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The State of Rock in America: An Interview with Night Ranger’s Jack Blades

Night Ranger's bassist Jack Blades tells us all about rock star friendships, what it's like playing with some of the loudest guitar players in the world, and how the writing of Rock Band track “Don't Tell Me You Love Me” came about. Of course, he also answers the age old question - can you still rock in America?

 

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Brett Milano: Hey Jack. This is Brett from Rock Band.

Jack Blades: Hi Brett. How're you doing?

BM: I'm doing really good. Thank you.

JB: Good, good.

BM: I'm sure that you know that we've got you in our game now, which is long overdue, I gotta say.

JB: I gotta tell you, yeah, it's about time that you can still rock in America, right? It's about time. I love it. I'm very excited.

BM: Have you gotten to see how it works yet?

JB: No, I'm dyin' to though. Hopefully this Christmas I will. [laughs]

BM: Great. Well, we might be able to arrange that.

JB: Yeah, that'd be awesome.

BM: Let's talk about that after the interview. So you gotta give me a really good interview now.

JB: Yeah, I've gotta really be good here. [laughs]

BM: I've gotta say, one thing about the game is that the bass is always the instrument that people don't wanna do. So I think people like you can set an example, like the coolest guy in the band can be the bass player.

JB: I can tell you, man. I started out a long time ago, I realized the bass players and the drummers are the first guys that get fired. And Kelly [Keagy] and I - our drummer with Night Ranger - we said, "Well, s***[SWEAR 1:37], if we write all the songs and sing 'em, it's gonna be hard for them to fire us. [laughs] And it worked out. It's worked ever since then.

BM: Great. And, you've been on stage with some of the loudest guitar players in the world. What's your secret to making an impression when you're in that situation?

JB: Well, it's interesting. With Ted, when we play with the Damn Yankees with [Ted] Nugent out there, Tommy [Shaw] and I basically call Ted's side of the stage "the killing fields." Stage left because it's just like, "what the…" It's just murder over there. [laughs] But it's all about feeling, man. It's all about feeling it and feeling the music and feeling the sound through your bones. I don't mind that, because I've grown up around that, man. I grew up sitting in front of amplifier stacks. My kids grew up sleeping behind amplifier stacks at outdoor festivals. So the louder it is, that's just the way it is, man.

BM: Do you have a lot of heavy artillery that you use during one of those situations on stage and there's a Ted Nugent out there down the other end?

JB: You mean like in-ear monitors? [laughs]

BM: Those would help, yeah.

JB: It's like, how to make Ted go away…Ah, let me just have my in-ears up louder. [laughs] And turn Ted down in my in-ears, on my UE 7s or whatever. No, you know what? It all works out well, and it's always been that way. I don't mind. The louder the better, as far as I'm concerned.

BM: Great. So you've been on the road with Styx and REO recently. Have there been a lot of three-band megatons at the end of the show?

JB: Every end of the show, man, we get out there and Tommy and Kevin Cronin from REO had written song called "Can't Stop Rockin'." So at the end of the night, all the bands come up, and we all do that song. And it's becoming a frickin' Mad Dogs and Englishman [Joe Cocker's backing band], like Joe Cocker had like eighty-five people on stage with him with Leon Russell and everybody. It becomes this madness and craziness and fun. And you know what? It's the way it should be, you know what I mean? We've been doing this all our lives, and we're all friends, man. Like, we're all good buddies. I'm leaving tomorrow to fly to Vegas to start tracking Vince Neil's solo CD - I'm producing it for him. But I've known Vince since…Vince and I have known each other since 1983. You know he sang on on Night Ranger records. I sang on Motley Crue records - Dr. Feelgood. When I quit Night Ranger originally the first time when we broke up the band, you know, Vince was doing Dr. Feelgood and he flew into Vancouver and I went up and hung out with him for ten days. When he got thrown out of Motley back in '92 we were doing the second Damn Yankees record and he came and was with us. His first song, "You're Invited (But Your Friend Can't Come)" was basically Damn Yankees playing the whole thing and singing it all with Vince doing the lead vocals. [laughs] I mean, we're old friends so with the Styx and REO thing, it's just that I've known those guys forever. First of all, Tommy and I, you know, we play together in the Yankees. We play together in Shaw-Blades, so we're great friends. And I've known Kevin [Cronin, of REO Speedwagon] forever and his whole gang. It's fun. It's the way it should be. Two months before that for two months, we were out with Journey. And it's the same thing with Journey. I mean Neal [Schon, of Journey] and I are great friends. I mean, I've co-written songs on Journey records before and we've written a bunch of other things together. In fact, Neal and I are going out tonight to see Billy Bob Thornton play right down here in the Bay area.

BM: The Boxmasters?

JB: The Boxmasters will ride again in Petaluma, CA. [laughs] I mean, I like this stage of the game now. I guess it's that we've all paid our dues and we're all still walking. It's like, the ones that are still walking win.

BM: Do you know what you're going to do with Vince? Are you going to try to not make a Motley Crue record? Are you going to go in any kind of direction?

JB: We're kind of, what we're doing is two original songs and then the rest are gonna be just covers. Like his songs that he really just loved, and songs that really meant something to him, and everything like that. So it's gonna be an interesting [record]. Vince Neil singing the Titanic theme song? No, it's not gonna be that. [laughs]

BM: [laughs] Just what I would expect, yeah. Donna Summer songs, right?

JB: [laughs] Right, right. But it might be Vince Neil singing a frickin' kickass Babies tune, or a kickass something else song. Who knows? Or a kickass f***in' early days Cheap Trick tune or something, you know? And people go, "whoa, I forgot about that." So it's really gonna be fun.

BM: Cool. So where does the camaraderie - especially between you and Styx and REO, actually I talked to Kevin and Tommy together a few months ago when their tour was beginning, and there's clearly a whole lot of friendship between your three bands. How did that all come about?

JB: Well, I think the fact that Tommy and I have known each other forever. I mean, we've been joined at the hip since 1987 or…I think '88 we met, or '89. From the beginning of the Damn Yankees. I mean, we're best friends. We do everything together. I just talked to him like fifteen minutes ago before you called. I think that the camaraderie is born out of songwriting. It's born out of playing together. It's born out of a lot of long bus rides. It's born out of when we're all sitting around and doing Thanksgiving with just the guys in the band and all our family and loved ones are back at home and stuff like that. We're all sitting around eating a bad turkey dinner at Applebee's or something like that. I mean, there's a lot of camaraderie that comes about. These guys are our mates, man. They're my mates.

BM: Let's talk about these songs that we've got. "Don't Tell Me You Love Me" - first song, first album. It was kind of the one that made the whole first big impression about the band. Did you come into Night Ranger with a stockpile full of things that you'd built up over the years that would sort of be the core of what the band was going to be?

JB: Not really. I mean, "Don't Tell Me You Love Me" was one of those songs that was when we were first gonna make our record and we were going through songs and we started playing and started rehearsing to do the album, and then it was sort of one of those songs that I brought in [and said], "Hey what about this?" And it sort of started out slower. It was like a "dum dum dum dum" and we just went [guitar noise], and we doubled it up. When I gave it to the band it became this sort of steamroller that it is. It was one of those songs that inspired me to write it while we were woodshedding to go into cut the first record. I found that a lot of times that happens is when you're really excited and you're goin' for it and everything like that. And you're sleeping at night and all of a sudden you get an idea. Or you wake up in the morning and you get an idea. Or you're like, "Wow, this would sit along with that." Because you're kind of in that mode. And that's kind of how "Don't Tell Me You Love Me" came about. It's funny, so many people have come up to me over the years and gone, "Man, I know just what you mean, man. I broke up with my girlfriend. And it's like she wants to get back together and I'm like, don't tell me you love me, man." [laughs] And I'm like, I don't wanna know about it. It's like, don't tell me that. Forget about it. It's over. It's done. Move on. [laughs] It's one of those songs, however funny that can be, a lot of people have been able to relate to it over the years.

BM: So think of all the breakups you might have been responsible for with that song.

JB: I know! It's terrible, isn't it? Or I choose to think it's how many situations I've helped people extricate themselves from a bad situation.

BM: There you go.

JB: [laughs] The cup's always half full with me.

BM: You're kind of the counselor.

JB: [laughs] Right, exactly. And it's great because "Don't Tell Me You Love Me" - we still play it today and to me it's as fresh as it was back in 1983.

BM: Everybody wants to write an anthem. I mean, you did it with "You Can Still Rock in America." Did that just fall into your lap? Was it like, "okay we got it. We got our rock anthem now."?

JB: Well, it was kind of an interesting thing. We were actually on the road on our first album and we were on tour with Sammy Hagar. It was like his Three Lock Box Tour or something like that. And we were out in Springfield, Illinois and we had a day off. And everywhere, all the magazines back then back in the beginning of '83, everyone was saying rock was dead and The Cars were big and Blondie and Flock of Seagulls and Boy George and Haircut 100 and all these bands. And everybody was saying, "Well really rock's dead. This is what's happening now. The new stuff. Rock is dead." But everyone where we were going, we were filling up the coliseums with Hagar and Night Ranger, and we were playing to five or six thousand people a night. And everybody was screaming and yelling and rocking out. I was sitting in my hotel room one morning and I was like, "Man, I don't know, man." I was looking through these magazines and they were talking about that and I was saying, "I don't know what these guys are talking about, 'cause as far as I'm concerned, you can still rock in America." And I'm like…

BM: Uh oh, yeah?

JB: Yeah, that'd be a real good title for a song. Then I sat there, so I got in my room, I remember, I was in one of those little Best Westerns, one of those little motels with the bear that has his nightgown on, with a little hat on his head. And I just started writing the song, and I called Brad and said, "Hey man, check this out. We should do this tune." He goes, "F*** [11:42] that's cool." I think he added something and the next thing you know, there's "You Can Still Rock in America." You can still rock in America.

BM: I think you're going to get asked for as long as you get interviewed if you still can.

JB: And the answer would be, yes. I mean, we've been out since August, like I said, August and September with Journey and then October and November with Styx and REO, and I emailed a friend that and he emailed me back with, "Dude, it's like, if I didn't look at the date on the email I'd think it was 1985. You guys are out selling out and doing great and everything like that." So yes, the answer is, you can still rock in America.

BM: Glad to hear it. I'm glad that we also got one of your newer things. We've got "You're Gonna Hear From Me." Is that kind of like an L.A. glitter-rock kind of thing, do you think?

JB: It's more like, I kind of like it because it's a real sports-oriented song. The Pittsburgh Steelers play it at during their football games. Like [sings guitar riff]. Kind of like you're just a big chant, you're gonna hear from me, like when these guys pound each other and stuff like that. I kind of like that. I wrote it while we were in Japan and when we tour Japan, the fans are just out there going, "Hey, hey." You know, doing that. And I said, "Let's write a song with that s*** [13:04] in it." [laughs] So I wrote that.

BM: I gotta ask. I assume you must've grown up being a Beatles fan. So what was it like doing the VH1 show with Ringo?

JB: Oh, man. That was like somebody going, "Okay, dude. You win. You've been a good boy. I'm gonna throw you a bone, kid."

BM: [laughs]

JB: I mean, that was like a dream come true. I would've done that for nothing. [laughs] I mean, it was just…It was unbelievable. After Ringo got used to us after a while, you know after the first two or three days, it was like he started telling us Beatles stories. [Starts Ringo voice] "Oh, one day John Lennon, John walked into rehearsals and said we should drill a hole in the middle of our foreheads to get in touch with our third eye. I said, 'you first, you bastard [13:53].'" [end Ringo voice] I mean things like that. It was like, okay, yeah. You're talking about John Lennon, right? And you are Ringo Starr? [laughs] This is amazing. And I think the most, the best experience, one of the most amazing moments for me was when we were rehearsing in London and we were going over the stuff. Who was up on stage? It was me and Mark Hudson, Simon Kirk who plays drums with us also and it was Joe Walsh, that's who it was. Joe was sitting with us because he did the show with us. And so Joe and we were all jammin' and we started "I've Got a Ticket to Ride," right? And so we're like [sings the melody], and I'm up there singing, "I think I'm gonna be…" and Ringo and Barbara Boch come walkin' in the back room and he's bobbin' his head and he hears us playing this thing, and he runs over to the drums, jumps on his drums and picks up his sticks and starts doing his [sings drum beat]. And I'm looking over my shoulder. I'm singing it, and that's Ringo Starr playing that…I have goosebumps right now just telling you the story.

BM: I would.

JB: It was un-fricking-believable. I went, "That's it. Okay. I win. I'm finished. That's wonderful. Whatever happens from this point on is just gravy." [laughs] There I go. That kind of stuff was all the time with Ringo. It was amazing.

BM: You've played with the best. Is there anyone that you could still meet and still kind of feel a total thrill about?

JB: Oh yeah. I mean, so many people I've never met. I mean, I've never met Bruce Springsteen. I think he's just one of the nicest guys in the world. I think Bob Dylan. I'd almost rather not meet him. I mean, his lyrics are so amazing, and stuff like that, I wouldn't know what to say. Although Tommy ran into him once at a show somewhere. Tommy Shaw. And he was walking up to the stage to go see the guys afterwards, and this guy was walking down and bumped into him and he turned and it was Bob Dylan, walking right there down the stairs.

BM: Tommy just bumped into him?

JB: Yeah, he just bumped into him, and he goes, [Bob Dylan voice] "Tommy Shaw. You're in that band with Terrible Ted. I like that band." [end Bob Dylan voice] [laughs] Just like that. And he just kept walking down the stairs. And Tommy's mouth was f***ing [16:25] [hanging open]. [Bob Dylan voice] You're in that band with Terrible Ted. I like that band.[end Bob Dylan voice] [laughs] And just kept walking. F***ing [16:38] awesome dude.

BM: I'm sure Ted heard that story from you guys, right?

JB: Oh yeah. We told Ted that and Ted went, "Bob Dylan, good God." You know Ted, "F***ing [16:53] hippie." [laughs]

BM: [laughs]

JB: You know Nugent. It made him nervous that the guy knew his name. [laughs] Oh, God it's a funny world, isn't it?

BM: That is great. You know what's a great coincidence with Rock Band, is a couple weeks ago we added two Simon and Garfunkel songs - "I Am A Rock" and "Sounds of Silence" - which are the two you did with Tommy Shaw a couple years ago.

JB: Oh wow. Yeah. That's amazing. Those are great. We play those with Shaw/Blades. First of all, I think we're the only ones that had the guts to do the "Sounds of Silence" because nobody can do it better than Simon and Garfunkel, but we get up [there] and we have a great time doin' it and people just love it. And of course, "I Am A Rock" we just rocked it up and stuff. And on the Shaw/Blades record…actually, we're doing a new Shaw/Blades - Influence Two.

BM: Oh, nice.

JB: We're in the middle of that. I've gotta finish that record too.

BM: It's kind of funny that you two guys - you and Tommy Shaw - are both hard rock guys, and when you get down to it, a lot of your roots are in this more softer melodic kind of music.

JB: I think it might have to do with the songwriting element of our souls, you know what I mean? I mean, [we're] big Beatles fans and actually Elton John's Madman Across the Water - we were both huge fans when we were kids.

BM: Great record.

JB: In fact, we're doing it on the new Shaw/Blades Influence, we're doing a version of "Tiny Dancer," which is just frickin' killer. I think everybody's going to be really happy with [it].

BM: That's one of the songs that you don't do.

JB: Exactly. That's another one of those ones that no one does, yes. Anyway, we do kind of get into that sort of thing. Then again, who doesn't like to play "Highway Star" by Deep Purple, you know what I mean? [laughs]

BM: I sure do. And "Space Truckin'."

JB: There you go, and "Space Truckin'," come on man. "Woman from Tokyo" what d'ya got, you know? I mean, whenever "You've Got Another Thing Coming" comes up on satellite radio when I'm listening, I f***in' [18:50] turn that thing so loud. It's like playing a little Priest or a little Iron Maiden or something like that.

BM: And a little Night Ranger, while you're at it.

JB: And a little Night Ranger thrown in, that's right. Iron Maiden dude, "Peace of Mind." [laughs]