Interview with Mike Keneally
DPRP’s Mark Hughes
At the beginning of March I had the opportunity to chat with Mike Keneally whose Wing Beat Fantastic album was my favourite release of 2012. Prior to the start of the day’s rehearsals for the live debut of Brendon Small‘s Galaktikon at WesFest 8 , in LA, Mike took the time to chew the fat and discuss his life in music.
Mark: What were your musical influences in your formative years?
Mike: The Beatles were the first and the foremost, and taught me that music was something that I could get really passionate about. I started playing organ when I was 7 years old and when I heard ELP‘s Tarkus a couple of years later it really blew my mind, so Keith Emerson was a huge influence from a very early age. I also heard some Frank Zappa at around the same time and that was a real revelation ñ I didn’t realise that you could do certain things within music and get away with it. Later on I started listening to a lot more progressive music which covered the whole range of the spectrum right up to the more avant garde stuff like Henry Cow. But I’ve also always really loved pop music and so when XTC really started happening that was huge for me.
Mark: So you started off as a keyboard player originally?
Mike: Yes, which is probably why I was so ensnared by progressive music. Particularly playing organ with the bass parts being played with your foot and each hand playing counter-melodies. I was always interested to hear arrangements were things were layered or interlocking – Gentle Giant were fascinating for that. The first time I heard Gentle Giant was on a live television programme and seeing them was a revelation, realising that the music was being executed in real time by humans, with random changes of instruments and just doing stuff that you’d never think was possible.
Mark: How did you start writing and performing your own music?
Mike: The real defining relationship of my teens was my elder brother. We had a couple of reel-to-reel tape recorders and we used to record versions of songs we liked, so I really got into music from the inside out, trying to replicate stuff I enjoyed listening to. We had a couple of bands that we formed to try and make some money, just playing covers, largely brief ad hoc groups that formed for individual gigs.
Mark: So was Drop Control your first really serious band?
Mike: Yes, the first group that performed original material with the intent to try and make something happen.
Mark: Yet it seems your first recorded output was with Frank Zappa.
Mike: With the exception of a couple of small indie type things I suppose Broadway The Hard Way was the first thing that more than 50 people were likely to hear.
Mark: How did a virtually unknown musician get to join the Frank Zappa Band?
Mike: I literally called him up and asked for a job! In 1987 I heard that he was in rehearsal with a new band which was big news for a fan as he had stopped touring in 1984 as it was costing him too much money. I initially contacted his hotline – 818-Pumpkin – to find out about the tour but then thought why not be a bit more ambitious and offer my services. So I called his office and mentioned I played guitar and keyboards, could sing and knew all of Frank’s material and if they were looking for someone I was available. The next day Frank called me! He didn’t believe that I knew all his music and told me to get my arse up to Los Angeles to prove it! So my brother drove me to LA from San Diego where we were living while I sat in the back practicing Sinister Footwear II and What’s New in Baltimore?, the two tracks Frank had asked me to present, for the whole three-hour ride. They are both pretty complex, note-rich pieces but I managed to deliver, if not note-perfect renditions, performances that showed Frank I could, at short order, pull together serviceable versions of even his most difficult pieces. Frank then proceeded to call out various songs which I dredged up from my memory including one of his synclavier pieces that had not been previously played by humans. I also played Strictly Genteel on the piano, supposedly sight reading the music but really playing it by ear, which Frank found quite amusing. At the end he shook my hand and told me I had better come back in a few days so they rest of the band could witness my particular splendour. My brother and I just screamed in the car the whole way home; it was literally a dream come true.
Mark: What was your role in the band?
Mike: Frank used to call me a walking encyclopaedia and used me as a way of bringing old songs back into the repertoire. We’d be in rehearsals and he’d say something like Who Needs The Peacecore hadn’t been performed for over 20 years and then look at me and wait for me to start playing and then build an arrangement for the group from what I played. Live I played both guitars and keyboards as well as adding my vocals.
Mark: You’ve been writing songs since a very young age but didn’t release your first solo album until 1992, why was that?
Mike: Even though I had been writing and playing music for years I kind of had a late start in recording my own compositions. The home recording revolution was really just taking hold in the late eighties and I did put out a bunch of cassettes, later compiled on the two Tar Tapes CDs, but I really had no audience for my stuff until I got the gig with Frank. I also didn’t really have the entrepreneurial spirit and it wasn’t until some friends of mine started their own record label and asked me if I wanted to put out a CD that I really felt I had a strong enough vision of the journey I wanted to take the listener on.
Mark: Since the debut CD you have been pretty prolific, releasing something like 24 albums…
Mike: Something like that, I’ve lost count…
Mark: …and there is quite a wide diversity throughout them, eclectic doesn’t really cover it. Would it be fair to say that your solo and collaborative work can be regarded as being progressive although not necessarily prog?
Mike: Progressive with a small p… Yes. There are stylistic hallmarks and some ‘progressive’ ticks, but I do take the term progressive more literally and want to write and perform something that I have not done before…I personally get restless, particularly if I feel like I’m repeating myself.
Mark: The Wing Beat Fantastic album sort of emphasises that as it is quite different to your other albums. How did the collaboration with Andy Partridge come about?
Mike: It stems from the 1988 Zappa tour as the bassist, Scott Thunes, was a fellow XTC fan. When we got to the UK he rang Virgin Records and left them an invite to the concerts. We were both gobsmacked when Andy Partridge and Dave Gregory actually showed up in Birmingham. They were both so cool, so easy to talk with and such good fun. I instantly clicked with Dave, definitely a kindred spirit, and at the end of the evening Andy told Scott and I that they were recording their next album [Oranges and Lemons] in LA and we should visit them during the recording – boy that was one invitation I abused, I spent as much time in that studio as I could get away with! We socialised a lot and became pals. But it was many years later that one of us, I can’t remember if it was Andy or I, proposed that we should try writing songs together. I spent two separate weeks in Andy’s shed in Swindon, one in 2006 and one in 2008, writing and creating the backbones of the songs on Wing Beat Fantastic.
Mark: Why did it take four years before the album saw the light of day?
Mike: I’m not too bothered by the time it took as I’m really happy with the finished product and the album turned out in a way that could only have happened given time to slowly gestate. It wasn’t that I considered the album a ‘back burner’ project but I did have other stuff that I was involved with, other albums that I was working on. And I honestly thought that I really wanted to do another week of writing with Andy before tackling recording of the songs. Then I saw an on-line interview where Andy was asked about the project and he said that it was in my hands and that the songs had been written and he thought they would have been recorded by now. Point taken! Better move this project to the top of the list! We had kept in touch over the years via e-mail swopping mp3s of the songs as they progressed but in the case of You Kill Me the lyrics were topical when we wrote it in 2008 and had lost a lot of their pertinence so I suggested to Andy that he might want to update the words. He came back with a completely new set of lyrics! All I really wanted to do with this album was make a record that he would enjoy listening to and not feel that his time had been spent in vain. But also as a fan I really wanted to get some new Andy partridge material out in the world as there has been precious little of that over recent years, particularly in the pop song vein.
Mark: I guess you would love to write and record a follow-up with Mr. Partridge, is that ever likely to happen?
Mike: It has turned out to be such a positive experience, and Andy really does like the record, which is a great relief, and I am happy with the response to the record so yes, it would be great fun to do another. But we haven’t yet discussed anything and I have a lot of ongoing things at present so I don’t think anything is on the cards just yet but of course I would welcome the opportunity to do another album. I think we could come up with some really interesting stuff.
Mark: You’re heading over to Europe this month with your band, Bryan Beller, Rick Musallam and Joe Travers. Is this the first time you’ve played in Europe?
Mike: Yes, as the Mike Keneally band, although I have played in Europe before but with a couple of European musicians. Although they were great musicians and concerts I am super excited to be able to do this tour with my band as we have such a level of communication on stage and can, and will hopefully, provide some great musical moments. Plus it should be a lot of fun as I really enjoy playing with those guys.
Mark: The tour is with Godsticks as support. How did that come about?
Mike: Godsticks toured with Bryan’s other band, The Aristocrats, last year and it was a very successful venture. I’ve been in touch with Darren [Charles] for quite a while and I love what they do musically. He proposed we do this joint tour and has been working tirelessly in promoting it – his industriousness is admirable.
Mark: You have a lot of live work planned for this year and are currently rehearsing for the Galaktikon project. How did you become involved with that?
Mike: Brendon created an animated television show called Metalocalypse featuring a band called Deathlok. I’m a touring member of Deathlok – the human musicians playing behind a huge LED video screen onto which the cartoon band is projected, sort of a metal equivalent to Damon Albarn‘s Gorillaz project. It is totally over the top and has turned into a shockingly successful venture. Last year Brendon released Galaktikon as a solo album which is also metal influenced but is more melodic and eschews the death metal grows of Deathlok.
Mark: And soon after The Mike Keneally Band European tour finishes you are off on a world tour with Joe Satriani. How does working as part of someone else’s band compare with leading your own group?
Mike: Well, I’m just playing keyboards on the Satriani tour so that’s one big difference. But working with other artists allows me the luxury to do my own projects which are strictly labours of love as they don’t pay huge financial dividends. With my own projects I am obviously in charge and there isn’t particularly any avenue that I feel restricted from following; I’ll try anything. When I am working for someone else I am strictly focused on making sure I am holding down my section of the fort.
Mark: Considering your first instrument was organ, you are playing keyboards with Satriani and you have recorded an album of piano interpretations of Steve Vai guitar compositions, do you view yourself as a keyboardist who plays guitar, a guitarist who plays keyboards, or make no distinction between the two?
Mike: Whatever instrument I am playing at that moment that is the type of musician I am! I guess there is a part of me that sees myself as a keyboardist who plays guitar because I did start off on keyboards but I can’t escape from the fact that I have logged more musician hours as a guitarist over the years. But then again, the largest audiences I have played to are with Satriani and they only know me as a keyboard player. My career really is as eclectic as a Gentle Giant composition: playing keyboards with a guitar giant, playing guitar in America’s biggest selling death metal band, and releasing albums written with one of England’s foremost pop/rock artists…
Mark: To finish, a few quick questions. What was the last album you bought and loved?
Mike: Just a couple of days ago I bought The Atoms For Peace album by Amok. I really, really enjoy it, I think it’s very beautiful and find it to be very subtle, like an ever-opening flower that reveals more treasures as you hear it; I’m enjoying it a lot.
Mark: Last song you heard and hated?
Mike: Oh wow.. I couldn’t really tell you as I immediately jettison that sort of stuff from my mind, I really good at ejecting stuff that is no use to me.
Mark: Best live band you’ve seen?
Mike: probably the Wayne Shorter Quartet
Mark: Favourite album you’ve released?
Mike: Very difficult to say… in some ways Wooden Smoke is probably the closest I’ve come to an idealised perfect album but I have a great fondness for Scambot 1 and also for Wing Beat Fantastic. In terms of what I was attempting to execute with the writing and recording those are the top three.
Mark: If someone first came across you via Wing Beat Fantastic, what is the next album of yours they should investigate?
Mike: I would probably steer them towards Wooden Smoke , even though it is considerably more acoustic it manages to say everything I wanted to say in a concise manner. Also Sluggo , although that is currently only available as a download, we’re working on a CD re-release at the moment, as I think the writing is really strong, like Wing Beat Fantastic it really is a collection of songs.
Mark: Finally, what are you most looking forward to about the forthcoming tour?
Mike: Just being on stage and those moments when everything comes together and the band connects together and hopefully with the audience. We’ve played a lot together, we really enjoy each other; we’re tight like a family and all really love each other and, hopefully it is just going to be moments of communion on stage amongst the band and with the audience. I’m really just looking forward to playing for people and bringing my band over to share the experience.
And with that we take our leave. Thanks to Mike for taking the time to speak with us. Make sure you catch him on tour!
Mike Keneally Band European Tour 2013
20 Borderline, London, UK
21 Clwb Ifor Bach, Cardiff, Wales, UK
22 Night ‘n Day Cafe, Manchester, UK
23 The Cluny, Newcastle, UK
24 The Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
27 Paradox, Tilburg, Netherlands
28 Cafe Central, Weinheim, Germany
29 Paradiso, Amsterdam, Netherlands
30 Der Club, Heiligenhaus, Germany
31 Bergkeller, Reichenbach, Germany
2 Kellerperle, Würzburg, Germany
3 Spirit of 66, Verviers, Belgium
4 Music Academy International, Nancy, France