An Interview with
'Michael T. Ross'
Keyboardist for 'Raiding The Rock Vault', and formerly of Lita Ford and Missing Persons,
which took place in Downtown Las Vegas, Nevada, on January 27th, 2017.
Interviewed by Glenn Milligan.
Glenn: I’m sitting here having fun in Michael's living room...just finished drinking some Cuban coffee, and now ready to dig in: How did it all come about being here in Vegas?
Michael: Six years ago, I moved here from Hollywood, Ca, jumping on the wagon of musicians who had given up on the L.A. scene, basically coming out here for work. I’ve been really enjoying the scene here, not only for the work, but the social life and the night life that this place has to offer. You can get a gelato at three in the morning, which comes in handy.
Glenn: Yeah! Tell me about how you became apart of ‘Raiding The Rock Vault’.
Michael: Well they always say being at the right place at the right time can get you places. That really happened for me here. When I moved to Vegas, I was still in Lita Ford and on tour, but she changed hands with band members, a few months after I arrived. I got the call to join 'Raiding The Rock Vault', and signed a deal with Sir Harry. The long list of A listed band members blew my mind. We’ve been doing it for four years now and played over 800 shows, to date. We are having so much fun, it feel like we're just getting warmed up. It has truly been a blessing being in the band.
Glenn: Are there certain shows that come to mind, or certain songs where something interesting happened that sticks in your mind?
Michael: Definitely, like when Joe Lynn Turner joined us in the original line-up. We played ‘Stone Cold’ and that gave chills down my spine. At one point, he came up to my keyboards and as I paid close attention to him, obviously wanting to play my best and gain his approval – he looked at me and said “Great Job”, then jumped off my riser and back up to the front of the stage. Simple moment, but a memorable one for me. Getting feedback like this from such icons keeps my confidence level up and really helps keep me shining. Also, when Lou Gramm joined us and we played 'I Want To Know What Love Is', and Howard Leese joining me on keys. That is a for sure highlight.
Glenn: There must be other guys too that have really grabbed your attention as well. Have you ever been put on the spot before where you’ve had to do solos or something at certain points or is it all very much timed during the show?
Michael: The set list is in stone. In the past, when a special guest would come in, then we have a handful of songs that we do of theirs. That’s tricky! We’ve had Jon Anderson from Yes. He was with us for a week, Having him tweaking my keyboards was very nerve-racking for me but at the end, after rehearsals, he dialed me in and it went very, very smooth after that. It did take a couple of shows in before I could start enjoying myself, I was so nervous.
For the first couple years, Howard Leese and I would do trade-offs in the middle of Smoke on the Water. But when he was out with Bad Company, Doug Aldrich and I would go back and forth. One night, he passed his guitar spot, so I could double the keys, when at a moment, I thought I was done. I quickly jumped back on to a third round and really got to dig in. We have had a close list of musicians who have covered for us, like when Hugh McDonald is out playing bass with Bon Jovi, Phil Soussan (Billy Idol, The Last In Line, Ozzy Osbourne) steps in.
Glenn: You’ve learned so much from working alongside a lot of these guys. I mean, Howard Leese goes without saying. What would you say is the greatest things you have learnt from some of these icons if you want to call them or heroes of ours and of yours no doubt? What is it about certain things that you have learned as well?
Michael: From a musical stand-point it would definitely be Jay Schellen (drums) and Howard Leese (guitar). They worked together with me one on one to make the music the best it could be. Jay would go over my timing with a fine toothed comb, and Howard, who also played keys in Heart, went over my patches, voicing, down to what chords I was playing. In the beginning, I was nervous, but quickly gained my confidence with the guidance and approval of everyone.
The rest of the line-up consists of Paul Shortino, Andrew Freeman, Mark Boals, Doug Aldrich, Robin McAuley, Hugh McDonald and Cian Coey. Players rotate once in a while when a member steps out, and then Rowen Robertson (Dio), Z Maddox, Christian Brady (Hell Yeah), Phil Soussan (Ozzy), Tracii Guns, Dave Amato (Reo Speedwagon) and Blas Elias (Slaughter), step in. I've stepped out a couple times briefly to play in Singapore, then I went to Austria, Croatia and Italy. We are extremely excited to return March 11, 2017, at the Hard Rock Hotel.
Glenn: Nice! Have you been using the same keyboards for a long time or do you plan to get more gear in? What sort of stuff do you use most of the time?
Michael: I’m not much of a gear junkie. I like to plug in and play. Korg is my #1 choice and always has been. Easy to use. I don’t get tangled in with a bunch of software or read manuals online all night. I create all my own sounds, manipulating the isolators, blending in different patches making it my own. My live rig consists of 10 channels- 8 stereo and 2 mono. Korg Kronos 73, Korg 01/W ProX 88, Korg M3 61, Korg 01/W 61, Korg Triton rack, Yamaha P95. No computers, laptop, samplers, mixers, mics, on my riser.
Strictly all hardware, where analog boards and digital boards meet in the middle. It goes to show that the stuff made 20+ years ago is just as good as the stuff out today, if not better, in my opinion. I'm not looking for all the bells and whistles. I play hard, busy, grooving, and pounding the keys. I don't have time to do anything else, like trigger this or that. I want to play, 100% of the time. I'm not a programmer or engineer. I'm a performer. I recently performed with Frank DiMino from Angel supporting Uli Jon Roth at the Ventura Theater in California, and simply used the Korg M3, Triton and 01/W 61 key.
Glenn: Why Korg? What is it about the Korg sound?
Michael: They are just so cool. I grew up with them. Of course, when I was little, I had all the Roland Keyboards then. Roland was the thing. I then got a Korg Poly 800 and was sold on Korg from then on. As I got older, I just felt like Korg was just the cool company and the family I wanted to be with. They’re sexy! I just love the silver boards – the Trinity’s into the Triton, the M1 – I have ‘em all still. They still work. I use Yamaha for piano sounds but I do tuck that away and kind of hide it.
Don't get me wrong...Yamaha definitely for pianos but Korg for everything else. There are other great companies out there – of course Nord is a great one and I don’t understand why I don’t have that in my rig but I used to with the lead rack 2, which I miss. Korg does cover everything that I need.
Glenn: Do you have any endorsements at all with companies like Korg?
Michael: I’ve built a strong relationship with Korg and have visited their headquarters many times in Melville, New York. Yes, they are my family of 10 years and take care of me. I’ve also worked with Arturia Keyboards out of France. What another great company and products. In 2010, I demoed for them as a clinician at the NAMM show in Anaheim, California. I used their Origin keyboard for the opening of Rock Vault.
Glenn: You mentioned Lita Ford. Now me and you have this connection regarding Lita – a mutual friend from Ft. Myers Beach, drummer, Stet Howland, who you both played together in her band. There must be some cool things that you’ve done gig-wise or offstage? Tell me what it’s like to hang out, socialise and work alongside Stet from the Lita Tour onwards…
Michael: Playing with Stet has been amazing. He’s a monster, he’s an animal. He's a big brother to me. Sometimes I love him, sometimes I don’t, because he’s very strict behind the kit and he wants the best out of everybody around. He's a perfectionist. It’s fun to play with him but you’ve got to be on your toes and have your homework in order when you step up with him. He’s been a great mentor to me and I’ve cleaned up my act playing with him.
I recently got to work with him at a show here in Downtown Vegas for a month. It was great to be back with him. A lot of funny and crazy stories...from a bomb scare at the Copenhagen airport, to technical issues leaving me and Stet momentarily playing just keys and drums live at Sweden Rock Festival in front of 30k.
Glenn: Yeah it’s a small world and it’s funny how things work out. What other plans outside ‘Raiding The Rock Vault’ apart from working with Frank Dimino?
Michael: Running the show 5 or 6 days week, I've just been focussed on that actually and laying low outside the ‘Rock Vault’ shows. I have diabetes and I spend a lot of time managing it everyday. Those who have it know what I’m talking about. That does occupy a lot of my time. We finished six days a week consecutively for a couple of years with very little time off. It’s important to rest on my downtime. I don’t have the energy or means right now to run around in 10 different bands like I’ve been doing my whole life. It’s time to relax a little bit and enjoy the show and give it my full attention. It's a band but also my rock family. It’s plentiful and I get so much out of that.
Glenn: You mentioned earlier this afternoon to me about playing keyboards and not doing your own material. Have you put things together yourself, put it to one side and maybe have a special E.P. or mini-album or full length album on a label of the Michael T. Ross Solo instrumental album or maybe put a few guest vocalists in there as your own project? What are your thoughts to that?
Michael: I think that would be the next step for me. I’ve been hesitating for quite some time now and I’ve just felt fine playing other people's music. I still go home and play my music all night, even if it's for myself, my girlfriend and my cat. It's actually satisfying. Look, one day, if the opportunity arises, and a label wishes to back me, I'd be all over it. But I'm not going to put it out myself and watch it be used as a coffee coaster. My songs and music mean so much to me. The expectations are so high in my head. It would have to be special and the right way.
Glenn: Like, “What am I going to do with this?” Do you think you’ll come up with something that a guy like that will be able to use and promote yourself in a new project or something like that or do you think, “Nah!”. Your choice on that?
Michael: Well, I need to go one route or another regarding a solo album. Am I going to go instrumental and show off all the tricks that everybody told me to save for my solo record. Or...do a vocal cd and have amazing singers on it. I’m a pianist at heart. I started on the piano at age 8, so, I write a lot of piano ballads. I recorded the keys on the latest Lizzy Borden ‘Appointment With Death’. I used an electric piano which is very mellow and melodic.
I played on Hardline II, 'Live At The Gods 2002' in England and ‘Leaving The End Open’. Last year, I played the keys on a new Jason Becker tribute Cd. One thing is, by not doing solo records, I've been able to accumulate over 30 Cds that's I've played keys on. And gigging 5-6 nights a week with no holiday breaks.
Glenn: What is it like to live in and around Vegas and how does it compare to other places such as Los Angeles or anywhere else that you’ve lived? What do you like or dislike about living in the Vegas area?
Michael: I took a gamble coming here. I lived in Studio City (next to Hollywood) and everything was going great in L.A. I was on tour with Lita and I also lived in Florida, going back and forth, and spent quite a bit of time in Long Island. Vegas really ended up being a great place to pick to live. I don’t have any regrets at all. I think that the longer I stay here, the more I fall in love with this town. There’s a small community here with a big city feel and are like one big rock family here. We’re all a bunch of orphan musicians that got to live together in the same city.
We’re living in the middle of the desert but happens to be the entertainment capital. We have great players here – Oz Fox, Scotty Griffin, Stoney Curtis, Brent Muscat, Brent Fitz, Blas Elias, etc. It seems to be working for a lot of musicians here. Everyone here is cool. There are some great clubs here like Vamp’d. There are a few other good rock clubs that you don’t hear about too much but they’re here. I’ve been in Vegas six years and thanks to Sir Harry and Raiding The Rock Vault, I've been blessed with a great gig – I’m not going anywhere.
Glenn: You’ve no doubt seen a lot of keyboard players and piano players around or heard on the radio. Question: Who would you say you’ve taken a liking to any one specific? Also, how have they influenced you as a player?
Michael: My influences go back to Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson and Jon Lord – the staple guys! I’m also a guitar fanatic and heavily influenced by Gary Moore. I find myself listening to guitar more than I do keyboards, actually. I like to solo. I like to sound like a guitar and actually get close to the tones, do the dive-bombs. I love Brad Gillis and the solo on ‘Sister Christian’. I try to take that approach on the Korg - it has the strip and the pitch-bender and so I mimic the guitar. I also sample guitar from my Cab and I blend that into my sound, so I have a real sound in there for the squeals and stuff. I’m a guitarist stuck in a keyboardists body actually… yeah (We laugh).
Glenn: What other things would you like to discuss that we’ve not touched on yet?
Michael: Yeah! Regarding Politics, America’s been going through a big change with the new President. I’ve learned that on a social media basis, I didn’t feel like I was in a position to be able to express myself because I felt that I would get ridiculed or verbally attacked by people who have liked me all of these years through the music. I don’t feel that that’s right or that’s fair. Even mentioning that would turn it up to a backlash so I’ve stayed silent throughout. I did one post and said, “I have a political free site and proud of it”. That’s all I said through the whole Presidential Election. But there are many artists who are vocal like Bono.
But what I’m bringing up now is the mixture of being an entertainer and playing great music for people to enjoy. On a personal note, delivering that whole message too. I don’t feel that all the fans have signed up for that. I wish it would be separate. Who knows. I'm keeping my personal political views away from my music career. They’re there to hear the music and they love that era and that genre of music. I’m very cautious and selective. I’m okay with it. I’m not angry or anything but I don’t understand why being an entertainer… I could lose a lot of fans over whatever my opinion would be one side or the other. I’d lose either way. Overall I do like talking politics. I just can’t touch it publicly. I’m just glad things have cooled down a bit – back to the music! It’s all about the music!
Glenn: Yeah! Awesome! Any famous last words for now before we wrap it up?
Michael: It’s great running into you and getting to do this interview in person because you’re from Sheffield and you’re here in Downtown Las Vegas with me. It’s very cool of you. I just ask if you come back out to Las Vegas to check out ‘Raiding The Rock Vault’ at the Hard Rock Hotel.
Glenn: Consider it done in a few months time when I get back out again! That’s Great!
Michael: Thanks Glenn!
Be sure to go and see Michael T. Ross at The Hard Rock Hotel from 11th March when 'Raiding The Rock Vault' begins again for the 2017 Season!