'It was great fun': Mike Keneally on XTC, Frank Zappa and the enduring magic of Tarkus

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By turns angular, poetic, experimental and gorgeously intelligent, Mike Keneally’s new collaboration with Andy Partridge more fully explores the lesser-known impact of XTC in his sound. But even here, in the song-focused environment of Wing Beat Fantastic, Keneally’s memorable stint as a sideman with Frank Zappa looms large.

Keneally, in this latest SER Sitdown, talks frankly about both influences, chuckles over initially turning down an audition for Zappa in favor of a previously scheduled gig with his old band, digs further back into his earliest experiences with progressive rock, and looks ahead to his next project.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Mike Keneally discusses key cuts from his Andy Partridge collaboration ‘Wing Beat Fantastic,’ as well as memorable moments from his solo career, Frank Zappa and Yo! Miles.]

Of course, eventually Keneally would become a member of Zappa’s final touring band, and he has in the intervening years often been favorably compared to his early mentor — even as he’s worked hard at establishing his own voice.

“Sometimes I consciously steer away from it, if I feel like I am doing something musically when I am in the studio and I come up with some combination of sounds, or an arrangement, that just feels so much like Frank, it’s almost like I have to dial it back,” Keneally told us. “There’s no question that his influence on me is huge, but I don’t want the music to sound so much like him that that’s all you hear. To the extent that it helps a song rather than hurts it, I’m more than happy to let that influence through. I don’t really have a choice, anyway; it’s so deep.”

Turns out, though, that his passion for the work of Andy Partridge and Co. goes back pretty far, too …

NICK DERISO: Didn’t I hear a sample from XTC way back on your solo debut hat?
MIKE KENEALLY: Yeah, I replayed a little chunk of “Mayor of Simpleton,” as opposed to just taking it off their record — although, I tried to perform that little segment in a way that sounded authentic. My indebtedness to XTC’s music has been there all the way down the line. I think a lot of people have heard it, in the more direct and conventionally melodic pop things that I did. Their influence has always been at the forefront. Them, and the Beatles — though maybe even more so with XTC.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Mike Keneally’s ‘Wing Beat Fantastic’ collaboration with XTC’s Andy Partridge is a meeting of the minds that results in something fans of both artists are going to cherish for ages.]

NICK DERISO: Did you reach out to Andy Partridge? How did you guys end up in a room together?
MIKE KENEALLY: I’ve known him since 1988, when he and Dave Gregory came out to a Zappa concert that we were doing in Birmingham. It was a little bit of a surprise to see them. Scott Thunes, the bass player, called Virgin Records — their label at the time — and left a message inviting them to the Frank Zappa concert. When he hung up the phone, we giggled, almost like it was a practical joke. There was no chance that XTC would show up, but to our disbelief and delight Andy and Dave Gregory actually did. I subsequently found out that in the six years since Andy had stopped performing live, he had barely out to see any concerts. It was sort of a really rare occurrence. That was the power of Zappa. We were just in our glory to meet them, though. They invited us to visit them later that year when they were recording Oranges and Lemons. They were in L.A., and I was in San Diego, so when ever I had a chance, I would drive up there and be a fly on the way as they made that record. That was an eye-opening process for me. I stayed really friendly with Dave, and stayed in contact with Andy. I would send whatever work I was doing, too. Every time I put out an album, I would pop a copy in the mail. Finally, a few years ago, Andy suggested a songwriting collaboration. Which I was very up for! (Laughs.)

NICK DERISO: Wing Beat Fantastic is an interesting album because, while it’s got the concise feel of an old-fashioned song-focused album, there remains a lot of the personality and creativity that have always powered your best work.
MIKE KENEALLY: I really had no idea what was going to transpire. I showed up at Andy’s home with some notebooks filled with scraps of ideas — lyrics and stuff that I had written over the years that hadn’t gotten put into other songs. The way that process got started was, literally, Andy just thumbing through my workbooks until he came across something that was interesting to him. For instance, he just saw the phrase “wing beat fantastic” and said: “What does that mean?” I said, “I don’t know!” (Laughs.) He then said: “That’s very interesting. We should follow that somewhere.” That’s what was fun about the way that Andy works: He’s such an great lyricist that all he needs is just the barest concept, and that can lead him to verses and verses of really inspired stuff. So, that was great fun for me, to work with someone who is such a masterful songwriter. I think his lyric writing is on a level of some of the best people who have written words for any reason. That’s a real honor, to be collaborating with him.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: 2004’s ‘The Universe Will Provide’ saw Mike Keneally working alongside with the Metropole Orkest, and the result was a stunning, beautiful journey.]

NICK DERISO: Take us into the writing sessions. How did that work?
MIKE KENEALLY: He worked very much as an editor in the songwriting process, where he’d say: “Give me a chord,” and I would play a chord. Then I would try a second chord, and he would suggest that we try one a bit higher or lower. Maybe change one note in the chord. Every bit of the songs when we were working together went through both of our filters. He kind of naturally settled into more of the driving role, and I was happy for that. If it pleased him, then it pleased me. It was great fun. It helped become a trigger that got Andy writing some new material — because, as I’m sure you know, he hasn’t put out a lot of stuff in the last 12 years.

NICK DERISO: I’d like to go further back for a second, back to that “a-ha” moment for you with progressive rock. Was there an album that brought it all together in your mind as a young musician?
MIKE KENEALLY: I would have to say that that was Tarkus. When I was 8 or 9, I had already started playing the organ, and I was looking for organ players to emulate and being inspired by. I was being groomed to be a very pop organist, playing standard show tunes — with white shoes on. (Laughs.) I heard Tarkus on FM radio, which I listened to at night, in my room, by myself, with the lights off. (Laughs.) Back in those days, a station would actually play a 20-minute Emerson Lake and Palmer piece, uninterrupted. It blew my mind. I ended up getting the eight-track of Tarkus, and playing it repeatedly. I don’t think the term “progressive rock” was in wide usage at that point. It was called “classical rock,” at that point. But that was the album, more than any, that opened my eyes to the possibilities of what you could do with the rock music form. It hit me at a very young age, and I started collecting the big groups — ELP, Yes and later on, Genesis and Gentle Giant. Thick as a Brick was a huge album for me the next year, when I was 10. I first heard Zappa when I was 9 too, and obviously that was hugely influential. But I didn’t perceive him as being part of what we now know as progressive rock. He was always of a different ilk. But obviously his experimentalist edge was really strong — at times, almost too strong. I remember, when I was about 12 or so, when I heard “Uncle Meat” for the first time, it seemed like almost too much for me to wrap my head around. But that was the stuff that was the most rewarding, the more I stuck with it.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Mike Keneally appeared on Frank Zappa’s excellent 2006 release ‘Trance-Fusion,’ a long-awaited posthumous blast of free-form guitar that could only be described as abstract art.]

NICK DERISO: I’ve never gotten over the story that, given the chance to play for Frank Zappa, you actually turned him down.
MIKE KENEALLY: I still haven’t gotten over it either. (Laughs.) In one sense, it’s obviously admirable: I had a gig with my band, and I didn’t want to blow it off. But in another sense, when I think of it now, it feels like Grade A insanity. (Laughs uproariously.) It still surprises me that I made that choice, but I think it all happened for a reason. At least it all turned out OK. (Laughs.) I never even discussed it with him. It was surprising to my band, when they heard about it later — that I had turned down the initial chance to audition for him. They thought I was crazy.

NICK DERISO: On the new album, “You Kill Me,” in particular, reminds me of the sharply political songs that Zappa was playing during those final tours. I felt like that was, maybe, a good example of the way you blended your style with Partridge’s. Am I reading that right?
MIKE KENEALLY: Intriguingly, the lyrics on that one are almost entirely Andy. We had worked together, collaborating on a set of lyrics in 2008. But that was four years ago, and when I was getting ready to record it last year, I wrote to Andy and said: “This song really needs some updating. Do you have any ideas as to how you might bring this song up to date?” He sent back a complete set of lyrics, and I barely changed anything. I did bring a lot to the musical side of the equation. There are some quirky melodies that are kind of Zappa-esque. So it does come across as a meeting of our two worlds, in that way. To me, though, that song — more than any other on the record — sounds like classic XTC. The way the guitars interlock, it’s very reminiscent of the Drums and Wires/Black Sea era — which I really love. That’s the one song on the album that harkens back to that instrumental approach. Lyrically, I had to give all of the credit to Andy there. That one, and “Raining Here,” are Andy’s words with a few minor adjustments from me.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: With 2006’s ‘Guitar Therapy Live,’ Keneally showed that the spirit of Zappa lives on — except you actually can play Mike’s music for your family without needing to skip over anything!]

NICK DERISO: So, after delving so deeply into pop forms on Wing Beat Fantastic, can we expect you to take another sharp left turn next? Maybe go back into something more progressive?
MIKE KENEALLY: I think that is likely. That’s just the natural way of things for me, when I spend so much time working on one project. The next project ends up being a left turn from there. There was actually quite a bit of music that I worked on, which I was doing this record, that I think is extremely different from what was on this album. At various points, when I was trying to figure out what this album would actually consist of, I had some of these other pieces inserted into the running order. Scott Chatfield, who I work with at Exowax Records and is the executive producer of my stuff, had very useful input about trying to keep this album as pure as possible — and keep some of the more archetypically Keneally stuff out of the way, and just let this record be what it wants to be. When I finally cleared out some of the more insane things that were going to be on there at one point, the album just flowed. It miraculously ended up being 12 songs and 40 minutes long, which has always seemed to me to be the ideal album length. And with all of the albums I’ve made, I’ve never done one that adhered so faithfully to classic album form. I’m excited to have finally managed that! (Laughs.)

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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