Not Your Typical ‘One Hit Wonder’: Keller Williams’ Laugh (Ten Years On)
DB- She’s represented on Laugh via your cover of “Freakshow.” Describe your approach to interpreting that one.
KW- That song’s very dear to me because it’s a road song. The way I’m hearing it she’s using the circus to tell people about her life on the road. The tent goes up, the tent comes down and all people see is the show, they don't see what goes on behind it. So I kind of got a kick over that.
DB- You named a number of people earlier whose music you covered on your first demo tape. I would imagine that their songcraft impacted yours. Anyone else?
KW- I’ve never put much thought into it in terms of following someone else’s songwriting footsteps. It’s really easy to do that in guitar playing. I guess I would see Michael Stipe as an early influence. There might be nothing off the record that would remind you of REM but he was definitely an early influence in terms of using weird words for lyrics. I got attached to his writing style back in high school, the way he uses words for musical purposes and not necessarily for meaning.
DB- I can see “Gallivanting” in those terms.
KW- Exactly. “Gallivanting” is a song I wanted to do because the chords are a-b-c-d-e-f-g and each word in each chord starts with the first letter of the chord. I wanted something easy to show the guys: a-b-c-d-e-f-g and just look to me for changes.
DB- Had that idea been kicking around your head for a while?
KW- No I just wanted a pretty nice fast jazz grass type song that would be easy to show someone and that one used the changes really easily.
DB- In terms of your compositions with lyrics, where do you typically start, with the music or the words?
KW- Each song is completely different. Sometimes the music comes first and while I’m doodling, mindlessly playing guitar, I say, “Hey I can use that.” Other times lyrics will pop out of nowhere or else I’ll be having a conversation with someone and something will come up that I can use. There are some songs that maybe no one will understand, it's just personal thing. There are others when I’m trying to make people think and there are others that tell a story with a beginning, middle and end.
For instance, “Alligator Alley,” the word came first on that. Driving from one side of Florida to the other there’s an actual stretch of highway called alligator alley. There are two canals on either side where I guess thousands of alligators live. So while driving back and forth on that highway I came up with this crazy scenario of swimming in those canals.
DB- What about “Freeker by the Speaker?”
KW- There I’m just describing the experience of looking out at the audience and making up stories about what I see. That’s something I still do on stage.
DB- Which leads me to ask, what about “One Hit Wonder?” Obviously that’s tongue in cheek but, and I guess this sounds like a Congressional inquiry, do you now or have you ever aspired to be a one wonder?
KW- I believe in the power of radio and the thing I’m after the most is to sell tickets to shows. I want to perform in small theatres, that’s my goal, and I think that to have a song blared on every major radio station around the country will definitely increase my show tickets. So in that sense, sure, I’d love some help from the radio and not have to go on TRL and all that crazy stuff. Just kind of get in and out so that people know that one song. Then after they come to see the show and hear that song they might like it and come again next time without having all that corporate mess on the radio.
DB- So you don’t have any fears about that being a burden, or do you just figure you’ll worry about that when the time comes?
KW- I honestly think it never will happen but if I did I would get a kick out of it. I think it would be funny.
DB- What led you to re-record “Kidney In A Cooler?”
KW- In part just the response it has at shows. Plus I had these big ideas for it in the studio. I was thinking about Hammond organ which never made it on there. I also had different ideas as far as the rap section goes. I also wanted to use three snares at the same time, which we do and it’s pretty cool.
DB- You’re about to start a big tour. Earlier you mentioned that at one point you hit it pretty hard, planting seeds. Obviously you’re still gigging quite a bit but have you made a conscious decision to ease up a bit now that you have built up that base of support?
KW- Yes. The local spots around where I live I might hit twice a year but Florida, California, Seattle that’s definitely like once a year. I was also hungrier then, hungrier to perform, to please, so I played more familiar songs. Back then the types of venues I was playing were small restaurants and small bars where you’d wait until 9:00 when people finished eating and then they’d take a few tables out of the corner. I’d set up there and play for ambiance. People weren’t really coming to the show to hear me, it would be a popular drinking spot. So I’d play more of what people want to hear, requests.
DB- Do you still take requests?
KW- I try to accommodate, although if I played somewhere the night before close to where that show is I might not get to a particular song. What happens now is that people keep song lists. I’m used to going out and winging it, so it’s hard for me to remember what I played the last time I was around. But now I’ll have someone find the list of what I played when I was there and I’ll have the list that afternoon so I’ll try to play something completely different. But I do what I can. It’s interesting, though, if don’t get to it, sometimes people will put off what they’re doing the next day to go that show and hear the song. I mean I did when I was 21, 22 years old.
DB- What bands were you into at that point?
KW- I guess from 87-95, I was in that big Grateful Dead phase. I would get some crappy minimum wage job and work it hard for a month and then spend it all on like ten, eleven shows. Then I’d head back to college or to work and do something to make money. I went to about ten shows a tour spring summer and fall. I started seeing Phish around 92 at the last of their club phase and that was really exciting but once they moved into the coliseums it kind of lost it for me. I was enjoying the high energy of the clubs. In 95 I jumped into the String Cheese phase. There’s been several phases.
DB- I would imagine that many of our readers have some familiarity with the story of how you invited the members of String Cheese to a show and by the end of the night they were all performing with you. That began a relationship that continues to this day. But I’m curious, had you been checking them out quite a bit before that first time you encouraged them to see you?
KW- I’d probably seen them about five time before actually meeting them, and that was in small little ski town bars. I saw them twice in Telluride. I drove up to see them in Leadville which is a tiny little town that is actually the highest altitude town in the country.
DB- Back to your own touring, I’d like to hear your thoughts on one question that I return to, and one that interests me quite a bit. How would you compare audiences across the country? Is there one region for instance that you think listens more closely ?
KW- That’s a tough one but I’ll tell you, at least from my perspective, I think the west coast audiences are more perceptive, listening carefully and more focussed on the music. Maybe it has to do with smoking which there is much more of in the south that turns it into more of a social interaction thing.
DB- Okay, final geeky internet question [Laughs]. There’s a big realty company that owns Kellerwilliams.com, so that your web site is Kellerwilliams.net. Are you bitter about that?
KW- [Laughs] I’ve gotten over it. Although my mom keeps encouraging me to play a company picnic.