Night Ranger truly epitomizes the sound of the 80’s, while at the same time transcending it. Since their reunion in 1996, they have brought their guitar heavy, melodic brand of hard rock into the 21st century with their unparalleled talent, energy, and creativity.
Antihero Magazine journalist Mark Dean had the opportunity to chat with legendary guitarist Brad Gillis about the band’s enduring legacy, his time with Ozzy, and upcoming plans for touring.
Mark Dean: Night Ranger have a new album coming out. Is it a difficult task to pick songs for an album because you got so many songwriters in the band?
Brad Gillis: Yeah, well the task is pretty easy, you know. Basically, we get together, Jack, Kelly and I, and we kind of just start writing’ the songs ourselves, because basically that’s the nucleus of the band and it always has been. We throw together some ideas and just start jamming’ around and for a couple of days, get some great ideas. Then we bring Keri Kelly and Eric Levy in and they come in and put their two cents and their licks and ideas in. Next thing you know we’re all jamming’ together in the studio and we’re writing’ a new record. It’s been the same process for quite a while now.
Brad Gillis: Oh, well that’s decided by Kelly and Jack. You know, usually they get together, they write lyrics, sometimes they come in and I help them with ideas and a couple of lyrics here and melody, but basically that’s their task to handle. So, you know, sometimes on that demo, you know Jack will sing it and then all of a sudden, we realize that you know Kelly’s like, “Oh give me a shot at that.” Then Kelly sings it and it’s got a different, cooler vibe on it and he’ll sing it or vice versa. You know Kelly will come in and write and sing or something and Jack will go, “Oh let me try this.” And usually when they butt heads on who’s going to sing what, then they split it, you know, Jack does one verse and Kelly does another verse. Mainly we always come in with the big chorus with Jack and Kelly and me singing the harmony on top. That’s kind of the format we’ve done for years.
Even live, we’ve got Jack sometimes at the bottom in the middle but usually I’m singing the high harmony. But we always try to keep the dynamics of the Night Ranger format that we’ve done throughout our career, which is basically great melodies, three-part harmonies, the two-part harmony guitars, and Rick and I’ll do individual lead solos. When something works that good for so many years you try to stick with that. If you stray away from the formula, you know the last thing you want is people going, “Whoa that doesn’t sound like Night Ranger” or “Where are they trying’ to go with this?” So, we have a formula, we stick with that.
Mark Dean: You have played on songs which have formed such a major part of people’s lives. How does that make you feel?
Brad Gillis: Oh, I got to tell you, you know the most important thing for me is when old people come up and say, “You know that song ‘Goodbye,’ it touches my heart because I lost a relative or a loved one and we played that at the funeral,” or “We conceived our baby in the backseat, listening to ‘When You Close Your Eyes.’” Or, “we played ‘Sister Christian’ at our wedding,” or this or that. It’s just a good feeling knowing’ that music touches people’s lives and that’s what it does. It touches my life, listening to other people’s songs, it puts me in a mood. When I get up in the morning, I’ll put on something light and airy, just to wake me up in a good mood.
I don’t want to wake up putting on heavy metal because I want to wake up with nice melodies and stuff and get into the day and then that’s when I’m home and then later, I start kicking in, I start flying on some heavy rock out or whatever. But music has touched my life in that same way, from other artists. It makes you feel good and I’m glad that it touches other people’s lives.
Mark Dean: The music of Night Ranger has been featured in many different areas of media. Is it hard to escape and have your own personal privacy outside Night Ranger, because you’re surrounded by Night Ranger music in films, games, TV ads?
Brad Gillis: Oh yea, that’s very cool to be able to have that. You know, we’ve been in a bunch of different movies and commercials and TV shows. It’s just exciting to know that we’ve ended up having a couple of iconic songs that can be placed in different media and of course, “Sister Christian” being the mega-hit that it is, that’s been all over the place and still is being played within a bunch of TV shows and movies and commercials. So that’s kind of cool to watch a TV show, all of a sudden you hear your song in the background. You can’t beat that.
Mark Dean: Do you feel, looking back, that Night Ranger shouldn’t have continued after Jack left back in 1989?
Brad Gillis: Well, you know we split up because we were touring nine months out of the year from early ’83 up until ’89 and the other three months out of those years, we’d go on and we’d do records or whatever we had to do. But in ’89 we were just all fried, we were burnt out. The music was starting to change, we needed a break. Then we all tried different projects and Jack did Damn Yankees. We got and put Night Ranger together with Gary Moon and did the Feeding Off the Mojo record. But you know you just try to keep moving’ and try to keep that machine rolling’, whatever it takes. And Jack left the Damn Yankees and when they broke up and the Night Ranger thing with Gary kind of fizzled out. So, I think it was late ’95, early ’95 the Japanese came back to and said, “Hey, you know, you get the original band back together and we will bring you for a tour in Japan and give you a record deal.” So, that kind of got us back together and we’ve been rolling’ ever since.
But we kind of had to build it up, when we got back together to this point right now and the last couple of years, we ended up doing 70-80 shows a year and going to Europe once in a while, and Japan and big tours with Journey and Foreigner, did Def Leppard stuff last year. So, things are really rolling right now and they always have, and it sure helped to have a big agency like William Morris behind you because they have a lot of clout to be able to get us on some big shows.
Mark Dean: I just wondered why the band haven’t toured the UK much over the years?
Brad Gillis: Well, that’s been a tough call for us because when they want to bring us over they don’t want to pay us enough and it’s very expensive going to Europe. When that happens, everybody would get paid but the band, and nobody wants to work for free. So basically, that’s a tough call. We went over there a couple of times and did Swedish Rock Festival. We went over and did a tour with Journey and Foreigner in Europe in 2011. So, when you only have a couple of shows and they don’t pay you enough to actually make money, we decide to just tour in the States, where we are making a lot of money. Basically, that’s what we do for a living, nobody wants to work for free.
Mark Dean: You’ve done music outside Night Ranger, I just wondered if it’s a different mindset to write music for other projects?
Brad Gillis: Well you know, it depends what the projects are. Now I do a lot of TV music and that’s what I do when I’m at home. I do a lot of music for Fox Sports and ESPN, I had music in Tiger Woods’ PlayStation games. Then I’d go jam and play on other people’s records, so when I’m home I do whatever is possible that involves music, just to keep myself busy and make a little money here and there. But it’s easy for me; I started playing guitar when I was eight years old and I got in my first band when I was ten years old. I got my first record deal with Rubicon right when I first got out of high school. So, I live, eat and breathe music and now that I’m home for this week, I’m writing a bunch of songs for TV right now, to add to my library. There’s nothing more fun than waking up in the morning, firing up your studio and just writing a new song.
I feel very fortunate and lucky to be able to do that and I’ve had an illustrious career, with 17,000,000 records sold with Night Ranger and all the other projects I’ve done. A platinum record with Ozzy Osbourne, Speak of the Devil. So, I’m very lucky and I don’t stop. I’ve put in a good 12 hours a day when I’m working at home, just because I love it so much. When it’s your passion, you get results.
Mark Dean: You mentioned then the Ozzy record, it must have been a hell of a lot of pressure going in there and replacing Randy?
Brad Gillis: Oh, that was a very scary situation for me. Getting the call from Sharon and Ozzy and only knowing three or four songs. Flying to New York and going on the road with those guys when they had Bernie Tormé on guitar, filling in until they replaced him. Watching the show from the soundboard before I joined the band, watching Bernie play and this big castle and filled out crowds. Oh, it was a very scary situation for me. But I thought, “Do or die. Either pull it off, or you’re going to be sent home.” It really helped me grow a lot and really hone my craft by the whole Ozzy gig and it made me roadworthy and it gave me a lot of discipline. So, the Ozzy gig was the best thing that ever could have happened to me because I grew 100% just by that whole experience.
When Rudy Sarzo left Ozzy to go to Quiet Riot, things just weren’t feeling right and we had this Night Ranger record in the can, trying to shop a record deal and sure enough, another record label came in and said, “If Brad comes back with the band we’ll give you this record deal.” And it was a world-wide release, so I kind of rolled the dice and quit Ozzy after Rudy left, and the next thing you know we’ve got Speak of the Devil and Night Ranger’s pressed a record, Dawn Patrol, released the same week in October ’82. So, that was exciting too. Next thing you know, MTV comes out. Night Ranger’s got “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me” all over MTV, all the songs we released were all over MTV and it was just a great experience for me and wow, next thing you know I’m touring solid up until ’89.
Mark Dean: What about the music industry these days? Do you think it’s a better or a worse place to try and have a career?
Brad Gillis: The music industry’s kind of screwed up for bands like us right now, only because radio in America has gone for pop and hip-hop, and it’s really not much room for a band like Night Ranger. So basically, what works for us is to be able to sell records to our core fanbase and be able to go out on these tours with other big bands like Journey and Foreigner and Def Leppard. To know that, you put three big bands together, next thing you know, you’re selling 10,000 to 20,000 seats and everybody in the ’80s wants to relive those old memories and come and see a rock show. So, we got Steve Miller, Peter Frampton, and Night Ranger coming up here in a little while. We’ve got shows with Boston coming up, we’re going back to Japan, we’ve got this new record coming out in ten days. So, we’re pretty excited about another great year.
Mark Dean: Who would be the most inspiring musician that you’ve ever worked with?
Brad Gillis: Well, that would probably have to be Ozzy only because I got thrown into such a huge situation. After I got a couple of weeks into the live tour, I started to relax and every show was sold out and we ended up doing a King Biscuit Flower Hour nationwide broadcast from Memphis, Tennessee in 1982, and that’s when things kind of turned around for me and people started taking a liking to me because believe me, replacing Randy Rhoads was a really, really hard thing to do and I just tried my best. But of course, nobody could be Randy Rhoads. So, Ozzy helped me out a lot, you know, encouraged me. Rudy Sarzo encouraged me and the rest of the band. So, that was the biggest influence and encouragement that I had in my career, playing with Ozzy Osbourne.
Mark Dean: Who would you personally like to interview? Maybe a personal inspiration, a hero? Maybe not even a musician, somebody who you feel has inspired you during your life.
Brad Gillis: My biggest inspiration in my life was in 1969, 1970 when all these great bands were coming’ out and that’s when I started picking up on Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. So, those three guys were the biggest inspiration in my life because they really helped me hone my guitar style and I picked influence from each of them to create my style. Then I ended up getting that Floyd Rose whammy bar and I was able to create my own style of playing to it. So, I got to say, out of everybody Jimi Hendrix.
Mark Dean: Okay Brad, it’s been great talking with you. Good luck with the album and hopefully, you’ll get over to the UK in near future.
Brad Gillis: Yes, we’d love to. We’ll see what happens. You know, you never know and we’re still booking’ for this year and I miss going’ over there because we … doing the Swedish Rock Festival a couple of years back was very inspiring, very fun. Who knows, we may be back there, I think maybe we possibly might be doing’ that next year. So, looking forward to coming back my friend.
Mark Dean: Okay, that’s great. Thank you very much for chatting to me.
Brad Gillis: All right Mark, you got it buddy. See ya.