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InterviewsWhat happens next: An interview with Mike Keneally Band's Rick Musallam

Posted on Saturday, September 25 2004 @ 16:21:56 CDT by Jedd Beaudoin
Progressive Rock Rick Musallam spent his early years in Lebanon, before moving to Wichita, Kansas, where he studied with master guitarist Craig Owens before departing for Los Angeles. It turned out to be a good move, affording Musallam the opportunity to work with acts such as the Ben Taylor Band, the Roots and jam with guitar luminaries such as Reeves Gabrels. SoT's Jedd Beaudoin spoke with Musallam roughly a week after the Mike Keneally Band's performance at NEARfest in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in July. Let's start with your reflections on NEARfest.

Rick Musallam: I thought it was a great show. I thought it was a different show than we're used to. Everything felt great in terms of the accommodations. Doing the soundcheck was ... I would have liked a little more time for the soundcheck because on the big stage you have to sort of dial in other people a little better and get enough volume to really feel what's going on. I felt really calm through the whole show, knowing that people were there to see music for the sake of music. That just makes you feel better about what you're doing. It makes you feel calm.

SoT: You guys did the entire Dog album at CalProg. What was it like to do that whole album front to back?

RM: It was very adventurous of us. [Laughs.] First of all, we'd never tried to do that live before. We didn't think much how it would work, going from song to song. It is, I guess, possible but in order for us to do it again we would have needed a crew of about two-three different people. A lot of the guitars have different tunings. Mike, uses a guitarharp on "Louie," which is a seven-string guitar with a harp at the bottom of it that has fourteen strings are tuned really high. Then the whole guitar is tuned to an A or A7 chord. We didn't really think about all that stuff and Mike was itching to play stuff from the record and, most of all, every song from the record. So, we did it.

SoT: This record had a slightly longer gestation period than other Keneally releases and it's the first time that this lineup has recorded together. What can you tell me about the early material vs. the later material for Dog?

RM: The early batch of tunes had certain energy. There were certain tunes that we had already played live. And I should also mention that we recorded some of those tunes more than once, using different studios. Each studio created a certain vibe for each of those sessions. The first time we recorded "L'il," it was pretty new to us. We did it at Stanley Recordings in Santa Monica, where we recorded "Astronomy Domine" for the Pink Floyd tribute album [A Fair Forgery Of Pink Floyd.]. I think that at that time we had really only played it about twice. So it was a very different, very urgent and very honest version of it. It was really, really fast. We were just all excited to play the tune.

The second time we recorded it, we had a chance to play live a couple more times before we went into the second studio, Signature Sound in San Diego. When we first went into that studio, it was December of 2002. We had already planned and rehearsed "Bober" and "Pride Is A Sin" and "L'il" and "Physics" and "Feeling Strangely," which didn't make it on the record. We did a version of "Cause Of Breakfast" also.

It was really great to record in that studio. We had all the gear we needed there. There's always a really nice vibe at that studio and me, Mike and Bryan were all used to recording there because we did Dancing there. But it brought a different vibe to the tunes. In fact, we even did "Raining Sound" at Stanley Recordings, then did something totally different with the second time around. So, every time we went in to record one of these tunes and record some of the newer stuff, the songs took on a different personality, just for the fact that it was a different-sounding studio, different vibe, the songs had sort of grown on us a little more. We'd played them live and we were able to see what worked and what didn't.

As far as the tunes that didn't make it on the record .... We took a lot of breaks between recording sessions. The first time that we did the Stanley Recordings stuff, we did three songs just to see how the songs sounded. When we went into Signature Sound, we went in to record the album but didn't have all the material yet. We recorded six songs there, then I ended up going on the road with Ben Taylor, Mike went Holland to do the Metropole Orchestra thing, Bryan was busy with other stuff, Nick was busy with other stuff and we didn't really reconnect until the end of last year. So, when we went in at the end of last year, we went to Double Time in El Cajon, San Diego. That was a totally different studio. It's a much smaller studio and we recorded pretty much everything live there, as far as the basic tracking and everything felt really very urgent. It was just more of a rock 'n' roll kind of place.

We ended up with three or four tracks that were going to be on the record, we tried different orders and Mike really tried to fit them all in and when we heard the mastered the version of all of them in order, Mike decided to take out some of them because they simply didn't seem like they fit the vibe. And we wanted to have a record that felt like more of a whole vibe. And we have that with the possible exception of "Gravity Grab," which is a little bit different than the other tunes. But that tune just felt like it belonged there.

But we'd been longing to have a band record ever since we started working with Mike and it all felt right to have those tunes in the order you hear on the record.

SoT: This lineup started with Dancing tour with the seven-piece, then, that fall you did the quartet tour. And it seems that this band was born to play live. Do you think that you've been able to reach what you wanted to as a live unit or is that still some place in the distance?

RM: I think that this band, as a four-piece, feels really good as a live unit and I think that we've sort of reached the goal of making it sound like a band. Considering our background as players and how we work as a unit .... Nick and me have played in a bunch of bands together and me and Bryan have worked in bands together before and Mike and Bryan have worked together before, so we all know each other a lot better. When we had the seven or eight-piece band, almost everybody from that band was from a totally different background, so when we got to the improv sections and things that were more open in the music, we weren't always successful in being totally cohesive.

That's because of a couple of things. First, there were more instruments playing and second because everybody had a different background and stuff didn't always gel. And, plus, we were working in rooms where you couldn't work on monitoring very well, you couldn't hear very well sometimes. There were a lot of factors that made it hard to reach a point where we were comfortable enough with the material to do whatever we wanted with it.

With the quartet, we immediately felt in tune with each other, more cohesive. When we did that tour and when we went to Holland as four-piece, it really like this was how the band was meant to be. And Mike felt after that happened that we should do more stuff as a four-piece.

SoT: How do you and Mike challenge each other as guitarists?

RM: I think that we're both really good listeners, when we can hear each other. [Laughs] When I first came into the band, my role was to play parts that Mike had done on the record in order for him to concentrate more on signing. At first, we would get together and he'd show me what he wanted out of it, how he played a certain part on the record because his playing is very unorthodox. That was all fine and cool but that was also while the seven-piece band was there, so there wasn't much room for me to be creative.

After that first year or year-and-a-half, when he started brining in newer songs, he didn't really have any preconceived notions of what other instruments would play, so we had to come up with our own parts. When he saw that I could come up with stuff that was complimentary to his playing, he gave me more freedom to do what I do. We gelled really well because he's everything that I'm not and I'm everything that he's not, stylistically.

That's even true with the tones. If you look on the spectrum of an equalizer, his tone is all midrange and mine fluctuates between some midrange and the smiley face tone where I've got a lot of low end and high end. When we started to play some of the rock tunes from Sluggo! and I would play the other guitar parts from the record, it really sounded full, just because of that. I think that that was a part he missed when it was just a trio.

SoT: You came to the band because you replaced Mike in the Janet Robin band and Bryan was the bass player in that outfit, right?

RM: Actually, it wasn't Janet Robin. That was me, Joe Travers (Dweezil Zappa, Duran Duran) and Bryan Beller but that rhythm section played for a lot of other singer-songwriters. I ended up in a band with a guy named Rob Vallier. I think that Mike left that band to go do the first tour with Steve Vai. Mike came back into town at one point on night that I was playing. Joe Travers had invited him out and ... I sort of knew about Mike and knew some stuff that Bryan would play me and I've always admired and liked his music. But I didn't know that he was coming out to the show that night. Had I known that he was, I would have probably played like shit. [Laughs.]

After the show, he came up and complimented me on the fact that I was playing .... He said, "I've never heard anybody else play my parts so well on the stage before." That was big compliment. I really appreciated it. We had an after-bar and that's when I got to know him as a person. Then, slowly, over the next couple of months, we started to talk about me being in the band.

SoT: You went to L.A. from Wichita, Kansas. Were you more in the jazz world or rock world at that point in time?

RM: I was in a whole bunch of different worlds back there. Coming from Lebanon, originally ... the one positive experience I had in Lebanon as a kid was listening to radio stations. There was no format so one minute you're listening to something by Beethoven, the next minute you're listening to the Beatles, then you're listening to Coltrane, then the Rolling Stones. It's all over the map, African music, every music. I was really thankful for that experience back then.

But after I sort of grew up with rock 'n' roll, or a rock 'n' roll background, I started, at 14 or 15, turning to a lot of older musicians for advice on how I could learn more about guitar. They sort of turned me onto the jazz world a little bit and started educating me on the different jazz artists and, at the time, maybe a little bit of fusion. So, when I came to Wichita and signed up for music school [at Wichita State University], I didn't have a very solid idea of what I wanted. But my guitar teacher was Craig Owens, who was probably one of the best teachers I've ever hard, not just in music but as a life teacher as well.

He turned me onto the jazz world a little bit more and said, "If you can play this stuff, you can play anything." At that age, not knowing exactly what direction I wanted to go into, I said, "Yeah, let's do that." I started doing jazz and transcribing solos from Wes Montgomery and Miles Davis, all that. But then I got to a point, in my second year, where I felt that my natural abilities in playing guitar were going to start changing because I was being heavily influenced by what was going on. Even though I was doing a Top 40 gig there, the fusion band thing and playing in jazz bands at school, I turned to Craig and said, "You know what? All that stuff is really changing my playing and I don't want to do that."

He totally understood and was really, really cool with that. He knew that I had the natural ability to do things on my own. So, what he wound up doing was giving me a bunch of conceptual things that I could be working on for the next 200 years. It was really cool and he was really cool in that he didn't try to change the way that I played. But I wasn't really until the last two years that I was in Wichita, after I finished college, where I decided to go back to where I started in playing. That was my rock roots. I was into Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Hendrix, all that stuff when I grew up. It seems that the older I get, the more I go backwards to the original guys that I started with. That stuff just feels more real to me.

SoT: I wanted to ask you about your bouzouki part on the song "Physics" from Dog. In the DVD, we see you put down one part, then say, "I want to add something else." Did that second part just sort of arrive to you when you were in the studio?

RM: I always knew that I wanted to do something with a bouzouki on that tune. I didn't know exactly what I was going to do, I figured I work it out once we got to the studio because I didn't want to have any preconceived notions of what it was going to sound like or have any parts worked out for it, because depending on how it goes down on tape and how it sounds, it could adapt to a certain sound where maybe the bouzouki wouldn't have fit in there. So, I didn't want to have anything that sounded like it didn't fit, so once I saw that it was going to fit, especially with the drum loop stuff and that being as quirky as it is, I thought I'd something even quirkier to it. [Laughs.]

I just thought of the stuff on the spot and Mike was cool enough to let me sort of produce my own things on it.

SoT: I'm really curious about your guitar. It's a Les Paul but what year is that?

RM: It's a '74 ... it's a Deluxe. That's been the discussion the Keneally newsgroup for a while. I haven't said anything because I wanted people to figure it out. [Laughs.] What it is basically is a Deluxe that somebody, before I bought it, had installed a standard PAF in the bridge. They made the pickup hole wider--as you know, the Deluxe have smaller pickups. So I felt that I got the best of both worlds with that Les Paul because the next pickup is smaller than what you usually see, it has a jazzier, clean sound and the standard PAF gives me the standard Les Paul sound. I just fell in love with that guitar ever since I got it. It's been my main guitar for four or five years now. I'm getting scared to even take it out on the road anymore. It has more value now than it did. I get scared about putting it on a plane or in luggage. But that's what it is .... I replaced the part that says "Deluxe" on top. I had a Les Paul in the '80s with a personalized plate that says "Rick" on it, so I put that on this guitar, which is why people can't figure out what it is.

SoT: In addition to the Keneally Band, your work with Ben Taylor and contributing music to the film Capturing The Friedmans, what else have you done that people can look forward to or seek out?

RM: I did the new Roots album. I recorded a song called "Don't Say Nothin'," I think that's the first single. I did some work for the producer who worked on it. I wound up doing a bunch of weird-sounding stuff that doesn't even sound like a guitar. I do a lot of filter-type sounds ... Digitech has been kind enough to give me an endorsement with their Synth Wah Pedal, which I've used on a bunch of records this year. I used a bunch of filter sounds for the Roots track, it was this kind of hip-hop sounding track. I had no idea, by the way, when I walked into the session that it was for a Roots album.

The producer, Scott Storch had been calling me for over a year and there was a period where, for three or four gigs, I was either on the road, sick, doing another gig, whatever, I couldn't make it. I had no idea what project he was working on until I finally made it down to the studio. It was Gwen Stefani's new record. He had me play on a new track with Gwen and Eve, I guess they're doing a new duet. He said, "Come back and we'll work more on the Gwen Stefani record." When I showed up the next day he said, "Well, the Gwen Stefani record is not ready to be put up on the computer, but there's another record I'm working on that I want you to play on." I said, "Fine. What is it?" He said, "The Roots." I said, "Oh, shit, you're kidding!" [Laughs.]

SoT: [Laughs.]

RM: I'm not sure what's going on with the Gwen Stefani record, it's in the process of ... they've done 20-some songs and it looks like [they'll pick the final tracks from there].

SoT: Are you thinking that at some point down the road, you'll do one of your own records?

RM: Definitely. I have some things recorded that feature me, Bryan Beller and Joe Travers. Keneally's on one thing but it's all on hard drives on other people's computers. I'm dying to get my own setup at home, so I can finish some of the things that I'm writing. I've also done a series of acoustic things, a lot of 6/8-y type stuff that sort of sounds Pink Floyd-y a little bit. One of those tracks actually made it to Capturing The Friedmans. I'm thinking about putting out a record of songs, pop stuff or heavy pop ... I don't want to classify it. It's not going to be standard pop songs because I don't write stuff in standard forms. My brain just doesn't think that way. [Laughs.]

SoT: [Laughs.]

RM: Some of that will be there, some of the 6/8 stuff will make it on there, at some point I'll maybe do a record with just acoustic stuff. Sort of like [Keneally's] Wooden Smoke in approach. Also, I've been doing some stuff with some people where we just go in and jam ... where we go in and do an hour or two hour jam. I'm hoping that someday maybe I can do an Improv Music Vol. 1, an Improv Music Vol. 2, sell them cheaply at gigs for $5-10, just for the sake of doing that and for people who are interested in hearing beyond the normal stuff. We'll see what happens with that.

Although Rick Musallam doesn't currently have an official web site, you can read more about him at or watch him in action on the limited edition Dog DVD, available by running over to the official Keneally domain.

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