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InterviewsDog ushers in Mike Keneally’s new loud period

Posted on Tuesday, August 31 2004 @ 15:18:42 CDT by Jedd Beaudoin
Progressive Rock
One of the great pleasures in life is stripping away the shrink wrap on a new Mike Keneally album. It's easy, of course, to become jaded about music, to lose the sense of wonder you first had when you first started buying records, it's not uncommon to walk away from a record feeling that it didn't hit all the marks or take you exactly where you thought it might in its early moments, but with Mike Keneally, there's always an unexpected turn or two in the journey, turns that revive that sense of wonder. Such is the case with Dog the first CD from the Mike Keneally Band, featuring guitarist Rick Musallam, bassist Bryan Beller and Nick D'Virgilio. (Dog will soon be followed by The Universe Will Provide, Keneally's orchestral album.)

SoT's Jedd Beaudoin caught up with Keneally at NEARfest in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania earlier this summer to talk about the band's stunning Saturday night set, Dog and a few glimpses of the future.

Sea of Tranquility: That was a hell of a show last night.

Mike Keneally: Thank you, Jedd.

SoT: Tell me what it was like to get out and play for the audience here last night.

MK: It was a pleasure in every respect. Before we even played a note, we felt like we were in very good hands because we felt that the crew was very together, the whole organization of the festival was very together and, obviously, the degree of professionalism in terms of the sound and the lights and everything was real high. It was something felt that was already worth doing before we realized that this was a crowd filled with people who were actually going to pay attention and who could understand what was being hurled at them. Obviously, the music can get demanding at times but it felt as though they were right there with us and willing to travel wherever we went. So, it was a remarkable thing to play for that many people in one place with such a nice stage with good sound and good production values and nice lights and have it come off so well.

And the response was obviously delightful. I'm very happy that people were able to enjoy it so much and everything that people have been saying to me since the show indicates that it's a good thing that were here.

SoT: I knew that there was Keneally representation here last night but when Chad [Hutchinson] introduced you, it was wonderful to hear people cheer the way that they did.

MK: It was very nice. We felt really welcomed. Very supported. I like feedback from the crowd, so to have people yelling from the audience? That's a good thing. I liked the fact that right from the beginning it felt like there was give and take from the crowd. It felt relaxed in there but at the same time it felt kind of classy. It felt like a high-class event in a way. Then, once we started, the band all got into the music and we all felt very comfortable with each other, which is important because so much of what we do is improvisation, even with the things that are written what we perform is different every time. We're responding to the energy in the room on all levels.

SoT: I thought that the solos you played last night were really, really good. And I think that Dog as a whole finds you really connecting with the guitar. Do you see it that way?

MK: I do think that I'm sort of simplifying my approach to the instrument in some ways. Or maybe I should say just focusing more completely on every gesture. I think in the past that maybe I was doing a lot more flailing and perhaps even playing a lot more notes. But I think that I've been able to focus and play fewer but more effective notes. Again, since I'm improvising, it's not going to work to my full satisfaction every time. And I actually thought that for some reason, which I don't understand, that I wasn't necessarily getting to what I wanted to get to as a soloist last night but it didn't bother me because I knew that the overall effect of the performance was good. It was positive. But I always have higher standards or ambitions of what I'd like to be accomplishing on the guitar and the moment I feel like I've nailed it, that's going to be a bad moment because there's no sense in continuing at that point

I'm glad to hear that it comes off because from my perspective, I felt like, "That was pretty good," but I always imagine .... I want everyone in the room to be levitating by the time we're done. That's my goal. If everyone's still in their seats, I feel like I've failed somehow. [Laughs.] But it was good. It was a real pleasure. I was happy with the sound and certainly had a good time playing.

SoT: You played "2001" from Wooden Smoke last night. What can you tell me about the genesis of that song?

MK: It started out just as the chord structure. It got its name because I wrote the chord structure and recorded it with just a piano and drums and it didn't have any vocals because it didn't have lyrics, so I was just calling it "Pop Song 2001." Then, after I wrote the lyrics, I was just trying to figure out what I should call it. I cut out the "Pop Song" and the somehow the name "2001" felt like it nailed it for me.

It was an attempt to sort of a little bit of homage without being explicit to early '70s studio pop, stuff that I really loved from that time. Stuff like the Beach Boys' material from Holland, I think that "2001" is influenced by "Sail On Sailor" in a way. There's also Todd Rundgren's stuff from that era, or even Stevie Wonder, or Countdown To Ecstasy by Steely Dan. There was a period in '71-73 where there was a lot of piano-based studio rock that was very melodic with harmonies to die for and just infectious in its own way.

With the lyrics, which came months after, I wanted to create a sense of traveling, of going away from home but then knowing that home is coming ever nearer. It's sort of the key song in whatever the conceptual side of Wooden Smoke is, which to me, is .... The painting on the front, with the guy rowing, that pretty much indicates what the whole story of Wooden Smoke is, which is just somebody traveling and their adventures. Even if I'm not being explicit about what those adventures are--and sometimes my lyrics can get real arcane and tough and difficult to dissect because when I write lyrics I write them really quickly and I'm just trying to receive them without question. When they're done, I have to look at them and figure out what it means, myself. But there is kind of a story line to Wooden Smoke and I think that that song is the key point in the narrative in terms of getting the feeling of what I want that album to be.

SoT: With Wooden Smoke and perhaps parts of Dog you seem much more at peace with things around you.

MK: With Wooden Smoke I was ... serene is probably the best way to describe how I was when I was putting that material together. Dog was somewhat of a more a more tortured gestation process just because ... during the whole time that Dog was being put together, the world was falling apart. The key line in some ways is the one refrain in "Louie," where I sing, "I can't believe what's going on/How can people act this way?" In some ways, that's the way that Dog feels to me. I think that in some ways there's still an element of ... I don't know of it's being at peace, but maybe it's a feeling of understanding within one's self.

I think that Dog is a much more settled record than Dancing. Sometimes I have a hard time listening to Dancing now because I know what I was going through at the time, which was a lot of tumult. With that record, I wanted to put it across as, "Everything's great, everything's hopeful," but all this other stuff came seeping through. So with Dancing it's almost like I was trying to paint a picture that's not entirely accurate to where I was at. There was a little bit of self-delusion going on there, maybe. Whereas with Dog I think that as peculiar as it might be or as hard to grasp lyrically as it might be at times it's all real honest. I listen to Dog and think, "Yeah, that's it."

SoT: You mentioned the lyrics being less explicit and I find that interesting. When I got back and listen to "The Desired Effect" [from Boil That Dust Speck], I get it. No problem. More recently, the lyrics have become less explicit.

MK: I think that what I've been doing with the last couple albums especially is not pushing so much for explicit meaning because I found that I was writing songs and thinking, "OK, what's this song going to be about?" With the last couple of albums I much less inclined to do that and much more inclined to just let my intuitive sense or my connection to wherever the words come from to be unhindered. Often, a set of lyrics will come ... like "Raining Sound," for instance. It's just so peculiar. It's like I feel, "These can't be the words to the song. They're so very strange." But when I try to write "normal" lyrics or more approachable, accessible lyrics, they just don't work. It's like the body rejects the organ and they won't stay in the song. It's been a less conscious process, writing lyrics. With Dog there's a lot of surreal lyrics on there, a lot of indirect lyrics that convey a feeling, which I like, but don't necessarily convey a meaning which people can grasp. I've seen that comment a few times: "I love this record. I have no idea what the fuck it means." [Laughs.]

At the same time, the music is connecting more. So what I'd like to next and what I'm feeling the urge to do is get back to writing some more lyrics that are more explicit, a little more relatable in terms of universal feelings and themes. It'd be nice to be able to play a group of new songs for people that people can hear and say, "I understand that. I can relate to that," as opposed to "This Tastes Like A Hotel." All of that means something to me. I know at every point in that song what those paintings represent, lyrically, but everybody else is just like, "I think I like that but what the hell was it?" I don't want to be obscure for its own sake. I don't want that to become a cliché. As you know from the catalogue to date, every album is a departure from the one before. That's not a conscious thing. I couldn't make the same album twice. That's when I quit.

But I have a vision of the next album being a more direct group of songs, something that you wouldn't be shocked to hear if Creedence Clearwater Revival had jazz chops or something. [Laughs.]

SoT: [Laughs.] You like the "out" stuff but you also like Crosby, Stills and Nash.

MK: I love that and I'm also conscious of the fact that everybody in the band, me included, is getting older. There's something to me that'd be exciting about having a group of songs that are patterned after ... it's always going to be what my music is but I love the idea of somebody like Neil Young who just has songs and plays them. It's not a big issue. He just plays. Everybody can feel it unless they don't like sound of his voice maybe. But you lock into what Neil Young is as a person, then you can hear his music and be really moved by it. He's kind of a model of the kind of directness that I'm talking about.

SoT: Now, with Dog you wrote a big bunch of stuff early on, things like "Feelin' Strangely." And then, toward the end, another batch of material. What drove that?

MK: Well, when an album takes that long to put together, it's going to go through a lot of changes. I couldn't put out an album in 2004 that adhered in 2002 'cause to me that just discounts all the ideas that I had in the meantime. And when I look at where Dog ended up compared to where I thought it was going to end up a couple of years ago, it feels immeasurably stronger to me. Originally, the album was going to have "Feelin' Strangely" and "L'il" and "Never Ever Wrong" and several other songs that would have really distended the whole feel of the record.

Dog is a very punchy album, it's very impactful, it's got a lot of thickness to it, those songs would have injected a lot of a different kind of air into the album. That would have been fine. It would have still been perfectly listenable. I just found that Dog, the album, was almost shaping itself to a certain degree. Right up until the last minute of sequencing, I was trying to fit in a lot of that material when I finally paired it down to the lineup that was released, I just said, "God, this really feels like an album. It feels like a complete statement from start to finish. If I try to stick "L'il" in there, the seven-minute guitar extravaganza, what am I proving other than the fact that we can execute a seven-minute instrumental extravaganza?"

It felt an interruption, it felt like an interlude as opposed to anything that was helping the momentum of the album along. So I would much rather take all those other songs that I like a lot and which I have good recordings of and find another context for them later where they can thrive as opposed to hitting the breaks. In every version of the running order I put together those songs hit the breaks on the album.

SoT: Is "Splane" maybe an indication of what you mean by more direct songs?

MK: It kind of is but at the same time the lyrics in that song are completely peculiar because I have this lie in the chorus: "I'm gonna splane it all right now" and then I don't. It feels more direct. Maybe people move toward the song because they think that they're going to get a clue. But then, at the end, I say, "I want you to splane it all right now" because I really don't have any idea. That song's made up of a series of random events that, combined, does make something that feels accessible, which does feel approachable. I guess it's sort of similar to a Steely Dan lyrical approach where you never knew what the hell they were talking about but at least you sensed that they did and you were willing to trust them in that. And with only a couple of exceptions on this album, "Raining Sound" being the most specific--I really don't know what song is. [Laughs.]

Well, OK, I say that but that's kind of disingenuous because when I think about that song, every line in that song paints a picture for me. I see these characters, I see action happening, I see things going on. I do like the idea that these songs can have different lives inside everybody's individual perception of them. But "Splane" is what somebody described as the best Dave Matthews song that Dave Matthews hasn't played.

I did want to include something on the album that was downright accessible. A lot of people's perception of me was that I was this incredibly peculiar guy, this musician that they just can't get to. But I think that if anybody takes time to listen to any of my albums from start to finish they'll find stuff on there that's much more approachable than they think. I think that the show yesterday was nice because it demonstrated just about every aspect of that. It had some really demanding stuff but then it had some very direct stuff as well. As long as you mean it all, then people are going to respond to it.

SoT: Then there's "Pride Is A Sin."

MK: The idea of it really couldn't be any more explicit. "Pride is a sin/in case I've forgotten." It's like the "America first" brand of patriotism where to say, "I love America" is the same thing as saying, "I don't like anywhere else in the world nearly as much," or, "We're better." This thing of pride is constantly being pushed. "Be a proud American!"

I think that pride as an emotion or as a way of being, it's like it cuts off possibilities. It cuts off emotions and feelings. Pride is self ... you puff yourself up and it's like you can't hear or you can't feel. And frequently these are hardcore religious people who go on and on about how proud they are. But that's thing one if you're going to have any kind of enlightenment is to let go of that shit. Remove yourself from the equation to the best of your ability. Stop being centered on how you feel and how proud you are of your accomplishments. Anything that happens to you is a gift so how can you feel proud of it? Grateful. That's how I feel about it.

SoT: Was "This Tastes Like A Hotel" something that you wrote specifically with this group of players in mind?

MK: Definitely. All the sections where the whole band is playing, all the riffs and stuff, was all written very quickly. It was something I knew that this band could play very hard and very aggressively. Especially since we've started Exowax, the albums have been more pastel. Nonkertompf has a lot of strange, ethereal stuff; Dancing has some hard stuff but it's almost like a pop rock album instead of a hard rock album. And then Wooden Smoke is Wooden Smoke.

So in some ways it had been since Sluggo! and, more specifically, since Boil That Dust Speck since I had done some stuff that you could really say was heavy. I love that stuff and I wanted this album to be pleasing to those people who had waited since Dust Speck. It's been 10 years since that album. When Atticus [Worlab] was putting the album cover together, he put a pair of scissors in there. It wasn't a conscious reference to Dust Speck but I said, "Did you put that in because of Dust Speck?" He said, "Well, I didn't when I thought of it but when I saw it, I thought, 'That's a nice link.'"

And I think the album does follow along from that. So, yeah, when I was putting "Hotel" together, I knew that there were core sections that the band was going to play live. But then, subsequently, I knew I was going to take recordings of the band and bring it into a computer and do all kinds of maniacal manipulations to that stuff. And that was really fun. I had a gleeful time putting that song together.

SoT: Can you talk about the relationship that you and Rick [Musallam] have as guitar players?

MK: I think it works because neither of us have any of the baggage that might come with a lot of guitar players. We don't aspire to guitar heroism, we're not trying to impress anybody. We both are seekers in a way, we both have spiritual things in mind when we're playing. We're both trying to create something worthwhile as opposed to blowing people's socks off. There's a sense when we're playing together, standing on stage playing together .... What I have in mind as my model for that sort of thing is Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders, two guys who're on a journey together. Rick is very sympathetic to that. He's also a very sweet, incredibly gentle soul and just a high-quality pleasure.

Well, everybody is. That's one of the things that I was realizing when we were hanging out in the hotel last night. I was so sad that we didn't have another gig tonight because the energy of this band is very good. It's very positive. There's just a lot of love between all of us. But with Rick and I it's a specialized thing because we both play the same instrument. We're brothers in guitar. We've come a long way as a couple of guys playing guitar together and we still have much, much more ... many more places to go. I just get more and more enthusiastic about the potential of this band all the time.

SoT: It's been a year since the premiere of The Universe Will Provide with the Metropole Orchestra. The album version of that piece will be out shortly. What are your thoughts on the project now that some time has gone by?

MK: I'm thrilled with the album. The album is incredible. The premiere at the Holland Festival was very difficult because we didn't have very much time to prepare. We had 10 hours total rehearsal time to play this very difficult piece. There were technical problems during the performance. And I'd say that in terms of my hopes for the composition, how it would come off as a piece in live performance, we didn't get there. But then when we returned in September to record the album in the studio, the fact that we'd had this shared experience of going through the gig together under kamikaze circumstances brought with it a sense of community that was total. Everybody that was a part of that experience ... what I remember about them is that everyone was smiling when we were making the record. It's challenging material and the orchestra was working very had to play it over multiple takes. We were working really very hard to get good performances for the album but everybody was together with it. The conductor was incredible, relentlessly effective in getting good performances, the engineers were fantastic. Scott Chatfield [Keneally's manager] said at the time that he'd never seen me happier than during the time that we were recording that album. I think that that comes off. I know that people who first heard about this piece a long time ago have been waiting for some time for the album to come out and I think that they'll find it worth the wait. Right now, we're in the middle of compiling an additional disc Parallel Universe, which will contain a lot of the original computer demos, the Finale software files that Chris Opperman and I would listen to while we were working on the orchestration to gauge whether the pieces were working or not. We just remastered those, they sound real cool. We have some alternate things, some sections from the performance and some sections which were recorded in the studio that didn't make it onto the album. That'll only be available through

SoT: The band performed two Mistakes songs last night. ["Career Politicians" and "Aye Aye Monster."] Do you feel that there's a kinship between that band and this one?

MK: I think that there might be more if The Mistakes had gotten the chance to play together live more. The Mistakes project really came together very quickly and we only played live twice. The album's tremendous but we never really developed a band vibe to the extent that this band has. I don't really think about the connection other than the fact that I think that this band plays those songs really well. But it doesn't sound like The Mistakes, it sounds like this band. But there are links in that we're talking about two four-piece bands where everybody's really holding their own. There's a high quality of musicianship with every musician. So, there's a link in that regard.

SoT: To go back to the new album for a moment. I love the fact that there are childlike elements in "Gravity Grab." I don't know that it's a children's song but I think it would appeal to children. Have you thought about doing a children's album?

MK: I have. I know that a lot of kids respond to "Potato" and "Apple Pie" and it's fun writing things like that. They Might Be Giants did that, why can't I? I have thought about doing a whole album of music for children. But "Gravity Grab" does have a kind of whimsicality to it that is reminiscent of that. It's also ... people just nod their heads to that song. It's so strange. That was one that I had to be talked into putting on the album. I thought, "Who's going to get this? Who's going to enjoy this? It's so freakin' weird." And then I soon found out, as is often the case, that the worst judge of a guy's own work is himself. What I didn't count on is that that song, in its weird way, is very accessible to people. It might even tap into some childhood thing in some way. It does remind me of the easy listening music I heard when I was a kid. Especially on the album version, where it's four vocals overdubbed for almost a whole song. They're all me. It's this kind of monolithic male vocal sound. That's something I remember from listening to the radio as a kid. You have easy listening radio where you have these songs that ... there's a whole bunch of men singing together in unison, very relaxed. It's like [sings in a gentle and somewhat somnolent fashion], "Oh, I can't get you out of my head. Over yooouuu." It was kind of disinterested guys all singing in unison and this is determined to be staple of easy listening music. I wanted to approximate that with the weirdest lyrics I could come up with but as if sung by the Ray Conniff Singers or something. [Laughs.]

SoT: The limited edition DVD. Will that come out by itself at some point?

MK: We've discussed that as a possibility. But I think that rather than focus on that .... We have a lot of material on video, a lot of different stuff. I think that once we start compiling DVDs for stand-alone purchase, we have so much to choose from, that I don't know if we're going to release that. I also think that when we do these special editions, we really like the idea of keeping them special. After a certain amount of time ... we've made Nonkertalk available for separate purchase but we try to price the stuff so that the people who made the original purchase feel like they got something special, a good deal. And, at the same time, I know that our following recognizes that we're doing our best to keep our heads above water and anything we can do to make a living is a good thing. But I view the special editions as kind of sacrosanct in a way. We haven't even sold out the special edition of Dog yet anyway, so I wouldn't be thinking of releasing the DVD separately for quite some time.

Check out for all the latest info on Mike Keneally, including liner notes and ordering information on Dog and The Universe Will Provide (both standard and limited editions), plus much, much more.

Special thanks to Scott Chatfield.

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