Mike Keneally (1999)
By Beppe Colli
March 30, 2003
I first heard Mike Keneally live in 1988, at a Frank Zappa concert in Rome when
he was the "new guy" in the line-up (you can hear the way he fit
on albums such as Broadway The Hard Way, The Best Band You Never Heard In
Your Life and Make A Jazz Noise Here, plus a few tracks on vol. 4 and 6 of
the You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore series. Better yet, check the Zappa's
Universe CD). But his contribution at the venue was - quite literally - obscured
by half the P.A., which blocked my view of almost the whole wind section -
and of the "new guy". During the concert Zappa put the spotlight
on Keneally for a guitar solo (what was it, a Tele?), and I could finally
see this guy wearing a hat. A nice solo, by the way - definitely mature, and
definitely not the kind of solo one would play to impress people and get oneself
few years later I saw Keneally's name again, as he started writing a monthly
column in Guitar Player magazine. I saw the guy had a CD out. Then I read
a Keneally profile by Matt Resnicoff on Musician magazine. So I decided to
track down the CD and have a listen.
then, no Keneally CD has let me down (he's made a few, and I'm a hard guy
to please...). Of course, the very qualities that I find to be worthwhile
in music - originality, variety, subtlety, technical command of one's instrument
- are not exactly those that nowadays will make one a household name. Which
is especially depressing given the fact that Keneally's music is not at all
difficult to get.
in Long Island, N.Y. on December 20 1961, Keneally was a precocious guy: organ
first, then (aged ten) an electric guitar. His first love? The Beatles. Later,
the progressive music of San Diego FM - The Yes Album, Tarkus, then Gentle
Giant, King Crimson etc. - and Frank Zappa. Then, tons of stuff - I'm sure
he listens to everything.
first album - titled hat. ('93) - still stands. Here are his nice sense of
humour, those impressive guitar skills, a definitely mature compositional
style, the perversely uncommercial stylistic variety. Required listening,
as is Boil That Dust Speck ('94), his darker second album. Half Alive in Hollywood
('96), though perfectly good in its own right, is not the best place to start
if you've never heard Keneally. While the excellent Sluggo! ('97) is the apex
of a whole period, the collaborative effort titled The Mistakes ('95) - with
Henry Kaiser, Prairie Prince and Andy West - is a fantastic rock album - the
way rock music should be.
albums that followed have showed Keneally not resting on his laurels, constantly
reinventing himself. Nonkertompf ('99) is an instrumental solo that's quite
unlike anything he's ever done - or you've ever heard - while Dancing (2000)
successfully attempts to translate his vision into a group effort and Wooden
Smoke (2001) is a mostly acoustic, mostly solo exploration of quiet moods
that definitely succeeds.
caught Keneally live in Groningen, Holland, in October 2001. On the first
night, his large group plus some excellent Dutch musicians performed a rearranged
version of Nonkertompf (get a tape), while the second night saw the group
navigate through his repertoire.
next? A quartet, rock CD should be released soon. And there is a commission
for an orchestral work, to be premiered in Amsterdam in June 2003.
following interview originally appeared in Italian language in the magazine
Blow Up, issue # 20, January 2000. It appears here in English for the first
time. I had already profiled Keneally in the issue # 9, January/February 1999,
and I thought an interview about the recently released Nonkertompf - and other
topics - would be an interesting read. The interview was conducted by e-mail.
It started in mid-September (when Keneally was about to start rehearsing for
a Steve Vai tour) and extended through mid-October (when he was already on
As a first question I'd like to start, of course, from Nonkertompf;
an album - I think - that's very different from your previous output:
no songs, less "lead guitar", totally solo... it took me totally
by surprise. Sure, coming after hat. it took me a few days to get accustomed
to Boil That Dust Speck, but that was more a matter of the mood of the
album; of course, on each of your CDs there have been things that were
"not typical" of the mental image I had formed of who you
were, but here maybe the only one that I'd immediately recognize as
being "obviously you" is Click. Besides, this album seems
to me to be more overtly "pictorial" - if this is the right
word - and a departure of some sort. Would you mind talking about Nonkertompf?
From the time I first conceptualized the album - at age 12 - I had always
envisioned Nonkertompf as a departure (even though at age 12 I had yet
to form a specific vision of what I'd be departing FROM). And in keeping
with my hopes, a departure is what it's turned out to be:
in form - all instrumental, not especially guitar-centered, very many
pieces, many of them quite short (something of a throwback to hat. and
Dust Speck in that regard, but still different - the miniatures on those
two albums were generally comedic in nature, and comedy was much less
of an objective in Nonkertompf);
in concept - me playing all the instruments, which guarantees (due especially
to my non-virtuosity on bass and drums, and on most of the other instruments
which make appearances such as electronic sax, acoustic bass, recorder,
violin, various percussion, on and on - I am an amateur with all of
these) a specific feel which is very distinct from the results I get
from more seasoned performers on those instruments;
in content - the writing (or, more accurately, the "writing,"
since much of the album was improvised and then orchestrated) is, I
believe, considerably more relaxed on this album than my earlier music.
Obviously I get a little older with each album, somewhat more
self-assured and less eager to impress, but with Nonkertompf in particular
I had no agenda of any kind to pursue, beyond creating a general mood
of rich, somewhat languid and textured beauty, interrupted by episodes
of startling darkness and inscrutable but undeniable energy and forward
momentum. It's a primary priority of mine when making an album, and
Nonkertompf in particular, to build a sonic "destination"
which the listener will find a compelling, fascinating, exciting, intoxicating,
lovely place to visit and re-visit.
In my earliest years of making solo albums I adhered to the Zappa
dictum of "I compose for myself - if others like it, that's fine"
- nowadays, while pleasing myself remains essential, I am constantly
keeping my audience in mind throughout the recording and mixing processes.
(The interaction with my fans provided by the Internet has been a tremendous
blessing for me.) For that reason, I feel no guilt or shame for making
all my CDs the maximum playing time - if I'm successful in providing
a listener with a world they consider beautiful, it pleases me GREATLY
to keep them there for a while. Life is hard, and I love giving people
something which makes their life more pleasant. I've never once gotten
a complaint that my albums are too long, yet we've all heard CDs that
are no more than 50 minutes long, which nevertheless feel as though
they're going on for hours and hours. (Not unlike this response.) I
understand, too, that the fact that my music has a tendency to change
so rapidly (in style, orchestration, tempo, groove) from moment to moment
is a large factor in keeping listeners intrigued. But I'm also conscious
that this kind of approach can in itself become tiresome, and appear
dilettantish. My weapon in that battle is the powerful passion and intensity
I feel at all points during the creation of this work, my belief that
the music itself is extremely valid, not just the form. I believe wholeheartedly
in every second of Nonkertompf. I think - and I'm so grateful for this
- that this passion is what is getting across to the listeners, and
that it has a lot to do with the equally passionate reception this album
is receiving from my fans. Whom I love a lot.
Interesting that you should mention "pictorial" - the more
orchestral portions of Nonkertompf (the Paprika and Rake Bannuh episodes,
for instance) were excerpted from soundtrack work I did earlier in the
year for a television network in the US called Court TV. Most of the
pieces I used on the album were not aired on television - they were
outtakes from a soundtrack I did for a show about the infamous and/or
renowned American mercy-killer Jack Kevorkian. Also, the inclusion of
less lead guitar on the album was extremely willful - I don't feel comfortable
with a guitar hero tag around my neck. It's actually less of a problem
now than it was several years ago. I'm very fortunate in that my work
is being not just well-received, but well-understood by a large portion
of my following. My motives are not a mystery to my hardcore fans, and
my choice to not focus insistently on the guitar as an orchestrational
tool (music offers me so much more than guitar!) is not questioned by
them. Again, the Internet has been a powerful tool in aiding this understanding.
To me, the entirety of Nonkertompf is VERY "obviously me"
- it's the least compromised, most personal work I've ever done.
"Compromised" is a word that's semantically very complex:
would you mind clarifying the expression "the least compromised
(...) work I've ever done"?
Conforming to pop-song conventions necessitates at least a token amount
of adherence to tradition. I've, on occasion, stretched the pop-song
form almost completely out of shape on my earlier song-based albums,
but most of the time that damn chorus manages to sneak back into the
picture. Granted, that's a small compromise in the big picture (many
artists have to deal with interference from any number of creatively
uninvolved parties, and not for one second has that sort of thing been
a problem in my solo career) - but it's a compromise nonetheless. It
was a great pleasure on Nonkertompf to dispense entirely with all inherited
notions of song form (with one notable exception - Self 'n' Other has
a fairly conventional structure which works perfectly for the piece),
and allow the music to flow according only to my notions of what is
beautiful and involving, and what I felt my hardcore fan base would
enjoy listening to.
Since you say that you had "only a couple of specific pieces
of music prepared before recording began", would you mind elaborating
about the way you see the relationship between the compositional/improvisational
process and the recording studio?
I have no formula. Every song has a different story, a unique way in
which it came into being. It essentially hinges on self-trust; after
many years of work on my own and others' music I have developed a style
of improvising which works very well for me when I'm creating the basis
for a new piece. It is possible for me now to hear, essentially, a finished
recording in my head while I'm improvising the first part of a piece
onto tape. My vision at those moments is strong and willful. There's
no guarantee, as I pile on the overdubs, that the piece of music which
is taking shape is the same as the one I had in my head during the initial
improvisation - in fact it's both extremely unlikely, and unwanted;
the fun is in constantly discovering possibilities while I'm working,
allowing the work to take rapid, unexpected turns into fresh territory
when a new road reveals itself. Obviously I couldn't do any of this
kind of thing without the recording studio, which I take a very utilitarian
view of: here's a bunch of empty tracks, here's a bunch of gear, and
I'll use whatever I need to get this stuff in my head onto that tape
as accurately as I can. I often can't remember what kind of effects
I use during recording, which is annoying to the occasional gearhead
who writes to me wanting to know how I got "that sound." I
work very rapidly in the studio when I'm inspired, which I must admit
is pretty much all the time (not to say that everything I do all the
time is wonderful, but I'm always driven to do SOMETHING when I'm in
the studio - I am very productive), and as soon as I'm successful in
getting a particular moment just so, I dump all the specifics out of
my memory and move on to the next task at hand. I don't romanticize
the recording studio, but I love it.
(Important - none of this would happen without the invaluable assistance
of others, particularly the engineer at Double Time, Jeff Forrest -
and in the case of this album, Scott Chatfield, who helped me to radically
re-shape portions of the music with computer editing and sound-manipulation
techniques. Hooray for these people.)
"I often can't remember what kind of effects I use during recording,
which is annoying to the occasional gearhead who writes to me wanting
to know how I got "that sound."" It's funny to hear you
say this, because for my next question it was my intention to ask you
about the plastic saxophone that's featured on Blue Jean Baby...
It was one of about thirty instruments which my good friend Bob Tedde
loaned to me for the making of the album - seriously, thanks to his
kindness, and to the fact that he's got a garage full of weird instruments,
Nonkertompf is a lot richer instrumentally than it would have been otherwise.
The plastic sax is small and gray and plastic (it's either a Casio or
a Yamaha, can't remember which), can be MIDI'ed, and has an actual Line
Out in addition to a small installed speaker, although for Blue Jean
Baby we mic'd the instrument's speaker instead of taking a line out,
because I wanted the sound of the room (and I liked the sound of the
cheap little speaker), which is why you can hear me wheezing and banging
my fingers around on the keys of the thing.
Seriously, about this track; the scale and some "jumps"
in the melody reminded me of Robert Fripp: am I hallucinating?
I didn't really have enough control or technique on that instrument
to intentionally pay tribute or mimic another's style - I had no choice
but to simply move my fingers around and blow! When I listened to it
afterward, it didn't strike me as Frippian as much as it reminded me
of some of the truly peculiar and intervallically acrobatic melodies
which Frank often composed using the Synclavier.
In any case (let's call it free-association on my part)...
... I'd like to ask you about Fripp and King Crimson. I'll be more
specific; you played with Fripp during the G3 tour in 1997: how do you
regard that musical encounter?
Perhaps mundanely, but first and undeniably I regard it as having been
a fabulous honor. Robert invited me to join him on stage after he noticed
me regularly watching his performances from the audience seats. You
have to realize how funny Robert's chosen role was on this tour: he
started generating Soundscapes the SECOND the doors to the venue officially
opened... that means for an 8:00 starting show, Robert was actually
onstage at 6:00, which obviously means that at the beginning of his
performances there were usually about 34 people in the audience, and
one of them was generally me. (And so many of the people in the crowd,
as they streamed in during the performance, had no idea who he was,
and had remarkably little tolerance for the relaxed and gradual nature
of Soundscapes. But I thought they were beautiful - to bring up an earlier
analogy once again, I thought the sonic worlds he built were very much
from the same place, density- and beauty-wise, as Civilization Phaze
III, which I adore.) One time as I was watching him perform, he caught
my eye and waved me up to join him on stage. It wasn't feasible right
on the spot, without prior discussion, to get my guitar amp set up for
performance, but I accepted his invitation the following night, and
it was an extremely enjoyable challenge to improvise melodies over the
undulating texture and key-changes of his Frippertronics. I wasn't trying
to "solo over" the music, I was looking into the heart of
music to try to find the melodies which were SUPPOSED to be happening
in the music at that moment, and executing them on guitar to the best
of my still-so-primitive ability (I've got a LONG way to go on the guitar).
Fripp seemed pleased, and extended the invitation to join him onstage
at any time I wished during the tour, which I took advantage of on a
near-nightly basis. It was absolute wonderful fun.
How do you consider, from the point of view of today, King Crimson's
music - which I think was a part of your musical identity? (If I remember
correctly, a long, long time ago your group played One More Red Nightmare;
and on Lightning Roy I think you quoted one phrase from Red (the track)
- at about 7' and 13'...).
The passage in question on Lightnin' Roy isn't an actual quote (at least
not intentionally!), although it certainly comes from that world, and
I was aware of that while I was writing and recording it. Amazing that
you remember me having played Red Nightmare - that was 21 years ago
that I and my brother did that!
Regarding Crimson, they were a big influence and I was a big fan as
a teenager, but my love for them was almost completely intellectual,
they didn't move me on an emotional level as Frank and Todd Rundgren
and Yes and many others did. But I was especially partial to Red, Starless
And Bible Black and Lizard, and I know the echoes of those albums are
present in my music. Now I have tremendous respect and a very warm feeling
for Fripp and Crimson, and I have been buying all the archival KC releases
which have delightfully flooded the market as of late. I like them as
much for their historical value and for Fripp's liner notes as I do
for the actual music contained on them, but as artefacts I consider
all these fresh Crimson releases to be absolutely delightful, I love
seeing them on the shelf. And occasionally taking them down and listening
to them (especially The Great Deceiver, the four-CD set of live recordings
from the "Starless" band - that's some essential music there.
As we're having this conversation you are about to go on tour with
Steve Vai; would you mind saying something about the tour - and your
musical association with him? (By the way, I read your joint interview
in Guitar World - February, I think - not bad at all...)
What has been going through my mind over the last two days of watching
Steve at rehearsal is (big surprise) what a powerful guitar player he
is... he's capable of things most people can't even imagine, distracted
as they are by the cosmetic nature of Steve's music, which is very sleek
and slick and hard rock-oriented. At rehearsal on Monday he played the
most mind-bogglingly wonderful solo on one song for minutes and minutes,
TRUE improvisation, with endless variety, fascinating, delightful detours
and explorations - all done at blinding speed, yes, but not the least
bit off-putting or overly bravado-drenched for it. It was simply a wonder.
When it was done I applauded him, and he gave me a goofy grin and said
"Why can't I do that on stage?".
My job with Steve is very much a sideman role; what I personally gain
from it (besides camaraderie with some very wonderful guys, and a paycheck)
is constant up-close proximity to a very inspiring guitarist, and the
personal discipline required to execute his music properly - there are
techniques required to play Vai music (extreme speed picking, strange
effects with the whammy bar and with manipulation of fingers, strings,
etc. - just about the full range of rock guitar onslaught, often at
full intensity) which usually don't come into play in my own music,
which generally utilizes conventional playing techniques in the service
of some very unconventional music. But I find that practicing Steve's
music makes me play all other music with a greater sensitivity, and
a deep respect for the articulation of every note, which is ultimately
what really makes music speak. Steve has done me a lot of good in a
lot of ways. It was also a great challenge, perhaps the most daunting
of my recording career thus far, to take eleven of his pieces and arrange
and perform them for a solo piano album to be released next year in
a box set he's working on. My first instrument was organ, not piano,
and to make a musical statement which I thought did equal justice to
Steve's music, my vision of how to transform it, and the orchestral
potential of solo piano (which does not come naturally to me - my left
hand isn't the most brilliant in the world and a LOT of pressure is
placed on it in a solo piano situation) made for months and months of
harrowing self-examination at the keyboard. I haven't even heard the
final edit, but I feel it's going to be something of which I'm tremendously
proud - I'm already proud of the work I put into it.
If you don't mind, I'd like to ask you about The Mistakes: what happened
"Them" were never really meant to exist beyond the recording
of that album - the hoops which needed to be jumped through to arrange
schedules in order to allow the first album to be recorded were seriously
exhausting, but, my God, very much worth it. I'm seriously proud of
that album, I think of it as a major achievement in my career. We did
a couple of live gigs in Northern California that were a lot of fun
(Buckethead sat in with us) but we were never thinking career-oriented
- we were just enticed by the prospect of getting together for a very
short period of time and creating something almost out of thin air -
we had a few pieces prepared (I contributed four, Andy two, Henry one
or two - although all were transformed by the rehearsal process, and
I imposed a lot of "me" during the overdub process) but we
created a lot of things spontaneously as well. What a successful experiment
that was! I'm always glad when someone mentions that they love that
album, and look forward to more people discovering it in the years to
come. I'm very proud to have put Andy West back into the attention of
some people who hadn't heard him in a while. He's amazing. And the album
has my favorite Prairie Prince drumming of all time. And Henry is simply
phenomenal - the way his effects "comment" on the proceedings
surrounding them is truly uncanny and delightful.
A little bird told me there were talks about doing another one -
with a different line-up. True?
It's been often discussed, and it's something which will hopefully happen.
I see Henry fairly often, and I manage to see Andy at least once every
18 months or so. Prairie I see less - he's always traveling, I think!
I did get to hang out with him backstage at a Rundgren show a couple
of months ago and it was really lovely to see him. Henry and I have
discussed using Chris Cutler on the next album (and have done some corresponding
with him, but his is another very difficult schedule to figure into
the equation!; oh my, I adore Chris' musicality and concept), and calling
the band something other than "The Mistakes." We also aim
to make the next album "pretty."
And is your work on a recent Henry Kaiser project (of which I know
nothing about) related to that?
Separate project. But VERY cool. The album has Henry and Raoul Bjorkenheim
(Finnish phenom) on guitars, Michael Manring on bass, Alex Cline on
drums and myself on acoustic piano (and guitars on three songs). Very
improvisational in nature, although Raoul, Michael, Alex and myself
each brought at least one song to the sessions, and we also used some
covers as spinning-off points: a couple of Coltrane's, a couple of Miles'
and a couple of Zappa's. All of which, obviously, I was delighted to
participate in! The project was very much at Henry's instigation, I
was a very willing hired hand but I think it's my best piano work on
disc to date. Henry's been involved in a lot of projects and some equipment
issues kept him from completing a mix on the album earlier this year,
so the album will be released next year. Worth the wait; it's a good
This one is, maybe, too personal a question; if so, skip it.
I'll answer it, but kind of briefly!
Something that stroke me on the Nonkertalk CD is when Scott talks
about a "creative renaissance you've undergone in the last 18 months-two
years" (I hope I got the words right).
I think you got it right.
Earlier you told me: "in my earliest years of making solo albums
I adhered to the Zappa dictum of "I compose for myself - if others
like it, that's fine" - nowadays, while pleasing myself remains
essential, I am constantly keeping my audience in mind throughout the
recording and mixing processes." What caused your changing your
mind about the relationship between the compositional process and the
The seeds of change were sown in 1996 when I started listening to Coltrane
a whole lot more. The process escalated in early 1998 when I met some
people who caused me to develop new attitudes about life and emotions,
and simultaneously I got into a very serious Radiohead phase, and a
fairly serious Trent Reznor phase. It instilled in me a desire to express
more profound and universal thoughts in my work, and showed me ways
to communicate more deeply with my audience. The process is still very
I know it's a very complex kind of topic but, since communicating
"something" means communicating through form, in what sense,
for instance, Trent Reznor's work can instill "a desire to express
more profound and universal thoughts" in one's work and show "ways
to communicate more deeply" with one's audience? Is it a matter
of "forms", "mode of presentation" or what?
I would opt for "mode of presentation" if presented with those
specific choices, but it wasn't something I intellectualized that deeply...
it was a visceral and very personal response I had to a two-video set
called Closure which Trent released last year (specifically, the tape
containing a series of conceptual NIN videos, rather than the live video
also included, although it was fun to see Trent singing Broken Hearts
Are For Assholes backstage in the live video). NIN is obviously a very
successful industry, and for a long time the popularity of Trent's work
had kept me from embracing it (for most of my life I've had a reflexive
tendency to mistrust any piece of entertainment which finds great favor
among a majority of consumers - a tendency I've shed in recent years).
On one particular evening in January 1998 I watched that series of videos
and felt a connection to the artist that was categorically the same
feeling I got from listening to John Coltrane solos through headphones.
It was the specific thrill of feeling the intent of a master artist,
hearing their individual voice loud and clear, presented with seeming
effortlessness and clarity. In Trent's case, the message is simple and
repetitive and nihilistic (although The Fragile has some refreshing
glints of hopefulness peeking through the angst), and for a time I was
entranced by the darkness of his vision - I became a big fan of Crass
in the 80s, and since then have frequently found intense anger in art
to be very appealing (most recently, the Aphex Twin video for Come To
Daddy had a major impact). The expression of that sort of anger in MY
art somehow doesn't come naturally to me - my natural mode of expression
is inherently lighter, even in my darkest moments (eg. Own on Sluggo!)
- and these days I find anger less sexy than I did a year ago (I'm not
turning into John Zorn over here). I'm not supposed to be doing angry
art, but the power of Reznor's work was a big inspiration at a time
when I needed one. I was inspired that he was using incredibly textured
and colorful music and images to reach his audience emotionally, and
reinforced my desire to the same, but without pushing the same buttons
he does. It's too unchallenging and soul-sapping to just say "life
is fucked" in different ways - it's a better use of my energy to
try to present creative alternatives to negativism.
While I was pondering your position I re-read what you'd previously
said to me, and I noticed this passage: "My weapon in that battle
is the powerful passion and intensity I feel at all points during the
creation of this work, my belief that the music itself is extremely
valid, not just the form." I think I understand it like this: there's
an "intangible" (I hesitate to use the word "spirit")...
I don't hesitate to use it!
... "embedded"... (is this word all right?)
... in the music, though the two are separable only analytically
- is it right?
Hmm. Personally I define
form, rather loosely, as "genre." What IS the form of my music?
It is "rock," perhaps it's a sort of "fusion," some
persist in calling me "progressive." I never consider the
form of my work while it's in process. Sometimes it's fun to think about
what form it takes once the work is done, but it's not a concern of
mine really. I don't think I have a good answer to this question. I
think there's something good and beautiful and healthy about my music,
and I want to present it to as many listeners as I can.
But, if so, do you think that Frank Zappa's "forms"
were rendered "different" by his (let's call it) "seeing
the audience as a not-so-necessary part of the aesthetical process"?
Unfortunately my time on tour (as you all too well know) is severely
limiting my ability to contribute to this extremely thought-provoking
interview (for which I thank you profusely for initiating), and the
topic you've just introduced requires a GREAT DEAL of thoughtfulness
and time, neither of which, sadly, I'm in tremendous possession of at
this time. If there should be another exchange of thoughts between you
and I (and I dearly hope there will be), I happily suggest this topic
as a starting point.
Thank you very much for this interview!
Beppe Colli 1999 - 2003
| March 30, 2003