Night Ranger had a lot of hits in the ’80s and unlike a lot of bands from that era, have continued to make new music. ATBPO (And The Band Played On) is their latest album. I spoke with vocalist/drummer Kelly Keagy, who has been behind the mic on many of their classic songs such as “Sister Christian,” “Sing Me Away” and “Sentimental Street.” We talked about the challenges of writing and recording an album during the pandemic, their return to live shows, the impact of some health problems a few years ago, and other topics.
Chad Bowar: You started writing the songs for the new album right as the pandemic was getting in its full swing. How did that affect the whole process of writing and recording?
Kelly Keagy: It was very difficult to get started because we normally write albums when we’re all in the room together. This was Zoom calls, phone calls, internet clips and audio clips, and all that stuff. It was hard to get started because we were depending on being in a room together and communicating that way. With Zoom, if somebody says, “Oh, I got this idea,” then it defaults to that person that’s talking. You can’t really jam or play at the same time because somebody was louder or was talking, it moves over to them and cancels out the other person. Works great for meetings, but not for trying to be creative and write an album.
It took a while for us to get going, but once we started to get the idea of, “Okay, let’s send these clips, make a recording on my phone, I’ll make it, and then send it like that.” That was a better way to do it, but I hope I never have to do it again because it ruins the whole idea of you’re in a room together and you’re communicating and somebody says, “Try this chord,” “This could be a bridge,” or “This could be the chorus,” and “Change that chord.” We couldn’t do that.
It actually was a blessing in disguise because after we got that whole idea of, “Oh, we can’t really communicate like we normally do,” we had to make something up, and it ended up being like I just said clips, and then we all have ProTools and then we all would record an idea and send it and somebody could embellish it with their parts at home. It just took a ridiculously long time, but we got it done.
When you’re writing today, is it easier because you’ve been doing it so long, or is it more difficult because you have to avoid repeating the hundreds of songs you guys have written over the years?
That’s the game. How do I write about or put a different twist on the same theme? You definitely default to those melodies that you make up from thin air and stuff like that. Hopefully, that’s going to be a positive impulse to move forward. That’s what writing is about. It’s inspiration, no matter where it comes from. With this album it was difficult because when you’re used to playing off of everybody else in the room, so now you were on your own doing it, and then you would have to wait a day for somebody to listen to it, get back to you on it. It was just really weird, man. I just hope all this stuff goes away and we can all go back to normal.
You could easily just rest on your laurels just tour on your past hits, never write another new song. Why is it important for you guys to keep those creative juices flowing and keep writing and recording new albums?
We love creating new stuff, but we use it as inspiration to keep going to the next year and the next 5 years and the next 10 years, because that’s the reason why we’re here, we want to inspire ourselves. At the same time, if those hardcore fans are still interested in hearing music, and they are, we’ll keep making it forever. Jack uses this analogy: it’s like a shark that, if it stops moving, it’ll die if it stops eating and stops moving forward. We have to keep moving forward for us first of all, and then for fans that want to hear our music. We’re very lucky in still having that inspiration to go by.
What led you to go with And The Band Played On for the title of the new record?
It all came out of the whole COVID idea of, we were not able to do what we want to do, and it’s hampering everybody’s way of life. We just thought, “Okay, how can we tie in this whole thing?” The song “Breakout” tied in with the title as well because we wanted to get out of where we were and we wanted to break out so to speak. That’s where the title came for that. And The Band Played On because we were able to get through it and make another record and keep playing.
Tell me about the first post-pandemic show. Did that have a whole different vibe and a different approach than just a regular first show of a tour?
Yes. Absolutely. There was so much negativity towards shows and the shows that we did play during the pandemic were shows in states that didn’t really have a whole lot of cases of COVID like South Dakota where they had Sturgis and Florida at the time when we played didn’t have very many, and that was another bike rally. Then in Arizona, early on, we did another bike rally there, but they made these pods and these distancing tables and stuff so that they could protect everybody. Those shows were really weird because everybody was so far away, except for Sturgis, of course. They were right up front, like, “Screw this. We don’t care. We are who we are and I’d rather die on my bike.”
We appreciated that energy too, but at the same time, we didn’t want to put anybody in jeopardy. We had to be under the radar a little bit to play those shows. They weren’t regular shows. We showed up, and played, and left, and it was like that. We were being constantly monitored during those times, so we were tested. We had to keep records. The government had to see what was going on and who was around and nobody coming backstage, so it was really disruptive, but I understand. I totally get it.
Having seen you live, you still seem to still have that joy of playing live, which some veteran bands don’t have, even though they still hit all the notes. How do you think you’ve managed to hold onto that after playing for so long?
I think the band got started that way before we had a record deal, before we started recording anything. We learned how to play live together and enjoy playing live together. We spent a lot of time doing that. I think that that’s where it came from. Then when we had material to play it was our own. Then it even got better. Then we could expand on a theme and not play it exactly the same way every night, and that’s how Night Ranger is. We try and flip some inspiration in there every night to not play it exactly like the record. That’s where our thought process is in being in a band together, and being like a team because everybody understands, “Okay, we’re going to push it a little bit tonight. We’re going to do a different thing or a different lick here or whatever.” That’s how we keep it fresh for us.
Is there anywhere that you haven’t toured that you still would like to get to?
We haven’t been to Australia yet. We’ve never played in Australia. We played Europe. We haven’t really played South America, really. We played Europe, like I said, all of America, Japan. There’s probably some countries in Asia that we haven’t played, but we have not played in Australia, and I was looking forward to doing that. We were starting to get some offers in 2020. We were like, “Oh boy, wrong timing.” Maybe those will come back.
The promotion process has changed a lot over the years. It’s now driven by social media and there’s a lot more transparency. Do you like that transparency and interaction, or do you like the old days when it was more mysterious, where an album would just appear out of the ether?
We did get a lot of support on radio back in the day and MTV was in its early stages. That was exciting to see those new formats come up. Now we have YouTube, but it’s not the same. It’s not the same for classic rock bands like us. In that way, it’s a lot harder to try and get the music out there and trying to get the message. I think that for us, I like the old days, that we could go to radio stations, we could go and maybe perform there, we could be live on there, so I miss that old interaction between DJs, program directors, and MTV. It’s old school I guess, but I miss the interaction those two formats had.
You and Jack and Brad have basically grown up together. You have probably spent more time with each other than your own families. How has your relationship over the decades evolved?
You have to learn how to communicate like a family. We had to sit down and go, “Wait a minute. I didn’t mean that,” whatever it was, and figure it out because we do spend so much time together in close quarters. Buses, hotels, airplanes. We had to figure it out really quick. We did take a break in the end of the ’80s to do something different. It was nice to have that break because when we came back, we were different people and we were a little bit more grown-up, and so we were ready to forge on and move ahead.
How has your perspective on being a musician and life in general changed since you had your heart issues a few years back?
I think that what it does is it helps you look around and appreciate what’s going on and where you’re at, and wives and people. It just basically brings you back to earth because it’s like, “Holy shit, I could be gone right now.” At that one point when I realized I was going to survive, it was like, “Okay, let’s make notes here. Let’s appreciate what we have and if I can play, I’m going to give it all I got.” That’s what it’s been since 2017. I look at it like I’m going to play as hard as I can and I’m going to be as good as I can, and I want to spend more time looking around and appreciating people and friends.
Being a drummer is very physically taxing. How are your elbows, knees, shoulders, etc. holding up after all these years?
Everything is doing great because that’s what keeps them working. It’s like, if you don’t use it, it’s just not going to work. The more you use it, the better it is. During COVID, I was lazy as hell, and I had to make myself work to keep everything going. I got that little COVID paunch that I think everybody ended up with too. I’m working that off now. This month we got probably 10 shows, so I’m looking forward to keeping it going.
Looking at the Night Ranger catalog, is there an album that sticks out to you that’s underrated and maybe didn’t get the promotion it deserved at the time, but in retrospect, it really holds up well?
The albums after the ’80s and going into the ’90s, there were some pretty good records. There was this one that had a modern feel to it, it was called Seven and had some good songs on it. The album that we came out with in 1996 or ‘7, it was a Sony album and John Kalodner, the famous A&R guy got behind it. It’s just that the record company wasn’t there. He brought it into a meeting and played some of those songs and didn’t tell them who it was, and immediately they were all going, “Wow, these are really great songs. Who is it?” John goes, “It’s Night Ranger,” and they go, “Would they be willing to change their name?” It’s like some of those younger guys didn’t even know who the fuck we were. We were like, “Oh my God. This is unbelievable.” We had to deal with some of that stuff in the early ’90s. We thought, well, that makes sense. These guys are just brought in from Columbia School of Music, and this is how you do business.
It’s funny to me that history sometimes doesn’t play a part in some of the record companies’ employees. It’s not just about the current thing. But, you know what? Music is meant to change. I can’t put it down because it’s supposed to change every 5 to 10 years. That’s what music was doing. It was change, and so that was fun. It gave us even more incentive to be like, “Okay, you know what? It doesn’t matter. Let’s just keep doing what we do. Let’s try and change what we can change, keep it going, make it fresh, and keep rocking the way we know how to do it.”
Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Chad, I really appreciate the opportunity and I’m glad we got to spend some time to talk about the new record. We’re really happy about it, and of course, every record that we make we’re happy about it because we spend so much creating it.
(interview published August 5, 2021)