Once upon a time, vocalist Ron Keel arrived in Los Angeles with his band Steeler in tow. Soon to be joined by Swedish guitar master Yngwie Malmsteen, bassist Rik Fox and drummer Mark Edwards, the group unleashed their self-titled debut in 1983. After the group's untimely demise, Keel would form the eponymous-titled Keel and embark on a half decade of Gene Simmons-Produced Platinum records and exhaustive world tours before 'switching gears' and re-branding himself as Country artist Ronnie Lee Keel. Returning to heavy music in 1997, in a series of noteworthy projects (i.e. the Southern Rock-infused Iron Horse and the Akihito Kinoshita-fueled Sabre Tiger as well as the release of his tell-all autobiography Even Keel: Life On The Streets Of Rock & Roll), Keel is about to re-emerge with the mighty Fight Like A Band, the long-awaited debut from The Ron Keel band.
Todd: What prompted you to re-issue Metal Cowboy (2014)? Did you feel it needed to be improved upon? What made now the 'right time' to re-visit something you'd already experienced success with on an Independent basis?
Ron: “It came out in March on the EMP Outlaw Records, a division of (Megadeth bassist) David Ellefson's EMP Label Group. ...To be honest with you, it was a conversation with the director of operations and head of A&R at EMP, Thom Hazert. He's pretty intense and so am I, so when we get together on the phone, it's absolute mayhem. Somehow, by the end of the conversation, we decided 'Let's put the Metal Cowboy back out there.' The record did really well the first time out when it was released on my own independent label. And, as you know, it had a lot of critical acclaim and had respectable sales. I actually made some money off the record. As you know, I also had some fantastic special guests like (guitarist) Frank Hannon from Telsa, (Rough Cutt/ex-Quiet Riot vocalist) Paul Shortino and (guitarist) Brent Muscat from Faster Pussycat. It was a successful release the first time around, but now I've had the opportunity here in Sioux Falls (South Dakota) to work with my dream co-Producer and Engineer Mike Dresch at Cathouse Studios. Go figure I would find a guy like that in Sioux Falls, but he is absolute magic behind the board, so we thought we would give re-mixing the record a shot. ...It's cool because it gets another lease on life even though I was already really happy with it. It certainly captures everything about my personality and my musical vision. That's a great accomplishment for me from a creative standpoint. And to get it back out there, re-mastered, re-mixed and have it become the flagship release for the new EMP Outlaw imprint. It was just one of those conversations with Thom Hazert. By the end of the conversation, we had a new deal done. I don't remember if it was his idea or mine, but it really was a good one.”
Todd: When can fans expect Fight Like A Band to be released? I understand there is a chance it may be delayed.
Ron: “We have a scheduled released date, which was August 31st of this year, but and I'm not sure we're going to make that deadline. ...We're almost finished with tracking, but I don't want to rush it. The creative process has been such a great ride for me and the guys in the band. And I'm not dragging my feet because I enjoy this part of the process, but I hate for it to be over. It's just been such a blast creating and recording these songs by going to the studio every day, hammering it out. I'll leave that release date up to Thom Hazert and David Ellefson. They know the business better than anyone. That's why I wanted to sign with that label in the first place. ...If we don't make the deadline, I will let them come up with an alternative date, but the record is really close to being done.”
Todd: Taking into consideration the various 'entertainments meccas' you've resided in (i.e. Las Vegas, Nashville, Los Angeles), what led to you residing in South Dakota? I remember being extremely surprised about the move.
Ron: “It was an opportunity of a lifetime to become part of an entertainment project where I was given the latitude and the ability to build an entertainment franchise called Badlands Pawn, Gold, And Jewelry along with a radio station (KBAD) and me fronting the house band. With all the advantages that came with the backing and the position, the opportunity was too good to say no to. Although it didn't work out because the business went south through no fault of mine, I'm still very proud to report that the two things that I came here to do, which is build a band and help build a Rock radio station, are still active and very successful. I have a daily radio show on KBACK. ...We're just crushing it in the ratings and it's such a great product. We have a very diverse playlist, amazing personalities and it's wild, reckless fun, which is radio the way it was meant to be. When they pulled the plug on KBAD, me and the guys said 'We're not done. We've got stuff to do. We've got stuff to play. We've got stuff to say.' So we formed our own station KBACK and went on the air literally within days. When they pulled the plug, we were number one and after we were no longer on the air, one of the stations here went up a point in the Nielsen ratings and the other one went down a point in the Nielsen ratings, so where are all those listeners? They're back and they're listening to KBACK. They're listening to our show and our station, which is amazing. It's a great product with a lot of Rock star interviews, contests and other fun stuff. Every day I get to spin vinyl records. I do a vinyl segment in the noon hour and I get to have my Rock star buddies on the air with me. It's a wild, reckless, radio show and that, to me, is fantastic. Plus when they pulled the plug on the (Badlands Pawn, Gold, And Jewelry house) band, we said 'We're no longer going to finance this thing. These guys have worked too hard, we've come too far, we've got a lot of momentum and we're going to keep it going by re-branding it as the Ron Keel Band. Last year, we toured with Tesla and had a lot of other great shows. ...So we kept it going and that's where the title track for the new album takes its influence. The title “Fight Like A Band” is exactly what we've done since we got here. These guys have fought hard. We stuck it out through the best of times and the toughest of times. Those guys have been by my side throughout my wife Renee's battle with breast cancer. They were my support group. They allowed me to stay creative and stay excited about my music and performing. It was good therapy for both Renee and I as she was going through all of that. She's had seven surgeries, so it's been a very tough time at the Keel house. I think both Renee and I took some inspiration and some joy from the fact that I was excited about my band, my music and the fact that I'm having fun. I did take some time off to be there for her during and after the surgeries, but the guys in the band were with me the whole time and they still are. We have fought hard and we're looking forward to reaping the rewards of our efforts with a fantastic new album Fight Like A Band. ...We love it here. We've got the house of our dreams. We've found a home and we really love it here. It's home to us and I don't miss the one hundred and thirty degree desert heat out in Vegas where I was for the last two years before we moved here. It's cool. Plus, I'm five minutes from the airport. I can be anywhere anytime. Whenever there's a plane ticket in my hand, I'm ready go.”
Todd: How would you describe the current state of the band Keel? With you being so heavily involved in so many different project, have you found it difficult to 'find the time' to consider the group a true musical priority?
Ron: “The word 'band' is not quite appropriate for that project (laughs). Is it a brotherhood? Yes, absolutely. (Guitarist) Marc Ferrari, (guitarist) Brian Jay and (drummer) Dwain Miller are part of a brotherhood. And that is Once a year or whenever the opportunity arises, we get back together and go out and do something like the Monsters Of Rock Cruise. We just played on the cruise and had a great time. It's always great to be with those guys. To me, a band busts their ass every day and continues to move forward. ...Keel is a brotherhood, so every chance we get, we celebrate our friendship, our music and our long relationship with each other and with our fans. That being said, I have been aggressively, and maybe not aggressively enough, trying to put together a package which I think would be fantastic. It's mental and vocal suicide for me, but it sounds like a lot of fun. I'd like to call it Keel Fest. It would be Keel, the Ron Keel Band and Steeler all on the same bill. It would be about a two and a half hour show. I'm pretty sure I could still handle it. We already do a lot of two, three and four-hour shows. There's been times when the guys in my band and I have spent three hours a night on stage, pounding it out with me screaming my guts out, so I think I can handle it vocally, mentally and emotionally. But that's all high maintenance because you need to have four lead guitar players on tour. I think it would be cool as hell to start the show with myself and Mitch Perry, who replaced Yngwie in Steeler, coming out to do an acoustic song and then say 'Hang tight. There's more Steeler coming up'. Then we'd come out and do a forty-five minute Ron Keel Band show with all the new songs from Fight Like A Band and then I'd bring out Marc Ferrari, Brian Jay, and Dwain Miller and we'd do a Keel set. Then, at the end of the night, the entire cast, so to speak, would come out on stage together with their fists in the air screaming “The Right to Rock”. How cool would that be? I've tried to pitch that to some agents and some buyers. I'd really like to see it happen because we've got the perfect storm this year with Fight Like A Band from the Ron Keel Band...and there's also the re-issues of The Final Frontier (1986) and Keel (1987) on (UK-born re-issue label) Rock Candy Records, so to put the bands on the same bill would be fantastic. I'm going to continue to see if I can make it work. ...Who knows? I'd like to see it.”
Todd: How did Yngwie become involved with Steeler? Am I correct in understanding he was introduced to you via Shrapnel Records founder Mike Varney? How did you get in touch with him when he was based in Sweden?
Ron: “I went to Mike Varney's house on New Year's Day, 1983. I had spent New Year's Eve in San Francisco and Mike lived in Northern California not too far away. I met with him for the first time at the apartment he had at the time. ...Every wall was covered with shelves of cassette tapes of guitar players from all over the world because at the time, everyone was sending Mike Varney their demo. We were searching for a new guitar player for Steeler. He pulled out a few tapes and said 'Hey, check this guy out. He's pretty good.' He played Yngwie's demo for me and obviously it was worlds apart. There was something really unique about his style and his abilities. At the time, I think he was eighteen years old and to me, he sounded like he was the best guitar player on the planet. It sounded like a guy that had the potential to be my counterpart. (Guitarist Eddie) Van Halen is a great comparison because he's a brilliant musician and (Van Halen frontman) David (Lee Roth) is a brilliant frontman. Now neither David Lee Roth nor Ron Keel have ever been the best singers in the business, but we're both entertainers (laughs) and when you pair a musical talent like Eddie Van Halen with a frontman/showman like David Lee Roth, it's magic. I thought Yngwie could be my Eddie and I could be his David Lee Roth. I felt that we had a magical combination, especially with the other guys in the band like (Hellion, Sister and W.A.S.P. bassist) Rik Fox. Rik Fox is a Rock star. There's no doubt about it. He was and is a Rock star, Yngwie is a musician and if you try and combine all those elements into one, everybody's got to see eye to eye. Everybody's got to get along and want to succeed together and that just didn't happen with Yngwie. ...Mike Varney and I called Yngwie right then and there. We got him on the phone and I said 'Hey man, we're going to bring you to America. You're going to be the new guitar player in Steeler.' ...And the next four months was history (laughs).”
Todd: In hindsight, at what point did you realize things weren't going the way you wanted to within Steeler? Did you initially consider abandoning the Steeler moniker once Yngwie left? That must've been a tremendous blow.
Ron: “It was probably about six months after Yngwie left. We had a revolving door of musicians after he'd left the band. The band was very successful before Yngwie came along, hence this retrospective that we're releasing on FNA (Records) called Come Hell Or Hollywood (2018). Those are all pre-Yngwie recordings. What a lot of people don't realize is that Yngwie had joined what was one of the top drawing acts in Hollywood. ...When Yngwie joined the band, we were selling out every major venue in the region, so there was a rich history before he joined the band. Looking back, one of my regrets is that when Yngwie left, I should have started calling the band Keel. I continued to try and develop Steeler throughout that process and had some great guitar players. (Bassist) Greg Chaisson joined the band and he would go on to be in Badlands Greg was an amazing player. We also had (ex-Dokken, London, Rondinelli drummer) Bobby Marks, who was the original drummer in Keel. What I should have done is fold Steeler when Yngwie left, start a new band and called it Keel. Of course, I was too stubborn to realize that at the time. I thought 'Man, what a stupid name for a band. Keel? I can't do that.' That's the last thing that I thought would be cool. And suddenly, they left me with no alternative because my band had a reputation for being unstable. Having a revolving door of personnel, we weren't going to get signed. I figured the best way to avoid that stigma was to call the band Keel and build it around my voice, my songs and my vision. That way, if somebody gets fired, leaves or quits, it's not going to be the end of the earth. Once Keel was formed, we were in the studio making our first album Lay Down The Law within eight months. We had two albums out in the span of several months and by early '85, we were in all the magazines, were climbing the charts and we had the video for “The Right To Rock” on MTV. As soon as I abandoned the Steeler vision and created the Keel vision, everything started to click. The strange thing about that is that I wanted to build it as 'my solo project' where I could continue on with or without various personnel and it ended up being a true brotherhood where the guys in the band have this bond and friendship. And it followed through during the years after Keel has disbanded. I didn't continue to record and tour as Keel because it just wouldn't have been the same without those guys. We got back together in 2008, the shows started in 2009 and Streets Of Rock & Roll came out in 2010. The last nine years have been great with the guys. ...I'm so glad to be where I'm at right now.”
Todd: How big of an impact did (Kiss frontman) Gene Simmons have of sessions for The Right To Rock (1985)?
Ron: “Gene was heavily involved in every aspect of that record. That's a very Gene Simmons album. It includes three songs which he wrote and the approach, the musical direction and the sound has Gene's stamp on it. He was heavily involved. It was his vision and it certainly worked. People still love that record and it has a strong place in '80s Rock history, especially the title track. That's my signature song. Gene told me back then 'You know you're going to be singing this song thirty years from now' and I was like 'No way, man. I'm not going to live that long.' But here I am thirty-three years later and yes, I'm singing that song (laughs). ...And the Kiss Army ended up embracing us because Gene had embraced us. The Kiss fans went out and bought that record, so Gene's relationship has been a huge help to my career, both in life and in the music business by Producing those first two albums. I have nothing but love and respect for that man. I truly appreciate all he's done for my career.”
Todd: At what point did you become involved with Black Sabbath? Was it prior to the launch of Keel? That had to have been an incredibly intense experience, particularly considering how truly 'puerile' you were at the time.
Ron: “It was in the transition period between Steeler and Keel. When I was cutting the first Keel demos, which ended up being the final Steeler demos as the band warped into Keel, I was cutting those vocals at Pasha Studios in Hollywood where (Producer) Spencer Proffer had just finished the Quiet Riot album (Metal Health), which went on to sell ten million records. Metal Health really put us all on the map. ...Spencer had signed on to produce the new Black Sabbath album, which would've been the follow-up to Born Again (1983). He had signed a deal with Sabbath to produce the record and tagged me as the lead vocalist after hearing my voice through the walls as I was doing those demos. We signed a contract and I was able to hang out with (guitarist) Tony (Iommi) and (bassist) Geezer (Butler) for a few days. Those guys are legends and icons, so for a twenty-three-year-old kid to be hanging with them as 'the new singer in Black Sabbath' was an amazing experience. It was announced on radio and MTV. They were like 'Yes, Ron Keel is the new lead singer in Black Sabbath.' I had to go to the guys in Keel and say 'Look guys, I have to take this gig. I really appreciate everybody.' The guys in the band were very supportive. We'd only been together a couple of weeks at that time. Spencer ended up getting the ax because he was trying to turn Sabbath into an '80s Heavy Metal band and Tony and Geezer had their own identity and didn't want any part of that. When the relationship with Spencer went south, and I went south with it because I was Spencer's guy. It's a good memory and a fantastic story that I still enjoy telling. Not too many interviews go by without me telling that story all over again. It's still paying off in a lot of different ways. I've got a new album coming out called Emerald Sabbath, which is a tribute project. ...I was approached by the Producer of the project because of my past relationship with Sabbath and being a small part of their massive timeline. They asked me to sing three songs on the record, which is really cool. I'm absolutely honored. I'm doing “Hole In The Sky”, which is fantastic and I'm doing “Trashed” (from Born Again), which is amazing. I also got to do “Die Young” (from Heaven And Hell, 1980), which also features (former Black Sabbath/Dio drummer) Vinnie Appice and (ex-Ozzy Osbourne, Quiet Riot and Whitesnake) bassist Rudy Sarzo on bass. ...It's truly a dream come true, plus it's a way for me to finally be on a Black Sabbath record. ...Well, sort of (laughs).”
Todd: Have you considered writing a follow-up to your autobiography Even Keel: Life On The Streets Of Rock & Roll (2014)? I would imagine there's still a great deal of 'untold stories' that the fans would love to read about.
Ron: “I would love to write a second book. And I'm sure that the sequel or the untold stories, so to speak, may be in the works. It's just a matter of me having the time to sit down and do it. That first book took me ten years, a lot of re-writes and a lot of soul-searching. It was a very time-consuming project. At the time, I was doing a lot of traveling, so a lot of the book was written while on an airplane. I would get on a plane, open my laptop and start telling the story. ...I kept a list of stories that normally, when I'm at a bar or hanging with my friends, I'm going to be telling anyway. I'd sit on a bar stool and start talking about what it was like back in the day. I ended up compiling all of those stories and over the course of ten years, put them in chronological order, filled in the blanks. ...It was really cool to have my friend Derrick Miller interview my sister for the book. She's got some great quotes about what it was like being my sister when I was a Rock star. There was also some fan commentary, both good and bad. Obviously, there's fan quotes in the book that are very complimentary, but there's also some that are not so complimentary. I tried to include both sides of the story. I would love to fill in the blanks of the untold stories and continue to write. ...I love doing it, but it's real tough for me to sit that long.”
Todd: When the Ron Keel Band ultimately goes on tour in support of Fight Like A Band, what type of set list will you be working with? Will the amount of material you play largely depend on the length of a particular set?
Ron: “It depends on the situation, on the tour and on the date. I fine tailor the set list. I always have. I've always tried to tailor my set list for the crowd because I'm a diverse guy. I have a lot of different stuff in my catalog. Even back in the day when I was touring with Keel, if we were opening for Metallica, we'd throw in all the heavy stuff like “Locust”, “No Pain, No Gain” and “Speed Demon” because there's five thousand guys out there with leather jackets (laughs). But when we toured with Bon Jovi and there's a lot of fifteen year-old girls, you put all the ballads and the love songs in. You tailor your show to the act that you're opening for and to the audience that you're playing for. I do a lot of big shows with the Ron Keel Band that are what they call soft ticket events such as bike events like Sturgis where a lot of people might not who Ron Keel is. You have to throw in some of those classic songs that they love, that you know they can sing along with and then of course, you sneak in the Keel hits like “Because The Night”, “The Right To Rock” “Tears Of Fire”. You've always got to do the hits. ...Those songs are always going to be a part of everything I do whether it's Keel or the Ron Keel Band. It really depends on the situation. You've got to make sure you're giving the people something. It's an entertainment experience, it's something they're going to remember and enjoy that they can't get anywhere else.”
Todd: Although your musical history is obviously heavily steeped in the Hard Rock and Heavy Metal genres, you did succeed with your Country debut New Country (1995). At this point, how do you 'look back' on the era?
Ron: “I can't listen to the album without crying. It's some very special music. ...I don't look back a whole lot. I treasure all of my accomplishments and the amazing run that I've had in this business, but that Country music experience was fantastic. It taught me so much. It made me a way better songwriter. My songwriting skills went up a notch once I started working with some of those Nashville cats. ...A lot of those Country stars don't write their own songs. They have professional songwriters and the competition in that business is extremely tough. To get a record cut by a major star like George Strait or Travis Tritt and then to have it become a hit, that's a very, very competitive business. With those guys, it's an art. I learned so much about writing hit songs like making every line count and being able to tell a story. It's different building a song around a voice and a melody as opposed to Rock. A lot of us did it that way back in the day. We'd come up with a riff, a groove and a drum pattern and the band would bash it out and then it was the singer's job to put the vocals on top of it. With Country music, it's exactly the opposite. It's your job to put music behind the story because I'm telling a story. I'm singing about heartbreak, real life, love and women. It's real music, real lyrics and real stories and then you have come up with music that supports that lyric, melody and story. It's the opposite of the Rock songwriting style. I still do Country gigs and I still sing country songs. ...That experience is a part of me and always will be.”
Metal Cowboy (2014)
Streets Of Rock & Roll (2010)
Metal Generation: The Steeler Anthology (2005)
Bring It On (2004)
Keel VI: Back In Action (2006)
The Country Years (2003)
Thick As Thieves (1998)
Sabre Tiger (1997)
New Country (1995)
Here Comes The Night (1991)
Beauty And The Beast (1991)
Large Than Live (1989)
The Final Frontier (1986)
The Right To Rock (1985)
Lay Down The Law (1984)
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