Musicians are notorious gypsies, traveling around the world, never liking to stay in one place too long. Some musicians are content to stay with one band their whole lives while others love the thrill of new vibrations. There is a little of both in guitar player Keri Kelli. Reading over his portfolio you get the impression he’s a whirlwind of activity, much like the Tasmanian Devil without all the super-duper hyperactivity, since the list of artists he has worked with is long. But when you’re sitting next to him, you realize he’s actually happily, and contentedly, very laid back. He is a man in love with his job, who finds pleasure in any band he plays with, any project that comes his way.
Born and bred a California boy, he eventually found himself in the heart of the LA music scene, when Guns N Roses was breaking out of the alleys and Motley Crue was the band to look up to. Every guy that had come to the Strip with dreams of becoming a rock star were wandering around, humping equipment to any club that would have them, living off the kindness of strippers and shop owners, waiting for that one right person to see their show and sign them to a lifetime of world travel, rock & roll style. Keri Kelli will tell you he was no different.
Probably best known for his time with Alice Cooper, Kelli has also worked with Skid Row, Slash, Jani Lane, Vince Neil, Big Bang Babies and now Night Ranger, who he just finished up a fun set with in Biloxi; hence the two of us sitting inside the VIP area of a now-quiet sports bar that only an hour ago had been insane with Auburn vs Alabama football rivalry. “People were going crazy about the game,” laughs Kelli. “My boy Damon [Johnson] that I used to play with in Alice is from Alabama and he was always on that Auburn bullshit … And I don’t know a thing about it.”
What Kelli does know is music and what he wants to do with it. He has been around long enough to follow what makes him happy. He’s having fun, he says more than once, and you believe him. He shrugs off any praise you give him regarding his talent, throwing it immediately to the ones he feels are truly great, keeping his playing in check within himself. Ego doesn’t appear to be in his vocabulary. He could brag about owning two restaurant/bars in Vegas; but he doesn’t. He could blow hot air about all the great stereotypical rock shenanigans he has gotten into with BIG names; but he doesn’t. He could throw attitude at you when asked questions about being a rock star; but he doesn’t. He is simply Keri Kelli … not to be mixed up with Kelly Keagy, who happens to be a prominent member of Night Ranger. Even Jack Blades can get Kelli-Kelly tongue-tied onstage trying to introduce his bandmates. It’s always a big laugh for everyone, band and audience alike.
You have played with Night Ranger before in the past.
Yeah, I jammed with them. I guess it’s been two years or so, maybe a little bit more than two years, in the wintertime, obviously, when Joel [Hoekstra, who left NR a few months ago to join Whitesnake] was doing this thing with the TSO and then they needed some help. So I guess it was like in August of this year, I started jamming with them and I kept playing and I’m still here. I guess we’re going to continue playing (laughs). But I love playing with the guys and I want to be here and I want to play with them and we have a great time together. I would hope they would say the same thing (laughs).
You’re definitely a man who has a lot on his plate these days.
I just play and do my thing but I have so many other things going on, like with the restaurants and the bars and other things. I mean, music is just something that I have done my whole life and I’m playing with Ranger now, which is awesome, and I played with John Waite the last couple of years as well; he’s a great singer and songwriter. Then I have my own band, this Project Rock band, with a lot of other cool guys – Rudy Sarzo and Tim “Ripper” Owens and James Kottak from Scorpions. It’s like, the music business is incestuous. Everybody is playing with everybody else and you’ve got different things going on and it just keeps rolling. So I’m ready for anything that comes my way. I just roll with the punches, I really do, to be honest with you.
Why do you think that Night Ranger has remained such a popular band all these years? I think Jack said tonight since 1982.
I think Night Ranger is the band probably from that point. Before, they had the other band, when they played at the CalJam and all that stuff in the late seventies. But that was basically Kelly was in the band, I believe, and Jack and Brad. So they’ve kind of been together even before that, like four or five years before. But yeah, they have been a band for all of those years and I think the reason why they’ve survived is that they have great songs. That really propels you and keeps you going year after year after year, you know, and I think they were fortunate enough to come around at a time when, I mean, it was like everything came to a head, I guess. It was like the right time for that kind of music, that kind of image, for them and a lot of other bands. And now they’ve solidified themselves in the industry with the songs and the name and the whole nine yards.
And people still enjoy the songs and they never get tired of them.
Yeah absolutely, and that’s really the bottom line is the songs. And entertaining the people as well. They are a very entertaining band, which I think is great. You know, a lot of bands call shit in and it’s like, “Oh we got to go over here and play this fucking place or that place.” But they actually do care and that’s one thing with John Waite as well. I mean, I don’t want to get off-subject here, but John really cared about the show and how his voice sounded and the song selection and everything, which I really take that to heart when some other artists that have been around that many years sometimes they just call it in and don’t really give a shit. And I’ve witnessed that many a time.
What do you think is your biggest asset that you’re bringing to Night Ranger?
Oh God, I don’t know (laughs). Honestly, I don’t. I just want to do a good job for the guys and I want to have fun. That’s really what it’s about to me these days. I want to do the songs justice. I want to have a good time playing. I want to make sure that all the moving parts are correct, meaning onstage when everybody is vibing together and gelling together, and I think we do. And that’s the thing. It really is about the entertainment. It’s the music business but it’s the entertainment business. You want to entertain the people but you’ve got to be able to deliver the goods. But, you know, at this stage in my career, I want to have fun.
And that’s this band
Yeah, it really is, exactly. And they have the great songs to back it up. And even the new record, I mean, songs on the new record are fucking awesome. And they go over great, as you saw tonight. “High Road,” we play that every night and it’s great. We’ve played “Knock Knock” a few times, “St Barth” we’ve played, and they go over great. It’s the weirdest thing. It’s just like a song from twenty years ago and everybody loves it.
But it’s just like Jack usually says, and we all know it cause I do myself, when a band that you love, that has a career, not a new band you know, goes, “We’re going to do a song off the new record” and you’re like, “Hey Dude, let’s go. You want to go get a beer?” That’s when you go to the bathroom or get a beer or whatever but I think it’s actually working very, very well and I think it’s because the new songs are well-crafted and they’re awesome. They fit right in line with the Night Ranger stuff.
When did you pick up a guitar?
I think I got my first guitar when I was about nine or so, or ten or something like that.
Was it because of something you heard or because your friends were all doing it too?
No, but my parents really loved music and my mom took me to my first concert. I saw Queen at the Forum and it was incredible. That was in 1978, believe it or not, and I was like a little kid: “What the hell is this?!” (laughs) Then I saw KISS in 1979. So I think that really brought it on and I went, “Wow, I want to do that!” I didn’t really know what it was. I mean, I heard the records, cause like I said, my parents loved music. My dad played bass and stuff like that so it was just something that looked awesome.
How did you get your first guitar?
My grandma bought it, my mom’s mom, bought the first guitar. It was just some junk (laughs). But that was when I was about nine or so, around that time when I saw Queen and KISS and was like, “Wow!” Even though you heard the records and you listened to the spit coming out of the speakers, you didn’t really know, and you go to the concerts and you go, “What in God’s name?” It was at the Forum and the Forum had like 20,000 people and I was like this little kid. “What’s going on here?” But I didn’t really know what I was doing and I was nine years old or whatever so I think I got more serious about it when I was like twelve or thirteen. Then I got sort of a guitar teacher that was helping me and showing me stuff.
You play Gibsons now. Was that your dream guitar growing up?
Yeah, I mean, my mom got me a Gibson copy, which was the second guitar I got after my grandma’s guitar, which was, I really don’t even know what it was, just some junky thing. But she got me a Gibson copy and Gibson is what I play now. They’ve helped me out the last ten years or so. They’re good guys.
You said your dad played bass. Was that your earliest memories of music, of him playing?
Yeah, kind of. He had this like blues thing and they were more into Stones and stuff like that and Johnny Winter, like blues stuff. So he would jam with this other guy, Uncle Bob, and he was a guitar player and dad was bass and just jamming like ZZ Top kind of blues stuff and things like that, power blues. So that was kind of what I guess got me into it. The Rolling Stones they played at the house a lot and then I had the Queen record. There was always music going on in the house in those early seventies/middle seventies. I was a little kid, I didn’t know any different. But it was like, “Wow, look at that!” My dad had a bass and a Fender big amp and you don’t really know when you’re a kid, you’re just like, wow, cool.
What was it like when you first jumped into the LA music scene?
I had a couple different bands. I played in a band when I was like sixteen years old, and I think this was 1987 or 1988, and that was an LA band. It was called Empire. We had a girl singer and a keyboard player who had been in some other LA bands, St Valentine and a few others, and he was a little bit older, I think at least about five or six years older than me; I don’t know exactly. But he was from LA, moved down to Orange County, then he found me and my other buddy, these Orange County kids, and he was like, “Come with me. I’m going to show you the way.” So he kind of showed us the ropes from the whole LA scene or whatever. We didn’t know. We were like these teenage kids hanging out at backyard parties in Orange County. But that was my first band, Empire. Then that thing kind of did it’s course and then I started my own band, cause I go, well, I know everything now (laughs) and that was the Big Bang Babies thing. So we did that and I think that was like 1989 or 1990/1991/1992 and then that ran it’s course and then we went on from there.
It was an interesting time, hanging out and living in LA at that time. I used to live on floors for years. I mean, the bigger your band got, which is the coolest thing, like with the Big Bang thing, it started off and you’re like nobody. So you’re living literally on the floor or with a stripper or something like that. And then you went to like the couch and then you went to another stripper’s place and next thing you know, by the time we were like playing two nights at the Roxy, like sold out, it was killer. Then I had my own house. This one stripper lived there, it was a three bedroom house off of Melrose and Crescent Heights. It was awesome. I had my own room, she had her room, and then another guy lived in the other room. It was rad (laughs). I had no money and I was living there and she would like give me money. “Here’s like twenty or thirty dollars. Go get some food if you need it.” I’m like, “All right, great.” And it was cool because she was actually going out with Duff from Guns N Roses at the time. So Duff would come over and we’d be hanging out and as you’ve heard the many, many stories of the LA scene back then, it was a weird thing. It was it’s own animal (laughs).
Which band or artist gave you the most freedom to be creative with your guitar playing?
A lot of the bands that probably people know me from or whatever, I’m copying something else in a way, you know what I mean. Whether it’s when I played with Vince and you’re kind of playing the Mick Mars stuff, the Motley stuff; and obviously in this, you’re playing the Night Ranger stuff. I played with Skid Row. Most bands are pretty cool but if there was like a specific theme to the solo, you want to try to play that. And maybe there is a part where the guys are kind of jamming a little bit and you kind of do your own thing or whatever. But usually a lot of these bands that I’ve played with, you want to try to stick with whatever you’re doing, which is what the original is. So I don’t know. I don’t try to go too crazy unless it’s my own little deal, you know.
What about with Alice – did you find his structured show a little bit stifling? Cause you had to be here at this point and there at that point. Did you ever feel boxed in?
Not necessarily boxed in but, yeah, that show with Alice it is a structured thing, absolutely. The show does not stop. Typically, what they do is like it’s a two year tour, I guess, so they put the show together for those two years. It’s like those songs and the stage moves and when they hang Alice you have to stand here or stand in the back and go crazy a bit on that song. With Coop, we used to do like a hundred shows a year and when you’re doing it five days a week, when you get to the 80th or 90th show, you’re almost like on autopilot sometimes. You’re like, I got to go up over here or I got to go over there and you’re like, “Oh shit, did I leave my laundry in the thing?” Oh now I got to go over here (laughs). It’s just you’ve done it over and over and it’s a repetitive thing, you know. Some bands like to do things like that, some bands don’t like to do things like that.
With Night Ranger, today, we haven’t played together for like a month. We did a soundcheck and we played maybe six or seven songs and some of them were the new songs and we didn’t even play any of them in the set. We haven’t played in like a month but they just change shit all the time, they move the set list around, things are different, so it kind of makes it fresh and keeps you on your toes a little bit. It definitely does make it not as stagnant and not as typical. But, there is something to be said for when you’re doing a bigger show or a production like Alice where things need to happen and lighting cues happen; moving parts, you know. It’s not just like a band jamming.
What was the most important thing you learned from Alice about being a performer?
Alice is awesome. He’s been doing it for so many years and he’s a professional at making things look great. It’s the show. Yes, it’s the music but it’s the dramatics of the show, bringing it down, bringing it up, having the direction of the lights, the cues; it’s different than just a band going up there playing rock songs. But his vibe is completely different than say Night Ranger or even Skid Row that I played with. I loved playing with those guys. We’d just go out there and kick people’s faces in starting with “Slave To The Grind.” They’re just like, “Let’s fucking balls out right out of the gate,” you know what I mean. It’s rad, it’s just straight fucking in your face. But Alice’s thing is more structured, dynamic, dramatic, and that’s what his thing is about. I really learned a lot of the theatrical big moves and making things count. But it’s different in a situation like Alice and these other bands. I don’t think you could replicate what you do with a Coop show with like Skid Row or Night Ranger or something like that.
What was your most nerve-wracking experience onstage?
You know, the weird thing is, I don’t get too nervous really when I play. It’s just sometimes the situations are kooky (laughs). As you see, I’m just up there jumping around acting like a fucking idiot. I’m just having fun. In any of the projects I’ve been with, nothing was really too nerve-wracking but the one weirdest situation was a Skid Row thing. I was sitting in my house one day and it was a Thursday. I was just sitting there, literally, and the phone rang and it was Mike Nash and he said, “What are you doing?” “I’m just kicking it, whatever.” And he goes, “Rachel [Bolan, Skid Row’s bass player] is going to call you,” or something like that, and I go, okay, cool. And then Rachel calls, “Hey man, what’s up? Can you help us out or whatever?” And I go, “Yeah, everything’s cool. When?” “Tomorrow.” And I go, “Tomorrow? Alright, send the songs over.” So they sent all the songs over, like seventeen songs or eighteen songs, and I’m like, what the fuck? Of course, I know some of the songs just cause you’ve heard them a million times on the radio. But this was like around ten or eleven am or noon or something like that, my time, Pacific time. So I’m learning all these songs and they book me on the next flight out on Friday morning at 7:00 am, which is the first flight you can go out in Orange County. So I roll out there to the East Coast and my fingers are like bleeding and I have all these notes and we just rocked the fucking set. My head was like spinning off (laughs). That was nerve-wracking.
Who was the first real rock star you ever met?
I think in the early eighties when I was a kid I met the guys from Motley at the Santa Monica Civic before they were big. I think it was like 1982. There were a lot of things happening in LA at that time and I was just a little kid but I would go to all the concerts. Like I said, my mom was really into it and she would take me and my friends around and we’d be like, “Fuck yeah, this is killer.” (laughs) So I met Nikki and Vince, and it was the weirdest thing, you know, and I was like eleven years old or twelve years old and they were like killing it. Then it just kind of continued from there. Even with like Joey, this guy that plays in Warrant, Joey Allen. He lived right down the street from my parents’ house. His parents lived there and my parents lived in the same little tract of houses so when I was a kid, he was like five years older or something like that, the bus would drop me off right by his house and he lived by the clubhouse and that’s where they would drop the kids off the bus and I’d like walk by and his band would be jamming and I’d knock on the garage and they’d open the garage and I’d come in. Then he got in Warrant and he’s like, “I’m in this band called Warrant.” And I’d be like, “Wow, that’s killer!” Then next thing you know they got the record deal and they were big. So it was always like a weird Orange County or LA thing. But I think it was the Motley guys probably when I was like eleven or twelve.
Who is your go-to musician when you need a boost of inspiration?
I don’t know, I just listen to everything – Coltrane, Vivaldi, Paganini. I listen to a lot of Classical music. I just keep it on in the background and it’s kind of soothing to me. At my house I have so many things going on, like with my other businesses and shit like that, just to have the nice music in the background is okay. I don’t have a bunch of rock going on. I want something soothing. But I’ve heard so much music, and I’m sure you have too, but I really do listen to a lot of Classical music typically cause it’s mellower. But I like a lot of Seal too. He’s not necessarily my bro but he’s friends with one of my other friends and we’ve been to some of the shows and hung out with him. He’s a great guy and his music is very cool and very soothing to me. Massive Attack, which sounds very crazy (laughs), which is the opposite of Classical. But Seal, a lot of Classical, some Massive Attack and then I just put the shit on random. But Classical in general to keep it mellow.
What makes a guitar solo into a great guitar solo?
I guess you would probably have to ask a great guitar player (laughs). You know, I just think having a sense of melody, note choice; everything. It all comes into play. Slash, when I played with him, I really got to witness it. I mean, he is just great. He plays a lot of standard blues-ish kind of stuff, know what I mean. But he is incredible at what he does. He’s not trying to be Steve Vai or Yngwie or this or that or whatever. But what he does is just awesome. And he did it when he was a kid, that was the weird thing. When I played with him it was like ten years later, so he was like thirty-one, thirty-two, whatever. But the stuff he did on Appetite and the Use Your Illusion records, man, were just awesome. He just had that sense. I don’t know what it was but it’s just awesome. I don’t know where it comes from but just having that, you know, you could play some cool fast stuff but having some melody and sense of note choice and blah-blah-blah. There are so many great guitar players with so many different styles and it could go on forever in my book. Michael Schenker – great. John McLaughlin, the Jazz Fusion guy – great. Al Di Meola – great. Django Reinhardt, old school guy – great. Larry Carlton – great. Steve Vai – incredible. Yngwie – great. All those dudes are like all over the map stylistically. Bonamassa – great, Stevie Ray Vaughan – great. Slash – great. I think I just try to do a good job. That’s all (laughs)
Are you still producing other bands?
Absolutely, I love doing that, when I can do that. I’ve been very busy the last couple of years with the bars. Now I have two restaurants, Aces & Ales in Vegas.
You’ve been in this business so long. What goals do you still have for yourself as a musician?
I just want to try to keep doing some great records that I can play on, whether I’m guesting on them or I’m recording them myself. It’s all I can really do. And have fun. I’ve said it for the last few years, that’s all I really want to do at this point is have fun and entertain people. I’ve got other things going on, like the new record I have with Rudy and them, I’m very proud of it. It’s awesome. I think that’s going to be rad. So I just try and do whatever I can do and try to fit it all in with all my other bullshit too. But I have fun and that’s really what it’s about for me these days. I’m not worried about making some triple platinum record or doing this, that or whatever. I just want to have fun, entertain the people and that’s it.
Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough