Mike Keneally – interview

Having served his apprenticeship with the great Frank Zappa, and now working with diverse artists like Dethklok, Joe Satriani as well as his own Mike Keneally band, Mike is one of the hardest working and most adaptable musicians around.

He has also been described by All Music as ”˜the leading progressive rock genius of the post-Zappa era’. Mike has also just released a remarkable new album which he admits himself is more immediately accessible than a lot of his work and features a number of songs co-written by XTC’s Andy Partridge. This in itself is a cause for celebration as Andy is widely recognised as one of the country’s true song-writing geniuses’s, but has become increasingly disillusioned with the music industry.

As a long standing XTC fan, I was fascinated to hear the sound that Mike and Andy had produced and I was certainly not to be disappointed. Whilst having a mellow, almost acoustic feel to it at times, there does no doubting the underlying power of the songs, the strength of the lyrics and the ease with which the melodies settle on you after the first listen. Mike kindly agreed to speak to LTW about his influences, career and the process of creation of ”˜Wing Beat Fantastic’.

LTW: You have a wide range of musical styles, but what were your earliest influences?

“The first major influence was The Beatles. My sister was a 16-year-old Beatles fan when I was 4 years old in the mid-sixties; I was fascinated by her Beatles albums and would often play them when she wasn’t home.

“When the Beatles went psychedelic, my sister lost interest, but I just became more fascinated. I ended up with my room papered in Beatle posters, a complete fanatic. For my seventh birthday I got an electric organ, and at age 9 was extremely influenced by Keith Emerson’s work on the Tarkus album.

“I heard Frank Zappa’s music for the first time around then and it did my head in as well. I’d say the Beatles/ELP/Zappa troika were the main musical influences of my youth.”

LTW: Looking back now, how important in your career do you feel your time with Frank Zappa was? Do you feel that Zappa receives the credit he deserves in rock history?

“It was of paramount importance. It’s not at all hyperbole to say that anything good that’s happened in my career since being in his band stems directly from Frank deciding to take a chance on hiring me. Also, the information I gleaned from watching him work has paid countless dividends in my own work as a bandleader.

“I think Frank gets a lot of respect and obviously a lot of mentions in articles and whatnot, but I don’t know that he gets the credit he earned as a composer/arranger ”“ but that’s not at all surprising, given the idiosyncratic and subtle way he often deployed his gifts in those areas, and naturally a lot of people are going to focus attention on some of the more surface aspects of his lyrics and music.

“There’s more depth there than most anyone has time to plumb.”

LTW: For younger music fans who may be less familiar with Zappa’s work, is there a starting point that you could recommend?

“I was nine when I first heard We’re Only In It For The Money and it well and truly blew my mind, but that was 41 years ago”¦today’s youth might not be so easily moved by its fast-paced collage aspects, since that’s what all of modern life feels like now, but I would still recommend it for any sceptical, antisocial youngster.

“For fans of more traditional band-based sounds, I think One Size Fits All makes a wonderful starting point.”

LTW: Over the last few years you’ve done acoustic work (Wooden Smoke), worked with the Metropole Orchestra, produced much harder records with the Mike Keneally band and recorded Wing Beat Fantastic. How important are new challenges to you?

“Very important! With every record I make, I want to try to reach for some sound I haven’t gotten to before ”“ it’s what keeps the whole thing interesting for me.

“I’m constantly changing things up on myself; that’s what keeps me excited about things like being both Joe Satriani’s keyboard player, and playing guitar in the death metal band Dethklok ”“ in fact later this year I’ll be going directly from a Satriani tour in South America to a Dethklok tour in North America without a break in between, which is going to represent complete musical whiplash ”“ and both of those tours are coming after a duet tour I’m doing with Rick Musallam in September to promote Wing Beat Fantastic.

“I think I have the weirdest career of any musician I know, but it’s really exciting for me to have so many different kinds of projects, and have the opportunity to exercise different aspects of my musicianship. It all helps to keep me in good condition, musically.”

LTW: You describe WBF as ”˜unashamedly accessible and melodic’ compared to some of your other work. How would you summarise your previous stuff?

“A lot weirder than Wing Beat Fantastic! Not that I’ve been consciously trying to make “strange” music, that’s just where my interest lies a lot of the time.

“But on this album, it really made sense for me to keep all the more peculiar things out of the way, for once, and just make it more a streamlined, straightforward presentation.

“The response has been really strong, so it feels like it was the right choice for this particular album.”

LTW: Your collaboration with Andy Partridge goes back to 2006. How did you first get together?

“During the 1988 Zappa tour, our bassist Scott Thunes called Virgin Records (XTC’s label at the time) to invite XTC to our UK shows.

“We hero-worshipped XTC at the time and didn’t think there was much chance of any of them responding, and were gobsmacked when Andy Partridge and Dave Gregory ended up coming to our Birmingham concert.

“We got on well backstage, and Andy invited us to come visit them later in the year when they’d be in Los Angeles recording their new album (which turned out to be Oranges And Lemons).

“So, I’ve been knowing Andy for 24 years now, but it wasn’t until a few years into the current millennium that the idea of the two of us collaborating was mooted. Neither of us can remember at this point who suggested it!”

LTW: Can you tell us a little about the song writing process for Wing Beat Fantastic with you being on different sides of the Atlantic?

“I had to fly over to his side of it, on two separate occasions: we worked for one week in 2006, and again for a second week in 2008.

“I stayed in a bed and breakfast within walking distance from his home, and wandered over each morning for a day of work in the demo studio in a shed in his backyard. I’d brought over a few workbooks containing ideas for lyrics and some random phrases. The phrase “Wing Beat Fantastic!” was sitting by itself on one page. Andy said, “What is that?” I said, “It says ”˜wing beat fantastic’.” He said, “What does it mean?” I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “Let’s make a song out of it then!”

“I had some lyrics for “Bobeau” (then called “Bobo”) and the title “Inglow” in that book as well; the rest of the stuff we worked on together from scratch.

“Frequently he’d say “give me a chord” and I’d play him one, then together we’d earnestly discuss what the next chord should be.

“Together we talked over every component of each song, it was definitely a microscopically detailed process. By the end of the first week we had working versions of “Wing Beat Fantastic,” “Inglow,” “Your House,” “Bobeau” and “Indicator” (an instrumental which will appear on a future album).

“During the second week in 2008 we did some more work on the first batch of tunes, and also came up with “You Kill Me,” “I’m Raining Here, Inside” (for which Andy already had a completed set of lyrics) and a small bit of music which I later teased out to become “Miracle Woman And Man.”

“Once I started working on the finished versions in California in 2011, I naturally had more control over what the songs eventually became, but I continued to send mp3s of working versions of the tunes to Andy, and he gave me a tremendous amount of useful feedback which I incorporated into the final mixes.”

LTW: There seems to be a range of topics covered in the lyrics of the album with ”˜You Kill Me and ”˜That’s Why I Have No Name’ being particularly hard hitting. Can you tell us a bit more about these and other songs on the album?

““You Kill Me” was one we worked on together in 2008, but by the time I got around to working on the finished version three years later, enough time had gone by that some updating was necessary. I asked Andy if he might be interested in giving the song a once-over, and he responded with an email containing completely reworked lyrics for the whole song. I think of that song as Andy’s state-of-the-union address!

““That’s Why I Have No Name” was one I had written on my own, originally intended for Scambot 2, but I felt it had more usefulness as a part of this project. The lyrics were written very quickly in a note on my iPhone ”“ those words were written entirely with thumbs – and without much forethought regarding their significance or message. It’s a fairly personal song. The words to “I’m Raining Here, Inside” were, as I mentioned, already essentially complete and entirely Andy’s work, except I changed “stylus” to “needle” which sounded more authentic coming out of an American mouth.

“The lyrics to “Bobeau” are entirely my own, and represent the sort of peculiar narrative work I tend to fall into when left to my own devices.

“We collaborated very closely on the words to “Your House” ”“ both Andy and myself had similar experiences with unrequited love as adolescents, and in fact we both see the protagonist of that song as a fairly hapless 12-year old.

“We also worked together on the words to “Wing Beat Fantastic” although it is definitely driven by Andy’s astonishing facility with metaphor and his ability to take a simple concept ”“ in this instance, “bird” ”“ and approach it from a thousand angles at once. It was dizzying and, indeed, challenging keeping up with his prodigious lyrical skills.”

LTW: Andy is one of the UK’s premier song-writers. You’ve scored a great victory for true music fans by getting him involved in music again. Can you envisage working together again?

“I do consider it a significant achievement to have helped get some new Andy Partridge pop writing out into the world.

“We’re both very delighted with the end result and, while we haven’t discussed further collaborations yet, it wouldn’t be entirely shocking to me if we gave it another go. I’d welcome it.”

LTW: It’s noticeable that you’ve arranged some live dates at short notice to promote Wing Beat Fantastic. How important are live performances to you?

“I love playing live. I’m grateful that we were able to get this tour booked so quickly (we suddenly were faced with some unexpected open time, after the unfortunate cancellation of the Dethklok tour we’re supposed to be doing right now!).

“Playing in front of people is vitally important to me, it teaches me a lot about myself as a musician, and sharing that energy with a room full of people is addictive. Also, as a fan of jazz and other improvisational musics, I love having the opportunity to mess with the structure and content of a song over a series of performances ”“ I don’t view the recorded versions of my own songs as sacrosanct in any way, and have always populated my band with musicians who can simultaneously nail the essential composed bits, and understand when and why it’s time to mess around with it.

“I change my own performances of a song radically from gig to gig, and it’s important to be surrounded by musicians who aren’t thrown from the horse at those moments.”

LTW: Any chance you’ll be in the UK in the future?

“Yes! Planning is underway for UK touring in early 2013 ”“ we’ll reveal details once they’re finalised.”

LTW: What are your plans for your next project?

“The other salutary side effect to the Dethklok cancellation was having a decent amount of time this month to work on a deluxe reissue for my 1997 album Sluggo!

“It’s the only one of my main canon releases not in print on CD at the moment, and the deluxe edition will feature the original mix, new mixes in stereo and surround sound, bonus tracks, and live and studio video footage.

“As far as new music, there was a lot of additional music recorded during the Wing Beat Fantastic sessions, and that will find a form before too long.

“Scambot 2 is also on my mind”¦there is music recorded during the Scambot 1 sessions which will feature in the next instalment, and I recently recorded a great deal of new music with Rick Musallam and drummer Kris Myers of Umphrey’s McGee which will play its part as well.”

Interview by Dave Jennings. You can read more from Dave on LTW here.

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