On his solo-CD "Nonkertompf" Mike Keneally still preferred a strongly fragmented, electronic statement. Nowadays, the ex-Zappa guitarist—he played there from 1987 to 1988 and can be heard on several of Zappa’s albums—found to more quiet sound on his acoustic work "Wooden Smoke". Here he proves that good songwriting, intricate ideas full of fantasy and high-level, technically appealing guitar work go together well.
Carina Prange talked to Mike Keneally in fall of 2003. A German translation of this interview can be found in "Akustik Gitarre"
Carina: Mike, what was the reason or the "flash point" for you to start a solo-career in 1992?
Mike: I already had a large backlog of songs I'd written by then, and in fact had released a few albums (on cassette only) independently in the 80's. But the real impetus for making "hat." and starting my solo career in earnest was the start of the Immune Records label by my friends Jeff and Suzanne in the early 90's. Jeff was an engineer I'd already been working with for several years and liked a lot, so when they asked if I wanted to make an album for them using Jeff and his studio, it was definitely something I wanted to do!
Carina: In 1994 you started your personal website. Up to now—how much would you say it is a success? How helpful is it for an independent artist?
Mike: It's been an incredible success, both as a means for people to find and purchase my music, at www.moosenet.com—the merchandise area of the site—and as a place for me to include some journal-type writing: in the "Mike Types To You!" section, and in the tour diaries from my solo tours as well as the Zappa and Vai tours.
I soon found that people really enjoyed reading the journal entries and that it helped form a personal bond between me and the audience, the benefits of which continue to enrich my life in many ways.
Carina: You arranged and recorded a solo piano album with the music of Steve Vai. Will it be published some day? How much does your piano playing interact with your guitar playing?
Mike: Steve will release it, probably next year, as a disc in his "Secret Jewel Box" CD series. I was a keyboard player before I was a guitarist, and knowledge of the keyboard was invaluable in helping me to figure out the fretboard. I still play both instruments all the time, sometimes simultaneously—they influence each other in a very natural and organic way.
Carina: In 2001 you signed an endorsement deal with Taylor Guitars—how did this start? Which Taylor-models do you play and what's special about them?
Mike: I think I signed the endorsement deal in 1994 actually, but only officially became a clinician for them a couple of years ago. It started through a personal connection to the company via a long-time friend of mine who works there, but quickly became a real relationship with the instruments themselves. I simply find them fun and pleasurable to play and very musical and versatile instruments.
I currently own a 614-CE and an 810-Brazilian rosewood. I don't have a favorite wood or string—I prefer not to get hung up on formulas because I like to constantly feel change in my relationships to instruments. I'll keep being involved with Taylor for as long as they'll have me—it's a wonderful company and we have a great relationship.
Carina: Do you play other acoustic instruments as well?
Mike: I'll sit down at a set of drums every once in a while. I'll try to play almost anything and usually get something musical out of it, but at heart I consider myself a guitarist and keyboardist.
Carina: The sound of an acoustic guitar, how much does it depend on the instrument itself and how much on the player?
Mike: You could substitute any other instrument for acoustic guitar in that question—the answer is, all of the above, but the primary factor in the production of musical tone is always the heart, mind and fingers of the player! Acoustic guitar is a very intimate and personal instrument, so the physical feel is very important. But a good musician can make good music on just about any instrument.
Carina: You did a successful series of intimate acoustic performances—what about an album that's entirely "solo", just your guitar-playing and voice—nothing else?
Mike: We have thought about releasing an acoustic duo album, featuring me and my bassist Bryan Beller, since we almost always perform together on Taylor clinics and we've developed a distinct style as an acoustic duo. I'm sure I'll do that before I do an entirely solo acoustic release, if I ever do one. It's an interesting idea.
Carina: "Wooden Smoke"—what inspired you to do this album? It contrasts to your more experimental, "melodic sabotage rooted" electric "Nonkertompf". What is feasible on an acoustic album that is not possible on an electric one?
Mike: "Wooden Smoke" came at a time of relative serenity and peace after a couple of years of emotional turmoil. The acoustic guitar was the perfect instrument for composing that music and it all came together very quickly and easily. Acoustic music offers more air, more gentleness, and possibilities for different kinds of subtle musical expression than electric music does.
The kind of atmospheres I wanted to create on "Wooden Smoke" were best achieved with acoustic instruments as a foundation, but there is a lot of electronic texture on there as well—the fun for me was finding interesting ways of making them work together.
Carina: Should every musician be able to blend in an acoustic atmosphere? Would you say that playing acoustic somehow reveals more of the personality of a player?
Mike: I don't think there's anything that any musician "should" do, other than whatever they need to do to get their individual voice across to the listener. Some people have no interest in playing acoustic instruments and therefore probably don't have much to offer on them, but they reveal loads of personality on whatever their chosen electric instrument might be. If anyone finds themselves curious about trying acoustic guitar they should of course try it, and if anyone thinks they need to play acoustic in order to find out more about themselves, maybe they do need to.
Carina: What about the coming album DOG—what will it be about? Will it be an electric album?
Mike: Very electric! It's about the sound of this band I have now - myself, Bryan Beller, Rick Musallam and Nick D'Virgilio. Lyrically it's about, surprise surprise, "trying to rise above" and how hard that is. It's loud and passionate, sometimes angry and cathartic but hopefully constructive. Also a great album to play really loud in the car.
Carina: Your lyrics, are some remembrances of the childhood? You use cryptic, yet simple images ... do you have a special relationship to trees and wood?
Mike: There are a lot of references from my childhood strung throughout many of my songs. I succumb to nostalgia all too easily, it's a real weakness of mine. And I do have an inordinate love of trees and wood. Any sort of wood-paneled decor, no matter how tacky, is bound to make me feel comfortable, and I always feel at peace in the middle of a bunch of trees. Hanging out in the Black Forest in Freiburg is magical for me.
Carina: What were the two people that influenced you most—musically and/or for life in general?
Mike: Probably Frank Zappa and my dad. Both had a strong influence on me during my teenage years, and while I've broadened my realm of influence a lot since I've grown older, I still feel their mark on my life and I'm grateful. Both men were strong, independent and unique thinkers.
Carina: Sometimes it's harder to write a simple pop tune with a memorable melody than it is to write something intricate and experimental" you once said. Composing and arranging how much time do you spend for that in comparison to playing? Are there always so many ideas coming up or is there a lack of ideas sometimes?
Mike: There are always a bunch of ideas, so that's not the problem - more of a problem lately is in finding time to wrangle the ideas into finished music. There are so many things happening, so many projects and life-things to deal with, that it's all too easy for musical or lyrical ideas to come and go unheeded. I'm fortunate in that I don't seem to ever stop receiving musical inspiration from wherever it is that it comes from. I'm very grateful for that!
Mike Keneally & Band
Carina: People certify you an "absurd facility with odd time signatures". Does this ability interfere with playing simple—or does it help sounding simple while in reality doing something weird?
Mike: I don't think it interferes with playing simply. I think my facilities with rhythm have ultimately made me really appreciate the boundless possibilities inherent in a basic 4/4 groove. There's so many avenues available for syncopation and rhythmic interest in any given bar. I don't think that having a facility for odd time signatures is any great feat or accomplishment—I just want to be able to feel strong and confident in any time signature, including the most basic.
Carina: Are there any playing techniques that you would call prominent in your playing style?
Mike: I'm not sure. I always find myself trying to do things I've never done before, and when I feel like I've been playing with one specific kind of technique for too long during a solo I'll change it up—for instance if I've been picking really fast for a few bars, maybe I'll go more legato and only pick a few of the notes that I'm fretting, or I'll just start playing very slowly with varying vibrato and expressive devices.
I'm always just trying to serve what it feels like the music needs, and I'll try any technique I can to go for it. I like alternating from using a pick to using my fingers sometimes. The thing is, I never know what I'm going to do when I solo, so I just hope that I'll have enough technical ability at my disposal to execute whatever it seems that the music needs.
Carina: When you give workshops, how do you structure them? Is there a principal point that you always want to get across?
Mike: I'm pretty relaxed about them. It seems that what audiences want most is to hear the music and watch it being played, so I mostly play, and answer any questions which anyone may have. Since I'm untrained as a guitarist, I don't have a method that I can promote, so hopefully I just provide an example to people of what can happen when you allow yourself total musical freedom to pursue any ideas and approaches which interest you.
Mike Keneally (© DarleneCunnup)
Carina: There seem to be many fans of yours who write down tabs of your songs and listen carefully to what you play and what you do. Does that make you feel like being the center of a community?
Mike: Not the center necessarily; I feel grateful to have provided some inspiration for people. Since I don't personally feel responsible for the music I play, I don't really feel like the center—I think the music, wherever it comes from, is the center, and I'm a lucky participant.
Carina: Politics and music—should they always be separated? Your songwriting seems to be non-political. What about social aspects? What is your intention towards the listener?
Mike: I've written a number of songs and made a number of statements which have been construed as political, and this has angered some people. I don't think politics and music should always be separated, nor do I think they necessarily belong together—I think everyone should speak their mind whenever they feel the need to do so.
What I hope to provide the listener is some idea that the madness which is overtaking our world thanks to the insanity of our leaders is not the whole picture of existence, that there's more to life, and that kindness, love and calmness are always good things. That's a real challenge nowadays, and I've been feeling spiritually sick since the Iraq war, and it's hard to rise above it. But there's no good reason not to keep trying.
CD: Mike Keneally Band - "Dog" (Exowax)
Mike Keneally im Internet: www.keneally.com