Kelly Keagy Keeps on Motoring
by Michael Aubrecht
In 1984, guitar-based rock music was making a comeback. Music Television dominated popular culture. Artists, at the time, were judged not only by their sound, but also by their appearance. For many viewers, seeing a band on MTV often determined whether they would follow the band at all. Sometimes the song and the corresponding video were equally adored and launched the act into superstardom. One band that rode this wave of popularity was Night Ranger. With its catchy riffs and thought-provoking lyrics, Night Ranger became one of the most popular bands of the time. Much of this success was attributed to the group’s chart-topping hit “Sister Christian.” The ballad, along with the accompanying video, became an epic hit for a band that had worked its way to the top. One of the most interesting aspects of the video was the singing drummer, whose raspy voice told the story of a young girl coming of age. This ballad would go on to be #32 of VH1’s Greatest Songs of the 1980’s. Written and performed by Kelly Keagy, “Sister Christian” could have been the pinnacle of the band’s success. Instead it became a stepping stone for a group that continues to make great music more than three decades later.
Kelly Keagy is a man who wears many hats. Drummer, vocalist, songwriter, producer and ambassador are just some of the titles that can be used to describe him. With a humble perspective, Keagy acknowledges the past, revels in the present and looks forward to the future. Nowadays he travels the world, touring with his band and recording new music at his home studio in Nashville. Appreciative of the legacy that Night Ranger has provided for the fans, he is by no means resting on his laurels. Like the song says, he keeps on “motoring.” Kelly took some time out of his hectic schedule to share his wisdom and experiences.
MA: First off, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with me today. This is a real thrill, as you had a great influence on my playing. Night Ranger was one of the biggest bands around when I was a budding drummer and your style has resonated with me to this very day.
KK: Thank you. That is great to hear.
MA: Let’s start off with an obvious question. What drew you to the drums?
KK: I grew up in a family that loved big band music. My father always played Harry James and artists like that. He was born and raised in Los Angeles, so he used to go down to the Palladium and see shows all the time. He used to tell me about seeing Buddy Rich. When I was old enough to really understand, I realized that those bands were the “rock and roll” acts of their time. I grew up in the late ‘50s and ‘60s. It took me a while to appreciate the impact of that style of music.
Of course the Beatles had an influence on me. I remember listening to the Beatles on the radio when they were playing the Hollywood Bowl. That broadcast really introduced me to modern music. It was also all about the drummers of that time. There was a song called “Topsy” which was a drum solo song that was a hit played on the radio. That stuck with me. When the Beatles became popular that was when I picked up a pair of drumsticks and wanted to learn how to play.
MA: Would you say that your early influence was the big band drummers or the early British invasion players?
KK: I think that the big band drummers were the first drummers that I heard that made my head spin. The sound of the band and how they played hit me. They said that Buddy Rich “played the band” and that was so true. I listened to my father’s record collection. That was before rock and roll became mainstream. When I was old enough to really understand the influence of what I was listening to, rock and roll and surf music started happening. Of course we all remember “Wipeout.” Everyone was trying to learn how to play it, even non-drummers. I started playing when I was seven years old.
MA: That’s pretty young to start an instrument. Did you participate in any music programs at your school?
KK: I did eventually. Once I got into junior high school, I was in the marching band every year. I loved it because it was people making music. The cadences were always a little bit off so there were always three or four of us guys messing around with the original version. I miss the camaraderie of the drum line.
MA: Tell us a little bit about when you got your first drum kit.
KK: My friend Matt and I discovered an abandoned drum kit in the closet of his cousin’s house. Matt was taking guitar lessons to learn early surf music and Beatles stuff from books, so I used that drum set to play with him. Matt’s family the McIntires were already in showbiz. His aunt and uncle were actors in Hollywood and his cousin Tim went on to star in the film “American Hot Wax” and write and perform music for the movie “Jeremiah Johnson.”
Matt and I formed a little band. That closet kit was the first drum set that I had. I don’t even think it had a name on it. I just remember that all it had was a snare, kick and a small cymbal arm coming out of the bass drum that I put a tin can on that I could use to tap on. Eventually my parents got me a “real” set. We went to a pawn shop and they got me a Saint George drum set. I think they made other instruments as well. That was a big deal to me.
MA: You have a very distinctive voice. When did you become a singing drummer?
KK: I was always torn, when I was a kid, between singing and drumming. I knew that I had a passion for drums and I loved playing them, but I also liked doing vocals. The first real band I was in, nobody could sing. I was trying to tip my hat. I told them to let me give it a try. There were three of us from the same neighborhood and I always sang a little better than those guys could. I ended up singing a lot of stuff and they would take one or two songs. As time went on, I occasionally joined a band that already had a drummer, so I would be the one up front singing. I went on like that through high school back and forth between drums and vocals.
MA: That process, singing and drumming, takes a certain level of syncopation and independence.
KK: Yes. You have to know when to hold back physically and when to let go. It also requires dynamics. It’s a mind game. Early on I spent more of my time working on my drumming. In my last year of high school, my music teacher called me into her office and said, “I want you to listen to this.” It was a tune that had a drum solo and she told me, “I want you to learn this because we are going to play it for the assembly.” I was horrified and convinced I couldn’t do it. She handed me a piece of paper with the music on it and I couldn’t really read music. She was going to teach me with the record and the chart. I took the record home and memorized every single lick. When the time came to do it, I played it perfectly. That was the first time I had ever done a drum solo. I was 16.
MA: Did you continue to do drum solos as you got older?
KK: I actually didn’t. Once I got in a band, my duties were to keep time and sing, whether it was lead vocal or background. My goal was to hold it down, not showboat. I don’t think I ever did another drum solo again. I did a solo with Night Ranger once. We filmed it at Irvine Meadows Auditorium during a concert in 1985 during the Seven Wishes Tour. I stopped doing them because I never thought that it was my thing. I tried to keep the foundation solid. It was always about the song and I was always involved in singing, so I wanted to keep it simple so I wouldn’t interfere. I had listened to John Bonham, but I couldn’t play like him. I was turned on by Ringo because he was able to play and sing. That was what I was attracted to.
MA: Did you always play cover tunes or did you work on original material?
KK: I played in a blues band and we were always messing around with original stuff. Somebody would come in with an idea and we would throw something together, but nothing really clicked until I joined this band. I played in another band for five years that only did covers. We played around Oakland, California and I was singing a lot in that band. That was during the disco era, so it was all R&B and funk. In that band we tried to make a record. We wrote a bunch of original songs. I still have them. I think we recorded them on a cheap four-track machine. Our manager at the time, who was booking us, got us a tape machine and we would record at his office when everyone was gone. We ran cables up the hallways and we would record live all night. That was back in ‘76 or ’77. The band was called “Rags.” We made our living playing five nights a week performing covers.
MA: Was it at this point that you decided to pursue music as a career?
KK: Yeah. I was already making a living at it and it was really the only thing that I wanted to do. There wasn’t anything else that could have taken its place ever. I could have gone on like that, gig after gig, and been perfectly happy. While I was in that band, Brad [Gillis] had seen me play at this club in Berkley. He watched me play and saw that I was doing a lot of the same things. He was just about to get in this band called “Rubicon” which was a bunch of seasoned players. Jack [Blades] and him were asked to join the band. At one point they lost their drummer and their second album was coming out. Jack hit me up and said, “Hey man we need a drummer and a guy that can sing.” So that is when I got together with Jack and Brad. This was like 1979. We did that for a year. We were in our mid-twenties.
MA: Night Ranger has quite a legacy. How long have you three been together?
KK: We have been together for over 35 years. It’s crazy. When we first got together we thought it was only going to be for a couple of years. We would tell interviewers back in the day that we wanted to get to the second record. We just wanted to sell enough records so we could afford to do another one. We didn’t have any delusions of ruling the world and we thought that any day now this will come to an end. We really took advantage of every minute.
MA: I think what sets Night Ranger apart from many of the legacy bands is that, in addition to touring, you are also making new music. This has to appeal to your loyal fans as well as the new ones. Why is that?
KK: It gets boring after a while and we are one of those creative bands that like to get together and create music. We love to jam and write together. Every couple of years there will be a new record for us and that is how it has always been. We don’t want to forget about that. Ten years go by and you try to make a record and by then there is no forward movement. No creative drive means you end up playing the same things over and over. Of course you have to play the hits, but we want to give the audience more. We try and stretch things and make it a little bit different every time. When we first started making new records it was easy to think, ‘Why spend all this time and money? Why make a record that no one wants to buy?’ These records are just as much for us as they are for them. It’s not about fame or money anymore as it’s about keeping the creative juices flowing.
MA: I have found that many fans, whether new or old, appreciate when bands slip new material into their set list. It keeps things fresh and reminds them of why they are attracted to the band in the first place.
KK: Exactly. We throw in new songs for that very same reason and we see that reaction. When we get that positive feedback, it reminds us of why we are here in the first place. Our side projects also give us an opportunity to spread our wings. The members of Night Ranger have never stopped writing new music. I’ve done a couple of solo records. They are also guitar-driven. I’m working on a new project now and I have five or six songs. It’s a little blue-eyed soul which fits well with my voice and style. It’s going to be in that 1970’s style of funky old-school stuff. I’m really excited about it because it’s a nice change for me. I’ve always been into the blues and funk. When Night Ranger started, I had to switch my way of thinking because for me it was always about R&B.
We get along so well and are respectful of each other’s musical tastes, and that is why we have been together so long. It’s like a destiny. We see each other every week and we just laugh and joke and have a great time. That is what keeps Night Ranger going strong.
MA: You guys have a great reputation as a live act. Everyone I talk to that has been to one of your shows says the same thing…your concerts kick ass. How can you perform like that night after night?
KK: We see some of the other bands around us and we want to give the fans their money’s worth. Like many other bands, we are getting older and the fans energize us. The people that buy tickets spend their hard-earned money. They need to have a great show…a release that takes them away from their regular routine. That’s why they come. They come to see us because we do a lot of spontaneous stuff on stage. We laugh. We joke. We try to make it as easy as possible to bring that audience into our world. It’s always got to be high-energy too. I don’t want to be one of those bands that stand up there cranking out tired tunes. There’s got to be something exciting from beginning to end. Whether a large or small audience, it’s gotta have the same intensity. Many times half the audience has never been to a Night Ranger show. We have to win them over, and that means that we bring 100% every night.
MA: It sounds like you guys strive to bridge that gap between the past and the present.
KK: Yes. We got that attitude opening for bands when nobody knew who we were. We always kept the idea that we were going out there to play and win over the people that don’t know us. Let’s grab them and bring them in. Every night we relive that goal. It all started with live performances. We were playing out before we made any records. We’ve played out when there’s been a long time between records. Both sides go together and feed off one another…records and concerts. We do like to take our songs off the record and make them sound a little bit different. We add things that transform better to a live situation.
MA: Speaking of songs let’s get to another obvious question. How do you feel about the continued popularity of “Sister Christian?” Why the staying power?
KK: Usually you put a ballad on your record. That one was a little bit different. We actually had enough material on the first record, so we held that song back because we already had a ballad. We saved that material because we knew we would be on tour, and once we came off the road, we would be going back into the studio. Sister Christian was one of those songs we were waiting to use. We had absolutely no idea of the impact that song would have. It might have been the message or the video. When we started to realize what the song had become, it was exploding. It was the third single off that record and the record company insisted on us using it. From day one it dominated the radio and made an impression of what Night Ranger could do. You never know. You’re writing a song and you’re in the moment. You can’t account for what’s going to have that kind of impact. Even now, having it placed in movies and commercials is kinda funny. I think Boogie Nights is what brought it back.
MA: Moving over to drums again, tell us about your set-up. It’s spread out and sits sideways on the stage to accommodate your singing parts.
KK: The kit I’m using now is a straightforward DW maple. I like the standard maple shells, nothing too fancy about them except the bigger sizes have the plies going a different way. It makes the toms sound even deeper. I actually added a kit that I had onto this kit because I liked it so much. The older kit parts were from ’92 and I added two or three new toms to it. I was so afraid of getting a brand new kit that didn’t sound the same. I stuck with what I knew. I’ve used this configuration for four or five years. I use a variation of 10-12-13-14-16, which are the sizes I’ve used my whole life. Once in a while I will put the 16 over on the left side and maybe put an 18 on the right. On the new album, I took the kit that John Good at DW gave me 20 years ago. It’s a maple too, with a tobacco lacquer finish. It had been sitting in the corner of my home studio with mics on it for 15 years. I decided that I was going to do the drums here.
Last year I went to Sound Emporium in Nashville and cut drum parts there too. Afterward I decided to use my kit at home. I also used an aluminum snare drum that sounded huge. As I started cutting tracks I realized that the sound was really great. We used it totally natural, no electronic sounds. I did use triggers to help capture some of that sound. What I realized is that small room in my home sounded better than some studios. It’s my favorite drum room now, because it sounds warm and natural. I engineered everything myself and I was literally blown away. Brad and Jack will come and stay for a few days. We pull some amplifiers in there and record demos. I would use electronic drums to develop the parts and then go back to acoustic drums to do the actual recording tracks.
MA: Now you live in Nashville. What brought you to Music City?
KK: I was living in Minnesota but I decided to go somewhere warm where my friends were living. I had a bunch of friends who moved from LA to here. Everybody loved the community. Of course music is everywhere. That’s how I settled here, and I’ve been living in Nashville for 12 years. Every style of music is here and there are some really great players. A lot of those cats who do demos are the best players and should be stars. The backup musicians who do three sessions a day are amazing. There are little houses that have been converted into studios. It’s inspirational everywhere you look. Everyone here is a budding musician, even the guy who is parking cars. I was the same way. That’s what I did when I was younger and trying to play. I worked in a sheet metal factory while I was looking for a steady gig. Even in the early ‘90s, when the band wasn’t working, I did whatever I could, and then I’d come home and play music. No matter what you do as a musician, you will always be connected to music.
MA: Is Night Ranger working on any new studio material?
KK: We are. We just finished the last of the vocals a few days ago. We’ve been jumping from studio to studio. We started a lot of the songs here at my place and then we went to Brad’s in the Bay Area, and then we went to Jack’s up in Seattle. We’ve completed all of the background music too, and it’s going on to the mixer. The album is titled “Don’t Let Up” and we are hoping to release it shortly after it is completed.
MA: Are there any other projects that you are involved in that folks might find interesting?
KK: I’ve been involved as an ambassador with the Musicians Hall of Fame here in Nashville. They chose me a few years ago to be the first guy to spread the word. It’s all about the players. It’s a really cool place located in the basement of the Municipal Auditorium, which is one of the oldest venues in town. It’s all about the musicians. Much like the Wrecking Crew, these players are the unsung heroes of the music industry, people that played on huge hits. They have a new Grammy exhibit with interactive booths that allow you to sing along with the tracks. They also have the wall from Sun Records replicated down here. All of the original gear and instruments are on display. It’s a really neat find and I recommend that every musician check it out.
MA: As a successful musician, what advice would you give to young drummers and singers who are looking to get into the music industry?
KK: I would say for them to listen to everything. Listen to all types of music and try to absorb as much of it as you can. For drummers it’s important to know the song and play for the song. Really pay attention to the vocal’s phrasing. Play around it not on top of it. Make sure that your parts fit. When it comes to writing, it’s nice to have little compliments here and there, but don’t get in the way of the vocal. The vocal and the lyric are what matters. I look at the band as a company. They have to work together.
Never forget. It’s all about being part of the song.