MIKE KENEALLY
interview and image by the night watchman

MIKE KENEALLY IS A MAN OF MANY TALENTS, PERFORMING KEYBOARDS, GUITAR, AND VOCALS FOR FRANK ZAPPA (ON TOUR AND RECORD), AS WELL AS DWEEZIL AND AHMET ZAPPA. BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY, MIKE HAS BEEN RECORDING AND RELEASING HIS OWN MUSIC SINCE HIS 1991 DEBUT, HAT, AN AMAZING COMBINATION OF ZAPPA INTRICACIES AND XTC-STYLE VOCALS. IN 1996 HE WAS HIRED AS GUITARIST, VOCALIST, AND KEYBOARDIST FOR STEVE VAI'S TOUR AND THE G3 FESTIVAL. SOMEWHERE ALONG THE WAY, MIKE FOUND THE TIME TO RECORD DANCING AND SLUGGO! (WITH HIS BAND, BEER FOR DOLPHINS), AND THE EXPERIMENTAL ALBUM NONKERTOMPF. LAST YEAR KENEALLY RELEASED A MOSTLY ACOUSTIC CD TITLED WOODEN SMOKE. MOST RECENTLY, HE SAT DOWN WITH THE NIGHT WATCHMAN AND GOT HIS INTERVIEW ON.

Night Watchman: What have you been up to?

Mike: I’m just getting back into getting things accomplished after the holidays, which is always a little bit of a struggle. But there's a lot going on. I'm working on a band album and an orchestra piece at the same time. A lot of the time I'm just trying to figure out how to allocate my energies. We did a show in Los Angeles a couple nights ago that was really good, that was with the four-piece band. I'm pretty satisfied with the way the band's sounding, and I'm excited about recording a new album. It'll be the first album this particular line-up has done.

NW: So this isn't your previous band, Beer for Dolphins?

M: Well, we dropped that name about a year ago. We're just The Mike Keneally Band for now. I'm open to other band names, but so far it's been slow.

NW: So you're recording with them now, but are you still composing pieces for the Metropole Orchestra?

M: Yeah. I've got 40 minutes of music to write for a 50-piece orchestra. I have the manuscript paper and pencil out all the time, so if I get a melodic idea I can put it down. I've never written something this extensive and involved before, so I'm just getting into understanding how disciplined you need to be to get it done. It's a very interesting learning process, but I'm certainly enjoying it. I'm amazingly fortunate to have this orchestra offer this to me. They’re incredible. And the freedom I have is stunning. Everyday I'm in the process of coming to terms with that, and allowing myself to unleash. It's going to be quite a piece.

NW: Can you describe what it's going to sound like, or what sound you’re striving for?

M: I can't, only because I'm not permitting myself to adhere to anything at this point. I'm only listening to what's in my head and writing it down no matter what. I'm not questioning anything. Right now I'm in the phase of writing all the stuff I need to write. And once that raw material is composed, that's when it'll get the form. Right now I'm still in phase one; the composition of raw materials. From there we'll see how it all ends.

NW: It sounds like a daunting task.

M: It's not daunting, because it's a blessing to be given the opportunity to do it. To be daunted by it is kind of wimpy. I’m just truly grateful for this opportunity and this assignment.

NW: So, with the new band album, what kind of vein will that be in?

M: The sound of the band right now is very different from the sound of the earlier band, so it'll be a necessity to reflect that. The writing is not too far removed from the earlier writing, but the songs are what they are. Somehow there's something that ties all the albums together, even though they all sound really different. I don't think this will be any exception. There are things on the album that are influenced by everything that's gone before it, and then there are other things that don't remind me of anything. It's a step in one sort of direction.

NW: I’ve always noticed that each of your albums is completely it's own entity.

M: If there was any past album of mine that I think this one is close to, I’d say it’s closest to Boil That Dust Speck. I don't know if you've heard that one.

NW: Oh yeah.

M: So the way it's starting to take shape in my head, in terms of the form and the texture, and just the way it feels when it comes out of the speakers, it seems to be more towards that heavier side. As opposed to Dancing, which was a lighter sound, mainly just to make room for all the players. There are only four people in the band now, so it's definitely moving air on this record.

NW: On your website you mentioned that you had written some pieces that were most likely going to be recorded for your next solo album a little further down the line.

M: Yeah. I've been doing demos for the band, but in the process of doing that, other music comes out that would not work for the band. But I definitely think it's worth exploration. That's kind of like the third sub-project that's going on behind the band album. I'm just kind of building up material for it. It's the bi-product of all the other stuff. But that's going to be fun.

NW: Do you write all the time, or do you hear something that inspires you to go into a particular direction?

M: There are a lot of different options right now. Sometimes I might get a melody and think, “That's gotta go for the orchestra piece,” or “I think that one I'll figure out on guitar for the band.” But if I'm working on Pro Tools (music software), which is where all the solo demos come from, sometimes music just happens out of experimentation. I’ll come up with a sound or a concept that doesn't work with that project. So very often a piece of music suggests something that doesn't fit, but it is the starting point of many other things. That happens a lot. I've also been doing a lot of drawing, painting, and writing lately, and sometimes that can suggest a lot of good ideas. A lot of the writing I'm doing isn't specifically lyrics, but lyrics come out of it. It's more like journal writing. All I'm trying to do is create randomly. I just have to create at least something in some category every day. Along the way, albums and stuff come out.

NW: Is it like an attention deficit, or do you just like multitasking and doing all these different things?

M: There's always a bunch of stuff going on at once, and that might be an outgrowth of attention deficit. But generally, if there is a project that needs to be completed by a certain time, I'm just working on an album to get it done. But I think I get more honest and vibrant art if I let it come out when it wants to. Like I might be doing a painting and think, “Dude, I might be able to get this painting finished by 3:00 if I don't stop, but I really feel like working on a song right now.” I think the best thing to do is put down the paintbrush and pick up the guitar and write, because this song wants to come out. I don't think it's my place to get in its way. But when you’re working with a deadline, you focus and get things done.

NW: In the past you've done tours with Steve Vai and the G3 tour. Are you still interested in doing the “hired gun” gigs, where someone hires you for a tour or to record on an album?

M: If something comes up that is interesting, pays well, and is surprising in some way, I'll certainly consider it. But I haven't been getting offers since I stopped playing with Steve. So I haven't been distracted by it. (laughs) I haven't been going and seeking stuff out. It just leaves me alone to do my own thing.

NW: It's nice that you don't have those outside things to worry about right now.

M: Yeah. I've got so much happening right now. I can't see how I could possibly, for instance, be on the road with G3 right now and be working on my albums, and be working on orchestra pieces. Obviously, there's no way. Besides, I've gotta get the orchestra thing done because they're going to play it on June 8th whether I like it or not. And then there’s the album. We're trying to keep to a deadline because, by the time it's out, it'll have been almost two years since Wooden Smoke. I don't like waiting too long to put out an album, because there are a lot of albums to be made.

NW: I've read some reviews of your music where people have bought your CDs after seeing you with Vai on G3, and they don't get what you're trying to do. They expect that if you're on that tour, that you must be a shred guitar player. Is that disappointing to you? That your music isn't as easily digestible to those people?

M: Well, let's say I play on a G3 show and 3,000 people see me, and of those 3,000 only 20 people decide to buy a Mike Keneally album to see what it sounds like. And then only ten of those people like it. That still means that I got ten new people that night. So it's always a good thing to be up there in front of people. You're going to turn some of those people on, and you won't turn some of those people on. Steve took me out on the road for years; it was definitely a good thing in terms of me reaching a certain genre of audience. I got a lot of fans out of that. I still get people coming up saying that they first saw me on the G3 video or during a Vai gig, and just wandered over into my stuff. They weren’t prepared for what they got, but were very happy. That's the best; when you surprise somebody in a way that hooks them practically for life. Because that tends to be the kind of people that get into this stuff. The same way I was a music fan when I was younger, where I was so into an artist and it made me so happy every time they put out an album. And that's how you build a long-lasting relationship with an artist and his audience. And that seems to be the case with the audience in my case. I'm very grateful for however they got introduced to it.

NW: I can understand that. I took a friend to see you when you were playing with Steve Vai. I told him that as soon as you came out on stage and started playing guitar, keyboards, and singing all at the same time, he wouldn’t even notice Vai on stage.

M: (laughs)

NW: Now he's become a huge fan of your music. Every time a new CD would come out he'd pick it up. At first he'd just be shaking his head, because he was more of a shred guy. He’d say, “I don't get it yet, but I'll keep trying.” And then, sure enough, eventually he'd really get into it.

M: Yeah. But I think the next album is definitely a heavy guitar album.

NW: When you look back at some of your older discs, like Hat or Boil That Dust Speck, compared to your newer stuff, are you still pleased with the older music? Do you think it holds up?

M: Oh yeah! For whatever reason, nobody's ever asked me to do anything other than exactly what I want to do when I make a record. I've been given complete freedom to do whatever the heck I want. So, in every case, those albums came out to the best of my abilities as an exact reflection of what I wanted to do with them. I'm down with every one of them. I think I did the best I could at the time, and they're fun to listen to.

NW: Definitely. So what have you been listening to recently? Have you heard anything that has really inspired you?

M: I tend to listen to older music. A lot of Miles Davis. But of recent albums that have come out, there's a really good Ween live album that is available on their website.

NW: The three CD set, right?

M: Yeah. Live at Stubb’s. Also, Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations compilation is wonderful. It's a recording of Gould doing Bach's Goldberg variations in 1955. And on the second disc it's him reinterpreting it in 1981. So it's two solo piano performances 26 years apart. There is a third bonus disc edition, and that's pretty fascinating. I think that's the main stuff lately: Miles Davis, Glenn Gould, and Ween. (laughs)

NW: (laughs) That's quite a selection.

M: I got the Miles Davis At Montreux 20 CD box set for Christmas, which is great.

NW: Are you still doing drawings and paintings that people can get through your website?

M: Yeah. Anybody who's interested in original art can email me. It's fun; I enjoy doing that a lot.

NW: One final question that we like to ask people: do you think dogs have lips?

M: Dogs?

NW: Yeah.

M: No,.. no. (laughs)

NW: You can elaborate if you want.

M: No. I don't feel I will elaborate. (laughs)

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