MOUTHY MAGAZINE ISSUE THREE
interview by Michael Bill
Singer, songwriter, guitarist, keyboardist, producer Mike Keneally has been in bands with Frank Zappa and Steve Vai. And he loves XTC, so it's obvious why Mouthy would want to have a chat with him. Michael Bill did the honors.
How did your recent tour dates go?
Pretty ridiculously fun. I had my first orchestral piece premiered in Amsterdam at the Holland Festival, a 45-minute composition called "The Universe Will Provide" (a battery dying in my guitar brought the running time closer to an hour), performed by the Metropole Orchestra and myself. It was a rush. The next night I had a fun duet performance at the Concertgebouw with a brilliant Finnish bassist named Jaan Wessman, and the next night I did a mostly improvised concert in Nijmegen with a quartet featuring Jan Akkerman, the guitarist from the Dutch band Focus - that was an incredible evening for me; Jan Akkerman was a huge guitar influence on me when I was a teenager, and he turned out to be a really entertaining individual and more devastating as a guitarist than ever. Then I went to Sweden to play Zappa music in three different contexts at the Umea Chamber Festival: an orchestral performance conducted by Kristian Jarvi, a big band show by Ed Palermo, and two rock gigs with Denny Walley, Mats Oberg, Morgan Agren, Ed Palermo, Napoleon Murphy Brock and members of Ed Palermo's and Mats and Morgan's bands - really fun.
Who does what in the current band?
I write the songs, sing and play guitars and keyboards. Rick Musallam plays guitar and sings backing vocals, and Nick D'Virgilio plays drums and also sings backup. Bryan Beller plays bass, as he's been doing in my bands for almost ten years now, and can occasionally be coerced into singing backing vocals.
First and foremost The Beatles, because their songwriting was unbelievable and they were magical. Frank Zappa, because he did whatever he wanted. A variety of guitar players all demonstrated many possibilities to me and fascinated me for millions of reasons: Jan Akkerman, Steve Howe, John McLaughlin, Jimi Hendrix, Tommy Bolin, Fred Frith, Todd Rundgren, Terry Kath, David Gilmour, Neil Young, the guys in the Beatles of course, Snakefinger, Joni Mitchell, Steve Hillage, Allan Holdsworth, Jeff Beck, Frank Zappa, Carlos Santana, Jimmy Page, the soloists on the Steely Dan albums of the '70s, Robert Fripp, the guitarists in Beefheart's Magic Band, and so many others. And sometimes it would just be the sound of the guitars on a record, the way the texture of the guitars felt on songs like "No Matter What" by Badfinger or "I Hear You Knocking" by Dave Edmunds or "Amos Moses" by Jerry Reed. I loved the way the guitars felt on the Share The Land album by the Guess Who, on Killer by Alice Cooper and Quadrophenia. I also loved Gentle Giant for the ridiculous architecture of their songs and the fact that they could still be sort of funky in a British white guy way while playing all that crazy shit, and I loved Keith Emerson's weird compositional style and crazy keyboard playing. I was an organist before I was a guitarist and Tarkus by ELP was a major mind-blower to me when I was ten years old. I listened to the 8-track of that album over and over again. I also loved Thunderclap Newman's album and Cellophane Symphony by Tommy James and the Shondells. I also loved the arrangement and vocals on Hair by the Cowsills when I was really young (it was the first single I bought) - I dug Creedence and Sly and The Family Stone, and I loved three Allan Sherman albums very much. I was crazy about Nilsson Shmilsson by Harry Nilsson when I was eleven. All this is mostly when I was very young; once I got older I developed a taste for more fucked-up sounding stuff and got very into Beefheart, The Residents, Renaldo and the Loaf, Crass and other fairly chaotic artists. In the latter seventies and early eighties I got heavily into the more arty and songwriterly of the "new wave" - XTC, Split Enz, Elvis Costello, Thomas Dolby, really admiring their ingenuity and songwriting/arranging smarts. As I got older I started really freaking out over Stevie Wonder, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane - just being completely overwhelmed and nourished and inspired by their incredible natural brilliance and artistic intensity - and in the last few years, Radiohead have come to excite me more than any other band of the last twenty years. I've also gotten more into the Grateful Dead as I continue morphing into an honest-to-god old hippie. I love several of Steve Reich's works. The songs in West Side Story killed me when I was a kid, I was utterly swept away by the drama and the overwhelming confidence of the music. And, oh God, there's a lot of Beach Boys music I love. Todd Rundgren was a huge influence, especially when he was doing acid - those '72-'75 albums of his still have a magical effect on me. Man, there's a million more, too many to keep going on about, but I guess I'm having a good time here. I'm leaving out a lot. Chick Corea, They Might Be Giants, Bob Dylan for sure. Gotta mention Hendrix and Neil Young again, and Jeff Beck, I always got a huge kick out of him. Some of the Gabriel-era Genesis stuff really grabbed me, so did about five or six Jethro Tull albums. Gotta admit it, when I was ten, Jesus Christ Superstar was something I played over and over. I was way into Prince in the eighties. The Slapp Happy/Henry Cow album Desperate Straights and Henry Cow's first album, and Kew. Rhone. by Peter Blegvad, John Greaves and Lisa Herman. All of this stuff just opened door after door for me, showed me a million things about music and life which delighted me and gave me a whole lot to think about. This is a very long answer and I'm going to stop now.
What's the strangest recording session you've been part of?
Give me a minute. Nothing's coming to mind immediately. I'm sort of blanking on this one; the only thing coming to mind is an attempt we made on the road in the Zappa band in 1988 to record our arrangement of Ravel's "Bolero," which Frank had just pieced together for us and which we barely knew yet, live at a soundcheck before a gig at the end at the end of the U.S. leg, because Frank wanted to release it as a single in Europe to promote our tour there which was scheduled to start in two weeks. It was a strange session because it seemed like we all knew that the attempt was doomed to failure. Fortunately he did get a good version of pieced together later, after we knew how to play it, and DID release it on a single in Europe along with our version of "Stairway To Heaven".
Are there any other bands you're excited by that we didn't already cover?
I'm definitely digging the new Radiohead album plenty, and I was having a good time listening to Camper Van Beethoven this afternoon.
How do your songs come into existence?
Sometimes I write on keyboard, not so much these days 'cause I don't have a keyboard set up at my place for some reason. I should fix that. Often I'll get a melody line that appears in my head, and I'll either write it down or figure it out on an instrument, and see if a song comes out of it. Sometimes I'll just pick up a guitar or sit at a keyboard and start playing something new, and I work at it for a couple of minutes and it starts to turn into a song. You just pile up bits and then start to find the composition in all the bits. If I'm on the computer than it gets all slicey and dicey and anything can happen, but I don't consistently write on the computer.
What music software do you use?
Chris Opperman - my musical assistant for the Metropole Orchestra project - and I used Finale software to generate the score and parts for that piece. Chris is a Finale fiend. In my demo studio which is set up at the Exowax office, I use a medium-strength Pro Tools program with M-Box.
Are you still in touch with XTC guy Dave Gregory?
Yes, I saw him, and Andy Partridge as well, when I was in England a couple of months ago doing guitar clinics. I stayed at Dave's for the weekend and he guested with me at a gig I did in Wales, we played Frank Zappa's "Sleep Dirt" together. Andy and I also discussed getting together for a few days of songwriting at his place later this year. The three of us jammed in Andy's shed for a few hours, handing instruments back and forth - great big fun.
What's your favorite XTC album?
Hnn. I think it must be some mutant combination of Black Sea and Drums And Wires, because I'd have a hard time excluding either of those.
Did you ever see them live?
Sort of, when I was pestering them during their sessions for Oranges & Lemons in LA. Actually when I played on the track for "My Train Is Coming," that was the first moment that I ever saw them playing in real life, so that was plenty surreal, to be seeing them live for the very first time and be playing with them at the same time.
When did you first meet XTC? Was this the famous "mup" incident?
Scott Thunes - Zappa's bassist - and I were huge XTC fans and talked about them a lot, and when the Zappa tour got to England, Scott had the genuinely inspired idea to contact Virgin Records and extend an invitation, with guest list slots proferred, to the members of XTC, and damned if Andy and Dave didn't actually show up. Magic night, and yes, that was when Andy and Dave were briefly introduced to Frank as he was sweeping down the hallway, and Andy swears that Frank actually said "mup" to them in response and continued walking. I don't even remember if Frank slowed down enough to actually shake their hands, and I certainly have nothing valid to offer regarding what he actually might have said, or, if he did say "mup," what that might actually mean.
Did you play any other songs with them in the studio or just "My Train Is Coming"?
Only "Train." How do you know about the track? Is it widely in circulation now?
It's just traded among fans. We have a way of knowing these things. Did you have your own rig to play through then or did you use their stuff?
I just got Andy's Tele, plugged into whatever it was plugged into, handed to me because he wasn't getting into the song having to sing and play at the same time. So I sat next to Andy and played his guitar while he sang on the track - we were in an iso booth but from where I was sitting I was able to see Dave and Colin and I'm pretty sure I could see Pat Mastelotto in his booth too. Andy's guitar had a very unforgivingly mosquito-like tone and I got props from the guys for being able to do anything on it. Colin said I was "burning." Yay!
How did Zappa's Universe come about?
It was the brainchild of Joel Thome, the conductor for the program. He had contacted Frank with an idea toward staging a live, dramatized production of the songs from the Broadway The Hard Way album, which Joel considered a significant work of modern politically oriented music. Frank demurred from taking part but suggested me, and gave Joel my number. During a series of conversations with Joel, we considered that perhaps in the early nineties, basing a show around Broadway The Hard Way might feel out-of-step, since so much of that album is concerned lyrically with the 1988 political campaign, and we started batting around ideas for a more wide-ranging tribute to Frank's music. Frank was into that and suggested some songs which could be played, I suggested a bunch of tunes and Frank and I both recommended the use of Mats and Morgan in the ensemble. Joel and his staff then just started making phone calls and the list of performers grew.
What are Dweezil and Ahmet like to work with? Any good road stories?
You know, I completely suck at remembering good road stories - I just don't retain that shit very well - but I can tell you that the tours I did with Dweezil and Ahmet were a really, really good time. I had a whole lot of fun working with both of them, and Ahmet is one of the funniest motherfuckers on the planet. Oh, here's a good road story - we were always doing radio interviews, and Ahmet was getting tired of them, so one time live on the radio he said that when we were in LA we liked to do lines of cocaine off of Rick Dees' penis (Rick Dees is an LA disc jockey who had a hit called "Disco Duck" in the seventies - needless to say, I hope, none of us ever actually have snorted coke off of his penis). Another time in a TV interview, Ahmet said he was scared of Miles Davis because he looked like a spider monkey. Ahmet was not afraid to offend.
How did you first meet Frank, and what was auditioning for him like?
I had called his office, offering my services as a musician for his band, and to my disbelief I got a call back from Frank two days later inviting me up to audition, so when I walked into the room for the audition that was the first time I had met him. I was slightly nervous but ultimately pretty calm for the audition, once it got rolling; he would name a song of his, and I would take a minute, figure it out and play it for him, which turned out to be really fun for both of us. We harmonized together, he made me sing and play a bunch of stuff. It was a blast!
Is there anyone you'd like to collaborate with given the chance?
I'd love to do something with Wayne Shorter. I'd love to play with Jan Akkerman again, man he was fantastic. I'd die to play and sing something with Stevie Wonder. I guess Joni Mitchell has retired but I'd sure love to play with her. I love to play bass and there's a bunch of bands I'd have fun playing bass. If They Might Be Giants asked me to tour with them as a bassist I would for a couple of months, then I'd recommend Scott Thunes for the gig. I'd love to work in the studio with The Residents, just once. I'd love to produce a Todd Rundgren album for him, that would be weird and fun.
What's next for you, musically speaking?
Finishing the Mike Keneally Band album, and preparing for the recording of "The Universe Will Provide" with Metropole Orchestra this September. If all goes well, both the rock album and the orchestra album will be appearing around the same time late this year/early next year.
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