# A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Ronnie Montrose - Interview

  by Lisa Torem

published: 27 / 10 / 2011

Ronnie Montrose - Interview


At a show in Chicago, Lisa Torem speaks to guitarist Ronnie Montrose about his recovery from a harrowing health setback, and his legendary bands Montrose and Gamma

Ronnie Montrose has been associated with some of the greatest riffs in rock and roll history. With Edgar Winter, on the album, ‘They Only Come out at Night’), and before that, on Van Morrison’s ‘Tupelo Honey’ and ‘Wild Night.’ He formed the legendary bands, Montrose and Gamma, is a prolific songwriter and has worked with singers, Sammy Hagar, Davey Pattison and Keith St. John. Impossible to pin down, the Californian guitarist and songwriter is versatile whether plunking, shredding or sliding during an instrumental, acoustic or vocal arrangement. My experience meeting this legend was unlike my typical gig. For that reason, I choose to call it “The Ronnie Experience.” At Reggie’s, I met up with my photographer friend/colleague, Jim Summaria, and we briefly met Ronnie Montrose and his manager and wife, Leighsa, a few hours before their sound check. Though, their touring schedule sounded gruelling, they were in great spirits and ready to take on some of their faithful fans. Afterwards, we snuck upstairs to the record shop, found a vacant space behind stacks of vinyl, and there, huddled over my primitive recording devices, Jim, Ronnie, Leighsa and I got to know each other more intimately before the performance. Jim even jumped in with some questions; the mood was light and, the Chicago weather was atypically gorgeous. By the time we were able to hear Ronnie’s band, a few hours later, I felt privileged as I saw so many fans hovering over the stage area, hoping to get an autograph. Many would have that chance after the show, but I felt fortunate having had a chance to speak to Ronnie and Leighsa; up close and personal. In keeping with the sequence of events, the interview is first and a short live review follows. Ronnie spoke to Pennyblackmusic about his diverse, musical tastes, how he survived a harrowing health setback and about feeling incredibly young, at any age. PB: I was listening to a few of the songs on your Facebook page and I noticed that one song, ‘All Aboard’ had a Celtic sound. RM: ‘All Aboard’ was one of the only solid acoustic songs that I did on the ‘Bearings’ album (1999). PB: How devoted are you to an acoustic sound these days? RM: I’m 100 % devoted to acoustic and I’m 100 % devoted to rock and I’m 100 % devoted to electric/instrumental. So I think that makes 300% and I’m good with it. I’m still okay. PB: You’ve produced three instrumental albums; you seem to have a strong, passion for this type of music. Was it difficult to switch gears and do vocal- driven music after recording those albums? RM: No, because basically I always follow my muse, and so when I’ve done vocal-oriented records, it’s been something that I’ve wanted to do and felt like doing and when it was time for me to do something else, and I felt like doing it, I went to electric instrumental. Then, I went from ‘Montrose’ to ‘Open Fire”’ my instrumental numbers and then to Gamma. It’s what I feel like doing at the time. PB: Ronnie, you turned ‘Town without Pity’ into a fascinating instrumental arrangement. But, it was an interesting choice because the song also stood alone as a great vocal number when Gene Pitney recorded it. What inspired you to turn it into an instrumental? RM: Edgar Winter was producing the record, ‘Open Fire’, for me and I was writing quite a bit of music. I had one that was kind of at that tempo and I had just a slight melody in there and, actually, it was Edgar who recommended it. Of course, I’m a big Gene Pitney fan. ‘Town without Pity’ was written by Demitri Tiomkin (lyrics: Ned Washington-LT). I love his work and he’s done quite a bit of film work, too. Edgar suggested, why don’t you just go and do, ‘Town without Pity?’ He was right and it turned out really well. PB: What draws you to a certain melody? RM: A melody? PB: Do you hear a melody the first time and think, “I can do a lot with it?” RM: Yeah. A melody is something that resonates with you. It’s something that you discover. You can hear a melody and fifteen years later you ask yourself, “Why didn’t I hear that melody before?” So it’s something that, when it’s time, it resonates with you. It’s a little gem of a discovery. PB: What riffs would go in a time capsule with you? Which ones would qualify as “You’ve got to hear this.” RM: With anything I’ve done, as far as guitar riffs, ‘Rock Candy’, ‘Space Station No. 5’, ‘Rock the Nation’ and certainly ‘Bad Motor Scooter.’ Those early songs were pretty exploratory. PB: What about when you worked with Van Morrison? RM: With Van Morrison, my most satisfying riff was coming up with the beginning of the song, ‘Wild Night.’ PB: Wasn’t the song created from that riff? RM: No, no. Van wrote that song. He wrote everything about it and I was noodling around in the studio and just came up with that part and he just thought that would be a good intro. riff and that was it. PB: Who are you listening to now? RM: Everybody’s in rotation on my iPod. I don’t have a specific listening pattern. I have a few thousand songs on my iPod and I listen to whatever comes in. If I want to listen to acoustic guitar, I listen to Leo Kottke, John Abercrombie, and Michael Hedges. There are quite a few more; Don Lindborn. And, if I listen to electric instrumental, I’ll listen to Jeff Beck, to Bill Frisell to Henry Kaiser. It runs the range. Sometimes I’m just in a Steely Dan kind of mood. I listen to Seal. I listen to Joni Mitchell. Everything. PB: What’s unique about your current band? RM: As far as drums and bass, I have Steve Brown, playing drums and Dan McNabb, on bass. I have a whole – for lack of a better word – stable of players that really want to play this music with me so I can pick and choose, and when they’re not touring they can come and play with me. It’s kind of a revolving door. At a certain point, after I got back playing and I was feeling really healthy and really strong, I realized that I really wanted to do this with a purpose, with a vengeance; I really wanted to go out and play this Montrose music because it feels so good to do it and I’ve always been a big kid. I’m 63, and when I’m out there playing that music I’m 23. I really am. So, bones, once in a while, spirits willing, flesh gets a little weak. But, no I finally decided that it would be really better for me, for what I want to do, and for my state of mind to have fun and just settle in on a rhythm section that I can have grow into this organic power trio with me. We do the riffs from the records and we’re throwing in Gamma songs, but we have everything develop on a natural level. I had a massive rehearsal. I think I rehearsed 22 people in a day. It was a very gruelling experience, but then I came out with these guys. The thing about the rehearsing was - we did it in pairs; a drummer/bass player pair. And, what was gruelling for me is that they came in and played for twenty minutes. I played all day long, but I couldn’t sort of rest and relax. I had to be up and strong and solid all day long and I was exhausted by the end of the day because I wanted to let them know who they were dealing with and what they were getting into, so instead of them going, “Oh, Ronnie is a little tired”, no, I had to be on for the whole day. But, I finally decided on Steve and Dan and it’s really been fun watching them grow and the three of us growing into this whole propeller band. And, right now, I’ve got Keith St. John singing. He and I have been going on and off for about ten years now. At this point, he’s been the best guy that I’ve found that can come out and do the job and he delivers night after night. I think this is a really good ensemble I have together, but the test of time will tell if we all four gel as a real unit. PB: Are you planning any recording projects? RM: No, I’ve said before –right now, at this point, I don’t believe in that, because with any bands that are going out today – with this band I’m playing Montrose music and some Gamma music and the Montrose music is from the 1970s - and that’s forty years ago. There are not any bands that we can talk about – I don’t see any reason for it because there’s a different world out there. As far as my contemporaries, none of them have songs on the radio. To do a new record and to do some of this and that, nothing really happens with it. I just want to play this music and make a real, solid impact. At some point, the only thing that I’ve mentioned to the band, to friends and to my agent is, if I get to the point with the ensemble in which I finally end up with something that is so viable and such a force to be reckoned with, then, in fact, I will document what we’re doing and record that for posterity, to say that this is something that we’re doing now, and because it’s so much fun, then I would like to document it, but, other than that, I see no reason for that. PB: On a more sensitive note, Ronnie, when you found out that you had cancer, you did not play your guitar for several years. RM: For about two and a half or three years? PB: What was that like for you? RM: Without going into detail, it just was a very, painful experience. It’s something that is gone now and I look back on it now as something that I went through. But I just totally lost my joie de vivre. Playing my instrument, frankly, it wasn’t fun. I found no reason for it because it wasn’t something that was easy to do because of the level of pain that I was in. But, one day, I woke up and the pain was dissipated. Any of your readers, any of them who have been through any of that, they will know what I am talking about – when that one magic moment comes around and you say to yourself, “Now, don’t get cocky, but I think you’re beginning to be pain-free,” and it just kept building and building and building and I felt great and that’s when I called my agent and I said, “Listen, I want to go out and rediscover my instrument.” It had never really gone away. I try to use the analogy of it being like getting back on a bicycle, but it doesn‘t do it justice; the profound reconnection that I had with my guitar once I hadn’t touched it for that two and a half years - it was absolutely profound. I told my agent, let’s go out – I want to play as many shows as possible and I’m just having a blast. JS: When did you know you had to be a musician? RM: I picked up a guitar when I was 17. My father played drums, and it was an instrument – I didn’t find it. It found me. It was something that was so fun to play. I could see on the fret board, where these notes were and what I was doing with them and just how things went together which was something that seemed to come naturally. I didn’t know that I wanted to be a professional musician, but I did know that this was something that I would never not do, and the rest of it fell along naturally. JS: When you were younger, what guitarists or musicians did you listen to when your dad played drums? RM: I never heard my dad play drums. He was a drummer when he was younger, and he wanted me to play drums. I only thought about this later, but my earliest influences were my father. He always had big band music around; the great singers – Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett. Of course, I was exposed to George Shearing, Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond and Gerry Mulligan, and even some Thelonius Monk was thrown in there somewhere. I had melody thrown at me from an early age, and I didn’t realize until later how deeply it had really instilled itself in me until I really reflected on it later. JS: Any blues artists? Obviously, you know the Winter Band. RM: I love Edgar. He’s like a big brother to me. I just jammed with him recently. Every time we play on a bill together, we jam. I’ve jammed with Johnny, before, and I’m like one of those kids. I had a long conversation with Edgar about this – Every Texas kid grew up listening to the blues, you know, listening to black blues and English kids; Clapton, Jimmy Page and all of them - that era of musicians. I grew up listening to great blues players. But, I wasn’t exposed to blues when I was a kid, so I didn’t start listening to the blues until I was probably in my mid to late 20s. JS: There’s a little bluesy influence in how you play… RM: There’s a lot of bluesy influence… PB: And, jazz. . RM But, it’s not something that came about because of listening to blues players when I was younger- it was something that I gleaned recently – look, anything over twenty years ago is recently (Laughs). PB: Why did you make the decision to add the synth sound, by way of Jim Alcivar, after such intense guitar-driven arrangements? RM: It was Jim Alcivar, It was Mitchell Froom. It was Allen Fitzgerald. That was my thing with Gamma. I wanted to have guitar and synth playing together. But, with Montrose, it was nothing but guitars, and then going back to my instrumental albums it was Edgar Winter playing most of the keyboard parts. It always fluctuated back and forth. PB: What can you say about the different vocalists that you’ve worked with? There has been such a range. RM: I’ve always been blessed with having great singers, and having worked with very great singers like Van Morrison, Edgar Winter, Boz Scaggs and Sammy Hagar. I’ve had Davey Pattison sing with me with Gamma. I try to bring singers around me that are expressive and unique;. I’m always looking for singers who have a talent and a unique point of view with the way they render their art. PB: After Sammy Hagar left Montrose, you reunited with him several more times for performances. RM: I hadn’t seen him for quite a while, but we talked once in a while. This is forty years ago that we did our first Montrose record. I’m 63 now, but when you have friends you haven’t spoken with, even high school friends, everybody knows that when you speak with them, there’s no age. You’re still the same people that you were when you were back at the same time. So that’s what happened with us. So when we did those Montrose records, it was me, and Sammy and Danny and Bill. That was an absolutely unique thing for the four of us; an exclusive boy’s club and it never changes. When we see each other there are still the same laughs, the same yucks and the same camaraderie. PB: Thanks, Ronnie. The Ronnie Experience Reggie’s is a funky, spacious venue that welcomes big name and indie acts; their fried pickles are incredible and, their location is just a little off the beaten track; this is a good thing because it makes the experience special. You would have to walk several blocks to find another café or restaurant or condo; so you feel like you’re on to something that nobody else knows about; until the actual evening begins, of course. It was a bit of culture shock to see the fans that follow Ronnie Montrose. On a scale of one to ten, they’re a definite ten as far as exuding over-the-top enthusiasm and a great grasp of his canon of work. The band took a while to get on because, after all, there were other bands on earlier, and the roadies had chords and microphone stands to rearrange, but, the fans couldn’t take the waiting. The local radio personality, Bird, walked on and said, “This man helped create classic rock.” The young-looking Keith St. John, dressed in worn-out, washed-out denim jeans and a sleeveless shirt with a white skull on the back, proceeded to stomp on the stage. His long, brown hair actually flailed as he moved. The quartet assembled and driving riffs and monstrous drum beats followed suit. There was an almost immediate banging of heads in time to the music. Keith started up by singing, ‘Rock the Nation’. When the microphone slipped, he used it as a prop, as he did so many times during the set. The eruptions were followed by the more toned-down, ‘I Got the Fire.’- a story-song about reminiscing brought to life via long, strident, seductive chords. Ronnie was picking furiously, rambling through staccato patterns like a woodpecker feverishly gnawing through stubborn bark. There’s always one fan dying to be heard above the crowd. “Welcome back, Ronnie. I can’t go to California every time,” the guy screamed. The man’s voice had been getting louder and more desperate by the minute, and finally he yelped: “Ronnie, where the fuck you been?” Ronnie must have sensed that a few words of acknowledgement might nip it in the bud, and so he whispered to his devoted fan: “I’ve got a sore throat. I don’t want to yell at anybody.” It worked. They were now like one hand clapping; the fan’s brash infusion of love seemed to miraculously flow in time to the music and to Keith’s angular movements. In the dictionary “a kind of action that occurs as two or more objects have an effect on another” is printed under the word “interaction.” That was also the word the brunette behind me stammered to her friend, who had less favorable sight lines. There was lots of it - Brown and McNabb; for example. McNabb closing in on Ronnie Montrose, and Keith St. John posing inches away from a delighted fan. There was Ronnie beaming that grandiose grin as he drew the purest of tones. “The dark of they sky, the light of the moon/The solitary figure will be home real soon. He has braved the storms of time/His life is on the line.” ‘Voyager’ has it all; the eerie, but engaging sci-fi lyrics, plentiful rhythms and it serves as a perfect vehicle for the outgoing vocalist. . Some Montrose favorites follow. During ‘Rock Candy’ Keith lets the audience serve the “hard and sticky” responses. ‘Living Underground’ was what would have been the last song, but the audience was desperate for an encore. Guitarist Michael Lee Firkins was invited up. He and Ronnie commanded an exciting dual on slide guitars. ‘Motor Scooter’ came frightfully more alive as McNabb raced step--wise down his bass guitar, his thumb resting securely above the strings, his long fingers violently plucking the notes. Even after having wolfed down those savoury and satisfying fried pickles, the rest of my senses were still on fire from Ronnie’s flaming fretwork, the Ronnie Experience at Reggie’s is highly recommended. Photos by Jim Summaria www.jimsummariaphoto.com

Post A Comment

your name
ie London, UK
Check box to submit


1947-2012 (2012)
Ronnie Montrose - 1947-2012
Lisa Torem pays personal tribute to Montrose and Gamma guitarist Ronnie Montrose who died on March 3rd

digital downloads

most viewed articles

most viewed reviews

Pennyblackmusic Regular Contributors