Mike Keneally has, over a solo career stretching back more than two decades, made something of a career of fiddling with things — his guitar, to be sure. But also sounds, processes, and expectations.
You Must Be This Tall, due August 27, 2013 via Exowax, is no different: Keneally, over just 12 tracks, rattles across a dizzying landscape of musical textures and concepts — even as he brings in collaborative storylines that range from XTC to the Metropole Orkest to Frank Zappa, for whom he served an early-career tenure as a stunt guitarist.
“This is what I do,” Keneally tells us in this exclusive SER Sitdown, “when I’m not trying to do anything in particular. This is what comes out naturally.”
Keneally, of course, is coming off a larger collaborative project with XTC’s Andy Partridge called Wing Beat Fantastic, the fruits of which included a final track to be found here on the follow up. He goes in depth with us on You Must Be This Tall, discussing the role of instant composing and improvisation in the work, his hopes for working with Partridge again, how he wove in the drumming of Marco Minnemann, and then found a way — as usual — to close things out on a high note …
NICK DERISO: You Must Be This Tall includes a final collaborative moment with XTC’s Andy Partridge. It must be bittersweet to see that period end.
MIKE KENEALLY: Actually, I’ve searched my heart and soul, when you said that, and I’m not feeling any bittersweet qualities to it at all. To me, the whole experience is very sweet — and on-going. Even though “Indicator” represents the last of our collaborations the first time around, I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t choose to do it again sometime. It’s interesting to me to see how I process these things. I don’t feel it as an ending at all.
NICK DERISO: So you plan to work with him again?
MIKE KENEALLY: We haven’t planned anything, because this one took so long. From Point A to Point Done, it took longer — certainly longer than Andy expected. He became sort of impatient with me for not finishing it up on my own. At a point when I still thought we were going to have more songwriting sessions together, he was thinking: “Well, we’ve already gotten together twice, and we generated a lot of material — let’s see what you do.” He kind of threw down the gauntlet. It was like, “I would like for you to totally take charge of this, from this point forward.” And I realized, he was right. We did create nine distinct pieces of music, and that’s more than enough to base an album off of. At one point, I was thinking that everything on the album had to be Keneally-Partridge. Well, that’s silly. It can just be a Mike Keneally album that’s overwhelmingly made up of songs I wrote with Andy — and there’s nothing wrong with that. I even managed to keep a really good one in check to release on You Must Be This Tall, this very strange guitar instrumental that Andy actually plays on. So people who were bummed out that Andy didn’t perform on Wing Beat Fantastic will be pleased to learn that he actually plays guitar on “Indicator.” They also might be interested to know that he also sings on the “Your House” demo on Wing Beat Elastic, which is an album that I think a lot of people still don’t know about.
NICK DERISO: You set a challenge for yourself, creating a song a day out of four idea fragments recorded onto a voice memo on your cell phone while on tour. What did you start with? Hummed melodies? A riff? A verse?
MIKE KENEALLY: It depended on the song. There are four on the album that were born that way. One of them is called “The Rider,” and that had the chorus — she’s the rider from Green Tork — and I just sang that over and over again. There was something about the quality of that melody that sounded sort of like a rock anthem — it had a victorious quality. But the lyrics were totally weird; they didn’t mean anything. I tried for a long time to think of something else to say there, and those were the only words that I could think of to sing along with those notes. My one concession to reality is that, on the original iPhone demo I said: “She’s the rider from Green Tork; I’m in love with your clean fork.” (Laughs.) That, we didn’t use in the final version — although I did make a reference to a clean fork at one point later in the song. I eventually found a way to have the fork make sense. (Laughs.)
NICK DERISO: Then there was “Kidzapunk,” right?
MIKE KENEALLY: I remember I was getting ready to take a shower, it was probably on a Dethklok tour — though it might have been with (guitarist Joe) Satriani — and you get these rhythms in your head, and you want to capture it. If you listen to the album, you’re hearing the core of the rhythm that I hummed into the phone. Basically, I went in there and said: “I have this kernel of a song, and by the end of the day, I want to have completely fleshed out the song structure.” So, there was no time to second guess the direction of the composition. It’s basically whatever feels good to you in that moment, you better get it down — because nighttime is coming, and it’s got to be done! (Laughs.) Sometimes it’s fun just to tie your own hands in a certain way. By the end of four days, I had all of the song structures for “The Rider,” “Kidzapunk,” and “Cavanaugh” and “Pitch Pipe.” Then there was a process of many months of finding just the right things to decorate the skeleton; that came together separately. It’s fun, a really fun way to make songs.
NICK DERISO: So, when Marco came in for tracks like “Kidzapunk,” did you hum the cadence to him? Or was there already a rhythm track there that he replaced?
MIKE KENEALLY: I recorded that whole song to a click track, and then played some kind of drums on it myself as a place keeper. There is a version of “Kidzapunk” with me playing drums, but it just didn’t work. I kept some of my drum part in the middle, where there’s this one section that goes to two drums kits split left and right. That’s the remnant from my drums. I had the whole song basically complete, and I just brought it to him in his studio up the coast and said: “You know what I played there? Please play that the way a real drummer, an amazing drummer would.” He just ate it alive. He actually recorded that track at the same time as he recorded a bunch of stuff for Wing Beat Fantastic. Both albums pretty much happened at the same time.
NICK DERISO: I understand that “5th St.” also began as a piece of purely improvised music. Take us back to that moment.
MIKE KENEALLY: While I was working on some of this music, and also some of the Wing Beat Fantastic music in the studio, for a few months we were doing live webcasts — stuff like “I”m Raining Here, Inside” and “Pitch Pipe” from the new album, and various other pieces as they were being done in the studio. So, that was a real-time window into that. We tried to come up with things to make each one of these webcasts have some kind of unique personality, and (executive producer) Scott (Chatfield) said: “I’m going to challenge you to just play something on the piano, and just show how you conceive a song structure spontaneously.” It wouldn’t be like a solo, like blowing, or a full improvisation where you go anywhere. The idea was to come up with some kind of song form, but improvising it in real time on piano. We nipped and tucked; we took out some of the bits I thought were less interesting, but we ended up with this two-minute, I think nicely moody little composition that happened spontaneously. Then I decorated it with all of the electronics and the weird rhythmic stuff that is going on. It took me about as long as anything on the album, crafting the precise level of randomness and chaos in that percussion track. Some of the percussion on “5th St.” is derived from three different tracks. One is a slowed-down version of the drum track from “The Rider,” and another one is me clanging percussion sounds on a keyboard in real time, and then the last one is a programmed rhythm track from a piece of software that we have in the computer.
NICK DERISO: I love the way you created, all alone, the orchestral layers from your musical intersection with the Metropole Orkest on the title track. What brought you back to that?
MIKE KENEALLY: That’s just one that’s sort of been in the background for about seven years. What you hear is essentially the demo that I created just to get the song to them, and I always thought that demo had a really intriguing quality to it. It’s artificial, but it still feels life like. I’m playing all of the orchestral parts on a keyboard, but I am playing them in real time — so it’s not programmed. There’s still a little bit of the feel of a real performance, even though the sounds are synthetic. Then I added Marco on the drums, playing along with the programmed drum part that I had put on there. That combination really gives the whole thing a push and pull that I like a lot. At one point, it was going to be on (Keneally’s narrative-based experimental pop album series) Scambot. I was going to find a way to work it into the Scambot plot. But at the same time, I was thinking: “There’s something about this song. It would be nice to give it a pedestal of its own, rather than burying it in a lot of Scambot-ian weirdness.”
NICK DERISO: So, you’re already thinking about the next item in that series?
MIKE KENEALLY: I have different ideas for how Scambot is going to proceed now, and I really want to get the best of the music that I have been working on for the last seven years. Scambot, Wing Beat Fantastic and You Must Be This Tall — I have been working on all of them at the same time, and they kind of leaked into each other. Now, they all really define a period. I would like each of the three volumes of Scambot to have a very distinct musical personality. So, when I do Scambot II, it’s going to feel very different from Scambot I. I want to be creating a lot of new stuff for it, rather than relying on material that’s been in the bin for going on the last eight years now. You Must Be This Tall was a means of gathering together what I thought was the best of the material that I had, and to kind of put a cap on this particular stage of recording activity. I think this is going to have a very different musical feel to it, and have a different sound to it. We’ll be playing it with different recording techniques to give it a new personality and sound. So, yeah, I’d say this album was kind of transitional. But it made perfect sense for a piece like “You Must Be This Tall,” which has been like a totem of the last few years, to give it prominent placement on this record.
NICK DERISO: You conclude things with “Glop,” featuring one of the album’s most turbulent solos.
MIKE KENEALLY: That’s one of my favorite solos. Most of the stuff I’ve recorded lately has been here at Scott’s house, but I had a secondary Pro Tools rig at my house for a while. I normally don’t enjoy recording at home; I really like to keep recording as a separate activity from the home environment. It makes me more productive. But I recorded a good amount of things for Scambot, and various other pieces, while I had the rig at home — and one of them was the solo in “Glop.” It was a bit longer than what’s on the record, but not much. That was another one-take thing. Then I decorated it some with keyboard effects, which did make it into the final mix. We brought that recording over to Marco’s space, and he recorded drums on it, and then we put that into the studio at Chatfield Manor and that’s when I did all of the keyboards and additional guitar orchestration.
[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: Ultimately, I think it came to strongly recall your time with Frank Zappa.
MIKE KENEALLY: Of course, Frank is a huge influence on that approach. It’s just so much fun. I don’t hear that sound that often. Because every song is just something I want to hear, for whatever reason, and I really wanted to hear that.
NICK DERISO: And, in keeping with so much of your discography, it’s ends things with a flourish.
MIKE KENEALLY: I appreciate you’re saying that, because I haven’t heard that thought brought up too much. The pacing of the album, definitely in the latter part of it, arrives in this whole other place — and hangs out there for a while. It’s definitely intentional. One of these days (already laughing), I’ll have an album that doesn’t end super weird.