Keller Williams is a man of many words, although you wouldn't guess it judging by his catalogue of one-word album titles. (He once joked that if he had planned better each album title would be a continuation of a career-long sentence). From Freek to Buzz to Spun to Breathe to Loop to his most impressive disc, 2002’s Laugh, Keller has carved out his own little niche in the music world. He's a wildly creative singer/songwriter that has nearly mastered the art of attack-heavy percussive acoustic guitar. It is a style influenced in part by legends such as Leo Kottke and Michael Hedges, but with the use of sampling or looping – Williams has taken his solo show in a new direction.
His friendship with the members of String Cheese Incident, dating back to the mid-90s, led to countless opening gigs, which exposed the jam band world to his unique talents. He now routinely sells out theaters from coast to coast and has become a regular on the summer festival circuit. In early January, he released Dance, a collection of remixed tracks from the Laugh album that take on new, techno personality. "It is basically me trying to find my inner DJ," said Keller, who handled all of the computer editing for the record. He recently kicked off an extensive national tour, which will keep him on the road through April. After a brief break, Williams returns to touring with several festival appearances beginning in May. This fall, he plans to release yet another studio album, titled Home, a place he rarely is.
JW: Growing up as an aspiring musician, was being a solo artist always the goal?
KW: Yeah, my first real gig was in 1986 and I was sitting on a stool with a music stand and playing whatever song I knew. I really started taking it seriously when I was about 14 and by the time I was 16, which was 1986, I started shopping around this super crappy demo tape and trying to get gigs anywhere just to play out. It pretty much started out as a solo act. Through hours and hours of playing solo in front of people, I guess that's kind of where I developed my style.
JW: When you first started playing out, were you performing like a traditional singer/songwriter or did you already have the vision to be this one-man band, singing trumpet solos and the like?
KW: No, my goal from the very beginning was just to be able to make a comfortable living playing music.
JW: Fast forward to present. Explain the evolution of your live show, now that you’ve incorporated the use of loops with various bass lines and percussive tracks.
KW: Well I did play with a few bands at the end of high school and at the beginning of college so I did get that feeling of actually collaborating and producing a dance vibe that only a band can do with drums and bass. Then, missing that element of the music, and also hours and hours of playing solo, I wanted to have that element back. I wanted to be able to do it solo, so looping was a really way to create that dance vibe as well as to create different avenues for me to go down musically; to make it, first and foremost, more interesting for myself.
JW: Why not form a band? Why did you choose to pursue a solo career if you enjoyed that element of ensemble playing?
KW: Well, simply because it was working solo. I was getting work opening for bands and bands really liked the fact that that they didn't have to move anything. It was just one vocal mic and one [direct box]. I was getting work and was somehow able to entertain an audience for 45 minutes before the band came out and it was cheap and people seemed to like it. Since it was working like that, I just remained a solo artist. Following that old saying: If it's not broke, don't try to fix it.
JW: When you’re performing and the loops are going, with the bass lines and the percussive tracks, how much of that is spontaneous? For example, if you feel like improvising, can you manipulate the drum machine into a new section or a break on the spot or are you pretty much following a pre-programmed format?
KW: First and foremost, there is absolutely no pre-programmed drum machine. There is nothing like that where I hit a button and it starts to play. Everything that's looped is looped by me, in front of an audience. As far as improvisation goes, yeah, I'll stumble upon a lick and then I'll loop it. Then I might put a bass line down and then I can pretend to solo on top of it, because I'm not really a lead player. Because I have all this technology, I'm able to pursue being a lead player and I'm come along at it. I'm definitely far, far away from being the lead player that I want to be, but it's all entertaining for me.
JW: Introduce your "band" for us. How many various loops do you have going at a given time during a live show?
KW: Well it might start with a rhythm track, that's one. Then a bass track would be two and then a vocal percussion track would be three. Those are the basics. Then anything on top of that would be like harmony horn lines, four and five. Sometimes if I get crazy, I can go up to like seven or eight layers all in one. It's one loop machine and it's pretty much layering on top of each other, mainly like three or four tracks, just to avoid getting the jam to be too busy.
JW: So on your new album, Dance, there is obviously drum machines and various studio effects. Do you plan to recreate those versions in the live setting with a DJ or other collaborations?
KW: No. The Dance album was primarily an experiment; a fun thing for me. I’ve been really getting into electronic music. Dance is something that’s a studio creation and it’s definitely a total separation from studio to live performance. That’s what really attracted me to this project, you know? The record label owns the Laugh record and at the time I recorded it, which was like June of 2002, it seemed like it would be a long time before I could release my next album due to the minimal amount of radio success I’ve been getting. It’s just enough to prolong the release of my next album of original material. So I wanted to have a good time in the studio and really experiment with the fact that the whole world of technology is at my fingertips with the computers and the samples. I was able to just pick my favorite samples from Laugh and just build whole new songs around them, from scratch. It was just so much fun and I'm really proud of the outcome. Again, it's a complete separation from studio to live performance.
JW: Have you found that when you play some of the songs in their original form, as they appear on Laugh, that there is some sort of fusion between the two versions? Even if it’s on a subconscious level, the dance versions of those songs are floating around in your head.
KW: Yes. I agree with that and I definitely have started to incorporate some elements of the Dance record in with the live performance, but not much though. I'm still keeping the live performance as pure as possible with the technology I have.
JW: You’ve been touring pretty heavily for the last few years. One of the things that bands always talk about is the bond that forms from being on the road together for so many years and the camaraderie that develops. Of course there are also negative elements from spending so much time with the same people day after day. What’s life on the road like for you?
KW: Well it started out with just me and my dog in a pick up truck [laughs]. Then it was me and two dogs and my wife in a Blazer. Then it was me and two dogs, my wife and a sound man. Now it's me, my wife, a sound man, one dog, a guy doing merchandise and also one guy helping me out on stage. So there are five of us on the road. I'm the only one performing on stage, but yet I have a lot of help. I'm at a really comfortable stage right now, finally. I don't have to drive and I don't have to load in or load out. I can really just focus on the instruments and the music. It's really amazing how comfortable touring has gotten. I don't think I could really tour as much as I do without the help that I have on the road. So even though it's just me on stage, there are four really important people to help the day-to-day stresses. It's distributed pretty easily so it's not like all on one person. Everyone kind of has their own job and it helps the touring out immensely.
JW: It must give you a lot of freedom, both as a performer, but also in terms of logistics. You don’t have to worry about four other guys’ schedules.
KW: Exactly. And the Jam Man, which is the name of my looper, it never complains. It never has to shower. It doesn't eat anything and it doesn't worry about what kind of music goes into it because it's turned on and off.
JW: Let’s talk about your songwriting. Of course there’s the age-old question of which comes first, the music or the lyrics, but it seems with most musicians it’s a combination of the two. How about yourself?
KW: Yeah, it's a combination. A lot of times the music comes just from simple, what I call mindless doodling, where I'm just sitting down not really thinking about what I'm doing. Next thing you know, there's a hook there. So, I guess the music usually comes first and then once the music's there, I start humming the melody line. Once I have the melody line, I kind of think about what kind of words would go with that. But then other songs totally start with the words, where it's kind of a tidbit of a conversation with someone that I might grasp on to. Then I'll write a whole scenario around that one little hook line. So it's definitely a combination of both. I would say probably 60% music first.
JW: You seem like you have a pretty joyous life, assuming your music is a reflection. As compared to Nirvana or Neil Young or people talking about heartbreak, your lyrics are very humorous and happy, and seem to celebrate the good things in life. Is that an accurate assessment or do you just make a conscious effort to keep your music positive?
KW: No, that's 100% accurate. I am very fortunate to be able to be living a dream. So it's very hard to focus on the dark side. I'm really happy doing what I'm doing and personally, a lot of times, I write and perform songs the way I would want to hear them as an audience member. I've always considered myself a music lover first, musician second, songwriter third. I'm doing it for the sake of the music and even if I do a lot of covers, I'm pretty much always doing it for myself and I'm just playing the songs that I like. I can totally relate to the dark side of music because that's more than likely a reflection of those musicians' lives, you know? I can totally relate to that because my music might seem positive because of the good things that have been going on in my life. So yeah, that's an accurate description.
JW: And you have a new album coming out this fall entitled Home, keeping with your one-word title theme. What can you tell us about that record?
KW: Well, the concept started out as a double record and one record would be all vocal tunes and one record would be all instrumental tunes. Instead of doing two records, I went ahead and just used the timeframe on one CD and did half the songs instrumental and half the songs vocal. It's all original and I performed all the instruments on the record. It might not be as commercially acceptable as Laugh is, but it's something I'm very proud of due to the fact that it's all my songs and I played all the instruments. So it might not be quite as flashy, instrumentally, as the other records, due to the fact that it's all me playing drums and bass and keys and guitars and doing all the vocals and percussion. I think to the people who are familiar with my music and familiar with my live show, they might get the most out of this record as opposed to someone who has never heard of me before.
JW: Talk about your relationship with String Cheese Incident and how it’s affected your career.
KW: I met them in 1995 in Telluride, Colorado and I saw them in a small bar and they were just jumping around from genre to genre; from funk to bluegrass to salsa to jazz. I was really taken by the use of acoustic instruments and the way that Travis, the drummer, was playing percussion and drums at the same time. I started to go see them in small ski towns in Colorado. I was living in Steamboat Springs at the time, from '95 to '97, and I guess in '95 or '96 I went and saw them a bunch of times and got to meet them as a fan and gave them some of my music. To make a long story short, they invited me to open shows for them. In 1997 I did a whole tour with them and then also a big tour in 1998. It really opened me up to amazing venues. I was so used to playing little restaurants and coffee shops at the time and just opening gigs for people. Cheese really got me out in front of a wider audience and got me a huge amount of exposure and I really don't know where my career would be right now without the help of String Cheese Incident. That's for sure.
JW: It must be quite a joy for you after playing so many solo shows to join String Cheese on stage a few times a year as the Keller Williams Incident.
KW: Right, it's a total joy. Especially the fact that I don't play with the band at all and then all the sudden I'm the conductor of this massive train, you know?
JW: In the spirit of your one-word album title theme, I’m going to throw out a short list of topics. You can only answer with one word, whatever comes to you in the moment.
KW: Sound like fun.
JW: Leo Kottke:
JW: Rod Roddy:
JW: Bill Nershi:
JW: Tye North:
JW: Michael Jackson:
JW: George W. Bush:
JW: Michael Kang:
JW: Homer J. Simpson:
JW: Michael Hedges:
KW: Cool-magnet (one word).
JW: Keller Williams: