Not Your Typical ‘One Hit Wonder’: Keller Williams’ Laugh
Although Keller Williams continues to tour as a solo performer, he views studio recording as a medium onto itself. Thus he preceded his last release, the live Loop, with Breathe on which he was backed by the String Cheese Incident. On his new disc, Laugh, he is joined by a core rhythm section consisting of Tye North (Leftover Salmon, Porterhouse) and Dave Watts (The Motet, Shockra). The results transform many of Keller’s compositions, adding new texture and richness. Of course Laugh also showcases Keller’s dazzling acoustic guitar work, the signature humor that he often infuses his original songs. The following interview touches on all these subjects and even concludes with a bit on the whole Kellerwilliams.net/.com issue that frankly may interest few people other than other than the author (and Keller’s mom, who has an idea). And while we’re on that subject be sure to visit Kellerwilliams.net for tour dates, song samples and the like.
DB- With Laugh, you’re continuing your tradition of one word album titles. How did that come about and why have you perpetuated it?
KW- I guess it just started with the first one. The very first album was called called Freek and it just went from there. I don’t have any kind of philosophical answer. I kind of wish I had started to form a sentence but that idea came later before I put in all those nouns and verbs. It’s just short and simple. I think one word says it all in some cases. I think it will probably remain that way too. I like saying a lot with one word, you try it put your imagination behind it.
DB- How would you relate that concept to your to live performances?
KW- As for as one word goes I take that approach to performance in that I don’t really talk between songs. That’s one thing I’ve noticed with some folk musicians but I often find it detracts from the performance. One exception is Leo Kottke, I love to hear Leo talk. He goes off and rants and sometimes forgets what he’s talking about. It’s funny, he’s got this dry wit about him but I prefer to let the music talk and not do any talking myself.
DB- You mentioned folk musicians. Do you place your work within the folk tradition?
KW- I do in the sense that it’s just one guy on the stage. That’s where I started from, the whole folk idea of one microphone, one guitar. I just elaborated on that idea.
DB- Can you talk a little bit about your development on guitar?
KW- I really started getting serious with the guitar at 13 or 14. By serious I don’t mean going to lessons and practicing scales. It was pretty much just watching peoples’ fingers and how they played chords. The hardest thing was just changing, going from chord to chord and getting my fingers to do that. Once I could do that then I could start piecing songs together off the radio. Then once I had 10-15 songs off the radio I started shopping around these crappy demo tapes to try to find someone to let me come and play in their bar. I wasn’t even looking for money, I just wanted somebody to let me play in public.
DB- What was in your initial repertoire?
KW- A lot of Crosby Stills and Nash, and Neil Young. Joni Mitchell, a little bit of Creedence, the Eagles, REM, Elvis Costello and the Cure, that type of stuff.
DB- The Cure? Do you still of any of their stuff, that could make for interesting transpositions.
KW- [Laughs] No, that was a phase, a high school phase, and I kind of grew out of it. I played that in a bunch of bands though [Keller sings the first few lines of “In Between Days” in a faux British accent].
DB- Since most people know you only from your solo career, can you talk a bit about your efforts with those groups?
KW- Let’s see, the first band was about 1987. It was called Downhill Development. That went into a band called The End which was originally the Living End. Then we wanted to do a play on The Cure so we were The Symptoms. That led into college and it was the 5000 Mics which was a very psychedelic thing. That went into Sweet Feet and the Toe Jam and that went into the All Natural Band. The All Natural Band stuck around for about three or four years and we got up to the point of playing some pretty nice clubs as opening acts and the regional college fraternity circuit and that was about it. The whole time I was doing the bands I was also trying to pick up off-night solo gigs wherever I could.
DB- Did you play acoustic in the All Natural Band?
KW- Primarily. I did play a little bit of electric too but only rhythm.
DB- What was the impetus to do your own thing rather than pick up with another group when the All Natural Band dissolved?
KW- The band wanted to put all the money from the gigs into a studio fund. Therefore everyone had to have jobs and they would always complain that I didn’t have one. But I didn’t want to take all the money from gigs and put it into the studio, I had to live off it. So my job was doing solo gigs on the nights we didn’t have regular gigs. Then once the band broke up it just seemed so easy to do the solo thing and not have to worry about other people not making the gigs and just rely on myself. It was for the simplicity and the freedom of it all.
DB- So for a while you were out there touring the country as a lone troubadour?
KW- From about 93-96 I was a legitimate solo act. I had a little p.a. in the back of the truck and a couple of guitars and a dog and just played all around Colorado and the eastern seaboard. I went back and forth. Then by 97 which was when I met my wife, she and I got a little camper and drove around the country for about 3 years trying to get booked for as many days as possible. We were just planting seeds as we called it, trying to come back a couple times of year to make those seeds grow. It sounds kind of cheesy but it’s definitely how it happened.
There’s been three of us though, the past couple of years. Along with my wife, Emily, who is in charge of all the merchandise, I tour with my sound engineer Lou Gosain. Lou kind of functions as the tour manager as well, he makes sure we’re all taken care of.
This time there will also be a stage guy to help with all the gear. It seems like the more money I make, the more toys I bring with me. So we’re going to fill up the stage with guitars and different instruments and candles and things. He’s also going to be up there to help during the show. About once a week someone gets real excited and jumps on stage. When we have a bunch of stuff up there, it can be real nerve wracking if we think someone might run through and plow over a bunch of stuff. So he’s going to help out in that regard and kindly make sure no one steps on anything and he’s going to help me with stuff I might need help with.
Plus there are a couple of friends from Alaska who are hanging out during the cold season up there who are going to drive along with us and do the merchandise, so Emily might move over to the light board. I guess we have a little entourage with us this coming tour.
DB- Wait, let’s step back to the people jumping on stage. When I think of performers prone to audience members jumping on stage I just wouldn’t think of you.
KW- [Laughs] I wouldn’t either. That’s why it freaks me out when it happens.
DB- These are people who want to dance?
KW- Yeah and people who want to be seen maybe, to be a part of it. I respect that in a way and its kind of flattering but it’s kind of scary.
DB- Fair enough. Let’s move on to talk about Laugh. How did you come to record with Dave Watts and Tye North? Your last record was a live solo disc, what led you to tap the two of them to join you in the studio?
KW- While for the most part I perform solo, recording-wise I do feel like it’s good to collaborate with different musicians. With Laugh I was thinking about what would be best for my music. They’re open-minded, around my same age and I also focused on these guys because of the bands that they’ve been in. It worked out great.
DB- What sort of give and take was there in the studio? These are obviously your songs and your name is on the disc but Dave and Tye are gifted, creative players, which is obviously why you wanted to work with them.
KW- They were definitely my songs but I wasn’t really the boss. The way it worked was I sent them CDs of the songs I wanted to do so they had an idea of the arrangements tempos and changes and we came together. Then we flew those guys down to Virginia, rehearsed for three days and recorded for four days. Everyone had their own ideas, especially Dave who wanted to go back and redo things several times. He was like the tracking boss. I think it went really well and I’m extremely proud of the finished product.
DB- In terms of the songs on the album, I’ve read quite a bit about your inspirations on guitar, I’d like to hear more about your songwriting influences.
KW- Ani DiFranco both on guitar and songwriting. She has an amazing writing skill she’s so poetic.
DB- She’s represented on Laugh via your cover of “Freakshow.” Describe your approach to interpreting that one.
KW- That song’s very dear to me because it’s a road song. The way I’m hearing it she’s using the circus to tell people about her life on the road. The tent goes up, the tent comes down and all people see is the show, they don't see what goes on behind it. So I kind of got a kick over that.
DB- You named a number of people earlier whose music you covered on your first demo tape. I would imagine that their songcraft impacted yours. Anyone else?
KW- I’ve never put much thought into it in terms of following someone else’s songwriting footsteps. It’s really easy to do that in guitar playing. I guess I would see Michael Stipe as an early influence. There might be nothing off the record that would remind you of REM but he was definitely an early influence in terms of using weird words for lyrics. I got attached to his writing style back in high school, the way he uses words for musical purposes and not necessarily for meaning.
DB- I can see “Gallivanting” in those terms.
KW- Exactly. “Gallivanting” is a song I wanted to do because the chords are a-b-c-d-e-f-g and each word in each chord starts with the first letter of the chord. I wanted something easy to show the guys: a-b-c-d-e-f-g and just look to me for changes.
DB- Had that idea been kicking around your head for a while?
KW- No I just wanted a pretty nice fast jazz grass type song that would be easy to show someone and that one used the changes really easily.
DB- In terms of your compositions with lyrics, where do you typically start, with the music or the words?
KW- Each song is completely different. Sometimes the music comes first and while I’m doodling, mindlessly playing guitar, I say, “Hey I can use that.” Other times lyrics will pop out of nowhere or else I’ll be having a conversation with someone and something will come up that I can use. There are some songs that maybe no one will understand, it's just personal thing. There are others when I’m trying to make people think and there are others that tell a story with a beginning, middle and end.
For instance, “Alligator Alley,” the word came first on that. Driving from one side of Florida to the other there’s an actual stretch of highway called alligator alley. There are two canals on either side where I guess thousands of alligators live. So while driving back and forth on that highway I came up with this crazy scenario of swimming in those canals.
DB- What about “Freeker by the Speaker?”
KW- There I’m just describing the experience of looking out at the audience and making up stories about what I see. That’s something I still do on stage.
DB- Which leads me to ask, what about “One Hit Wonder?” Obviously that’s tongue in cheek but, and I guess this sounds like a Congressional inquiry, do you now or have you ever aspired to be a one wonder?
KW- I believe in the power of radio and the thing I’m after the most is to sell tickets to shows. I want to perform in small theatres, that’s my goal, and I think that to have a song blared on every major radio station around the country will definitely increase my show tickets. So in that sense, sure, I’d love some help from the radio and not have to go on TRL and all that crazy stuff. Just kind of get in and out so that people know that one song. Then after they come to see the show and hear that song they might like it and come again next time without having all that corporate mess on the radio.
DB- So you don’t have any fears about that being a burden, or do you just figure you’ll worry about that when the time comes?
KW- I honestly think it never will happen but if I did I would get a kick out of it. I think it would be funny.
DB- What led you to re-record “Kidney In A Cooler?”
KW- In part just the response it has at shows. Plus I had these big ideas for it in the studio. I was thinking about Hammond organ which never made it on there. I also had different ideas as far as the rap section goes. I also wanted to use three snares at the same time, which we do and it’s pretty cool.
DB- You’re about to start a big tour. Earlier you mentioned that at one point you hit it pretty hard, planting seeds. Obviously you’re still gigging quite a bit but have you made a conscious decision to ease up a bit now that you have built up that base of support?
KW- Yes. The local spots around where I live I might hit twice a year but Florida, California, Seattle that’s definitely like once a year. I was also hungrier then, hungrier to perform, to please, so I played more familiar songs. Back then the types of venues I was playing were small restaurants and small bars where you’d wait until 9:00 when people finished eating and then they’d take a few tables out of the corner. I’d set up there and play for ambiance. People weren’t really coming to the show to hear me, it would be a popular drinking spot. So I’d play more of what people want to hear, requests.
DB- Do you still take requests?
KW- I try to accommodate, although if I played somewhere the night before close to where that show is I might not get to a particular song. What happens now is that people keep song lists. I’m used to going out and winging it, so it’s hard for me to remember what I played the last time I was around. But now I’ll have someone find the list of what I played when I was there and I’ll have the list that afternoon so I’ll try to play something completely different. But I do what I can. It’s interesting, though, if don’t get to it, sometimes people will put off what they’re doing the next day to go that show and hear the song. I mean I did when I was 21, 22 years old.
DB- What bands were you into at that point?
KW- I guess from 87-95, I was in that big Grateful Dead phase. I would get some crappy minimum wage job and work it hard for a month and then spend it all on like ten, eleven shows. Then I’d head back to college or to work and do something to make money. I went to about ten shows a tour spring summer and fall. I started seeing Phish around 92 at the last of their club phase and that was really exciting but once they moved into the coliseums it kind of lost it for me. I was enjoying the high energy of the clubs. In 95 I jumped into the String Cheese phase. There’s been several phases.
DB- I would imagine that many of our readers have some familiarity with the story of how you invited the members of String Cheese to a show and by the end of the night they were all performing with you. That began a relationship that continues to this day. But I’m curious, had you been checking them out quite a bit before that first time you encouraged them to see you?
KW- I’d probably seen them about five time before actually meeting them, and that was in small little ski town bars. I saw them twice in Telluride. I drove up to see them in Leadville which is a tiny little town that is actually the highest altitude town in the country.
DB- Back to your own touring, I’d like to hear your thoughts on one question that I return to, and one that interests me quite a bit. How would you compare audiences across the country? Is there one region for instance that you think listens more closely ?
KW- That’s a tough one but I’ll tell you, at least from my perspective, I think the west coast audiences are more perceptive, listening carefully and more focussed on the music. Maybe it has to do with smoking which there is much more of in the south that turns it into more of a social interaction thing.
DB- Okay, final geeky internet question [Laughs]. There’s a big realty company that owns Kellerwilliams.com, so that your web site is Kellerwilliams.net. Are you bitter about that?
KW- [Laughs] I’ve gotten over it. Although my mom keeps encouraging me to play a company picnic.