“I guess Joel and I had the mentality that this was what we were going to do, and to be able to achieve it is crazy. To move to Melbourne thinking that no matter what, we’ll be on the dole and then eventually we’re going to move to England or something and tour the world… As an 18 year old, there was no Plan B, and looking back now it seems insane. But I think that was the trick.”
– Ryan O’Keeffe.
Drummer Ryan O’Keeffe and his older brother Joel (vocals/lead guitar) were born to rock. Both honing their instruments since they were 11, it wasn’t long before Joel met rhythm guitarist David Roads, and after their independent release of the Ready to Rock EP (2004) that they found bassist Justin Street. Band accomplished.
Since then, they’ve supported the iconic likes of The Rolling Stones and Mötley Crüe, and were invited by Capitol Records in 2006 to make their debut album Runnin’ Wild with the legendary producer Bob Marlette [Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper] in LA. Nine years later, they’ve dropped their fourth record Breakin’ Outta Hell and with the same powerhouse producer, showcasing just how tight they’ve become.
I sat down with the man behind the kit to chat about the journey so far’ including nearly being sent home in LA, and grabbing drinks with Iron Maiden guitarist, Janick Gers.
It’s fitting that O’Keeffe was sitting in LA as I opened our chat, being it’s the birthplace of their debut album. However, he thoughtfully considered playing on home soil with the mention of their Aussie headline tour in January, with the drummer musing, “That’s where we cut our teeth. Over ten years ago, that’s where we learned how to be a band on the road and lived together. I can’t even remember when we last toured Australia (chuckles), it was a few years back. But yeah it’s always fun.”
The group’s latest effort, Breakin’ Outta Hell is a hard-hitting testament to not giving a shit about what other people tell you to do and just having a good time, something the guys in Airbourne are no strangers to. Yet O’Keeffe admitted that coming into this record off the back of such a good release in 2013’s Black Dog Barking was “actually a little bit daunting.”
“I remember thinking back, ‘We’ve gotta do better’, and it was one of those things where you initially you go ‘How are we possibly going to do it?’. But then you’re just head down, tail up, and you start working on it. Joel and I were constantly talking about the record, and then when Bob came out he had a vision too; he was like ‘It needs to be very much Airbourne’ and not overproduced. It feels weirdly connected with Runnin’ Wild, I mean we did both records with Bob, but yeah it feels like its brother.”
Working with producer Bob Marlette was almost like coming full circle for the younger O’Keeffe, who wholeheartedly agreed that he took them under his wing all those years ago on Runnin’ Wild.
“When we first came to LA ten years ago, just down the road from where I’m sitting now, I remember we were here for six months and they scrapped our EP. We basically got here thinking we were going to record songs off that, and they just said ‘None of those are good enough. You’ve gotta re-write the whole thing.’ So that was hard enough because we were just kids, I was just 20, so I couldn’t go out much. I mean, I still managed to get into The Rainbow and stuff like that. But basically Bob would come to sessions and say ‘We need hooks’, and Joel would go ‘What’s a hook?’. He buried his heads in his hands because he was like ‘We’ve got a long way to go with you guys’. I remember they were probably going to send us home, but Bob told them to give us a chance. So we locked ourselves in a storage facility for like three months, and then made Runnin’ Wild with his guidance. That was baptism by fire.”
“Then ten years later he’s pulled more out of us on songs like ‘Rivalry’, and that’s what makes a great producer.”
One of the most surreal career moments for O’Keeffe remains being able to support the mighty Iron Maiden on their Final Frontier World Tour in 2011, with the musician still pinching himself five years later.
“I couldn’t believe it when it happened. I was a Maiden fan as a kid, and my childhood dream would’ve been to meet them. I would never fathom the fact that we’d be touring with them in their home country, just us, having a Sunday roast while Janick reads the newspaper (chuckles). Ever since, we’ve been in touch with their road crew… Charlie the drum tech and a couple of guys came down to Sing Sing Studios in Melbourne when we were recording Breakin’ Outta Hell and I actually had one quick Guinness with Janick when I was out.”
Reminiscing about other amazing tour experiences, O’Keeffe’s enthusiasm shined through as he reflected that getting to support The Rolling Stones “was crazy because the whole road crew came off stage and we got a photo with the guys. They were still drinking vodka oranges like teenagers, which was great (laughs). But the biggest one was Motörhead with Lemmy, and the numerous tours we did with him. To have him be a part of our lives so many times was a huge honour, and there is a hole out there in Europe on the festival circuit when you no longer see that Motörhead logo on the posters.”
After letting that dark sentiment sink in, our chat lightened as the drummer looked back on the four-piece’s journey since moving into a band house “over ten years ago”.
“We got to learn everybody’s buttons I guess. We’re definitely not one of those bands where we play tricks or anything on each other, because the tour bus is actually more so our home than anywhere else in the world. All the guys respect that it’s a band of brothers, and we’ve been doing this for our whole lives now, so we’re used to it.”
“I guess Joel and I had the mentality that this was what we were going to do, and to be able to achieve it is crazy. To move to Melbourne thinking that no matter what, we’ll be on the dole and then eventually we’re going to move to England or something and tour the world… As an 18 year old, there was no plan B, and looking back now it seems insane. But I think that was the trick. As far as we were concerned, that was just going to happen.”
In a moment of true humility, O’Keeffe confessed “I can’t believe that I’m sitting in LA, doing an interview in a rock ‘n’ roll band and it’s my career. I’m never going to take that for granted.”
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Get ready to break outta hell with Airbourne when they embark on a blistering summer run next year, tour dates below. Otherwise, relax with a cold beer and grab the new record here.