Interview: Night Ranger's Jack Blades on Working with Ringo, Learning from Paul and Being More Than “Just a Bass Player”
If you’re new to the game and just discovering Jack Blades, you’re likely to think of him as a founding member/lead vocalist/bassist for the rock band Night Ranger.
In fact, Blades is a multi-faceted artist who can easily transition from the volume of arena rock — with Night Ranger or Damn Yankees — to the stripped-down acoustic sounds of Shaw/Blades, his project with Styx vocalist/songwriter/guitarist Tommy Shaw.
Blades' latest project is his new solo album, Rock ’N Roll Ride, which sounds an awful lot like Jack Blades -- because that’s what he does. He doesn’t venture far from his roots, and that’s a good thing, because his roots are in the traditional craft of songwriting.
In a recent interview, Blades discussed writing, recording and why classic rock is just that.
GUITAR WORLD: You’re known primarily as a vocalist, but you’re also a prolific songwriter, a producer and a multi-instrumentalist. Is it ever frustrating that the other skills sometimes take second place to public perception of you as a frontman?
No, I don’t mind. I like the fact that I’m not “just a bass player,” because Kelly [Keagy, Night Ranger] and I joke that the drummer and bass player are the first two guys to get fired, so let’s make sure we write most of the songs and sing and that’ll give us a little job security! I’ve been fortunate enough to be in bands and always tried to play with people who are better than me. I play with the great Brad Gillis on guitar and Kelly on drums and vocals, Tommy Shaw is amazing, Ted Nugent is a gonzo guitar player and Neal Schon is a good buddy of mine. I’m real happy. I wouldn’t be satisfied just doing one thing, and that’s evident in my life because I’m not satisfied putting one record out or just being in Night Ranger, as evidenced by Shaw/Blades and Damn Yankees, and producing and writing.
Your musical education goes all the way back to starting out playing funk. Do you think that part of your longevity is because you have that background in different genres of music? Do some musicians limit themselves by not branching out?
I think maybe that happens when certain guys are one-trick ponies. They do their thing and that’s all they can do. I love the Beatles; they were everything to me when I was growing up. When I got into my early teens, it was Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Cream, all those rockin’ bands. Then I got into funk. In 1975, when I moved to northern California, the first thing I ended up in was a session with Sly Stone at the Sausalito Record Plant, playing very funky, slap-style music. It was a musical journey, it was a rock and roll ride even back then, and yeah, I think that had something to do with it. It’s my personality; I’m not just focused on one thing. I want to sing and write and play bass. People like Paul McCartney were my heroes, and that's what moved me on in my musical adventure.
Speaking of Paul McCartney, I hear from [songwriter/guitarist] Will Evankovich that your studio is a hotbed of Beatles paraphernalia.
Yeah! The greatest thing in the world was when I got to play with Ringo. It was like a gift from God, like God goes, “OK, Junior, I’m going to throw you a bone here. You get to play with a Beatle.” And I was like “YES!” There’s that streak in me, and it holds true when you listen to the harmonies on my record, and on Night Ranger and Damn Yankees records, and I think it’s a prevailing theme. McCartney taught us all how to play bass. My studio has a lot of things that have to do with the Beatles, a lot of pictures for inspiration, and a painting of the Beatles that’s the size of an entire wall that an artist did for me. When I’m a little low, I look at those pictures and it gives me the inspiration.
“Anything For You” [from Rock ’N Roll Ride] — obviously you’re not at all a fan of their music or their harmonies …
Not at all! And Robin [Zander] is the same way. He sang that thing and I think he was channeling John Lennon when he was singing [sings] “I will surrender.”
The Beatles song you wish you’d written.
Oh wow! How to blindside an artist in six words! “Help!”
The Beatles album you wish you’d produced.
Ohhh. Revolver, because that’s when they were changing. Everyone’s going to say Sgt. Pepper because it was a trip, but I say Revolver because they went from [sings] “She loves you, yeah yeah yeah,” to [sings] “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream.” I like that.
What is a good song? How do you know when you’re there?
My idea of a good song is when I can sit down with an acoustic guitar and sing it and strum it and get it across to somebody who’s sitting there listening. I don’t have to explain it. How do I know when it’s ready to go to the public? It’s never ready. I think the famous line is, “You never finish a mix, you just abandon a mix.” I think Sting said that once. I’ll give him credit for it, even if he didn’t! And I totally agree. It’s so true. It’s geez, just walk away, because you can keep going with a song and going with a song and going with a song, but at some time you’ve just got to stick a fork in it and say, “OK, it’s done, it’s ready.”
Hopefully, you know when you come to that place. I know now from working with great producers like Ron Nevison, who did the Damn Yankees record and is a dear friend of mine. I’ve seen how he works. There’s point where you just say, “That’s enough. It’s fine.” You have to make that decision as a producer. It’s so easy now with Pro Tools to say, “Let’s record 50 guitar tracks and use maybe three of them.” I don’t like to do that. Ron taught me that you make decisions along the way as you go, and when you’re done recording it, you sit back and that’s the record. You don’t have 50 million more decisions to make. This is what you recorded and this is what it is. I learned that from Ron years ago and that’s how I operate. I think that’s really important.
You mentioned earlier that McCartney taught everyone to play bass. While the Beatles’ music remains a reference point for so many artists, including young musicians, so is a lot of the music of the 1970s and 1980s. Are you aware of the contributions that you and your colleagues have made?
It makes me smile, because … you’re exactly right — we were sort of in that early stage of 1982, ’83, ’84, Van Halen, Journey, Def Leppard, and then Warrant, Winger, Slaughter and all those bands. We came in with “Sister Christian,” this big ballad, and so many bands had big rock ballads. The 1990s were sort of a derisive genre and era, which was kind of funny to me, because when we were in the middle of it, it was real, and it is still real by just the fact of “Look at us now.” Like you’re saying, so many of those ’80s bands are touring and doing well, and it’s because of the songs.
That’s the key. As long as the songs are there, people enjoy coming to the shows and hearing them and singing them. I think it’s great that younger bands are using us as sort of the focal point and starting point of what they want to do. It’s very flattering. I’m always surprised at the music and the people that Night Ranger influenced and the people I meet who are deeply into the band.
— Alison Richter
Alison Richter interviews artists, producers, engineers and other music industry professionals for print and online publications. Read more of her interviews right here.