II in 1978, which is still the biggest day of my life – in front of that many people and all of those fans. Aerosmith was there. Heart, Dave Mason, Foreigner – everyone was on that bill. It was pretty exciting to start out there. I was in high school when I did that gig.

Rubicon was a two-year run. The whole funk-rock style of the band really didn’t take off like we thought it would. We thought having a horn section, a funky rhythm section with horns and a rock and roll guitar, would bridge the gap between funk and rock. But it didn’t really work. We had one single that ended up being a hit – a ballad called “I’m Gonna Take Care of Everything.”

It was time to get back to our roots, and for me, Jack and Kelly that’s rock and roll. We all had the same influences. The Beatles started it all. And then The Stones. The Birds and everybody back in the 1960s up until AC/DC and bands like that. That was our roots. When we decided to form Ranger, as it was originally called, the five of us got together in Jack’s living room and wrote six of the songs that appeared on that first record.

Photo by Ash Newell.

In 1995, you and Kelly recruited Gary Moon to replace Jack in the band for Feeding Off The Mojo. What made you want to enlist a new vocalist and bassist at that time in the band’s career?

Basically, Jack left the band and went to the Damn Yankees. We had toured 200+ shows a year from 1983 up until 1989 and we were all burnt out and needed to take a break. During that time, the opportunity presented itself for Jack to team up with Tommy Shaw and Ted Nugent and create the Damn Yankees, so I ended up putting a band together myself on the side. I also did a solo record called Gilrock Ranch. I was lucky enough to have Gregg Allman from the Allman Brothers sing a couple songs on that. Things wound up fizzling out with all of our projects and we got back together in 1995 or 1996.

Getting together with Gary was an interim thing to keep the Night Ranger brand out there. We had that one record, Feeding off the Mojo. It really wasn’t Night Ranger because Night Ranger is…like any other band, you’ve gotta have that classic voice that sings the songs. There’s too many band’s out there that don’t have their original lead singer that are getting by. But having Jack and Kelly as the main singers and songwriters in the band – that’s the way Night Ranger should sound.

After Randy Rhoades passed away, you were asked to fill in for him in Ozzy Osbourne’s band. What was the hardest Randy Rhoades song to master live?

I sure had a lot of fun with them. “Over the Mountain” and an instrumental that came after the guitar solo in the set that Randy used to play. When I was out on the road learning the material, the day before I started playing with Ozzy, I was told that I needed to learn this instrumental tune. That was tough because I only had a day to learn that. That kind of went all over the map. It’s on the live Ozzy video from Irvine Meadows but it wasn’t on the Speak of the Devil record. Also, three quarters of the way through the tour when Ozzy wanted to put out that live Speak of the Devil record, we had to go to New York and learn all those Black Sabbath songs in a couple days to do that record. It was quite the learning experience, all the way around, with Ozzy. I definitely learned a lot growing up in that camp and touring. I sure found out what it was like to play in front of 10,000 people every night. (laughs) Every show was, pretty much, sold out with Ozzy.

What’s the craziest story you have of your time on the road with Ozzy?

There’s quite a few of them. When I went with the band to do a show in Maui at Ozzy and Sharon’s wedding. It was pretty crazy because everybody was getting a little drunk at the end of the night and there was an acoustic Hawaiian band playing out back at the hotel where we were staying and Ozzy wanted to go up and jam with them. This band had an upright bass, an acoustic guitar, a little cocktail drum kit, and a PA system – and we’re playing “Paranoid.” I wish we had someone video taping it back then. I’d love to see that one.

Another time we were coming to play my hometown in Oakland, California. The Oakland Coliseum. Like I said, every show was sold out. Sharon came up to me the night before we were going to play Oakland and she said, “Brad, I’ve got to talk to you.” I said, “What’s going on?” She said, “I just wanted to let you know that Oakland is canceled.” I said, “What?” because there wasn’t one show that was ever canceled. I said, “What’s going on?” She said, “Brad, I’m sorry to say but it’s because of lack of ticket sales” and she walked away. I freaked out. I thought to myself, my hometown show has been canceled because of lack of ticket sales? I couldn’t believe it. Every show had been sold out. She took about 10 steps, turned around and looked at me and said, “Just kidding. Sold out in three hours.” (laughs)

The first time I saw Night Ranger live was on KISS Kruise III a few years ago. Has Night Ranger ever considered touring with KISS? I think it would make for a great package.

They’ve all been friends of ours since we toured together back in 1983. So, yeah, sure. We love playing with everybody. We’ve done some eclectic shows. We’ve played shows where New Kids on the Block, Rick Astley and UB40 were on the bill. It doesn’t matter who we play with. If a big audience is there, we’ll throw it down 110%.

Your guitar playing can be wild one minute and melodic the next. To me, you and Neal Schon share many similarities in this respect. What are your thoughts on Neal?

I think he’s fabulous. We’ve done a lot of shows with Journey over our 35-year career. In 2011 we did 65 shows with Journey and Foreigner, all over the States and Europe. I think Neal is a great player. He knows how to come up with very tasty solos that complement the songs on Journey’s records. I always learned that you have to play what will complement the song. If you have a ballad, you play with feel. If you’ve got a rocker, play with aggression.

Photo by Ash Newell.

You guys are currently doing shows with Dennis DeYoung. How has that been going?

Oh, it’s great. All those classic hits are great, and the band that backs him up is great too. We’ve had the luxury of going out with everybody, pretty much, throughout our career. We did major tours back in the 1980s with ZZ Top, Cheap Trick and Foreigner, and all these bands. Being able to still tour and play with these guys who are still around doing it is just great. As a matter of fact, I recently got to play “Surrender” with Cheap Trick and that was a blast because I never got to play with them before.

Being in this industry, you get packaged with other acts all the time. And you just go in and do your shtick. The bigger the band, the bigger the draw. What’s really cool in this day and age is if you put together three classic ‘80s bands and put them on tour, you can do 10-to-15,000 seats. Last year, we had a nice little run with Def Leppard. We’ve got some shows with Boston coming up, and, in total, Night Ranger will probably be doing 60-to-80 shows this year.

Night Ranger has a lot of fantastic deep cuts. What songs would you like to dust off and add to the setlist?

What we do is focus on the classic hits because we love playing them and everybody knows them. And we throw in a couple B-sides here and there. We also throw in a couple Damn Yankees tunes into the set, since they’re no longer together. We play an Ozzy song. And since Kelly played with Alice Cooper for 10 years, we do an Alice Cooper song. Those are always fun to do.

A few years ago we did an acoustic live record called 24 Strings & A Drummer and we fiddled around with a Don Henley song called “Boys of Summer.” That’s a blast to play live, acoustically.

We’ve got it down to where we can do our live electric show or an acoustic show, which we do a lot for radio stations when we come into town to promote an upcoming concert. We pop into a radio station and do a couple songs acoustically. Doing a full live acoustic show is fun because it’s a different kind of animal. Trying to play songs like “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me” and “(You Can Still) Rock In America” is a challenge but we seem to be pulling it off pretty well.

Is there anything you’ve yet to accomplish in your career that you’d like to do?

Well, I’m working on a solo record now; I’m just trying to get some big-name singers to sing on it. And there are big huge bands, like The Rolling Stones, that I’d love to go out and play with. We’ll see what happens. We do have William Morris behind us, booking our shows and they seem to pull off some great lineups for us to tour with.

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