Interview & Exclusive Album Premiere: Keller Williams Shares ‘Sync’ & Details New LPs & More
Words by: Kelley Lauginiger
It’s no surprise that innovative and charismatic Keller Williams is up to something generally unheard of. Releasing two albums at the same time is no small feat, but he makes it seem breezy.
Omnipotent on seemingly every festival lineup since festivals became festivals, playing funk, bluegrass, acoustic, electric, and every looped sound in between, he is nothing if not dynamic. Talented, soft-spoken, and goofy, catching up with Keller about what is to come for him in 2017 was nothing short of joyous and educational.
JamBase is pleased to premiere the new Keller Williams KWahtro album Sync in advance of its official release on Friday (head here to pre-order). Stream the record below and read on to find out what’s in store for KDub this year.
JamBase: You have two new albums you have coming out January 20th, which is exciting. How was the recording process for you?
Keller Williams: Well, for me, it was easy. I did all my tracks for Sync in about three days, and then sent them off to the drummer, bass-player and guitarist. The whole thing took a good seven months, which I thought would be more like one month to be honest.
Hence the reason for two records at the same time. I thought Sync would have been out sooner, in early October before our 12-day run. But we wanted to give it time to make it right and be processed by wonderful folks like yourself.
JB: Well, thanks! I don’t think I can recall anyone putting out two albums with two different arrangements on the same day before. So was this just because of the timing?
KW: Well, the Raw album, that record started all the way back in 2011. I did 12 songs with 12 different guitars, focusing on guitar and vocals. With all the people I’ve played with over the years, and just the signal path that’s in my solo setup, it can be refreshing to return to the beginning. I was really excited about that idea, and to be focused on the sound of a simple guitar and vocals. So I got it together, and after I listened to it, I hated it. So, I scrapped it back then.
Then this wonderful tour came about that we’re working on now, the Shut The Folk Up And Listen Tour. And I wanted to have some music representative for folks to take home with them, representative of what they saw that night at the show. So I went back and pulled a couple tracks from the 2011 sessions, recorded a bunch more with my new inspiration, and out came the Raw record.
JB: So you planned the Shut The Folk Up And Listen tour with Leo Kottke first, and it basically reminded you of the 2011 project you began?
KW: Yes, that’s exactly what it was. Because I’ve really always wanted to have a record like this, but there have been so many other great projects that have come up along the way that I guess I didn’t commit to making it right. I’m glad I did, but it is what it is: me playing guitar.
Both albums are entirely acoustic, actually, aside from one track [on Sync] where Gibb Droll plays an electric guitar. On Sync it’s more than just me, we’ve got two acoustic guitars [KW and Droll], bass [Danton Boller] and drums [Rodney Holmes]. The Sync record is one I’m super proud of, and I’m super excited to get it out. I think it is the one that is closest to me, and who I am. Maybe it’s because the initial idea behind that project was my fantasy of creating “acoustic dance music,” using my songs as the template, and using the formula of electronic dance music where the tension builds and releases – and the half-time. I guess what ended up coming out wasn’t quite that, it’s more like an “acoustic acid jazz” type of vibe. And I’m really proud of it. Proud of both, actually.
JB: And how hard is it to kind of jump between different styles and different projects so regularly?
KW: It’s not hard at all. I have a serious case of undiagnosed Attention Deficit Disorder, so the fact that I’m able to do that is a gift in itself. My touring revolves around the weekends, and I’m home during the week, so I guess that’s when I mentally prepare. But the real fun comes when I have multiple projects in the same weekend. That’s what I really just love about touring and playing festivals, and I feel very lucky to be able to do it.
JB: Have you ever gotten confused about what act you were with and played the wrong tune?
KW: [laughs] No, but I will say, I don’t think I’ve ever gone a whole show singing all the correct lyrics. There’s just so many lyrics! It’s hard to get them right on everything, no matter who I’m with. I guess the whole thing is just a mindset: of being present in the moment, and listening. That’s when the improv can really be a beautiful thing, when everyone’s listening and tuned-in. And you know, by playing in a bunch of different groups, I can kind of pull different elements of sound from each one and it helps with my improv too.
JB: There’s a lot of discussion in the jam community about the musical conversation shared among improv musicians when up on stage and tuned-in, as you say. Can you speak to that at all in relation to your work?
KW: Yeah, definitely, I actually think Dave Schools said it best. He said, “If you’re not listening, you don’t have much to say.” And that is something I wanted to from the beginning, surround myself with musicians and have that camaraderie, and be able to communicate amongst each other in front of an audience without speaking. Or even looking at each other. It can be a beautiful thing. But, it’s not just the good stuff you know! It can go south, and it can get weird [laughs]. And confusing. But that’s also part of it as well. There’s beauty in the madness.
JB: Absolutely. And how has the tour been going with Leo Kottke?
KW: Oh, man, I’m just really loving it. Getting back to the roots and playing some of these songs that sometimes get lost in cavernous shuffles, and playing to people who are really, actively listening, you know? That’s something special.
It’s a real thrill for me to listen to every note and every word that he says. Half of his show is his stories, and his deviations of stories, and seeing where those deviations go, and that leads to a song, and so on. I wear in-ears [monitors], and he plays first. So the whole time he’s up there performing, I’m listening backstage so intently that I’m actually shushing people trying to talk to me [laughs].
JB: Hey, I can’t blame you for that. And what else can we expect in 2017 from you?
KW: I don’t have a whole lot of projects lined up for this year, and I think I’m really going to focus on the solo thing. I’m not gonna ignore the looping thing, but I’m more focused on performing art. I’ll probably be on co-bills with other like-minded solo acts.
I guess this year will be a bit of getting back to the beginning, versus trying to recreate the wheel with a new project. Even with the KWahtro it was tough to get everyone together on the same schedule. There are a handful of gigs with bands, probably about four or five with those guys and one so far with Grateful Gospel, which are our gospel-style Grateful Dead songs.
JB: I actually saw you perform with them at Lockn’ this year and it was lovely. You’ve actually played that festival every year since it started in 2013, right?
KW: I have, I’m one of the lucky ones! It’s a great festival. There’s definitely a science to putting on a festival the right way, and the folks that have been gathered to run Lockn have done an incredible job.
JB: And can we expect to see a Keller Williams Incident this year with String Cheese back on the lineup?
KW: You know … I can only hope. But Cheese has kinda, been there, done that, and are forward-moving all the time. So, probably not would be my guess. But I’m hoping by 2019 for the 20th anniversary of Breathe we can link back up to celebrate that.
JB: If memory serves me, you actually covered “Best Feeling” off that album this summer with Twiddle at Lockn’ right?
KW: I did! That was pretty neat. Twiddle are great people. Mihali and Ryan were roommates in college and I think they were fans of String Cheese and of Breathe. They were gonna play “Best Feeling,” so they invited me up to mess it up [laughs]. It’s really an honor to be invited to play a song that I wrote.
JB: Definitely a cool moment of sharing the stage with someone you’re a fan of. Do you feel a bit of that working with Leo Kottke?
KW: Oh, yeah. I can say I’ve been lucky to have that in the past with The Travelin’ McCoury’s too. I think a lot of the Leo Kottke thing can be attributed to Mike Gordon actually. The couple albums they’ve done together really opened him up to a different crowd, and a different approach perhaps. They’re all great listens, but I especially enjoy the first album they did, Clone. I guess it really opened up my ears to him again.
I had listened to Leo when I was probably 18/19, and was focused on being a solo act. I was trying to learn from prominent solo acts who had a good thing going, and he was at the top of my list with Michael Hedges, Alexander deGrassi, and Tuck Andress. Leo just has that finger-picking, delta blues style that is just so perfect. It’s cool to think back to the start for me, and now we’re doing this tour. I’m so grateful he’s allowing me into his world.
It’s also pretty crazy to think that at the beginning, I kind of started the mouth-trumpet thing just to get people’s attention [laughs].
JB: Is that truly how it came to be?
KW: Yup. You know, I was just one guy, on a stool. Playing at these bars and restaurants from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. every night, normally for no cover. I could make more playing these gigs than doing hard labor, crushing cinder blocks for $3 an hour. So when I was 16, this seemed pretty great actually. Don’t you think? Just sitting there on a stool playing covers could bag you $100 instead! I loved it, but it was tough sometimes as an artist if it was just drunks or people didn’t pay attention to what I was doing. So, the mouth-trumpet thing I do, it was a bit of a head turner. Once it worked, I just kept going with it. I kept it up through my college years, and it was kinda my thing until I started looping about seven years later.
JB: And where did you go to school?
KW: I went to Virginia Wesleyan College down in Virginia Beach, but I did not graduate. I was there for six semesters (three school years), before I was kindly asked to take two semesters off for academic probation.
JB: What happened?
KW: Well it was kinda like this. I was dating a grad student for a little while, and I was doing really well. And then, I went on Dead tour. Spring of ’91 it all fell apart, even though I was trying to make it work. I was doing my school papers in the parking lots of Dead shows and handing them in when I got back, extra late. Of course, they weren’t typed, either. And you know, of course, I failed.
And after those two semesters I had off, which is a whole year, there was no way I was going back.
JB: That makes sense. So when did you first leave for the Dead?
KW: I think it was 1989, a handful of shows on each tour. I never went west of Wisconsin, but everything east I was trying to get to. I made it to Chicago, Michigan, Alpine Valley and Deer Creek. I never missed a Deer Creek show, man, that was the place to be.
JB: Yeah, you even wrote a song about the last one.
KW: Oh, yeah. “Gate Crashers!” I loved that place. It was like a utopia at the time, because you’re used to concrete parking lots, and coliseums, and stadiums all over Dead tour. Then here’s this spot in the middle of miles and miles of fields. Just a glorious mecca.
But around 1992 I had to be more selective, because I was on my own. I had to focus on my career. Which was of course, playing in coffee shops, and restaurants, and pool halls. There was one pool hall, I’ll never forget, where the guys playing had to wait until the song was over to get me to move my mic stand so he could take a shot. But, you know, at least he waited until the song was over. Pretty crappy, you know? But at that time $85 was good [laughs].
JB: Oh, yeah. So do you think growing up listening to Jerry Garcia’s bluegrass roots was a driving force behind your sound and the way you got started?
KW: Absolutely. Bluegrass was always prominent around Virginia. As was go-go music, which came out of D.C.. I think those genres really shaped me. Dave Grisman with Jerry Garcia was a big push for my love of bluegrass, as was Old & In the Way. Once I got into the acoustic side of things, after being introduced via Reckoning, I found Old & In the Way and studied up on Peter Rowan and Grisman’s acoustic jazz. I guess what attracted me most was when those guys played a rock ‘n’ roll song, or a pop song, in a bluegrass style. That just really got me. One of my favorite examples of that is when Old & In the Way did “Wild Horses.” So yeah, Jerry and all of his projects have definitely been a soundtrack to my life since I was young. When you’re at a tender age and your mind is starting to explore, and absorb, it’s cool to get stuck in the Grateful Dead world. Because there’s a lot of places you can get stuck, and that is a great one.