An Odd Conversation With Keller Williams
After the numerous high profile guests – Bob Weir, Bela Fleck, String Cheese Incident — who appeared on Keller Williams’ 2007 studio effort, Dream, the traveling tape looping troubadour goes it pretty much alone on his latest release, Odd. Fans of his live shows should feel as if they’re in a comfy environment as the 12 tracks find him moving from guitar-driven tracks to Keller-tronica, a ballad to ease the pace and much more.
As usual, Williams has been on the road prior to and following its release. I catch him in the afternoon prior to a performance in Idaho. Ever the amiable type, his cellphone hiccups leads him to step outside his room in order to offer better reception. During our conversation he discusses not only the new album but his new approach to releasing music and how his theater background helped him become the hyperkinetic entertaining Keller Williams that we know today. As our talk begins, Keller explains that he had been in the midst of constructing the evening’s setlist.
JPG: It’s interesting that you’re working on tonight’s list because one of the things that I was going to bring up was whether you have a concrete setlist, wing it or mix it up.
KW: A lot of thought goes into it. There’s so many songs that I love to play. I have this weird unhealthy fascination with doing completely different sets every night as well as the last time I was at that venue or in that market. I study set lists from past times I was there and come up with something completely different.
JPG: I was thinking about the idea of being the controller of your musical world on stage every night. You can switch things radically and it doesn’t matter because you know where you’re going.
KW: It’s important to me to make it more interesting or else my mind will wander off in the middle of a song. If I play a song too many times, it just becomes second nature.
JPG: It’s kind of funny that you mention your mind wandering off…In a part serious/part joking way, I was thinking about how your performances change each night and how your albums have a different approach each time and wondering if it’s a matter of variety being the spice of life or whether you’re an inspiration for the rest of us with Adult ADD?
KW: I’m very lucky to have a job that allows me to explore and expose my own adult ADD, for sure. It’s all of those. It’s variety, putting myself in the place of the audience member or in the record sense, the listener, wanting to give something different, staying away from more of the same. Wherein at the same time, it is a little bit of that because it’s me and I have a certain kind of writing style. I’m sure there’s evidence of similarities through all the records, yet I’m hoping, at least trying, to make them completely different from the last.
JPG: There’s also that Grateful Dead influence in that regard.
KW: Yeah, well, I definitely came from that school. I went on tour when I was 19. That was ’89 so, about ’89 to ’95 when Jerry died, I’d seen a bunch of shows. Probably ’97, ’98, I started putting more into my career as opposed to going to shows. Even before that, in the early to mid 90’s, I was doing the weekly thing. Doing the same place every Monday. Going to a different town, the same place every Tuesday. Constantly doing that. I took that really seriously. I went to less and less shows when I started to get more work.
JPG: For a music fan like yourself, that’s the good and the bad of it. You get to do what you love, being a musician, but you don’t get to do what you also love, seeing music.
KW: Right. You have to make that conscious decision. Now, I’d much rather do my own show than go to someone else’s but I still love to go to shows as much as I can.
JPG: I know you interviewed Bob Weir for Relix’s coverage of The Dead Spring Tour. In it you mentioned how you hoped to make it to as many shows as possible. Did you get to do any of the shows and what did you think?
KW: Yeah, I got to see D.C. and Charlottesville. It was really cool that the guys are keeping that music alive. It definitely looked like they were enjoying themselves. It was fun to see.
JPG: As far as being a part of the jamband scene, that experience of being a fan, of going to shows, how has that affected your approach of how you play music, whether it’s in the studio or in concert? You’re directing things as a performer, but you’re also thinking of it as a fan as well whereas the first generation of musicians possibly thought of matters in a different, more insular way because they didn’t have that concertgoing experience.
KW: Sure, 100%. I’m always putting myself in the place of the audience. I’m always trying to do something that I would want to see if I was in the audience, trying to relate to that. But different shows have different vibes, like sometimes I play these patron-run type of theaters and it’ll be a sit down, kind of listening show. That will require somewhat of a different set list, not too much in-your-face rock so to speak if people are just sitting there. More storytelling. So yeah, constantly trying to adapt to what’s in front of me.
JPG: Speaking of which…now you have my brain going in five different directions as opposed to three from earlier.
KW: I aim to please.
JPG: Thanks. As far as adapting, let’s start there. I saw you at All Good and saw you at ROTHBURY last summer. I liked your adaptation of “Woodstock” for ROTHBURY. Did you make a conscious decision just before you got on or was it worked on prior to the festival?
KW: This being the 40th year it seemed like an obvious choice, especially ROTHBURY has that excitement that’s not necessarily lacking from other festivals, but for some reason it’s become somewhat of a mecca. And the site is so cool, and everyone is so excited, the past two years.
“Woodstock” is definitely a powerful song and it seemed appropriate, and it seemed really easy to change the words around and make people scream. I’m kind of an applause whore when it comes to that. I’ve always loved that song so I enjoyed changing it up and doing it kind of bluegrass style and putting some energy behind it.