An interview with
Mike Keneally (2009)
I really believe that anyone who has cultivated
an interest in music knows in his/her heart that Musician X will never
attain a very large popularity. Which doesn't entail being able to predict
success, success being by definition "unpredictable". I'm talking
about those traits that will make it very difficult - one could maybe use
the verb "prevent" - for one to be appreciated by very large
Different people in different times have
symbolized for me the "perfect example" of this. For a long time
now, the one that always comes to my mind is Mike Keneally. A fantastic
musician whose music is often surprisingly accessible. Who has released
many different albums, and done many different things. So many, in fact,
that even a long-time fan can't easily recall them all. So I thought this
was the right moment to tie up some loose ends, right before a long series
of concerts in a variety of roles. So, what about an interview?
Always a gentleman, Keneally agreed to
answer my questions. The interview was conducted via e-mail. My questions
were sent about one month ago.
About two years ago you re-released your
first two albums, hat. and Boil That Dust Speck, as double CDs featuring
unreleased stuff and other assorted goodies. A few weeks ago, I was stunned
to see you were re-releasing Half Alive In Hollywood, Sluggo! and The
Mistakes album as digital files only (though in both mp3 and FLAC format):
My heart sank! - though later I noticed you don't discount the possibility
of eventually re-releasing them again, in CD format. Since you wrote "we
couldn't wait any longer to make these archive releases available",
I really have to ask: "Has piracy become such a problem even in
No need to be stunned, although, yes, piracy has become
a problem; we've seen those three titles on some illegal download sites,
and it felt stupid not to reassert our ownership, so we've made them available
as FLACs and mp3s with high-quality audio, with all original art included.
They're not remastered; they are precise digital duplicates of the original
release. As aesthetes and record geeks, we hope to someday put out remastered
and expanded versions of all titles; we have valuable bonus material for
each one. But for the foreseeable future, all of our manufacturing capital
is going towards the Scambot trilogy. It could be several years before we're
able to return to the archival reissue campaign in the physical realm.
I see the new editions of the aforementioned
albums include new liner notes. I'd really appreciate if you could say
something about them here, however briefly. I'm especially curious about
the way you see the "rock approach" you chose for Half Alive
In Hollywood, now that a lot of water's under the bridge; same for the
"all-inclusive" approach in Sluggo! (to this day, my first suggestion
to those who are new to Keneally). The Mistakes: why was there never a Vol.
II (with the same, or a different, line-up)?
Half Alive -- it was during the first rehearsals
for hat. with Doug Lunn and Toss Panos that I realized I'd be heading in
two different musical directions during my solo career: a layered, collaged
and textural approach for the studio, and a raw and stripped down approach
for the stage. I figured I'd rarely have the time or budget to replicate
my studio creations in concert, and it probably wasn't a good idea anyway.
From 1992 to 1997 I played my music live with a trio and really loved the
freedom it offered, and still do (hence recent trios like KMB, The Haircuts
and the recent performance of Cream music with Kofi Baker and Doug Lunn).
Half Alive is a very accurate document of that approach, which was also
informed by my appreciation of Hendrix and Cream.
Sluggo! -- A challenge, as I was on the road with Steve Vai during the whole
year that I was trying to get the album finished; this was the first time
I'd ever tried to make an album without having a bunch of consecutive days
in the studio to get it going. As such I was unprepared for the process in
a lot of ways, and technically it was the most problematic album I've done.
But that seemed to be made up for by the type of the songs I was writing
at the time and the incredibly spirited performances from everyone, and in
every way (including the artwork) it was the "brightest" album
I had yet done, as well as the most personal lyrically, so that might be
why the response to the album was very strong. I'm very grateful for it,
primarily for the songs TRANQUILLADO, I, Drum-Running, Am Clapboard-Bound
and Cardboard Dog, which might have been my best set of piano-based material
The Mistakes -- I really love Henry Kaiser and treasure every opportunity
I have to work with him. Both Andy West and Prairie Prince were members of
bands I loved when I was growing up, and all three of them are extremely
fantastic people to spend time and make music with, so the whole Mistakes
experience is just like a big sunny holiday in my memory; although, at the
time of writing the lyrics for that album I was pretty mentally ill with
some strain of Epstein-Barr syndrome which made me more suicidal than usual,
so it's a dark album lyrically, yet somehow I still find it joyful to listen
Writing about the Scambot Holiday Special on your website, you mentioned
Frank Zappa. I'd really like your opinion about a few things. First, the
concert DVD-V titled In Barcelona, May 17, 1988 (which I assume to be legal),
whose very existence was unknown to me till the day I saw it on sale at a
mall (!). Are you familiar with it?
Not a legal DVD; it's a bootlegged copy of a live television broadcast of
the Barcelona concert for Spanish TV. The director of the video apparently
had it in for me as I'm almost completely absent from both the audio mix
and the camera shots (Frank had told me at one point that he wanted to remix
both the audio and video for an official video release and that he wanted
to feature me more prominently; ultimately it wasn't one of the 1988 band's
more inspired performances - the rot had set in by that point in the tour
- and I don't think it ever became a major priority for him to work on).
I was quite glad to be able to purchase the unreleased ("Grand Wazoo" and "Petit
Wazoo") material featured on the CDs titled Wazoo and Imaginary Diseases.
Provided you've listened to them, what was your impression? I mean, both
of the music, and of the fact of one being once able to take those large
line-ups on tour.
They are both beautiful releases, and I'm a big fan of the work that Joe
Travers and Gail have been doing with the vault material. I had heard a lot
of Imaginary Diseases when Frank played it for me in his basement
- he liked to play me unreleased stuff because I was so freaking enthusiastic
and inquisitive - but he said he couldn't release it because there was too
much distortion on the tape, which was sad for me, so I was seriously delighted
to see that come out (and I eagerly await further releases from the Petit
Wazoo). The Wazoo album is just magnificent - how great to have such a beautiful
recording of the original instrumental "Peccary" arrangement! I
think it's still possible to take such large line-ups on tour - one simply
has to have a deep understanding, as Frank did even then, that one is about
to lose large quantities of money in the process.
I really liked Wine And Pickles, the
"compilation" of rare and unreleased stuff you put out not too
long ago. Were you satisfied with the way it was greeted, both sales-wise,
and in critical terms?
I'm never satisfied with the sales of any of my releases - I know that there's
a lot of people who would enjoy my music that I haven't managed to reach,
and this process is ongoing. I was really delighted by the critical response
- as I was putting it together I felt that it was a strong collection, for
me stronger than either of the two albums (Dancing and Dog) from which the
outtakes were primarily drawn, and I was intrigued that I had withheld a
lot of the more emotionally raw material from both of those albums. I found
it had a cumulative emotional impact that felt undeniable to me, and in combination
with some one-off instrumental music that I really loved, it made for an
album which I was extremely happy about, and felt like a good way to inaugurate
a new era of productivity (which coincided with my leaving the Paul Green
School of Rock at the end of 2007 - starting the San Diego chapter of the
SOR was a great experience for me, but it certainly ate into my album-making
time. The San Diego school, by the way, has grown and thrived in the year
and a half since I left - I feel like I accomplished what I needed to, and
chose the right moment to leave).
Though I know you wrote about it quite extensively on your website, I'm
quite curious to know about the way you ultimately regard the Dethklok experience.
1) an amazingly good time with people I really like; 2) a musical challenge
which has heightened my guitar skills; 3) an exhilarating opportunity to
entertain thousands of insanely enthusiastic metal/animation fans; 4) an
employment opportunity for which I am very grateful. We return to the road
later this year and I'm very excited about it. The way the Metalocalypse/Dethklok
experience brings together music and visuals for dramatic/comedic effect
has been real thought-provoking for me too, and is having an impact on the
way Scambot is coming together. And Brendon Small, the writer/creator/composer
for the Metalocalypse TV series and leader of the live Dethklok band,
is very inspiring - dedicated, skilled and tireless, with an amazingly healthy
and skeptical attitude toward success and all its trappings. I admire him
a lot, and I love working and hanging out with him.
KMB, or "The most exciting power trio in years". Talk about
Where did that "most exciting power trio" quote come from by the
way? Was it us? How presumptuous. KMB is an opportunity for me to overplay
with two of my favorite musicians in the world. Really fun and ridiculous
live. I'm using it as a spur to develop my work with simultaneous guitar-and-keyboard
parts; my use of the technique onstage is usually spontaneous and improvised,
with a few exceptions, but with KMB I'm dealing more specifically with prepared,
rehearsed parts for two instruments at once. I'm curious to see where it
leads, because right now I'm really taking baby steps with it. We recorded
an in-studio live performance for DW DrumChannel a few months ago (which
I mixed the audio for at the beginning of April), and I'm really pleased
with the performances; the hope is to release that on DVD this year. The
repertoire is about 60% my tunes, 20% Beller and 20% Minnemann, and I also
look forward to us developing new material together as a trio; for the moment
the repertoire is drawn from our past solo work, and I'm using this platform
to introduce some material that hasn't been played live by a band before,
like Dee 'n' A from Wooden Smoke which has turned into a nice live vehicle
for the trio.
Talking about trios: You recently played a concert with a trio featuring
Bryan Beller and Kofi Baker (he's Ginger's son, right?). How did that come
about? What kind of material did you play?
Actually it was Doug Lunn and Kofi (who is indeed Ginger's son); the two
of them have done quite a number of Tribute to Cream performances with other
guitarists over the years but this was the first time they asked me. The
repertoire was overwhelmingly old Cream songs, with one Beatles tune, one
Hendrix tune and one of my own songs (Rosemary Girl) for seasoning. Here's
a link to a bunch of YouTube videos of songs from the gig: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_type=&search_query=Keneally+Baker+%20Lunn+Cream&aq=f
We're playing again at the same dive on May
7, if you can make it over.
Trios again: What's The Haircuts?
Me mostly playing bass, Rick Musallam mostly playing guitar, Nick D'Virgilio
mostly playing drums, but at various times we all play everything. All of
us, frequently all at once, and 95% of our 12-song repertoire are covers.
Just a good time with friends which seemed to strike a chord with the people
who witnessed it, so we're going to record a CD and try to get some gigs
around LA. For a good time. So far we've played songs by The Meters, Black
Sabbath, The Beatles, Neil Young, Shuggie Otis, The Monkees, Led Zeppelin,
one new original by Rick Musallam, my song Self 'n' Other, XTC, and Blood
Sweat & Tears (Spinning Wheel, although we were influenced by the Wade
Marcus arrangement which has a funkier bassline). Mostly stuff from our childhoods
which we all still enjoy.
Last year you went to the UK, where you played with former XTC Dave Gregory
- and had some "songwriting sessions" with Andy Partridge. Any
official releases in the can?
We've got six or seven songs in progress - eventually they'll be recorded
but we're not sure yet of the form the final product will take. I'm interested
in having Andy produce me - I've never been produced as a solo artist by
anyone other than myself and as he is a natural born producer in many ways,
I think the results would be very interesting. I've got to get Scambot:One
and a good portion of the next Vai piano album finished before I can begin
wrestling a little more with the Partridge/Keneally project, but the songs
we've got so far are high quality pop - much more pop oriented than the things
I've been writing on my own for the past several years, and it's nice to
have Andy to bring that out of me again.
Ha! Trio time again: You opened for Robin Trower (whose work in Procol
Harum I liked a lot, also Bridge Of Sighs) in a trio featuring Marco Minnemann
and Doug Lunn. How did that happen?
If I remember correctly, someone from the concert venue mentioned to George
Varga (who's a music journalist with the San Diego Union Tribune newspaper)
that the show needed an opener, and George gave me a call to ask if I'd be
interested. Pretty simple. There are some good clips from our performance
up on YouTube - it was a great crowd, most of whom hadn't heard of me, and
it's always fun to work in front of new ears.
It's Scambot time: When will we be able to purchase it? (Is it a triple
by now, right?)
It will be three separate albums; the first album I perceive to be 95.8%
completed (approximately) as of April 22 09 (which it is as I write), but
I'm being very relaxed about a release date - one of the primary modus operandi
while working on Scambot has been to impose no deadline pressures, and let
the project take shape in its own time. (I began work on it in 2002, so that's
how relaxed I've been with it.) It's such a peculiar beast and it's needed
a lot of time to gestate. But the last week has been severely productive
and I think I'll have the recording and mixing end of Scambot:One finished
before I leave for my next Taylor Guitars tour on May 10.
It's possible that Normalizer 2: Evidence of Humanity (the collaboration
with Marco Minnemann), which I finished several weeks ago, will be released
before Scambot:One is. Abstract Logix is releasing the Normalizer
2 series. (You know about Normalizer 2, right? It stated with
a 51-minute drum improvisation that Marco did, which he then distributed
to a variety of musicians: me, Trey Gunn, Alex Machacek, Mario Brinkman,
John Czajkowsi, Phi Yaan-Zek and Marco himself, all of whom have written
and recorded their own music on top of the same drum performance. Trey Gunn
is currently editing together an introductory disc which combines music from
all seven of the different albums, and it seems at this point that my very
- which I'm seriously thrilled with, it's some of my best writing and playing
- may be the first of the solo discs to see release. Marco's concept for
this whole project is fascinating to me, and his drum track is really incredible,
thoroughly inspiring to me as a composer.)
Last time we talked, there seemed to be no light at the end of the tunnel.
Now there seems to be a different kind of darkness: Obama's in charge, but
there's a severe economic crisis going on. (Also, from where I stand, not
too many people seem eager to engage with "difficult stuff".) What's
your take on this?
Over here, people are engaging with the difficult stuff
simply because they have no choice at all in the matter - everyone is affected.
My take? Yes, these are challenging times. Not to be a hippie about it, but
if everybody would meditate at the beginning of their day, I think things
would start getting a lot better. OK, so I'm a hippie. Beyond that, hopefully
people will learn something about debt and conspicuous consumption and self-delusion
from this whole episode, however long it lasts. Already, around here anyway,
I can sense people on an everyday basis being more helpful to one another
than usual - the automatic assumption seems to be that EVERYONE can use a
helping hand. This can only be a good thing, especially if it sinks in and
stays permanent. On the other hand, sales of handguns and safes went up sharply
at the beginning of this year in certain regions of the US. So, I'll guess
we'll just have to see how everything pans out. It'll be interesting.
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