Having performed in Frank Zappa’s touring band, Mike chats with us about his many experiences as well as his solo projects, Beer For Dolphins, and much more.
June 25, 2004
Guitarhoo!: Hi Mike, it’s cool to be talking with you. The first part of this interview will be based around your time spent with Frank Zappa, as a tribute to the master. To start off, is it true you worked in a music store selling keyboards/piano’s and did not even own a guitar before the Zappa audition?
Mike Keneally: Nope! I mean, half of that is sort of true – I did work in a music store selling synthesizers for two months, but that was two years before the Zappa audition. And I owned at least three guitars at the time of the audition.
G!: Legend has it, that you called Frank and told him you could play all his music and when he said, “Come for an audition”, you learned the entire catalog in a van on the way to the audition. Is this true?
MK: Nope! I told him that I was familiar with all of his material and that I was capable of playing all of it, but I didn’t want him to think that I was ready to play anything he ever wrote at a moment’s notice, without having to practice it first (although I was prepared to play a lot of his material without having to practice it, because I’d learned a lot of his songs for fun by that point). The point I made to him was just that I was extremely familiar with all of his material and that I’d be ready to play any of it for him given a short amount of preparation time. I’d been listening to Frank for 16 years by the time I got the audition, had played many of the songs, and had listened to them over and over again for years and loved it all, and could easily learn the material in a short amount of time.
During the car ride to the audition I didn’t “learn” the catalogue, just played every single Zappa melody I could think of, kind of as an exercise for my memory, and I was getting a little panicky at one point about what other songs I should practice, and my brother Marty who was driving the car advised me to relax, if I wasn’t ready for the audition at this very moment I wouldn’t be any more ready an hour from now. I recognized the truth of that and relaxed a lot for the rest of the ride, although I continued practicing a lot of different stuff. On the phone the day before Frank had told me to have “What’s New In Baltimore?” and “Sinister Footwear” ready for the next day’s audition, and I’d played “Sinister” before but not “Baltimore?”, so I’d just learned that and was practicing that song in the car a lot. I also remember playing “Little House I Used To Live In” during that car ride quite a bit mainly because I was enjoying the melody so much.
G!: Wow, that’s cool! What was it like working for Frank?
MK: Literally a dream come true, or many dreams come true – I did actually used to dream about playing with Frank before I got the gig. (Still do dream about it by the way!)
G!: What was your most memorable touring experience with Frank and bandmates?
MK: Just little things, like time spent in restaurants with friends, or a big party that Frank threw for the band and crew in Spain right after we did a live television concert. One of the dancers at the party turned out to be the prize in a raffle, but I heard that she stood up the guy who won. He denies that he cried but other people remember it differently.
G!: Did you absorb any of Frank’s work ethic or were you already a music-oholic?
G!: What would you say was the most challenging aspect of being in Franks band?
MK: Just the physical aspects of performing such complex material. It was my first professional musical experience of any kind – before the tour all I’d done was play in clubs in San Diego – so to quickly absorb all the stimuli of that experience and still be able to execute this very hard music was a constant challenge. I was also a very inexperienced guitarist, since keyboard was my main instrument, so I had to quickly attempt to come to terms with the realities of guitars and gear and making a sound which works within the band and is also satisfying as a live musical experience. I never figured it out on that tour to my satisfaction, but Frank did some remarkable things with my tone in the studio and managed to craft some good music out of my parts on the albums he released from that tour, which I was really grateful for.
G!: Did Frank give you freedom to create your own guitar ideas within his music or was everything laid out for you?
MK: For the actual compositions, the harmonic and rhythmic framework was very clearly laid out, and you’d better know how to play it before you start worrying about exercising your freedom. Rehearsing the written parts with Frank was a great joy because you could see him getting happier as the music started sounding better. Once the framework became solid, it was generally understood that everyone in the band was going to end up styling their parts to some degree (this is for “song”-type songs — for very through-composed, complex instrumental pieces, there was much less ad-lib stylization during the performances of the written sections). Whether we were making ad-lib statements out of a genuine desire to try to enhance that moment of the song or just as an attempt to show off changed from moment to moment (as a new guy still figuring everything out, I tried to show off a lot more often than I wish I had, but Frank was generally complimentary and seemed pleased with what I was doing). If some guy’s musical ornaments started messing the song up Frank would let him know, but I think Frank understood that the personal stylings of his band members were pretty unavoidable, and that with a band as talented as he had, they could often enhance the music. Sometimes.
G!: The “Zappa’s Universe” concert looks amazing! Was it easy to get all of the performers together for that? And were you nervous?
MK: I didn’t have too much to do with the organization of that show, other than suggesting some players, transcribers and some songs to play, so I don’t know how hard it was for the organizers to get everyone together, but I’m guessing it wasn’t easy. I know it took a long time for it all to come together. I was kind of nervous because the video was shot on the first day of four performances in a row, and it seemed logical to tape the last show when so many of the bugs would be worked out, but unfortunately Steve Vai was only available for the first show and they really wanted him on the tape.
We’d had a horribly ragged rehearsal a couple of hours before the gig (the show involved a full orchestra and complex arrangements, so that always means millions of things which can potentially go wrong, and at this rehearsal a lot of them did) and the soundcheck ended with union guys showing up and threatening to close the performance down, and I didn’t have loads of confidence that it was going to be a good performance.
Also I wasn’t supposed to sing nearly so much at that frigging show, other singers were supposed to have learned many of the parts I had to sing and they didn’t, and as I was the only guy around who knew all of the stuff it fell on me to sing it somewhat against my will as I knew it wouldn’t help the show overall. I know a lot of people have complained about me doing too much of the singing and I agree completely. Also I’m completely out of breath during “The Idiot Bastard Son” because I’d just played a crazy guitar solo, but the solo’s not on the tape so my singing just sucks for no justifiable reason.
But! The vibe in the room during the show was absolutely incredible, the players and audience felt really unified, and Gail, Moon and Dweezil were all there and we all felt at the time that it was a special night.
Unfortunately there were legal complications following the concert which ended up corrupting the residual vibe of the experience, but I’m still glad that video exists as a document of what really was a great, great night.
G!: Were there any musicians you played with in Franks bands that inspired you during your time in the band?
MK: Scott Thunes was the bass player in Frank’s band and he was the closest to my age, and liked the craziest music and was just generally an unpredictable, interesting guy, so we hung out a lot and I learned a lot about music just from listening to that crazy fucker talk, and from listening to classical CDs with him on the bus.
Bruce and Walt Fowler were masterful musicians who opened my eyes wide on that tour with what they played on trombone and trumpet every night. And just about everything Frank did on that tour was inspiring to me in some way.
G!: What effect did Frank the person have on your life?
MK: He helped me look at everything a little closer.
G!: ok, Let’s move onto your career. Where were you born?
MK: Long Island, December 20, 1961.
G!: When did you begin playing an instrument?
MK: I got an electric organ for my seventh birthday, then I got a guitar for my eleventh birthday.
G!: Is guitar the only instrument you play?
MK: Nope! Keyboards were my first instrument and I played keys and guitar with Frank and with Steve Vai as well. I also play bass and drums and will try to get a musical sound out of just about anything. “Nonkertompf” is an album I did which is all instrumental – 35 tracks on which I played all of the instruments, so if anyone’s interested to hear what I sound like on different instruments that’s the first one to check out.
G!: Who were some of your musical influences on you as a kid?
MK: The first big one was The Beatles, who I still love. I watched a lot of TV and a lot of the music which was played in cartoons and on certain TV programs had an influence on me. I remember a dopey show called “Wallace and Ladmo” which had a theme song I really loved. I saw “2001: A Space Odyssey” when I was six and that had a huge influence on me in every way, including musically.
G!: How did you become a mutant of a musician?
MK: Thanks. I’ve just never stopped playing. Music is my favorite thing and I just keep going. I always loved music as a kid and it wasn’t a problem, once I started playing instruments, to make the melodies I heard in my head come out on the organ or the guitar. I was lucky to find the thing I was good at.
G!: On Dweezil Zappa’s “Confessions” CD, you did all of the crazy harmonies (they are sick) I wish I could have heard you do a scary lead on “Staying Alive”. Are there any extra scary MK moments on the Dweezil or Z stuff we should know about?
MK: The title song of the album “Shampoohorn” has me doing just about all of the harmony guitars and there’s some pretty freaky shit on there. The scariest stuff that band did was on stage, it’s too bad there’s not a video of the band available. There’s some cool stuff on the records but the live gigs were devastating.
G!: Do you still stay in contact with Dweezil or Ahmet?
MK: We’re not in touch but I usually see Dweezil at the NAMM show, or bump into Ahmet at a gas station or something. Everything’s cool.
G!: Your solo disc “Hat” is amazing. “Dhen Tin” sticks in my head for weeks at a time. What is your favorite track from “Hat”?
MK: Thanks! Actually there’s a very strange short instrumental on that album called “Spoon Guy” which is my favorite thing on there. I liked it so much that I arranged it for orchestra and it’s on “The Universe Will Provide,” an album for guitar and orchestra which is coming out on Favored Nation/NPS Input this September. Heh. A little plug there.
G!: The song “Fencing” is insane! How do you come up with that kind of stuff?
MK: That was based on a musical nugget Scott Thunes hooked me up with, which is that if you take the four notes of a dimished chord – let’s say Gdim (G Bb Db E) – and then lower any of those four notes by a half-step, you get a different dominant seventh chord (with the chord above, you’d get Gb7, A7, C7 and Eb7 repectively). So the main guitar part of “Fencing” was an improvised part that I did based on that formula, interspersed with long sections of improvised melody. Then I transcribed that improv and wrote the two harmony guitar parts.
G!: Wild! How did the band “Beer for Dolphins” evolve?
MK: In the early nineties I was busy in Dweezil Zappa’s band, but when I had some time off I made the “Hat” and “Boil That Dust Speck” albums. As time went on in Dweezil’s band we started getting more time off because we weren’t rehearsing so much, and I wanted to form a band to play the music from my solo albums live. That first band was me, Doug Lunn on bass and Toss Panos on drums. We didn’t have a name for a while, then when we were recording a song called “Them Dolphins Is Smart”, Toss asked me if we should buy some beer before trying to record it, because it was really hard. I said “of course we need beer for ‘Dolphins’, referring to the song, but then we realized that Beer For Dolphins sounded like some weird, misguided charity organization, and then Doug realized that the initials were BFD, and we chose it as a band name.
G!: Haha… Classic! “Sluggo” sounds more like a band project. Was this something you wanted to do?
MK: It’s kind of funny because it’s not really a band project – I played most of the instruments and there’s a lot of different drummers. I didn’t really have a regular band while I was making that album because I recorded “Sluggo!” during breaks during a very long Steve Vai tour (although for six weeks of the tour, BFD actually opened for Steve Vai on tour in the US – the lineup for that tour was me, Bryan Beller and Toss Panos). I wanted the album labelled as “Mike Keneally & Beer For Dolphins” though just to help build an identity for the band, even if it wasn’t really a band at that point. Once we did form a band in 1998 to promote the album, half of the band hadn’t even been on the album. Still it’s good to know that “Sluggo!” comes off as a band-sounding album. I wasn’t consciously trying to make it sound that way, in fact I didn’t have much time to think about what I was trying to accomplish with that record because I was so busy with Vai all the time, so I was just happy when it was done and that it was whatever it was. I’m still real happy with that album.
G!: How much input did the other members have in the “Sluggo” project?
MK: Anyone who plays on one of my songs has some input – just in the way they play what I’ve written, which is much different than the way I’d play it, and in the improvisational statements everyone makes when they play my songs. I made it clear early on that anyone who plays in my bands is welcomed and encouraged to explore their creativity as far and as hard as they want, so over the years I’ve had a bunch of amazing players working at the top of their games in my band, and I’m really fortunate that way.
G!: Do you like potatoe’s?
MK: Yeah, they’re fine.
G!: Do you say “Potato” or “Potawto”?
MK: The first one.
G!: Is it true you really did roadie for Billy Corgan?
G!: Is it also true that you stole one of his guitars?
MK: Also nope!
G!: What is a “Spearmint Pup”?
MK: I’ve, honestly, never figured that out. I think it’s just a nickname.
G!: Did you play much guitar on the Marc Bonilla record?
MK: None – I think all I did on that record was play organ on “Whiter Shade Of Pale.” I did play guitar and keys with him for about a year at a bunch of live gigs but that band was never recorded in the studio.
G!: What is your favorite piece of gear and why?
MK: My main guitar, the 1988 Fender Clapton Strat. It’s become the most natural-feeling instrument in the world for me. I also love my Taylor 514-CE with the ES pickup. That’s my favorite acoustic right now.
G!: What does your current touring rig consist of?
MK: The Clapton and one or two other guitars, a Rivera 2×12 Hundred Watt amp, Tube Screamer, Black Cat Wah. And a tuner. Adjustments to the rig will probably come soon but I like keeping the gear simple so the music has room to move.
G!: On your G3 DVD, you where nailing all the harmonies with Vai. How much rehearsal was needed for that?
MK: It was five days a week for at least eight or ten hours a day, can’t remember how long we practiced before the tour though. I remember it wasn’t enough, actually, we weren’t really ready for our first couple of shows but we got it together pretty fast.
Mike with Steve Vai Live from the G3 Tour
G!: I saw the G3 tour in Vancouver and you guys had Robert Fripp open the show. That was an adventurous addition to the already amazing lineup. Robert performed this way-out there piece, just himself solo and he started with a single note on the guitar and had it loop with an effects unit and then he slowly piled note upon note onto the heap until it transformed into this monsterous, pulsating roar which shook the city.
Halfway through all of this, you poked out through the backdrop curtains wearing a Madhatter and cranked out a burning solo for a minute or two then you disappeared back into the darkness.
Did you do this at all the shows or did I catch a spontaneous moment there?
MK: I dig your description of Robert’s soundscapes and I think he would too. I played during Robert’s sets for most of that tour starting about two weeks in — I had been sitting in the audience watching him play as much as I could, and one night he spotted me and waved for me to join him. I didn’t have my rig set up, but I made sure it was up the next night, and I think I only missed a couple of sets for the next few weeks. I loved the opportunity to play with Robert, who was and is a very important musical figure for me, and enjoyed sharing some wonderful musical moments with him. He was great. I wish everyone understood what he was about on his G3 sets as well as you do, but a lot of the audiences were confused by him. They couldn’t make room in their imaginations for something that unfamiliar to them and that was sad.
G!: Did Steve and yourself expect Robert to perform this kind of piece at the shows and were you blown away by it? (very artistic of him I thought and it added a whole different dimension to the show)
MK: We were definitely blown away. Steve joined Robert on stage once or twice as well (once he played bass standing right offstage, so that everyone heard Steve Vai playing bass for Robert Fripp but no-one knew that it was him), as did Stu Hamm. I had several albums of Robert’s Frippertronics and Soundscapes, so I knew what to expect, but I was routinely blown away by the majesty and color and beauty of it every night.
G!: It seems you were the first and one of the only few who have interviewed Buckethead. How well do you know Buckethead?
MK: In 1996 Buckethead sat in with a band I was in called The Mistakes, at two consecutive shows in the Bay Area. We hung out a little bit and I like him a lot. Unfortunately we haven’t been in contact since we did that interview a few years ago but I hope he’s doing good, I really like that guy.
G!: What do you think of him as a person and a player?
MK: He was a really gentle and nice guy when we did those shows, he was great. He obviously plays his ass off, I don’t know any other players who makes quite those kind of shapes in the air that his music makes.
G!: Your disc “Wooden Smoke” was great! Do you have any plans for another acoustic cd?
MK: Bryan Beller, my bass player, and I have been doing duo acoustic performances for Taylor Guitars for a few years now, and a lot of people have been wanting an acoustic CD from the two of us, and that’s something we’ll do soon.
G!: How do you like the new Taylor Expression System? Any plans for an MK signature model?
MK: I love the ES. It’s the first time in my life I’ve been able to sit in front of people and give them the tone that I hear when I sit and play the guitar by myself. It’s an incredible gift and I love it. No plans for an MK signature model right now – I haven’t found myself wanting for anything but maybe I’ll design something someday. Who’s got the time?
G!: What are some of the differences you find in touring the USA, Canada, Asia and Europe?
MK: Geez. Nothing really significant I guess. I love working in Europe and have been spending a lot of time there lately. People are different everywhere, not just from continent to continent but town to town, street to street practically. I’m always interested in people no matter where I am, so it doesn’t really matter whether I’m in Holland or Canoga Park. Although I admit I’d rather be in Holland than Canoga Park. OK, I guess it does matter.
G!: Who are your top 5 musical hero’s and why?
MK: These are just the first five that came to mind:
Every one of these opened big wide doors for me which needed to be opened in order for me to accomplish what I need to do
G!: In your travels have you come accross any new talents out there we should all be on the look out for?
MK: Andre LaFosse is a really creative guitarist/composer people should be checking out. Adam Tober in NYC is writing some fantastic avant-pop-rock stuff with great guitar and melodies. JRDA in Vermont is a really strong musical band people should be seeing live over there.
G!: What do you find most rewarding: writing, recording or touring?
MK: I think recording. Specifically the first time you hear a finished album under relaxed circumstances – there’s nothing else like it. I love touring and doing gigs, but that’s not rewarding in the same sense because during a gig I’m kind of in a trance, so when it’s done I’m exhilarated and jazzed and happy but I hardly know what just happened, so it’s not as rewarding in that sense. Writing is exciting and strange and miraculous, but it’s not yet the reward, it’s just a big part of the process.
G!: Would you have done anything different in your career if you could in hindsight?
MK: Ah, I don’t know. I really don’t think about it. I can look back on all kinds of steps taken or not taken, or things I wish I’d played or sung differently, but I’m learning from all of it, so what the fuck.
G!: Do you have any advice you’d like to pass onto aspiring musicians?
MK: Don’t stop! If you love it, just don’t stop.
G!: Thank you very much for your time Mike! We all look forward to your future projects!
MK: Speaking of projects – just for your information:
Brand new Mike Keneally Band album – “Dog” – featuring Mike Keneally, Bryan Beller, Nick D’Virgilio and Rick Musallam – available from www.keneally.com in June. Released by Exowax Recordings. It’ll be hitting retail in October, after “The Universe Will Provide” comes out.
“Dog” is the hardest rock album I’ve done since “Boil That Dust Speck” – hopefully you’ll dig it.
Also available – “Dog” CD + DVD Special Limited Edition set. The DVD has live, rehearsal and studio footage, plus bonus audio tracks and other objects. 2500 copies signed and numbered by me, also available from www.keneally.com
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Thank you! I enjoyed the interview and I appreciate it. Take care!
Interview © 2004 Guitarhoo!