KELLER WILLIAMS : : THE NEXT STAGE


Keller Williams by Adam George
Whether it's the fact that he belts out a full-bodied, full band sound while standing alone on stage or that he's one of the best songwriters on the circuit, Keller Williams is becoming very relevant to the general public. This past year he took his solo show to Europe with Michael Franti & Spearhead, hit some dates in Australia, and is making his way over to Japan in the upcoming months. For some fans, it's about time he gets the recognition he so rightly deserves; others can't stand to share one of the best kept secrets in the scene. With a heavy arsenal of masterfully crafted albums under his belt and an ever-growing slew of toys that grace his performances, Keller Williams is turning heads and shaking asses. Songs like "Freaker by the Speaker" and "Love Handles" have started making their way onto the radio, and Keller himself has even managed to find the time to host his own radio show--and that's just scratching at the surface. His incredible wit and sense of humor overflows in his lyrics and his jaw-dropping talent at any instrument he picks up is nothing short of amazing.

With an extremely relaxed persona, Keller takes to his shows shoeless on an Oriental rug and with a guitar in hand. He blends his songs from instrumental licks and loops that have more layers of soul, funk, and musical prowess than you'll ever find on MTV. He's an artist on a completely different level: whether he's dropping a slap-happy bass line or shooting his fingers up and down the frets of his guitar, Keller is there to remind you that music is much more then meets the eye. Having expressed a huge influence from the guitar work of Jerry Garcia and the music of the Grateful Dead in general, it's no surprise that Keller is able to bring people from different walks of life together to rejoice in the music that makes this world a better, brighter place. Spreading smiles like wildfire and keeping the guts in check with contagiously danceable tunes, Keller is looking at his biggest year yet, and at a time where the big names are taking a step back, thank God we have someone so tuned-in to keep the good vibes rolling. I was able to catch up with Keller several times over the past few months and had a recent phone conversation with the man regarding his upcoming summer and his hot new double live album Stage. Enjoy.


Matt Layton: Before we even start, congratulations on making the cover of Relix. It was great to see you on the cover and read a nice hefty article on your progress over the past couple years.

Keller: Thank you very much, man. I am truly tickled about that honor.

Matt Layton: So I wanted to start off by talking about your new release Stage. I see that on Stage Left, you took most of the material from the show in San Louis Obispo. What made you decide on which shows you were going to use, and more specifically, why that show?

Keller: Well it's strange, you know. I would listen to that San Louis Obispo show, and I had an idea of what kind of songs I wanted on that part of the album. That show had several songs in a row that worked and that's really where I wanted to go with that. Rather then taking each song from different venues, with this show, I was able to stay true as possible to how they were performed in that way, especially how they segue into another song and out and so on. So the San Louis Obispo show really worked, without even realizing it at the time and we were multi-tracking the whole core, and I kind of had an idea every night that something could happen and I could use it, you know. But at the same time it was just me and one of the five shows in a row that I was doing that week, so when I went back and listened to that particular show there was just something about it... a lot of the shows I play are very social, people are up and about and chatting and smoking and what not, but this show was heated and silent, and for a 500-seat college theater it was really cool. The energy was intense in the sense that the people were honing in on my every word and note, whereas on Stage Right, it's a little more loose and dance vibe and everyone was standing up and partying.

Matt Layton: With the difference in vibes from venue to venue, which do you prefer? Do you like the quiet, clinging, sitting crowd, or do you prefer the rocking-out loud crowd that is on their feet?


Keller Williams :: Bonnaroo 03 by David Vann
Keller: You know I don't get really all that much of the quiet sit-down crowd anymore. But to answer your question, I thrive heavily off of the energy I receive from the crowd. When I walk onto the stage, I have this automatic adrenaline because I'm walking onto the stage (laughs). But after a half hour or so, I begin to rely on the audience to feed more energy to me and so it's a circular thing going.

Do you associate that at all with your background in theater back in college?

That probably doesn't hurt. I definitely had a lot of theater experience before I ever considered music to be my main gig. I actually went to Virginia Wesleyan College for three years and took drama as a major, but just getting through the regular academic stuff was such a bitch for me (laughs). The only thing in theatre that I truly learned was that I didn't want to be in that field, and that I wanted to go to theatres to play my music and not so much have a script to follow, and end up skipping three pages and totally ruining a scene and freak every one out and get an "F" (both laugh).

Do you find that the improv skills you learned pour out into your sets? Even as far as conjuring up your set lists... do you write out a set list prior to taking the stage or just take it as it comes?


Keller Williams by C Taylor Crothers
You know, 99% of the time I'll figure out what I am playing first, second and third and maybe what I am going to close with, but then there are those lucky times that I am playing the same place I played the year before, and I can go online and dig up the set list from that particular show and not play any of the same songs from that set or at least make sure I open or close with different things.

What about with your choice for covers? You've breathed new life into the cover song and I know I'm not alone in saying that you always seem to play the perfect cover at the perfect time. Is that all spur of the moment decisiveness or do you get an idea before you even take the stage?

Oh cool man, thank you. It can actually depend on specific towns or times. I'm always trying to incorporate different songs of the times, and songs that are appropriate with where I am and what's happening. I even sometimes like to change the words to make it appropriate with where I am at that night. I'm pretty much just an applause whore (both laugh). Well actually, it's not so much an applause whore, it's more like... Well, like you write for JamBase, right?

 
"You know, when you go to a show and everyone is kind of focused in on what's happening and then all of a sudden... everyone at the same time just feels it, and they cheer and throw out a big burst of energy... I live for that shit."
--Keller Williams
Photo by C Taylor Crothers
 

Yes.

So then the people reading will know what I'm talking about. You know, when you go to a show and everyone is kind of focused in on what's happening and then all of a sudden at one time everyone as an audience without any kind of script or anything, everyone at the same time just feels it, and they cheer and throw out a big burst of energy... I live for that shit. So when you incorporate things that are happening that night and in certain cities, people just eat that shit up and I love it.

So now straying away from that aspect, I wanted to talk about this summer. No High Sierra Music, no Bonnaroo, but you are still all over the festival circuit and are even headlining certain fests like Smilefest.


By C Taylor Crothers
And no Telluride! (Grimaces) All three of those festivals, you know... it's really a bummer. Those are three of my favorite festivals and I am extremely grateful to be a part of everything that I am a part of this summer, and I am on a lot and I have so much to be grateful for, but Telluride, High Sierra, and Bonnaroo are my three favorite festivals and I am definitely bummed that I'm not a part of it. But you know, there's always next year.

I know that I have told you this back the first time we met, but that late night set with you and Cheese the first year at Bonnaroo still to this day has to be my highest musical experience to date and I will never forget it.

Oh man, thank you again. That was pretty amazing.

That first year of Bonnaroo in general was pretty remarkable in and of itself. There was just such an amazing vibe permeating all around it.

Especially because there was that hint of fear to it as well, in some of the folks, as far as how many people were going to it and what could happen with that many people. Especially after Woodstock with the fires and all that.

So detouring from the festival circuit, but still on the same note as far as huge amounts of people, and I'm sure people have asked you about your opinion on this subject, but what was your take on Phish deciding to hang it up and doing so at a final festival with such a large amount of people?


Keller Williams by Jeffrey V. Smith
Well, I can relate artistically and I think they are looking at it for themselves too as well for the sake of history. I think that a lot has to do with Trey and the eclecticity--if that's even a word, which I'm sure it's not--of his brain. Just listening to his music and just thinking about how his brain works with his arrangements, you know, it seemed he could never be satisfied within one thing. The way he surrounded himself with an orchestra of musicians and took it out and did what he wanted to do. So to come back to it, I'm sure he had a real sense of family, but at the same time, if he is not happy with it, there is just no reason to continue on. I think that they did a really noble thing, to quit while you're ahead. I just read in Rolling Stone that Trey said he didn't want his daughter going to high school with kids that follow her dad around the country. It's a strange thing; I mean the hiatus seemed like a really good idea and then them coming back and me reading mixed reviews... I was able to go see one of the Hampton shows when they first came back in the beginning of January, and I had seen a lot of Phish back in '96 through '98, so I kind of had that to compare it to. I didn't really go too much after I started to get a lot more work and so I thought you could tell that they didn't really have the fire that they had in '97. But then again, a lot of that has to do with where you are yourself at that time. I was seeing Phish when they were just coming out of the rock club circuit, you know, and I am from Virginia, so I would go see them at the Boathouse up in Norfolk or at Flood Zone and at Trax in Charlottesville, so these tiny places with less then a thousand people. There was always this huge excitement, and then jumping from the theaters to the arenas seemed a little bit early. I can remember seeing them in an arena, and it was half full, and I can remember how cool and exciting that was. The best part then though was you could tell that they totally loved it. I really have nothing to say negative about Phish, man. They blazed the trail and have done things their own way, and I think that is really respectable and the music that they have produced both on stage and on record is just something to be very proud of for that band.

I think that the readers are going to appreciate those words very much. Especially with the fact that music lovers in this community really take their music seriously and to heart, and there are many people who have a home away from home with Phish, and they are losing that part of their lives. So on the other hand, for our readers who love Phish and have respect for you and your work, to hear you say such positive things about them and really look at the good in their decision, it helps a tremendous amount.

I agree. And it's not like the music is going to end, you know. Each band member is going to be touring with their own thing.

Let's go back to you coming out of Virginia. You just mentioned Charlottesville and Trax, which is where another Virginia band came out of, Dave Matthews Band. You are also about to go out for a few dates opening for DMB--how did this come about?

 
"Well, I can relate artistically and I think they [Phish] are looking at it for themselves too as well for the sake of history... I think that they did a really noble thing, to quit while you're ahead."
--Keller Williams
Photo by C Taylor Crothers
 

Well, I think that for an opening act such as myself (laughs), in that realm of shows, that's the pristine, sweetest opening act that you can have. I guess when The Dead was touring and playing all the stadiums, that DMB was pretty much the pristine opening act, and I guess Dave is kind of stirring away from the stadiums, you know, which is kind of good for him because 20,000 people feels a bit more intimate then 80,000 (laughs). That's funny, to think that 20,000 is more intimate (laughs). But the way we went about it was that we put it out to them that if they were ever interested in having us that we would do it, I don't think we were actually seeking it out, I think it was more general knowledge that if you are where I am at right now, then you are more than welcome and willing to open for someone where he is, and I am just blown away at how far Dave Matthews has come. I mean I used to see him at the same places I was seeing Phish, you know, there was this one summer where he would play every Tuesday at Trax, every Wednesday at The Flood Zone and every Thursday at The Bayou in D.C., and those shows would be free. I mean completely free. So that summer, he had built this huge Virginia-based following and just took it from there. It was really exciting to watch his rise to fame. You know, in the beginning he was just this bar band with this different, unique thing going on with the fiddle and sax, all monstrous amazing quality music instructors for music. I really like Dave Matthews in the sense of a musician, and he really sticks to the acoustic, and I really appreciate acoustic music, and I love his sarcasm in his interviews, I just think that is really cool. One way that we differ is that I read that for Dave when everything is bright and happy, he doesn't really feel like writing, but when things are dark and dreary, he gets into the writing phase a bit more. Whereas I am a little bit more inspired by the things that are good. I am kind of writing in the other direction, with the more upbeat positive aspects of things. He still has definitely had some hits that I really like, and I could sing 12 Dave Matthews hits and the wild thing is, that if you go and see him, or at least when I went and saw him, I only recognized a few tunes, so it seemed that he doesn't stick with the one hit show. I really find that I respect that about him. It's like there are these people who hear him on the radio and go to the shows just to hear the hits, but there is this multiple millions of people that really follow his career very closely and they are there to hear the stuff that is much deeper that doesn't get played on the radio, and I can totally relate to that.

So then after the festivals and the stint with Dave Matthews Band, you are going out with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and Yonder Mountain String Band. That's such an amazing lineup to go out on the road together. Is that just happening on the East Coast?


Keller Williams :: Bonnaroo 03 by David Vann
I think it goes around the Midwest and the East Coast. There are two different segments of the tour. It's more like two weeks on and then one week off and two weeks on again, that type of thing. Yonder and I will be rotating and there will be some venues I will go on first and other places they will go on first. It's pretty much a nightly rotation, I think.

I would imagine that you are pretty excited to be playing these shows with the Flecktones, as I know that Victor Wooten is a huge influence on you and someone you have looked up to in the past.

Yeah, he has been a huge influence and inspiration. Just that whole bill though, I mean Yonder too, these young, youthful, hungry guys who are continuing on this old tradition of bluegrass music in that actual tradition of acoustic style but even taking it further and taking away the stage monitors and plugging in their instruments so they can crank 'em (laughs). That is just so cool, you know. But, I love bluegrass music so much, and I love the crazy space jazz of the Flecktones too, and I am just really excited about this bill.

Moving onto your writing styles--you seem to bust out quite a few new tunes as each tour comes around. Do you find that you are writing constantly or is it an on-the-whim type of thing? It seems to me that through many shows, there's never a lack of new material with you.


By Adam George
Oh cool man, that's so great to hear, thank you. Actually, I'm lucky to get about ten songs a year and some of those songs die a quick death at that. Music is something that is a constant in my head, though, whether it be something I wrote or not. The stuff that I cover usually just takes me over without me having to learn it. You know, all of a sudden I am singing along and I pick up the guitar and I can just play it. It feels more as though the song absorbs me rather then me the song, so going back again, that is also how I choose my covers.

One thing about your new release Stage that I was really excited about was that it includes some of the newer material like "Keep it Simple" and "Novelty Song." It's giving some people a chance to hear the newer stuff that they might not have been able to hear live over the past year or so. It's great to get those recorded and out on an official release.


By Zack Smith
That's super cool of you to notice that, Matt, because that's exactly what it is. A lot of times people want to record the songs in the studio and then if they do a live album it might be included on that live version. When I put out my first live album, Loop, which came out in 2000, it had a few songs on there that had not been recorded before, and that was exciting, but the majority of the stuff that I do in the studio has been road-tested for a good year or so. This next studio album I'm going to do this winter is going to have a lot of songs that if people have been to my shows and paying attention, they will recognize these songs that have been around for about a year or so.

So when you go back into the studio for this project, are you going to be heading in alone like you did on the last album Home or are you going to have other musicians like you have done on other albums like Laugh with Dave Watts and Tye North and of course Breathe with the String Cheese Incident?

This next record is actually going to be full of guests, lots and lots of guests. Nothing has been nailed down or completely decided about this record, but I am going big as far as the word big goes, big in my world (laughs). I'm actually very excited to talk about it, but I probably shouldn't at this point.

(Laughs) Fair enough.

 
"Music is something that is a constant in my head, whether it be something I wrote or not. The stuff that I cover usually just takes me over without me having to learn it... It feels more as though the song absorbs me rather then me the song."
--Keller Williams
Photo by C Taylor Crothers
 

Yeah, lots of different acts though, I probably have three songs recorded now with just my studio engineer and myself, his name is Jeff Colvert. He did the Home and Dance records with me as well as he helped me mix Stage. He himself is just a fantastic musician; he did a lot of stage work in his teenage years and his early 20s, but is now primarily focusing on studio work.

Is he someone that is behind the vast ever-growing stage arrangement that you have? Most notably was the addition of the ironing board to your last tour, how did you decide on that (laughs)?


Keller Williams :: Jam Cruise 03
By David Vann
Right (laughs). Well, the ironing board pretty much just came from me getting into the slide. I have really been wanting to go into the twangy dobro section, and kind of take the guitar and raise the action on it and give it a warm acoustic slide. Have you ever heard of Kelly Joe Phelps? He's pretty much out of his slide faze, but there was a while where he was just turning around with these old Martins and playing slide, and it sounded so good. I got the inspiration from him, but I didn't want to sit down and I didn't want some crazy strap going under my arm while I am trying to play dobro style, so I got that ironing board out and set the guitar on that thing and just walked on up to it and it worked. I think the next step is to get rid of the ironing board and get some custom three-legged stand for that guitar so it sits up kind of high. But then again the ironing board has that extra personality.

The ironing board has the ultimate personality. I think it fits the Keller Williams persona perfectly (both laugh). There have been so many things that people are exposed to by getting into your music. I can say for myself that I have been directed toward musicians like Martin Sexton and Michael Hedges, both huge influences on you, but I have also been subjected to other styles and sounds that are not too common. Your use of the Theremin is especially true in this instance. How did you add that into your live shows?


By Zack Smith
The Theremin is definitely coming along, I just don't practice that thing as much as I would like. You know who I saw use it that gave me the inspiration to bring it out was Joseph Wooten, Victor's brother. I don't know if you ever saw when Victor and Joseph and Reggie went out on tour a while back, but Joseph was up on keys and was doing this scratch and slap thing with that Theremin, and I researched it and found that you can get one for real cheap and they are small and compatible and it is very much a digital instrument.

It has such a unique sound. I was actually at an ALO show recently and noticed that Zach Gill, the keyboardist, has a mini-Theremin on his setup. If you haven't heard of them you should check them out, they are doing some cool stuff right now.

I think I have heard about them through High Sierra, but I will have to check them out. You know who is a bad ass Theremin player is the dude from Polyphonic Spree.

Really?

Yeah. There are not too many good examples of Theremin players out there, they just don't exist. But this guy can really play it, and he pulls these notes right out of thin air, and the right notes at that. They are actually pretty cool, a cross between Jesus Christ Super Star and Sgt. Pepper. It's really interesting though, you know, because it's the guy from Tripping Daises and he had some hits on the radio, kind of like stoner punk pop. I am not sure how the story goes, but I think he lost one of the band members, so instead of going back and replacing him he surrounded himself with a full orchestra and nine person choir and put everyone in white robes. It's just this bigger then normal thing that is happening on stage and it is really something to behold--that's for sure.

Yeah, I've actually heard nothing but really positive things about them. So going back to this new album--after it's done, do you have plans to tour with a band behind you? Have you thought about doing a full tour with a band, or do you like to keep it a solo thing?


By Danny Clinch
I'm always thinking about how to make the show different and unique. Or even how just for me to make it different, not just necessarily the show, and I am always thinking about having a band, whether to recruit some young folks from around here and be able to rehearse or to even try and go big and get some bigger names. My problem is the rehearsal period. This past summer, I was lucky enough to fly out and play a festival on the weekends and still come home and have a normal life during the weeks, so my problem is finding the time to really commit time to rehearse, whether it be with the young and hungry up-and-comers or bigger names. The other thing is my big problem with actually feeling comfortable enough to actually take it to the stage and charge money for it. I don't ever want to take anything half-assed to the stage, and at the same time, I don't think I can really afford to rehearse with these big names for months at a time and pay them their price to rehearse. I actually don't know if that would be the case at all, because I haven't really investigated it, but in any case I think it would take a good month of playing every day in a rehearsal situation before I could be comfortable enough to play out, and that is just not realistic right now. People just don't go and rehearse for a month, unless you are Incubus (Both laugh).

How did you decide to have Lou bring out the trumpet in this past tour? The flugel trumpet duos have been a definite highlight in the shows. How did that come about?


By C Taylor Crothers
Well, Lou and I had both been in Marching Band, but he took it a bit further then I did and did it in college too, whereas I was kind of out of it by my sophomore year. After doing it through eighth grade and ninth grade, by tenth I just bombed out. So I played a little trombone and Lou played trumpet, but he studied pretty extensively in college, and there was a while there where we were coming up with these different horn parts between the two of us just goofing around. I think what it really was when I obtained that deer spotlight. I was trying to figure out how I could use it at some point in the show and one day I was like, "Dude, you need to solo during the show, and I'll hit you with the deer spot from the stage, and we'll make the back of the room the front." Well, some nights it totally worked, and other nights it didn't because I couldn't even find him with the light cause the soundboard is the same level or he was just lost in the audience with the people all over the place and putting their hands up. So that's pretty much where that came from, and Lou is a really good trumpet player, and we have been having a good time doing that.

There has been a bit of speculation going around camp that Lou has been working sound with a couple other bands and has not been at certain shows and might possibly be leaving soon. I'm not sure if you are able to comment on that.

Oh no. Every year for Memorial Day, there is a party called the North Carolina Boogie and it's been going on for years and years. Well, that is the one day a year that my entire road crew wants to be off. So I just played three shows in three different cities ending with Summercamp, and people were noticing that he wasn't there, because he was at his yearly party. So that is kind of where that came from, but Lou is still very much part of the band and he's still in it and is not going anywhere according to my general knowledge.

Well, I will wrap it up here, I know that you have some things to attend to, but I wanted to extend big thanks to you once again for taking the time to talk with me.

It's been my pleasure. It's good to talk with JamBase. I'm happy to get press, especially in that area.

There's a lot of love for you both at JamBase and in the community as a whole, so I know I'm not alone in thanking you.

My last question for you is after this tour with Bela, are you going to be off the road for a while and focusing on this new album?

I have a few shows at the start of September, but after that I'm off the road all the way through October with a few weekend spots in November and hopefully finishing up the new record in December and January.

Matt Layton
JamBase | San Francisco
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