The Uptown Theatre in Napa was the chosen set for the filming of a live DVD for one of rock’s most innovative guitar icons, Ronnie Montrose. He got his start with Van Morrison, but his stint with the Edgar Winter Band gave him the opportunity to develop his own signature tone and style.
In 1973, the band Ronnie formed with Sammy Hagar (vocals), Bill Church (bass), and Denny Camassi (drums) released their debut album, Montrose. This was a groundbreaking album, ahead of its time in so many ways that it is still relevant today. With this album, Ronnie set many new precedents in tone, songwriting and production that were a major influence on the evolution and direction of hard rock and metal in the coming years. In fact, one of Ronnie’s secret weapons on his first two albums was the dynamic duo of producer Ted Templeman and engineer Don Landee. If these names sound familiar, it’s because they went on to engineer and produce the first six Van Halen albums. Based on their production work on the Montrose albums Montrose and Paper Money, Eddie V. sought them out, specifically, to engineer and produce Van Halen.
Following Sammy’s departure to start his solos career, Ronnie released three solo albums before launching his next project, Gamma, who released three very successful albums and toured extensively worldwide.
I doubt few would argue the major impact Ronnie Montrose had on rock music. Ronnie himself will tell you that his concern has never been to write or produce Number One songs. He plays from his heart the music that comes through his soul. But that heart and soul paved the way and gave direction for everything that came after. The rock & roll world owes him a debt of gratitude for his innovative and inspiring contribution. Ronnie Montrose truly rocks the nation!!!
Ronnie Montrose Interview
BAM: Can you tell us about the members in your current lineup and how long you have been playing with them?
Ronnie: The only reason I am doing this DVD tonight is because of these guys — they are the greatest group of guys. Over the years, I have played with a lot of different musicians. I wasn’t touring consistently, so the guys I was playing with would have other projects going on that would conflict with some things I was trying to do, so I’d have to hire someone else…But I got to the point where I was tired of that. It was like a revolving door, and I didn’t want that anymore. So I started looking for members that were willing to commit to the project on a more permanent basis — more of a family unit type thing — and play really sincere music with a huge set of nuts. Ya know. I’ve been with Dan McNay [bass] on and off for a few years now, and Steve Brown [drums] for about a year. And the hidden jewel of all of them is Randy Scoles [vocals]. He is just the greatest singer — he’s the guy I’ve always been looking for. I mean, I’ve played with some of the best — Edgar Winter, Sammy Hagar, Davey Pattison, Gary Bardon — I’ve worked with some great singers!
BAM: Where did you find him?
Ronnie: Actually, Dan found him. They knew him from Sacramento. When Randy came in, it felt complete. So I said, “OK, guys, let’s shoot a live DVD.”
BAM: Tonight is a very special night for you — you are shooting your first live DVD. How did the DVD come about? What content will be on it?
Ronnie: Here’s the deal about the DVD. I finally hit the point with my agent where there are no more Montrose shows — it’s Ronnie Montrose. People want to come hear Ronnie Montrose play guitar. What I mean by that is “Montrose” is Ronnie Montrose, Sammy Hagar, Bill Church and Denny Carmassi, and that’s it. Everything else is a different version of Ronnie Montrose playing his guitar. So that’s the beauty of this current band. We are breaking the set down into sections: the original Montrose songs, an acoustic section, Gamma. And the only reason we can do this is because of Randy Scoles. He is such a great bluesy singer, as well as a rock singer, that he can pull it off. So I am really excited about this, being able to play the entire range of music.
BAM: Do you have any plans for a new album?
Ronnie: Absolutely not. And the reason is, everyone — agents, managers — is always saying, “Do a new record!” But why? Let’s face it, records are promotional tools. I’m 64 years old, I am not going to hit the road on a worldwide tour to support it. When you are in your 20s and 30s, that’s when you put out the albums. But people like me, like Robin Trower, like Clapton — people come to see us play the music we have always played. At this point in our lives, we have put a lot of music out, and that is what people want to hear: the classics, an entire set of greatest hits. And this DVD is like my swan song. My wife gets irritated when I say that, because it may not be the last thing I do. But for me, this is a visual document of my life’s work.
BAM: You’ve always been known as a guitar player, but you have also produced a lot of projects for other artists. First of all, how did you get into producing? And secondly, why do you think those artists sought you out as a producer?
Ronnie: Because I have the ability to listen, and to hear and imagine what could happen musically. I am not a Number One Hit producer, that’s not what I do. But what I have been able to do is help bands to articulate what it is they are trying to say with their music. It doesn’t matter what type of artist you are — writer, painter, musician — you have to be able to get what is inside of you out. So my success has been because I help them figure out what it is they are trying to say, and to say it in a way that articulates their intention better than they would have if left to their own devices. And as a producer, one of the questions I always ask is, “Why are you doing this?” Is it because you want to become an overnight rock star? If that is it, I can tell you right now, it’s not going to happen! But if you want to be a good songwriter or player, then I might be able to help you.
BAM: OK, so as a producer, your job is to take a bunch of raw material and make it into music. At some point, someone has to have a visual of the final outcome, and decisions have to be made toward that end. So, in your past projects, have you taken that upon yourself, or do you direct it to them?
Ronnie: I bring it out of them, and I try not to ever have a preconceived vision. I always try to listen and see if there is a clear idea, and if not, I try to bring it out of them. Because, let’s face it, no matter what your profession, when you are starting out, your vision isn’t necessarily clear yet. Yes, you have the love, the passion for whatever it is, but you have to make it your own version. I get these guys who have been playing for years, and still have no sense of themselves and what they are trying to say. I was very blessed. In my 20s, I knew exactly what I wanted to play. Was I especially crafty? No. Was I skilled? To a point. But what I did have was a clear idea of myself, and how to translate that into my music. These young guys are always in a hurry, like, “Oh my god, in a few years I’ll be 30, I have to make it now or it’ll never happen!” And I have to tell them, “Slow down, let the old man show you how it’s done.” And I think that by the end of the projects that I have done, they did have a better sense of themselves, or a clearer sense of what they want to say through their music.
BAM: You’ve produced artists in a wide range of styles. Is there a difference in producing, say, a metal band, as opposed to a blues band? And if so, what is it?
Ronnie: Oh yeah, good question, because there is a big difference. I produced Heathen and Wrath, and they were both these young metal bands. And I did it because it was fun for me, and it was fun to dive into that genre. But it was such a different generation, and I’m looking at these guys, going, “You’ve got to be shittin’ me…what is this!?” [laughter] But it’s music, and I got into it, and it turned out well.
On the other hand, I produced an album for Jeff Berlin, who is a brilliant bass player, and it was wonderful because I was so in over my head with the musicians that were playing with him. These guys were world-class musicians! He had Clara Fishman on keys, Scott Henderson on guitar, and Neil Piert and Steve Smith on drums. So I’ve got all these players in the studio, and I’m recording two drum sets at once, and basically, what they were asking of me was to mediate. When you have that much talent together — you’re a freaking mediator. I realized that, and it was a great lesson. You don’t produce that much talent; you mediate it. Carlos Santana and I were talking once about musicians and dealing with their different egos and personalities, and he made an interesting point: “If you want fire, you hire fire. But you have to be prepared to deal with the fire you hire.” So producing is a combination of being able to listen, direct, inspire, organize, and mediate in whatever situation you find yourself in. From project to project, those dynamics change, and you have to adapt to the situation at hand and figure out the best formula to make things work.
BAM: You may not see yourself this way but, you were and are an innovator, not only on guitar, but with songwriting as well. I mean, the first Montrose album was groundbreaking. No one was writing music or playing guitar like that then. What were your influences, and what inspired your style?
Ronnie: The first thing I was was a hippie. I got my first gig playing acoustic guitar with Van Morrison on Tupelo Honey. It wasn’t anything to do with rock, just little hippie parts. And then I played with a guy in Marin on his record with my electric guitar tone, and I got a call from a guy in New York who was Edgar Winter’s manager. He asked me if I would like to come to New York and audition for Edgar’s band. Yes, of course I would — going to New York City! And I got the gig. But my guitar sound was, to me, a natural progression — all of a sudden playing in a coliseum band, and having to turn up loud, and I was playing through Johnny Winter’s amps, and that’s how I pulled my tone and sound out.
BAM: At the time, did you realize that your tone and style were that innovative? I mean, was there a point where you thought to yourself, “I am really onto something here!”?
Ronnie: I knew I had the f***ing shit! At the 100% moment, baby! [laughter] I would put something down, and other guitar players would tell me, “Ronnie, your shit is the shit!” And I would say, “I know it’s the shit!! I don’t know why it’s the shit, and I can’t tell you why it’s the shit, but when I plug this thing in and turn it on, I know it’s the shit — I can feel the shit!” [hysterical laughter] I still can’t tell you how or why. It was a gift from the universe, the universe just laid it on me. It’s been a running joke, and we laugh about it all the time. And I’m sure it will happen tonight after the show, because it always does. I can play my ass off, my nuts too — just tear it up. And after the show, guys will come back, and I’ll say to the band, “Watch this. They won’t say to me, ‘Dude, you played your ass off!’ No, they’ll say, ‘Dude…great tone!’ You can place a bet on it…”Great f***ing tone.” In fact, if you want to make some extra money tonight, start making some bets with people who didn’t hear this story. [more hysterical laughter]
BAM: So what are you listening to these days?
Ronnie: I have about 3,000 songs on my iPod, but I go through phases. Since I have been doing this stuff, I have been listening to a lot of Zep [Led Zeppelin] and Bad Company. I also listen to John Abercrombie, Bill Connors, Bill Frizell — I mean, real obscure guitar players that entertain me because of their phrasing and how they explore their instrument. I never listen to my own stuff.
BAM: What you said about listening to your own stuff reminded me of something really funny. Most of the players I know that have been playing for forever are the same way. But eventually, they have to listen to their own stuff, because they forgot how to play it! [laughter]
Ronnie: I tell my guys, “The only thing I f***ing hate worse than rehearsing is f***ing not rehearsing.” [laughter] I’ve been playing these songs for like 40 years, but we gotta go through them. But luckily with these guys, it’s fun again.
BAM: With all your years of wisdom and experience, what would be your advice to aspiring musicians?
Ronnie: Well, some of those things I have already mentioned. You really have to be sure why you want to get into this, and make sure it’s for the right reasons. You have to do it because you love it. And hang in there — it doesn’t come easy, especially these days. Let’s put it this way. I’m 64 years old now, but when I was starting out in my 20s, did I imagine that I would be sitting here 40 years later with this beautiful crowd of people here to see me play? No, I did even project for that. But what I did imagine and know is that there was no life for me without these hands on these strings up and down the fret board.
BAM: OK, this is the grand finale. You have had a great career and done a lot of things, but what are you most proud of?
Ronnie: Survival! I have been so blessed in my life. I survived prostate cancer, as well as life’s trials, as you all have, and I’m still going. I’m 64 now. I figure I’ve got, what, another 40 years…?! [laughter]
BAM: Thanks so much, Ronnie. This has truly been a pleasure to talk with you.
Ronnie: Thank you, and thanks to BAM! Glad you’re back!
Michael Lee Firkins Interview
Opening the show was a trio featuring guitarist Michael Lee Firkins. Michael is a tremendous player — his style is a very refined, fluid blend of rock, country and bluegrass. His self-titled debut album, Michael Lee Firkins, was released in 1990 on Shrapnel Records. It was very successful, garnering several prestigious honors and awards, including “Best New Talent” in Guitar Player Magazine’s Readers Poll; “One of the Most Influential Players of the Next 10 Years” in Guitar for the Practicing Musician; and in Europe, it won the Edison Award, Holland’s version of a Grammy.
With all that momentum built up, Michael’s career should have been on the fast track to success, but that was not to be. His next three albums fell victim to the same epidemic that decimated hundreds of artists in the 1990s, as the music industry shifted a very narrow focus on new, emerging sub-genres.
After an 11-year sabbatical, Michael Lee Firkins has stepped back on stage and is planning to release a new album on Magna Carta Records. His set with Montrose was exceptional. Along with bassist Dave Rapa and drummer Cortney Deaugustine, Michael fronted the band on lead guitar and vocals. Catching one of his upcoming shows and looking out for his new album is highly recommended! He may not have sold millions of albums yet, but he should have, and rivals all those who do. Definitely check him out!
BAM: What albums did you do with Shrapnel Records?
MLF: I did four records for Shrapnel. First was my self-titled debut, Michael Lee Firkins, which had Jeff Pilson [Dokken, Foreigner, Dio] and James Kottak [Scorpions, Montrose, MSG, Warrant] play on the record. My next record was called The Howling Iguanas. Then Chapter 11 and Cactus Cruz.
BAM: You are from Omaha, Nebraska. What made you make the move to the Bay Area?
MLF: The band The Howling Iguanas is what got me to move out to California. I did a record for the group, and when I came out to record, I just ended up staying and never went back to Omaha. It wasn’t a conscious thing, it was actually very casual. I just woke up one day and said, “I think I’m going to move and never come back.” That was it.
BAM: What have you been doing since you moved out here?
MLF: After all the albums, the industry and the Bay Area music scene had changed for the worse. I ended up being a complete recluse. All I did was practice, write songs, and work on my vocals. I did not play live for 11 years. I got married and had my daughter. Then I got a record deal with Magna Carta Records.
BAM: What are your plans for the future…album, tours?
MLF: I’m about to release my next record on Magna Carta, which features me along with drummer Matt Abts [Gov’t Mule], bass player Andy Hess [Gov’t Mule, The Black Crowes], and keyboardist Chuck Leavell [Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Allman Brothers]. I will be doing quite a bit of touring in 2012.
BAM: You have a great female drummer. Where did you find her, and what is her background?
MLF: My drummer is Cortney Deaugustine, and she is an amazing talent from Sacramento, California. She has done some gigs as the drummer for Montrose recently, and for Frank Hannon of Tesla.
BAM: How did you get involved in the Montrose show? Did he have an influence on you as a guitar player?
MLF: Of course he was an influence. A lot of people have that first Montrose record with Sammy…”Bad Motor Scooter” and “Rock Candy.” Legendary records with classic rock hits. We both have the same management. I have been opening for Montrose for about 50 shows this year, all over the country. It’s been GREAT! Ronnie and band are such great guys. Tons of fun!
BAM: What are you listening to these days?
MLF: It changes all the time. I think I’m just getting done with another big reminiscing of the classic rock era. I seem to relive my youth every three or four years and go back to those songs again — all the old Lynyrd Skynyrd, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, AC/DC. Nothing new for me right now, except I love the Black Keys and the Drive-By Truckers and anything outlaw country. I also highly recommend Little Steven’s Garage on Sirius Radio. I hear new bands all the time from every era that I’ve never heard of before.
BAM: What are you most proud of?
MLF: I’m most proud of my daughter Michela — she’s everything to me.