Not Your Typical ‘One Hit Wonder’: Keller Williams’ Laugh (Ten Years On)
Here’s a look back to February 2002 and site editor Dean Budnick’s conversation with Keller Williams.
Although Keller Williams continues to tour as a solo performer, he views studio recording as a medium onto itself. Thus he preceded his last release, the live Loop, with Breathe on which he was backed by the String Cheese Incident. On his new disc, Laugh, he is joined by a core rhythm section consisting of Tye North (Leftover Salmon, Porterhouse) and Dave Watts (The Motet, Shockra). The results transform many of Keller’s compositions, adding new texture and richness. Of course Laugh also showcases Keller’s dazzling acoustic guitar work, the signature humor that he often infuses his original songs. The following interview touches on all these subjects and even concludes with a bit on the whole Kellerwilliams.net/.com issue that frankly may interest few people other than other than the author (and Keller’s mom, who has an idea). And while we’re on that subject be sure to visit Kellerwilliams.net for tour dates, song samples and the like.
DB- With Laugh, you’re continuing your tradition of one word album titles. How did that come about and why have you perpetuated it?
KW- I guess it just started with the first one. The very first album was called called Freek and it just went from there. I don’t have any kind of philosophical answer. I kind of wish I had started to form a sentence but that idea came later before I put in all those nouns and verbs. It’s just short and simple. I think one word says it all in some cases. I think it will probably remain that way too. I like saying a lot with one word, you try it put your imagination behind it.
DB- How would you relate that concept to your to live performances?
KW- As for as one word goes I take that approach to performance in that I don’t really talk between songs. That’s one thing I’ve noticed with some folk musicians but I often find it detracts from the performance. One exception is Leo Kottke, I love to hear Leo talk. He goes off and rants and sometimes forgets what he’s talking about. It’s funny, he’s got this dry wit about him but I prefer to let the music talk and not do any talking myself.
DB- You mentioned folk musicians. Do you place your work within the folk tradition?
KW- I do in the sense that it’s just one guy on the stage. That’s where I started from, the whole folk idea of one microphone, one guitar. I just elaborated on that idea.
DB- Can you talk a little bit about your development on guitar?
KW- I really started getting serious with the guitar at 13 or 14. By serious I don’t mean going to lessons and practicing scales. It was pretty much just watching peoples’ fingers and how they played chords. The hardest thing was just changing, going from chord to chord and getting my fingers to do that. Once I could do that then I could start piecing songs together off the radio. Then once I had 10-15 songs off the radio I started shopping around these crappy demo tapes to try to find someone to let me come and play in their bar. I wasn’t even looking for money, I just wanted somebody to let me play in public.
DB- What was in your initial repertoire?
KW- A lot of Crosby Stills and Nash, and Neil Young. Joni Mitchell, a little bit of Creedence, the Eagles, REM, Elvis Costello and the Cure, that type of stuff.
DB- The Cure? Do you still of any of their stuff, that could make for interesting transpositions.
KW- [Laughs] No, that was a phase, a high school phase, and I kind of grew out of it. I played that in a bunch of bands though [Keller sings the first few lines of “In Between Days” in a faux British accent].
DB- Since most people know you only from your solo career, can you talk a bit about your efforts with those groups?
KW- Let’s see, the first band was about 1987. It was called Downhill Development. That went into a band called The End which was originally the Living End. Then we wanted to do a play on The Cure so we were The Symptoms. That led into college and it was the 5000 Mics which was a very psychedelic thing. That went into Sweet Feet and the Toe Jam and that went into the All Natural Band. The All Natural Band stuck around for about three or four years and we got up to the point of playing some pretty nice clubs as opening acts and the regional college fraternity circuit and that was about it. The whole time I was doing the bands I was also trying to pick up off-night solo gigs wherever I could.
DB- Did you play acoustic in the All Natural Band?
KW- Primarily. I did play a little bit of electric too but only rhythm.
DB- What was the impetus to do your own thing rather than pick up with another group when the All Natural Band dissolved?
KW- The band wanted to put all the money from the gigs into a studio fund. Therefore everyone had to have jobs and they would always complain that I didn’t have one. But I didn’t want to take all the money from gigs and put it into the studio, I had to live off it. So my job was doing solo gigs on the nights we didn’t have regular gigs. Then once the band broke up it just seemed so easy to do the solo thing and not have to worry about other people not making the gigs and just rely on myself. It was for the simplicity and the freedom of it all.
DB- So for a while you were out there touring the country as a lone troubadour?
KW- From about 93-96 I was a legitimate solo act. I had a little p.a. in the back of the truck and a couple of guitars and a dog and just played all around Colorado and the eastern seaboard. I went back and forth. Then by 97 which was when I met my wife, she and I got a little camper and drove around the country for about 3 years trying to get booked for as many days as possible. We were just planting seeds as we called it, trying to come back a couple times of year to make those seeds grow. It sounds kind of cheesy but it’s definitely how it happened.
There’s been three of us though, the past couple of years. Along with my wife, Emily, who is in charge of all the merchandise, I tour with my sound engineer Lou Gosain. Lou kind of functions as the tour manager as well, he makes sure we’re all taken care of.
This time there will also be a stage guy to help with all the gear. It seems like the more money I make, the more toys I bring with me. So we’re going to fill up the stage with guitars and different instruments and candles and things. He’s also going to be up there to help during the show. About once a week someone gets real excited and jumps on stage. When we have a bunch of stuff up there, it can be real nerve wracking if we think someone might run through and plow over a bunch of stuff. So he’s going to help out in that regard and kindly make sure no one steps on anything and he’s going to help me with stuff I might need help with.
Plus there are a couple of friends from Alaska who are hanging out during the cold season up there who are going to drive along with us and do the merchandise, so Emily might move over to the light board. I guess we have a little entourage with us this coming tour.
DB- Wait, let’s step back to the people jumping on stage. When I think of performers prone to audience members jumping on stage I just wouldn’t think of you.
KW- [Laughs] I wouldn’t either. That’s why it freaks me out when it happens.
DB- These are people who want to dance?
KW- Yeah and people who want to be seen maybe, to be a part of it. I respect that in a way and its kind of flattering but it’s kind of scary.
DB- Fair enough. Let’s move on to talk about Laugh. How did you come to record with Dave Watts and Tye North? Your last record was a live solo disc, what led you to tap the two of them to join you in the studio?
KW- While for the most part I perform solo, recording-wise I do feel like it’s good to collaborate with different musicians. With Laugh I was thinking about what would be best for my music. They’re open-minded, around my same age and I also focused on these guys because of the bands that they’ve been in. It worked out great.
DB- What sort of give and take was there in the studio? These are obviously your songs and your name is on the disc but Dave and Tye are gifted, creative players, which is obviously why you wanted to work with them.
KW- They were definitely my songs but I wasn’t really the boss. The way it worked was I sent them CDs of the songs I wanted to do so they had an idea of the arrangements tempos and changes and we came together. Then we flew those guys down to Virginia, rehearsed for three days and recorded for four days. Everyone had their own ideas, especially Dave who wanted to go back and redo things several times. He was like the tracking boss. I think it went really well and I’m extremely proud of the finished product.
DB- In terms of the songs on the album, I’ve read quite a bit about your inspirations on guitar, I’d like to hear more about your songwriting influences.
KW- Ani DiFranco both on guitar and songwriting. She has an amazing writing skill she’s so poetic.