The Ronnie Montrose Interview
When I met Ronnie Montrose on September 9, 2011, it was a golden opportunity to talk to someone whose music had been a strong force in my life since the 1970s. It started with the Edgar Winter Band’s “Frankenstein,” on which Montrose laid down the guitar. Then I graduated to the first Montrose album with Sammy Hagar, then Warner Bros Presents and Jump On It. I even saw Montrose twice in 1976 — opening for KISS.
Much of Montrose’s work in the 80s eluded me although I did see him perform in an Orange County club some time in 1987. When I went out to reclaim my Montrose collection on CD, I added Open Fire to the pile and it became one of my all-time favorite rock instrumental albums. In more recent years, Montrose would roll through town with a different band, but I never got a chance to catch a show. When I heard he had cancer, I thought I’d never see him again.
Montrose beat the cancer that prevented him from picking up his guitar for two years. And he got back on stage and revisited his glorious past with an appreciative audience. When I found out he was coming to the Coach House to play a show, I knew I had to check it out. As it turned out, the day got even better when I got the opportunity to interview Ronnie Montrose. I brought in some friends, and we videotaped and photographed the whole thing. Ronnie (we were now on a first-name basis) couldn’t have been more accommodating or more fun to talk to. And his set that night at the Coach House was a shredder, to say the least.
In my wildest dreams, I would never have imagined it would be the last time Montrose would play in San Juan Capistrano. And because I couldn’t get out to Corona when he rolled through there in November, and completely missed him at NAMM, that day at the Coach House was the last time I would ever lay eyes on Ronnie Montrose. The day of his passing on March 3, 2012 was a sad day in my own personal musical history. To have met and chatted with the man was an honor and a privilege; to be able to enjoy his music is something I will cherish for the rest of my life.
Video of the following interview is featured on the Official YouTube Montrose channel. Now, after getting sidetracked by various humdingers of ill repute, it is my sincere pleasure to present the complete interview, uncut and unedited, for your reading pleasure. While I wasn’t able to make it up to San Francisco for the April 27 Concert For Ronnie Montrose, featuring a long list of heavy hitters and friends, I’d like to consider this open and honest interview my own little tribute to an exceptional, legendary musician.
I am sitting here with a true guitar hero…Mr. Ronnie Montrose.
It’s good to be here. Thanks for calling me a hero.
You most definitely are. You’re one of mine. I grew up listening to your music and it’s great to sit here with you today.
I never get tired of hearing that. Thank you.
Cool. So last night you played the Canyon Club, right? How did that go?
Spectacular. Absolutely spectacular. People there are into it…I mean, I’m just really fortunate. These songs were written 40 years ago, that we were playing. And we’re introducing some Gamma songs into the set too. But these 40-year-old songs that I penned when I was in my 20s are still loved by people. It’s a great feeling…they sing along with them and I love it.
And you’re playing tonight the Coach House, which is where we’re at. What can we expect to see? You were saying you were going to play some of your older material?
That’s all I’m playing. Older Montrose material and we’re working Gamma songs into the set. But it’s all Montrose, all the time for the most part. And it’s just back to the basic…well not back to, but just doing old-school power trio guitar, bass and vocal rock. That’s it
Tell me about your band.
We’ve got Steve Brown on drums, Dan McNay on bass and Keith St. John on vocals. And what’s been happening is for years, I’ve been going through this revolving door thing with players…you know, like a stable of players that come in and fill in when I feel like doing any kind of show. Instrumental, acoustic and rock like I’m doing now. But I finally decided that I really need to hone in, and it just felt right for me to hone in and pick a band that I can really count on to be this growing, organic natural thing and that’s what I’ve come up with with this combination. There have been great players and great singers along the way, but this is the one that I’ve finally chosen that’s going to be what we’re doing.
So you’re on your tour now and your schedule is going to be pretty busy for the next couple of months.
[a guitar plays in the background]
You hear that guitar? That’s my buddy Michael Lee Firkins, he’s on the tour with us all year and a lot of shows. We jam together. He’s a great player. Michael, go ahead and play us something (laughs).
Well, you’ve been doing this for a while. How do you keep things fresh and exciting when you’re on the road?
Well having not been doing it for a while with this level of intensity, it’s not very hard to do to keep it fresh. One of the approaches I’m really taking with my music is that I’m playing….I play the songs and I play the riffs and I play the intros and everything, but all through the song I’m always keeping it loose and entertaining myself musically and interacting with my band mates around this framework called Montrose. That’s how I keep it interesting. It’s never exactly the same. It’s like, we’re always just trying to go…the little things, the nuances, but they keep the thing lively and fresh.
I’d like to talk about some of your career milestones, if I may.
Yes you may, my son. Yes you may.
One of your big breaks is when you played with Van Morrison.
Yes it was.
What do you recall about that experience?
It was just a fantastic experience and just having been in bands…sort of hippie bands in San Francisco. I’ve told this story many times, but I got a call asking if I would like to play with Van Morrison. And I was under the impression that they wanted my little hippie band to open the show for Van Morrison. And the guy goes, “No…you play guitar with Van Morrison.” Uh, yeah, after I got up off the floor, I go, “Yeah, I’ll go audition.” After I went out there and sat in a room with a bunch of guitar players, I knew I would get that job.
[more guitar playing in the background]
Anyway, so getting the job with Van was something that I knew I would get because I was such a fan of his. We got together and I got the job and it was just a joy to be in the band and play on Tupelo Honey and all those songs.
You played on “Wild Night”?
Yes, I did.
And what was it like working with him? I’ve heard he can be an interesting character.
Well no, he’s very focused, very demanding. The first time I was with him in rehearsals, it was very obvious to me that I was in the presence of genius. His ability to take a simple melody and make a song and speak from channels straight from his heart about life situations was…even at my young age, I recognized it. So it was a fantastic experience.
After that you became a short-term member of the Edgar Winter Group and played on They Only Come Out At Night.
Yeah, we did an album and a tour. That had basically come from playing with Van and playing around the area and somebody had heard of me. A record company guy called from New York and asked if I would like to play with the Edgar Winter Group. I had seen Edgar in Kansas, the White Trash Band, when I was doing a little tiny stint with Boz Skaggs. And Boz Skaggs opens the show for Edgar. My first time I had seen a full Edgar Winter show I had seen him at the Fillmore West with his brother Johnny. He would come out as a featured Winter brother and it was a pretty mind-blowing show too. So when I got the call, I went out there. I think I went on a round-trip ticket and never used the return. I was there. I was in. It was great.
You played on “Free Ride,” and the legendary ”Frankenstein.” What do you remember about putting that one together?
That song, Edgar called it “Frankenstein”…Are you familiar with his Entrance album?
“Frankenstein” was about pieces of instrumental music that he put together that were parts of the Entrance record and just sort of put it together as a showcase for his ARP 2600 synthesizer. He was the first guy to put a keyboard over his shoulders. They built it into a box and he was the first one to do that. So because I was even back then, like a little electronics nerd, I remember well many times the old connector cords were never really great. And it was an old connector cord that had to go up to his sequencer and electronics tweakers out there will know it was from a company called Cinch Jones. So I was designed as the one to take it apart, solder a lead back on and put it back together. It was a great time. It was a lot of fun. Good big learning curve for me to go from Van Morrison and go from clubs to understanding what kind of a mindset and mentality you had to have playing for 10,000 people. I had never done that before. So I really cut my teeth and grew up very fast…as fast as I could, musically, and consciously playing for that many people.
By that time you were ready to start your own band, is that right?
Pretty much. I had, like anyone else, had growing pains and realized that at a certain point, most members of bands – unless you were dedicated to being in that band together – you’re gonna go off onto your own. You hear many, many instances of people separating because you grow up in an environment and you realize that there’s one, two or three elements of that organization…there’s just not enough nurturing ground for that creativity. So I took off on a natural course to do my own thing.
You hired a singer named Sammy Hagar, who we all know hasn’t done too badly.
He did pretty well.
You guys did a couple records together and you wrote some of your most iconic songs during that period.
I think we all write those kind of songs at the early parts of our writing experience. I can tell you right now, for example, earliest Zeppelin songs hit me the hardest, and hit Sammy the hardest. Anybody who’s listened to music…your first recollection of bands that hit you the hardest are the ones that stay with you. Whether it’s Deep Purple or Free or the Who…early stuff that we all hear at our age always hits hard and hits us deep. I also think the writing has an immediacy and an urgency to it because when you’re at a young age and you’re writing like that…like our heroes are…you don’t have so much of a vocabulary, so much of awareness of all the nuance of writing. So you give it 100 percent, everything you’ve got, which is maybe limited, but it’s concentrated. It’s intense because it’s all you know how to do. That was what we were.
How’d you come up with the riff, say, for “Bad Motor Scooter”?
That was pretty specific. Sam had written this little ditty for “Bad Motor Scooter,” and it was more like a Chuck Berry song with a little rhythm on it. I’ve told this story before, but I’ll tell it again. I was sitting in the studio – like I said, I’m always tinkering around with effects and just things to do with my amps and guitars. I had a little Fender amp with 3-10 speakers in it, and I had a fuzz tone called a Big Muff. I was just playing around and I tuned my guitar to a D chord for a slide, just to play around with it, turned the fuzz tone on, turned the amp on, and started playing around. When I look back on it, it reminded me of the 2001 (movie)…when the ape is playing with that bone and he’s like “hmm…hmm…hmmm.” (waves arm) Like a “boom” and it goes flying up in the air (laughs).
All of a sudden it dawned on me that I was making this thing. I looked in to the control room, because we had already recorded “Bad Motor Scooter” and we were just going to use it as another song on the record. I see Ted Templeman, the producer, and I see Don Landy, the engineer, throwing up their arms and saying, “Hold it! Stop! Don’t move! Don’t move! Stay there!” And they run back into the tape room and get “Bad Motor Scooter,” put on the thing and say, “Go!” And that became the signature intro to “Bad Motor Scooter.” Very serendipitous, but a lot of things happen like that.
That album set the gold standard for short, punchy hard rock.
But once again, that wasn’t what we were trying to do. We had no idea we were setting any sort of a standard. Like I said before, we were playing up to 100 percent up to the ability that we had. So our songs were short, intense, punch, and that’s what they were.
That album inspired people like Van Halen and a lot of other bands sort of followed in their wake. How do you assess the legacy of this record, now looking back 35+ years?
: I just feel very fortunate. Very fortunate and very blessed that music that I’ve made, that I’ve penned in my 20s, is still somewhat relevant today and respected and revered by my peers. I get grandpas bringing their grandchildren to the show, I get fathers bringing their sons, uncles bringing their nephews and nieces. All ages coming in to discover this music and it’s really a good feeling when it’s all ages and there’s kids there and they say, “My uncle loves you and now I do too.” And they’re singing along…it’s a good feeling.
After those first two Montrose records, according to Sammy Hagar and his autobiography, you fired him from the band. Is that true?
Yes it is. And I told him, and I know we joke about it now, this is another example of the limited space of nutritional creative force from different entities. So Sammy, like I did with Edgar Winter, Sammy and I were in a situation where there wasn’t enough room for us to operate in that flower pot known as Montrose. So he went his own way, but it happened to be a situation where he was a little more fighting about it, and so, there was just a question of where I had to make the move to say, “Go do your thing.” We’ve been to some reunion shows and I joke with him — we joke around a lot — and it’s funny. “Now you fired me Ron.” “Well yes I did. It’s a really good thing I did because you wouldn’t have gone down on your own, you wouldn’t gone with Van Halen, you wouldn’t have had Cabo Tequila, so now you owe me.” So he goes, “Ah, alright, give me my checkbook.” But no, we joke around all the time (laughs).
I actually saw the Montrose band with Sammy’s replacement, Bob James, when you guys opened for KISS in 1976. And you had just made one of my favorite records, Warner Bros. Presents.
Relatively obscure, but I’m glad you like it.
After you broke the band up, you did this incredible instrumental album called Open Fire. Where did that come from? What was the inspiration behind that?
Where that came from was that I did not want to become formulaic. I’d done the records with the band with Sammy, and then we changed players, and then I had Bob in the band and I had different players. We used keyboards, brought things in. And then all of a sudden I felt like I was getting stuck in this…obviously I’m really the only one who’s in control of that, but I wasn’t recognizing that at the time and I was having record companies and managers and everyone trying to get me into this formula. “You’ve gotta do this, you’ve gotta do that, you’ve gotta have a hit.” It was that thing that I just shy away from. So there were many of my peers that played guitar back at the time, who everybody was always saying, “Yeah, I’m gonna do a solo record, I have guitar, I’ve gotta get out.” Well, I had guitar, I had to get out, but I didn’t say I was going to — I did it. And I got just such mixed response from it, but once again, it was something that I just had to do. It wasn’t anything that I was told to do. As a matter of fact, it went as far from people saying, “Finally, you’ve gotten some sense, and gotten away from that rock crap and done some music,” to people going…I remember there’s one…as a matter of fact, Sammy told me when he was touring with Boston, Sammy says, “One guy says, ‘You heard that Ronnie Montrose record?’” Sammy says he hadn’t heard it yet. “Man, I put that thing on and it made my stereo gag. It was so horrible.” Because he just wanted to hear the rock thing. So it’s been my way, and I realized that early on that your muse is very important to follow. And so I did.
It was definitely a pioneering album and one of the most diverse records of its kind.
And let’s not forget Jeff Beck’s Blow By Blow, which influenced me very heavily.
You and Jeff Beck were the only guys really doing that kind of thing at that time. And, of course, in the 80s you have Steve Vai, Joe Santriani…
Well, that’s a different decade. A couple of decades later. A different generation. You know who else did a great record was David Bowie’s Mick Ronson, he did a great solo record. He did a version of Slaughter On 10th Avenue, I always liked that as well. They were great.
You went on to form another band, Gamma. What made you want to go back and form a new band?
Once again, it was a situation of me. I’d done what I’d wanted to do doing my instrumental. Did a tour with it, had a really great time with it, and didn’t want to then just going through and do more instrumental records. In my situation, there was a limited response from something like that. And then I was really into synthesizers at the time. I just decided that I wanted to put together a really good guitar/synthesizer, pretty heavy rock band together.
Gamma reunited a few years ago, so it must have been something you wanted to go back to.
Um…yeah, actually. I didn’t know how long everybody was going to be going their separate ways. It was an opportunity where Davey Pattison and I were living in the same area as Denny Carmassi, and I contacted everyone and Glenn Letsch was there as well, and I contacted everyone and asked if they were interested and everyone said, “We’re in. Let’s do it.” And it was a situation that I put together and had a friend of mine, Ed Roth, come in and play keyboards. And good friend and just a gentle soul, Troy Luccketta from Tesla, a drummer, big fan of mine, and I’ve known him for quite a while, he said come and use my studio, and we were in. Boom. Had it done in a month and it was a really fun record to do. By the way, there was no intention of touring with that, no intention of doing anything else but getting this music out there. That was what the fun was.
Was that something you may want to revisit again some day?
I don’t think so, not now. I put some Gamma songs in the show because it dawned on me that there’s no reason why I can’t. Once again, it’s what I want to do, and it’s working out to be real fun.
You’ve said you’ve reunited the original Montrose band with Sammy. Is that something that you think might happen again?
That may happen, and the reason that may happen is just basically on a whim. I mean, if we’re all in the same area at the same time and we all say let’s go do some shows, the way it’s been all the times the original band has been together. It’s been a whim. Sammy says, “I’m doing this, how about getting together?” Sure, let’s go.
Those reunions were a lot of fun?
Oh yeah, they were fun. And like I said, they may happen again, but there’s no schedule or set up for it.
Another thing you’ve done recently is you’ve worked at one of those rock and roll fantasy camps. Tell me about that. Did you have fun doing that?
Yeah, I had some reservations about doing it at first. I didn’t know that much about it and I thought it was going to be more of a…when I went down and actually found out what it was, I really enjoyed myself. It felt really good to be able to…bottom line is you go down, you make appearances, Everybody goes through a little bit of seminars and kind of sessions with different people and then they assign someone to you. It just so happened that the morning that I went in to do my sort of guitar seminar, guitar session, I was sick as a dog. I’d literally had food poisoning the night before so I just couldn’t play. I couldn’t hold up the instrument but I didn’t want to let these people down who’d come out to see. And then I realized that I couldn’t play that day so I sat down with a room full of people and just told stories. I told them it was the best one they’d ever had. Because anybody can sit down and go, “Well, I do this and I do that…” But to sit down like I am with you and to tell stories is it actually kind of prompted me to when I do any kind of in stores or radio interviews, that basically turns out to do more of what I do. I may end up playing for two minutes, but I just sit around “yak yakking,” you know. Just my calling.
And you had prostate cancer.
Yeah, I did. Two years ago.
And you beat it. Are you still feeling good?
Yes, yes I did. It was a very , very intense experience and it’s one of those things…well, it was so debilitating that I didn’t pick up a guitar for two and a half years. These hands did not touch strings for over two years. But I went through it, I got through it, and then I picked this instrument back up and said, “I really like playing this thing.” And it all came back and it was like… Now I’ve said it before, but I can’t wait to wake up in the morning. There aren’t enough hours in the day for me, and days in the week to get up and do what I want to do, which is not just guitar, you know, it’s a lot of other things.
Fantastic. After this tour, you have any plans?
I think we’re doing 30-40 shows this year. Once I feel healthy and strong, got the urge to play and realized there are so many people who want to hear me play, I just told my agent to get shows…and he got shows. And I’m really, really glad about it. I have a whole bunch of plans, I’ve talked about it on interviews before. But this band is turning out to be so much fun, at first I just want to do two more in 2011, maybe beginning of 2012, before December 2012 when the world comes to an end anyway, so we’ll get it in there (laughs).
But if it keeps going and I’m having as much fun – and that’s the big, big operative word, is fun – if I’m have fun doing it, I’ll keep doing it. And I see no reason why I should stop. I want to do a whole acoustic series. Big production acoustic show with players, keyboards, percussionists, upright bass player, video screen, quad sound, the whole thing. It’s a vision I have that I know I will have a whole bunch of fun doing. Certainly not something where I can just call up some players and go, “Oh boys, let’s play.” No, it takes a lot of pre-production, like a Broadway play almost. But I’m not going to limit myself to just this year with this band. I may go all through next year and be touring across the country. I don’t know.
Are you writing new music at all?
Yeah, but I’m writing for acoustic and I’m always writing every time I pick up an instrument. But I’m certainly not writing vocal songs. It’s just musical pieces that are in my mind that come together and I click it on record.
And you think you’ll go into the studio and cut some tracks and make a record anytime soon?
Umm…I don’t see that happening right now. I’m focusing…well, you know what, there will be a recording if this band turns out to be like I’m thinking it’s going to do. Yeah, we may go ahead and document this and make a DVD of the performance with this band in its current lineup.
Well, we can certainly use a proper DVD from you.
I’d like to do one.
Fantastic. Well, I think we’re done here. I want to thank you for sitting down and talking with us today.
Have a great show tonight.
Yes sir I will.
This is Shawn Perry from VintageRock.com signing off.
And this is Ronnie Montrose with Shawn Perry from VintageRock.com. Good night.