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By Jarrod Dicker
New Brunswick, NJ, USA
Images by David Shehi
On May 25th, Keller Williams released his first-ever all cover record, Thief, alongside dear friends Larry and Jenny Keel. Their second full length album under the Keller and The Keels moniker, the group delivers twelve uniquely malformed tracks that are delicately adjusted to fit their staple bluegrass style. Ranging from Kris Kristofferson and Drive-By Truckers to Marcy’s Playground and the Raconteurs, Thief has unofficially become an album for any level Williams’ fan, revealing the sincere accountability the multi-instrumentalist holds for his following. Road tested for years prior to the album’s release, tracks were considerably selected upon merit of fan’s reactions in the live setting. Now “officially” on vinyl, Thief is both the perfect stepping stone for inquiring bluegrass amateurs and traditional loyalists alike.
Jarrod Dicker spoke with Keller Williams about the new release, his relationship with the Keels, his solo “live phrase sampling,” stage anxiety, one syllable album titles, the Rhythm Devils, the highly anticipated children’s record and more.
THIRSTY: It had been four years since you released an album with your dear friends’ Larry and Jenny Keel (Grass). On May 25th, you released your second album with the couple entitled Thief, which consists entirely of cover songs. What was the decision process regarding track selection for this record?
Keller Williams: There were a handful of songs that the Keels and I had been [covering] for a couple years, so it was easy for us to slide right into the studio and lay those down quickly; sit down, play them and we’re done. The other handful of songs I’ve been playing live during my solo act and they’ve already kind of gotten the audience stamp of approval. So all of the songs on this album were road tested, so to speak.
THIRSTY: There’s an eclectic mix of artists you chose to cover on Thief however you circled back to known Country legend Kris Kristofferson by starting and concluding the album with songs from his repertoire. As he is proverbially the bread to the Thief sandwich, what does Kristofferson’s music mean to you personally?
Keller Williams: Well, I’ve never heard Kristofferson’s version of those two songs (“Don’t Cuss That Fiddle” and “The Year 2003 Minus 25”). I learned those songs from the Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson record Waylon & Willie that they did a while back. I think it starts off with “Mommas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys;” that was the hit. My parents had it on 8-track when I was growing up and those two songs stuck with me ever since. [“The Year 2003 Minus 25”] is one that the Keels and I had been doing for years, so it was really easy to record that one for the album.
THIRSTY: Have you ever had the opportunity to meet Kristofferson in person?
Keller Williams: I actually had the chance to meet him in New York for the Pete Seeger 90th birthday concert last year. I remember he said to me, “Forgive me if I don’t remember your name, my mind is kind of a wounded soldier.” I thought he was so cool. He reeks of cool.
THIRSTY: Do any of the other artists you cover on the album—the Raconteurs, Butthole Surfers, Marcy’s Playground—have substantial influence on you as an artist?
Keller Williams: Those are songs that grabbed on to me. I didn’t even look for them; they found me somehow and crawled up in my mind. This is exactly what I was talking about before regarding audience reaction; the Butthole Surfers and Marcy’s Playground covers were previously played live and people seemed to really be singing those back to me with gusto, you know? So that, to me, kind of screamed aloud that they deserve to be a part of the record. The audience already knew it and liked it, so I went with it for them.
THIRSTY: How did you first come to collaborate with the Keels couple, prior to working with them on the Grass record? Did you know at that time that there would be a follow-up record?
Keller Williams: You know, Grass was just a onetime project. We didn’t plan on doing a follow-up at the time but the Grass record did do well and people seemed to really like it. I’ve kept in touch with the Keels over the years; we’ve definitely done a handful of gigs since then. And as you said, it’s been four years since we put Grass out. Honestly, I was just looking for an excuse to hang out with those two more and Thief seemed like the perfect excuse to do so [laughs].
THIRSTY: For newbie readers that may not be familiar with your unique style, can you briefly explain your on stage setup, instruments, and looping technique?
Keller Williams: When I’m not promoting this record, I’m usually out doing my solo thing which is grounded in solo/acoustic/singer/songwriter type music. The past decade or so, my music’s been infused with technology; something that I call “Live Phrase Sampling” where nothing is pre-recorded. That’s the thing that I want everyone to know, nothing is pre-recorded. What I do is a live looping technique where I’ll step on a button and play something and then I’ll step on that button again and the button acts as a recording function. It’s recording what I’m playing when I play it, and once I step on it again, a loop is created and it’s played back to me. Once the loop is created I can layer in a bass line or a drum line and then I can create the sound of an entire band. With today’s technology, I can put all these samples in a row—take them out and add them—and do the whole live DJ thing without using anything pre-recorded; just creating all the samples that I’m playing with. So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past decade or so.
THIRSTY: You told Jambase that Kiss’ Destroyer was the first album you ever purchased. Now that you float in the realm of Bluegrass—even though you navigate throughout a vast territory of genres—how did the boy who bought Destroyer discover the acoustic guitar and banjo?
Keller Williams: I guess it was Hee Haw. I don’t know how old you are but Hee Haw was a show that was on television when I was a kid. I think my parents might have known one of the ladies on the show. I don’t know, she was friends with some people and their daughter was on the show, whatever. So we would watch this show with Roy Clark and Buck Owens playing the red, white, and blue guitar. Being from Virginia, I would always hear the bluegrass music around my town. I guess that’s where it came from; my surroundings and what my parents would play when I was little.
THIRSTY: Another interesting thing I’ve heard you mention on multiple accounts was that The Stone Pony is the one venue that you always find the coolest and most participatory audience. As a Jersey native, I’ve seen it change throughout the years into a premier jam band site. What specifically do you find “cool” about The Stone Pony?
Keller Williams: That is always the first venue that comes to mind. It’s where the audience always sings along and seems most excited to dance. I’ve definitely played a bunch of times in the larger lot out back (Summer Stage), but the few times that I’ve been on the inside I remember the crowd being super energetic, excited and hungry.
THIRSTY: Do you still get nervous before big gigs?
Keller Williams: I actually got nervous last Saturday at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. That’s one of my favorite all time festivals and is actually one of the festivals that I went to six or seven years in a row before I was ever on the bill. It’s probably been seven years since I last played that festival until this year. We practiced and knew all our stuff and there was no reason to be nervous but I definitely was a bit tense before it [laughs]. There were also a few times at Red Rocks where I got nervous as well. Those were the last times I remember getting that nervous. It may be the sit-down audience, like if I’m opening for someone with a big sit-down audience it can be a bit nerve racking sometimes. But I love what I do so much and feel so grateful to be doing it. It’s funny you asked that because it was just last Saturday that my nerves acted up [laughs].
THIRSTY: It must be that Colorado air.
Keller Williams: I know, I know. Especially Telluride, shit, it’s 8,750 feet just in town not even counting after you go up the mountain.
THIRSTY: You’re a diehard Grateful Dead fan, and have previously shared the stage with Bob Weir on multiple accounts. This summer you’ll be touring with Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart as the Rhythm Devils. How did this relationship materialize?
Keller Williams: The whole Rhythm Devils thing has only been a concept and, as you said, hasn’t happened yet. We’re going to rehearse for a week or so and then go out and do about ten shows, I believe. We have been sending music back and forth to one another; they’re probably 20 or so Dead songs and then a dozen or so Rhythm Devils songs. Everyone is in the process of learning those and playing around with them. There have been a lot of phone calls and emails back and forth, so the Rhythm Devils thing is very exciting as well as mysterious because it hasn’t happened yet. I’m beginning to know all the guys in the band. Davy Knowles is a young English bluesman from Back Door Slam and I’ve been listening to a lot of his work. He’s the guitar player for the west coast stretch.
THIRSTY: How was playing with Bobby since we’re on the subject?
Keller Williams: Playing with Bobby was always an incredible rush for me because I used to see the Dead from the lawn in the very back when I was a kid. When Bobby and I would play together it was usually because I’d open for Ratdog and he’d come out and play the last two songs of my set with me as an acoustic duo. That’s as real as it gets; two acoustic guitars and two voices. And it got to the point where we got so comfortable that we wouldn’t even rehearse before. We would just call out songs because I already knew so much of that material. The first ten times we played together I tried to hunt him down before the show and rehearse a little. And then it got to the point where we just ceased all rehearsals [laughs] and let it happen on stage, which was really cool. There’s nothing to compare it to, it’s just a huge rush to play with anyone from the Grateful Dead for obvious reasons.
THIRSTY: You mentioned before that the Rhythm Devils project will have some Dead songs and some original songs as well. Will the Dead songs have a different element and/or interpretation than what we’re used to?
Keller Williams: It’s going to be a whole ‘nother thing. They will be original Grateful Dead songs but they’re going to be done slightly different. The whole Rhythm Devils thing is going to be like nothing you’ve ever heard before. It’s very current in the rhythm sense; mixing in rhythm and technology. So it’s going to be interesting and I’m definitely looking forward to it.
THIRSTY: I know this question has undoubtedly been asked to you over and over but I have to know; with the return of the String Cheese Incident, have there been any talks of revisiting the Keller Williams Incident?
Keller Williams: No, I don’t think so because they’re moving into a whole new era and not looking back. They’re doing nine shows and I’m sure any of the opening acts will one of their various side projects. Everyone in the band has a side project so they’re going to be focusing on that as well. Some other friends of theirs possibly, but I won’t be performing at any of the shows this year.
THIRSTY: All of your album titles are a single word (Thief, Odd, Rex, Dream, etc.). What is the explanation behind these “cut to the chase” album titles?
Keller Williams: Well my motto was always to keep it simple. From the beginning I always wanted to describe a whole compilation of songs using only one syllable. It’s not just one word, but one syllable, like Freak, Buzz, Spun, and Breath. They’re different one syllable words that describe a whole project in a nutshell, so to speak. In hindsight I kind of wish I would have added more verbs, nouns, and pronouns and make a sentence out of it but I didn’t have that much forethought nor would I be able to base the vibe of a record around a word that’s already been chosen. So I do the record and then listen to it and let that one syllable come to me after it’s done. That’s how it is and that’s how it’s always been.
THIRSTY: What does the near future have in store for Keller Williams? Approaching nearly two decades on the scene, should we expect another album, collaboration, or dare I say hiatus?
Keller Williams: [laughs] No, unfortunately because of my mortgage there won’t be any hiatus until I’m 83 and that’s true.
THIRSTY: That’s a good thing!
Keller Williams: Once I’m 83 I’ll be taking a hiatus. To be more specific that will be the fall of ’83 [laughs]. But as far as new records and collaborations I have been sitting on a kid’s record for a while now. It has been recorded and mastered and now all I have to do is put together the art work, layout of the CD design and what not. We were trying to find a home for it as far as a label and had some interests in there but it turned out the timing was right to release the Keels record instead. So the next record I will probably release will be in December and that will be the kid’s record. As far as collaborations go, I’m working with this guy Scott Johnson out of Seattle who’s done my video over the years as well as computer footage trippy-ness to go along with the music. He and I had put together an electronica project. We’re using around 200 samples and creating songs out of those samples. These are drum samples and a lot of comedian rants which we’ve chopped up to be rhythmic; so there’s comedy in there as well. I’m playing the bass lines and he plays a little bit of sax. There’s an electronic wind instrument-where he’s playing sax lines but it’s going through the synthesizer, so that’s pretty cool. So we’re kind of doing a live DJ thing with some pre recorded stuff but we’re calling it something completely different. There’s nothing that’s been booked yet. It’s in the process of being put together. It’s the up and coming next late night incognito project.