An interview with
Mike Keneally (2009)

By Beppe Colli
April 30, 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 crowds.

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 'our' quarters?".

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 ever.

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 to.

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 this.

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:
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.

Beppe Colli 2009 | April 30, 2009