Interview by Lee Bouyea | Photos by Jake Sargent
Keller Williams' ability to captivate audiences has propelled him from
hometown gigs in Fredericksburg, Virginia to a slot this Summer on the
National So Many Roads Tour featuring Bob Weir's Ratdog. Truly a
one-man-band for the 21st Century, Keller incorporates the use of the
Jam-Man Loop pedal into his act, allowing him to blend and layer a variety of instruments or vocals together simultaneously in a live setting.
Photo by Jeremy Stein
Whether he's performing his own classics such as "Freeker by the Speaker" and "Kidney in a Cooler," or pulling off a stream of segued covers like "She Said, She Said> Redemption Song> Fire On The Mountain", K-Dub consistently finds a way to captivate his audience, challenging them to keep their eyes and ears open to discover what he might pull off next.
JamBase Correspondent Lee Bouyea had the opportunity to speak with Keller before the 'So Many Roads' Los Angeles tour stop in Late August.
LB: What has it been like traveling with the ‘So Many Roads’ tour so far?
KW: It’s very, very surreal. Something that we’re not used to at all. We’re used to driving in a motor home, and someone’s behind the wheel you know, which is great. Driving in a motor home is a lot better than driving in a van, but let me tell you, riding in a tour bus is better than a motor home.
…And, we’re not used to being pampered. It’s really, really great, and we’re very, very frightened of reality.
LB: What’s your set been like so far? How have you had to adapt to the festival lineup?
KW: Really, I’m playing the best slot that I could possibly have. I’m playing from 8:30 to 9:05 which isn’t that much time, but everyone’s in [the venue] that’s in, pretty much. I’m playing between Rusted Root and Ratdog. A really, really good time slot. And even though it’s not that long, I would rather play it short in that time slot that I have, than play it longer and play earlier.
LB: Any collaborations onstage so far?
KW: Karl Denson has come up with me once to play sax, and he also came up a different time and played the flute.
Another time, Mike Dillon came up and played the vibraphone. He was playing with Karl Denson at the time, but he’s off the tour now because he’s playing with Critters Buggin.
And at Red Rocks, Bob Weir came out; and played 3 songs during my set. That was very exciting.
LB: At what point did you realize that you could be successful enough to play music for a living?
KW: Well, my very first gig, which was in 1986. I was a lifeguard at a country club, and the general manager who was always walking around in these really nice suits and everything…I gave him a tape of mine, you know a crappy little demo tape, and he said:
Why don’t you come up and play in the bar during cocktail hour from 5 to 7, I’ll give you a hundred and fifty dollars. And I was 16…I don’t know if I had ever seen $150 in the same place…and it was that first gig that I thought, ‘Wow! I could really make a lot of money doing this.’
In my first gig I made a lot more than I did at most of my gigs from ‘95 through ‘98. So, it was very misleading…that first gig was very misleading. (laughs)
LB: How do you think that your music would have evolved if the ‘Jam-Man’ loop pedal had never been invented?
KW: Well, I would probably be playing solo, as I did before I first started looping. Or, I would be collaborating with a rhythm section. It would be one of the two. It would either be like boring folk music or some kind of collaboration with a rhythm section. That’s probably where I would be.
LB: One time I sent my sister a CD of yours, and the first time she listened to it, she thought that the CD player was skipping because of the flurry of arpeggioed chords that came out of your guitar. For all the enthralled listeners and guitarists, could you describe how your right hand produces such a recognizable and original range of sounds?
KW: I can’t describe my right hand. I can tell you kind of roughly what I’m doing…I’m playing a bass line, really. Trying to establish that root of the bass line, and playing around the bass line whether it be chords or a melody. Trying my best to keep that bottom end root always in the picture.
LB: You commented that using the loop was a step forward, an evolution in your playing…making performing music more interesting for yourself as a solo artist. But I’ve also read that you think this is just a phase, so I’m wondering why you see using the loop as not necessarily a permanent development in your style.
KW: I have lots of different loves for lots of different musics. This looping will probably, it could possibly, be a permanent stage in my solo career. But I also have concept albums that I want to get done. And that’s going to involve other artists collaborating with me.
I definitely said it was a phase at that time…because it was new. It was fresh, and now I’ve kind of opened up into it. You know, they’re making more machines that do more things…with technology you can just keep on adding and doing different things. And, you know what? Machines break. And there are going to be times when there’s not going to be any machines.
So I’m also trying to stay true to the music and not really depend solely on machines. That kind of bothers me, you know, about being so dependent on machines, so I’m also trying to stay true to the music and to the acoustic…you know actually playing the music without any amplifiers or anything-actual sounds from a wooden instrument. I want to stay true to that as well.
LB: What talents do you think that you possess that make using the loop so effective and intriguing for your audience?
KW: I think it’s just kind of like the rhythms that I’m hearing in my head that makes it effective. And, wanting to play my little pseudo lead guitar…I’m not a trained lead guitar player at all, but I find it fun to actually search for notes as a lead guitar player. Which is another reason why I’m using it so much.
LB: Why are segues such a prevalent part of the sets that you play?
KW: I do my set the way I like to hear music. But for example, take Leo Kottke. I’m happy to hear him speak and tell stories between his songs. But next thing you know, he forgets what he’s saying. And that’s funny, but I don’t necessarily enjoy hearing talking or a bunch of tuning between songs.
I just want to avoid saying stupid things. Long ago, well not really, a couple of years ago, when I was playing smaller venues, I would finish a song and no one would applaud. So I started incorporating segues into my set because I didn’t want to give any time for awkward pauses. Now people applaud when they want to.
LB: You have incorporated some interesting instruments into your show, my favorite being a pair of Motorola 2-way radios. I’m wondering what the most interesting instrument or prop you think you’ve used onstage, and whether or not you’re experimenting with anything new.
KW: Well, that would probably be the weirdest thing.
My sound engineer/road manager came up with that…he had the two together, and turned them on, and there was this crazy feedback, kind of like in a theremin way, and I definitely took that and ran into the back of the motorhome and shut the doors, played with it until my ears bled. That thing was just like a little hand-held theremin…it was great.
As far as new toys, I’ve incorporated a steel pan as well as a couple of other different percussion instruments. I’ve discovered the beauty of the baritone guitar as well…I’ve been playing with a 6-string baritone and a 12-string baritone. Also, an 8-string guitar like Charlie Hunter’s. This guitar maker kind of swindled me into buying one, and I went along with it because Charlie’s been such a huge influence on me.
LB: Listening to your HSMF from July of this year, it was noticeable that even in the trio format, the bass and drums played fairly minimalistic parts. How did you feel fitting into that arrangement?
KW: I loved it because it was very different, exciting and different. It made me nervous at the same time. I’m very far from a perfectionist, but I would have liked a lot more time to rehearse and make it tight. It wasn’t anywhere near the rehearsal time that I would have liked. I would need a week straight in order to feel comfortable with it.
LB: You’ve said that you’re not really interested in searching for and assembling a band, but that you would be willing to step into an all-star lineup if the right one came along. Who would be the ideal fit for you?
KW: I like Victor Wooten. And I like Jon Fishman. They’re the rhythm section of the day. But I try not to dream and put anyone on a higher pedestal than they already are in my head.
LB: You’ve commented that if you stepped into a band, it would most likely include a lineup of established musicians. But, what if a talented young player came along and asked you to check out their act, much like you did with String Cheese?
KW: I’m definitely looking for the new innovative players out there. I’m always into checking out new music….going to clubs always takes on a seminar aspect for me.
LB: Who have you seen out there that fits in that vein?
KW: I like the Motet a lot, [they don’t use] a lot of English words. I really like that Afro-Cuban world beat jazz funk sound.
LB: You mentioned earlier in the interview that you were planning some ‘concept albums’. Would you like to flesh out those ideas for us?
KW: One is an all-instrumental, acoustic, organic techno album. House-techno in the acoustic sense. Very different sonically from what I’m doing now.
One is an album of all covers that I love.
Another is a completely unplugged acoustic bluegrass album with musicians I’ve played with before.
Then there’s a solo studio album with me playing all of the instruments: keys, bass, drums. I’d like to do the entire production.
LB: What happens when you ‘dance like nobody is watching’?
KW: I usually get my hands caught in the ceiling fan.
Keller Williams' Tour Dates