The guitarguitar Interview: Kee Marcello

Published on 21 September 2018

Swedish rockers Europe have, in 'Final Countdown', one of the world's most legitimately legendary rock anthems. Everyone from every generation knows that song as well as Europe's other hits like 'Carrie', 'Rock the Night' and 'Superstitious'. The latter is a rock classic and features the prodigious skills of Kee Marcello on lead guitar, whose distinctively smooth, exacting and expressive playing has won him legions of fans. Kee, who played with the band from 1986 until 1992, was there for the band's highest point of stardom and lived the true 80s Rock Star dream.

Kee has continued to forge a successful career since, releasing multiple solo albums and retaining a healthy appetite for touring, playing and pushing himself. In an age when many of his contemporaries are playing it safe, Kee is releasing new music and touring to new audiences, performing with an energy and vitality that is undiminished.

We recently had the opportunity to catch up with Kee on the eve of his UK tour to support his latest album, Scaling Up. We found him in fine fettle, full of stories and enthusiasm for life, music and guitars!

Hi Kee, thanks for taking the time to talk to us!

Thanks for having me Ray!

Kee, you are renowned throughout the world as a master guitarist and ex-member of Europe. You are also a solo artist and are touring in support of your 5th solo album, Scaling Up. What kinds of ideas and feelings did you want to express with Scaling Up?

The general idea was to find my way back to my instinctive way of writing and playing the kind of music that comes naturally for me. But presenting the music with a ”now” sound, of course. It was interesting to discover that I’m just as ”hungry” now as when I started off my career in the early 80’s - hence ”Scaling Up”! At the time of writing for this album I read interviews with colleagues, fellow rock stars, and in all of them, I could read between the lines that they wanted to ”spend less time on the road”, ”not record as many albums”, etc. Man, that sounded like a retirement plan! I’m the opposite. I want to boldly go where no man has gone before (as Captain Kirk would’ve put it), perform in all thinkable and unthinkable places on this planet (and why not others?), I wanna record more, play with more interesting people, to cut a short story endless: I'm SCALING UP!

What can fans expect to see and hear on this upcoming UK-wide tour?

Of course, the singles and standout songs from Scaling Up, which also will include re-recorded songs from the legendary 'Le Baron Boys’ sessions.

And since it’s the 30th anniversary of the Europe album 'Out Of This World', we’re going to do a bunch of the gems most fans never have had the chance to enjoy live. For some of them, it’s the World premiere! When we originally did the OOTW Tour, we had so many songs we felt we had to play, so we only did a handful from OOTW. And since neither me nor Europe has performed a lot of them, they have reached cult status amongst melodic rock and AOR fans. It’s actually quite emotional to see the fans reactions when we play them on this tour!

By the way, 'Le Baron Boys’ i.e. the outtakes and demos that never made the Prisoners In Paradise album, has a cool story: 

This phenomena is quite amazing, cause it was really the fans that started it all. Someone got a hold of some of those demos and started sharing them online. Then some other fans found other recordings that they added to it. The name 'Le Baron Boys' was originally a fake band name I came up with when we (Europe) did a secret gig at the Whiskey on Sunset Strip, to try out some new material on the fans. There’s a sign above the entrance, with cinema style ol’ plastic letters that you form into band names, and I came up with 'Le Baron Boys' since we all were driving around in Chrysler Le Baron (shit car) convertibles that they endorsed us with. We could, of course, not publicly announce a gig at the Whiskey under our real name in a time when we were selling out 30,000 seaters! The name was fake, but some friends of ours spread the word to a couple of their friends. Just by the word of mouth the line to the Whiskey that evening was five blocks long! 

That name had absolutely nothing to do with the demos that fans started uploading years later but for some reason, somebody thought that this phenomena must have a band name, hence Le Baron Boys.

Going back to your formative years as a musician, what were your first influences as a guitarist?

I knew early on that I was going to be a guitar player. My mother used to tell me that I was in front of the telly watching The Beatles, playing along with them on my plastic toy guitar. I must've been four. But it wasn't really until I was 13 that I got into it seriously. I got a used Hagström electric guitar (for the equivalent of 10 GBP) for Christmas. Well, this was after I’d executed a lengthy brainwashing campaign on my mother in which I claimed that 'life wasn't worth living without an electric guitar': suicidal tendencies have a tremendous impact on parents of teenagers! Once I started out picking up licks, there were the usual suspects: Clapton, Hendrix, Beck, and after a while John McLaughlin and Alan Holdsworth. But there was one guitar player that really blew me away and made me re-think the whole phenomena about playing the guitar, and that was Ollie Halsall from the British 70s band Patto. Actually, he still to this day completely blows me away! He has this amazing, quite basic melodic rock 'n' roll style that can all of a sudden, without any warning, take off into unbelievable John Coltrane escapades! He is my biggest influence without a doubt.

In Europe, you replaced John Norum as lead guitarist, who then came back to the band again after you left. What was the challenge in learning Noram’s solos? And have you listened to his interpretations of your solos?

Yes, I joined the band in 1986, and obviously, I had to learn the band's songs of the past for the upcoming ”The Final Countdown Tour”. The challenge was possibly to try to understand how he was thinking melodically as well as technically because the two of us are really very different as guitar players. I don’t think we’d been listening to any of the same players. Yes, I have listened to some of his interpretations of my solos...

Listen, I don't want to be an asshole, but the truth is that Norum can't play any of my solos at gunpoint. 

I'm just in a completely different place when it comes to the different techniques I'm using, timing, and perhaps most importantly, my rubato style.

Talking of solos, do you tend to compose them ahead of going into the studio or improvise them?

That really depends on the song. Some songs are just really craving for a thematic, melodic solo. Like ”a song within the song” if you wish. Like the solo from Prisoners in Paradise for instance; it takes off in a whole different direction. But that's what's cool about it! In other cases, like Homeland for instance, it feels more appropriate to just rip away! I guess it’s because it’s already packed with melodic guitar licks, so when the solo comes, you want it to take off. And there's of course always the possibility of mixing it. A lot of my most popular solos are written thematic melodies altered with improvisational parts.

 Your playing is masterful and very melodic: what makes a great guitar solo?

One that you remember! Of course, it’s impossible to remember everything in a solo, but if you just can ’feel’ the solo after you’ve listened to a song, then it’s a good solo. Then on the other hand, a good solo can also be loads of attitude and fast licks.

This reminds me of a story...

I did something called ”European Guitar Summit” together with Paul Gilbert and Richard Smith on Sicily, Italy a number of years ago. Young aspiring guitar heroes came from all over the World to take part in the clinics we were doing. This seminar ran during the daytime for 3-4 days, and one of the nights the arrangers threw a party for the pupils, and us teachers played live with a band. Now, I’ve played the Superstitious solo all over the place, numerous times, but never quite like this! Imagine a couple of hundred beer happy guitar super nerds singing along with the solo - even the fast parts! Unforgettable!

I bet! Those moments are so special and memorable. It's not just your playing though, it's your tone which is also fantastic. You seem to prefer Gibsons with Floyd Rose tremolos and Marshall amps, is that right?

Yes, I do. And my main two guitars are modified Les Paul axcesses - the black one is supposedly the prototype to my signature Les Paul that Gibson promised me they’ll promote, but that came to a full halt due to the shit storm the company currently is in! - and Marshall and I have always been an item. 

What do you look for in a good guitar for touring with? 

Both my Les Pauls have identical setups: True Temperament frets, Johan Lundgren ’Heaven 57’ pickups, and Floyd Rose. I love Johan Lundgren’s craftsmanship and ingenious pickups, they just sound phenomenal! And True Temperament is a wet dream, especially in the studio. Doesn’t matter what chord you take, it’s always in tune! I can’t even remember how life was before True Temperament.

I've always had tremolos on my guitars, but the Floyd Rose is the only one that’s been working for me. I’m waiting in excitement for True Temperament to come out with their new amazing invention: ”True Tremolo”, which apparently are going to be quite something else. It means that you no longer will need the saddle lock, and it tunes itself completely. ” Let’s see if it works first!” some doubter out there might think right now. 

Well, I’m one of the test pilots, so I’ll let you know very soon!

Please do! That would be a real game-changer. Do you use much in the way of pedals live?

Not really. I use a Boss digital Delay and a Boss chorus in a loop. I only use the delay on the solo sound and the chorus on the clean sound. I’ve got a Cry Baby wah-wah in the pedal board, but I only use it on a couple of tracks. I’ve also got a Freqout by Digitech, and that’s A MUST for the intro of ’Girl From Lebanon’! It helps create controllable feedback, so when I in the past had to get completely deaf by ducking closely to the 4x12s, I can now just push the Freqout - love it!

What type of strings and picks do you prefer?

Pickboy does my longtime favorite picks! They’re called ”Jazz” and they’re 1.5mm. I actually contacted them through my guitar tech, and nowadays they make my signature picks. The kind of plastic they use in them is superior to other brands. They’re more resilient, yet flexible, plus they sit so well in the hand. A guitar player friend of mine turned me on to them over ten years ago and I’ve been a pathological user of them ever since. When it comes to strings I like a lot of them, and I’ve played different brands over the years. I use 009-046. 

I’m currently between string endorsements, any company that feels urged to contact me with an offer, you’re welcome to!

Your playing is very distinctive: how does one cultivate a unique voice on their instrument?

I think by only playing what you’d like to hear as a listener. That sounds like a piece of shit advice, I know, but I’m serious! 

There're always going to be parts that you like more than others in the solos you hear other guitarists play. If you concentrate on all ’the goodies’ from everything you hear, that in itself is going to take you places. Another, very important thing, is to keep it melodic, at least parts of the solos. 

Because everyone listening to your music are - oh, God, let’s hope! - not going to be musicians. Most of them will be regular people who just happen to love music. 

I have a great story to go with that:

It's 1988. It’s a week before I’m going to fly to London to record Out Of This World. I’m sitting in front of the pool at my house in Nassau, The Bahamas. Yeah, it's a tough job but, yada, yada, yada…

I’m having a beer while reading my brand new issue of Guitar Player Magazine. I'm deeply engaged in an interview with the excellent jazz guitar player Pat Martino, whom I've been a fan of since the 70s. He's talking about his meeting with Mr. Les Paul during a walk on Manhattan. Martino approached Les Paul saying: 

”Mr. Les Paul, I’m a huge fan! Great to meet you! I’m also a guitarist, my name is Pat Martino. You might've heard of me?”

Then Les Paul replies:

”Pat, you're great and you sure play a lot of notes!”

(And here it is:)

”But does your mother recognize you on the radio?”

Holy shit! It was like God’s ol’ arm came out of the skies and bitchslapped me into insight!

That’s the frame of mind I was in before going into the studio recording the album. 'Yeah, let’s do some great melodies.' 

Your autobiography, The Rock Star God Forgot, is not available in English: are there plans for an English language translation?

It’s actually being translated into English as we speak, and scheduled for release in 2019! 

Since we can’t yet read the book, what is one of the more outrageous stories from your life as a musician?

Oh, man, I believe more or less ALL of the stories in the book are outrageous! But OK, you mean like the one when we did a huge festival concert, and in the midst of it all, someone threw a hand grenade on stage? Wait! I’m not going to do any spoilers! You’ll simply have to buy the book to find out!

Haha, fair enough. Finally, Kee: after this tour, what is next for you?

Lots of more tour dates! Italy, Spain, and Scandinavia before Xmas.

Glad to hear it! Okay Kee, that brings us to the end! Thank you very much once again for talking to me and best of luck for the tour! 

Thanks Ray!

Kee and his band are playing across the UK throughout October. Catch his melodic rock and his incendiary playing live! 

Tickets available from venues and all usual websites - https://www.seetickets.com/tour/kee-marcello

We'd like to thank Kee for his time and for giving us such an entertaining, informative interview! We'd also like to thank Sharon Chevin at Publicity Connection for helping set us up with Kee.

Interview by Ray McClelland

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