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Published: 2001/08/20
by Mike Gruenberg

The Jack Smead 6: A Quality Quartet

I had the pleasure of interviewing the band members of the Jack Smead 6. They have just released an album Aishetlu; I Shot Lou. There are a few observations that need to be made before playing the album or reading this interview. The members of the group are Jack Smead on acoustic guitar, harmonica and vocals, Mikey Keane on lead vocals, Keith Christopher on guitar, bass and vocals and Charlie Kohlmeyer on drums, percussion and vocals. There are four members of the group, not six.
Jack started his musical career in 1964 with a garage band called the Banshees. They toured with groups like the Dave Clark 5 and the Yardbirds. In 1971, Jack moved from Chicago to NYC, where he has remained a permanent resident of East 11th Street. In 1978, he joined the band Oregon, which had remnants of the innovative group, Paul Winter Consort. In 1980, he was a member of Eric Ambels Roscoes Gang.
In 1984, Jack teamed up with singer/songwriter Mikey Keane and formed a band that became the house band at the St. Marks Bar in the East Village of NYC. Prior to joining up with Jack, Mikey had done work with John Cale. In 1985, Mikey took some time off and moved to Brazil where he completed the recording of his first album self-titled, Michael Keane.
Upon Mikeys return to NYC, he reacquainted himself with Jack at the St. Marks Bar and was joined by Keith Christopher on bass who had written songs for Ray Charles and played in such groups as Steve Marriotts Humble Pie and Shaver. Keith also played with Dan Baird of the Georgia Satellites. The last member to join the group was Charlie Kohlmeyer from New Orleans who had played drums with people like Harry Connick, Jr.
Once the foursome was established, producer Jake Newland, who had been involved with several Grammy-winning albums as an engineer, approached them to produce an album.
Clearly, the members of the band are music industry veterans. I conducted the interview at The Bar on 11th Street in the East Village in New York City with Mikey, Jack, Keith & Charlie.
MG: Jack Smead 6 is actually four guys; whats in the name?
Mikey: It came about because at one time Jack shared a stage with the Dave Clark 5 and we liked the way their name sounded. Prior to this, this was the Michael Keane Band. Jack taught me how to sing and write songs. It therefore made sense to have a name with Jacks name on it. We thought about the Jack Smead Experience, but we felt the name Jack Smead 6 sounded better. *MG: I was struck by the originality of your album design. Mikey, you did the album cover design. Tell me about the Japanese calligraphy and the Jackson Pollack photo on the back cover. *
Mikey: The Japanese calligraphy means I Love You. Ill let Keith tell you about that. We were sitting at the bar when this happened
Keith: A girl named Hidomi was visiting from Japan. She was a very beautiful girl. I met her at one of Mikeys loft parties. She taught me some Japanese words. One of the phrases she taught me was Aishitelu which means I Love You in Japanese. To me, it sounded like I Shot Lou. Mikey wrote a song about it.
Mikey: We wrote the song sitting at the bar. You have to know that I dont get along with anybody, so I wrote this song about shooting the band. Of course, you will notice that I shot myself in the knee and I shoot Keith in the teeth. Its all in good fun and humorous to me. Just to finish about the album cover, the woman on the front comes from a picture thats been hanging on Jacks wall for years. A friend of Jacks is a photographer in the neighborhood and she gave the photo to Jack. Its a thirteen-year-old girl in Pakistan dressed for her full ritual wedding ceremony with the traditional sesame seeds glued to her face. Her smile lights up the room. In a sense, the love on this girls face signifies the love and respect the band has for one another. Yeah, were whiskey-swizzling macho musicians, but this is the best band I have ever worked with and there is a lot of common respect and love amongst us all. *MG: And what about the Jackson Pollack photo on the back cover? *
Mikey: My ex-girlfriend Barbara was studying photography. She had an assignment to recreate a famous photograph, exactly as it was as close as she could possibly get it. We decided on the famous Jackson Pollack photo. I painted the picture in my studio. It was hard to set up the perspective, but Jack is a dead ringer for Pollack and thats how we recreated it. You will notice that the photo is frayed and ripped up. Thats because I had it in my wallet for years. Anyone who looks at the photo immediately says its Jackson Pollack. Only when you go, wait a second, you realize its not the famous painter. Its Jack Smead! *MG: Your publicist describes your music as melodic folk constructions reminiscent of Eric Anderson and Gary Brown layered with soul biting vocal images of John Cale, Leonard CohenHow would you describe your music? *
Jack: I would describe it as moody, almost dark. I dont hear what our publicist hears as a description of our music, but thats the beauty of different people listening to the same tunes and coming away with different impressions.
Keith: To me, the album feels like a lazy Sunday in New York. *MG: Many years ago, I would see a group like yours at the Tin Angel on Bleecker St. or the Nite Owl cafWhat venues are most appealing to you today and where would someone go to hear a group like yours? *
Jack: Right here. Other than The Bar on East 11th Street, weve played at the Mercury, Bowery Ballroom and places like that. We were the house band at the St. Marks Bar for four years. Every once in a while someone calls us for a wedding. *MG: Have you ever played at a wedding? *
Mikey: We once spent a lot of money on a photo of the group to publicize the band and we were unexpectedly invited by a bride to play at her wedding in Vermont. What we didnt realize was that we were being set up because the bride had this antagonistic relationship with her overbearing, incredibly wealthy mother. We show up to play the wedding and the driveway to her mothers place must have been over a mile and a half long. At the time, we were not playing the wild, screaming heavy rock, but more mild and gentle tunes. So we begin to set up on stage to do sound checks. Jack is wearing his hat, which he hasnt taken off in twenty years and brides mother tells Jack to take his hat off as though he was one of the waiters or something. You have to understand that Jack never takes that hat off. I was wearing a Stetson hat. So, I took Jacks hat off and replaced his hat with my Stetson, much to the further shock of this woman. That was our wedding experience.
Keith: Our motto was you cant take our hats off, but we can take our pants down. *MG: Now that we know more about the group, can you tell me how did you get together? *
Jack: Basically, Mikey and I got together at an after hours bar I owned. It was a totally illegal, below street level place in the Village on Rivington Street. Whoever would enter the bar and had the desire to sing, dance, and recite poetry or whatever was given the opportunity to perform. We would tell them to get on the bar and do whatever they wanted. If they were bad, wed shut off the electricity and get them off. I heard Mikey sing one day and that was it.
Mikey: I walked in there and my mother had recently passed away, everything in my life was awful, I was getting drunk all the time, my life was complete shit, I was losing it, going to all these bars in the city and a certain song would come on and I felt compelled to share my despair by jumping on the bar and singing the song at the top of my lungs and drop my pants when it was over. I did this at Danceteria and virtually every bar I went into. Consequently, I was thrown out of virtually every place when I did this. It wasnt pretty! One day, Im walking down Rivington Street and I hear Hank Williams, Jr. coming from a basement door. It seemed pretty odd to hear that style of music on that street. I go in and there are these two guys, Jack and Ray Kelly in a narrow bar, with this incredibly beautiful, blond German girl on stage reciting the bible backwards amidst this music. The German girl finishes, I look around the room, hanging out and waiting for my moment, and all of a sudden I knew it was time and Im up on the bar belting out a Doors song, drop my drawers and Im ready for the fight. Jack looks up at me from behind the bar and says, Not bad, what are ya drinking? All of a sudden, instead of being in a rage, Im completely embarrassed and Im pulling my pants up and Jack asks me to stay as hes closing the bar for the night. He locks the door, brings out his guitar and we sang songs for hours. Really, thats how it started; at the time, my father was a professional singer, so I had this Broadway quality to my voice. Jack said he liked my voice and he helped me refine it by singing and drinking all night. Wed be singing and songwriting all night long and at 11:00AM, he would put on the tape recorder next to me and I would sing although I was barely awake. A week later he would play the tape and say, you know, Mikey Id like you to sing like this guy. I didnt know it was me and I said that I dont think I could sing like this guy and he would inform me that it was, in fact, me. *MG :On the album, I particularly like Jasara Nobel Prize Walk Away and Time To Dress Me For The Coffin, although I liked the entire album. In my opinion, these tunes evoke totally different images. How do you go about crafting a song? If I go back to what you originally said that the bands music is moody, I dont get that from these four tunes. *
Jack: Mikey does the lyrics and we do the music.
Keith: The first record we did together was so over-produced that Mikey & Jack were almost covered up by all these musicians, inundated by Nashville producers, horn players, expensive equipment. We now go to Jacks place and sit around and play music. It starts off as just us guys playing, Mikey hears it and writes lyrics.
Jack: Ill have a basic idea of how the song should go in relation to chord changes and structure, but the music is usually written before the lyrics.
Mikey: Actually, these guys start by playing guitars and I start singing. Ive been doing this for twenty years and I must say that I make some music too, not just writing lyrics. *MG:Time to Dress for the Coffin is a most haunting and beautiful song. Please tell me about how and why that was written? *
Mikey: Two years ago, I was laying in bed in my loft for over two months convinced that I had AIDS. I thought this is the end. I didnt know that what I really had was mono. I looked in medical books, on the internet and I was convinced I had all the symptoms of AIDS and that death was certain. I even knew who the woman was that gave me the disease. You try to make as good a deal as you can through the darkness of the situation. So I went to this American Indian newspaper web site and I read that they have a saying about this is a good day to die. Today is a good day to die so that you can make peace with whatever and whomever you need so that your final journey is peaceful. In the song, I was trying to get to the optimism to lessen the pain of impending death. I wanted to save myself from the terror of death. *MG: Were you repenting at the time? *
Mikey: Im always repenting. Im repenting for all of us, except for Charlie because he doesnt need my help in this area. Charlie is sinless! *MG: Jack, in an earlier musical life, you toured with Dave Clark 5, Yardbirds and Bobby Vee. Talk about a diverse group! What are some of your remembrances of those tours? *
Jack: Not only Bobby Vee, remember Lenny Welch? We toured with him too. We were just a garage band that got lucky. This was during the years of 1963 through 1966. Just to let you know how times have changed. We played all the time, made a lot of dough. We made more money than our dads did, even though we didnt know it at that time. I remember we made something like $1,200 bucks a week. We even built our own PA system. This was during the Vietnam war years and the minute we got out of high school, we all went our separate ways. Not even a clue about keeping it going or trying to make a living from this. We had lawyers, record companies, etc. and walked away from it. *MG: Mikey, you spent 6 years in Brazil. How did that change your musical skills as both musician and writer? *
Mikey: It certainly changed me as a vocalist since I had to sing from 7:30 PM to 4:30 AM, six nights a week. It both destroyed and strengthened my voice at the same time. I wrote some songs with some very interesting Brazilian musicians. I really became a professional singer as a result. I lived in a small fishing village that was home to many generations of people that were fishermen. Brigitte Bardot built a house there in the 1950s. As a result of this, some wealthy South American people built houses there too. So now you had these fishermen living in small houses of the fishing village coming in contact with wealthy people in much larger and opulent houses. The interesting part is that the rich people respected the fishermen. So you go into a bar and you see, for example the President of CBS Records, Brazil drinking side by side in earnest conversation with a local fisherman. The vibe was perfect. *MG: I particularly like the album not only for the material, but the way it was recorded. Its almost as though this was a live recording. To me, the record is very basic, very deep and you get the true essence of the group. There are many parts of the album where you could expect more elaborate backgrounds and yet you stuck to a very basic recording. Tell me about recording the album. *
Jack: We purposely kept it very basic, close to the vest. We set the tone.
Charlie: We wanted it to sound like we were sitting in Jacks place, just playing some good music. Its all very complimentary which means that nobody is overbearing on the album. *MG: Your choice was to keep it simple, and the producer; Jake Newland did a great job of translating your wishes. *
Mikey: Actually, we all did this record together. Charlie did the original recording of the songs. Jake came in and cleaned it up. Its all pretty much live although there were some overdubs. *MG: Are you talking about the Keiths guitar solo in Walk Away? *
Jack: Yes, its a great solo isnt it?
Mikey: We have a song on the album with no percussion. We were at Jakes house and goes into his kids toy box and pulls out some toys and uses them as the percussion part of the song. Its eccentric enough to work beautifully, especially on Jasara.
Keith: Its the first time I ever played triangle. *MG: Are there any plans to tour in support of the album? *
Jack: We are currently adhering to the Steely Dan concept of being studio guys and make finely crafted records. I am excited about our next album. Were in the process of completing it and once both CDs are out, see where we want to go from there. Were having a lot of fun now. *MG: Youre currently working on the new record? *
Mikey: Yes, and we will call the group the Keith Christopher Crisis. Thats the new name of the band and the name of the new album is Scarred For Life. We figure if we keep changing the name of the band, they cant find us.
MG: Who were your major influences?
Jack: We are so diverse coming from such different backgrounds. Charlie is from New Orleans, Keith is from the South and both of them have worked many great bands, Mikey is from Long Island and Im from the Mid-West.
Mikey: You know, there is so much competition in the music business and everyone is trying to get to the gold and platinum, which is fine by me. At our ages, the idea of just creating a beautiful song is such an enormous task. You can leave that legacy behind; its like your tombstone. Jack taught me how to sing, how to craft a song. Charlie adds the fire and Keiths playing is so effortless. He also adds the element of a smile. He is so happy doing his music and when he cant smile about the music, he leaves the room. To him, it is a joy to play his guitar. He keeps us having fun with the music.
MG: Walk Away is a tune that I have listened to over and over again. I think it is one of the strongest cuts on the album. Does the group have a favorite song on the album?
Jack: My favorite is Has Anybody Seen My Dog. Its one of those tunes that you can literally sit at the bar and when its playing, you can enjoy singing along with it. You instantaneously sound like youve been listening to the song for years.
Mikey: I like Jasara. I like Charlies percussion and the rhythms on that tune. Actually, Jasara is the only song on the album not written with the other songs. Its a much older song than the others. Walk Away is about a Swedish photographer who left. Jasara was the name of a model that also left. *MG: These women are all leaving. Is there a connection to you guys and woman leaving? *
Jack: Now you know why I described the album as dark and moody.
Mikey: No, thats not true. There is a lot of hope contained in this album.
One last thing, Id like to acknowledge Max Newland, Jakes 11-year-old son. He plays upright bass on Tell Old Bill and this is the first album he has played on. Therefore Jake and his son, Max are really the other two members of the Jack Smead 6, so there really are six members of the band. This kid is a great talent. Max is the man! *MG: Is there anything youd like to say to the Jambands readers? *
Keith: Ive been on the jambands.com site and find it to be really informative and we hope the Jambands readers will enjoy our music.

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