Boomerocity readers are already quite familiar with the legendary keyboardist and two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Gregg Rolie. If you weren’t already familiar with him and his work in the past, you became familiar with him in our interview with him a couple of years ago (here).
Gregg has a new album out entitled, Sonic Ranch, that he recently released as he’s between touring with Ringo Starr and performing via other bands and projects.
I caught up by phone with Rolie at his home in the Austin, Texas, area to chat about the new CD as well as other things going on in his career. As I conducted my research for the interview, I came across an excellent Rolling Stone interview with Gregg that was written by Andy Greene. It answered all the basic questions about Rolie’s time with Santana, Journey, and Ringo that people would want to ask him. Instead of putting him through the drudgery of answering those same questions, I decided in advance to provide a link to that interview and do so right here. It’s an outstanding article and worth the time to read (after you finish this one, of course!). Consequently, we launched straight into chatting about Sonic Ranch.
The album felt especially “personal” to me so I asked Gregg if that was the case.
"They're all like that, actually. Just different periods of time. It's the only way I can put that. And that's true. It took a while, but it was only because I got busy with all kinds of stuff. As far as it being completely personal, yes and no. I mean, some songs are, some aren't. Most are. Most are either experiences or I know somebody who experienced it. It's kind of it.”
When I shared that I also felt that the disc revealed somewhat of a spiritual change in him, he said:
“It's too deep to what I was doing. My viewpoint is songwriting is like mountain climbing and playing music. They climb mountains because they're there and playing music because it's there. It comes to you or it doesn't; just sit down and there's nothing there. I don't watch a ballgame or something. If it's not coming, it's not coming. And much like someone who writes a book and they get writer's block. It just goes away. Usually, they sit there in angst over it. I just don't do that anymore. So, it'll come when it does if it's gonna. You’re usually paid off with something that's pretty good because it's supposed to come out.”
As I’ve repeatedly said in other articles, I never ask an artist what their favorite song on their album is because it’s akin to a parent picking a favorite child. This time around, I asked Gregg which song kind of has its thumb on his pulse more than the others on the album.
“I must have many pulses. They all touch me in different ways. Some of them were written back in 2013/14 and some are fresher because I had to get off and tour with Ringo for seven years. I've been doing that for seven years now. I got busy with that. I got busy with Santana IV. I got busy with Journey Through Time with Neal Schon. I did all of that stuff. And, then, finally I could finish it. So, some of the songs are newer, but as far as being - they're all important to me in different ways, and the way I've always written music is - and played it - is that I gotta like it.
“But what I'm trying to really do is connect with people. If any one of them connect with somebody and somebody else and somebody else and this one connects with them, then I've done a good job, in my viewpoint. That's how I attack all of this stuff. They're all special to me in different ways. And it's a hard question to answer.”
Then, injecting a little humor into the end of his answer, he said, “Have you got an ear?” Continuing on with regards to the sound of Sonic Ranch, Gregg shared:
“So, this guy, Howie Edelson, said he could see five different bands. It's one concept. And so, it kind of goes together and yet there's so many different sounds from hard rock to Don't Be Cruel, you know. It's just the way I hear things. If I hear something that is going to strike me, then I try and do it if I think it's going appeal to people. You've got to be playing music for people, not just yourself. I don't believe in that. It is for people. I'm trying to connect to people. And so that's why I've always approached it. I can like some music that no one will ever want to buy or hear. It's not where I go with it. That's for me. But the stuff that I want to try to get to get out to the public, it's made for them.”
I offered that the song, "Only You," is a great song written for his wife, Lori. So, I wondered what her response was to it.
Gregg and Ringo“Quite frankly, she goes, 'You've never written a song about me.' 'Baby, they're ALL about you.' And in her own words, she said, 'That's bullshit'. I said, 'Okay, you got me. I'm going to write this one for you. This one is about you and me.' And that was the song. And it was touching the both of us because it really is the history of how we met. In that short amount of time, it says what we are to each other. And it's pretty difficult to do.
Usually, it would take a book or at least a few paragraphs. So, yeah, it means a lot to me. My son recorded it and he engineered and produced it. And he got a tone out of me - out of my voice. It's incredible. I used a microphone that Willie Nelson used here in Austin. And it's like I never heard my voice sound so crystal clear and big and beefy and all that stuff. It was great. Yeah, it has a lot of meaning to me in that one.”
Another song that I truly enjoy is, “Just You”. I asked Gregg what the story is behind it.
“Well, basically, it the song, 'You', was there first. What was going on was we were moving on to other things over at Sonic Ranch, which is named after the studio just outside El Paso. And the studio is kind of underground but they had glass where you could see people's feet and all of that walking by. The sound was better and all of that.
“I kept seeing my son and an engineer walking by with keyboards over and over. I was sitting at the piano working on something else. They kept walking by with all these keyboards. 'What are these guys up to go into the studio and they set up like fifteen - at least 15 synthesizers. And they were going, 'Well we were thinking that maybe you could do some kind of orchestration in front of the song, 'You'. I went, 'Well, you went to all this trouble, I suppose I ought to do something.'
“I put it together based off of the song lyrics and the same chord structure and just kind of varied it and all that and put all these synths on there. It's more orchestrated. And that's the front end of it. The tail-end of it - the solo part - the timing changed. I sped it up from what it was in the song. I remember that they asked me, 'You do realize that's a different time/tempo, right?' 'Yes, I do. Ha! Ha! I can at least count that.' So that's kinda how that happened. That's all it is. The song is about the heartbreak of, 'You did this. You did that. But now I gotta go. This isn't working.' That's basically it.”
In the Rolling Stone interview, Gregg heaps praise on a good Boomerocity friend, Toto’s Steve “Luke” Lukather, who plays on “Give Me Tomorrow” and “They Want It All” on Sonic Ranch. We’ve interviewed Luke five times and have meet him face-to-face four times. Each of those times, he’s been kind, gracious, and blushingly funny. The man has a heart of gold. When I shared that – as well as seconded what he had to say in Rolling Stone, Rolie added:
“Yeah. I know. He is phenomenal. His playing is unbelievable. But that's not all of it for me. He's just a really good man. I laugh at all those jokes. We're all going the same place, if that's the case. Ha! Ha! He knocks me out. I've never seen anybody so quick to come up with stuff. And that works for music, too. I love him. I think he's a great human being.”
Gregg’s former Journey bandmate, Neal Schon, also contributes some amazing guitar licks on “Lift Me Up”. Rolie had this to say about Neal:
“I've known Neal since he was sixteen. Actually, I got him into the band, Santana. Kinda snuck him through. I'd pick him up from high school and while we were recording Abraxas, he came in. We would jam. I really would have loved to see him be in the band because he and Carlos played totally differently, but it could've been really cool. It ended up happening because Carlos goes . . . 'What do you think about having a second guitarist?' I was going, 'What a great idea!'
“I really was steering it. And he had the choice of being in Santana or Derek and the Dominos at sixteen years old! He's pretty special; an unbelievable player. I've known him forever, man. I mean, I used to say that he's like my little brother. So, when I asked him to play on a couple of things (on Sonic Ranch), he said, 'Sure.' And vice versa. And that's how that came about.
What else would Gregg Rolie like to do musically that he hasn’t done yet?
“I'm in the process of doing it. Funny you should ask! It's like I know this just came out, but we're already working on new material. My son and myself, Deen Castronova and Mark Mendoza. I met those guys through Journey Through Time with Neal, and that kind of blew up and he's going to be in Journey. I said, 'Well, let's go do something?'. So, we started this up. And I've got a young guy, Yayo Sanchez, who, if you ever saw it on Facebook, he was the 'kiss guy'. He's 26 years old. It's just nonstop music, this guy.
“The engineer that we ended up recording three songs already - it turns out that he's a fantastic guitarist, especially acoustic guitars. He's from Colombia. When we start this thing up and it's totally different. It is and it's not because I can't help it. I'm in the band. So, it's going to go somewhere with my sound on it. It's just the way it is. But I'm trying to open the door to the whole thing and make it fresh blood. I mean, instead of going through the same procedure that's always happened, I wanted to do something totally different. It's really alive and young.
“So, I got young guys and they come up with fantastic things. You know, I can get music down my age in a second. But coming out with some of the young stuff that's there and I'm putting those ideas to work with my own, it's pretty interesting. And my door is open to that with these guys. It's like we're going to come up with some great stuff. The three of them are already good.
“We've been writing some more and will record some more in January and February. Hopefully, we'll do something next year (2020), time permitting, because we're doing Ringo again in the summer. And that, by the way, has been a fantastic trip. Playing with this band and, you know, got to know Lukather through that. He's become a very good friend of mine. It's almost like kindred spirits. We kind of have the same viewpoint about a lot of things and it kind of comes out.
“I think the main part is that, as you get older, the hang is everything. And all these guys in all of the Ringo bands, the hang has been phenomenal. Everybody is really cool people. Right now, it's Hamish Stuart from Average White Band and Colin Hay from Men at Work; Lukather and myself and Bissenett has been there longer than all of us. And, of course, Ringo has been there longer than all of us. Warren Hamm on sax and harmonica and vocals. You know, a utilitarian guy. It's really a good band and a lot of fun. We just hang and play!”
I asked if Billy Joel’s sax man, Mark Rivera, was still with Ringo (we had interviewed Mark a few years ago, here).
“He's the music director, still. He went off to play with Billy Joel. Billy Joel has been playing Madison Square Garden I don't know how many times. Selling it out. A residency at the Garden. Are you kidding me? Pretty crazy! He goes, 'I gotta do that.' 'Yeah, you do!'.”
In the meantime, Gregg is doing his own thing when he’s not playing with Ringo. You can find out what all that is – as well as order Sonic Ranch – by visiting GreggRolie.com.