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Published: 2008/11/23
by Randy Ray

Keller Williams Goes Rogue

Last month, spoke with Gibb Droll, the lead guitarist in a quartet fronted by Keller Williams, and featuring Keith Moseley on bass guitar, and Jeff Sipe on drums. This month, we speak with The Man himself about a wide variety of musical adventures, including the current Live album which features Williams and the band in fine form over 2 CDs of incendiary, playful and engaging music, and 1 DVD of live highlights, as well.

Williams returns to his solo work, for the bulk of 2009, but not before another intriguing side project in 2008a handful of dates, including New Year’s Eve in South Carolina, leading a band called Grunge Grass with bassist Claude Auther, and Jay Starling on dobro, playing a mixture of All Request’ 1990s grunge and post-grunge alternative rock songs bluegrass style. Early on in our interview, an apparently random question about the musician’s trek through the northern California redwood forests, and the mammoth trees that shade all below in darkness, leads to a fascinating metaphorical link to the way one can view Keller Williamsneither overshadowing, nor losing sight of those surrounding him in his chosen field, always present, and always ready for any audience of any size.

RR: This is your “Dream Band” with these three musiciansKeith Moseley, Gibb Droll, and Jeff Sipe?

KW: Yeah, very much so. I’m a fan of everybody before really meeting them. Meeting them, and getting to know them over the course of the years, the respect has grown even deeper. To actually be on the stage with all these guys is definitely a dream, for sure.

RR: And you’ve been touring off-and-on with this quartet for about 18 months, including a well-received gig at Bonnaroo in June 2006, which I enjoyed.

KW: We’re currently on a tour of ten shows in eleven days [early to mid November], and we did a tour in September, as well. I think, all in all, this is probably our fifth or sixth tour. It’s definitely a completely band from when we were at Bonnaroo. We’ve just grown leaps and bounds since thenand musically. (laughs)

RR: Gibb Droll mentioned that in our feature which ran last month. He said, “If you probably heard a recording of the first show, or the third show of the tour versus maybe the thirteenth or fourteenth show, it’s amazing how everyone grows.”

KW: Right.

RR: How did that organic growth happenfamiliarity with the material, or did the musicians discover new areas where you could expand?

KW: I think it’s all of the abovegetting a hold of the material, finding places to expand, and then actually allowing that to happen is a big thing. Not having a regimented setlist, or regiment arrangements, everything can move or be different every night, and it is.

That’s really cool because I think that everyone knows that they have the freedom to do that. They have the freedom to go places. They’re definitely encouraged to do that, too. The listening aspect of really absorbing what everyone else is playing, and adding along to it is a real treat.

RR: I also asked Gibb what the one quality he enjoyed about playing in this quartet, and he said the “camaraderie.” Sometimes, when a musician plays with a particular band, one gets a little tired of the company, but that hasn’t happened here.

KW: No. No. I doubt it will simply because we don’t really tour as much as bands like that happen to. The tours, at the most, are two weeks long, and we pack as many shows into that as we can. Towards the end, we reallywell, the tightness comes early, like Gibb said, around the third show or so, that’s when the corner’s turning, and in the rest of them, the opportunities are musically endless.

As far as getting tired of each other, you know, the bus really allows people to go into their own little world. They can get into their bunks, and people can really separate themselves if they wanted to, but everyone’s pretty adventurous, everyone’s exploring the cities we are in, and doing different things. There has been a lot more music offstage. Backstage, I have a little PA that sits in a backpack with little computer speakers, and a little soundboard, and we can rehearse and create backstage, too, during the day, which I was just doing, actually, when you called.

RR: Speaking of adventures, you’re in Eureka, California today. I’m originally from northern California, and I was wondering if you’ve had a chance to explore that area much in the past, specifically the majestic redwood forests.

KW: Yeah, I have a friend who lives right in the forest, just outside the town of Arcada. I went over there, and got to hike around in these super dense, thick, green undergrowth on the floor of the forests there. Seeing these giant redwood stumps that are like 20 feet wide, and they’re like 20 feet apartthree or four of themand you imagine when they were all towering overhead, it was probably just complete darkness at all times underneath. I’ve definitely been absorbing the quintessential northern California of the redwood forests, for sure.

RR: Yeah, quite different from city life. It’s interesting because when you are on a run of a series of shows, going from town to town, do you think back, “Geez, on Wednesday, I was just there, and now I’m here,” not from any sense of cultural shock, but a lot of mileage is accumulated during that time?

KW: Right. We like to call it a day at the office. That’s what we like to say. This is what we do. I am incredibly grateful that there are stages for me to play, and there are people that are in front of them. It still baffles me.

RR: Gibb and I were discussing Django Reinhardt, and the fact that you are willing to take your music as far as it needs to go. He also emphasized humor and honesty within your playing. How important are the elements of surprise, chance, and a sense of humor within your music? You seem to have a gypsy-type spirita unique take on thingsand I sense that is a reason your music has endured for so long.

KW: Oh, thank you. I think the love for the music first is prominent. There are so many types of music that I have absorbed, and I think that definitely comes out in my influences. How I play and approach something has a lot to do with the different types of music that I’ve listened to and absorbed, especially in the cover sense. I’m able to hear a song on the radiomaybe, one from 10 years ago, that people might rememberand I’ll kind of change it up a little bit. That adds a little bit of surprise to my world, too.

I get complaints sometimes about playing too many covers, but at the same time, it’s definitely something that I have to entertain myself with, and the element of surprise, as far as changing covers, and stuff like that, I think is real important, tookeeping myself entertained. (laughs)

RR: Isn’t it something that keeps you continuously inspired, as wellto move through someone else’s muse? Pull out what you want, and leave the rest?

KW: As far as setlists go?

RR: Yes, that, too, but are you just enjoying playing the covers, and it doesn’t go any deeper than that?

KW: I’m always constantly trying to play different shows. I definitely love playing covers, and there are a few original songs that I will definitely play that are not quite my favorite songs, but people really like them. It’s not 100% self-indulgent. (laughs) These are total luxury problems. A luxury problem would be a song that you don’t feel like playing that people really like. That’s a luxury problem. I’ve gotten way beyond that whole way of thinking. I definitely want to play songs that people want to hear. That’s important. Plus, I’m kind of an applause whore, too. (laughter) That helps. Play what people want to hearwhether you want to play it or not. (laughs)

RR: Let’s talk about the live Rex Foundation Grateful Grass project featuring yourself, Jeff Austin and Keith Moseley and released earlier this year on CD. How did you feel about playing all Grateful Dead music?

KW: Oh, you know, that’s a blast. It’s no secret that I have, possibly, a slightly unhealthy fascination with the Grateful Dead so that was easy for me. There’s always shifting going on in my world. There’s always an attempt to try to do things differently. Playing the same places over and over, I want to give people something different.

The Grateful Grass thing came up as a concept: let’s do a whole set of Grateful Dead music bluegrass. Maybe not do the obvious ones that are already bluegrass, so we had a lot of fun with it. I pretty much know a million Dead songs, and I picked 15 or so, and I did my own little bluegrass arrangements. I sent those arrangements to Keith and to Jeff, and they showed up the day of the show. I think I played the night before in Lawrence, Kansas, and showed up at noon, after driving since around 3 in the morning. As soon as we show up, I met those guys there at the Fillmore, practiced for about two hours, we put together those arrangements, and went out and did it. (laughter) End of story.

RR: I noticed that you had a very Dylanesque delivery style on some of the Dead tunes, as well. You’d clip the lyrics at the end of verses, which gave the songs a different feel, and I liked that quite a bit, other than the fact that the three of you had really good chemistry playing those songs.

KW: Bluegrass really lends itself to my vocal style. My father complains that I sing, sometimes, with a Southern accent. That really comes out in bluegrass for some reason. [Keller affects a Southern accent in this sequence] I don’t know why it is. Just happens like that sometimes; it just kinda lends itself to it, you knowthat kind of Southern style of music and so many people sing like that, you know[Keller returns to his normal dialect] it’s just kind of easy for me to slide into it. The clipping of the lyrics, like you say, is probably, you know, me trying to adapt that bluegrass style of singing that I love so much. It’s a little bit different from what I normally do.

RR: Also, people have looked upon Robert Hunter’s lyrics as the Sermon on the Mount, and been very reverential, and you sang them in your own style.

KW: I was going rogue. (laughter)

RR: There you go. As far as the musicians you’ve been playing with in this dream band, let’s talk about Jeff Sipe on drums, who has been around for quite a while, and has played with everyone from the Colonel [Bruce Hampton] to Trey Anastasio.

KW: I, like a lot of people, got turned onto Jeff through Aquarium Rescue Unit. I’ve traveled anywhere I could possibly go within my budget, I guess, at the time. I was probably 20, 21, 22very influential time in my playing. The whole ARU experience was something that was completely different from anything that I’ve ever seen. It had the Matt Mundy element on mandolin and, if nothing else, he was like this bluegrass/jazz/country guyit was crazy. Just the whole package was amazing.

Jeff, really, was like no other drummer, just so precise, so quickfall into the pocket, and yet, speed up and slow down. You talk about listeninghe is the Supreme God of Listening. He can dial into what you’re thinking and he says some kind of Jedi mind control that plays a big role in our music, I think.

RR: You’ve played quite a bit with Keith Moseley over the years, including the String Cheese Incident. He continues to appear to really inspire you, as well. How do you view Keith within this current quartet? What does he bring to the group?

KW: I think it’s a comfort thing, and the fact that he has the ability to lock into the roots, and drive it forward. The bass and drums are, obviously, the most important part, and Keith has the ability to find the pocket, and supply the low end in a very stylish fashion.

I’ll tell you what Keith brings to this group: choreography. Keith is slowly becoming the choreographer of the steps. I used to be more of the step guy’ where I would synchronize some step moves. Lately, Keith has been feeling the music enough where he can pull out some dance moves. [Writer laughs while Keller deadpans] I try to catch up with him on those dance moves, and we get locked in for a few beats, and then I have to go back to singing, or the music changes. My concentration isn’t quite where it needs to be to actually follow Keith’s choreography. These are a little bit more intricate syncopated steps so

Keith is a good friend that I love very much. He’s always got a super calm, relaxed demeanor about him. He’s easy to be around, and his bass playing is just right in the pocket, and his dance moves are super cool. I only wish I could catch up with him, and lock in for the whole song. There are not enough hours in the day. He’s truly a genuine guy. All of the guysKeith, Jeff, and Gibbare all very genuine, good, moral people. Sometimes we have to pretend that we’re mad at each other to keep it real.

RR: Yep. Gibb, in conversation, sounds like a real sweetheart who just so happens to play like the devil.

KW: (laughs) Yeah.

RR: Man, he’s a fiery chap on guitar.

KW: He’s a channeler. (laughs) I don’t think he can explain it, really. On some nights, things will channel through him. I don’t know who or what or where they come from, but all of a sudden he’s transformed into something. It’s beautiful, is what it is. It’s all kinds of energy that’s coming through himthe audience is mesmerized, and it goes into them, and everybody gets built up and this little peak happens, and Gibb will kind of return into his body, look over at us, give us a wink, we’ll go into the next section, and the place will somewhat explode as if there was a giant orgasm. (laughter)

RR: Let’s completely shift collaborative gears. A week ago today, we had a rather important day, and I read your thoughts about voting on your blog. I shared a bit of your concern about the election process where there could be a 50/50 chance that something could go wrong with your vote on that day. Did you ultimately feel like you were part of that process last Tuesday? Was it a good day for you?

KW: Well, I was definitely proud to be an American. We all met up in the airport, and as soon as we got on the bus, John McCain was making his speech so the energy on the bus was very, very up and very happy. Watching Obama’s acceptance speechit was blatantly obvious that he’s a leader. I guess the question was do I feel like a part of that? Yeah, I mean, I feel like the country as a whole, I think everyone had the idea that something different had to happen, or at least in my direct surroundings so I think it was a group effort. I don’t know if I really played a part in it.

RR: You hit the nail on the head with the comment about group effort. There was a definite sense of a democracy, and I was worried that we had lost that plot. On your blog, you also talked about your experiences seeing the Dead play a gig in Pennsylvania in October in support of Barack Obama.

KW: It wasn’t like any Dead show I’ve been to beforethat’s for sure. I flew into State College, and I’ve never flown to a Dead show before. (laughs) [Author’s Note: On his website, Keller has a photo of himself sitting on the plane en route to see the Dead on his site.] My manager, Nadia Prescher, is working with Bill Kreutzmann, too, so I had the full backstage [access], and that’s never happened before. Lots of RatDog shows and a few Phil Lesh shows, but I’ve never been backstage at a Dead show, and the Allmans, too. The Allmans put on an amazing performance, as well. That was a very different experience for me. It was a lot of fun seeing that set go down.

RR: I just wrote an essay that mentioned how I felt that Kreutzmann was the unsung hero of the Dead for many reasons because so much has been written about the other members of the band over the years. I have always enjoyed his playing.

KW: Yeah. Just like everyone [in the Dead], I thinkhim, especiallyhe had this energy that he couldn’t hide, this excitement. He wasn’t trying to be cool. He wasn’t trying to be the rock drummer. It was definitely obvious that you could see his excitement [last month at State College], and that made me very happy to see that. It made me excited and happy, as well. It was infectious.

RR: You are returning to solo work with dates in Colorado in December, before a New Year’s Eve gig in South Carolina in a band called Grunge Grass. How did you come up with this ingenious idea of bluegrass versions of 1990s alternative rock?

KW: (laughs) Again, it’s just a silly concept. I was just trying to have the element of surprise. As far as people that have come to see me for years and years, and there’s a song that they recognize that’s done a completely different way that they can sing along toit’s just a win/win for me. It’s so much fun for me to do these songs.

First of all, I couldn’t find an entire set of grunge music to do bluegrass, so I had to venture out into the post-grunge 90s era. I feel I’ve come up with 14 songs that people are
going to know and enjoy within the bluegrass realm. [Grunge Grass] is Claude Auther on the bassa fantastic bass player from Fredericksburg [Virginia] areaand my good friend, Jay Starling on dobro. Jay is the son of John Starling who is one of the original members of Seldom Scene, a really fantastic old school bluegrass band that’s been around for many, many years. Jay is a fantastic dobro player, and we’ve just been having a blastdone about six or seven rehearsals. We all live close by in the same town. Claude lives a little bit outside of town, but it’s pretty easy to get together once a week when I’m around.

We’ve just been having fun picking these songs. I’ve road tested a few of them, and the lyrics were screamed back to me by the audience with great vigor. They knew the little vocal hints better than I did. I’m thinking it’s going to be a good thing. We’ve got four gigs planned right now. It’s kind of a novelty idea, but it’s one that I’m excited to execute, nonetheless.

RR: I’m sure I’m not the only one, but I’d love to see your work continue with the Moseley, Droll, and Sipe quartet. Do you have solo work planned for most of 2009? Obviously, I’m assuming that the solo work is more economically feasible.

KW: The solo thing is definitely my day job. That’s definitely how I can afford to go out with the group. I did 4 or 5 band tours so far, I guess, with these guys in the past year and a half, and now I need to really go back and do as many tours solo. Hopefully, this record will generate some excitement, and the promoters and the festival folks will request our presence. For now, I definitely need to play solo. It’s a good thing, too, because I’m kind of excited to get back. The solo thing’s a real connection with the audiencewith just me being up there so that the audience is feeling important. I think we dial it in, maybe, in some smaller places where the connection with the audience is even greater. I’m really excited about playing some smaller places, and really feeling the audience again.

I can only wish that I could do nothing but this band. The energy that we create is far ahead of what I can do solo. I’m truly, truly going to miss that. I can only hope. It’s definitely not the end of this band. Tours have to happen. The music’s so good, so much fun to do, that it actually has to happen. It can’t not happen. Financially speaking, I’m going to have to do the solo thing for as long as it takes to get these guys back out.

RR: You brought up something interesting. How does the interaction with the audience change for you as a solo performer versus being a member of this band?

KW: I can definitely achieve that similar connection with the audience with the band that I can when I’m solo. It’s just that I’m a little morewith the band, there is constant bass and drums, constant movement, constant sounds coming. Solo, sometimes, every other song is just an acoustic guitar, and there’s a lot more room. Sometimes, with just that acoustic guitar, people possibly tend to talk more. Maybe, with the drums and bass, you just don’t hear the talking as much. Maybe, that’s what it is. (laughter)

The connection? I can still connect with the audience with the band as I can solo. Solo is just a little more direct, and slightly forced.

RR: Let’s get back to the solo dates happening in December. Did you want to talk about the Colorado connection to your music?

KW: Sure. I lived in Steamboat Springs, Colorado from 95 to 97. I did two full seasons out there, and played just about every stage in Steamboat, and would go and play Breckenridge every Wednesday, and played around different small places in Denver, and that’s where I met String Cheese back then. It’s always been fun going back to Colorado. I’m lucky enough to play there a couple times a year. Normally, I’ll go to a city or area once a year, but for some reason, those rules don’t seem to apply for Colorado, and I’m able to go back every couple of months, it seems like which is really a treat for me. I love going back there. Of course, this time, I’m working in a lot of snowboarding. Hopefully, it’ll snow when it needs to, and not when I need to drop. (laughs)

RR: I noticed you have some of your snowboarding in the visuals in the DVD included with the new Live album by the quartet. There is also a hilarious montage of people with unfortunate haircuts.

KW: The name of the song is “Mullet Cut.” Mullet is business in the front; party in the back. We keep that as a metaphor for me and my wife. She and I are like a mullet coupleshe’s business in the front, and I’m the party in the back. (laughter)

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