Composer, producer, and sound designer Christian Matthew Cullen has had an interesting and prolific career. He’s created audio for TV, radio, advertising, video games, and more. Along the way, he was chosen to be Night Ranger’s keyboard player, a position he held from 2007 to 2011. Christian was kind enough to speak with me about his time in the band. As you’ll see in the interview below, it was a remarkable time in his life and career.
How and when did you get involved with Night Ranger?
I’m originally from Chicago and played in a lot of bands there and became a session musician. I started working with Jim Peterik, who was in Survivor. Every year, Jim does this show called World Stage where he gets the lead singers from famous bands, like REO Speedwagon and Night Ranger. I was the house keyboard player for these gigs, so I got to meet all these great guys in my 20s. And anytime you do a good job at a gig people remember that. So, I met Kelly through Jim on that gig. We played through a number of Night Ranger songs on several World Stage shows and Kelly and I became friends. He’s a sweetheart of a man. Such a great person and a brilliant musician and songwriter. We hit it off really well but I didn’t give it much thought because I had other things going on. Around 2007, I had been going through a harder time in my life. I had just recently gotten divorced and I found myself sitting in my apartment wondering, “What am I going to do with my life?” It was just a really strange time and the phone rang. It was Kelly Keagy. He said, “Hey, man. We’re about to go to Japan and when we get back we’re looking for a keyboard player.” Then he asked me if I was interested. Without even letting him finish I said, “Yes, of course. I’d love to.” That was the beginning of that relationship and I was in the band for about five years. It was one of the most amazingly fun experiences of my career.
What led to you leaving the band?
A lot of people ask that because it’s an amazing gig. At the time I left, we were touring arenas with Journey. We also did some stuff with REO Speedwagon and STYX. It was a dream gig and I got along with everyone great. Part of the equation is I’ve always been a studio guy at heart. Any time I was off the road, I would be recording, writing, and producing music for TV, advertising, and video games. When we were on the road, instead of partying I’d be in my hotel room or on the bus working on projects and developing clients. Building a business for myself, which is really what I wanted to do. Around the end of 2010 or the beginning of 2011, I woke up one morning and had it on my heart that I needed to move on. I’ve always followed my heart and my gut in life and work, and it was just one of those things. Nothing had happened in the band. I was content in Night Ranger. I just got to the point where I saw where my career was heading and I needed to make the leap. Hard as it was, I knew I needed to carve out more time for myself and focus on my work. I’m sure the band wasn’t crazy about this decision at the time. No one likes losing people that they like and I hate leaving ventures that I love. But it was just time.
Who did you fill in for in Night Ranger when you joined?
Just before me, they had Michael Lardie from Great White. I met him eventually on the road. He was very cordial and very nice. Great musician. But there wasn’t much when it came to the baton exchange. I was thrown into the fire. (laughs) I always wanted to meet Alan Fitzgerald because he came up with such brilliant parts for those records. He played a huge part in why those records became the hits that they did. I have huge respect for him. He’s great. Creating his sounds and textures live was an education and a lot of fun.
That must have been amazing to be on the road with Journey, REO Speedwagon, and STYX. What was that like for you?
I had worked with Jack Blades on Shaw-Blades albums so he had become a friend, along with Tommy. And I had worked with Kevin from REO before, so I already had a relationship with him too. The runs with Journey were my favorite because that was the first time I ever played in an arena. Night Ranger went from playing really nice venues – theaters, clubs, and casinos – and then with Journey, we were stepping onto these huge stages with tons of people. It was a different dynamic. The acoustics are different, the way you engage with people is different. Everything is big. The first time we got to do that, it was extremely gratifying because it’s what I had worked for my entire career. Most people try to get to that point in their lives and they don’t. I got to meet all the Journey guys but it took Jonathan a little while to warm up to me. One night, after playing our Night Ranger set, Joel Hoekstra and I went into the crowd to watch the Journey show and we got mobbed by fans. We didn’t want to be rude to the fans, so we took pictures and signed a few things for them. The next day we got a note from Journey saying, “The guys weren’t too happy you were in the front causing commotion during their opening song.” (laughs) From the get-go, I think Jonathan wasn’t sure about me because of that. As the tour progressed, I’d see him in the gym and one day he came up to me and handed me a towel and said, “Hey, man. How’s it going?” and we started talking about gear and music. At that point, we were cool, which was good because I was afraid I had pissed off one of my idols. Journey kills it every night. They’re one of the best live bands you’ll ever see.
What are your thoughts on Jack, Kelly, and Brad?
Jack Blades is a rock star in every capacity. He’s very generous and very talented. Jack is also a great musician and singer. He was kind enough to invite us into his house numerous times to stay with him and his wife, who is wonderful. Jack was very gracious during my time in Night Ranger. I wasn’t closest with him but he was great.
I was closest with Kelly because I knew him longer than the other guys. He’s got this tremendous heart and I feel that I have a heart that’s very similar to his. We would just connect and we had a lot of heart-to-hearts on the road and I love him for that.
Brad was just a fun friend. He’s so fun and light. He’s deceptive because he seems so carefree and light. Then he gets on stage and is very serious about what he does. He’s a badass. Brad is a firebomb. He’s pure energy. Brad would try and get me to go out and party with him. I did that early on and got into some trouble and I flew home with a terrible hangover. So, I started to steer clear of the guitar players, which became a running joke. Jack and Kelly wouldn’t go out because they’d have to preserve their voices but the guitar players would like to go out and have a good time after the shows.
What are your thoughts on Eric Levy?
He’s another native of Chicago and we have a ton of mutual friends. We didn’t meet prior to me passing the baton to him. I tried to make his transition as easy as possible. The more information you have going into it, the better. I think he’s a brilliant player. He’s a heavy jazz dude too. I’m really happy they have him and I’m happy he has Night Ranger. I think they’re a great fit for each other. What’s bizarre is he looks just like their original keyboard player, Fitz. Eric is awesome. I’m really happy for him.
Have you listened to any new Night Ranger material since you left the band? If so, what are your thoughts on it?
I haven’t listened to the albums the whole way through but I caught a few things online. I thought they were good. For me, I like hit songs. None of the newer material sounded like hit songs to me but I don’t think, at this point in their career, they’re trying to write hit songs. They’re more concerned with writing good songs that move the band forward and that are fun and energetic to play. They’re just trying to write good music and what’s in their heart. I think it’s excellent and well done.