Ron Keel Interview

October 23, 2011

Interviewer: Dirk Ballerstaedt

I remember it well… the first Keel show I saw was way back in 1987 in Phoenix, Arizona when the band opened a few dates on Motley Crue’s ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ tour. Of course the Crue were awesome, but Keel also kicked my ass — the band I knew from classic albums like ‘Lay It Down’, ‘The Right To Rock’, ‘Final Frontier’ and the should-have, but never made it, self-titled album from 1987 were great as well. I always liked the down to earth image of Keel with the twin-guitar attack of Marc Ferrari and Bryan Jay along with the solid and heavy rhythm section of Dwain Miller and Kenny Chaisson — and most of all, the powerful stage presence of Ron Keel who is one hell of a metal shouter.

Ron Keel’s first steps into the metal business began by singing on Steeler’s legendary 1983 album (which also featured the incredible Yngwie J. Malmsteen on guitar) and many heavy metal lovers knew right away that there would be more to come from the singer — and so it happened, with the formation of his own band Keel in 1984 who went on to sell almost three million records before they broke up in 1989. Ron Keel then continued pursuing his dream in a band called Fair Game, but never released an album with them because of the Seattle grunge rock invasion washing most heavy rock bands away. Ron Keel then decided to leave hard rock and began to drift to the country music side before stepping back into heavy metal in 1996 with the Japanese project Saber Tiger, before creating songs for television shows like Desperate Housewives and King Of The Hill and then combining country with southern rock and metal with the band Iron Horse in 2000. Ron Keel seems to have found sanctuary in country music and from 2007 until this day he is part of the Las Vegas ‘Country Superstars Tribute’ show as Ronnie Dunn (of Brooks & Dunn).

But on the 25th anniversary of the band’s formation Keel got together again and recorded the awesome comeback album ‘Streets Of Rock & Roll’ and hit the touring circuit. This autumn Keel returned to Europe (after 25 years) and performed a successful tour. While playing their only German appearance at the H.E.A.T. Festival, Sleaze Roxx had the honor of chatting with the cowboy, singer, rockstar, husband, and father… Ron Keel.

Sleaze Roxx: What is on your personal to-do list before going on tour nowadays?

Ron Keel: Much of it is getting my voice in shape for the shows and working out at the gym as much as I can, and now we are doing a lot of the management details by ourselves. Mostly before going on tour it is about the music, my voice and getting in shape. I’m fifty years old now and I want go on stage and I want to rock like when I was twenty-three. I feel the power and the energy of the music, of my band, and of the audience — we are really living the passion of the music. We take it very seriously, it’s not the same as it was over twenty years back with all the partying. This year we lost so many friends like Phil Kennemore of Y&T, Gary Moore and Jani Lane of Warrant, or Ronnie James Dio, Kevin DuBrow and Robbin Crosby years before. They’re not with us any longer and you have to realize this could be your last chance… your last song… your last show. When I leave the stage tonight I want to give all to the audience.

I think the ’80s bands created the most amazing singers and I think the fans judge the bands by the lead singer, like… can he still do a good show? And the fans deserve a good rock show. And after the first shows of the European tour the band is so great and amazing and the energy is still there and we all have to appreciate the opportunity. It could always be the last time, but we all hope to come back on tour next year — but we never know. In 1986 we played Germany with Dio and at the end of the shows we said ‘see you next year’… and then it was twenty-five years later!

Sleaze Roxx: Were you surprised with the good critical reception to your new album “Streets Of Rock & Roll’?

Ron Keel: I know that the fans are still out there, but mostly what I was surprised about was the positive reaction. We didn’t become a modern band or change our sound. We are Keel — we go out to the studio, record and write these songs from the heart, some metal anthems with huge background vocals, and the twin guitar solos of Marc Ferrari and Bryan Jay. Songs like “Hold Steady”, “Live”, “Come Hell Or High Water” or “Streets Of Rock & Roll” are about attitude and standing for what you believe… for what the hell you want to do. This album was recorded without any pressure, we did it for ourselves. It didn’t matter how many we were going to sell, we had something we were proud of and that we love. You have to go to bed every night knowing that you did the best you could.

Sleaze Roxx: How did it come about that Paul Shortino (of Rough Cutt) produced your vocals on the album?

Ron Keel: Paul Shortino is one of my best friends — a super guy and a brave heart. We live together in Las Vegas and I’ve always enjoyed being produced by a singer. I like the pressure of knowing the guy listening is as good as I am, plus Paul knows how to feel comfortable in a studio. He is a great recording engineer, has great ideas for melodies, and knows me better than any other producer or singer. So the vocal sessions went great, I came in the morning and did the vocals and listened to it and sometimes the next day came back and sang it again. So we did songs a couple times and had different takes to choose from. Sometimes I did three songs in a day and sometimes just some verses. Paul also did lead vocals on the new King Kobra record which is a good album — it rocks.

Sleaze Roxx: In 1996 you were hired for the Japanese metal project Saber Tiger — you told them you wanted $70,000 for singing and ended up getting $30,000.

Ron Keel: I love that story. It’s a true story and it was a great experience for me and I still love that record — probably the heaviest album of my whole career, at least I think so. It was a brutal session and I screamed my guts out all of the days. I’m really proud of the lyrics though, they already had the melodies written and I had to follow with the lyrics and find out if it fit in the space allowed. It was a great challenge and I’m very proud of it and I’m very fortunate to climb up so many, musically, different mountains like the K2 and the Fuji. I’m lucky to have been able to do all this and make a living.

Sleaze Roxx: What was it that led to you changing to country music in the mid ’90s?

Ron Keel: You have to realize that in the end of the ’80s all the bands like us… like when grunge happened in 1991/92 we went from the top of the world to being slammed right in the fucking ground. We went from being gods of rock’n’roll to being a joke overnight — everybody, almost all of the bands hit the ground really, really hard. When I hit that ground I realized there was no more record deal, and had to sell the beach house and the sportscar. What did I have left? I had my guitar and my voice. This was my way to avoid the drugs, it got really tough and I was able to express myself through that type of music and I was able to release my country music and that paid my bills and I expressed myself by being able to perform any music.

Sleaze Roxx: Let’s go back in time to when you started Steeler. You recorded this legendary album in 1983, how do you explain that it would be one day become one of the biggest selling independent metal albums ever?

Ron Keel: Of course you must have confidence and believe in what you do — my goals have never really changed. I just always wanted to be a rock star, make music, have fun, and make money! I’m very thankful for the success of the Steeler album because it launched my career and gave me the opportunity to put Keel together. The Steeler album, which was released in 1983, was part of the foundation of ’80s rock and has achieved a legendary status — and I’m very proud of that.

Sleaze Roxx: What was the magic, in your opinion, of that album?

Ron Keel: Well, it was my first album, and it was Yngwie Malmsteen’s first album. The combination of my songs and voice — screaming metal vocals with powerful commercial rock riffs — and Yngwie’s classically influence guitar solos was a unique sound that inspired a generation of rockers.

Sleaze Roxx: Is there any chance of Steeler coming back again?

Ron Keel: There’s always a chance. 2013 will be the 30th Anniversary of that album’s release, and I’d like to do something special to mark that milestone.

Sleaze Roxx: While starting with Keel in 1984 you became a father in October of the same year. Did you have to fight battles between being a rock singer chasing your dreams and also being a caring dad?

Ron Keel: Interesting question… the answer is yes, on several levels. A lot of that ’80s rock music was built upon the sexual aspects of the lyrics, and when you become a father to a little girl you start to look at young girls very differently! So I expanded my lyrical subject matter on ‘The Final Frontier’ to sing about a variety of other subjects that didn’t always talk about sex. And of course every father who has to go off to work in any job will miss time with their families — whether you are working construction, serving in the military, drilling for oil in the ocean, or any other jobs that demand you travel. It’s part of the job.

Sleaze Roxx: Keel was successful by having strong lead vocals and the twin guitars, but why do you think the band failed to reach the level of success that many others from that era enjoyed?

Ron Keel: ‘The Right To Rock’ was extremely successful and it was tough selling the next couple of albums to the fans who bought and loved ‘The Right To Rock’. Another big reason was there was never a follow-up single to “Somebody’s Waiting” — it was the only single off that great ’87 album, even though we were touring the States with Bon Jovi. That was not our choice of course — it was the record company’s, MCA.

Sleaze Roxx: Did you ever feel frustrated with the rock business?

Ron Keel: You can’t spend 35 years on a job and not go through the entire spectrum of emotions, of which frustration is one. When you’re right, and you know you’re right, but people keep telling you you’re wrong… of course that gets frustrating. In the early ’80s in Los Angeles there was not a single record company that would take a chance on hard rock music, they said nobody would listen to it, radio stations wouldn’t play it, and nobody would buy it. Well, those bands like Quiet Riot, Ratt, Motley Crue, Great White, and my bands Steeler and Keel and all the other bands creating that music, they went on to create a cultural revolution that generated billions of dollars.

Sleaze Roxx: After Keel you fronted the band Fair Game with all female musicians. How was that experience?

Ron Keel: Like all of my projects, it was a lot of fun, and a lot of work. I was the first commercial hard rock frontman with all female musicians, and those girls were hot and they could really play. It resulted in some of the best vocals and songs of my career. Unfortunately that was when grunge took over and we could not reach our ultimate goal of a major label album and tour.

Sleaze Roxx: Over the course of your career what songs are you most proud of and why?

Ron Keel: Obviously “The Right To Rock” is a career song with the ultimate rock & roll attitude in the lyrics — a song that shouts at the top of your lungs about freedom of expression. Also “Live”, from the ‘Streets Of Rock & Roll’ album, because I am very proud to create such a strong song that combines great commercial rock riffs with a very personal and positive lyrical message. There are many more, especially from the latest album, that I am very proud of — “Does Anybody Believe”, “Gimme That”, “No More Lonely Nights”, “Brothers In Blood”, “Hold Steady”, etc. They all have a special place in my heart.

Sleaze Roxx: What are your fondest memories of being in Keel? And in private do you like to live in the desert like a cowboy

Ron Keel: I have a lifetime of fond memories with Keel spanning 27 years now — including our recent European tour, which made a lot of dreams come true. Of course getting my first major record deal, working with Gene Simmons, touring the world, opening for Bon Jovi, Motley Crue, Van Halen, Aerosmith and many other great bands were also great. Having a strong close personal relationship with my fans, and probably most important, just being friends with the guys and making music together again.

Yes, I am at home in the Southwest U.S. — I live in Nevada and spend as much time as I can in the dirt and rocks. I believe I was born a hundred years too late, but in the desert I can turn back time and be close to what really matters — the Earth, the sky, the music, and my wife.

Sleaze Roxx: By the way, please explain the meaning of your tattoo ‘Cowboy’.

Ron Keel: I share this tattoo with my favorite country singer, Ronnie Dunn, whom I portray in our Las Vegas show ‘Country Superstars Tribute’ at the Golden Nugget. In one way it celebrates my achievements in the tribute industry for the past seven years, but most of all it represents a way of life and a state of mind — I am the Metal Cowboy!

Sleaze Roxx: Finally, how far along is the writing of your autobiography book?

Ron Keel: I just wrote the last chapter during the end of this tour and I’m really excited about that. It was written from my own perspective and it’s called ‘Even Keel: Life On The Streets Of Rock & Roll’. It will hopefully be out in the end of 2011 or early 2012 and it will contain interviews, quotes from my music teacher, friends, and the bands, and expands my whole career.