Keller Williams Takes it Home
Now is your best chance to hear Keller Williams on the radio. Not only is his latest studio disc, Home scoring some airplay but the musician himself is now hosting his own weekly program. Both of these subjects are explored in the following conversation which skews a bit more to the former topic. Keller will support his first solo studio disc with his far-from-first solo tour which begins on October 1 in Cincinnati and eventually carries him to Europe. For details on all of the above (and more) visit Kellerwilliams.net.
DB- Before we get to your new disc, I’ll like to talk about your radio show. How did that come about?
KW- There’s a bunch of caseless CDs all over my house and motor home as well as cases with the CDs nowhere near around. It started out as a little hobby thing where I would save the coolest CDs that I could without stepping on them and compiled a narrated mix tape. I thought I would do something with the Internet or stream it on my web site and then I mentioned that idea to Reis [Baron at Sci Fidelity Records]. He mentioned it to some radio programmers he was talking to at the time and I got picked up. It was one of those right time time, right place kind of things .
DB- How would you describe the show?
KW- Well, it’s called Keller’s Cellar: Somewhat Ruleless Radio. Besides the normal FCC regulations there are no rules so I could play whatever is within arm’s reach, like Bobby McFerrin, Grateful Dead, R.E.M., Spearhead, String Cheese Incident, No Doubt, Todd Snider, Peter Frampton. No rules whatsoever, anything I feel like playing. It’s been a lot of fun.
DB- Do you put the show together thematically or is it really just what interests you and might sound cool next to the preceding song?
KW- I play songs that I think would sound good next to each other as well as those I want to talk about. A lot of times listening to the radio you hear a song go by and you like it but the DJ skips over it and you never learn who that song was by or all that much about it. So I try to focus on that and put myself in the place if the radio listener. I talk about who its by and what it means to me and silly little anecdotes without getting too far on the corny or cheesy side. I’m still learning how to do it. I don’t have any real training behind it but I listen to a lot of radio. We listen to this really cool show called Jam Nation on XMU [Author’s note: Hey, thanks].
DB- How about your own music. To what extent do you play that?
KW- Pretty much I’ll play my own instrumental music underneath when I’m talking. I’m mimicking the really cool late night DJ when you’re driving, who’s kind of rambling with some music underneath. I use my music for that. I don’t go, [deep, exaggerated big radio voice] "Well here’s Keller Williams off the record Home with Love Handles.’" I don’t set it up like that.
DB- So do you use your recordings as music beds or do you play live while you’re talking?
KW- No, I just play my music off the records.
DB- Let’s move on to Home. I know you select album titles with one word that is most evocative of the music or experience. So was this one literally recorded at your home?
KW- Right, I try to describe the whole feel of the album with one syllable. It was recorded a short drive from my home. I could go home for lunch after the session, five minutes and I’d be home. All of the other records were recorded out of town in other studios.
DB- Of course by naming the album Home you only exacerbate any confusion with the KellerWilliams.com site which belongs to a realty company. Those Google searches are going to drive people crazy. Then again you’re not much of an on-line guy yourself, correct?
KW- I am not computer literate. My wife Emily does all the computering (laughs). She’s kind of the liaison between us and the label and the publicist and everything because it’s a computer world.
DB- Much of your grassroots support comes from on-line efforts.
KW- 100%. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I need to sit in front of a computer and look for something to do. I just don’t think that way. That’s probably part of the reason I don’t have a studio in my home. Well first and foremost if I had a studio in my home I would never leave. I’d be sitting there like a freak getting really fat. [laughs] And the second thing is the world of recording has gone the way of computers and each year you get different upgrades and things you have to add in, so I would have to start from the very beginning and figure out the whole language. Sitting there getting cricks in the back of my neck and clicking on different things just doesn’t interest me. There are other people who get paid to do this and upgrade their equipment, so going back to not having a studio in my house because I’d never leave, I’d just assume get out of my house and pay these guys who are up on it anyway.
But you remixed Laugh into Dance on computer, right?
KW- Correct. Jeff Covert is the engineer and owner of Wally Cleaver’s Recording Studio. That’s where I recorded Home. We recorded Home right when Laugh came out and it was going to be a long time before Home was going to be coming out and so I got the idea to do Dance. Jeff and I have this rapport where I give him the ideas and he puts them into the computer. So Dance was my sitting next to Jeff who was sitting at the computer and I was saying, "Let’s pull this sample out, let’s find a drum beat and drop that sample in there." It was pretty much all my ideas while working with Jeff. It was like the computer was working from my voice command.
DB- Well that is the future. Back to Home, that was originally going to be a double disc. What led you to winnow it down?
KW- As a music lover it pretty much came from my own way of dealing with double discs. Usually in all my double disc sets there’s one I like better and gets the most played and one that sits and doesn’t do anything. So instead of making two 50 minute CDs I chose my favorite stuff and made it one. It was going to be a double disc and half was going to be instrumental and half was going to be vocals and I thought it would be more interesting to combine them because now you can take a 79 minute CD, trim twenty minutes off the double disc and put it onto one. It’s tighter and one doesn’t get left in the box.
What philosophy did you then bring to bear in assembling and ordering the tracks?
KW- You think about the listener and not everyone shares my love of instrumental music. I feel that nothing really hurts a song more than lyrics yet I would imagine that the instrumental CD was the one that would be left in the box. So I thought maybe if I combine the two that could make for an interesting listen. It starts out with two vocal songs and ends with two instrumental songs. And in between it’s vocal/instrumental, vocal/instrumental so it’s a little more interesting to combine the two rather than have one CD all vocal, one CD all instrumental. So that was my thought.
DB- All things being equal would you create all-instrumental music?
KW- I don’t think I’m musically trained enough to focus on instrumental music. You might notice that in my instrumental tunes there’s not always a solid melody line. Usually it’s rhythm-based. So I don’t think the instrumental tunes by themselves are always good enough for me to go completely instrumental. I guess I could transform some of the vocal tunes into instrumental tunes and take the melodies that I’m singing and play them but sometimes the songs get written with the words first, I can’t deny that.
DB- Although in terms of the rhythmic nature of your instrumentals, doesn’t that come out of your performance mode? When you’re up there by yourself isn’t more required in terms of rhythm?
KW- Just because you’re solo that doesn’t mean you’re going to go to the rhythm first. There’s Michael Hedges, Leo Kottke, Justin King, Kaki King… These people are playing rhythm lines and melody lines at the same time using their expertise and different sides of the brain and different fingers at different times. Charlie Hunter is an excellent melody maker using his ten fingers and his eight string to play bass lines, rhythm lines and a melody lines simultaneously so it can be done, just not by me [laughs]
Speaking of Hunter, you bought one of those eight string guitars, correct?
KW- Charlie’s guitar has five guitar strings and thee bass strings. My guitar is six guitar strings and two bass strings so they’re different . Charlie has his own design and his own method of playing which is very technical- his thumb, forefinger and pinky finger are playing the bass line and his other fingers are playing the melody line where I’m pretty much focussing on the guitar aspect. My eight string is played like a regular guitar and there happens to be some low strings, whereas Charlie is more bass and guitar, but that’s definitely where that idea came from.
DB- Back to Home again, it seems that there’s a different tone to the disc than your previous ones. Do you agree?
KW- Yes it’s definitely different and much of that is because I played all the instruments. On the other albums you can hear the interaction between musicians- you can hear actual bass players and drummers rather than my interpretations of them (laughs). But this is something I wanted to do, to play all the instruments. The instruments that I can’t play as well, I’ll took the extra time and to try to pull it off. The Hammond organ, for instance, only appears on one song but that was really hard to do, the two layers of keyboards- I had to incorporate the black keys and stuff like that [laughs]. I might do it again but I think the next studio album is going to involve professional musicians [laughs].
DB- As in plural.
KW- It was something I wanted to try and it definitely has a different flavor but I’m very proud of it. I would say it is the most representative album of my music. Breathe had a very String Cheese feel. Laugh I think has a very virtuoso feel to it- Dave [Watts] and Tye [North] were very tight before they came into the session, they were dong projects like Theory of Everything, whereas Home is just my interpretation of the instruments and the music.
DB- What instrument did you start with when building the tracks?
KW- Usually I would lay the guitar track down first and then sing over the top of it. That way I’d know where I was in the song and then we’d put the bass down and then the drums. Of course everyone knows you need to start with the drums first but we never did [laughs]
DB- Which makes it all the harder.
KW- It definitely wasn’t easy.
DB- How long had you been playing the drums before those sessions?
KW- I guess a couple of months, really, but I’ve been doing the vocal percussion and I have an idea of how drums should sound, how beats should go. Once it’s in the mind it’s not hard to put down onto tape. It takes time and we just played with it until it sounded right.
DB- How long did it take to record Home?
KW- Fifteen days.
DB- Has the experience inspired you to further expand your array of instruments when you’re out on tour?
KW- The whole last fall tour I had a kick snare high hat. I’m not really good with my feet and I need my feet to hit the loop button so I had the kick drum elevated and I hit the foot pedal with my hand so I could hit the loop pedal with my foot. But now I’ve got a custom kick drum stand where the center of the kick drum head is five and half feet off the ground. So I’m going to be hitting it with a mallet and it’s going to be an interesting looking stand-up drum kit with the snare drum off to the side and the high hat raised way up. So that’s going to be an interesting thing this fall tour.
DB- Indeed…If you’re up for it I’d like take a few minutes and hear your thoughts on a few of the songs off Home.
DB- How about "Moving Sidewalk?"
KW- That came from a combination of all different kinds of airports jumping on a moving sidewalk and being late and trying to get around people. I guess that was mixed with being in Hawaii and leaving my guitar in the hotel and one of my mangers Nadia drove me back to the hotel in a convertible mustang and she put the pedal to the metal and my head flew back. So that’s a mixture of that Hawaiian trip and walking on different moving sidewalks at the airport.
DB-"Above the Thunder?"
KW- That’s another airplane song. Me and Emily are seldom separated. She tours with me a lot. Occasionally though she won’t go on a plane trip and "Above the Thunder" was just me sitting on airplane taking off, looking out the window.
DB- That is one thing I found interesting, that there are two airplane/airport songs on there.
KW- Go back to Spun which was recorded in 98 and there are lot of road songs. You can hear how my career has kind of progressed moving from the road songs to the airplane songs, so I’m very lucky.
DB- And maybe one day launch pad songs, which leads us to "Victory Song."
KW- That’s my post-September 11 song. Several months after September 11 happened it seemed like the country really bonded and came together as a team because we were attacked violently for the first time in a long time. So I wondered what would happen if the planet was attacked, the whole world would have to come together and maybe that’s what needs to happen to bring the armies of earth together as one. I never really go into politics with my music and I’m not calling this political but it addresses what would happen if the planet was attacked.
DB- How about the instrumental "Bitch Monkey?"
KW- That was just something I thought was a funny word at the time. A real bitchy monkey or maybe a female dog that looks like a monkey.
DB- With your instrumentals, do the titles come after the fact?
KW- Especially "Bitch Monkey" because that is a live jam recorded at a show and it never really had a name until I wanted to use and I had to put a label on it. There are a lot of loop jams that don’t have names and every now and then Emily will give me a printout of the discussion list on the computer and these people will make up their own names for the jams. I’d be like, "What the hell is that? I don’t know that song, did I play that? And it’s these loop jams between songs, these segues and people make up names for them. That’s what happened with "Bitch Monkey" except I made it up.
DB- Have you ever taken something that someone else named in that manner and later used it because it just felt right?
KW- Not yet but I’m not saying that I won’t.
DB- On this disc you also incorporated some older recordings of yourself from when you were a kid. How and why did that come about?
KW- My grandfather recorded the family Christmases and Thanksgivings with one of those rectangular tape recorders where you push two buttons down at the same time. So he kept an audio record and when you’re with three year old kids you have to ask them particular questions to get them to talk, like, "Where are you from?" "Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg, Virginia." The album is called Home and Fredericksburg is where I was born and raised so that kind of flowed.
Then at the of the record the hidden track is from when I was seven and I was trying to work the room and go around and get requests from people and they were requesting "Silent Night" and crazy old people music that I didn’t know. So I started to sing a song that I had been listening to because my sister was really into Shaun Cassidy at the time with the poster and all, so I started to do a Shaun Cassidy song and twenty-something years later we’re in studio listening to this and we’re able to put in a drum beat and guitar and bass and keyboard. It was a really funny thing to work on, take a whole vocal recording from when I was seven and put a band behind it.
DB- It’s funny because there is that one beat before you bring in the instruments and the listener doesn’t see that coming.
KW- Yeah it kind of hits you.
DB- Last one, relative to your discussion list, people were real hyped up when you performed "Portapotty" at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. You hadn’t played it for some time- what led you to do that?
KW- That was a quote unquote breakout. I was someone who listened and went on tour with the Dead from 87 to 95, and in the early 90's did the whole Phish thing, and to hear a breakout after going to several shows in a row was a real treat. "Portapotty Song," I just got sick of playing it. A lot of people liked it and they were requesting it but I just got sick of it and stopped playing it. So that was one of the very few songs that I could actually break out. Plus if you're going to break out "Portapotty Song" you have to do it somewhere that everyone has to use a portapotty. So it just made the most sense to play it at that festival.