Ear of Newt: my first and last interview with fallen guitar hero Ronnie Montrose
It may seem kinda crazy to stay up all night transcribing a phone interview I did with Ronnie Montrose 14 years ago, but the news of his death yesterday hit me pretty hard. He was such a wonderful and underrated player that I feel it's almost my duty to try and spread the word about him. (I did the same thing when Gary Moore passed away a little over a year ago, and the hardcore guitar freaks seemed to appreciate it.) Plus, it'll be fun for me to revisit our one-and-only conversation.
Just hang on while I go and score myself some JD on the rocks.
Oh man, is that stuff nasty!
Anyway, before I start transcribing, I should mention that the interview was conducted in advance of a Ronnie Montrose concert at the Commodore Ballroom on September 21, 1994, a double-bill with the Dixie Dregs, which at the time featured current Deep Purple picker Steve Morse. A rock-crazed buddy of mind who goes by the name of Stick was promoting the show for then-Commodore owner Drew Burns, and he set up the phoner. The cool thing was that Morse and Montrose jammed together at the end of the show. And the other cool thing was that Montrose autographed my plexiglass Raven guitar.
So here's the interview, full and (almost) unexpurgated. Montrose called me from a tour stop in Chicago.
Hi Ronnie. How ya doin'?
Fine, how you doin'?
Oh pretty good. I just got in from work, I'm glad I made it, man. Really looking forward to chattin' with you 'cause I've been a huge fan ever since...well I guess the first time I ever saw you was back in the '70s when you were playing in Vancouver here with the Edgar Winter Group.
Oh god! The last time I remember playin' there was with Yes.
Oh did you play with Yes? Oh wild. Huh. I was wondering...are you calling from Chicago right now Ronnie?
Yup. You got a recorder and everything?
Yeah, I'm all set up here. Are you playing there tonight then?
Yeah, we've actually been out since the middle of June, and we get home in October. So we've been touring the country the whole summer long. It's been really good too.
Yeah? Could you tell me a little bit about your new album, Music From Here, if you will? Is it much of a musical departure from your previous instrumental releases? I know that...I've got a couple of them here. The one I really like particularly is The Speed of Sound. I guess that's a little more rocking than your latest one.
Yeah--not much though. I mean it's still guitar and it's still electric guitar, I mean it's just a little bit of a different rhythm format. But I think the main difference with Music From Here is that I just went in and jammed it. I mean I've done a couple of records where I've not really spent enough time just paying attention to guitar, and I really had a lot of people give me a lot of positive feedback on The Speed of Sound, so I'm real happy with that, but I'm actually happier with Music From Here as an album, as an entire piece, because I interplayed with the musicians more than on The Speed of Sound. Speed of Sound was basically we did the basic tracks and then I played to the rhythm tracks that they had put down, which is kinda cool, but it's not as fun as live interplay. There's always an essential live track goin' on in Music From Here at all times.
Do you see yourself ever getting into a vocal rock act?
Well, I wouldn't call it vocal rock. I don't think I would ever do anything that would be the first Montrose album again. Or I don't think I would do anything that would be like Gamma--I don't know if you're familiar with them...
Oh yeah, definitely.
...I don't think I would do anything like that. But in point of fact I would very much like to work with--not so much a lead singer--as a songwriter, as a singer-songwriter-lyricist. I would really like to work with someone who, either in an existing band, or someone who hasn't been discovered yet--someone who really has a point of view and something today. It doesn't have to be somebody with great technique, but somebody with a real passion and a point of view. But as you probably well know, that's hard to find.
I wanted to take you back to the '70s for a second, Ronnie, and the first Montrose album--which I couldn't get enough of it in high school myself. Do you look back on those days fondly now?
Oh yeah, oh yeah. I mean they were learning days for me. I just barely had learned...you know...I mean as far as I'm concerned those were kindergarten days for me. And I only recently felt like I'd even learned how to play guitar. I mean I'm 46 now, and in my forties I feel like I'm now getting a handle on the instrument and being able to play.
Did you ever think that [former Montrose vocalist] Sammy Hagar would go on to get as well known as he is today?
Yeah, I did. Because Sammy from the beginning always had the motivation of being a, quote, "rock star", and that's what he's accomplished. I mean that was his primary objective from the first time that I met him, and it's understandable that he's gotten to where he wants to be 'cause he's always had that motivation.
I think he's a pretty good singer too, myself.
Mmmyeah. He's certainly getting better.
I heard rumours that Van Halen will be in Vancouver recording when you play here, so I dunno, maybe he'll hop up for "Space Station #5".
Yeah, who knows? Well we wouldn't play any of that, because the rest of the band doesn't know those things.
I was wondering. Was Gamma a project that you were satisified with?
Oh yeah--that was a great three albums that we did. And we had an offer to do another Gamma album, and I actually just didn't feel like it. I felt like it was inappropriate and wrong unless [Gamma vocalist] Davey Pattison and I were able to write music that was really a good followup for the first three. I wouldn't want to let our fans down, and it just didn't seem like the chemistry was right for a fourth Gamma album, so never having been the one to just go for the money, I didn't do it.
I was wondering what you've been listening to in your spare time Ronnie.
I listen to a lot of different things. I like...acoustically I've been listening to Adrian Legg, who I think is a great guitar player. And I also have gotten an album by Steve Tibbets that I like a lot. He's a guitarist on ECM, and it's a very interesting, very entertaining album. And I love to listen to Danny Gatton. And I got The Return of the Hellecasters, which I love too. Do you know that?
I've got that one, yeah.
Yeah, that's a great record too.
Have you ever heard Tommy Emmanuel?
Oh he's awesome. Very good.
Where's he from?
He's from Australia. His latest album, The Journey, has got Chet Atkins on one tune. He's a guitarist's guitarist, so I would check him out.
Alright. Tommy Emmanuel. Yeah, well, show it to me when I get up there. You gonna come and say hi?
Oh you betcha man. Actually I was wonderin' if I could get you to sign my guitar. Steve Morse signed it last time he was in town, and I've got Buddy Guy, B.B. King, and I'd love to have your signature on there.
I'd be honoured. I'd be honoured. When we were in Memphis we got to go to B.B.'s club on Beale Street and got to see Little Jimmie King play.
He's awesome isn't he?
Yeah, great player.
So, it's gonna be a fun time...
So what's this place we're playing?
Oh it's the best bar in town--the Commodore Ballroom. It's been around for about sixty years, and it's got a sprung dance floor, so when the tunes are hoppin' the people are going up and down on it.
Alright! How many people does it hold?
Uh, it's about a thousand.
Oh good, should be a good night then.
Oh yeah, definitely. I'm really excited myself. Well you hake a safe trip up here...
Alright. Now we're getting up there...what date? Cause this date just got added.
Yeah, it did, at the last minute. I sort of pushed for it myself for the promoter to get you on the bill with the Dregs 'cause that would be guitar heaven.
I appreciate it. Now what night is that?
It's the 21st of September. It's a Wednesday.
Oh god, that's only two weeks away. Well good enough! And then someone told me we've also got Victoria Island over there the next day. Now is that too far of a jump from there?
No that's about...bit of a ferry ride, about an hour and a half on the ferry...
Oh that's fine! Cool. Yeah, we'll do that.
Great. Alright Ronnie, well I appreciate you talkin', and we'll see you when you get here.
Alright, you take care Steve.
Thanks a lot man.
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