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Interview with Michael T. Ross
31 August 2011
MICHAEL T. ROSS
(interview by Alexandra Mrozowska)
“I’m really a guitarist stuck in a keyboardist’s body,” says Michael T. Ross, a keyboardist who currently works with such notable rock acts as Lita Ford, Hardline, Angel and Accomplice… and a lot more! This busy musician (and a fellow rock journalist, as it turned out to be) has found the time to reveal some stories about his career and current projects and to look back upon his early days, all this exclusively for Rocktopia…
Let’s begin from a very start; what got you interested in music? What were your beginnings with keyboard and are there any other instruments you can play or you wish you could?
I started playing piano when I was 8 years old, following in the footsteps of my older brother. By the time I was in Jr. High, I was already playing in a band and by 17, I was playing the Sunset Strip. I was able to use my brother’s equipment and had a piano teacher the whole time, so I had a lot of support. In High School I played electric bass because there was a keyboardist who took that position in the school band, which allowed me to study the low register which gave me a better insight in choosing my bass lines on the keys. I also play guitar and am very much influenced by this instrument the most. I’m really a guitarist stuck in a keyboardist’s body, hence, why I’ve been known for sounding like a guitar when I play. Although I followed most keyboard icons of our time and became influenced by most of them, my style is mostly shaped from my love for the guitar.
Can you name any important bands or musicians who have shaped your style and influenced you as an artist?
Thin Lizzy is my favorite band of all time. Even though they aren’t known as a big keyboard oriented group, I fell in love with Gary Moore with his melodic phrasing. His solo albums didn’t go far from my CD player. Phil Lynott’s music has been the most joy to me. A goal of mine is to visit his statue in the UK. When Yngwie J. Malmsteen came out, that changed everything for me. Playing with him was always a dream. When I was little, my older brother always played Yes, Toto, Kansas, Queen, etc., so that has resonated into my playing in some way or another. Rick Wakeman was one of my favorites growing up and most importantly Deep Purple. Jon Lord’s B3 playing is symbolic, something I’ve been mimicking all my life. I love shred music and artists like Jason Becker, Tony MacAlpine and bands like Dream Theater and Symphony X. Born in the South, I have a lot of love for blues, for example Robert Johnson, J.J. Johnson and John Lee Hooker. To fulfill my dose of jazz/fusion rock I reach for Frank Zappa’s ‘Joe’s Garage’. And most importantly, classical has been most important to be, focusing on the Romantic Era.
What were the first steps you have taken in music business? From what I found out, you’ve attended Scripps College for Music…
My piano teach of ten years was a professor there, which allowed me access to the school and to participate in their annual piano recitals, something I did the whole time taking lessons. The opportunities there were endless, allowing me to gain a vast amount of knowledge with the piano. This was important to have as a foundation while entering into the synthesis world. I wasn’t into sports or movies, giving me a simple schedule of school then music studies. Later, I came to the liking of managing/booking bands. To date, I’ve worked with several national acts and abroad in Italy, Croatia and Austria. In 2010, I started booking myself in Europe and in May, I teamed up with Italian guitarist Steve Saluto and Terry Ilous for shows in Bologna and Treviso. I also performed in Rijeka, Croatia with guitarist Alen Brentini. In December 2010, I went back to Croatia for more shows with Alen, including supporting Richie Kotzen in Zagreb. I did the booking with Alen assisting, which brought us to Austria and Italy as well.
Focusing on this early period of yours yet, you worked alongside your brother Shael in Mean Street Magazine… this, in fact, makes you more or less our fellow journalist! Anyway, what are your memories from that period? Is there anything you are particularly proud of in terms of working for the magazine?
My brother started the magazine when I was out of college, giving me a job for several years working for him as an advertiser, but also doing journalist work editing and sometimes writing articles. I was able to interview some of my favorite artists and gained important leads from it. Working behind the music scene has always been important to me, well, not as much as getting up on stage but it allows me other avenues to work in the business while I’m not performing. Getting to meet Yngwie J. Malmsteen and interviewing him was a pinnacle moment for me back in 1989, writing about his life story, getting to hear it first hand, was amazing to me.
Now let’s focus on your present music activity. Two Hardline records you played on - ‘II’ (2002) and ‘Leaving the End Open’ (2009) - definitely peak two of the most important positions in your discography. Which of those is actually your favourite and why?
I would say our last release ‘Leaving The End Open’ because first of all, I got to use a real grand piano, secondly, Johnny produced me this time and we saw eye to eye on the melodies, and lastly, working with Josh Ramos again, especially recording music that was mostly written by him. We hired Atma Anur, a drummer who happens to be one of my favorites since I was a kid. The songs on this recording to me are more melodic, bringing the style closer to sounding like Journey, rather than ‘II’, which seems more hard rock to me and a bit Slaughter sounding. I love it all, but honestly, I still play ‘Double Eclipse’ the most, what a masterpiece that is.
Ex-Hardline member Neal Schon participated in recording ‘II’ album as a special guest. How it was to co-work with Neal in the studio? Is it something you’d like to go for again in the future, in terms of the future Hardline albums or the other parts of your music activity?
It was a blessing to have album credits with Neal Schon but he really hasn’t been involved in the band for a long time. There was not so kind words at the end of his and Johnny’s relationship. The story goes Neal was initially not even intended to be in the band, just to help produce. Like I said earlier, the work they did together still stands the test of time, so of course, I wish he was still a part of the band, or any band for that matter that I’m in, hahahahah! I would very much like to work with him in the future, but doubt it would ever happen. I played with Lita Ford as the supporting act for Journey at the Sweden Rock Festival in 2009. It was a great time for me to hang out with Neal and Jonathan Cain. It is interesting that ‘Double Eclipse’ didn’t have any keys on the album, with Neal handling the parts on his guitar synthesizer. Hey look, if one day Johnny and Neal worked things out and he came back on the next recording, I wouldn’t complain one bit.
In the 00s, Hardline went through serious line-up changes – in the end, ‘Leaving the End Open’ line-up features only one original band member in the person of Johnny Gioeli. Having the opportunity to witness some of those changes inside the band yourself – how did they affect the group and its style?
Well, these days, it is never a shock to have band members replaced which happens more often than not. We had drummer Bobby Rock for the Live at the Gods Festival in England and the ‘II’ release. He later went to Slaughter. The bassist was hired in for the recording only. Johnny’s brother and co-founder of Hardline Joey Gioeli, had retired from the music business a long time ago, and came back just for that release and concert in England. Guitarist Josh Ramos and I stayed in the band since. Since Josh handled a lot of the writing duties, I don’t think the style changed too much. With Atma on drums, it did change the character of the last record because he known for his progressive rock style, so he added a flair to the beats that was not present on the previous one. This is Johnny’s band and he knows already the direction and style his is capturing and therefore, I don’t think who’s on bass is really going to affect that.
So the most important gig you have played with Hardline so far was the Gods Festival in Bradford, England on June the 2th 2002. Were Hardline the headliners? What are your memories from the festival and what was the audience’s feedback?
Yes, we headlined this festival. Other acts on the bill included Harem Scarem, Jeff Scott Soto and Eric Martin. I have several memories from this event, most clearly walking down the street with the band in the rain looking for an Indian restaurant that was recommended to us. Regarding the show, I remember being up on a tall keyboard riser next to two really pretty backup singers, whom I’ve never met before. It was crowded and being my first time in England, everything was overwhelming for me when the crowd was singing the songs. Even though it wasn’t my songs, I still felt the support, love and magic that these songs still possess after all these years. And backing up such an amazing powerful singer such as Johnny, I felt like a million bucks up there.
Soon after that a live CD and DVD was released via Frontiers Records, entitled ‘Live at the Gods Festival 2002’ and featuring Hardline’s performance. Some people complain on the record’s production and quality and point out to the fact of constant technical and sound problems the band suffered from during the concert. What is your take on that?
You have to remind me, haha. Well... I have to start by saying ‘yes’ I know what you are talking about. We arrived at the venue moments before we went on stage at 1 am in the morning. We had no sound check and not our own gear. The singers were hired at the last minute and along with that, the monitor system was not dialed in for us, so it was very muddy on stage and hard to hear clearly. With two guitarists, two backup vocalists, lead vocals, keyboards, bass and drums, we had 8 musicians up on stage. To me and others, the overall production didn’t sound so great. I don’t think Johnny liked it. When the masters went to print, I was hoping in the studio, an engineer could clean it up, but nope, it sounded as raw as live when I got my final copy. I’m proud of the show but don’t find myself running to play the DVD for my friends unfortunately. Hey, I have to admit there are some great moments. We played the entire Double Eclipse and several new ones, making it a long set. Johnny was also under the weather at the time of the show and exhausted from just getting off of Axel Rudi Pell shows. So, with all that stacked on itself, it was a tough show for us and we survived, but ironically, no engineer was able to give us a helping hand during the final preparation of it, it is simply raw as raw, and that’s okay too.
The other band you’re a member of is a prog rock band Accomplice. No doubt that progressive music requires a bit different approach than hard rock; which of those genres is closer to your heart personally?
I have an equal love for melodic hard rock as I do for progressive rock. I mostly like to play technical music with fast riffs and odd-timing, but there are many moments where I love to play a really nice easy piano line with a simple pad without having to stress over anything hard to play, getting to enjoy the crowd and the moment. I like my band Accomplice because they are a cross between Journey and Dream Theater, bringing the love for 80’s rock and today’s progressive rock. Founder and guitarist Sean Clegg and I have worked together for many years, which is a reason why this is a special group to me. In 2007, we released ‘She’s on Fire’ with Johnny Gioeli (Hardline, Axel Rudi Pell) on vocals and Scott Snyder (Great White) on bass. We hired Simon Phillips to produce it. I love good music with excellent musicianship, technical and original, yet not over the top and taking their eye off the ball so to speak losing the audience, if you know what I mean. I love Dream Theater but find seeing them live to be boring sometimes.
In 2003, you joined a legendary 70s glam rock band Angel. What were the circumstances of that?
I was introduced to Danny Stanton from Coallier Entertainment out of NYC. He hired me in the band and booked us on tour with Sebastian Bach in Europe playing Bang Your Head in Germany, Z7 in Switzerland and the Netherlands. I grew up listening to Gregg Giuffria and loving his music, his stage presence and conviction on stage as a keyboardist was mind boggling. I remember shopping for my first white outfit for our shows and being excited. The music was right up my alley. It was sad when original bassist Mickie Jones passed away from cancer in 2009.
There were some speculations on Angel recording a new album. Can you confirm or deny, and if the answeris affirmative, ccan you tell us more about this?
Drummer Barry Brandt and I became good friends, spending two years in the studio together in Burbank writing an album worth of material. Singer Frank DiMino came to my place in Studio City tracking vocals. We never moved forward on a new release so the music sat there. But I’ve recently decided to use some of the material for my debut solo keyboard record. I hope one day Frank does want to do a new release and we tour again. Now that I moved from Hollywood, California to Las Vegas, I’ve finally got to meet Gregg Giuffria (who also lives here) and start a relationship with him.
You’re also a part of Lita Ford’s touring band. How do you judge your input in the band and how it is to co-operate on stage with a Queen of Hard Rock?
I joined in June of 2008, when Lita came back to the music scene. At first, I didn’t realise how much keyboards were in her music. I like performing live and getting to start many of the songs live such as ‘Kiss Me Deadly’, ‘Black Widow’, ‘Falling In and Out of Love’ and ‘Hungry’. It is an honor to play for the queen of metal. I feel that I’m very lucky. There are so many bands out there to be in, but someone like Lita Ford, well that is historical and iconic. A gig I’ve always dreamed of doing, getting to perform in front of 10,000+ audience a night around the world, can’t ask for anything more. We are working on a new CD and everyone is excited about it. There is no release date yet.
Among all the other music activities you’ve been taking up through the years, is there anything you find important to share with our readers?
I would like to mention Alen Brentini again, the guitarist from Croatia because we are in the middle of working on a new album. I flew out to him in May and December of 2010 for shows and recording. There is another trip being planned before the end of the year to finish it. We have a single out now called ‘Voice Like an Angel’ that can be heard on youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6MN0rTDlIc
You’ve recorded and/or performed with many artists - Derek Sherinian (Billy Idol), Phil Soussan (Ozzy, Richie Kotzen), Mark Zonder (Fates Warning), Terry Ilous (XYZ), Lita Ford, Rudy Sarzo (Ozzy), Bobby Rock (Vinnie Vincent Invasion, Slaughter), Simon Phillips (Toto) amongst the others. Are there any artists you’d like to co-work on stage or in the studio in the future?
Yes, many. First, Yngwie J. Malmsteen, Marco Mendoza, Marty Friedman, Joe Satriani, then I would say Jon Anderson, Al DiMeola, Blondie, Night Ranger and lastly, Janis Joplin if she was alive.
When asking someone what is the biggest difficulty of their job, many rock keyboardists point out to the tough compromise between guitar and keys, with enough space left for both and no attempt to efface each other. Taking albums you’ve recorded into consideration, what is your personal view?
I recorded all the keys on the latest Lizzy Borden ‘Appointment with Death’ and after receiving the final copy, I found the guitar to be very loud, which sounds great, but thinking the best interest of the keyboard levels, I felt I was buried in several parts. This is the everyday dealings that come up in this business. Let’s face it we live in a guitar infested world. There is this love/hate relationship because my heart lies with a lot of love for the guitar but at the same time, as a keyboardist managing my department, I always strive for full cooperation from them, because at the flick of the switch they can drown me out. That’s why it is important for me to play in keyboard friendly bands.
Now it is time for a little odd question for the end of this interview. Let’s assume you’ve caught a goldfish that could grant you three wishes, not necessarily related to music career of course. What would it be?
To marry Martina Stella from Italy, own a Liberace piano and to own a farm with over 100 adopted animals on the property.
Thanks so much for this in-depth interview! Is there anything you’d like to add in the end?
Thank you for the chance to share my story with your audience and answer your well thought out questions. Please volunteer at your local no-kill animal shelter.
I’m on tour with Lita Ford, so please check my sites for upcoming shows. We will be at Jaxx Night Club in Springfield, Virginia on 8/20, Purple Moose Saloon in Ocean City, Maryland on 8/21, Soaring Eagle Casino along with Whitesnake in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, Warehouse Live in Houston, Texas on 9/16, in Grapevine, Texas on 9/17. Also, I’ll be playing with Missing Persons at the T. Boyle’s Tavern in Pasadena, CA 9/24. I will also be performing with the group Benedictum at the Brick by Brick in San Diego on 9/29, Scottsdale, AZ on 9/30, El Paso on 10/1, and select shows on the east coast from November 10th through the 19th from Orlando, Florida to New York City, to Worcester, Massachusetts.
Yes, we headlined this festival. Other acts on the bill included Harem Scarem, Jeff Scott Soto and Eric Martin. I have several memories from this event, most clearly walking down the street with the band in the rain looking for an Indian restaurant that was recommended to us. Regarding the show, I remember being up on a tall keyboard riser next to two really pretty backup singers, whom I’ve never met before. It was crowded and being my first time in England, everything was overwhelming for me when the crowd was singing the songs. Even though it wasn’t my songs, I still felt the support, love and magic that these songs still possess after all these years. And backing up such an amazing powerful singer such as Johnny, I felt like a million bucks up there. style=