Night Ranger’s Jack Blades and Brad Gillis Talk New Album, 'Don't Let Up'
It’s been 35 years since Night Ranger released their guitar-driven debut, Dawn Patrol. The album ushered in the band’s hook-laden, twin-guitar sound—a sound heard on songs like “Don’t Tell Me You Love” and “(You Can Still) Rock in America.”
The band also helped define the Eighties with songs like “When You Close Your Eyes,” “Sentimental Street” and, of course, “Sister Christian."
Today (March 24), the band released a new album, Don’t Let Up, and it's an obvious next step for a crew that’s been rocking for more than three decades. Songs like “Somehow Someway” and “Nothing Left of Yesterday” conjure that blistering, dual-guitar attack—now featuring trade-offs by Brad Gillis and new guitarist Keri Kelli—while “Comfort Me” and “Truth” offer hope in uncertain times.
In the end, Don’t Let Up reflects exactly what Night Ranger continues to be: a kick-ass American rock band. Night Ranger is Jack Blades (lead vocals/bass), Kelly Keagy (lead vocals/drums), Brad Gillis (guitar), Eric Levy (keyboards) and Keri Kelli (guitar).
I recently spoke with Blades and Gillis about Don’t Let Up, gear and a lot more.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of Dawn Patrol. What goes through your mind when you look back to that era?
BLADES: A sea of emotions. It’s interesting to think that it’s been 35 years because sometimes it feels like 35 days. When you start out, you figure you’re going to be in a rock band for a while and then hope for the best. Who would have thought we’d be here now, 35 years later, talking about a new Night Ranger album? We’re one of the survivors.
GILLIS: What goes through my mind was how exciting the Eighties were and the Cinderella story of how I got the gig with Ozzy Osbourne and toured the world. Then taking everything I learned from that experience and carrying it into Night Ranger. I think about how Ozzy’s Speak of the Devil and our Dawn Patrol were released on the same week in October 1982 and then jumping right into a major Night Ranger tour. It was a great era, and to still be doing it 35 years later is pretty amazing.
What’s it like having guitarist Keri Kelli in the band?
BLADES: Kerri’s great and is a perfect addition. He brings in a unique groove and Stones-ish feel to the band. He’s the guy who pulls everything all together and fits in perfectly with Brad. They get along great, and he and Eric Levy are very in tune to the history of Night Ranger and the music we’ve created. They bring ideas and an attitude that’s really worked out well.
What was the writing process like for Don’t Let Up?
GILLIS: Basically, we started out by going to Kelly’s home in Nashville with the nucleus of the band [which consists of myself, Jack and Kelly] and wrote about six songs in a few days. Then we came back to my place and wrote a few more, and then flew to Jack’s to do a few more. Then we brought in Keri and Eric to put the icing on the cake and round out the record. We stuck with our format of big choruses and the dual-guitar assault with different styles of soloing.
BLADES: The process was laid out like we’ve always done: Let’s get in there and jam. That’s exactly what we did.
Let’s discuss a few tracks from the album, beginning with “Somehow Someway.”
GILLIS: That was a barn burner where we wanted to kind of get back to the “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me” feel with a great hook, twin guitars and harmonies. It has that fire to it.
BLADES: It’s a song about getting back to the love. A situation about someone who comes into your life. For a while, everything is great but then everyone loses their way and splits off and goes their own way. The idea is that somehow, someway, we’ll get back to it.
GILLIS: That was an idea I had written and then Keri and Jack came over and we honed it in and got it to the next level. Then Kelly and Eric came in to finish it off.
BLADES: Keri and I were jamming around when we started that song. The verses tell of the sadness of being alone. It’s about not wanting to hear about things that aren’t real. I just want to hear the truth, and I think the truth is not being alone and being there for someone.
Is there a certain amp setup you prefer when you perform?
GILLIS: I’ve always played [Mesa] Boogies pretty much throughout my career. I have a few Mach V amps that sound great. I usually play through a low-wattage Marshall 4x12 or a Boogie 4x12. I’m pretty straight up as far as my wired sound goes because I don’t use too many effects. I do have a delay for songs like “Rumors in the Air” and for soloing as well as an occasional compressor or slight chorus. I go for a raw, direct sound.
BLADES: I’ve used Mesa Boogie 400 Plusses for years and absolutely love them. I pair them with 2x15 cabinets and a few 4x10 cabinets.
Brad, what can you tell me about your main guitar?
GILLIS: The guitar I’ve played throughout my career is a 1962 Fender Stratocaster that I got in 1978. A friend of my brother's came over to the house one day and told me he had a sanded-down Strat and asked me if I wanted it. So I took it and had the neck painted black and took the body to a shop where they sprayed gray primer on it, along with some leftover orange-red paint.
That was also right around the time the Floyd Rose came out. I was infatuated with Eddie Van Halen and how he did his dive-bombs on it. I had to find one and eventually did at a music store in San Francisco. They had the Number 3 one that Floyd had built; Eddie had the first, Neal Schon had the second and I traded a Les Paul Custom for mine, along with a fret job for my Strat. Everyone thought I was crazy at the time, but I have the same bridge on my same ‘62 Strat for 39 years, and it’s still a workhorse.
What excites you the most about the new album and this next phase of the band’s career?
Blades: The title Don’t Let Up is the Night Ranger creed. You just keep going. It’s what you have to do in life. I think when you write a song, it’s about as deep into your soul as a person can get a glimpse. So I’m looking forward to people listening to the entire record from top to bottom. That’s the easy part. The hard part is going to be figuring out which two or three of the new songs we’re going to play live.
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.