Below is an epic, huge, deep 90-minute interview with Mike Keneally conducted on September 9, 2015 at 3PM. It was filmed/engineered by Carl King. The story behind the interview is kinda funny, so I’ll share it in a later section…
Interview Audio (Podcast)
(NOTE: hitting the “play” button requires a hefty download of the entire audio file!).
Or, download an mp3 .
You may notice some issues with color and editing; that’s totally my fault. Carl did the filming and audio editing (the good stuff). I did the rest (the amateur stuff).
I’ve gotten such great feedback on this interview!! Thank you to the hundreds of people who watched/read it in the first couple days!!
Much thanks for doing the interview! It was by far, hands down, the best interview I have seen with any musician - Ever! Really unbelievable. - Lucas L.
Thanks so much for doing this! I haven’t enjoyed an interview that much for a long, long time. - Andre L.
This might be the best MK interview yet. Thanks to all for making it happen! - Jeff S.
I have to admit that I was completely unfamiliar with his music and hadn’t heard much of the bands he’s recorded with but that wasn’t an issue because I could really appreciate Mike’s insight to the creative process behind the music, especially as a designer. Shortly after watching the video I spend another hour into the night exploring his music catalog, and wandered over to Zappa, Vai, Satriani and was completely blown away. - Will M.
It is all put together with generosity and care. A good team enabling a great interview. Most outfits would put their cold pruning shears on such a thing – “What? Go 90 minutes? We wouldn’t stretch our format for Thomas Jefferson or Martin Luther King, let alone this Mike Keneally guy.” I hope they feel our gratitude. - Doug S.
A fine interview. A capital interview, yes! Thank you Anthony Garone! Please check out MakeWeirdMusic.com for all your weird music needs. - Mike Keneally
Before getting started, I want to take a moment to thank the sponsors of this interview, without whom I wouldn’t have been able to afford to conduct the interview and have the hardware to do it:
Cory is a software development and management expert who’s written a fantastic book called Software++: Must-Have Skills for Engineers . There are a lot of software people I’ve met via Make Weird Music and Guitar Circle.
Ed is an electrical engineer and business management consultant. He runs Mad Hatter Guitar Products and has developed a great solderless electronics kit for guitars . I purchased one and installed it in my white Ibanez Jem. It’s never sounded better. I’m not a tone connoisseur, but even I can tell that the guitar sounds so much better than the standard, low-end stock components that came with the guitar.
Carl is an expert filmmaker, author, and former musician. His book, So, You’re a Creative Genius… Now What? , has been a huge inspiration for me and many others. He filmed this interview and provided lots of great equipment and expertise.
How this interview happened
Ken Coffman , a fan of Make Weird Music, saw our interview with Andy West and recommended I email Mike to request an interview. While encouraging, this request also seemed a little far-fetched. Instead, I emailed Mike sharing the Andy West interview basically saying, “Hey, pardon the interruption, but I thought you’d be interested in this interview I did with Andy West.” Oddly enough, he wrote back saying he’d not only seen it, but he shared it on his facebook page!
He also agreed to doing an interview. I was so freaking excited.
So, the day of the interview, I left my home in Phoenix at 1AM to arrive at Carl’s house in LA that morning. We then started driving out to where Mike wanted to do the interview, but there was an excessive heat warning and chance of rain and Mike wanted us to come to his place instead. This wouldn’t normally be a big deal, but Carl and I left his house without lighting and he also forgot his lenses. So, we had to buy lighting and a lens on the way to Mike’s.
It took us a while to adjust to the changes (or at least, I did since I was a little nervous and super-tired), but as the interview went on, it just got better and better. Admittedly, I was exhausted from both lack of sleep and from introversion, but it was so worth it.
As I transcribed the interview, I came to realize how deep the conversation really was and I was probably too tired to recognize it at the time. Nevertheless, we captured it all on tape and I am just beginning to really appreciate all Mike’s wisdom. I’ll try highlighting important stuff in the video and transcript below.
During the transcription process, I also came to realize how similar the approaches and language and even tone of voice are between Mike’s interview and Andy’s. If you haven’t heard Andy’s, definitely check it out.
Mike: Are we rolling?
Anthony: Cool! All right. This doesn’t need to be formal or anything. I just want to have a conversation.
MK: Right on. That sounds cool.
AG: I don’t know how to start these things.
MK: Let’s try a formal introduction.
AG: Yeah. Hi, this is Anthony from MakeWeirdMusic.com and I’m here with Mike Keneally. You wanna tell people about some of your background?
MK: Okay. I’ve been a musician since age 7, so that’s 46 years. Oh my God! Played with Frank Zappa in the late 80s and Dweezil in the 90s. Steve Vai in the second half of the 90s. Been working with the group Dethklok since 2007 and Joe Satriani since 2010 and I’ve been making solo records.
Starting in the mid-80s I was doing home cassettes. I started making CDs in the early 90s and I’m up to about 25 solo releases at this point. I’m about to put out the latest, which is called Scambot 2. That will be out before the end of the year. I’m about to head out on the road with Satriani for months and months.
AG: Very cool!
MK: There’s the thumbnail.
AG: Great! So, in this conversation, I’d just like to cover some of the more creative aspects of who you are, what you do, what motivates you, what gets in the way of motivation, how you compose… So, I think composition might be a good place to start. Your music kinda explore…
AG: Got it! I think we’re done here. Thank you, Mike!
MK: You’re welcome. It’s been a pleasure.
AG: So, your music explores a lot of different territory. You’ve got some straightforward rock songs and then you’ve got some really exploratory surrealistic music. But, even in your straightforward music–more mainstream kind of rock stuff–you still digress into a lot of exploratory themes and motifs. Can you give us some sense of how you start with the composition and when you decide something’s going to be…
MK: Yeah. It’s all so instinctive. It’s never until it’s all done that I can look back and se what the heck it is that I’ve just done because with everything that I do, it’s always about that first step. You think, “Okay, is this a worthwhile starting point? Does this seem like it has any kind of legs and is it going to keep me interested for the entirety of the time that it’s going to take to reach whatever the completion point is?”
It always starts with that seed of something. And that can be a lyrics, or an idea for a kind of song. “This album really needs something that’s six minutes long and that feels something like this.” And that could be something. Or it could be a melodic idea that just landed in my head and that’s increasingly–in the last few year has been–I’ve built up this archive of these little snippets on the phone.
Just using the Voice Memo app where I could be in Target in the middle of shopping and all of a sudden, I’ll say, “Hold on a second.” I’ll just go somewhere where there hopefully aren’t too many people and just go, “Dugga diGAHHH. Dugga diGAHHH.” You know? Later on, I’ll take just that mumble into the recording studio and I’ll listen to it and decide if this is a worthwhile starting point.
We were talking about the last album, You Must Be This Tall , four of the songs on that album were derived from voice memos while I was out on the road with Satriani or Dethklok. These little psychotic-sounding ramblings into the phone. Then I set myself a challenge, which is to go into the studio for a week, and each day–well, it was four days–each day of those four days, complete a song structure based on this little germ of an idea. So, for that album, there’s a song called The Rider and another one called Pitch Pipe and another one called Kidzapunk and then a fourth one, which… I can’t remember what it is. Ah, Cavanaugh. And these all started as just four or five seconds-worth of stuff on the phone. And then I listen to that and think, “Does this want to be a guitar song or does this want to be a keyboard song?”
I’m lucky that I can kind of turn to both of those things and that they’re both so different and each instrument inspires me in completely different ways. Obviously with a keyboard, you can build up much more dense harmonic information. On the guitar, at any single moment, you’re pretty much limited to six notes at a time unless you’re Fred Frith and then you start hammering things on and nailing stuff into the instrument.
So, that’s step 1. “What instrument does this song want to be born on?” And then you just begin this sort of papier mache process of laying on strips of information and each one, to me, lead inexorably to the next. You have your starting point, you listen to that, and the analogy I tend to use is: I’m putting a needle on a record and I’m a fan of music, as we all are, and what do I want to hear?
So that tends to determine for me whether I think a song needs to be written. It’s like, put down the needle and what’s the first thing that I hear and does it excite me? Does it make me want to keep listening? So, that helps me decide where a starting point of a song is. And then, every time I’ve got one piece of the puzzle in place, I just listen to it and try to feel what the next thing is supposed to be and all of that is–I know entirely that process is really informed by all the music I grew up listening to.
And you say that I write these songs that, from all appearances appear to be kind of straightforward, and then they’ll take this crazy detour. That makes sense to me because I grew up loving The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and Alice Cooper , but then at a certain point, I started hearing Frank Zappa and then things started to get even weirder. I started listening to Beefheart, listening to The Residents, listening to Henry Cow . Then I started listening to Miles Davis and John Coltrane . But at the same time, I loved Bob Dylan , I loved Simon & Garfunkel , I loved Joni Mitchell , I loved Sly & The Family Stone . And it’s all equally valid to me. So, to me it fulfills something that is exciting to me to allow all these influences to exist on equal footing.
When I let something into a song that seems kind of anachronistic compared to what has been in the song prior to that point, it’s just me answering the question, “What does this need? How do I best serve this song?” And also, to not have it feel like a pastiche of all this music that I love. Hopefully, it all gets synthesized into something that is me. And the more albums I’ve done, the more I think what I am has kind of crystallized, so then the challenge is to not be so influenced by myself because I get really restless when I think I’m repeating myself.
That’s the additional challenge. Every time I am trying to write something or record something, I think, “Does this sound too much like something I’ve done before?” And if it does, then I kind of lose interest and I’ll either abandon it or I’ll try to find ways to subvert it and turn it into something else.
AG: Does the computer play into how you compose or are you primarily on the instrument when you’re composing?
MK: The computer really is a huge part of it–increasingly. As least it has been, which is in the sense that I’m obviously playing an instrument and just about everything on my records is played in real time, I’m not doing very much–I’m doing very little in the way of sequencing and there’ll be some drum programs, maybe some manipulated drum patterns, but then I’ll edit the heck out of them and turn them into something else than what they were when they went down.
There’s no doubt that it’s increased the flexibility factor so immensely that it’s affected the songwriting process hugely because now arranging and composition and mixing are all sort of taking place at the same time. You’re not just writing a song, you’re crafting a final product and that can take a long time.
The album that I’m just about to have mastered by John Golden , which is Scambot 2, has been in the works forever. Some of the songs that are on it–the earliest music was recorded in 1999. A lot of it was recorded while I was working on Scambot 1 starting in 2005. And then a big chunk of it was created just over the last couple of years.
That process of putting all the elements in the right proportions–from the standpoint of someone who’s really interested in sound and really interested in arrangements and layers, you can go way way down a rabbit hole with that, which is part of the reason why I’ve been working on this album for such a long time. But, I’ve been working on other albums at the same time.
Scambot 2 was in the background while I was doing You Must Be This Tall and Wing Beat Fantastic and Scambot 1, obviously, and Bakin’ @ the Potato and the thing with Marco Minnemann , Evidence of Humanity , and all this stuff. Those were foregrounded projects, but Scambot 2 was happening in the background and I was nudging it forward the whole time.
These things take a while and then finally you reach a point where you realize that what a song needs to feel complete is to turn the bass up .1db, then I say, “I think I’m done.” And I’m interested, actually, in taking a step back from that approach because I’ve really mined it so thoroughly over the past few years–this computer-based approach to composition and arrangement–that I feel like it’s time for some kind of a paradigm shift.
Plus, we’ve made this big stack of albums over the last couple of decades. It’s a lot of work and I’m so happy with Scambot 2. I’m really delighted with it. I’m hopeful that people enjoy it and once that’s released I’m pretty excited at the idea of letting it be for a little while. I’m not saying that I’m stopping writing and actually I’m more excited at the idea of just sitting in a room with one instrument and turning the clock back to when you hashed out a song structure from start to finish.
It’s true that because you can get results so quickly with the computer that much more frequently I compose in sections, get one section honed exactly how I want it and then move on to the next part of the song. That’s not the way they did it in the Brill Building . I realize that it has an impact on the final result. You get a different result when you discipline yourself and say, “Okay, I’m going to write an entire song structure from start to finish just sitting here with nothing but a guitar or nothing but a keyboard.”
And I find myself eager to get back to that approach, which is much more the way I did it back in the days of my first albums, Hat. and Boil That Dust Speck and Sluggo! . All that stuff was recorded in recording studios with the clock running on tape, much less flexibility in terms of how you can manipulate the sound after the fact, and with all the musicians putting basic tracks down at the same time.
You get a completely different result than in this sort of auteur theory where you find yourself doing a lot of the stuff yourself and then applying other musicians to what you’ve done as opposed to everybody tracking basic tracks at the same time with Rudy Van Gelder standing in the corner and everything going to tape. You’re asking one question and it’s leading me to tons of tangents.
AG: No, this is what it’s all about.
MK: All right, that’s good.
AG: There’s no formality, so just go…
MK: I’m finding myself excited when the time comes when it feels like, “Yeah, it’s time to make another album,” and I don’t know when that’s gonna be because right now, the thing that excites me more than anything is not having “I have to make an album” in the back of my head. I’m about to go on the road for a few months and the thought that I won’t be working on an album while I’m on the road fills me with relief.
AG: Do you ever suffer from the creator’s curse where you’re working on it, it’s the greatest thing you’ve ever done, and then you finish it and you’re like, “Oh yeah!” And then a month later, you hate it?
MK: No. I go through all those phases during the making of the thing and I find that as time goes on that that happens more and more, which I think might be another indication that it’s time to step back and try some new methodology. It’s because I focus so hard on every little detail of this stuff, there have been times during the making of this record where I–I’ll be in the studio at Scott Chatfield ’s place, working on stuff all day and I’ll have rough mixes and I’ll listen in the car on the way home.
Some days I’ll listen to them and I’ll just be in heaven, it sounds so good. And then other days I’ll listen to the exact same thing and feel like, “Oh my God, what am I doing?” Once it’s all done, once I get everything to a point where I know that it feels done to me, then I can listen to it months later and, even though I may (by that point) be in a completely different place, I can understand where I was when I signed off on it and why it felt done to me.
But, there are albums that I’ve completed and released–you know, obviously we look back on the discography and some rise in your estimation and some fall in your estimation–and sometimes it doesn’t have to do with the music itself, but it might be extra-musical components that color the experience. Sometimes it’s just the sound of a record that I might have been really happy with. Dancing is an album that is a lot of people’s favorite album of mine and I find it the hardest to listen to of all my work even though there’s a lot of really solid songwriting on there and great performances on there.
That’s one where it was such an ambitious project. I had an 8-piece band, brought them into an analog recording studio, and captured most of the album live and then minimal overdubs and a very, very short time to mix it. I think that’s probably the thing that, if I’d had the luxury, which we didn’t because studio time is expensive, to do remixes of the songs that, for whatever reason, didn’t float my boat…
At the time, too, I was in a state of mind that I was really full of piss and vinegar and sure that I was practically doing God’s work. So, there are aspects of my mindset at the time that I look back on with almost disbelief now. I feel like I was self-deluded in some pretty significant ways. But, the result of it was an album that, for some people, might as well have been the only album I’ve ever made. At a certain point, you have to let go.
You have to create work to the best of your ability at that moment. It’s the only thing you can do. You can’t suddenly become someone else. You are you at that moment for better or for worse. Of course, you go through life and there are changes and when you look back on the work, you realize you might do things very much differently now. But that’s, whatever.
AG: Right. But you wouldn’t know that now because you did it the way you did. I just tell myself now: Done is better than perfect. I know I can tweak all day long with the computer, but I’m doing that for me. I’m not doing that for the music.
MK: In my head, I honestly feel like I’m doing it for the music. All these little tweaks… Just because the songs have layers and they’re intricate and there’s a lot stuff to manage. When you’re in the studio working on one particular thing, maybe you’re focused on the drum sound one day, and you come back to the studio a week later you might find that the guitars are really suffering for what you did with the drums. Then you just have to take a step back for the wider cinemascope view.
But, time is the only answer to that, the only way you can hope to corral all these elements, at least for me because my ambitions are kind of big musically. The type of stuff that I’m trying to do. And just to balance all the stuff that I… What I’m trying to do is: I want the material to pay off close attention. I want it to be dense. But I don’t want it to be so dense that it doesn’t make sense. I don’t want it to sound cluttered. I want it to have layers. I want it to be something that’s worth diving into.
Overall I want the listening experience to be kind of smooth in a way. I think I’ve probably approached that ideal with the Scambot 2 mixes more than I did on You Must Be This Tall, which is an extremely dense record and maybe ultimately does have some clutter-y stuff, maybe in the midrange there’s too much information and I could have carved some stuff away to allow the musical essential meat of the thing, the nutritional content, to speak more.
So, that’s what I want to do. Ultimately, I want people to be able to play the record and have the stuff just kind of slide by in a way that sounds pleasant, not so that I want it to be muzak . I did this album called Wooden Smoke , which may be my most pristine recording in terms of the sound of the thing. There’s wide spaces in the music and it’s mostly acoustic guitar, so the frequency conglomeration in that music was easier to achieve that kind of smooth listening experience.
So, what I’m trying to do these days with Scambot 2 is to take sometimes very hectic musical information but ultimately boil it down so that it coheres in the same kind of way that Wooden Smoke did. It might be a complete fool’s errand, but that’s the kind of conversations I’m having in my head.
AG: Obviously music is extremely personal to you. Just hearing the way you talk about your music and what it means to you… it’s near and dear to your heart, it’s your life’s work, it’s your passion… How did you go from listening to music and loving music and emulating–Usually the phases of creativity are enjoying and emulating and then you kind of find your own thing–Can you tell us a little about that? You said you started with music when you were 7…
MK: Yeah, well, my parents sensed before I did that there was probably something worth pursuing in me musically. I was singing all the time when I was a kid and I was listening to music all the time when I was a kid. It was the 60s, and I had a teenage sister and she was listening to The Beatles all the time. Then I started listening to The Beatles all the time, especially at the point when they became too weird for her, when they start getting into Revolver and Sgt. Pepper and all that stuff fired my imagination so heavily.
I was really involved with listening to that music and it kind of ruled my life. I didn’t think of myself as a musician or a potential musician at all, but on my 7th birthday, there’s an organ. My parents got me this organ and I didn’t question it or even… Instantly, I realized, “Oh, that’s correct. This is exactly what’s supposed to happen right now.” And I walked up to it and started playing Paint It Black [by The Rolling Stones].
AG: Just by ear?
MK: Yeah, because it’s a keyboard. I looked at the keyboard and it was so–there’s the music. That was a really perceptive thing on my folks’ part that if they hadn’t just sensed that that was something that should have happened, it might not have ever happened. Four years later, I got a guitar because I was very enamored of mostly guitar-oriented music.
At the time that I got the keyboard, I was super-excited about it, but I was still really in love with The Beatles and all these guys who were playing guitars. Then, when I was about 9 years old, I started hearing Emerson, Lake, & Palmer . Keith Emerson was maybe my first musical hero from a strictly sort of instrumental standpoint because I’d already been playing organ for a couple years at that point and I didn’t necessarily think of organ as a delivery system for particularly modern music.
My teacher was teaching me standards from the 30s and 40s. I thought that the organ… You were just supposed to play Begin the Beguine with it. There were these standards that were really useful for me harmonically because they’re really actually dense harmonically. A lot of altered chords, a lot of strange information in the backing of those old tunes. Plus, it got me on this path early on with this idea of doing multiple things at once because the organ, you’re providing melody with your right hand and you’re providing harmonic content backing with your left hand, a bass line with your foot, and if you’ve got a drum machine in the thing, you’re basically a one-man band.
That kind of got me excited about the layered aspects of music. The fact that it’s not just a two-dimensional thing and you can go real deep with building a piece of music and trying to do as much of it as you can on your own in real time. That, as I started playing guitar, it was sort of another arrow in the quiver in terms of how many textures you can apply in music.
And then my brother and I got reel to reel tape recorders. I had a brother, and still have a brother, who’s 3 1/2 years older than I am. We’d get together and learn all these songs that we just loved off of records and try to record our own versions of them together on reel to reel. So then we were learning about overdubbing and figuring out how to do that.
AG: 1/4” 4-track?
MK: Mm-hmm. And then a two-track machine for mix-down. So that was what I was doing during the time period where all my friends had social lives and were going out and meeting girls and stuff. I was just fascinated by music. That was the most fulfilling, life-enriching thing and way for me to spend my time. It was just listening to music, recording music, and then gradually from the experience of trying to record our own versions of these other things, then I started to gain more interest in composition.
And then initially you just write things that sound exactly like songs that you love. Then it’s just a process of refining, refining, refining and gradually finding something that sounds like you. Your own voice.
AG: And as you were finding that voice, were you finding that there were things you were hanging on to that prevented you from really getting there? Old habits, parts of songs you just loved and kept reusing, things you had to say no to?
MK: I guess the toughest one was this endless fascination with Frank [Zappa]’s music. No other composer had that degree of impact on me. Things that sound like Zappa sound so obviously like Zappa that once they start to get into your own music, there’s no way around it. Obviously, when I started making my own records, anybody who knew who I was came at me from the Zappa angle initially.
That’s an additional sort of motivator in both directions. If I put out this music, with these kind of obvious Zappa signifiers in it, that will be appealing to the audience that came to me from Zappa and maybe they will their friend, “Oh, if you like Zappa, then you’re gonna dig this.” But then, you’re trying to create something that has some kind of a fingerprint on it that is you and not too heavily reliant on one’s influences.
Especially in my case, Zappa was just so huge in my life. From the time that I discovered him, he was introduced to me when I was 9, I couldn’t believe that he exited. It was like a dream come true when I first heard his music and I was obsessed with him growing up. Then I got in the band and he placed this big, big imprint on my whole existence. It was kind of inevitable that it’s going to leak into my music.
There are still times when I’m trying to create something and I just keep asking myself the same question over and over again, “What does this moment require to reach fruition?” And there are times where it seems like the only answer is something that sounds very much like something Frank would have done. So then it’s a question of: Do I stick a marimba sound on here or not? It’s the perfect timbre, it’s the perfect attitude for some melodies. In some ways, it’s like, “Dammit, why can’t I use a marimba?” The moment I do…
AG: It’s Zappa!
MK: So, it’s just this dance that’s ongoing.
AG: Over the years, do you feel that your music represented a point in time or do you look at your catalog and say you’ve been navigating and finding yourself? And the followup question is, when you hear what you’re doing now, do you think “This is more me than ever?” or do you think, “This is me now.”
MK: I think the latter. I believe that at every point alone the line, I was attempting to be as much me as I could possibly be. There are times where allowing these other influences to filter in was entirely conscious and a knowing sort of homage to music that I love.
It’s sort of a sharing thing sometimes because if other people listen to the record and they recognize, “Oh, that sounds like They Might Be Giants right there,” there’s that little shared moment, “Oh wow, he loves them too!” Or, Gentle Giant was a huge, huge thing for me and there are still times where that kind of architecture seems to be the best kind of way to approach an arrangement.
These interlocking moments where a guitar does something and it’s answered by a keyboard, which is then answered by a bass and it becomes this construction. That stuff is exciting and just because somebody else discovered it first–and hell, Gentle Giant’s not making music anymore, so as long as it doesn’t become an end in itself and the only thing that the music appears to be offering is a carbon copy of something that was done better.
If you are allowing in kind of a loving way, or at least that’s what I tell myself about these influences, to come in and partly because it’s what the song requires at that moment and also partly as a conscious acknowledgment and tribute of beautiful things that have happened in the past and hopefully still adds up to something new in the present. I don’t think about this stuff too deeply in the moment.
A lot of it is just trying to have a good time. You’re just trying to enjoy yourself and music is fun and when you are dealing with a tricky passage and all the myriad choices, how to maximize the potential of this passage, and you arrive at the solution that maybe sounds like Crosby, Stills, & Nash , or maybe sounds like King Crimson, or maybe sounds like The Grateful Dead , or whatever.
To me, that’s just a way of saying, “These are legends and adventurers that went before us and found answers to certain musical questions that were correct and these answers will always be correct and they will always be available to all of us who do music.” It’s just about how artful you are in deploying them.
AG: Obviously, the name of this website is Make Weird Music. “Weird” can mean many things. Sometimes it involves sacrifice in the sense of “I could be making music that doesn’t have anything ‘weird’ about it,” sometimes it can mean, “I’ll throw things in that maybe only music fans will notice,” and sometimes it means, “I’m not going to touch anything that sounds commercial.” There’s a whole bunch of definitions of “weird,” and every musician has their own brand of that. How do you see your music and explain it? Do you feel like you are a “weird” musician in any sense?
MK: I do. I think that’s been shown to me by the response to it that even when I think I’m doing something that’s quite commercial–this is something that comes with time and with age and perspective. I look back at songs I may have done 10 or 15 years ago and thought, “Why isn’t this a massive success? Why would this not be on the radio?” And then, now I listen back and compare to anything else that was on the radio and I think, “Well, it’s because you didn’t do this, this, and this and because you did do this, this, and this.”
It’s funny because you can get away with a lot of weird stuff and still be commercially successful, but there is still this sort of base requirement to get away with it. Sonically, people will handle a lot of strange noise these days that would have been very off-putting in the past. That’s a function of the craziness of life nowadays.
Everything is weirder than it used to be. I think as long as you’ve got a certain kind of production and a certain kind of rhythm and a certain tempo happening and a few sonic signifiers that are familiar to people, then you can load on a lot of really strange information and people will accept it. In my case, I’ve never, even though at times I’ve thought, “This is like a pop song, people will totally dig this,” but I’m dealing with signifiers that combined to build me 40 years ago. So, to me, when I think “pop song,” yeah that might have got on the radio in 1974.
I’m not going out of my way to familiarize myself with modern studio techniques and programming and the same sound libraries that a lot of people are using and this specific type of over compression that makes some people feel comfy and the exact guitar plugins that produced the exact guitar sound that makes you allowed to play a guitar nowadays during a time where I think people are a little more accepting of guitar, but there was certainly a time where the mere idea of a guitar in your song was seen as terribly anachronistic.
I keep returning to the idea that if there’s anyone I’m going to look at as a hero musically, it’s going to be somebody like John Coltrane who was entirely uncompromising serving nothing but what he felt the music required and also working through any number of musical questions that he had and tried to answer them for himself.
I think that the sum total of the music that I love and try to create, there’s no avoiding that there are times that these strange specters raise their heads. Even the most mainstream prog rock that was selling hundreds and hundreds of thousands of copies in the 70s that I bought all of–Yes and Emerson, Lake, & Palmer and stuff–it’s fuckin’ weird! It’s weird music! There’s no way you’d get that stuff on the radio these days.
The first time I heard Tarkus on the radio, a guy said, “Hey, we just got this new Emerson, Lake, & Palmer album, let’s play it!” And he played all of side 1 of Tarkus. Then there’s me as a 9-year-old organ player getting my head blown off. Then it got into Zappa and that opened up huge new avenues of weird. And you can think, “Well, that’s gotta be the limit, right? That’s about as weird as you can get.” Then you learn about The Residents, then you learn about all this Rock In Opposition stuff, then you realize, “Oh wait a second, Trout Mask Replica exists.”
That stuff is just so exciting to me! It’s real evidence of how cool life can get. It’s absolutely exhilarating. Then you listen to it on a record and that’s one type of exhilaration. And if you’re lucky enough to see any of that kind of stuff live and you see a group of musicians that have worked together to execute this music–it’s not an accident that they were called Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band because that stuff does sound like, “How could you possibly do it?” Well, you learn, you do it by abusing a group of musicians in a house for months and months and months, so that’s unfortunate that there was psychological warfare.
AG: Sometimes that’s what it takes, man!
MK: I guess! I’ve tried to do things a little more kind-fashioned. Having said that, I have to express my extraordinary gratitude towards everybody who’s played my music for not a tremendous amount of financial reward, ever. And to Mike Harris , who has engineered and been there in the studio with me every moment of all this insane detail work on my records for the last many years. And to Scott Chatfield, especially, who has given his home and his time and his money and his heart to so many of these projects that I’ve done.
I could just be sitting here with the laptop making all kinds of weird shit, but it wouldn’t have the same quality of sound and I don’t think it would have reached people in nearly the same kind of way. At all times, I’m dependent upon other people being willing to help me make this stuff come to pass. So grateful for that, especially given how weird this stuff can be. They’ve been helping me take these strange little impulses and really arcane super-super-idiosyncratic personal things and I think, “Why am I trying to accomplish this stuff? What is the feeling that I’m trying to convey?”
It just goes back to things that I saw and experienced, probably a lot that has to do with television. When you’re a kid… I watched a lot of TV when I was a kid and then you would experience these little things, sometimes they’d be in a cartoon like Beany and Cecil or something. It’s just fuckin’ weird! Or even a Bugs Bunny cartoon. You dig deep into Carl Stalling and Raymond Scott and what it took musically to make those Warner Bros. cartoons happen. And these moments you can’t explain by they strike deep in your soul and they turn into a memory that, years later, it’s almost like scary in a way. These little dark, strange unexplainable things.
I think back to… very rarely anymore are there closing credits because the moment the show’s over, they slam to a promo for the next thing and the credits are going a million miles an hour and the bottom of the screen, you can’t even read a fucking thing. Back in the day, shows were allowed to end. There would be a closing theme and the credits would roll and then there would be a logo. 9 times out of 10, that logo was fucking terrifying. It would be some kind of loud music that would slam into your ears and some visual that was rushing into the screen.
Here you are as a four year old and you’re being traumatized and that stuff has an impact. To this day, I can still feel and I get chills when I think about that shit. I think some of what I’ve been doing with the weirdness of some of my music, and maybe it’s not kind or fair, is to try and share some of that feeling. “Do you guys feel this too? Can I share this with you?” It’s like a way of not being so alone in that.
I almost feel like those production houses were intentionally trying to hurt me in some way. I look back on it, in the same way I can wake up from a bad dream and think, “Yeah, that was great, that was exciting,” I look back on that with this kind of perverse mix of fear and delight and gratitude that I have such strong memories that are just the building blocks of your life.
AG: It can be thrilling.
MK: Yeah, it’s like a thrill ride. All enclosed in one terrifying little screen gem.
MK to Carl: You know what I’m talking about with that stuff?
Carl: Oh yeah, I just discovered some old TV themes like Buck Rogers and the 25th century or something. The theme for that suddenly brought back all this, “Yes! That’s what I’ve been trying to do all this time!”
MK: It’s weird how television is thought of as sort of low art, although that’s certainly not the case anymore. People are recognizing that a lot of the work being done for TV goes deeper because it’s a long-form thing. Obviously Breaking Bad can accomplish more in 5 seasons of insanity than any 2-hour movie can hope to. I don’t think necessarily this reflects a bias against television.
I think a lot of my aesthetic was formed by mainstream entertainment in the 60s and 70s. But at the same time, as I expanded my horizons and the stuff I was listening to, it just became this bouillabaisse of the most obvious mainstream TV stuff as much of the weird peculiar underground stuff you could find on records. And alternative forms of comedy is a huge thing for me, too. I was so intensely involved with trying to understand every bit of what the Firesign Theatre were doing and what Monty Python was doing and what National Lampoon and later on, Mr. Show , which I’m sure we ended up hanging out and watching a lot of that. That stuff is as rich to me and layered and exciting as any number of really intricate musical experiences.
CK: Talk about Negativland !
MK: And Negativland, which absolutely combines all of it. When Don Joyce passed away a short time ago and I saw Mark Hosler had posted how much he was inspired by the Firesign Theatre. The Firesign Theatre were a rock band even though they didn’t play instruments. So, Negativland took all these impulses from comedy and from musique concréte , pop music, and social commentary, and complete mistrust for everything that is sacred and true and combined it all into this powerful, powerful statement, which is still ongoing. That’s an incredibly worthwhile decades-long art statement that those guys have made. Very inspiring.
AG: So, you’ve talked a lot about things from the 60s and the 70s, and you’ve talked about some evolution of going from analog to digital, and growing older and wiser and all these things…
MK: I laugh at the “wiser.”
AG: The lay of the musical land today is very different than it was 10 years ago, which is very different than it was when you started. Do you look at today’s landscape and see more opportunity? Do you see things have changed in a way where you’ve established a base and if you started again today, it’d be much more difficult?
MK: I don’t know. It’s really hard to say. I’m sure that if I were just coming out of nowhere now, maybe I’d be able to make something happen. It’s really tough to say because there’s so many circumstances that have combined to make now what it is for me. Plus, I’m really fortunate in that I’ve managed, for the majority of my career, to land these mainstream gigs that subsidize me and allow me the luxury and time when I’m not on the road with Satriani, to work away at my peculiar personal obsessions musically. And when possible, to get out on stage with these brilliantly talented musicians who are there doing it only because they think that it’s worth their time musically and not because of any perceived career benefit.
Now is an interesting time and I think that I could, arguably should, be more savvy about the way I could be utilizing the sort of modern landscape of promotion online. I find that every time I take a step in that direction, it starts to feel untrue. Although I use Twitter and Facebook to promote my stuff, I don’t want to do it in a way that is crass. I’m still trying to look at everything I do as–again this is such a thing that was influenced by Frank, realizing starting after I’d been obsessed with Frank for a couple of years and reading interviews and really understanding his concept of project/object and what that means.
In his instance, he defined the project/object as, basically, everything he did! It’s not just the albums, and the themes that were repeated from album to album where you could trace the conceptual continuity of different motifs over a series of records, but also the ways those pieces were conveyed live on stage and things that he said in interviews and things that he did in film and in video…
AG: And owning the rights to his music, the totality of his business plan…
MK: That, but even apart from that, looking at if from a strictly art installation angle, he just said, all of these things are part of his life’s work and they all combine to create his total art statement. He said even the secret raising of an eyebrow in a recording studio where nobody else could see it. I remember the interview and the interviewer said, “But Frank, you’re the only one who’s been there when all these things happen, nobody else could possibly understand it,” and he said, “Riiiiight!”
So, as far as he’s concerned, he was sort of creating for an audience of one in terms of who he felt could truly understand what he was trying to create. That was exciting to me and I have certainly been inspired by that and I, too, want to believe that the totality of my work adds up to a larger statement when it’s combined. That includes whatever stupid thing I might send out in a tweet.
I’m a little maybe overprotective and maybe a little secretive is the way it might come off. I don’t have as large a presence online as a lot of my friends do who are constantly posting things and stoking the fire and keeping the message moving forward. It’s not in my nature to do.
AG: One thing I’ve always appreciated about your method of communication is: I’ve been reading the Keneallist for, easily, 10 years. It’s such a personal way. You reach out, it’s like you’re writing a letter to me! And I’ve always appreciated your approach, a very personal approach to your fan base. Did that arise from a local fan base and people started going online? Or is it just who you are?
MK: I think it was always my inclination from even when I was doing the Tar Tapes , which were these mail-order cassettes that my brother and I started putting together first in the early 80s. Being personal about it, trying to make that connection beyond just the sound. Some of that was born out of a longing that I always had when I was growing up and listening to these records and they meant so much to me, so the people that were making these records meant so much to me and I wanted to feel like I knew something about them.
So, whenever there was something in the liner notes that sounded like they were just speaking, Todd Rundgren was somebody that did that a lot. I remember when I got Something/Anything? and there were the liner notes inside Something/Anything? and he says a little something about each song. He does this fake rock opera in there, and it’s funny and it’s personal and you learn something about the person. It’s just like a peek behind the curtain in a way. That was really important to me.
Nowadays, that currency is almost worthless. Everybody is putting everything out there, so it feels like it’s more valuable to withhold a little bit. My inclination over the past few years as the tools have been made available to reveal all has been to reveal less and less and try to let the music do more of the talking for me. But, the Keneallist is an example of one platform, one location, and it’s obviously preaching to the choir because we’re only talking about those however-many-thousands of people who have subscribed to the mailing list. It’s not necessarily an outreach project, it’s more just staying connected to the people that we’re just so grateful to continue to pay attention after all this time.
It’s now 23 years since my first album came out. It’s a lengthy career. One good thing about doing this kind of music is, I think, when you do weirder music (as you call it), you’re going to reach not as many people, but I think that the people you do reach, it connects with them so heavily that they stay with you longer. It’s not an ephemeral following, it’s not a fashion-based thing that’s going to go away any time soon unless you start putting out albums that really suck.
That’s the other part of it, I really don’t want to be an artist (and there are so many) where you look at their newer work and say, “That is absolutely and empirically inferior to stuff that they did 20 years ago.” I try to keep my standards really, really high and that’s why the more albums you make, the harder it gets, in a way. If you’re dead set on not repeating yourself, and on keeping the quality at a certain level… It’s not about topping what I’ve done before.
I’ve never put out an album and said, “Yeah, this is better than anything I did before.” I look back on so many albums. I look back on Sluggo! and I just think, “Man, everything just kinda fell into place right there.” I was at a place writing-wise that I don’t know if it can ever be replicated. All you can do is try to write the best stuff you can and try to play it the best that you can and try to record it as well as you can and then mix it as well as you can and then end up with a project and a statement that is gonna reach people and touch people somehow.
So, I keep doing that and doing that and doing that. And that’s why I feel like I need to take a breath because there’s this huge stack of albums that I’ve made over the last couple of decades. In some ways, it kinda reminds me of when Frank broke up The Mothers of Invention in the late 60s, and he did it in a kind of bitter way, and he said, “My audience wouldn’t know good music if it bit them on the ass and I’m not going to do any more work until the audience has assimilated what I have done to this point.” And then I think it was probably a week later when he was making another record.
I definitely reserve the right to suddenly feel like, “Oh, I gotta make another record.” But I just want to take that moment, that breath, where I don’t have the word “album” in big neon lights in the back of my head for a little while. I suspect I’ll be writing songs and stuff–I know I will–when the muse hits. I want it to be more like a caveman approach where it just happens. Just sitting around the campfire and this music comes out because it absolutely has to, not necessarily where you’re working to fill in the blanks of this album-length statement.
And it’s true that I’ve done a whole lot of albums that a whole lot of people haven’t heard. I would be happy if there was a way to take a break from constantly creating new stuff and find a way to maximize the visibility, or at least increase the visibility, of the existing body of work because there’s so much of it. I do think there’s stuff in there that a lot of people would like if they get a chance to hear it. So, once Scambot is truly done, then maybe we’ll take a look at ways of dealing with the catalog in such a way that maybe we increase its profile.
Ultimately, I’m really looking forward to, because I’ll be on the road for a majority of the next year with Satriani, and I feel like it’s time for a little breather where I can just be a guy in Joe’s band. I’ll have a new album to promote because Scambot 2 will be there and I’ll be doing interviews for it and trying to get people to listen to it. It’s not like I’m going to be making believe like I don’t have a solo career. In every case when I’ve finished an album over the last couple of decades, I start thinking about the next one. Or, it’s already been in the works. Ever since 2008, I guess, every time I finish an album, I’m already part of the way towards recording the next one.
So, with Scambot 2, I’m essentially clearing the decks. We’ve created two albums of music: there’s Scambot 2 and there’s additional music recorded at the same time, all of which was at one time or another considered for inclusion on Scambot 2. But, Scambot 2 crystalized into the thing that it is and I ended up with this big bunch of music that forms a perfectly acceptable album in its own right, which is actually what You Must Be This Tall was. It was all a bunch of music that was created at the same time as Wing Beat Fantastic.
Most of the songs in that album were, at one time or another, I was trying to slot them into Wing Beat Fantastic. Wing Beat Fantastic wanted to be this really sleek, 40-minute (for me) pop album and then all the twisted stuff landed on this other album where, to me, it all feels like a piece and it all belongs together.
AG: Well, I have to say I completely… One thing I really love about you and your music is just that you have that standard and so many times I listen to “the next album” and I just think, “How does he do it?” It’s almost like a mystery. It’s wonderful in the sense that it’s full of wonder and it’s also really great. I just think it’s so incredible how you continue to find these new things. For me, as a musician, it’s almost like a little overwhelming, like “How does anyone stay that creative? How do you keep the juices flowing?”
MK: I just love music so much and I know that I feel like I’m just scratching the surface. I know that, even though I’ve done a bunch of albums and written a lot of songs, I feel like I’m just that far along in terms of what can be accomplished and what I would like to accomplish musically. I really appreciate you saying that.
On this new record, the Scambot concept is this overarching concept that is intended to be three installments. The first album, Scambot 1, is extremely dense. It’s kind of overwhelming in the amount of information that it puts across. This album, I wanted it to be this measurable clearing away of this certain amount of audio clutter so that over the course of listening to Scambot 2, you feel things being lifted away and, hopefully, it’s arriving at something that feels like some kind of an elemental truth, which gets dangerously close to the stuff that we were talking about without being messianic about it.
I no longer harbor any delusions that the stuff that I’m doing is significant and like the cosmic sense other than that music in and of itself is a beautiful thing that can help people achieve personal insights in that they can feel like they have cosmic significance, but I don’t think that that’s a function of anything special in me. It’s just that I’m trying to be a worthwhile participant in the ongoing project that is “music” as a whole. I’m trying to remain aware that music can have a higher purpose in terms of what it does inside people’s heads and hearts without being super-fuckin’-precious about it and without feeling as though that means that God has pointed at you. Although, maybe God has pointed at all musicians.
That’s the other important thing is that we don’t fucking know what’s going on. We are just this very small percentage of what’s happening in one of many universes. There’s no way any of us on this plane at this phase of existence can have answers to anything. People who think they know what’s going on in the grand cosmic sense are a joke. Apologies to anyone who might be offended.
AG: Well, we’re here to present you!
MK: I do know that, because it’s happened to me, you can achieve real transcendence through the listening of music, the experience of music. That’s how I know a song is done. That’s what I’m reaching for every time I’m making a record. If I feel as though I’ve somehow gotten all these elements lined up that it feels like it’s resonating with some essential truth about something, even though I don’t know what it is, but it feels like it’s aligned with the natural hum of the universe in some way. It’s like when you’re tuning a guitar and you finally don’t hear that beating anymore. You try to get everything to smooth the fuck out. So, that’s when I say, “Yeah, the song is done.” That album is done when I can listen to it from start to finish and it all feels like it’s vibrating that way.
AG: That’s cool. How are we doing, Carl?
MK: Everything’s out of capacity and we’re recording on paper now.
AG: So, that’s a lot of heady stuff. I love it. I feel like that’s the meat of what I want to get at with this website. But, Carl has some stupid trivial questions to ask.
MK: That’s a terrible thing to say. That’s truly terrible.
AG: I’m just kidding, we were discussing on the way over here things to ask you about specifically and I know Carl has some specific questions about the Vai Piano Reductions .
CK: Yeah, I do. I’m really curious to understand that process, if you could go through the steps of how that actually happened. You guys went into a room? Or, how did what?
MK: Yeah, literally from point A, it was him just sending me a list of songs he wanted me to reconfigure for solo piano. All the songs were Steve’s choices. He wasn’t in the studio. I spent ages and ages doing the arrangements at home and at that point, dealing with each arrangement of each of those 11 songs independently. I would listen to a song and I would say, “Okay, is this a song where I’m going to do a radical reharmonization? Or is this a song where I’m going to let the song really speak for itself and just stay really close to the meat of what he composed there?”
So a song like Sisters or Touching Tongues is done with very little elaboration. I just wanted to present a real, basic and simple display case for the beauty and simplicity of what he did there. And then there were other things, like Salamanders in the Sun, where I just found there was so much potential for a lot of harmonic playing around, so I radically rearranged that song and came up with a lot of different ways of setting that melody so that a lot of times when that melody is coming around, it’s being supported in a different way.
But, it is the hardest album I ever made. Absolute pain because of the nature of solo piano. It’s so naked and completely unadorned. You’re just out there with all the bright lights on you musically and there’s nowhere to hide. You don’t have an amazing virtuosic drummer bashing away. You don’t have a bunch of super saturated gain on your guitar so you can hold a note forever. It’s all right there and there’s nowhere to turn and you better be on your game.
I would go into the studio with Mike Harris, this was all recorded on tape at Signature Sound in San Diego , and I recorded multiple takes of each song so that Steve would be able to have a bunch of different renditions to choose from. He ended up doing editing on this stuff for… I think I recorded in ’98 or ’99 and he didn’t release it until 2004. He spent that whole time editing those takes together.
So, when I look into that, it’s like I wasn’t able to nail a take from start to finish that made him happy, but the other way is that he’s like I am. He’s always searching for the magic key to some ultimate rendition of a song that is going to answer every question that he has musically and fulfill every goal that he has for that piece and end up with something that feels elementally true in some way. So, he spent a lot of time with the different takes and that was a time in my life, late ‘90s, where I was not as settled a person, or centered a person, as I strive to be now. I would get really ferociously angry if I fucked up in the studio.
And it’s exacerbated by the fact that it’s just such a naked format–solo piano–and I’m trying to please myself, I’m trying to please Steve, I’m trying to do something that justifies this concept that he’s come up with: solo piano versions of Steve Vai songs. Does that mean that all Steve Vai fans are going to buy this and say, “What is the point of this? I don’t want to listen to Steve Vai on the piano.” So, it’s already potentially a hard sell, so you’d better do something worthwhile while you’re messing with this concept. All this is playing in my mind and I’m trying to execute these insane manipulations and combinations of movements that I’ve come up with.
My training is as an organist, keyboard-wise. I’m used to the luxury of: you put your hand down and that chord will hold for 9 1/2 hours if you want it to. The piano, action is required and I’m not Art Tatum with the most insane left hand. I’m not endlessly gifted in that way.
This stuff is hard. I would fuck something up and I would just recriminate self loathing verbally. And all that stuff was on the tapes. So as Steve was doing these edits on these takes, every time he would come up to a part with these sections where I’d say, “Mother fuck… fucking… Oh God… How could you be so…” just hating myself, he would snip it out and put it in a special file. Eventually he did a construction of all of these moments put together, which he still has not played for me.
CK: The Casey Kasem edit ?
MK: Yeah! Exactly! It’s just the collection of every juicy bit of self-hatred and invective.
AG: Saving it for a special occasion?
MK: Yeah! I’m terrified to hear it, but I know it’s gotta be an entertaining listen. But, ultimately ended up with an album that both of us were really, really pleased with. I gave him the recordings and I didn’t hear them for five years until the album came out. So, all the time I’m thinking, “Is it any good?” And it came back with all the edits and constructions that he put together and I was so glad to find out: Yes!
There is great value in this thing. It’s not an embarrassment. And he was just incredibly generous with the things that he said about the record. He indicated at one point that that’s the record he reaches for when he wants to listen to Steve Vai music. That’s all I can hope for. So then he wanted to do a second album and he sent me another list of songs. I did arrangements for the first two pieces, one of which is Under It All and the other is Ooo. Both of these are incredibly lengthy, intricate, multi-leveled, multi-episodic creations.
CK: It’s a long solo in Ooo.
MK: Yeah, which I learned every note on the piano and re-harm’d and did all this crazy stuff. You can see them on YouTube because in 2010 there was a Vai festival in Groningen, Holland. He premiered some orchestral stuff and there were other artists doing stuff and I came on and did some of the arrangements from the first album and did a premiere of some stuff from the second album-to-be.
Actually, I had to leave a Satriani tour to go perform on this festival because I signed up to do the festival and then I joined Joe’s band and it just so happened that they conflicted, so I had to arrange for a sub for the two or three Satriani gigs that I had to miss out on in order to do this festival, which I really wanted to do.
So I did the live premieres of three new Vai arrangements, which were Under it All, Ooo, and San Sebastian. San Sebastian I never really finished to my satisfaction. And then I went back to the tour with Vai and then more touring with Vai and then I went on the road with Dethklok and then I’ve got albums to make, so I’m making those albums, and the Piano Reductions, Vol. 2 just kept getting pushed back, pushed back and it’s not because I didn’t want to do it, although it is a very painful thing to do. And the end I think justifies the means, at least in the case of the first album, I was very happy with the way it turned out.
But I found with the second album, I was torturing myself to do these arrangements and I still wasn’t finding myself with enough time to do them properly because it takes dedication and weeks and weeks and weeks, really, thinking about nothing but that. And financially, it makes no sense for Steve to pay me what it really would require for me to not do anything else and devote my time to that. So, I regrettably said to Steve, “You know, I don’t think I can do the second volume,” and he, bless him, totally understood.
Since then, I saw online this Japanese woman who does amazing solo piano versions of Steve Vai music. She actually contacted me on Facebook and it was right around the time when I was feeling that I didn’t have the time to do the second record. So, I said, “Hey Steve, do you know about this girl?” and he goes, “You know what? Actually, I do.” And so he’s been working with her now. I think that if there is a Piano Reductions, Vol. 2, it’ll be her doing it, which I think is great.
I like the idea that the concept can continue to exist even when I’m not there. And I also am extremely relieved. I can’t tell you what it took out of me to do that first record. It was absolutely the hardest thing musically that I ever tried to do.
AG: I think that it paid off. I was listening to it two nights ago and I played my wife Ballerina 12/24, Steve’s version and then your version, and I said, “This is why Mike Keneally is a genius.” And she said, “That’s incredible.”
MK: Well, it’s note for note, even though a lot of those notes are generated by an Eventide thing, it’s note for note with what he did with the guitar. And that was done in a sense of, “All I need to do with the piano is exactly what was done on the original recording and the magic will all be there.” It was insanity trying to learn that.
AG: I bet the Gentle Giant fugue stuff you probably learned over the years helped with that. I was listening to it going, “Okay, now that I’ve been trying to play Experience, now I get how that piece can happen.”
MK: Yeah, that’s true! I never would have made that connection, but you’re right. I spent the summer of my 16th year doing nothing but listening to Gentle Giant learning every guitar part and figuring out how it fits into this lattice work. And that, I know, was something that laid a groundwork for all kinds of stuff that I’ve been able to do since then.
I am extremely grateful that I managed to keep it together long enough to get one album of stuff done. And I do regret that I haven’t recorded versions of the two arrangements that I did that I’m really happy with for the next record. But, they are on YouTube and people can check out.
CK: Two other little questions about that. Do you remember what kind of piano it was that you played on? How did that feel? You mentioned somewhere in an interview that you felt like you were hitting it too hard….
MK: Yeah, that was in that sort of mid-90s, messianic period where I was just full of feeling like I was conveying the Truth of the universe through everything that I was doing. This is what I was referring to earlier when I was referring to self-delusion. So, I think that I got a little…
It’s real easy to get into a thing where you are self-aggrandizing and advertising for yourself as opposed to serving the notes at hand and performing as sensitively as you can. Especially in this particular situation where I’m dealing with another composer’s work. It’s not like I have distaste for what I did there, but I’ll say that when I heard that, I thought I could have been more sensitive in some of the choices that I made in terms of dynamics. It could also be that because that’s what Steve found to edit together to make the ideal versions that he could out of what he could, it may be that I just fucked up four takes and out of just sheer hatred of life at that moment, by the time I was finally able to execute it properly, it was this defiant, “Fuck you! I’m gonna play! Dammit!”
By the time I actually played it right, I was just beating the hell out of the keyboard from anger. So, that might be why in some instances that’s the way that record comes off to me because Steve collated where I finally arrived at being able to do the thing properly and I might have been just a little too much in my head and not… You know, when you feel like you’re doing God’s work and you’re doing it wrong, you can get really angry with yourself. It’s sort of all tied up in some of the weird things that were happening in my head at the time.
By the time I heard the finished album, I remember thinking, “I could have done some of that stuff with a little more gentle touch.” But the piano is the same one that I used on Sluggo! and Nonkertompf and other albums that I was recording around that era, which is the Yamaha grand piano. I’m not sure what the model number is, but it’s a big Yamaha grand at Signature Sound Studios in San Diego. It’s a beautiful instrument. I recorded a lot of stuff on that piano.
CK: Is there a level of texture or harmony that you can use in these piano reductions that you can do with that type of music that you can’t do with a rock band? Because on Pig, it’s so dense and so many things are going on. Such ugly chords… Can you really do that with a guitar?
MK: You can, but it’s not going to read in the same way. And sometimes that’s what I have tried to do with a quartet or a quintet is use the available resources to try to construct stuff that is that dense, but it is hard to carry off with guitars compared to the piano because there’s so many other sonic anomalies that enter into the picture with amplifiers and pedals and strings and conglomerations of frequencies when you start adding guitars to guitars and stuff like that.
There’s another Frank quote, “Timbre rules.” The same exact chord on the piano is going to have a different message than if it’s played on a fuzz-tone guitar and different than if it’s played by a bassoon ensemble. The delivery system has a lot to do with what the piece of music ends up meaning. It’s not just all about notes. It’s about so many other dynamic and timbral elements that all play into the final thing.
CK: So is that something you get to exercise enough in your own music with a rock band? Or is there some part of, “Man, I wish I could do that more?”
MK: I think I’ve managed to get my rocks off to some degree on the stage. In the studio I can certainly make that stuff happen with overdubbing and different orchestration. The sky’s the limit in the studio. On stage with one of my bands, especially if it’s a trio, it’s not gonna be as dense as if you do “this” on a grand piano and hit every note and get some crazy cluster. Although I’ve got a keyboard there if I need to do that!
That’s the other thing that I was talking about. Playing the organ as a kid and getting used to this certain idea of doing multiple things at once in some way, my modern extension of that is when I do stuff with the guitar and the keyboard simultaneously live, which I like to try to do.
[Skip to 4:30 in the following video to see Mike shredding on both keyboard and guitar at the same time…]
I haven’t really explored that–and maybe again that’s a discipline thing–I’ve only specifically composed a few things for guitar/keyboard simultaneous stuff. My delight and excitement is in the moment on stage during an improvised section to see what I can do, how far can I push this technique, what can I get away with? I do a certain amount of it with Satriani, but there’s a spanner in the works there, which is that we tune all the guitars down a half step, but I’m playing concert pitch on the keyboard. So there’s a number of songs where I hit a chord on the guitar and then follow up with a passage on the keyboard or conversely, I’ll sustain a chord on the keyboard with the pedal and play on the guitar.
So, at that point, I can’t be thinking strictly harmonically because I’ll be playing in C# on the guitar, but it sounds as C natural on the keyboard, so at that point it’s just points in space. You have to just memorize, “this is what I do” followed by “this is what I do” and try to ignore the fact that “this is that” and that’s a completely different note, but they sound the same. At that point, the notion of the fretboard becomes a little more abstract.
I can’t get too abstract with the keyboard because you’ll look at it as exactly what it is, but with the fretboard you can maybe convince yourself you’re playing an Ab, but you’re really playing an A. Nonetheless, we just rehearsed a whole bunch of new material that we’re about to premiere live and there’s still some times where I’m supposed to play something in C# on the keyboard and I’ll accidentally play it in D, which… whoops. I’m sure there’ll be some exciting avant garde moments early on in the tour.
AG: Cool. Mike, I can’t tell you how much I value your time and how much I appreciate you doing this. It’s really special to me. Thank you so much.
MK: You’re very welcome. This is entirely pleasurable, so thanks for coming.
AG: Thank you, I really appreciate it. And thanks for opening your home. It’s very nice of you.
MK: You’re welcome. My pleasure. Make weird music!
AG: Yeah! Make weird music, or else!