Ron Keel - Keel

September 15, 2005

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Tell me about your band Iron Horse.

Iron Horse has been my baby, my project, for the last five years. I call it the bastard child of all the styles of music that I like. It's a real hybrid blend of heavy metal, country, and southern rock. We just released our second album, Bring It On which has been licensed overseas by Rock Candy Records and it's going to be repackaged and remastered. We're going to add some new tracks and redo the graphics and stuff. That's coming out early next year from Rock Candy Records in Europe and Japan.

You managed to incorporate different styles of music into that.

We just built around the songs and most of the songs that I write usually start with myself and an acoustic guitar. I like songs that can stand alone in that format and then you add the thunderous drums of our drummer, Gaetano Nicolosi, and the screaming lead guitars of Jay Rusnak and bass by Geno Arce and keyboards by Dean Lehman. Dean is our jack of all trades. He really adds a lot to the other sounds that we do. He plays banjo, harmonica, mandolin, and percussion. He adds those extra instruments. Some of the stuff on the album, you'll hear a heavy metal song with banjo in it. Trying to incorporate these different sounds. Really whatever's best for the song but it's really built around the songs and the voice, the lyrics, and the camaraderie that we have as a band too. After all that Iíve been through in my career and Iíve had a lot of projects. Iíve had from Steeler to Keel to Fair Game to Saber Tiger, The Ratílers, the solo career. Lots of different projects. At this point in my career, I really wanted a band that was guys that like to hang out together, get along, and really function as a family and as a team. Thatís really why I got into bands in the first place when I was younger. Combining all of the good stuff Iíve had in my career musically and the guys being good friends and just having a good time together. Playing music and see if people like it.

Well, apparently they must. You guys have been around for five years.

Yeah, we have and weíve gone through our ups and downs. Weíve been through hell and high water together and weíre still kicking. Itís tough to take the road less traveled because certainly there are opportunities for me to make more money and probably exploit my talents in other ways with other projects but I chose to try something new. Which Iíve done over and over in my career. I at least have not repeated myself. Iíve been able to try different things along the way. Putting a band together called Fair Game which was me and an all female lineup behind me which at the time was the first time that had ever been done and then the country stuff that I did. The Iron Horse which is new and itís different which is tough to market. Itís been an uphill battle but the people that listen to it and get it, really get it. Our fans are extremely loyal and very supportive and just the best fans in the world.

Sometimes the best things are the things that you fight for.

Thatís right.

Did your Acoustic Outcasts tour go okay?

No, that was cancelled. We did some dates in July and August with the core lineup of guys that are in the Acoustic Outcasts. Myself, Charlie Wayne, Terry Ilous from XYZ, J.K. Northrup from King Kobra and XYZ, and Kelly Keeling from the Michael Schenker Group and Baton Rouge and Blue Murder and George Lynchís band. The shows were absolutely incredible. This was another thing that I tried to do that was unique and different that people hadnít attempted before. To put four or five lead singers in one band together and showcase our music in acoustic format and try and combine the voices and the songs into one really cohesive show and it really did work. Unfortunately weíve ran into problems with other artists that have been invited to participate such as Kip Winger or Don Dokken. The latest tour was supposed to be with Don Dokken. It was suppose to start tomorrow in Detroit and Don pulled out at the last minute and so the tour was cancelled.

That sucks ass. I bet people were looking forward to that.

Yeah, it does. We were looking forward to it as well and hopefully weíll be able to put it back together at some date in the future. It just didnít work this time.

I hope you guys get to do that soon because all the guys on that tour are excellent vocalists.

Yeah, and the shows that we did do were really a lot of fun. The response is great and just to hear all the voices singing together in harmony and sharing lead vocals on songs and tossing the mic around was really cool and it did work. I was very proud of what we accomplished in a short time.

At least you got to do some of it anyway.

Yeah, well itís not dead. Who knows what the future holds and weíre luckily able to keep the door open and maybe pursue that again next year.

You have a song or two on the Hollywood Rocks box set. What song did you offer for the box set and how did you get hooked up with that?

Iím not really sure but I think there are only two guys that have two tracks on there and Iím on there twice in two different bands. One track from Steeler and one track from Keel. Itís really cool to be a part of that collection because it really cements and documents our place in history. At the time both of those bands, Steeler and Keel, were pretty prominent on the L.A. and Hollywood hard rock and metal scene and to be able to have it all included in that box set was a real honor. The tracks that they chose were two really good ones I thought. The original ďCold Day In HellĒ single which was the song and the recording that really got my career off the ground in the early Ď80s from Steeler, the original lineup which was very rare and hasnít been heard or released on CD up until that point. Then the live version of Keelís quintessential anthem ďThe Right To RockĒ which is the best recorded version of that song. I was glad that they used the live version and I guess Iím really happy to be a part of that. The folks at Cleopatra Records and Brian Perera and all the guys that put that package together are friends of mine and weíve worked together on a couple of other projects that are going to be happening here soon. Itís cool to be a part of that. I think itís a great collection. Itís really well done and itís a nice package and like I said, itís cool to have been a part of that time in history. It was a very magical time and a lot of history was made. It certainly was one hell of a ride and I enjoyed it. Like I said, itís nice to look back on it now and have it documented and have my contributions be recognized in that way.

Those were definitely some crazy days. How much has the L.A. scene changed since then and do you feel itís changed for the best or for the worst?

I have no idea whatís going on there. Iím really out of the loop as far as the L.A. scene goes. I hear reports from my friends that live there. Guys like Terry Ilous. I donít really know how the L.A. scene has changed. I think of the world as my playground and L.A. was a little place that I lived for a long time and worked and got my career started. I always have a lot of great memories of the Hollywood days but I donít think itís anything close to what it was back then. I certainly donít think it ever will be again.

I think thatís a once in a lifetime thing. You also do songs for film and television.

I do a lot of TV and film work. Iíve been really lucky in that regard. Thatís a thrill too to hear your song on the tube or on the big screen. A lot of that is country music that Iíve recorded. Of course Keel had a song in Men In Black II and a couple of other films. Fair Game had a song in a movie called Bad Channels which the band also appeared in and then Iíve had numerous songs in shows like Desperate Housewives, The X-Files, Sex In The City. A lot of background music for CMT and Viacom and a lot of major networks and companies and shows. Itís cool. I enjoy doing that. Youíre writing for a different market. Youíre not trying to write necessarily hit songs with hooks. Youíre trying to write things that are going to get people excited. Those things are built around signature riffs which Iím really good at. The guitar riff of a song will usually grab them before the vocal even comes in. Iíve been really lucky with that. My friend Marc Ferrari, the guitar player in Keel, his business now is licensing songs to TV and films and I provide him with a batch of songs every now and then and he goes to town. Luckily the response from the TV shows and the networks and the filmmakers has been really good. I guess they like the stuff because they keep using it.

How did you get started in doing that?

At the time, I think it was 1995, Marc had just really kicked his publishing company MasterSource into high gear and needed country music for his catalogue. I was lucky enough to have a really good country album. My solo album Western Country which the production was great, the musicians are great, the songs are really up tempo and high energy. They just grab people. He shopped a few of them around to the TV networks and films and they just took off. All of a sudden it was working. Iím just really lucky. Right place at the right time with good material. Good stuff that people want and it serves its purpose in that market.

How did you go from rock and roll to country?

The same way Mel Gibson goes from comedy to an action hero. Youíre just playing roles. The same way you eat spaghetti one day and a salad the next day. To me music is life and thereís different moods and different feelings and different attitudes. It really all has a common denominator in the voice, the song, and the lyrics. I grew up with country music and got my start in Nashville. Itís not like I just put on the hat and decided one day Iím going to be country because you canít do that. Country music is very real and you canít get on stage or in the studio and pretend to sing country music. Youíve got to have it or the audience will eat you alive. People will not buy it if it doesnít come from the heart and if itís not real. Itís not like you just put on the hat and all of a sudden youíre country. Country is a state of mind and so is heavy metal and I love both. I love the big hair and the leather and the sweat and the big lights and the big show but I canít live like that 24 hours a day. Iím not really at home in either genre to tell you the truth. Both of them are too restrictive. The thing that country music and heavy metal both have in common is they both try and tell you what to do, what to say, what to wear, and how to act. I wonít have anybody putting fences around my music. Iím going to say and do what I want to do. Iím going to sing what I want to sing. Country music has its own code of ethics so to speak and Iím outside the lines. I donít really fit in there. I live in Nashville now but I donít really fit into that circle and certainly donít fit into the heavy metal circle as I probably used to because some of the heavy metal fans have not accepted the fact that Iím not going to be pigeonholed or put in one little square box and stay there. Iím going to explore new territory. Iím going to do what my heart tells me to do. Iím going to sing and play music for people who want to listen to it. The similarities between country and rock really are overlooked. It really is the matter of the treatment of the song. Thereís a band out there thatís doing bluegrass versions of Metallica songs. Theyíre still Metallica songs. Theyíre just done bluegrass. A lot of the country music thatís done these days is really commercial hard rock with a fiddle and a steel guitar. Thatís another thing thatís cool about country music. You can paint the picture with so many different colors. In rock youíre limited. You had guitars and maybe some keyboards. In country music you can have any instrumentation from steel guitars and fiddles and harmonicas and pianos. You can use so much more dynamics. I enjoy both. Like I said, Iím not really at home in either genre and I like to combine the two with my band Iron Horse which fulfills both of those sides of me. Itís got the energy and excitement of arena rock but itís also got the song sensibilities, the instrumentation, and the dynamics of country music. I think Iíve found the happy medium thatís the best of both worlds and certainly satisfies me. Iíve found a lot of people in our audience, a lot of our fans will listen to Kenny Chesney and Metallica. They will listen to George Strait and Aerosmith. Theyíre those kind of people that really dig both kinds of music and thereís a lot of people out there. Iím one of them and our fans have shown me that theyíre cut out of the same mold. I think itís cool for us to be able to appeal to those kind of people that want a little variety in their music and donít want be stuck with one style.

I come across a lot of people who insist on listening to this one genre of music and thatís it. Itís not cool to listen to any other genre outside of this particular one. Iíve always found music to be really awesome no matter what genre it is and I think that if you limit yourself to one genre and donít open yourself up to anything else, youíre missing out on a lot.

Yeah, I just never grew up knowing any better. To me, nobody set me down and said that this is cool and this isnít cool. I was just exposed to all types of music when I was young. My father listened to country music and played country music. My sister was into rock and roll. Our house was a very musical household and there were all types of music being played and listened to at any given time. Youíd watch a rock concert and see Black Sabbath and then youíd watch Hee-Haw. The radio stations back then were not so rigid in their formats as they are today and on AM which is all I had when I was growing up, it was a little AM radio and it was under my pillow every night, Iíd listen to music non-stop. Youíd hear Black Sabbath and then youíd hear The Eagles. Then youíd hear Mo Town and Led Zeppelin and then youíd hear Fleetwood Mac. Back then it was all just rock and roll. There werenít these lines drawn between the styles and genres. Even now youíve got people who will tell you they listen to heavy metal and you donít even know what kind of music they listen to because heavy metal is subdivided now into death metal and hair metal and hardcore and I donít even know all the terms. We were in the same boat in the í80s. Metallica and Poison are very different bands but theyíre both under that heavy metal umbrella. There was a time where you could express yourself and be a lot freer about your ideas. Poison could do a song like ďEvery Rose Has Its ThornĒ which is a great song and now Brettís redone that as a country song. Thatís just where I came from. I played orchestra music, jazz music. In my house weíll listen to Native American flute music and then weíll listen to Jimmy Buffet and then weíll listen to some Judas Priest. I just enjoy it all and why shouldnít I? Like I said, every movie that you watch is not going to be a comedy. You can watch an action movie or a romance or a drama. Thatís part of life and I believe that should be part of music as well.

Music should be something that sets you free and I think thatís terrible when people feel that country music stars have to live this lifestyle and that rock stars have to live that lifestyle. You should be able to do whatever the hell you want to.

Thatís right. Another thing thatís cool about country music is that rock is accepted. Itís okay if youíre a rocker and you listen to country but itís not okay if youíre a heavy metal fan and you listen to country. Youíre not cool. Some of the biggest country artists today will certainly acknowledge their debt to classic rock and southern rock as a big influence on them. When Iím turning the dial on my radio, Iíll stop at whatever sounds good. Whatever grabs me. It doesnít matter to me what style it is. It also depends on the mood. There are times when I want to listen to some jazz but there are times when I canít stand it. I just go with the flow and go where my moods and attitudes take me.

One of my favorite drummers is Gene Krupa and sometimes I can listen to him for hours.

Cool, yeah heís awesome. Thatís real music. Absolutely.

He was the guy who made drummers a little more noticeable.

Thatís right. Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. Those guys had style and attitude and personality and they did bring drummers to the forefront.

Whatís really interesting is that when I interview some of these kids from these younger bands who are like 20 and I ask what musical influences they have, a lot of the vocalists tell me Frank Sinatra is a real influence on them. They say he had such a stage presence.

Wow, thatís cool. Yeah, he did. He was magic. Iíve just gotten into Sinatra the last few years. Iíve got a greatest hits album sitting here on my shelf and I just saw a tribute to Sinatra Vegas show which was awesome when I was in Las Vegas. Thatís cool that young people are getting turned onto that. Theyíre getting turned onto some of my stuff too actually. I picked my son up at school today and one of his friends came to the car window and was asking me about a Steeler song. These guys are 15 years old and theyíre listening to Steeler on the school bus which I think is really cool.

Iíve been interviewing some bands lately that have gone back to that Ď80s kind of sound. You can tell that they were really influenced by that but yet itís really fresh and modern music at the same time.

Yeah, well theyíre hearing it for the first time. Iím glad that itís being appreciated because the quality of musicianship, thatís one thing I loved about the early í80s, music was very competitive. Everybody was trying to be better than everybody else and it raised the bar. You got guitar players that were out of this world all trying to compete with Edward Van Halen and Randy Rhoades. They were all trying to develop their own styles and expand the horizons of the instrument. You had drummers like Tommy Lee that were absolutely revolutionizing both the show and the technique that they were using. Really the orchestration and level of musicianship and vocalists who were singing in four octave ranges and holding out these high screams for days and I was one of those guys, the actual level of musicianship and the amount of work that went into that music is ignored and underrated for sure. It was not easy and not everybody could do it.

I remember I went to see Motley Crue on their Dr. Feelgood tour and Tommy Lee was on his drums practically hanging off the ceiling. Iíve never seen that since and I probably never will again.

Yeah, I havenít seen the new tour. They were just here the other day and I couldnít make it but Iíve heard that heís doing some wild stuff and itís a great show. Iím glad to see bands like Motley Crue and Judas Priest out there packing the arenas and doing well again. Itís a real positive sign and I think itís more than nostalgia. Itís more than just guys my age going back to their youth and reliving. There are a lot of young people in these audiences as well and it seems like theyíre starting to appreciate some of that stuff like we did so Iím glad to see that. There was a time when those bands could not tour and do business on the level that they are right now so itís very pleasing to me. I wish that I was out there on tour with them.

Ever since the Ď80s went away, I donít think people were really exposed to outrageous stage shows. I think the only person that comes close to that is probably Rob Zombie. I think people are hungry for that. I think theyíre getting tired of just seeing five guys standing up there.

Yeah, I think so too and music goes in cycles. Garth Brooks is one of those. During the Ď90s he was putting on a heck of a rock show. Jumping on trampolines and ropes and getting hydraulics up to the rafters and smashing guitars and screaming and running around. That was one of the things that really pulled a lot of the rock fans into the country genre was Garth Brooks. He automatically started selling millions and millions of records. Certainly had an influence on me because I thought man, thatís cool. Heís got great songs. Theyíre using tones and approaches and beats and things that weíve been using in rock for years and heís putting on a show and it kind of brought the two genres together. Certainly one of Garthís biggest influences was KISS. Theyíve worked together on a couple of projects. You see the CMT show Crossroads which is really cool and you see bands like Bon Jovi on stage with new country acts like Sugarland and you see that there really is not a whole lot of difference. When ZZ Top and Brooks & Dunn can get on stage and do a duo together and the list goes on. There really is a lot of common ground and itís all only music and if you like it, turn it up. If you donít like it, turn it off. Thatís the way I feel about it.

I think one of the best things KISS ever did was put the makeup back on, reunite with the original guys, and put a stage show on that kicked peopleís asses.

Yeah, it certainly worked for them.

Itís gone downhill since but when they first started it was awesome.

Everything is not going to stay on top forever and everybody has had their ups and downs. The guys who stick around long enough, those survivors become icons. Iím not on that level and I donít plan to be but Iíve been around a long time. Iíve been able to weather the storms and survive, have a good time, and continue to do good work. Iím proud of the songs that Iím doing, Iím proud of my voice, and my performance. Iíve got a show tomorrow night. Iím in Columbus, OH. Iím flying out later on tonight for a gig and Iím just excited to still be able to do what I love to do, have a good time doing it, and be able to enjoy the fans that are out there with a smile on their faces singing along with every word and weíve got young fans that are singing along with ďThe Right To RockĒ that they werenít even born when the song came out. ďTears Of FireĒ is still a huge song for us. It was a big hit for Keel in 1986. Some of these people were probably two or three years old when that song was on the charts and on the radio and theyíre out in the audience yelling for it so thatís really gratifying to me.

I think itís great that youíre still out there doing what you do.

Iíve grown up in the spotlight. I donít plan on growing old in the spotlight but as long as Iím doing good work and Iím proud of my voice and my performance and I can leave the stage with a smile, then Iím going to keep doing it. At some point Iím going to ride off into the sunset in the tour bus and leave them wanting more.

There you go. Any other thoughts or comments?

I really appreciate you allowing me the time to speak to you and be on your website and promote my projects and speak my mind a little bit.

Ron Keel