An interview with
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 noticed.

A 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.

Since 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.

Born 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.

That 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.

The 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.

I 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.

What 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.

The 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 tour).

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 approve!

... 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 to them?

"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 one.

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 audience?

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 much underway!

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