Perspectives on the Stage with Keller Williams
Throughout his youth, Keller Williams was a music fan standing in front of the stage. He’s certainly kept the same attitude even if his vantage point has changed and now he is the one in the spotlight with his array of instruments. From gigs in nearby towns during his college days to nationwide tours as an unknown artist to return visits as an artist of renown, Williams consistently has thrived in the concert setting. So, it’s no surprise that he would release a live album. His second concert document, Stage, came out in June. The two-disc set is made of a west coast show and one from the east. Through it all, Williams follows the radio dial in his head and mixes originals, instrumentals and cover tunes. Our conversation, conducted at the time he was opening dates for the Dave Matthews Band, ran together in a similar casual but engaging manner.
JPG: I found this real interesting quote from you, a description of yourself. You say you’re a music lover, a musician and then a songwriter. Would you elaborate on that self-description because when you see someone with a guitar, you just naturally think, Well, he’s a singer/songwriter’ but he also says this about himself…
KW: I’d been to so many shows as a teenager, early 20’s, that I could totally put myself in the place of the audience. I try not to take myself too seriously. My CD collection continues to grow almost daily. It’s just boring playing all my own songs all the time, so I really enjoy playing covers. That’s where that phrase comes from, music lover. Music lover first, musician second. I’m not really trying to make the statement for politics or art or anything like that. I’m just doing what I love, which is playing music. Sometimes, I don’t even try to learn a cover. All of a sudden, I know it. I don’t write down the words or listen to it. I just start playing it and singing it. That just comes out of my true music lover.
JPG: Anything in particular that you recently picked up that has grabbed you.
KW: I’ve been in a heavy Fela Kuti phase. Six months or so. Just everything involving Afrobeat. Recently, I saw Femi Kuti (Fela’s son) down in Australia. There’s a group out of New York called Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra. They definitely studied from the school of Fela. If you’re a Fela Kuti fan and you listen to Antibalas it’s almost like you’re listening to Fela Kuti. I really respect the fact that they’re taking that music as an art form and preserving it in a traditional way. I really like that.
JPG: Have Fela Kuti songs or aspects of them made it into your set?
KW: I think aspects of them have. A lot of the Fela Kuti songs are heavy in the politics, in the things happening in Africa when Fela Kuti was alive. A lot of them are in his native tongue. Fifty different languages down there. Mainly just the rhythms and the beats and the hypnotic-type of constant groove. I really, really like that.
I’m not really studying the beats and trying to memorize them, but there’s definitely some traces of them that are showing up in the jams.
JPG: On to the new album, I was just listening to Stage before you called. It’s probably my favorite one of yours because to my mind it represents you the best.
KW: I agree 100 per cent. The stage represents what I’m all about, the performance aspect of it. That shows where I am in my life. I actually put a live album out in 2000, Loop. It’s the beginning stages of the loop phase. It’s a little more organic than where I am now. I’m incorporating more instruments and sounds and more textures. It’s progressed pretty nicely and that’s where Stage is.
JPG: Speaking of the whole looping process, how long did it take you from just playing guitar by yourself and then discovering and mastering the whole looping process, feeling comfortable enough to do in public and adding more and more elements onstage?
KW: To be honest with you, it started onstage. It started where I was just doing one loop song a set. And just looking forward to that time. At that time, I wasn’t really using the right type of gear. So, once I got the right type of gear, it was really easy for me to go that way.
But, definitely some time in my house rehearsing a little bit, getting the timing right. It’s just fun. It didn’t take very long at all to really incorporate it a little heavier.
JPG: As a guitar player, you’re used to hitting a foot pedal to change the tone or whatever, I just didn’t know if it caused you to develop a completely different thought process in order to build a song on the fly.
KW: Right, right. It’s definitely a different process. I’ve always tried to keep the loop thing in perspective and focus the show around singing and playing and the looping things spice up the jams a little bit. Definitely some songs were built around looping and I sing over top.
JPG: Do you like the idea of Keller Williams One Man Band or do you think one of these days you’ll be Keller Williams fronting a whole band?
KW: One hundred per cent comfortable as a solo act. It’s difficult to try to go a different direction as far as a band’s concerned because it is working so well, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking about it. I often think about bringing out a small rhythm section — bass player, drummer — and then there’s ideas of me wanting to play bass in a power trio. (slight laugh) and actually just be the bass player and go out with a really good guitarist and a really good drummer. I really like that idea, but again it’s really hard to actually go that way mainly because for me I think to be comfortable it would take about a good month and that’s just not really realistic with other human beings.
Being a solo act, I’m not really relying on other human beings. Once you start talking about a couple weeks rehearsal that gets into problems.
JPG: You’re out on DMB tour, I would think a certain percentage of audience members know you. So, that’s just gravy to them besides seeing the Dave Matthews Band. But certainly many do not. How do you approach that? Do you just do what you do and hope that it goes over?
KW: Well, yeah. I’ve seen Dave Matthews before and I’ve gone in to see the opening act and there’s a thousand people in there and it holds 20,000. So going into it I pretty much know what to expect. I’m happy with that. I’m just happy to be able to hopefully connect with the band. I’ve met those guys. I lived in Charlottesville from 93-95. I don’t think they’d know who I am if we walked into a room together, but I’m psyched to reconnect with them. And any chance to play the big sheds is exciting if there’s no one in there or not.
JPG: Speaking of big sheds, my introduction to you took a few years ago during the So Many Roads tour in 2001. (It featured RatDog, Rusted Root, Karl Denson and DJ Logic).
KW: It was a fantastic experience! Definitely something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I had one of the best slots that you can imagine. I got like the 30-minute slot right before RatDog. Everybody that was coming into the show was in by the time that I played. It was a really, really good slot and I got to meet and hang out with Bob Weir. Play with him and that was just a real rush for me.
JPG: That was my next question. As a Deadhead, did you make an active effort to meet with Bob?
KW: Sure. I definitely try not to be that guy, you know? I always try to stay out of the way, especially when it comes to being around my heroes. There are some people that are real famous in my world that might not be famous in someone else’s world. I definitely don’t muscle my way in and try to meet em. I let it happen naturally and that’s the way it happens; just get the message through management that I think it would be great if Bobby would come out and sing with me during my set instead of going to him and asking him. So, I think it was about a week’s worth of shows passed and he decided he wanted to do it. I got to pick all the songs.
JPG: Did you do your songs or Dead songs or covers?
KW: We did Dead songs [ Editor’s note: "On the Road Again," "The Race Is On," and "Bird Song" to be precise- 8/26/01] .
JPG: Now how was it playing with him because I hear how much of an adjustment it is for some musicians to hook up with his type of rhythmic playing…
KW: It was extremely easy for me. It’s no secret, I have somewhat of an unhealthy fascination with the Grateful Dead. So, just seeing him from hundreds of yards away for so many years, and then standing next to him was, with his voice and guitar in my ear mix, at Red Rocks, singing in the dark, with the lights shining on you was a total rush.
After so much studying his music, it was like a lot of people young and traveling around the country seeing the Dead, the music was like the soundtrack to life. Didn’t take much rehearsal. Pretty much we played each song once, when we went out there.
I think he felt comfortable. I think he’s been in that situation before where there’s so many Deadheads, you can know the songs. If you know the music, you can get the flow right along. I hope he was comfortable with it. I know we haven’t really kept in touch or anything.(laughs)
I have it all on video, too.
JPG: Keeping with that subject as well as returning to Stage, for this fellow Deadhead, my favorite song on the album is probably "Gatecrashers Suck…"
JPG:..since I’m still holding on to my second night Deer Creek 95.
KW: You know what? I’m playing Deer Creek tomorrow night. I’m definitely going to play that song.
JPG: The funny thing about that last night the Grateful Dead played there. I was situated at the bottom of the lawn and I was able to see the people climbing over and literally busting through the fence at the top of the lawn. But I had no clue that a riot occurred in the parking lot til I got a call from home the next morning asking if I was alright.
KW: Yeah, it was a real bummer. I was in the back by the thick of it. All of a sudden there was just a swarm of people from behind. It didn’t seem natural. There were rumors that Jerry had a death threat that night, so they left all the pavilion lights on for the whole second set. The gate crash. Imagine what’s going through Jerry’s head at that time.
JPG: That was my last show. Really bizarre set. That was really strange…Let’s change tack. When you play Nelson Ledges, it’s going to be part of the Grateful Fest. It leads to the obvious question, and the theme of the concert, what are you grateful for?
KW: I’m grateful for being able to live a dream. I’m grateful for being able to play super beautiful venues, which I’ve heard Nelson Ledges is, a super beautiful venue. I’m grateful for my family. The family that is yet to come. I could go on and on.
JPG: When you say "family yet to come" does that mean some day there’ll be little Kellers or is there one on the way?
KW: In four months there will be a little Ella.
JPG: Congratulations! Looking back, You lived in Fredericksburg, Virginia, moved to Charlottesville, then you moved to Boulder?
KW: I moved to Steamboat Springs, actually. We lived in Steamboat from 95-97. Then me and my wife lived on the highway from 97-2000. Just stayed in hotels and campgrounds and truck stops, scary things like that for a couple years. Just playing, trying to make ends meet. We finally moved back to Virginia in 2000.
JPG: Beautiful land in Virginia. That’s an incredibly wonderful story of being together, staying together and working together, traveling with your wife during those hard times.
KW: Oh yeah, heavy. She was the merchandise seller. She’s always looking for new t-shirt designs and things like that. She sat next to the merchandise in all those smoky bars, the big rock clubs, and getting hit on by tons of different people. She did that for like five years.
And now she retired. I’m pretty lucky to have a great management team. Management, booking, publicity, label, ticketing, merchandise all under one roof. But, she is the liaison for all of that. All the tons of people doing all different kinds of jobs and she coordinates, and people just have me go out and do shows. I can trust everyone else to do the hard stuff.
JPG: You’re talking about Madison House, which also works with String Cheese Incident. When you hooked up with Madison House did you know that much about them or was it like, Yeah, let me hook up with somebody and we’ll see how this works out.’
KW: Back in 93, 94, I went to college down in Virginia Beach, Norfolk area and I was playing in some of the bars down there. Then, I saw the Cheese in ’95. It started out as a low level…they had beliefs and the love and the friendship needed to make it work. Did it for almost nothing the first couple years.
JPG: Talk about grass roots.
KW: Exactly! We live by this motto, okay? There’s no money in it, but it’s great exposure.’ So, we just lived by that, our mantra. We’re not making anything, but it’s good exposure. (laughs)
JPG: Like the line, It’ll look good on your resume.’
KW: Exactly. It’s who you know, and also perception is greater than reality type of thing.