Keller Williams: Twelve Tracks and The Five Minute Rule
Keller Williams seems to be everywhere. Seriously, how many music festivals can one man play? Clearly, being a one-man show makes travel logistics relatively easy, especially those “special rare acoustic” shows that require almost no gear. But lately, Keller has been yearning for more. Perhaps he was a little lonely in the spotlight, surrounded only by loops, jamming with himself. So he assembled a dream team of some of his favorite musicians and friends: guitarist Gibb Droll, bassist Keith Moseley and drummer Jeff Sipe, collectively known as the WMD’S. It’s quite a collection of talent, especially for a man who repeatedly refers to himself as a “poseur”. (He is not).
Keller has also recently released a compilation album appropriately titled Twelve, which we’ve asked him to recap in a song-by-song account. Don’t worry; his streak of one-word titles is still intact. Barely.
JW: All 11 of your previous album titles are comprised of just one word and one syllable. I guess this was your last opportunity to name an album after a number. If you had gotten to 13, it wouldn’t have worked.
KW: You are absolutely correct.
JW: Was there any more significance to the number 12? You’re churning out the albums pretty quickly these days. Why now for the greatest hits album?
KW: Well, it was 12 songs spanning 12 years as my 12th release. It all just kind of came together. And you know, there have been some insults flying around that I’m imitates stoner voice sellin’ out, man.’ Just for the record, I think this was all my idea and it wasn’t the label pushing me to do it. It’s pretty much just an idea to share what I’ve done in the last decade or so. Like all of my records, like my whole career, it’s a very self-indulgent release. Every release is pretty much self-indulgent. I do it because I want to document or hear what I’m doing.
JW: Being a one-man jam band is such an interesting concept. Can you talk about that dichotomy? Certainly when you’re improvising by yourself it affords you a lot of creative freedom, but it also limits you in that all of your various looped tracks can’t change on a dime. Now that you’re playing more with the WMD’S, can you talk about the differences between improvising on your own and with other musicians?
KW: It’s really a huge difference. When I’m improvising by myself, most of that improvisation comes during my little poseur, wannabe guitar solos. I don’t practice scales or plan out solos, which is blatantly obvious. The improvising comes during the solos when I’m actually searching for notes and searching for ideas right there, on stage, in front of people. Then there’s other times I could be singing a song and then forget the rest of the words and I could improvise and maybe make up the words or go into another song, and you can’t do that with a band. Well, you could, but it would be sort of a train wreck.
But, improvising with the WMD’S and going out with Gibb Droll, Jeff Sipe and Keith Moseley and playing five or six nights in a row, it really opened up so many avenues in my brain as far as improvising goes. I’ve really learned a lot in terms of where to take things in a group setting and learning when to sit back and when to step up; really, learning to listen. I love it. I really can’t wait for the next tour with the band.
JW: Was it a conscious decision where you actually had to say Okay, wait a minute. I need to find my role here and my voice within the context of the band’ or did it just come naturally?
KW: From the get go, this was pretty much my vision, as far as the band is concerned. We’re concentrating on my material and it’s my project. But, as far as improvising goes, you’re talking about three musicians that have played with so many different people all over the world and they have got way more experience than I do. So it was definitely easy for me to sit back during the sections of the songs where we improvise. Jeff Sipe taught us The Five Minute Rule, where we take five minutes before we actually start the song and create. As far as finding my role in the improvisation, I’m still searching for that. I think that three-week tour was so much fun and very memorable. It made me want to do it more, but I think I’m still learning where my role is. I could be playing a little poseur solo and then Gibb could come on top of that and be harmonizing with me and there’s just this amazing talent that these guys have. It’s really easy for me to sit back and just kind of follow them in the improv world.
JW: Can you expand on The Five Minute Rule? Is that during rehearsal or during an actual live show?
KW: No, it’s during the live show. The Five Minute Rule is an old Aquarium Rescue Unit trick where they would kind of start off in the tempo where the song was and maybe in the same key, but not necessarily start the song for five minutes; just sort of improvise in that key and tempo. From there it could go into different keys and different tempos and then come back towards the song. Everyone kind of knew what the goal was; where the song needed to go, but we took like five minutes to jam and noodle around.
JW: Do you find added flavor in your solo performances now that you’ve been improvising so much in a group setting?
KW: Yeah. I think it’s just like anything. If you do something for so long and then you take it away and do something else it’s going to be good when you go back to that. So, I just did my first solo gig in what feels like a long time the other night in Colorado. It was really cool because it was an all-request, all-covers show. It was really exciting, not just to play solo again, but to also play things that people requested.
JW: Did you learn any interesting nuances in the process or were these songs with which you were already intimately familiar?
KW: I learned about five tunes for that show. There were just pages and pages of requests. I was just so grateful for the amount of participation that went on for the show. I played probably 30 songs the whole night. But, I’ve always been a fan of the Presidents of the United States. They were a band from Seattle. I’ve covered a bunch of their songs, but one of the requests was “Lump”, the one-hit wonder that the band had and I had never played it, but I learned it and played it and everybody knew it and sang along and it was just a love fest. It was really cool.
JW: And of course it’s only one syllable so it fit right into your repertoire.
KW: Exactly. Another thing that went over really well was “Steep Grades, Sharp Curves” by Yonder Mountain String Band. I’ve always been a fan of that song, but I never had the motivation to learn it for some reason. But, it was requested a couple times and I learned it and that was another big hit of the evening.
JW: I see that you’re a part of the Carribean Holidaze, which I’m sure will be a tough day at the office for you. I realize this may sounds like a funny question, but have you ever noticed any similarities between your own trance material and the looping styles of the Disco Biscuits?
KW: I think me and The Disco Biscuits both share a similar love for kind of that house, techno, jungle type of sound. I am just a huge fan of all instrumental music and The Disco Biscuits are very high up in the instrumental scene for me. I only have a huge amount of love and respect for that band simply because we share that same love for the techno groove. They were doing it along time ago, back before it was really prevalent. I remember being at Wilmer’s Park in Maryland, it was probably 1999 or something and hearing those similarities. You know, monotonous’ is not a very positive word, but it’s kind of like meditating. It’s the same beat over and over, the same chord progression, and then things kind of pop out here and there. I just love that stuff, when they go into those long techno grooves. I’m definitely a huge fan of that.
JW: You’ve been out on the road for many years, mainly as a solo artist with very low overhead costs. Now that your popularity has grown and you have a family have you decided what type of touring schedule you’ll have both as a solo artist and with the WMD’S?
KW: It’s all very fresh and new right now and I’m loving the whole group situation way more than my solo act right now probably because it’s so fresh and these are musicians I have so much respect for. I’ve been a fan of some of them long before I met them. Well, at least one of them laughs. I think the band situation is something that I definitely want to show off around the country as much as I can. You know, the music business being the way it is, the jam scene is kind of suffering just like the rest of the industry. The less people that come to shows, the less I can afford a band situation. But, I’m definitely going to take it out and rock it as long as the audience will allow me to. I do definitely have several solo shows on the calendar simply because I think that’s just what I do. The solo thing is kind of the day job and the band thing is kind of a side project. But, I definitely have a summer  tour being lined up, a little package tour as a solo thing, but there’s also a couple band tours lined up as well. So, I’m pretty much going to just take it as it comes, you know. I think I’ll always be playing solo gigs, even when I get old. The less people come, the smaller the venue is, whatever. I’ll still be doing that. I’m definitely going to play with this band as long as this band will have it.
JW: Has there been any discussion about going into the studio with the WMD’S?
KW: Well, just late-night on the tour bus, that type of thing. We don’t really have a plan for that. I’m hoping that out of the three tours that we do everything’s going to be multi-tracked that we can come up with a spankin’ live record. All the new material that we’ve put together, whether it be mine or Gibb’s or everybody’s that’s going to be the bulk of the material on the live record. So I think that for a studio record to come after the live record, there would have to be some major songwriting processes to happen. I would think that we would probably burn all of our material on the live record. I think a live record would just be so much cooler than a studio record. I mean, this is specifically a live project and it took about three nights to really settle in and after that there was like two weeks of six-in-a-rows and it was just so magical in some spots. Listening back to some of the tapes, maybe it could have felt a little more magical at the time than it does on the tape, but at the same time I’m making this music that I would definitely go to pay and see and I don’t always think that about my solo show. With these musicians playing my songs that have never really been played in a band setting, now they’re coming to life in a whole new way. It’s just so over the top exciting for me.
JW: When you first got together and started jamming with these guys, do you remember there being a period of adjustment or a moment where it just clicked and you found your collective voice?
KW: Well, with all of our schedules, I had to approach this idea probably seven or eight months out. I had sent them a couple CDs of my material and we all got together and rehearsed before the first festival, which was Summer Camp with moe. and Umphrey’s. Everybody came knowing all of the material, so when we sat down and started to rehearse, it all just kind of clicked immediately. Now, my songs definitely have some twists and turns and that definitely took some time to iron out. Even on the last day of tour we were still kind of tightening up the songs that we first learned for the festivals, but basically the first time we ever played together it pretty much clicked. We did four festivals one a week for a month. We’d fly in the night before and then play for an hour and a half and then fly out the next day. That was cool, but we never really got it until we were playing a couple nights in a row. So, it kind of clicked in the beginning, but the more we played together, the more it clicked.
JW: On your last album, Dream, you collaborated with several big name musicians, one of whom was Charlie Hunter, who has a customized guitar with three bass strings and the slanted frets. Being a solo performer with a similar unique style, can you talk about some of the various instruments you’ve experimented with in the live setting?
KW: Well, I was followed around by a guitar-maker for a couple days in Colorado back around 2000 or 2001. He’s a guy named Gordon Anderson, who was working out of a guitar shop down in Boulder. He followed me around with a custom-made eight guitar with the fanned frets. Charlie’s has five guitar strings and three bass strings. This one was a little more poseur style, with six guitar strings tuned like a normal guitar, and then two bass strings on the bottom. You can play a normal bar chord, like you would on a guitar, but then you extend your index finger to go over the bass strings. You can pretty much just play these full, chorded bass notes. I’ve been messing around with that on like one or two songs a set for many years.
If I had never seen Charlie Hunter or never started collecting his records, I never would have purchased that instrument. It’s difficult not to sound like him with that instrument because of the tones you can get. But, he is the God of that instrument. He is the master. He is by far my most favorite, influential guitarist that’s living. I think he’s going to be remembered and way more respected long after he’s gone. For some reason he’s not quite getting the respect that I feel he deserves. Martin Sexton is the same way. Why Martin Sexton is not a complete pop star on his own private plane is beyond me. It’s the same with Charlie Hunter. He has like multiple brains to be able to play bass lines, rhythm lines and lead lines all at the same time on this instrument that you have to adjust your hand on. He’s playing three different parts like three different musicians. You hear it on a recording and you automatically know that it’s a bass player, guitar player and maybe a keyboard player, but it’s all him.
JW: Right. I think he’s most similar to a drummer in that regard, where he’s got all of the separate parts going on simultaneously with one brain controlling them.
KW: Yeah. With a drummer, you’ve got the different limbs going on, but he’s doing it with his fingers. The thumb on the right hand is plucking the bass line. The index finger and the pinky finger are fretting the bass line and then the middle finger and the ring finger are playing chords and every now and then he’ll take his pinky and play a solo over top of it. It’s just mind-boggling. He’s not human.
JW: When you were going back to compile songs for your new album, what was the selection process like? Was it pretty obvious to you which songs to include?
KW: Yeah, I thought it was pretty obvious. After each project, I kind of walked away having a favorite track. Even 12 or 13 years ago, I knew that “Turn in Difference” was my favorite. It’s the most different of the whole record. It stood out to me.
JW: Let’s visit each track on the album and get your thoughts.
KW: Well the first one is “Turn in Difference” with Doug Derryberry playing the backwards guitar and Cliff Frank on drums and Brian Durrette on bass. We were in a band called The All Natural Band for four years or so doing regional Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland gigs, doing no-cover type bars and opening acts and a lot of fraternity work. All of us were in college together and everyone had different friends from different colleges. To get them in the studio was really exciting and we were comfortable playing that song since we had played it so much. We were recording on A-DAT, something that was very popular at the time, onto half-inch reel-to-reel. We took the reel-to-reel, flipped it around backwards, played the actual track backwards and he played forwards to it as the track was playing backwards. We definitely took some stuff out, but everything’s that’s on that little backwards guitar line was all done in one take. Now, I don’t know if pitch-correction was around then, or if it was we weren’t real hip to it. Because now, if I have some type of vocals like that, I would definitely go back and redo it. In 1993 or 1994 whenever I recorded that, that was my first time in the studio and I was just over-excited. I ended up with some vocals that I personally would like to change because they’re sharp or flat in some areas. But, I ended up deciding to live with them and chalking it up to that’s what I sounded like then.’
JW: It adds character. Okay, track two: “Anyhow, Anyway.”
KW: Indecision was a big bar band in the Virginia area. They played a lot of places; really cool band, played covers and originals. They were kind of like one of the original jam bands a long time ago. Craig Dougald was the drummer. I was living in Charlottesville for a long time and he had just really gotten in the marimba and had started studying it in a classical sense of using two mallets in each hand. He was interested in participating on the marimba, and Barbara Nesbit was in a band called Rare Days, which was kind of a Dead cover band playing around the Virginia Beach area during that time. I always really liked her natural voice. So the three of us got together. I think it is definitely one of the most original-sounding recordings on any of the records I’ve done. There’s just marimba, shaker, djembe and two voices. That was, to me, an obvious choice from that record.
JW: Track three is “Tribe.”
KW: “Tribe” was in done in Virginia Beach. Scott Harris was the first chair of the Virginia Symphony on the upright bass and he would come to the local bars. Me and my wife and my dog would tour basically from February through November and then for three years in a row, we’d go live in an oceanfront kind of crack house hotel that allowed dogs. But, it was oceanfront, ya know? It was right on the boardwalk and was like five hundred bucks a month. You’d get cable and maid service. It was great. It was killer. Now, granted there was a lot of crack being smoked there, but we didn’t participate in that.
So, during that time I was playing three, four, five nights a week around the Virginia Beach/Norfolk area. During that time, Scott Harris came out and saw me and wanted to be a part of the album. I think he wrote out the entire song. He played the song by reading music. He charted the whole thing out, which really blew me away. I got him to tune his late-1800s double bass down a half-step, which really blew his mind because he had never played without being in pitch. He was really excited to do it and I think that was my first experience with the upright bass.
JW: Why did you have him tune it down a half-step?
KW: Well because I kind of wanted him to play these open string lines and I was tuned down a half-step. I wanted him to play an open E flat with the bow, which was really cool.
JW: Do you do that a lot?
KW: I actually tune a whole step flat. So, when I’m playing solo, the bass that sits on the stand and the other guitar that’s on a stand with the synth pick-up, in addition to the guitar I’m playing, it’s all tuned a half-step low.
JW: So what happens when you play with the WMD’S or the String Cheese Incident or sit in with another band?
KW: Well, I’ll capo up or with the WMD’S, Gibb Droll especially took it as a challenge. I would send him the CDs of the songs and he would learn them being tuned up to normal pitch. I would be playing a whole-step lower though. So we’d be playing the same chords, but in different positions and sometimes it would add different voicings. It’s really interesting.
JW: Do you do that so that the strings are looser and more easily bendable or is it more for your vocal range?
KW: It started out as a saving mechanism. I was in Telluride and the bridge was coming off of my guitar so I took a couple strings off my 12-string and tuned it down to sort of release the tension. It felt so natural and good. Especially with an acoustic, once I tuned down low it’s a lower tuning so it creates a lower resonance and a little more solid bass. It definitely throws off the intonation and it makes it kind of difficult sometimes. It definitely has to be set up and the tension has to be adjusted. It started out for my voice, but now it’s more of a low-end type of thing that I’m digging.
JW: Up next is “Breathe.”
KW: Yeah that’s my favorite tune from the record. Jamie Janover on hammer dulcimer. I think that’s just the coolest solo I’ve ever heard, almost. The whole tonality of that tune really came together well. It really shows the strength of String Cheese.
JW: Getting into your looping days now, “More Than A Little.”
KW: Yeah, that was the very first live record and the loop phase in its infancy. I really liked the way it breathes. There’s not a whole lot of clutter. There’s the basic vocal drum line and the bass line. It’s me playing guitar and singing over top of it. It’s got a lot of air to it. I thought that was a decent representation from that record.
JW: Now, perhaps your most well-known song, “Freeker By The Speaker.”
KW: That is as close to a hit as I think I’ve ever had. That was the one song that was requested on the radio stations. It’s the one song that gets the most response in the live setting. There are definitely some “Freeker”-haters out there that have heard it a lot. Obviously, I’ve played it so many times simply because it gets the most response from the audience. But, because I’ve played it so many times, it’s definitely not my favorite song. People that don’t come to my shows all the time kind of know that song. So, looking at it from their perspective, it’s probably the one song that they’d recognize. “Alligator Alley” is probably my favorite song from the last record. Actually, my favorite song is probably the 15-minute improv, the “Freeker By The Speaker” reprise at the very end. Me, Dave Watts and Tye North just kind of sat around for two or three hours and kind of improvised and that’s where that came from. That’s my favorite, but obviously I’m not going to put a 15-minute track on a compilation like this. It just seemed like that was the most obvious choice, even though it wasn’t my favorite.
JW: Perhaps the funniest title, “Butt Sweat,” track number seven.
KW: Right. That’s the remix off the remix record, which is my favorite album I’ve done, because it’s so different. I don’t really sit around and listen to myself play, but every now and again I’ll put on that album because it’s just so different and so groovy laughs. That’s the remix of that song I was just talking about, the “Freeker By The Speaker” reprise at the end of Laugh. That whole record is something that would be really hard for me to recreate live and that’s probably why I love it so much.
JW: Track number eight, “Apparition.”
KW: That song moves. It’s a good driving song. That’s just my favorite song of that particular record. It’s a very different type of record because I’m playing all of the instruments. We realized after that record that I probably shouldn’t play all the instruments laughs. And that was kind of using a little bit more of a drum sample type of situation as opposed to me actually playing the drums. That one is one of my favorite songs now to play with the band too. We’re actually going to be giving that to some radio stations to try to get some radio play before this next tour.
JW: Is Jeff Sipe slightly better than the drum machine?
KW: Um. I would go way beyond slightly.
JW: Right. Track number nine: “Keep It Simple.”
KW: That was from the double live album called Stage and there was lot more looping on that. I just didn’t feel that the looping stuff was right for this compilation. My live show is really based around solo acoustic guitar playing and singing. I think that really kind of goes back to the origins of what I’m doing. I’m very proud of the lyrics in there and I’m constantly trying to remind myself to pay attention to the meaning of those specific lyrics: keep it simple, don’t stress.
JW: Up next is track 10, “Local.”
Jenny and Larry Keel are two of my most favorite people in the world; two of the most genuine people you can ever come across. That whole session took about 11 hours. We sat down and played about eight songs. We played each one a couple times and then we went home and slept. Then we came back and played a couple more songs and that was it. It was just the most relaxed kind of recording session that you can imagine. We were all sitting around in a circle, playing music and we over-dubbed the vocal harmonies. It’s very natural sounding. When that song comes on, it’s very different from the rest and it kind of sticks out. I just really love playing with those guys and girl.
JW: “People Watchin’,” track 11.
KW: I think that kind of captures the whole idea of that record, of playing with my heroes: Jeff Sipe on drums, Victor Wooten on bass, Bela Fleck on banjo. It was a difficult choice for that record, Dream, you know?
JW: Finally, the only unreleased track on the album, “Freshies.”
KW: Living in Steamboat Springs in ’95 and ’97, it was a very important time in my life. I was just kind of living that ski bum life, of being young enough and not having any responsibilities. I was playing five nights a week, barely breaking even and then snowboarding or skiing every day for free because I was able to play at a bar for little-to- nothing and in return, receive a ski pass through that bar. I really got a huge appreciation for the mountains and especially for the whole ski bum life. Coming back to Colorado and playing in these ski towns and seeing these young and hungry folks they’re very similar to the way I was when I lived there it really inspired me to write that song.
There’s a lot of terminology in there that the old folks wouldn’t get, like Poppin’ ollies off an astroid.’ That’s a total skateboard thing. There’re a lot of skateboarders that are snowboarders and those people in the audience really like that line. I played all the instruments on that one too and did the actual drum samples. I used this old Wurlitzer keyboard and only one speaker worked. It sounded horrible when you plugged it in. So we just kind of mic’d that one speaker and it was really this kind of cool, organic sound. Then Jeff Covert, who’s the Mac Daddy engineer/producer, who is also just a fantastic all around instrumentalist, played the guitar solo. It’s short and it’s sweet and I think it’s a good closer to the compilation.
JW: You mentioned how everyone’s numbers are down in the music industry these days and there have been a couple major milestones as of late, one of which being the way Radiohead released their latest album directly to the fans without a record label. What are your thoughts on this?
KW: I think it’s fantastic. I think it’s obvious that they are seeing the decline. It’s so out in the open right now, the decline of the music business in general. Radiohead has such a strong following that they can go out and tour and tour and tour. They can just bang it out and go all over the world and sell out these huge venues. Maybe they’re not so focused on record sales and the fact that some of those people paid something is amazing. I would think that no one would pay anything because they could just get it for free. Something I’ve always done is to use my records as a promotional tool to get people to come see me. Maybe that’s what they were thinking, I don’t know, but I have 100% respect for Radiohead and the way they went about that whole situation.
JW: Did you buy it?
KW: No, I’m not the huge fan to study that type of music. I love Afromotive though. I think they’re fucking great.
JW: You talked about having some stuff lined up for next summer. Has there been any more talk with your friends in the String Cheese Incident? They’re on a bit of a break right now and it would seem from an outsider’s perspective that given your history with the band you might be an obvious choice for any future touring. Are there any plans?
KW: I don’t think so. The breakup of the band is too fresh in everyone’s mind. I think everyone is just starting to stretch a little right now. I don’t think they have any type of desire to go back out in any way. Of course, they wouldn’t call it String Cheese [Incident] without Billy [Nershi]. There’s nothing in the works. There are all kind of ideas to do festivals with all of the String Cheese side projects and then the band will all be there at the same time and it would be obvious that something would happen, but, I don’t think anything is really going forward with that. I hope it does. I would love to go to another String Cheese show again.
JW: So right now, in addition to your solo shows, you’re going to be concentrating on the WMD’S for 2008?
KW: Well, there are two three-week tours in the works right now for the middle to the end of January and then another three-week tour in February. Then, we’re expecting another child in April.
KW: Thank you very much. I’m going to take off from the beginning of March until probably the end of May and then go out solo on a package tour in the summertime, which I don’t think is confirmed yet so I can’t really divulge the goods. Then maybe I’ll kind of finish up the rest of the country with the band and take them into all of the other major markets that I play, hopefully, if I can keep these powerhouse musicians together.
JW: I wanted to end on a lighter note, literally. Have you every thought about implementing a full-on light show for your solo act? I think that might be a little ironic. You could even control it with a foot pedal.
KW: Yeah, I’ve definitely thought of that. A couple years ago we brought out Scott Johnson as a visualist with the cameras, the video and the footage behind me. I’m kind of allowing that to be the light show. We brought out a lighting designer and he brought out a bunch of moving lights and that, mixed in with the video, it was a little too much for my taste. There was a little too much going on with all the moving lights and the video. It was just a little over the top.
Jefferson Waful is the lighting designer for moe. and co-host of XM’s “Jam Nation” radio program, which airs at 10 a.m. Sunday mornings on XMU, Channel 43.