Guns N’ Roses guitarist wows Sabah fans
Review of Nov 4, 2013 concert ~ Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia

RON “Bumblefoot” Thal – a name synonymous with the legendary American rock band Guns N’ Roses and has over 20 years of experience in the music industry – is clearly a maestro and superstar.

You may assume that a lead guitarist like him would demand to sit on a nice, comfy sofa and be treated like an international superstar.

But you may be surprised to discover that the 44-year old musician is the complete opposite of that. Judging a book by its cover will usually lead you into an illusion – a distorted view of the person involved.

You get the real deal when you peel each layer and get to know a person’s inner qualities first.

One way of doing that, and certainly a common approach, is by sitting down and actually having a one-on-one conversation with the person.

Ron saw me sitting on a dusty staircase at JKKN Sabah Complex (Sabah National Department for Culture and Arts) in Kota Kinabalu, and to my great surprise, sat down with me for an exclusive interview recently.

As he was taking his seat opposite from me ahead of his Nov 4 concert, my first impression of him was how nice and humble he was. Sabahan guitarist Roger Wang commended Ron on his humility:

“He doesn’t give you the impression that he is better than you. Here you are with a star, and he doesn’t make you feel like he is a star.”

That is exactly how I felt when I met Ron. He is one of those people who you can click with almost immediately after meeting. With his amiable and down to earth character, I thought he would absolutely woo the entire crowd that night. That’s exactly what happened. In fact, the concert exceeded my expectation. Over 500 people showed up at Ron’s concert. The response was overwhelming as the auditorium was filled with excited fans who sang along with him and laughed at his jokes – he also invited them to join him on stage.

The crowd roared with applause and called for an encore for more songs to be performed which signified the audience’s intense admiration and appreciation of him. Ron also collaborated with local musicians in performing famous Sabahan songs like ‘Sayang Kinabalu’ and ‘Tanak Kampung’ where he joined them on stage while sitting in a meditative position.

After the concert, the fans lined up to meet him for a photograph and autograph session which lasted until after midnight.

Among the songs he performed were Guns N’ Roses classics like ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’, ‘Knocking On Heaven’s Door’ and ‘November Rain’.

“People here make me feel very welcomed. I really feel very at home here,” shared Ron.

This bodes well with the State Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Masidi Manjun’s statements citing that the best Malaysians live in Sabah.

Not only are they hospitable, they do not see people in terms of race or religion. Sabahans can live side by side with people of various races and beliefs without problems, points Masidi time and time again. Masidi often highlights that the natural beauty of Sabah and the popular tourist spots can be found in one form or another in other states within Malaysia or other countries in the world, but nothing can compare to the warmth of the people.

This, too, was echoed by Ron who said he loved every moment spent in KK due to the warmth of the people.

“This is my first time in Sabah and I’m having such wonderful time here. I wish I could stay longer,” he said.

Ron, whose real name is Ronald Jay Blumenthal, enjoyed teasing his taste buds with local spicy food. “The spicier the better,” he said.

When asked about how he made it to the top and what advice would he give to budding local musicians, he said the most important thing is to make the best music or art piece that you can.

“That should be your main goal. Period. Forget about being famous.” In a world flooded with people racing towards success, Ron highlighted that this was not the way he approached life. “Don’t try to make it or get somewhere.” Despite the common goal of most people in the industry who aim for success, the “Bumblefoot” way was surprisingly more laid back and honest.

“Remain true to yourselves. Do not have a goal to be successful. Just make the best art that you can make. Make the best music you can. Enjoy what you’re doing,” he said. Doing what you enjoy and putting effort to it will catapult you to greatness, he emphasized.

Honesty and integrity should also be accompanied with one’s work, said Ron.

“When you perform music with conviction and believe in what you are doing, people will notice and make their own decisions.”

Another advice from him was to stop chasing trends. “Just be who you are and do what you do. Trends happen because a bunch of people decided that they like something, but you shouldn’t chase that.

“At some point, what you do will probably become a trend, but that shouldn’t matter because that shouldn’t be your goal,” he said.

“Of course you want to please people with your music and share your music with people, but your goal shouldn’t be to please people like that… at least, not in that way.” If you do, then you’ll be doing it for the wrong reasons. You have to express yourself artistically, added Ron.

Certain people will be drawn to your music, but you won’t know how many of them will be drawn to it and you shouldn’t be concerned about how many followers or fans you can accumulate.

He said this in response to whether Guns N’ Roses or he himself would agree to adapt to the current music trend in the US which is mostly Electronic Dance Music (EDM), pop and elements of Irish Folk Rock.

Instead of adapting to such trends, the band prefers to stay original. “We have our own identity. We won’t follow or chase trends,” he said.

“Think of it like having a seafood restaurant. Not everyone likes seafood, but that shouldn’t stop you from having your own seafood restaurant because you know it would appeal to certain people who are into seafood. Not everyone’s going to like it and that shouldn’t be a problem.”

The list of food on the menu also won’t necessarily catch the attention of every customer who walks in, but that’s okay. The same goes for music. It’s not for the whole world. You just have to put yourself out there.

You just have to put your music out there. It will appeal to certain people, but you don’t know who those people are. Just make peace with that and everything will fall into place. When asked about the perception of Americans towards Malaysians, he said he was unaware of their perceptions.

“I don’t know how other people view Malaysians. I can’t speak for all Americans because I don’t know what their experiences are in Malaysia.

With Malaysians. I can only speak for myself,” he said. “For me, I think Malaysians are wonderful.” Despite the differences, we all share a common ground as human beings. Having the same concerns, breathing the same air, and his answer was simple:

“I’ve been to so many places all over the world and for me, people are just people.”

As for the strict laws, he said that the law is the law and every country has their own laws. “Either it’s going to work for you or not. That’s life. Rules are rules. We just have to respect them.

“As an artiste, I understand that if I sing about certain things, talk about certain things, not everyone is going to agree with me. If a country is governed by religious laws and they don’t agree with what I’m saying, then I must accept that.”

While on his “Appetite for Durian Tour” in Malaysia, Ron also visited orphanages, libraries and schools.

In KK, he visited the Sabah Blind Society and conducted a workshop at Sabah Institute of Arts which enabled him to reach out to Sabahan students and budding musicians who were fortunate to learn from him first hand. The response from Sabahans was overwhelming as they fully embraced the opportunity to learn from an internationally-acclaimed star.

Jack Rison L, 20, who came all the way from Ranau, said that it was a 10 out of 10 star performance.

In fact, he admitted that it was the most amazing performance he had ever seen in his entire life. “I learned a lot from Ron,” said an excited Jack.

“He is far better than any musician I have ever met.
I love the fact that he could control the crowd and apart from performing Guns N’ Roses songs, he made the effort to perform local songs.” This was echoed by Raimon Sukudat, 28, who is Ron’s local co-guitarist.

On top of that, he advised youths to grab a chance when it comes their way. “All this time I only had the opportunity to watch Ron perform on YouTube.

“To perform alongside with this famous star is mindblowing and absolutely a dream come true.”

Also interviewed was Eastern College’s music student, Jerome Jonathan Liman from Keningau who admired the famous rock star’s humble approach and ability to adapt. “It was amazing how he could adapt to the local songs and interacted with us. Basically, the free concert and workshop is a two thumbs up. ”

Meanwhile, Arend C. Zwartjes, Cultural Officer from the US Embassy in KL who was accompanying Ron said that there’s this stereotype about American musicians – they are wild and are often associated with promiscuity and drugs.

“But, the truth is, they are very creative people and are often very hardworking.” Ron’s visit to the State was organized by SPArKS (Society of Performing Arts Kota Kinabalu) and the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

“We’ve brought in musicians, artistes and writers to help explain American culture to Malaysians,” added Arend. “In fact, we’ve been doing it for years. This time, it is a little bit different because we were contacted by the Humpty Dumpty Institute (HDI), an NGO from the US.

“They mentioned about how fantastic Ron was during a US Embassy tour in Albania. So, that was one of the reasons why we chose him.”

Arend said that KK was selected apart from KL because they wanted Ron to go outside of KL.

“People in KL are already exposed to American culture, but people outside of KL are not. We want to continue showcasing American culture and innovation to Malaysians.”

Arend said the US Embassy will continue to work with SPArKS in the future and praised them for their cooperation and level of expertise in providing what is needed for international musicians in Kota Kinabalu.

~ Rini Zahlifah Ismail