Exclusive Interview: Ron Keel from Keel


Veteran vocalist/musician/songwriter/entertainer Ron Keel’s amazing career has taken him around the world and across the borders that separate the styles of music that he has performed and recorded. From the concrete jungles of heavy metal & arena rock to the dirt roads and backwoods of country music & southern rock, Keel is an artist who has been there, done that, and still has a lot to prove.

As frontman for hard rock/heavy metal bands KEEL, Steeler, Saber Tiger, and Fair Game (he also spent a brief moment in time with Black Sabbath), Ron Keel sold millions of albums, toured the world as a headliner and opening act for icons such as Aerosmith, Motley Crue, Bon Jovi, Van Halen, and many more, plus notched several hits on radio and MTV including classics “The Right To Rock”, “Because The Night”, “Tears Of Fire”, and “Somebody’s Waiting”.

Ron took a few minutes from his busy performace schedule in Las Vegas to speak to Rock Confidential about his new acoustic CD Alone At Last and his long, eventful career.

Ron, thanks for taking time for this today! I’m diggin’ the new CD, Alone At Last – I think it’s some of the best vocal work I’ve ever heard you do. When did you decide it was time to do an acoustic disc?

It really started with the Steeler Anthology that came out earlier this year. It was an anthology of unreleased material from that band – outtakes, unreleased demos, home recordings and live recordings. It’s been 23 years since the Steeler album was released. There was a huge demand for some of the stuff that was laying in the archives. We decided to release that set for various reasons. We wanted to give the fans a little something special. A lot of people didn’t know there was life for Steeler before Yngwie (Malmsteen), and after Yngwie as well. There’s a rich history there before he came along and there was an additional year after he left. There was some good music and some good songs. It was a good piece of history. There was one song from the Steeler album that was a fan favorite. It was a very special song for me. I think it’s one of the first really good songs that I wrote. It’s stood the test of time, even in it’s originally recorded version. It’s a song called “Serenade”. It’s also on Alone At Last. The original version was this ungodly high falsetto that, to me, is just unlistenable. I don’t know what I was thinking. I was young and stupid and the producer let me get away with it! I don’t know what he was thinking by letting me sing like that. It’s almost unlistenable, man. I loved the song. I always wanted to redo it and sing it like a man. When it came time to do the Steeler Anthology I decided I would do a new acoustic version of that song and sing it an octave lower with a full voice. “Serenade” came out great and I was really proud of it. I listened to it and thought – ‘Why don’t I just keep going? Why don’t I do a whole album like this?’ I picked some of my favorite songs that I’ve written throughout my career and brought them back to life. I’ve been doing these solo acoustic gigs the past three or four years on the KISS Expo circuit. KISS fans and fans of hard rock and metal music show up at these events. There’s entertainment, fans are buying and selling merchandise – it’s a great time. Because of my history with Gene Simmons and the fact that we worked together on a couple of records, I was a popular guest at these expos. They would want me to perform but there wasn’t the budget to bring a full band. I started doing these solo acoustic gigs where I would do 20 to 30 minutes by myself with an acoustic guitar. After a couple of those I came upon a formula that really worked. I still do it to this day. It’s a lot of work. It’s like taking my fans on a journey through my career – from Steeler to Keel, Iron Horse, Fair Game, Black Sabbath and even the country years. The fans seem to be entertained by that approach. I wanted to bring that to an album format. The final reason the acoustic album made sense for me is because I’ve always felt at home with that guitar in my hand and my voice in my songs. It’s really nice with the bells and whistles and the smoke and the mirrors and the flames and the hair and the guitars and the sold-out arenas. That’s all good but I’m blessed because I’m comfortable in a campfire, on a tour bus, in a hotel room, in a bar after closing time sitting around with a guitar, singing. This CD captures all of those magic moments. I’m really pleased that the first thing you mentioned is the vocal work. I am really proud of the fact that my voice has held up over the years and I was able to bring these songs to life in a way that I’m proud of. That’s a very big compliment and I thank you for saying that.

You’re welcome. Your acoustic work comes across as very sincere, too. When you do get rid of the bells and whistles and the sold-out arenas and it comes down to one man and his guitar, that has to be sincerity. There’s nothing to cover that up, ya know?

That’s right. There’s nowhere to hide. This year I’ve been out with Quiet Riot, Y&T, Jackyl and some big gigs where it’s a packed house where people came to hear some loud rock ‘n roll. A lot of people may see my name on the ticket or the marquee or the advertisement and not really know what to expect. I apologize up front for that! I don’t even know what I’m going to get every day! Who am I today? That’s part of the excitement of my life. When they see Ron Keel walk out on stage with just a guitar you can see the eyebrows raise up. “What the hell is this?” Halfway through the first song I see them nod their head. They get it and it’s cool. It really works in that rock setting. Part of my on-stage speech after the first song is saying that what I’m doing is kinda like singing the National Anthem at a rodeo or at the Super Bowl…naked! It’s a scary gig! You don’t have anywhere to hide. It really is a great challenge. That’s what’s motivated me through my career – my sense of adventure. I want to climb a new mountain or ride a new road. I want to ride the rapids. I want to do stuff that’s exciting and different. I’ve had a great life because of that attitude. I don’t know if it’s because I’m not scared or if I’m just stupid! It works for me. This leads to a popular question that I get asked a lot: Why did I change from rock music to country music a few years ago? I just don’t understand why it would be considered such a change. It’s not like I lost Ron Keel the rocker. He’ll always be there. He’s the same kid that saw the Beatles on TV when he was two years old. He’s the same kid who pumped his fist into the air at a Judas Priest concert. That’s always going to be a part of me. There are other sides to my personality. I have an appetite for lots of different kinds of food. I like all kinds of different women. I like all kinds of different music. That’s just the way I am. When it was time to climb another mountain it wasn’t really that big of a change for me. I’ve always been at home with an acoustic guitar. So many songs are written that way. It’s all in how you perform them and how people perceive them. If you put a little twang to it, people will call it country. If you put booming drums and screaming guitars to it, people will call it metal. To me, it’s always been music.

That sense of adventure you mentioned earlier is exactly everything we’ve talked about. All the different projects you’ve been a part of…

What I’ve lacked in consistency I’ve made up for in excitement! I’ve never been afraid to take a hard left or a hard right.

That’s just living life. A lot of people do things based on what other people think they should do. They may be a miserable sonofabitch because they never do what they want to do.

I am not that, Jesse! Putting it all in perspective, I could bite the bullet tomorrow or – God forbid – live to a ripe old age. I’ve enjoyed it all so far. There’s been a lot of tears and heartbreaks and it’s been a rollercoaster of emotions. Sometimes I get motion sickness just thinking about it. Sometimes the twists and turns this life and business can put us through shake you up and leave you wondering what it’s all about. I know. I’m at peace with myself. I’m here to make music and have a good time. I’m here to entertain people and do the best I can and be a friend, a singer, a songwriter, a performer, a business man, a father and all the other things that I try to carry on my shoulders.

How difficult was it to maintain all that stuff and find time to record a new CD?

It didn’t take long at all. I had to do it between shows. I have a pretty heavy performance schedule this year. I think I had about a three week window before I was back on the road. I told myself I had to get it done. It took a long time to get the wheels turning. It’d take about three days per song, usually. I’d have to learn the song again. Then I had to record the song and do the vocals, harmony, solos and additional acoustic 12-string guitars. There’s a lot of stuff that goes into it. I didn’t want to put any restrictions on myself. I worked on this CD every day for three weeks to the point of exhaustion. It was one of the most exhausting sessions I’ve ever done. I had nobody to work with and nobody to answer to. I produced it myself and recorded it in my home studio. I beat myself up! I was in the floor sweating and crying. My fingers were swelled up. The pain from playing an acoustic guitar from six to eight hours a day and doing the bends and the stretches literally had me soaking my hands in ice. By the time I got to the last solo every bend was agony! I’m going to do it again, though. I’m going to do a sequel next year. This record is all songs that I wrote. On the next one I want to include mostly songs that I didn’t write. I’ve asked Marc Ferrari and Bryan Jay from Keel to record some of the guitars so it may be like a mini Keel reunion. Alone At Last 2 will hopefully see the light of day in Summer 2007.

I noticed while going through the liner notes that your name is listed about three different ways…

I’m just schizo, man! That’s the way the songs were originally credited on the albums they were recorded on. There was no legal reason why I had to do that. I wouldn’t care if there was. Those are the guys. Those are the three different guys who live in me: Ronnie Keel, Ronnie Lee Keel and Ron Keel. Oh yeah, Ronnie Lee! There’s four of me. I have like three rednecks living inside me! My real name is Ronnie Lee Keel. That’s my legal name. Even back in the day many of my friends called my Ronnie. Ron was cooler or tougher, I guess. I don’t know why I was called Ron Keel. Ronnie James Dio sounds cool, right? It’s never too late to change your name!

It sounds like you’ve still got a lot going on with your career. It’s got to be exciting to know that you’ve got so much going on.

It is. At this point in my life and at this age – I’m 45 – 20 years ago I thought nothing about getting a police escort in my limo to Madison Square Garden and spending 10-20 grand a day. Just the stupid shit that young rock stars do. Back then it was just another day at the office. Now, at this age, I’ve really learned to appreciate every little thing. Every gig, every smile, every royalty check, every vocal – all the good things in my life now I really appreciate them. Before, when my cup runneth over, I didn’t appreciate it. I lost some of it and a lot of it I got back. Now that I’m at this place in my life I’m really thankful for it.

Career-wise you seem to be in a great place. How’s everything in your personal life?

It’s an interesting question and it’s certainly worth asking. A lot of interviews I get the same questions – whether it’s Gene Simmons or Yngwie or why I sang country music. Nobody really digs too deeply into the personal side of things. Normally I don’t make my personal life public. I’ll dodge the subject if it doesn’t come up. I am on one side – this is not just today, but for my whole life – there has been a lot of pain. A lot of loss. Everybody goes through the same shit. I’m no different. I should have been at my parent’s deathbed. My mom and dad were very close to me and that’s something I’ll never get over. There’s been a lot of times that I haven’t been there for my kids. My kids would be the first to tell you. They’re both grown now. My relationship with them is not as good as it could be. Some of it’s my fault. Some of it’s not. I haven’t always been there. I missed graduations. I missed a lot of stuff to be on the road singing. I just finished my third failed marriage. There’s a price to pay for the life that I lead. All of it can justify my actions and the reasons why my life is the way it is. I can’t help my nature any more than a tiger can help devouring it’s prey. This is my nature. I don’t understand it all the time. I just know what it is. The show must go on. My music has got to come first. There’s a price to be paid for that. I have a wonderful experience to draw upon. I’m happy. I’m doing what I love to do. I’ve missed a lot. I respect some of the other guys I’ve played with. Some chose a different path. They chose to be there with their families or to settle down and get a day job. They chose not to put the music first. I respect that and I’m happy for those guys. I think they did the right thing.

When you see those other guys do that, is that something that a little bit of you wishes that you had? Does the power of wanting to perform push that out of your mind?

I have regrets. At this point in my life, no. I’m doing exactly what I need to do. I would have done a few things differently if I could turn back time. Music is the only thing that I’ve been able to do and be really good at. I can’t hold down a day job. I just can’t do it. I can’t be in one place too long. Even if it’s music. Obviously I haven’t been in one band for too long! I play a lot of different instruments. I never really settled down musically, mentally or emotionally! I apologize to those I love for not being there.

Thanks for talking about that stuff, Ronnie. To change it up just a little, what are some things you’ll be doing soon?

We’re in the process of doing an exclusive Keel website. It’s a few months away. It will be Keelaholics.com. We’re revisiting that band. Most of the guys in that band are still close. We’re still in contact and doing business together. Whether it will result in a full-blown reunion or not, we hope it will. Maybe in Summer 2007. We’re in the process of repackaging and re-releasing some of our recorded music. Hopefully we’ll have a Best Of type of collection. A DVD collection that will contain all of our videos. A new website. We’re keeping that project alive. Hopefully it will turn into some live gigs down the line.

Thanks again for taking time out for us today. What would you like to say to your fans?

I want to thank anyone who’s made my music part of your life. I’ve really enjoyed singing to you and talking to you and entertaining you. Those who believe in me and what I do, that’s the reason the show must go on. Thanks for giving me a reason to work so hard and live the life that I live. Grab on because you never know where life is going to take you next!