An interview with
Mike Keneally (2006)

By Beppe Colli
May 26, 2006

Since nowadays the music landscape is too wide and fragmented, I can't really define Mike Keneally as "the one from whom all the others are getting their moves". And since the arrow of progress has been bent every which way, I can't really say he's the one "leading the way". So I'll have to settle for "he's made some really terrific records", which is perfectly alright by me.

Mike Keneally has written, played, recorded and sung a lot of good music. And though results are quite varied (definitely a plus in my book) and I didn't welcome everything he has put out with the same amount of enthusiasm (which in a way is something to be expected, right?), I have to say that - one way or another - his albums have never failed to stimulate my attention.

I had already interviewed him in 1999, and there had been some topics I thought needed further investigation; so when I caught him live in Groningen, Holland, back in 2001, I hoped for the best, but it wasn't to be. The same thing happened again last February, when - as part of the Absolute Ensemble line-up - he played in my town.

(Time for a little anecdote: At some time during the concert, it was time for the featured guitarist of the Absolute Ensemble to have his solo. The guy got up and started playing, not noticing that the way the volume on his amplifier was set was perfectly OK for a comping part, but way too low for a "biting lead part". Keneally noticed, and he walked as fast as he could towards the guy's amp, turned the volume generously to the right and had the guy have his share of attention. A gentleman, or what?)

Before the concert we had a brief friendly chat, and we agreed to do the interview by e-mail. I decided to wait a bit, since soon he was back to Holland, and then the States, always busy (and I didn't even know the whole story!). I sent my first few questions on May, 9th, and the interview went on for about ten days. The final result looks quite interesting to me.

Frank Zappa was obviously one of your defining influences. You toured with him in 1988, in what would prove to be his final tour. You were part of the Zappa's Universe project. You dedicated one installment of your Guitar Player column (what was it called, The Murk?) to his death. I suppose that during the elapsed time your opinions, feelings, and attitude about him and his work may have changed quite considerably. What's your current position on him and his work?

I hear many things in the music now that I never heard as a kid, and it all delights me. He was hard-working, unique, important and he did exactly what he was supposed to be doing on this earth - amazingly inspiring. I love the sounds he heard in his head and I love him very much as a person. He was very kind and generous to me and I was very vulnerable, idolizing him as much as I did - he understood what it meant to me to be in his world, treated me with great respect and brought out things in me which would still be buried were it not for him.

You've played Zappa's music in (at least!) two very different frameworks, and I'd really like you to elaborate on both. First, in the 90s you played with the Ed Palermo Big Band, live and on record (but I can't seem to remember the name of the record!) - in a kind of "the young guy" position, it looked to me. Quite differently, you've been a "featured name soloist" in the Absolute Ensemble: ABSOLUTE/ZAPPA® project (which I understand has been going on since... 2004?).

I don't see myself as having been in the "young guy" position with the Palermo band - there were several band members younger in Ed's group. Since I was never a member of the Palermo band, I think of myself as having been a special guest with him on various occasions. My contribution to his album was kind of rushed and not something I think is tremendously substantial, but we did several shared bills at the Bottom Line nightclub in New York which were very intense experiences for me. I would play with my own band but also perform as a guest with the Palermo ensemble. I remember a performance we did of Shove It Right In/Let's Move To Cleveland which was very moving to me, and relished the opportunity to play Frank's music with more authority than I'd been able to demonstrate when I was in Frank's band - to some degree that's been an important aspect of every event where I've decided to approach Frank's music in the years since the 1988 tour. (Another time Ed surprised me by unleashing Big Band arrangements of two songs from my Boil That Dust Speck album [Frang Tang and There Have Been Bad Moments] which he didn't tell me he'd written - I heard them for the first time while we were sharing the stage, and sang and played along - very emotional!) For Absolute Zappa, I still consider myself a special guest, so I guess in some ways I view both projects very similarly, but of course the nature of the treatment of the music is very different. I dig both Palermo's arrangements and the guys who do the arrangements for the Absolute Ensemble, so it's stimulating and fun for me to work myself into their scenes, and I think the liberties taken with the music in both cases are generally things which Frank would approve of or at least be intrigued by. Maybe the rap stuff in the Absolute show is an exception to that - I can imagine Frank being non-plussed by that but perhaps intrigued by the dada aspects.

In my review of The Universe Will Provide - the album you recorded with the Metropole Orkest - I wrote that in some of the writing and the arranging I thought I found some traces of Zappa, while I thought that his influence on you had almost completely vanished in your "rock" output. How do you see this topic?

Makes perfect sense in that Universe represents my very first orchestral writing - I haven't developed my voice in that arena in the way I have with the rock writing because I haven't done nearly as much of it. When imagining orchestral textures in my head during the writing and orchestration of Universe I think I would sometimes naturally tend toward sonorities I had fallen in love with listening to Frank's orchestral music. As with anything else, more personal and idiosyncratic statements will come when I have developed my chops in the field for a few more years.

I'd really like you to talk about what I would call the "Dutch chapter" of your work. I saw you perform in Gröningen in 2001, on two different nights: on the first night, you performed your album Nonkertompf with a line-up comprising your own group plus some (excellent!) Dutch musicians. Would you mind discussing the way it all started?

All the Netherlands activity can be traced to the enthusiasm and energy of Co de Kloet, producer for radio station 4FM on NPS (Dutch national public radio). He was a friend of Frank's and we met in 1988, and he was one of the first to show interest in my own music, broadcasting some of my demos as early as 1989 (the first to play my music on the radio in Europe, I believe). Over the last few years he's been the one to propose such projects as the Nonkertompf Live concert in 2001, and the commissioning of The Universe Will Provide. He's interested in what I might do in different musical contexts and so continues to propose and organize funding for many different projects. Obviously, I am very grateful to him! He's also a great friend and it's been a tremendous joy to collaborate with him on so many different things.

I know that quite recently you were back in Holland to perform once again with the Metropole Orkest in a new version of The Universe Will Provide, with Bryan Beller - and some new, added material? I'd like to know more about the whole experience.

This was the third time working with the Universe score - the first was the Holland Festival premiere in mid-2003, and the second was the recording of the album in September 2003. The album featured five short movements which weren't part of the original premiere, and the recent performance a few weeks ago in Haarlem marked the first live performance of those five movements. I felt that as a unified ensemble, the orchestra and myself truly got inside the music for the first time and made it really work - and I am very happy with the recorded version, but it wasn't a "performance" so much as a crafted work; the show in Haarlem was the realization of what I'd intended for TUWP as a performance piece. Kind of a dream come true. The sound on stage and in the concert hall was unbelievably good. All in all I must say I've been very fortunate to have my first steps as an orchestral composer be so sympathetically received and brilliantly performed. Having Bryan Beller as the bassist was a tremendous plus as well - having him as a trusted and familiar confidante made the experience that much more pleasurable. Also very exciting was the sort of "side project" which emerged from having a couple of extra days to work with a smaller group of musicians from the Metropole - an eleven piece ensemble I ended up dubbing the "Minipole." I wrote two songs during the rehearsal, which we recorded along with several improvisations. The result of that recording was a 40-minute studio album which is fully worthy of release, and the Minipole also did a half-hour opening set for TUWP in Haarlem. The recording of the Haarlem concert is also a real treasure for me - the Minipole set sounds very vital, and I prefer the live TUWP recording to the album version at this point.

On a more general level: I think the work you did in Holland has made it possible for you to experience first-hand a different kind of attitude towards the arts than what's currently the norm in the U.S.A., where - starting with the first (Republican) Reagan administration (1980-1984) - there have been serious cuts when it comes to the arts, and education in general. How do you regard the possibilities/attitude of the "free market" vs. the "funded" approach?

I'm not getting any offers of orchestral work in the US, so I have an ongoing gratitude for the opportunities made available to me in Europe. Experimental musicians in the US have no choice but to understand that they must conduct their experiments in a virtual cultural vacuum, which I think imposes a weariness and a certain cynicism onto the work in many cases. Experimental work in Europe seems to breathe more freely as a result of the more accepting atmosphere. There are always warning signs that the funding in Europe may be drying up, adopting an alarming similarity to the American model, and one can only hope that the arts maintain a decently robust condition.

Since I mentioned the Republican administration: On the homepage of your website you have the count of the American Military Deaths in Iraq, and also the number of those Wounded. Would you mind talking about the reason(s) for this gesture, which in a way is so simple, but also so terribly eloquent?

Scott Chatfield (who maintains the page) found that banner, which is updated independently of us (anyone can include it on their page), and proposed to me that we include in on the homepage, and I was certainly amenable. It is a very simple gesture - and incomplete, as it only includes the US dead and not the Iraqi fatalities. But it felt like an important gesture at a time when support for the war in the US was running very high. Now of course things have changed radically - support for the Bush administration and for their actions in Iraq have decreased dramatically in this country. Still, of course, the occupation continues and the administration remains in power, so these small indications of protest hopefully maintain some effectiveness.

Just below the count, right at this moment you have a link to the new Neil Young album, Living With War. Now, I know you are too young to have experienced the turmoil connected with the Vietnam War first-hand, but I'm sure you are familiar with at least some of the songs (and movies) from that whole era. My question: How do you see the way American artists (in general: dunno, for instance, whether you are familiar with the movie Syriana) have reacted to the present situation?

I do see a distinct parallel to the late 60's in the pattern of artists' reactions to American military/social misdeeds. The cyclical nature of things is very clear. It's tremendously encouraging to me that, in what sometimes appear to be the darkest hours, there are still people who don't fall under the sway of the madness, keep their wits about them and make relevant art that says things which need to be said, and keep spirits buoyed. I haven't seen Syriana but I do have respect for a figure such as George Clooney - someone who could easily maintain a career riding on his looks and star status, choosing to do more adventurous and thoughtful work. I did see his film Good Night and Good Luck, which also has relevance in regards to the appalling state of mainstream television news in the US these days, and enjoyed it a great deal.

Above the count, right now you have a link to your page on MySpace. How do you see the possibilities offered by the Net, both when it comes to this aspect of the interaction and with things like RadioKeneally?

Years ago I used to have a section of called Mike Types To You, which was essentially a blog before that word had been invented... but for some reason in recent years I became less publicly talkative, actually sort of secretive in some ways. A friend of mine started the Mike Keneally page on MySpace and I didn't pay any attention to it for months, until I realized that people who were visiting there thought that I was personally involved in it, so I thought I'd better get involved. It's been a great pleasure to come out of my shell a bit and do the blog, and get immediate responses from people. Connection between artist and listener is an important aspect of doing music, whether it be in a concert hall or across many miles via two computers. When we started in 1994 I was convinced that this means of connecting to my fan base was an important and worthwhile thing and I still feel precisely the same way. RadioKeneally is just a great pleasure for me to have available for people to hear... there's much more music which I've been involved with over the years than I could ever find a way to release for people to buy, and a lot of the live recordings on RadioKeneally are of "documentary" quality and thus probably better streamed than purchased anyway. I actually listened to RadioKeneally for a couple of hours a few nights ago with Bryan and Rick from my band, and we were very pleasantly surprised at how entertaining we found it.

If you don't mind, I'd like to ask you about a few projects you are/were involved in. First, what's this "Scambot" project?

It comes together slowly, in bits and pieces. It started as some drawings in my notebook, then a couple of pieces of music pieced together by myself in ProTools, mostly quite abstract. A lot of the music I've done for it is Moog synthesizer-based. A couple of weeks ago I overdubbed Marco Minnemann playing drums on some of the previously existing music and also recorded a bunch of guitar-drum duets with him for further scrutiny/surgery. It's going to be a long-time project, operating in the background of other projects happening simultaneously, and will ultimately be a double-disc set with a storyline - the closest thing to a "concept album" or "rock opera" I'll have done. It's being done without any regard for conventional song structure, and one of the guiding concepts for it musically is that I want a lot of the music to flow by smoothly, a la Wooden Smoke, but the musical material itself is extremely intricate and unpredictable. Then an explosive, metal-ish passage might rip through the landscape momentarily before returning to the placid abstractions. The music recorded for it so far feels quite unique to me. Hopefully it'll all hang together when it's done - it's an ambitious project but I'm imposing no deadlines on its construction.

Time for the Henry Kaiser chapter. You played on the Yo Miles! sessions, which were later released on Cuneiform. How do you regard that experience?

Major learning experience. Important to me in that it came during the Dancing era for me, which I now think of as having been a time of uncomfortably high self-regard for me - doing the Yo Miles! project brought me into collaboration with some supremely gifted musicians whose grasp of expression and technique is much higher than mine (Greg Osby, Tom Coster, Zakir Hussein, Steve Smith, Michael Manring among others) and their humility was very inspiring. Since that project I've toned down my pride and commensurately, my playing abilities have gotten much better. It's a bit hard for me to listen to the Yo Miles! albums because my own playing on it feels disconnected and rudimentary - fortunately, it's not easy to tell who's playing what a lot of the time!

If I'm not mistaken (hey! what about The Mistakes?), you were involved in other sessions with Henry Kaiser, dunno whether these sessions ever saw the light of day...

Well, of course the Mistakes has seen the light of day and hopefully will again - the hope is to re-release the album some day (only 1000 copies were ever pressed) in tandem with a live album which Henry constructed from the two gigs the Mistakes played in 1996, featuring Buckethead as a special guest. We also have the Palace of Love album, which features Henry, myself (mostly on piano), Michael Manring, Raoul Bjorkenheim and Alex Cline. Henry and I were going to mix that a week ago, after the Ayler album sessions, but it turned out that Henry had been given the wrong software for his mixing board and couldn't resume work on the project until after I'd gone home. So we went to see Mission Impossible III instead. One of the last things I said to Henry as I was leaving town was "So, a Pharoah Sanders album next?" and his eyebrows went up.

Last Kaiser experience: You are currently involved in a project about the music of Albert Ayler. Is it too early in the day to say something about it - how it all came together, etc.?

It started with me buying the recent box of the complete ESP-Disk' recordings - an Italian release as it happens - and realizing that some of Ayler's lines reminded me a lot of some of Buckethead's phrasing. I didn't have Bucket's number so I called Henry to ask if he knew if Buck had ever listened to Ayler. He didn't think so. I suggested that the three of us should record some Ayler tunes but neither of us had a current contact number for Buckethead, so I said well, maybe you and I should do it. That was the last I thought of it for a few days, until a few days later when Henry called back saying he'd assembled a group of musicians for the project already and also had ideas about songs to play. He wanted to play a lot of vocal songs from later Ayler records - "the ones nobody likes" he said. At that point I realized that Henry had completely picked up this ball and was running with it so I placed the direction of the project in his hands. The original saxophonist Henry had chosen decided to drop out of the project because he felt that the material we'd chosen was making fun of Christianity and Ayler's devotion to Jesus, but in my and Henry's view this is not the case at all - the end results bear no earmarks of easy sarcasm or criticism, to me. Vinny Golia came in to play sax which was an incredible blessing for the project. The players involved were Henry, myself, Joe Morris on guitar and acoustic bass, Damon Smith on acoustic bass, Weasel Walter on drums, Vinny Golia on saxes and Aurora Josephson on vocals. The songs we recorded are New Grass/Message From Albert, Japan/Universal Indians, Music is the Healing Force in the Universe, A Man is Like A Tree, Oh! Love of Life, Thank God For Women, Heart Love, New Generation/New Ghosts. We used a wide variety of approaches in the material, some very reverent and some more playful - for instance New Generation starts out sounding like Beefheart and suddenly shifts into sounding like Sonic Youth. We recorded the basic tracks for the whole album in one day, spent the next day doing overdubs and edits and ended up with 81 minutes of music. Henry was absolutely delighted afterward and said that it's one of the few albums he's done where he really looked forward to listening to it once it was done. It was an explosion of activity which was very focused, and a happy experience for everyone involved I think. I'm very grateful that my casual phone call to Henry about Ayler and Buckethead yielded such tangible results!

I have to admit that I am more than a bit puzzled by the sheer amount of "Homage Projects" that have been released on CD and/or performed live in the last two decades. To me, even the better ones sound as they are quite lacking in the "surprise dept.". I mean, when you listen to the original albums - by Miles Davis, Captain Beefheart, Charles Mingus, Frank Zappa, and so on - you can hear a language in the making, complete with all the risks, false starts, mistakes, dead ends, etc. that the "Homage" obviously goes all the way to avoid. In the case of the Yo Miles! project (and I mention it precisely because in my opinion it's one of the best) you can hear something that flows even better than the original, but with absolutely no sense of danger. Now, we don't live in an "oral culture" anymore, the original CDs are for the most part easily available... so?

I can't speak to the motivations of everyone who conceives of/takes part in a tribute project - there are probably as many motivations as there are participants. Certainly a lot of the tribute projects I see in the shops exist primarily to trade financially on the name of the "tributee," and you can feel that there's not a deep sense of necessity there. A lot of guys involved in the music business aren't necessarily drawn to danger, in fact it kind of scares them, as danger sometimes does by its nature. I've felt a special connection to and a desire to pay respect to each of the artists for whom I've been involved in tribute projects - Gentle Giant, Miles Davis, Yes, Genesis, Frank Zappa, Albert Ayler etc. are all artists that have had some kind of significant impact on me. So there was a personal thrill I felt to be involved in playing my version of their music. And the hope is that this will lead to some kind of inspired musicmaking, which maybe isn't always the way it turns out, but hey you take your chances.

I recently watched the DVD-V of the famous Blind Faith free concert in London's Hyde Park from June 1969. At that time, one actually knew very little about performers, and the scarcity of press outlets meant that in most cases one had to find the "meaning" of the work by oneself or discussing the matter with his friends - be it Dylan, The Beatles or Frank Zappa or, later, Todd Rundgren, King Crimson or Gentle Giant. And one had a lot of time to do this, since releases didn't come by the truckload and the average day wasn't so full of stimuli competing for one's attention. These days one is continuously assaulted by "events", and the prevailing trend is to dedicate only a finite amount of time to each one, and to deal with as many as possible all at the same time. Meanwhile, in the mid-70s your typical music monthly reviewed as many titles in one year as those that today are reviewed every month. So: What's in store for "difficult music"?

It never goes away, because any movement in an exaggerated direction such as the move away from substance in popular music and the way in which television and the internet have chewed away at peoples' attention spans, always has to cause its opposite reaction, and the people who hear different sounds in their head or have a different ideal regarding how life should be lived and how art should be enjoyed, will flourish out of defiance as much as inspiration. So the creators will always create. The audience for their work will probably continue to languish at around the same level it always did for demanding music, and not every artist will find continuing support for their endeavors and may have to take other jobs, just like always. And the popular music realms will continue to synthesize and market aspects of the experimental music, and occasionally an innovator will tickle the public's fancy enough that they are granted entry into a more rarefied commercial realm... just like Björk, Radiohead, Aphex Twin etc. etc. back to the Beatles and Gershwin - occasionally something really good will make it in the mainstream.

Your soon-to-be-released CD is a live album for "rock quartet". I haven't listened to the album yet, but having read the list of the featured titles I see there's a lot of ground covered. Would you mind taking about the new album - and about the relationship between your music and this particular instrumentation? (Also these particular players, of course.)

Last year's Mike Keneally Band tour was the first time these particular four musicians (me, Bryan Beller, Rick Musallam and Joe Travers) toured together as a band. Bryan, Joe and I all toured as part of the group Z in the early 90s, but Joe had never toured with us playing my tunes. Since we've all known one another for years and have loved playing together whenever we could, we were especially excited to have the opportunity to tour together. Joe is an amazingly propulsive and creative musician (currently touring with the Zappa Plays Zappa group) and I knew that we could get a good album out of the tour. In reality, 90% of the album was recorded at a gig at the Baked Potato in North Hollywood a month after the tour was over, which is a nice place for the band to be - seasoned from the tour, but rested up after a little time off and eager to get back on the horse and play the heck out of the material. Since Joe played on such early albums as Boil That Dust Speck and Sluggo!, I was happy to revisit a bunch of early material that hadn't been played as much during the last few years. Of course the original album versions of a lot of the material on Guitar Therapy was much more layered and studio-intensive, and while the onstage instrumentation isn't as lush, I'm always happy to strip material down to something closer to its essence. In any case, this particular quartet makes more than enough noise. This is a guitar-focused album in a way that none of the other albums have been; something of a nod in the direction of the fans who first heard of me from my work on the G3 tours with Steve Vai's band. There is significant stereo separation between my guitar and Rick's guitar, and people will clearly be able to focus on each individual's playing - Rick's contributions always being beautifully played, soulful and appropriate. Beller, of course, has been my right hand man for years, and he continues to respond to my sudden musical gestures telepathically. And Travers is a significant musical weapon on this album, bringing explosions of energy and constant musicality as well as a wicked musical sense of humor.

Quite a few drummers have drummed on your CDs/in your groups. Since for some time now I have considered the drums as being the #1 instrument in the "endangered species" category, as a sort of homage to drums and drummers I'd really like you to talk about your musical relationship with some of the musicians you've played with, both in your groups and in your various collaborations.

Playing with Chad Wackerman so early in my career was extraordinary; the opportunity to make music with such a world-class musician in the very early days of my relationships with drummers was very influential and gave me a taste early on for trying to find drummers with prodigious technique and flowing ideas. (In December 2005 Chad guested with my band at the Baked Potato and blew everyone away - Steve Vai was at the show and said that it's imperative that I continue to do work with Chad in the group. He's in some ways a more subtle player than many - a lot of his gestures don't announce themselves loudly - but very exciting and stimulating to play with and causes me to approach soloing in a more impressionistic way.) Toss Panos was the first Beer For Dolphins drummer and in some ways the one with the longest shadow - his technique is staggering, his groove is amazingly circular and elastic, his ideas are always jaw-dropping and he brings big rock when he needs to - I always describe him as the ideal cross between Tony Williams and John Bonham. Joe Travers is covered above, but I want to stress the feeling of fun he brings to the shows (which is hopefully evident on Guitar Therapy) and the special feeling of having him in the band, given that he and Beller were students at the Berklee college of music fifteen years ago together and that I was central in he and Bryan coming into the Zappa world through Dweezil's band, there's just a lot of history and shared love between us. Jason Smith was the drummer in BFD from 1998 to early 2001 and played on the album Dancing - he is a complex musician of many talents (in fact he's just released his first album of his own jazz compositions, featuring a trio with Gary Husband on keys and Dave Carpenter on bass, and it is superb) and served incredibly strongly in the band at a time when I was doing a lot of experimenting, growing and just plain flailing - Jason was growing at the same rate and he played some outrageous drums while he was doing it. Great musician. Nick D'Virgilio brings a producer's ear to his drumming and a strong sense of how to complete a rock band sound - also a beautiful flowing groove that crowds really get off on and which is a great pleasure to play with, and his beautiful singing voice. Each of these guys has been brilliant and generous with their talents in my band - I'm extremely grateful to all of them.

© Beppe Colli 2006 | May 26, 2006