Hats Off To Mike Keneally

By Fred Tomsett

T'Mershi Duween, #32, August 1993

So, Dweezil and his band Z were in the UK from June 30 to July 7. And I'd only been expecting a one-off show in London again. But no, they got out into the provinces. They didn't actually play in the TD capital of Sheffield, but at least Nottingham isn't too far away, and I had the excuse of going to pick up the moneys owed me by Selectadisc as well. I managed to corner Mike Keneally with a tape-recorder for a while, and here are the results.

Well, that had been the original plan, except that getting back from Nottingham after the gig proved to be a non-starter. In the end, I went to the London show at the Marquee, and cornered Mike for twenty minutes before his Big Interview with Guitarist Mag. I didn't manage to ask him everything I wanted to, but here's what we got, once the tape machine decided to work, or at least I plugged the mike into the right socket (new technology baffles pissed old hacks, etc).

Q: Mike Keneally, this is your life. Tell us a bit about the early career.

MK: I started playing keyboards when I was seven and seemed to show a reasonable proclivity for picking out melodies. I learnt how to play 'Paint It Black' the first day the organ was in the house. I was grooming myself, and being groomed by those that advised me at the time, to be a pop organ player. So I had a couple of years of organ lessons, learning how to play 'Begin the Beguine' and 'The Shadow of Your Smile', and then I heard 'Tarkus' and realised you could do other things with an organ, so I thought I was going to become a teen progressive rock organ prodigy. That plan was scuttled when I heard 'Help I'm a Rock' and realised that humour was a good thing...

Q: Which is something Keith Emerson doesn't have a lot of.

MK: (laughs) Right. It took me a good decade after that to find the Keith Emerson type of thing really pretentious, but part of me intrinsically realised that you had to have a good time. I started to teach myself guitar when I was eleven but never for a second considered myself as a guitar player, even the moment when I called up Frank's office and said 'I would like to be your guitar player'. I was primarily a keyboardist and a hobbyist guitar player. In fact, I think that it wasn't until after the Zappa tour that I began to remotely find my voice as a guitarist. When I listen back to the CDs from 1988, I'm mortified by what I did on that tour. So, all throughout the 1970s, my brother, who's also a guitar player and picked up guitar when he saw me playing it. He couldn't have given a fuck when he saw me playing pop organ, but as soon as I bent a string, he was into it. I showed him some stuff on guitar, and we had a two track reel to reel, so we did our own versions of Santana and Jeff Beck songs, Santana because we had the song book. Then we gradually brought other musicians into our orbit and formed some bands that were usually called Affable Mort. Finally after all that time, we started to play in clubs, doing cover material because obviously it was the only way you could get a job in 1983. We did the bar band circuit from 1983 to 1987 around San Diego which is when I got the audition with Frank. That's a thumb-nail history of my career.

I'd started writing songs in 1972 when I was ten. All that stuff, the home demo stuff on the Tar Tapes, dates back from 1982. So that, apart from the Bonus Tape, covers the period from '82 to around '86. That's a pretty good indication of what I was doing on my own as a composer around that time.

Q: How did you get the job with Frank?

MK: I called up and asked for one. I'd heard there was a tour. On the Pumpkin line, there was a message that Frank was rehearsing with a band. There was no indication that he was auditioning; all I knew was that he was in rehearsal, but that in itself was enough for me to take the chance and call. Part of me knew that if it had been four years between the last tour and the upcoming one, that it would be ten years before the next one or it would never happen. A lot of people thought that there may be a tour in 1992 for the next Presidential elections, which would have been logical, if fate had been a little less cruel. I just happened to call up when a keyboardist had been ejected and a guitarist/vocalist had mysteriously disappeared. I called up and said 'I play keyboards and guitar and sing, and I know everything Frank has ever done'. When Frank heard that message, he was very sceptical, but it was enough of an unusual circumstance that I would call right at that moment that he felt behooved to give me a call and say 'I don't believe you. Get your arse up here and prove it.'

Q: So you had to undergo an audition?

MK: Right. He told me on the phone to learn 'Sinister Footwear 2' and 'Baltimore'. I had taught myself 'Sinister Footwear' when they did the live Halloween broadcast in 1981. That was the first time I heard that piece and I was very taken with the melody that comes after the solo. I thought it was very beautiful, so I learnt that bit. I'd never played 'Baltimore'. He called me in the morning and said 'Learn these songs'. I hadn't played 'Sinister' for five years, so I had to brush up on that one and I had to teach myself 'Baltimore' and try to get all that shit under my fingers to the best of my ability which obviously wasn't going to be perfect, but I just needed to demonstrate to him that he could say 'Learn this hard shit' and that I could do it by ear. I told him on the phone that my reading was not up to snuff. I'm not a great reader by any stretch of the imagination, but somehow I've managed to develop my ear to compensate for that. My job was then for him to say 'Do this' and I had to figure out a way to do it. I showed up and played them for him. They weren't perfect, but he said 'Not bad', and then he started naming off songs, like 'Cheepnis'. I'd stand around a bit, work it out in my head, try to remember as much of it as I could, then play 'Cheepnis' for him. At that point, there was a possibility that Flo and Eddie were in the band, so he was asking for parts of 'Billy the Mountain', the Studebaker Hoch section, which would have thrilled you.

Q: Yeah, I'm glad they didn't make it.

MK: Throughout the whole process of rehearsal, thousands of songs were played that never saw the light of the stage. He also had me play piano and synthesiser and set up the music for 'Strictly Genteel'. I proceeded to look at it as though I was reading it, then play it from memory. The thing that was good about that is that Frank can't sight read music either, but he knows his own pieces well enough to know that something was slightly amiss. He was looking at my hands and squinting at the page, and after about thirty seconds, he said 'Hold it. Are you reading that or are you playing it by ear?' I admitted to playing it my ear and he visibly enjoyed that. That was a good sign that he wasn't offended by my ruse. At the end, was the line that will always remain etched in my mind: 'Come back on Monday so that the rest of the band can witness your particular splendour.' I came back on Monday to play with the whole band which at that time didn't have the brass section, and auditioned on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. On Thursday, Frank came up and shook my hand and said 'OK you're in, unless Ray White returns'. I can't remember if it was the following day or perhaps early the next week that Frank came in and said 'Gail and I have been speaking about it and have determined that somebody that would just disappear like that is perhaps not the most dependable person to welcome back unconditionally'. So I was in. (laughs)

Q: So when did the brass section get drafted in? I always assumed it was going to be the big band from the off.

MK: No, at first, when Flo and Eddie were around, it was going to be a sort of comedy band. When they went away, suddenly vocally we were lacking. I was never actually there when Flo and Eddie were, so when I got there, Frank was auditioning singers. The first couple of days were spent auditioning the most motley array of singers imaginable. All we could do was play blues. They would get up and Frank would try to teach them even the most remedial stuff. There was one guy who was an amazingly accomplished singer technically. He's done a lot of background vocals on albums and stuff; he's incredible. Frank tried to teach him 'He's So Gay' and there was just no way. It was funny how, to me, having an instant grasp of a melody is something that you just do and don't think about it. But a lot of really accomplished people just need to be so prepared and so contrived for days before they try to sing something, and that's completely against the 'anything goes' mentality that should be a Zappa band.

This band, the Z band, especially the last couple of weeks, some of the most amazing things we've been doing are completely off the cuff. There's been no discussion beforehand as to what's going to happen; someone just starts playing. We did a show that was nearly three hours long a couple of days ago, in Newcastle, because we came on for a last encore. Ahmet didn't want to come back on again, so I said 'Let's go play 'Shampoo Horn", and we haven't been playing this song very much on the tour because it's a hard song to play and we don't practice it that much. Dweezil said 'It's not going to be good', so I said 'Let's go play a bad version of 'Shampoo Horn'; it'll be fine.' So we went out and it was a shambles. Dweezil said 'We gotta do something else for these people', and we just started playing. Ahmet came back on stage because he heard that we were improvising and we ended up playing for about another half hour, just doing the most amazing shit. Dweezil took off his guitar and gave it to Ahmet who played a solo. It's too bad you missed that one. There's more likelihood of weird stuff happening in a place like Newcastle than at the Marquee, because all the rock journalists will be here.

Q: Jump a few years in time, as we're running out of it, and tell us about 'hat'.

MK: OK. It's a lot of stuff that I thought sounded good. It was due to the good graces of Suzanne and Jeff Forrest who are friends of mine from San Diego. They've run a recording studio down there for years and I did a lot of recording there. Some of the stuff on the 'Way Bitching Bonus Tape' which is available through Tar Tapes was recorded at their place, and they're both really good people. I always got along well with Jeff as an engineer; we had a good rapport. I talked to him one day and he said 'Me and Suzanne are thinking about starting our own record company. There's a band down here in San Diego that we're interested in working with, but I don't know if it's gonna happen. They're freaking out and not too dependable, blah blah blah.' I said 'If it falls through, then I guess you'll have to do it with me then'. And he said 'Yeah' and that was as serious as it got at that point.

So we talked a little more seriously the next time I was down in San Diego. We had a meeting and laid out very casually the groundwork. Basically it was nothing more complicated than 'We have this studio and you can come here and do whatever the fuck you want to do without any compromises or proscriptions, or anything; just do the album you wanna do, and we'll put it out.' It was no sweat off my back, no risk to me whatsoever. They took on all the financial risk. It was a very cheaply made album. Nine days is pretty fast, plus it wasn't as though I was composing in the studio. The stuff was blueprinted very heavily before I ever set foot in there. And also all the people that played on the record were so amazingly into it; they just loved the idea of the project.

Q: Was most of it recorded live in the studio?

MK: Some of it was. Several of the pieces were done with me and Doug Lunn on bass and Toss Panos on drums, like 'We're Rockin' All Night With the Tangy Flavor of Cheddar' and 'Backstage with Wilson Phillips', that's aggressively live; and the solo in 'Snow Cow' is live. All the rhythm tracks were recorded live and then more often than not, I overdubbed stuff on top. It was not a painstakingly pieced together beat by beat editing job at all. It was a 'get in, fucking bash it out and capture whatever was happening in the room', and then I would do whatever surgery needed to be done on top of it. And I m so happy with the way it turned out. I can't possibly express it. I'm just so fucking proud of that album. (laughs)

Q: How did you get involved with working with Dweezil? We've still got about a minute!

MK: Dweezil was just a sort of natural progression. I met Dweezil during the Frank tour, and liked him, and heard tapes of some of his riffs which I'd always dug because he thought he was writing real straight-ahead rock n roll stuff, but he's incapable of writing a riff in 4/4; it always gets fucked up somehow. So, I liked that aspect of it because it's fucked but it's also very propulsive. It does rock hard and to me it rocks harder than a straight 4/4 riff because it has twists and turns that make my body move. I just find that the way he writes is very agreeable to my ear and my body. And it's so much fun to play. When we started working in 1990 for the 'Confessions' album, that was just for that one because I'm only on a few of the songs. Then he decided he wanted to do some shows, and I got a call asking if I wanted to do it. There was nothing else happening and it sounded like it was going to be fun, so we started rehearsing. Gradually I began to see that this was not going to be a very typical rock and roll band. Once we started putting the medley together...

Q: Are you still doing that? I hear it was up to about one hundred and fifty songs.

MK: Lately we've been dividing it, so we do the first half at the beginning of the show and the second half at the end. I don't know whether we're doing that tonight or not. On the last seven weeks, I've been having amazing amounts of fun and looking forward to performing, more than I ever have in my life. I was always excited to go on stage with Frank, but on this tour, I've just been tilled with intense joy every time I know that we've got to do a show. I've been performing with more abandon than I ever imagined possible. I can't even wear the hat on stage because I'm banging my head so much. It's an absolute revelation to be able to play good rock and roll music and mean it. It's not a parody band, or a comedy band. We do stuff that's funny but when we're playing the shit, we're playing it. So it's a lot of fun and I'm enjoying myself insanely. Yes, I'm very interested in my own stuff and I'm looking forward to doing another album...

Q: And some live shows? You don't do any 'hat' with this band?

MK: No, we don't do anything, and I really need it to be right. I don't want to put something together quickly and do a half-assed representation of the album. It's got to put across something of the mood of that album which is going to be hard. In the mean time, I'm having the most amazing fun. I can't think of a band I'd rather be in right now. It's just so much fun. I'm also not in such a huge hurry about getting out to represent 'hat' live, because we've only just signed a deal for it to go out via a company called Guitar Recordings. They're going to be releasing it world-wide and doing actual real live promotion for it, and you'll be able to go into a store and find the fucking thing, the way god intended, instead of having to search for it through the mail. It's virtually going to be a new album, come the end of August. Then it's going to take some time for people's awareness of me to reach the point where there will be a demand for me to play live. I'm aware of that aspect of it. There's got to be a market to reach and at that point, the people that do own 'hat' and get in touch to tell me about it are just slack-jawed. They can't believe the thing exists. The response to it has been the most gratifying thing of my career musically. There have been people so sincere and wanting to impart to me how much that album means to them, and there's got to be more of them out there. [The End]

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