Gimme Five: Mike Keneally explores the riddle of Miles Davis, the influence of Metallica

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On this special edition of Something Else! Reviews’ One Track Mind, Mike Keneally talks about working with — and working without — XTC’s Andy Partridge on the terrific new album Wing Beat Fantastic. He also takes us back to his earliest experiences with Miles Davis, a journey that ultimately led to his participation in the Yo Miles project with Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith.

Find out how the twin deaths of his father and Frank Zappa — for whom Keneally served as stunt guitarist on the rock legend’s final tour — led to the hard-edged outbursts found on “Cause of Breakfast.” And what Zappa still means to Keneally, more than 20 years after his untimely death …

“I’M RAINING HERE, INSIDE,” with ANDY PARTRIDGE (WING BEAT FANTASTIC, 2012): Keneally says that Andy Partridge, retired now for more than a decade, was adamant about keeping his voice off their current project — so that it would become more fully a Mike Keneally record. And, in some ways, the gambit worked, as Keneally added a full measure of his own quirk and circumstance to the proceedings. There are times, however, when the specter of Partridge’s work with XTC looms large anyway — notably on this, the first collaboration found within Wing Beat Fantastic. There’s a reason for that: Partridge wrote almost all of the lyrics.

MIKE KENEALLY: That was a virtually completed set of lyrics that Andy had already written but, after several attempts, he still had no idea where to do with it musically. That’s why sometimes it’s so helpful to reach outside of yourself to complete a piece of work like that, because when I saw those lyrics, I could just feel the rhythm of them — just looking at them. I’d say it didn’t take me more than a half hour to put together the entire chordal structure for that whole song. For him, it seemed like an impossible task, to figure out how to set that musically. But, of course, I could never have written those lyrics. I think it was a really successful collaboration, in that sense. We both drew some of the best work out of each other.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Mike Keneally talks with us about the lingering influences of Frank Zappa and XTC, and his magical introduction to prog through ‘Tarkus.’]

“CAUSE OF BREAKFAST,” solo (BOIL THAT DUST SPECK, 1994): A dark, heavy song on a dark, heavy album, “Cause of Breakfast” is perhaps Keneally’s most direct expression about the difficult passages then taking place in his life — as both his father and Zappa would eventually die after bouts with prostate cancer. With its tough, angular guitars and complex musical structure, the track would also seem to be the one more impacted by his time in Zappa’s last touring band — though there were other influences at work as well, he tell us.

MIKE KENEALLY: Definitely the more peculiar and extended musical passages in a piece like that, they’re undeniably influenced by Zappa. But I remember that piece being specifically influenced by Steve Vai, as well, and some of the extreme metal I was listening to in the early 1990s. It was (fellow Zappa band alum) Scott Thunes who had introduced me to Metallica. The … And Justice for All album has some crazy song structures, and that had an impact as well. And also, that particular song was directly inspired by both my father and Frank Zappa dying of the same disease within months of each other. It was heavy time, and the only time to explore and express that accurately was with some very heavy music — heavy in the sense of the dynamics, and in the depth of the composition. I worked a lot on that one.

[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.]

“ON THE CORNER JAM,” with YO MILES! (UPRIVER, 2005): Part of a two-disc examination, both in cover tunes and in like-minded improvisations, of the turbulent turn-of-the-1970s electric period of Miles Davis that finds Keneally appearing with an all-star group of fusion all-stars fronted by guitarist Henry Kaiser and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. Aside from appearing on deeply intriguing cuts like this one, which also features work from saxist Greg Osby, keyboardist Tom Coster and drummer Steve Smith, Keneally co-wrote one of the album’s original cuts, called “Macero.” For all of his passion for the music of Davis and contemporaries like John Coltrane, however, Keneally admits that he couldn’t fully appreciate the latent genius of these legendary performances until later in his musical life. A batch of mid-1990s reissues finally sparked a love affair with Miles that continues to this day.

MIKE KENEALLY: That was one where I felt like I needed to grow up a little bit before I could get to it. I started collecting Miles Davis and Coltrane records when I was an older teen, mostly because I felt like I had to have it. I remember listening to that stuff and really thinking: “This is for grown ups.” I had to set that stuff aside until I was ready for it. By the time I was about 23, 24, I had already at that point collected a lot of Miles. I used to love to go to used record shops and buying records that I knew someday I would need to hear, even if I wasn’t ready for them right then. At some point, I thought I was ready to get into it, and to start to understand it. That was sometime in the 1980s. Even then, it wasn’t until they released the entire Plugged Nickel 1955 box, which was eight CDs of stuff, that it really clicked with me on a deep emotional level. That was when they started reissuing all of the Coltrane Impulse stuff, around the same time in the mid-1990s. I was over 30 by then. But it took me that long to really hear it, and absorb it and feel it. After that, it really took root in my playing.

[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!]

“JAZZ DISCHARGE PARTY HATS,” with ZAPPA’S UNIVERSE (ZAPPA’S UNIVERSE, 1993): A cut from Steve Vai’s “impossible guitar parts” era with Zappa, “Jazz Discharge Party Hats” was originally featured on 1983’s The Man from Utopia. A decade later, it would later become a highlight of this Grammy-winning Zappa tribute recording fronted by Keneally — thanks largely to his combined vocal and guitar pyrotechnics. Keneally himself always points fans to the video release, featured above, rather than the album itself — which he said was senselessly overproduced by a record company more interested in cashing in on Zappa than actually paying tribute to him. Even today, it’s clear how much Zappa still means to Keneally.

MIKE KENEALLY: I never really had a formal musical education. Most of what I learned, I learned off of records. I would just keep my ears open. And once I joined Zappa’s band, I had to learn so much, over such a short period of time, just to keep up. Being under his direction, and being inspired by the example of all the other guys in the band who were so much more experienced than I was, it was a high quality educational experience every single night. But that was tempered by just the sheer disbelief that I was there at all. There were times during the shows, in particular during Frank’s solos, I would just sit back and listen to him and watch everything that was going on — and I was flabbergasted that I was on the stage, rather than in the audience. It was a mind-blowing experience, from a variety of angles.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Chad Wackerman talks about his throwback 2012 jazz-rock project with Alan Holdsworth – and fondly recalls his time with Frank Zappa.]

“THAT’S WHY I HAVE NO NAME,” solo (WING BEAT FANTASTIC, 2012): As much as he deeply respects XTC, Keneally more than holds his own throughout the new record — as evidenced on “That’s Why I Have No Name,” one of four songs on this new album not to include contributions from Partridge. It sounds at once of a piece with the rest of Wing Beat Fantastic but also very much in keeping with Keneally’s extant sound. He says he worked closely with executive producer Scott Chatfield to edit what at one point threatened to become a sprawling two-album set. (The remaining songs could end up on a follow up release of Keneally pieces, he added.) The pieces that remained — including the two-part “Ineffable Oomph of Everything,” the closing “Land” and “That’s Why” — were selected because they best fit the tone and style of the Partridge collaborations. His unique arrangement with the retired Partridge, where the two wrote together but then Keneally completed the tracks, also gives Wing Beat Fantastic the overall feel of a Keneally project.

MIKE KENEALLY: If I had continued all the way down the process to the finished product with Andy, like if he had been involved with producing and recording the songs, I think you would have found that the balance would have tipped a lot more toward the Andy side of the equation. After two separate week-long writing periods, he considered that his job was done and he wanted me to take the work that we had done — which was eight demos — and complete them on my own. At that point, I was album to exert more of the way I make records onto the songs themselves. I ended up with what I think it a really balanced partnership there.

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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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