Exclusive Interview With Airbourne Guitarist Joel O'Keeffe

He talks about the new album, his love for Lemmy, and what drives him as an artist.

Ultimate Guitar
Exclusive Interview With Airbourne Guitarist Joel O'Keeffe

Airbourne guitarist Joel O'Keeffe has a reputation for doing some crazy things when he and his Australian bandmates are onstage. He climbs precarious scaffoldings and runs about the stage and if you didn’t know any better, you’d think the 31-year old guitarist was a bit of a madman offstage as well. But he’s not. He is a passionate and devoted fan of rock and roll and the music he makes is a distillation of the best America and England has to offer. On the band’s fourth album titled Breakin’ Outta Hell (UG Score 7.3), Airbourne brings back producer Bob Marlette and engineer/mixer Mike Fraser [they both worked separately on earlier albums]. Recording for the first time in their native Australia—the prior three albums were done in the U.S.—the record displays the group’s penchant for simple, driving hard rock ala AC/DC and Aerosmith. Here, Joel O'Keeffe talks about the new album, his love for Lemmy, and what drives him as an artist. “When you’re onstage, you don’t feel like king of the world or anything like that. You’re just there to give ‘em a good show and a good time and you give it your all. You treat every show like it’s your last. You never sort of sit back and think that you’re king of the world. That’s the furthest thing from your mind. You’re there to lift people up and pick ‘em up. That might be a working class mentality to explain it but that’s how it is.”

UG: There are American hard rock bands, English hard rock bands and then there are Australian hard rock bands. Why does Airbourne sound so different from say, Aerosmith or Motorhead?

Joel: In Australia, we were influenced by England and America rather than England just getting influenced by America or America just being influenced by England. You already had the blues and Elvis Presley and England invented their own stuff with the Beatles. The British Invasion happened and then it was kind of a big fusion pot between England and America making this kind of rock and roll with Hendrix going over there and the Who coming over to where you guys are and all that sort of mixing.

UG: What happened in Australia?

Joel: In Australia, it didn’t really happen so we would listen to England’s rock and roll and we would listen to America’s rock and roll and put them together. We’d just take the simplest, loudest parts because that’s what would resonate out to Australia because it’s so far away. So whatever are the most simple and loudest parts of that kind of music ended up us getting influenced by. That’s what Aussie pub rock and roll is. It’s that mix of those two cultures of music.

UG: Who were some of the bands you were listening to?

Joel: OK, so Guns N’ Roses, Metallica and even Poison when I was a kid. I remember seeing the “Unskinny Bop” film clip. Guns N’ Roses was a big one in Australia and so was Metallica when they came over and toured. Skid Row was another big one. Billy Idol even though he’s English. Ozzy Osbourne. I know he’s English but his career when he moved to the U. S. was very American rock and roll he was playing in his solo career.

UG: Aerosmith?

Joel: For sure. ZZ Top and then of course the blues as well. Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker were big influences as well.

UG: You had mentioned the Who so what about bands like the Stones?

Joel: Oh, for sure the Stones. Status Quo. Black Sabbath of course and Judas Priest.

UG: When you started out, what was the period like when you recorded the first album Runnin’ Wild (UG Score 9.3) and you had Bob Marlette [Ozzy] producing?

Joel: We were learning a lot as we were going along. I guess the main thing is we wanted to do our best for Bob, for the record, for ourselves and for the people who were gonna listen to it. We had a lot of pressure because we’d never made a record before in our lives and we’d never even been to the U.S. before. It was like all these things at once.

UG: What was that like coming to America for the first time to record that album?

Joel: We flew over to the U.S. and we spent a lot of our time in a storage facility working on songs and just going over and over ‘em. Then Bob would come in and say, “Oh, I think you need to tweak this and tweak that. I’ll go away and come back in a week or so and show me what you got.”

UG: On the second album No Guts, No Glory (UG Score 8.2), you also flew back to America and Mike Fraser [Aerosmith, Van Halen] mixed it. What did you think of what he did?

Joel: It’s really good that he did because when we just had the raw mixes we were like, “Aw, we don’t know how this is gonna sound.” Once he got his magic around it and once he got it under his fingers on the board, it just came to life. He really brings rock and roll to life. It’s one of his gifts. It’s kinda like the mixing board or the SSL is his guitar and he plays it like that. It’s an instrument to him and he’s a wizard. He’s really one of those guys where you go, “I don’t know how you did what you did but I really love it.”

UG: On the Black Dog Barking (UG Score 7.7) album you brought in Brian Howes [Hinder, Puddle of Mudd] to produce. You recorded that one again in the States at Brian’s studio in Los Angeles.

Joel: It was different but with Brian he was really cool. He’s a rock and roll fan at heart and he loves a lot of the early Aussie pub rock bands like The Angels, which was called Angel City over here. Of course he loves AC/DC and Iron Maiden and stuff like that so we got along like a house on fire. Brian and Jay was great and it was a really good working relationship. One night Brian said, “Let’s heat the pool up for two days.”

UG: What pool?

Joel: We recorded at his house and he’s got a studio there. He heated the whole pool up and it was like a Jacuzzi basically but it was a swimming pool and it took two days. We finished tracking on a Friday night and there was all this steam coming out of the pool and he was like, “I think it’s ready.” So we knocked off and got a few beers and jumped in the pool and cranked up Iron Maiden and the Angels all night long. One of his neighbors who lives way over in the hills, said she could hear the Angels blaring at 5:00 a.m. in Studio City. So that’s kinda funny.

UG: If you look back at those first three albums, do you think the band was getting better as songwriters and musicians?

Joel: Well, yeah. I guess the thing is you learn more. Going back with Bob Marlette again on this fourth one [Breakin’ Outta Hell (UG Score 7.3)], he was there on the first album and he taught us a lot from that. We learned a lot from him then but we were still a very young band. He said, “We should do this again. It doesn’t have to be the next record but we should do it again because there’s a lot more I can teach you guys when you’re a bit more developed and you’ve done this a few more time.”

UG: You not only worked with Bob Marlette on Breakin’ Outta Hell but you’ve brought back Mike Fraser. It was almost like everything you’ve done was building towards this album, right?

Joel: With rock and roll bands, we all come out of the gate with our first record and then on the second record we develop more. Some bands get it right on the first record and that’s it but sometimes other bands take a bit more to grow as they go along. On our first record, if you can imagine it, Airbourne had a toolbox and all we had in there was a hammer and a set of nails. It was pretty simple and then Bob taught us a lot and we learned and he gives us a measuring tape. Then on the second record, we did the same with Johnny K and then with Brian we learned a few more things and added a few more tools.

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UG: The title song from Breakin’ Outta Hell has a lot of energy and fire. How do you sort of bring that to a song when you’re in the studio?

Joel: In the studio, you’ve already done it in preproduction and you’ve played it live as a band so you know the energy’s all there. Then in the studio, we still play it live but you’ve got to put the headphones on and you’ve got to get into tracking mode, which is different. You can’t just stand in a room with the amps blaring because it wouldn’t sound very good.

UG: You’re trying to create the best performance musically and sonically but still preserve the emotion of the band. Right?

Joel: To get the energy there, it’s a real focus on your playing to get that right. I did all the vocals on a Shure 58, a handheld microphone. I was either standing up or sitting in a chair. I was over in the corner of the room and there was no baffling or anything. It was just in the console room and not even in the studio. We just did it there and Bob sat on the couch and he said, “Nope. Let’s do this better. You’re a bit flat. Give me some more attitude” and things like that. It’s really good one-on-one with Bob because we’ve both got the headphones on and he’s sitting there literally a meter or two away from me on the couch.

UG: It sounds like a really intimate situation when you’re cutting vocals.

Joel: At first off, it’s a little bit daunting. At first you’re like, “Oh, fuck.” But then once you get rolling it’s fine. Mike’s [Fraser] there and got his headphones on and he’s tracking away. We do another take and we do another take until we get it right and that’s kinda how it works and the same thing with guitar solos.

UG: Do you have your solos previously worked out?

Joel: I don’t write guitar solos at all ever. We record the whole track live with all the rhythm guitars, drums and bass and then we get the vocals and solos at some point. With the solo, I just sit there and we run the track over a bunch of times and I play along to the whole track. Then I find some things and Bob might say, “Hey, that was good what you did back there.” I got, “What did I do? I can’t remember.” But we would have been recording and I’ll go, “Oh, yeah” because I’m just playing away and not really thinking too much. Then basically I get my good bits and play ‘em all as one.

UG: I hear a bit of Joe Perry, Angus Young and Jimmy Page in your playing.

Joel: Oh, yeah. For sure. I love Led Zeppelin with Page but I really like Kirk Hammett from Metallica. I like when he hits the blues scale and he does it in a lot of his solos. He’ll always be going along and then he’ll drop a little Pentatonic vibe and it sounds really cool to see how he gets to it and how he gets out of it. He did it a lot on their first album Kill ‘Em All and even to the Black album. He’s always dropping ‘em everywhere like little Pentatonic, classic blues, Chuck Berry stuff. You hear it within there and I like to see how he takes it and puts his own spin on it.

UG: You’ve been a Gibson Explorer guy for a while?

Joel: Yeah, that’s true.

UG: And Marshalls?

Joel: Yeah. In the studio, there’s a lot of guitars going on and a lot of different amps too. There’s Marshalls and Wizards and with the guitars there are Gibson Explorers (UG Score 8.8), SGs and some Gretschs. A White Falcon (UG Score 9.4) and a ’63 Duo Jet (UG Score 9.4). I think I even used a Les Paul on something but just maybe for a solo or something. Sometimes you have a lot of different guitars there and you forget what you’ve used. Then you gotta go back three tracks down the line because you don’t like the solo and you gotta redo it or some part of it and you’re going, “Oh, fuck. What guitar did we use? What was the amp setting?” That can take hours to recall all of that.

UG: With Airbourne, it’s all real amps and cabinets and no modeling amps or Fractal gear or anything like that?

Joel: Oh, yeah. It’s all amps. We’ll never get those times again. You know what I mean? It’s all how it is on the day and how it was. It’s all raw. We were blowing valves all the time. We had an amp tech coming down to fix a JCM 800 that I was using for guitar solos. It was my 1982 JCM 800, which I put a Tube Screamer through the front of it and that was my solo tone pretty much. Of course we used the SoloDallas by Schaffer.

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UG: “It’s All For Rock N’ Roll” was a track you dedicated to Lemmy. Airbourne toured with Motorhead, right?

Joel: He was in our first video “Running Wild” so that was when we first met him. I’d seen him before once when we were playing with Motley Crue and he walked past and he gave a salute and I gave him a salute. I was just really nervous and only about 20 years old at the time. I was really nervous when I saw him like that because they were all walking to the stage. Then when we met him at the music video, he was in the limo. He didn’t want to be paid or anything.

UG: That was cool.

Joel: He just said, “I want a limo to pick me up at the Rainbow and drop me back when you’re done.

So of course we did. He invited us into the limo and we all sat in there with him for a couple hours while they were changing cameras. We listened to ZZ Top in there and it was two albums I think it was then he played some Motorhead demos. He talked about Motorhead touring for their entire history basically and Hawkwind. He gave us a bunch of really good advice on how the music industry is now versus how it was and what you’ve got to do to be a band in this day and age.

UG: It sounds like Lemmy was sort of another mentor for the band.

Joel: The guy was really onto it. He knew everything. It was like if he was a chess player, he knew your next move in terms of what rock and roll was doing. So, yeah, from that day forward, we did multiple tours with him and saw him at countless festivals. We’d always see their crew and knew them on a first-name basis and would always say, “G’day.” It was such a great thing and then tragically, he toured right up until his end. In “Ace of Spades,” there’s a line that says, “I don’t wanna live forever” but then jokingly live he’d say, “But apparently I am.”

UG: That was prophetic.

Joel: He knows. He is. He’s living forever. The thing with us is we’d see these festivals and the Motorhead logo is not there anymore. It’s not like there’s even another band name—it’s just a big hole. So for us, he really meant a lot and he really helped us. He embodies rock and roll and he is rock and roll. On any given day when you’ve got a band onstage, a hard working roadcrew is putting the band there and setting everything; focus the lights and tune the PA and go over everything and the backline. Then you’ve got all the fans who have bought tickets and traveled how many thousands of miles just to see the gig or the festival and there’s a campsite and they’re camping, it’s all for rock and roll. When we lose somebody, we should never forget them because you never know when your number’s up. It’s all about, “We’re all here on this day on this gig and we’re all here at this show together. So it’s all for one and it’s all for rock and roll.”

UG: In your live performances where you climb scaffolds and do crazy stuff, is it just something that happens in the moment?

Joel: Yeah. You’re already onstage and you see the scaffolding and just wanna get up there and give ‘em a show. That’s what it’s about. Just giving ‘em a bit more than you can give. You know what I mean? You give extra when you’re onstage. That’s the thing about Lemmy too is rock and roll really kept him alive for quite a long time. The fans with Motorhead and rock and roll is such a powerful thing. I went and saw him because we were on tour around 2015 and we say Motorhead and it was unbelievable. The crowd was so thankful he was there and they put on a hell of a show. I think they may have cancelled some shows at that point but when he walked out onstage, it was like the God of rock and roll had walked out and he was on point and not one note missed. He was a gunslinger—once he’s got you in your sites, you’re going down.

UG: You’re touring now for the new album?

Joel: Yeah. It’s been good. We’re sort of sneaking the new songs out there and they’re moving to it and that’s a good sign.

4 comments sorted by best / new / date

    "Who were some of the bands you were listening to?" --> WTF? He didn't even mention AC/DC
    Awesome interview! Airbourne is so fucking great, that´s what rock n´roll is supposed to be. Can anyone recommend any similar modern bands? They´re keeping alive that feel that I love. You know, the one you can´t find in progressive music or djent... 4/4 forever!!! cause I´m a crazy motherfucker and I just don´t care!!
    A friend had told me about a band that is similar in a way. I think they are actually from the 80s though. Rhino bucket is the name I think??
    I met these lads after their show here in Vancouver, they came to the bar just down the street from the venue. Great guys, very down to earth. When they came over to the bar and hung out for a bit you almost didn't even realize it was them because they were just hanging out and taking it easy. They put on a great show earlier.