Interview: Keller Williams Discusses New Album ‘Sans,’ EDM & More

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Welcome to another edition of The Art Of The Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. (For more, check out a full archive of more than 60 The Art Of The Sit-In interviews here).

In the annals of our scene and the vanguard of its great musicians known colloquially (and immediately) by only their first names, there’s Keller.

Williams, that is, but of course you knew that and also that he’s a bit of an ellipsis … the next exciting Keller project is always just around the corner and will be of a piece with his massive body of work, whether it’s cozily familiar or hard to pin down.

Sans, Keller’s 23rd (!) studio album that’s due on October 19, is both. It represents Keller’s first-ever all-instrumental release, and features reworkings of eight tunes from throughout his back catalog that are best known to fans from their solo acoustic renderings, along with a new composition called “The Cabella Vibe.”

It’s quirky, it’s odd, it’s gorgeous, it threatens to go full-bore into Keller’s love of electronic dance music and related styles without actually getting there.

Typically KW, in other words.

JAMBASE: So how did you decide on this approach with Sans, an all-instrumental release? Why was it the right time to do this one?

KELLER WILLIAMS: I’ve always loved instrumental music and always found a fit for it — I’ve been into electronic dance music for at least the last 15 years or so. It’s never really been something I feel like I can produce the way I’d like to hear it. I went through an Ableton phase around 2010 and after shows, sometimes, I’d sit on the side of the stage, get something set up with Lou [Gosain] my sound engineer, and just mess around, dropping samples and stuff. What I learned is that I enjoy that music much more from the audience, or from my car speakers, or while I’m doing dishes. I can rock the dishes to some dubstep, man!

So the idea was to release something similar to what I would actually listen to. The EDM stuff I’ve been listening to for years is often very different than music I’ve put out, but I’ve been looking for electronica-like stuff to listen to with acoustic bass in it, some of what we used to consider acid jazz with a lot of old samples of groovy upright bass. I worked with Danton Boller [bassist on the album and in several Keller groups] — he’s one of the most amazing bassists on the planet, so in the pocket, groovy and precise. So we took on some songs that were played as acoustic pieces in my shows maybe 10 to 15 years ago, and kind of disappeared. Some of them have never seen a drum part. So we took a bunch of these and created some acoustic dance music.

JAMBASE: Is there a song or two you’d highlight from Sans that really captures what you were trying to do here?

KW: I think the first single, “Fat B.” That came out on a record, my third record, Spun [1998] and I was playing it live a lot using a vocal loop so it came out again on my live release Loop [2005]. Another one is “Shapes of M and Ms” — that goes way back and was known as “Molly Maloy.” These are definitely oldies that disappeared on me for a bit.

JAMBASE: Do you revisit your old stuff often?

KW: My personal old stuff, no, I don’t listen to it much. I do occasionally dial up my Dream [2007] record, if only to pinch myself that I got Bela Fleck, Steve Kimock, Martin Sexton, Charlie Hunter and all these others — heroes of mine — agreed to play on my music. Maybe Dance [2003], too — that was like a DJ remix record of the record that had come before. I remember I already started on what would become the record called Home [2003] and SCI Fidelity wanted me to keep pushing on the last record. So we took all of my favorite samples from Laugh [2002] and created some new music. That was fun to do.

JAMBASE: I have a lot of fun scrolling down the project page on your website just to chart the variation: Keller & The Keels, More Than A Little, PettyGrass, Grateful Gospel, The WMDs … How do you pick your spots? How do you decide what collaborations to focus your time on?

KW: It starts with the stuff I like. I could never go up there and play songs I didn’t like. So it’s always at first about the relentless pursuit of entertaining myself [laughs]. Then it goes into numbers. How much can I do this? Can I afford to have these people here at this time of year? It kind of goes from there. And people get on board and we begin some email chains about setlists and start to create what it’ll be, and little by little it comes together. Sometimes it doesn’t.

JAMBASE: Is there anything you won’t try? Will we hear a Keller Williams album at some point, for example, called Metal or, I don’t know, Polka?

KW: No, I don’t think you’ll hear metal or polka. You might hear Dark. I’ve been tossing that around — maybe something that is minor key dark songs or all murder ballads or something. I’m not sure. You won’t hear Metal or Polka, because those are two syllables, so that’s out of the running. But I don’t know, Dark could be very metal-ish.

JAMBASE: All those previous collaborations you’ve done — are there any you’re itching to return to?

KW: I’d love to do an epic rock ‘n’ roll tour with The WMDs. We had Gibb Droll, Jeff Sipe, Keith Moseley, and technical people, engineers and managers, and it was eight people on a bus and playing five or six nights a week, and the music was just rocking and got better every night when we did that. That would be really fun to return to. In a simpler way, playing with Leo Kottke. I would love to hit a lot more cities with him. Usually, that was just he and I and Lou Gosain in a minivan going from place to place, laughing at everything and going to weird diners.

Keller Williams & The WMDS – Soakie Von Soakerman

JAMBASE: Going back to the Dark mention — what else is on the horizon that you haven’t done yet and you’d like to?

KW: Again, yeah, it would be nice to go full-blown acoustic dubstep. I’ve never really allowed myself to go full-tilt into electronic dance music or any of its 100 sub-genres. I think that’s out there. Right now I’m looking to come up with a record concept. I’ve got a few different ideas but we’re looking out to about the summer of 2020 for the next record.

JAMBASE: What would prevent you from getting to that full-tilt acoustic dubstep live?

KW: Like I said, I don’t know that I could create it in a way that I would enjoy if I were in the audience. I like much more being the old guy in the middle of the crowd, chewing gum, then the old guy on stage trying to do that — I think maybe the time for it has passed. But as far as creating it on record, I could see even doing that as a faceless alternative name, putting it out on an electronic label where no one knows who it is. I’ve been tossing that idea around for years; be someone completely different and not tour it. I do think it would be a full-blown EDM type thing without vocals, or if it had vocals, they’d be samples. I always wanted to do samples of classic comedian one-liners: Richard Pryor, Katt Williams, Steve Martin.

JAMBASE: We’d love to hear that.

KW: Ha, yeah, it kind of came and went. One show I did in that really heavy Ableton phrase, I had the setup I think I’d need, with the bass and the keyboards and the vibraphone setup with little pads and mallets, and then like all different kinds of drums and percussion and about 200 samples. This was around 2010 and the style we’d do it in was late-1990s or early-2000s. But I think I realized it’s just much more comfortable for me to go out there and play real instruments [laughs].

JAMBASE: You have a huge body of work now and can cover a number of different styles while sounding like you. I’ve always wondered, is there a misconception about you? Something you wish more folks understood about what you do?

KW: You know, I’ve never really put that kind of thought into it. The more I start thinking about playing for what other folks think, the more I reach for the antidepressants. [laughs] Wanting to do what other people might be wanting you to do as opposed to what you want to do is a quick way to make recording these records not fun. Is that what you were getting at?

JAMBASE: In part, yes, but more that you seem to really enjoy the recording process and the effort that goes into crafting these records. Is there something you wanted folks to understand about your way of bringing them together?

KW: I do enjoy it. The process of putting together something like Sans is for me pretty simple. I record the acoustic guitar parts to a click track, which is like a metronome — pick, pick, pick — line it up on a grid so we can keep track of it, and then send it off to Danton on bass. He did the bass parts so much better with his bass and he put all this different stuff on them — he tried like five different bows, took his time with it. He sent us way too many tracks, and then it all kind of came together with the samples and loops.

The industry has shifted in a way that CDs are things to throw at signs instead of bottles, or you can make great scarecrows out of them — they’re reflective! — or baby mobiles out of them. But something that does sell is vinyl. So part of the process I look at now is looking at 22 minutes a side — 44 minutes of music. When CDs came out, man, I wanted to fill every minute. I wanted all of mine to have like 13, 14 songs and 70 minutes. But now we have to aim toward the medium. People are going to pick out one song they like and maybe just go with that. It’s cool. It really is a great time to be a music lover, the choice you have.

JAMBASE: Are you a tinkerer? Do you do a lot of self-editing when you record?

KW: Yes. There are definitely little things that stick out on a recording that bum me out, and a couple of clicks and they’re gone. I play enough live that when listening back to some of my live stuff, I can’t relate to it because the mistakes stick out to me even though they might be imperceptible to the audience sometimes. But in the studio, I can make sure it sounds the way I want it to.

JAMBASE: Hope you can leave us with a sit-in story, Keller. If I search your brain for “great sit-in” and “Keller Williams” what do I find first right now?

KW: [Pause] Victor Wooten at Summer Camp with More Than A Little three or four years ago. I think he was the musician-at-large at Summer Camp that year, and we were on the Umphrey’s stage. I remember seeing it come out on the website like three months before that Victor would be the floater — the musician-at-large who plays with a number of people. So I texted him about More Than A Little and said, “All our songs are really easy, you can hang the whole set if you want,” and he was like, “yeah, sure.”

It got down to a week away from Summer Camp and we realized we were playing on a Friday and he wasn’t supposed to come in until Saturday. But he changed his flight and came and sat-in the whole set with us. It was badass. This is More Than A Little with people from the R&B and gospel scene around Richmond, Virginia, and Victor is a famous Virginian as well. The band heard Victor was coming in and he was going to play with us and they were shitting themselves, totally starstruck, just loving all of it. Victor’s great; he really gets into it, trades solos, mixes it up.

Keller Williams & More Than a Little With Victor Wooten at Summer Camp 2013

JAMBASE: I remember when you were first talking up More Than A Little. Will we keep hearing from this band?

KW: Yeah, you know, we just played in Columbia, South Carolina. Mike Dillon filled in for my usual keyboard player with vibes and percussion — he’s done that a few times for me and it just gets really funky. I had one lineup change and I brought in Therochelle Moore from my Grateful Gospel band, and she did great. I think there’s a few more that are on the table for the future and haven’t been confirmed yet, but More Than A Little remains a viable option for promoters and we keep getting the calls for it.

JAMBASE: Who would you really like to play with that you haven’t yet?

KW: Wow. Jack Black would be cool. Jack and Kyle Gass [Tenacious D] — that might be fun to play songs with them. Oteil Burbridge — I’ve sat-in with once or twice and we did a thing at Lockn’ together for one song, but he and I would really connect, I think, if we took time to do something. I know I’m going to think of another as soon as I hang up … Esperanza Spalding. That would be cool. I’m all into the upright bass. I think that would be a beautiful thing.

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