Interview | Keller Williams Brings The Funk
Listen closely to many of his projects from the past decade and you’ll understand why Keller Williams’ full-fledged embrace of funk music is hardly a surprise. As Keller himself tells you in the title of the first track from new album Funk, “I Told You I Was Freaky.” And yet, Funk isn’t an obvious move for the offbeat troubadour. It has his name on it, sure, but it also finds Keller meeting a hand-picked band halfway and soaking up as much of their vibe – funk, R&B, a little soul –as he is immersing them in his. They’re called More Than a Little, and they’re a happy, pumped-up band: Toby Fairchild on drums, E.J. Shaw on bass, Gerard Johnson on keyboards and Tonya Lazenby and Sugah Davis on backing vocals.
The album is culled from two of More Than a Little’s inaugural 2012 gigs in Virginia – a mix of new Keller originals and choice covers of Talking Heads, Rick James and the Grateful Dead. We caught up with Keller recently to talk about the new album, taking More Than a Little on the road and what else he’s got in the pipeline.
JAMBASE: The last time you and I spoke at length was about a year ago and you were just getting the More Than a Little band going. Is it where you hoped it’d be by now – have you scratched the itch?
KELLER WILLIAMS: Yeah, I’ve started to scratch it, definitely. There are still some itchy spots we need to get to but it’s definitely on the right path. We’ve got a nice big chunk of shows coming up so I’m looking forward to all of that. It’s giving us a good reason to get together and rehearse. We’re doing the material but what’s also shaping up is some interesting versions of my older material. I’m going into the older catalog and bringing up some songs, funking them up.
JAMBASE: Can you give an example?
KW: Yeah, “A Day That Never Was.” That’s off of Freek – it’s the last track off of my first record. I haven’t played it much lately but we just worked it up yesterday, and we’ve got this new, interesting vibe to it with gospel harmonies.
JAMBASE: Seems like this project is going to have legs. Will you be touring a lot with More Than a Little next year?
KW: Well, there’s January and February and a whole slew of shows and that’s what we’ve got planned so far. It’s just going to kind of be up to the situation and whatever the show calls for. But yeah I’m hoping this can be a project that sticks around, at least whenever there’s a call for it. What’s really great is that when you don’t do something all the time and you do get around to doing it again, there’s just a joy there in revisiting it.
JAMBASE: Funk isn’t exactly a stylistic departure for you but all the same, what inspired you to pursue a funk-based project now?
KW: It’s always been with me a bit, but I’ve always been curious about kind of a big-band funk set up, with backup singers, and a big, funky in-the-pocket rhythm section. The connection with the band is Toby Fairchild, the drummer. He was playing an R&B night in a local bar – Tuesday nights – and I sat in with the band that was there and it felt really great.
At the time, I was doing shows with the Bass trio and starting to get in with the McCourys, so it was an idea I kept in my back pocket. That’s how the idea came about and as you know we put together five specific shows on the East Coast last year in between Christmas and New Year’s.
JAMBASE: And it’s been that same band?
KW: Minus [vocalist] Sugah Davis, it was the band that was on stage that night when I first sat in. After the first 45 minutes of rehearsal with this band I knew it was going to be a good one.
KW: Yeah, “West L.A. Fadeaway,” specifically, you know, I always loved a traditional Jerry [Garcia] Band setup with the way he had the instrumentation and the backup singers. I loved that. It got to a point where I could sing all of the background girl parts with the Jerry band because I loved that sound so much. I didn’t specifically want to go right there, but I still wanted to pay homage with that type of vibe – a [Jerry] song that hadn’t been done with the background singers.
But picking songs for the record, it’s pretty much just documenting these shows we played together at that specific time. These were the best of all the songs we played during those first few nights of music.
JAMBASE: And now you’ll be introducing more of your earlier material to this set-up?
KW: That’s what I’m hoping for. We’re meeting once a week the whole month of November, and if we keep going at this rate, there’s going to be a whole new bunch of songs by the time we get to the next tour. The hope is to change up the setlists. This is the type of band that’s super comfortable if we play the same set every night, but I want to get to a space where we can intersperse some other songs.
JAMBASE: Do you think you and this band will get there?
KW: I definitely do. But it also doesn’t matter; music is music, and even if we play it the same or similar, we’re able to stay open-minded and improvise with these songs. The band is all about that. I mean a couple of them do different churches every Sunday and know how to mix it up. They’re right there with me when we’re going along.
JAMBASE: Are you more inclined toward bands and collaborating with others now than you used to? You still keep a steady slate of solo gigs but it seems like in recent years you’ve been playing more with bands.
KW: That’s a great question. I’d love to see the actual numbers and find out what the ratio is between solo gigs versus collaboration gigs. I think the solo does overtake the collaboration, still, but that just makes the collaboration even more fun. I’m comfortable with where that balance is.
JAMBASE: You’re doing some more dates with the Travelin’ McCourys, too. It seems like you hit on something special working with those guys.
KW: Yeah, I just recorded at Mountain Stage with them. Mountain Stage is in its 30th year – what an incredible run, and an art form, that live radio show. But I got to freshly pick with those guys in a controlled environment. I just love playing with those guys. The music we make is super fun, the harmonies are super tight, and the energy that’s there is really addicting.
I’d really love to do more with that, but like I said, we all have our day jobs. I have my stuff, and they have the Del McCoury Band, of course. This More Than a Little band is what’s getting my push right now, but the McCourys gig is special. A lot of these things I do are special and are something I could come back to at any given week – the Keels, you name it. I’m hoping it can all be part of the master plan.
JAMBASE: Which is…?
KW: The continuous, relentless pursuit of enjoyment and personal growth!
JAMBASE: Fair enough. You seem to give these projects, and your solo work, plenty of energy. Is it tough for you to switch gears between projects, keep it all straight? Do you have to pivot?
KW: No, it’s not a pivot at all. It’s a total mindset that I actually find easy to get into, even the day of a gig. My world kind of revolves around weekend trips anyway. I have Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to get into the feel of what’s going to happen, so if I know ahead of time that Friday night’s going to be one thing and Saturday’s going to be another thing, it’s no problem at all to switch gears.
But I’ll be doing it the same night on New Year’s. I play three sets: the Keels and I do the opening set, and then I’ll come back in solo and then we’ll transition to More Than a Little for the remainder of the night. That’s just exciting to me, though – it’s me doing what I love. It should be illegal to have so much fun.
JAMBASE: Any other upcoming shows or projects we haven’t covered?
KW: Well, there is a project called Keller and the Kimocks. I’m going to play bass, and Johnny Kimock is going to play drums, and Steve will be Steve. We’re doing a show the day after Christmas – it’s my annual [SPCA] benefit – and then we’re going to do one on Jam Cruise. I’m so excited. I’ve done a couple of different gigs with Steve, and he’s just…Steve is Yoda.
JAMBASE: It all points to a typically busy new year for you, then.
KW: Absolutely. My love for what I do keeps growing and my ideas keep growing as well. My desire to learn is also coming around. One of these years I’ll start playing some scales, even, and learn some music!