Running Down the Dream with Keller Williams
Keller Williams has been known as a one-man strum-and-loop jamband for so long that one forgets that he is also one of our best collaborators. Dream, his latest studio release, is perhaps the fullest portrait of this process as his songs provide a near perfect union with a veritable Rock and Jam Hall of Fame list including Bob and Jackson Hamlet Weir (the latter being the family dog), John Scofield, Fareed Haque, Michael Franti, String Cheese Incident, Steve Kimock and Martin Sexton. Jambands.com spoke with Williams about Dream and the sometimes accidental brilliance of jam tourists passing through the night. Our conversation was simple, direct and complex while filled with wonder about the collaborative spiritattributes that define the mercurial Williams as he sets out to find new dreams with the limitless imagination of a fertile mind and available tech gear. For additional reading, the most recent Relix issue [with Lucinda Williams on the cover] has a feature written by magazine Senior Editor and our Site Editor, Dean Budnick.
RR: I saw Bela Fleck and the Flecktones on the Grammys red carpet last night. Dressed in pseudo pirate gear, it was strange to see our folks invading that world. He also appears on Dream’s “People Watching.” How far do you go back with Bela?
KW: I go way back as far as being a fan goesmany, many years before I even met him. We met in 2001 or 2002 at the Wolf Trap in the [Washington] D.C. area. I was hanging out with my family because that’s about 40 miles from where they live. After the set, Bela knocks on the door and introduces himself. My family thought that was the coolest thing that could ever happen in the whole world. They were freaking out. I thought it was the coolest thing, too. We got a chance to do a bunch of shows together, a couple of one-off shows and then, a whole tour, the Acoustic Planet tour. He just the coolest, most centered and grounded dude there ishe’s just reeks cool.
RR: Victor Wooten, who appears on “People Watching” and “Got No Feathers,” has been a big influence on your music, right?
KW: First and foremost, it’s his playing style, his use of hammer-ons, the use of playing around the bass line where he can lay down this really amazing bass line and, at the same time, be playing a different note in a different method with different chords. I was doing it before I hung out with him but once I saw how he was doing it, it opened up my brain to how it could be done in a different way. He’s 100% genius.
RR: I’m also doing a feature on drummer Dave Watts from the Motet this month. He’s crossed your path a few times in the past. Would you like to talk about him?
KW: Sure. He’s the human metronome. The only record I’ve listened to of mine is a record called _Dance_a DJ remix of Laugh, which really showcases Dave in so many ways, plucking out certain beats and rhythms that he was doing, finding different beats but they’d have the same tempo within the same song and overlapping them all together.
There are three different beats from three different parts of the songs but then laid one on
top of each other. It’s unbelievable what is happening there. He’s one of those types of legendary drummers that will be working his life and remembered long after he’s gonea brilliant drummer that we’re lucky to have.
RR: He’s also one of the few drummer/percussionists that leads his band; for example, selecting the melodic choices within a song.
KW: What a concept too, because the drum is the most important instrument. Wrapped around the drumswhy not have the drummer be the leader? That makes perfect sense. The Motet is constantly evolvingthe lineup is tight and their new record is great.
RR: Good segue, Keller. I’m enjoying your new record, Dream because although, there are many musicians collaborating with you, the album has a unified feel so we somehow don’t get one guest-laden clunky track next to another. Is the opening track, “Play This,” with the nod to bullet mikes and indie/emo radio, on the level or a parody of alt rock songs?
KW: It was 100% parody right down to the word fuck’. I love the word fuck’. I love recording records with the word fuck’. (laughter) I took it out because that was kind of the formula of the radio. I wanted it to sound like the stuff on the radio. That was fun to make, listen to and even more fun to watch the video. Watching the video is actually way more fun than actually making the video.
RR: Sit around, hurry up and wait’ sort of film deal?
KW: No, there wasn’t a lot of waiting. There was a lot of doing it over and over and over and over with different instruments at different speeds. We were going for quantity, not quality and getting as many shots as you can. Of course, the director, Chip Tidings definitely went to great lengths to make it as good as possible. He did a fantastic job.
RR: I like that the Dream sequence begins with a parody song about alt rock radio followed with the real jam goods“Celebrate Your Youth,” featuring Modereko. [Author’s Note: I can occasionally write an adequate sentence. However, I’m painfully unable to pronounce certain words, phrases and names even if I’ve been familiar with them for quite some time. Case in point: Keller advised that I spell Modereko’s name phonetically for the verbally-challenged: “MODE-REE-KO.’]
KW: (laughs) Right. Thank you. There was really no other place for the two of those to go other than at the top. It would have been too drastic to lay it in the middle or wherever.
Modereko is a fantastic group of dudesJohn Molo on drums, Bobby Read on sax and woodwinds, J.T. Thomas on keys, J.V. Collier, bass, Tim Kobza, guitar, John D’Earth, trumpet. [“Celebrate Your Youth”] was actually an instrumental tune; I think it was called “Light Show.” They had sent me a record wanting me to put words to two different
instrumental songs. I heard it and had these lyrics so I just laid it down.
RR: You went to Bob Weir’s house in Northern California to record “Cadillac.” Whose dog is that barking in the background of the track?
KW: That was Bobby’s dogJackson Hamlet Weir.
RR: Are both of you whistling at the same time on that track?
KW: No. That was methree-part.
RR: How was the Bob Weir experience?
KW: Fantastic. He was very warm and gentle, opened up his home to me and was very generous. We hung out in his beautiful house on this beautiful chunk of land in California and had just re-done his studio; this was some of the first stuff he had done in his studio. It was a very, very pleasant day.
RR: You’ve obviously had your own strong career but what was it like to work with Weir in his house whenlike most of usyou’re a big Deadhead.
KW: Well, yeah, yeah
RR: Is it heavy?
KW: It’s not so much heavy as it is surreal. The first time I met him, it was super strange. I went to so many [Dead] shows and I was always in the back; I really wasn’t one to go into the pavilion. I liked the lawn; sometimes, the back of the lawn. Most of the time, it was the little walkway in between the pavilion and the lawnthat’s kind of where I liked to hang out. (laughter)
Anyway, I was never really close, so to meet him for the first time was very surreal, very humbling. The first time we actually played together I wanted to rehearse before we went out. We’re in this tiny little room rehearsing and that was amazingly bizarre. Like I said, I was never really close and here I am in this little closet rehearsing with Bob Weir, singing and harmonizing. I totally know the songs, have been playing them for years and I’m harmonizing with him and it seems so natural because I’ve been doing it for so long. To do it with him was really unbelievable.
Since then, we’ve gotten to play together a dozen times or so and it’s starting to feel more and more natural. I really enjoy playing with him but I really love rehearsing with him beforehand in the back. That’s where the natural feelings come out; we’re playing the songs that he’s been playing for years, the songs that I’ve loved and it’s very easy. I’m
extremely grateful to be a part of that.
RR: Are you rehearsing solo gateways with Weir or a verse-chorus-break format?
KW: Some of the songs we’ve done are the traditional Bear’s Choice/Reckoning songs.
RR: Fairly rote?
KW: Yeah, then there are other songs like “Bird’s Song,” “Cassidy” or “Jack Straw,” and there is an open session to where we allow ourselves to improvise in one area but basically, we go over the format of the songs. I often do different interpretations and I want to make sure that I’m doing it right, playing the right stuff.
RR: Let’s look at the collaboration with Michael Franti on “Ninja of Love.” [Author’s Note: the day after this interview, Williams played at San Francisco’s Warfield Theatre, co-headlining with Franti and Spearhead.]
KW: I wrote that with Michael Franti and Spearhead, in mind. I was going for a Spearhead feel, wanted to record with the band but couldn’t make that work. Instead, it was easier to get some friends locally to record the trackNoel White on drums, who appeared on two of my earlier records so, it’s good to work with him, again; I played a couple of different guitars and bass and Jeff Covert also played guitar on some of the interludes and solos. I’d sent an acoustic take to Michael Franti to let him know what the song sounded like. He had loaded his version on the acoustic take of the songrecorded his vocals over the top of the interludes and the ins-and-outs that he does over that.
But, we had done a show in Santa Cruz two years ago and we brought out the actual recorded song with all of the music. We got him to lay down his rap in the back of the tour bus with a Pro Tools rig with a slight generator hum in the background. (laughs) He pulled it off nicely. We were able to extract all of the stuff from the acoustic version and layer it in different spots although, it was kind of in a different tempo and we were able to make it work. His tracks were done two different ways and I think it came out really cool.
RR: You switch into different gears rather nicely in “Sing for My Dinner.”
KW: “Sing for My Dinner” was pretty much written with String Cheese in mind [all SCI members play on the song, recorded by Jim Watts at New Moon Studio in Boulder]. I was looking to utilize the types of music that I love most from the String Cheese Incident, which are bluegrass, jazz and crazy techno dance music. I wanted to incorporate those three types of genres into the same song. If there is any band that can pull off those three, it is String Cheese, for sure.
*RR: Charlie Hunter and Derrek Phillips appear on “Slo Mo Balloon” and “Kiwi
and the Apricot.” Let’s talk about the recording of the latter song.*
KW: An amazing pair of musicians that could probably slay the earth with just the two of them. We met in New York City at Chiller Sound recording studio and we all played together at the same time on “Kiwi and the Apricot.” I think the whole track was totally live in the studio. We pretty much did it three times and kept the best one. I don’t think I even did any overdubs. Yeah, that song appears on my first live record, Loop. I’d never done a studio version so I did that in reverse.RR: I see you’ve got a family member mixin’ it up on “Bendix/Dance Hippie.”
KW: Yeah, that’s my little daughter [Ella]. She was 17 months old at the time and that was pretty much live, as well. I was doing a loop and she came up on stage during soundcheckusually, at the end of soundcheckbut, this time, it was during the middle and she just walked up and I had the eight-string guitar on so I bent the microphone down and she free-styled so I looped it and she layered on top of it. The whole jam is around nine minutes and pretty awesome. I didn’t think that people would really enjoy a nine-minute loop with my daughter so I edited it down to ninety seconds.
RR: Well, later on when she’s a star, it’ll appear in her bio that she began her career at 17 months old.
KW: She was singing before that but that’s just when she was recordedfor a great period, she was unrecorded.
RR: And Steve Kimock brings the album back home with an appearance on a very nice jam, “Twinkle”a track recorded by Jeff Covert at Wally Cleavers Recording Studios near your home in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
KW: Steve Kimock is on guitar; John Molo is on drums with myself on bass. Steve was teaching me a good method to learn the seven time signatures. He used “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” as an example. What it was was to sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” without the pause and you have seven. [Keller sings the song without the pause and then, sings the seven time signatures: “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven; one two, three, four, five, six, seven.”] That’s where that song came from. “Twinkle” came out of the improv, which was about 25-minutes long. I edited it down to seven minutes and gave it a beginning and an end. I think it’s one of my favorite tracks. It was so live, improvised and acting upon telepathy. We had been playing a couple of days in the studio, at that point, and it was very fun to do.
RR: Ever a chance of hearing the complete jam, some day?
KW: No, it was an improv; it’ll never be like that. We tried to recreate it the next day at a festival but it wasn’t anywhere as cool as that particular version that is on the record.
_Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com