Meet: Brad Gillis
Night Ranger rocker hits the road with Journey.
40 / Guitarist / Lafayette
Brad Gillis sits in the living room of his Lafayette home. A deer grazes on the hillside beyond the large window behind him, under which sits a work area full of recording equipment. He just finished playing back three songs he’s working on today—a couple for TV shows and one he may pitch to a local sports team to play at home games. The conversation has turned to his band’s new album and the major summer tour launching the following week. Life is busy, but life is good.
In 2011, Gillis is still, or perhaps again, a rock star. His band, Night Ranger, is doing what it did best 25 years ago: playing upbeat rock anthems heavy on virtuoso guitar and sing-along choruses to thousands of fans.
The new album, Somewhere in California, is the band’s first LP to dent the Billboard charts in more than two decades, since the days of Top 40 hits like “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” “Sister Christian,” and “Sentimental Street.” (Night Ranger scored six Top 40 singles and one gold and three platinum albums in the ’80s.) Night Ranger is currently somewhere in America, playing arenas with Journey and Foreigner. The tour comes to Concord’s Sleep Train Pavilion October 5 and the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View on October 15.
“There’s been a resurgence of classic rock, and we went in with the idea of doing what made Night Ranger huge,” says Gillis, who grew up in Alameda and has lived in Walnut Creek and Lafayette for more than two decades. “We were excited to start over with a new band and go back to the sing-along choruses and the twin guitar assault.”
Gillis, who gained his reputation as one of rock’s best guitarists after replacing the late Randy Rhoads in Ozzy Osbourne’s band in 1982, has a new running mate in Night Ranger’s twin-lead attack: Joel Hoekstra, the lead guitar player of Broadway’s Rock of Ages and a former touring member of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
“Joel is the fresh blood in the band that sparked everybody,” says Gillis. “We came up with some great stuff, and everybody’s pushing it 110 percent. Having new songs to play rejuvenates us.”
Success comes again after a decade of the band’s being relegated to “weekend warrior” status, playing select summer dates around the country. Gillis wasn’t waiting around for the band to relaunch its recording career. An admitted workaholic who sleeps about six hours a night (“Sleep is a waste of time”) Gillis wrote and recorded more than 150 songs for ESPN, Fox Sports, Monday Night Football, and videogames like EA’s Tiger Woods PGA Tour. Mixed in was the occasional tour of Japan, where Night Ranger remains big. (Somewhere in California debuted at number three on the Japanese charts.)
The new single, “Growin’ Up in California,” is reminiscent of the 1983 hit “(You Can Still) Rock in America.” The video, much of which was recorded on the hillside property in Marin owned by Night Ranger singer Jack Blades, is a classic celebration of California culture and, perhaps, a celebration of the return of Night Ranger.
“It’s been a lot of fun, playing with these guys,” Gillis says. “Jack’s still a firecracker on stage, and Joel is something else, up there swinging his axe around.”
When the now 54-year-old was a teenager, he would pile in a car with friends on weekend nights and head east from Alameda to Walnut Creek. Those were the days when cruising Main Street was a big enough deal that Life magazine once profiled the scene. The experience gave him an initial taste of the area he’s called home for the past 23 years.
“I remember when I was 17 or 18, going to the Walnut Creek strip and seeing all the tan, good-looking women,” Gillis says, with a laugh. “Walnut Creek was amazing. People told me, ‘Hey, you gotta go through that Caldecott Tunnel. It’s 15 or 20 degrees warmer,’ and I grew up and moved there.”
Gillis moved first to Lafayette, then to Walnut Creek, with his now 20-year-old daughter, who graduated from Las Lomas High in 2009 and is an aspiring actress in Los Angeles. She just scored her first lead role in an independent film, after being discovered by a producer while working as a waitress and taking acting classes. “She just got her Screen Actors Guild card,” Gillis says. “That’s big.”
The guitarist is back in Lafayette now and isn’t planning on going anywhere else, not with a large home studio downstairs and some amazing views from his deck. “I love Lafayette,” he says. “I love the weather, and the people are friendly. I love going to the art and wine festivals. I love taking my Harley out through the hills. It’s expensive, but it’s worth it.”
As Night Ranger approaches its 30th anniversary, the band finds itself again on a big summer tour. Before taking a break in June to rest up for the coming U.S. leg, the band did large shows in Mexico and Puerto Rico with Journey, then traveled to Japan to headline arenas. They rejoined Journey and Foreigner for about a dozen shows in Germany and England.
“It was great. We hadn’t been to Europe since ’85,” Gillis says. “We headlined in London at a place with a thousand seats and sold it out. We played five new songs, and everyone already knew them and was singing along. It was amazing. Now that we have a few dates in, everyone is finding a groove, and it’s sounding huge.”
Big crowds singing all the words may bring back fond memories of the ’80s, but there is one big difference this time around. The guys are older, and back at the hotel and in bed—alone—a lot earlier than in the old days.
“You get a bit older; you get a bit wiser; you put more into it,” says Gillis, who takes a mobile studio with him on the road to record during downtime. “The ’80s were a crazy time. It was all about the partying back then. Now, we’re more about our show. We get into the bus and go to the next city.”
To rev up for this ’80s revival, coming to Concord on October 5, dust off your old records (and pick up Night Ranger’s new one) to listen for these lesser-known gems that have been getting the concert treatment:
The band’s chunky new rocker “Lay it On Me” sounds even better on stage, and “Eddie’s Comin’ Out Tonight” might come out, too.
The second set has been pleasing fans with what seems like all the favorites. Bet on “Dirty White Boy” being the headbanger.
The headliner is sure to please with mega-hits such as “Don’t Stop Believin’.”