Michael Cavacini

An award-winning arts and culture blog.

A Conversation With Night Ranger’s Eric Levy

Photo: Ash Newell

As far as I’m concerned, Night Ranger is the most underrated classic rock band on the planet. Not only do they have a rich history comprised of countless classic hits and terrific albums, but they also continue to record and release stellar new music and play live for thousands of adoring fans. The band’s keyboardist, Eric Levy, was kind enough to speak with me about what it’s like being in Night Ranger. I hope you enjoy our discussion.

When did you join Night Ranger and how did the opportunity come about?

Back in 2010, I got a phone call from a friend of mine, Will Evankovich. He said, “I’m having a birthday party at my house. Do you want to come?” I said, “Sure, I’d be happy to come to your birthday party.” He said, “Can you bring your keyboard and just leave it in your car?” I said, “OK, sure.” I grabbed my keyboard and put it in my car. I don’t know what he was thinking. Maybe he wanted to have a jam session later or something. I went to the party and I was hanging out. Then Jack Blades shows up and he comes over to me and says, “Hey, I’m working on a solo record and I’m wondering if you’d play keyboards on one of the tracks right now.” And I said, “Yeah, sure.” We set up in Will’s studio, which, at the time, was in his living room. In the middle of this party, we were setting up and recording this song together. From there, Jack called me up and invited me to play on more of his music. Meanwhile, I was doing all sorts of projects, including a jam band I was part of for 10 years called Garaj Mahal. The guitar player in that band is who got me into it. We planned on continuing but I had mixed feelings about it. We had one more tour on the books, which was in 2010, between Christmas and New Year’s. A week before the tour I got a call from Jack and he said, “Hey, our keyboard player in Night Ranger is leaving the band and we’re about to do a world tour with Journey and record a new album. Are you interested?” And I said, “Yeah, I’m definitely interested. I’ve got one more tour on the books. After that week, I’ll be back and available.” That night I went on iTunes and downloaded Night Ranger’s Greatest Hits (laughs) and I put it on my iPod. I was listening to these songs trying to understand what they’re all about – not telling anybody about it. Garaj Mahal played our last show and we’re driving back on New Year’s Day from up in British Columbia and we ended up hitting some black ice. We were all fine but we wound up on the side of the road. Our old van in Washington state, which was the only thing the band owned, had broken down. It felt like a clean break. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect for me. I started off with Night Ranger in the studio, recording songs. It was great. It was a nice way to get my feet wet with them. Getting a chance to get in there and be creative with them. It was amazing.

You look a lot like Alan Fitzgerald. How did Jack, Kelly, and Brad react when they first met you?

(laughs) I’m pretty sure that’s a big reason why they called me back in the first place. I match that look for them. With all humility, I think that’s a big reason why I got the gig.

What was it like to work on Somewhere In California with Night Ranger?

Jack used to live in the Bay Area and he had a studio. We recorded the first two records that I did with the band – Somewhere In California and High Road – over at Jack’s old studio. In those early days of 2011, Jack would say, “We’re probably not going to get to the keyboards today but why don’t you come by anyway and be a part of it?” There were a lot of days where I was just hanging out at the studio listening to other people put down their tracks. It was a great process for getting to know everybody. For me, we play, maybe, one or two newer songs each night that I came up with the sounds or parts for. Outside of that, everything else is parts and sounds that Fitz came up with. To be able to have such a creative process with the band from the outset was great. It’s much better than being thrown into the fire and having to learn parts. It really helped me transition into the role of being the band’s keyboard player.

What are some of your favorite Night Ranger songs to play live?

One of my core philosophies is that love is a verb. So, I choose to immerse myself in whatever music I’m playing at the time. To me, that’s the way to keep things continually fresh and inspiring. Yeah, we play “Sister Christian” every night in the set but it never gets old. Kelly is always changing up the way he’s singing it and then he holds the microphone over the crowd and it’s just my keyboard accompanying the crowd singing this song. To me, that’s such a special moment that could only happen with a song that’s as iconic as “Sister Christian.”

What was it like doing the 24 Strings And A Drummer concert and album?

Looking back I think to myself, “Oh, I could’ve played that so much better.” That was in 2012, year number two with the band. While I’m hard on myself, I think it all turned out great and it was really fun to do. Now that I’ve played with the band night after night for so many years, I’m more locked in with the rest of the band’s timing. So, when I listen back to that, I notice spots that I could’ve improved on. It’s not like I’m playing a wrong note or that I’m playing it at the wrong time. But those milliseconds of time in between are noticeable to me if we were recording it now. It was really fun to do and we recorded it over at TRI in the Bay Area. The place where we recorded used to be a rehearsal space that bands could rent out. So, I spent a great deal of time over there through the years on different projects. At that time, it was only recently bought by Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead and turned into a private facility. I remember when that I happened. I was really bummed because that was my favorite rehearsal space in the whole Bay Area. But then the opportunity to go in there and record with Night Ranger came up. At that point, Bob’s team had made it a state-of-the-art facility, so I had the chance to check it out and it was an over-the-top experience. They had the ability to change the entire reverb of a song on the fly. It was wild. And it was special getting the chance to record that because of my personal connection with the facility.

The next Night Ranger album you worked on was High Road. What was that like and how did it differ from Somewhere In California?

By the time we recorded High Road, I already had Somewhere in California under my belt so I was already established. High Road was a different process. I was more creatively involved with the writing of the music. For Somewhere in California, I wasn’t one of the writers, even though it was a very creative process. For High Road, I came up with the music for the piano ballad on that album, “Only For You Only.” I came in with the initial idea and then everyone elevated it to a higher level with their contributions. I had a real personal connection. It was cool to have a song that I brought in the initial idea for. The intro to the song “High Road” is also something that I created. By that time, I had internalized enough with the band that I could come up with something that sounded like Night Ranger. It was a deliberate thing. However, I came up with it by chance. Jack brought in the song one day to the studio and he said, “Hey, could you come up with a keyboard part for this song?” And we started jamming it and that intro fell out of my fingers as I played it and Jack said, “That’s it!” I had a more creative stake in the album.

What was the 35 Years & A NIght In Chicago like for you?

Out of all of the shows I’ve done with Night Ranger over the past eight years, that might be the most special for me because I was born and raised in Chicago. Getting a chance to go back there and play at the House of Blues as the headliner was really special for me. Lots of friends and family were there. It was a crazy night.

I think Don’t Let Up is a great album. What was it like recording it?

It was a lot different. By this point, Jack had moved so the recording process didn’t happen in one central location. It happened in multiple places. The vocals were recorded at Jack’s new place. Then a lot was recorded at Kelly’s studio. And I recorded most of my parts at Brad’s studio. Also, I wasn’t as involved with the early stages of the writing process on this record. I had to make a tough choice in 2015 when we started. There’s a group I work with called Under The Streetlamp, which is a band made up of Chicago musicians. It’s a great way for me to still be a part of the Chicago community and everyone involved are great people. So, at the time, they were gearing up for their third PBS special and they asked me if I’d be a part of that. I went back and forth with them and Night Ranger’s management. That’s why I wasn’t available for the initial writing sessions for Don’t Let Up. But I was able to record this PBS special and be a part of something different without having to miss any Night Ranger concerts so I did that. When I got back to the Night Ranger album, a lot of the parts were already written and recorded. So, a lot of it for me was getting MP3s from the guys of their recordings and playing along with their parts and coming up with ideas for sounds. Then I went over to Brad’s to finish up the recordings.

What are your thoughts on each of the guys in Night Ranger? Jack, Brad, Kelly, and Keri?

From the first night I jammed with Keri I said, “This guy is great!” I was a fan of his right off the bat. His stage presence is amazing. The way he plays his parts is fantastic. His demeanor and the way he fits in chemistry-wise is great. I told the guys we should hire him once we found out Joel was leaving and thankfully everyone agreed and we got him full-time. As a player and as a human being, he’s a great guy to be in a band with.

Kelly is really special. I’m continually blown away by him, and he’s a wonderful person and human being. He drives the band forward with his drums, while also delivering soulful vocals. On a human level, he’s probably my favorite person that I’ve ever been in a band with. But the other guys are great too.

Brad is such an innovator. He has his own sound on the guitar and it’s phenomenal. He’s right up there with the best of the best. I can hear a recording and instantly know if it’s Brad playing guitar. I mean that as the highest form of a compliment. His has an unmistakable, individual sound. And musically, he’s a deep musician. For years, he’s composed music for ESPN. From start to finish, he can piece together all the parts, mix it, and produce it. I’ve learned a lot and grown a lot as a musician just by being around Brad.

Jack is the one who I owe all of this to. He’s the one that got me involved. More than that, I’ve learned a lot watching him. The way he handles himself in certain situations. Jack is very intelligent. I’ve learned and grown a lot by being around Jack over the past eight years. He’s also a fantastic musical talent. I love the sound of his voice and his bass playing. He’s also a deep musician.

 

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