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Sole Rebel: A Interview with Keller Williams
By Brian L. Knight
For the last six years, guitarist/songwriter Keller Williams has been a lone wolf in
the burgeoning jam band scene. This label of solitude has nothing to do with his own
character or his style of music, for both are extremely endearing. Rather, this label
arrives from his approach to playing his dance music just he and his acoustic
guitar. By remodeling an existing 12 String guitar and turning into a 10-String, Williams,
in a tradition similar to the 8 string playing of jazz man Charlie Hunter, is able to play
bass and guitar as well as maintain complex rhythms. Coupled with an amazing songwriting
ability, Williams not only can incite a crowd to dance but also make them contemplate as
Williams is definitely a man who likes to bring his stuff on the road. Along with his
wife, Emily, the two cover a lot of miles and a lot of tollbooths in their RV called
"The Conquest." In addition to his extensive touring, Williams has recorded four
albums. His first three, Freek (1994), Buzz (1996), and Spun (1998),
pretty much reflected the Keller Williams live experience high-energy solo
acoustic music. For his latest release, 1999s Breathe, there is a noticeable
departure from the norm as Williams recruited his Colorado friends, String Cheese Incident
as his backing band. The end result is a thrilling collection of styles and sounds. The
album segues from reggae romps to bluegrass hoedowns to psychedelic blues explosions and
through Williamss insightful singing and songwriting, every tune is given a life of
its own. Instead of describing the album, lets hear what Keller has to say about Breathe
in his own words.
Vermont Review: After listening to your latest album, Breathe, it is more than
apparent that you are a person of many styles- reggae, folk, jazz, blues, funk, bluegrass.
Does this come from listening to lots of different music growing up?
Keller Williams: I had every kind of album. I went through all kinds of phases. In
first grade, I was a big Kiss fan. I remember it being first grade because I got into an
argument with my teacher over Kiss. The first album I ever bought was Destroyer. I
also went through a big reggae phase. I went through a huge jazz stage for a while
I did the whole vinyl thing. Rap. Hip-hop. Funk. Grateful Dead.
VR: Were you a victim of an older brother or sister who laid all that music on you?
KW: I have an older sister but she was more like Rick
Billy Joel. It was definitely cool. I
definitely got into Billy Joel through her
and Supertramp. After that
phase occurred, she really didnt do much music.
VR: Who do look towards as songwriting influences?
KW: I think Ani Di Franco has a really amazing song writing style. Musically, Michael
Hedges is a big influence. Live performance
I would say that Victor
Wooten and Bobby McFerrin are big influences.
VR: I see you paid tribute to Michael Hedges on Breathe with the tune "Not
Of This Earth". It is clever a tune in the way that you incorporate Hedges
album titles right into your lyrics.
KW: Thank you. His albums are very dear to me. I really wanted to do a tribute to him
because without him, I would probably be in some band or something. I had second thoughts
about doing that but I am really glad that I put that song on.
VR: While we are on the topic of Breathe, lets talk about your tremendous
backing band. How did you get first involved with String Cheese Incident?
KW: I was fan first. I probably saw them a half dozen times in the small bars around
Colorado before I met them - I lived in Steamboat Springs from 1995 to 1997. I introduced
myself and gave them a CD of mine. They were playing in Steamboat and the next day they
had the night off. Maceo Parker was playing in town and I was playing in a bar right after
Maceo finished. I invited them to the show and told them, if they want, they could come
sit in. They listened to the first set and by the end of second set, they were all up
there plugged into my power mixer.
VR: Are you basically a one-man show?
KW: Yeah thats the gig. After that show, they invited me to open for them. After
that, we did a couple of tours together where I was the opening act. During one or two
songs in the show, I would come sit in with them. I never have been part of the band.
VR: Did you have any bands on your previous albums?
KW: I had musicians different bass players, different drummers and different
soloists but never really a whole band during a project. I would like a particular bass
player from one band and a particular drummer from another band and I would pull them in
together for the studio. This is really the first project that I did with an actual band.
VR: How long did the album take to record?
KW: About ten days. It was about ten hours a day. That was about the best I could get
out of the engineer.
VR: There are a lot of exciting jams and solos on Breathe. When you set out to
record, how much of the album did you have planned out and how much was it improv?
KW: It was all planned out. I sent some tapes of what songs I wanted on there. They
listened to them, learned them a little a bit and we had a day of rehearsal before going
into the studio. I gave the band vocal cues on the tape like "right here, the song
goes in a jazz swing" or "right here, it goes into a reggae beat." I pretty
much had it all mentally planned.
VR: How long did you have those songs swirling around in your head?
KW: Well, all of the songs that I have written, I think I could always put a band
VR: Is there going to be a Keller Williams/String Cheese Incident tour to support the
KW: This past summer we did a bunch of festivals together. They would set aside some
time and sit in with me. They have their own world that belongs to them. There will
probably be a couple of shows that I will open for them and we will do a couple of my
songs. As of right now, they are pretty much looking to do their own thing in their own
big way. This summer they are planning on not doing the festivals and they plan on doing
their own two night camping festival.
VR: As far as I can ascertain, you are lumped in with the jam band scene, which is
principally composed of bands. With your solo acoustic approach, do you feel like the lone
KW: I like it. I have always been a lover of the whole dance vibe. Its mainly a
management thing. I have the same management as String Cheese Incident. They dont
really know to much about the whole folk, performance arts thing; like Leo Kotke or
Michael Hedges would play listening rooms. People would come in, sit down and listen. I
have not played too many of those rooms whereas the rooms that I play have been the same
kind of rooms that a jam band would play like a stinky, smoky bar. You know, a big open
beer swilling place, where people are used to coming in and dancing to bands. I recently,
in the past year, I have incorporated some tools of the trade. I have been doing a lot of
live sampling and looping. Nothing prerecorded. I lay down something and loop it. It plays
continuously. It kind of has a dance sound.
VR: You probably benefit from being on the periphery of the jam band scene. The
community of jam band fans is incredible and definitely helps with promotion. The band
Boud Deun, who are a progressive band, enjoy the same periphery jam band experience. By
crossing genres, they have gained a huge fan base.
KW: That is correct. Each entity is equally has equal adrenaline for me. A listening
room, which I have played a couple of times, where people are just sitting there, not
talking and not listening. That, to me, adds an amazing amount of adrenaline. If you mess
up, people are going to know it. If you are in a jam band situation, people are talking
and dancing. I really like both.
VR: One of the songs that stands out on your album is "Bounty Hunter" by Mike
Cross. Who is this mystery contributor?
KW: Mike Cross is a folk music legend in his own circles. He is from the western part
of North Carolina. He has that country mentality. He plays guitar and fiddle and he has
amazing sense of humor. He incorporates humor into his show. I have personally never have
seen him, but I have heard his albums. "Bounty Hunter" is the title to an album
he recorded in 1979. I love that song, it is just a haunting murder ballad.
VR: How have you have developed since your first album?
KW: I have definitely come along way, in my opinion, since my first album came out,
which was in 1994. I am still playing some of the same rooms that was playing then but
1999 was definitely the best year yet.
VR: Can you explain the techniques "mouth feugel"?
KW: Did you hear any trumpets on the album?
VR: Yes I did.
KW: Thats my mouth. (Keller rips a amazing muted trumpet solo for effect). It is
singing out the side of my mouth.
VR: I heard that on your song "Blatant Rip-off". Is that why it is a rip-off,
because you are stealing the sound of the trumpet?
KW: "Blatant Rip-off" is a song that sounds like a lot of those salsa, Latino
jazz types of songs. There was not a single song that I ripped off, just the style.
VR: It is not that much of a rip off. You probably play the best Latin mouth feugel
solo around. How did you first get introduced to a 10-string guitar?
KW: That probably got started by trying to save the life a 12 String guitar that I was
playing at the time. The bridge was pulling off the back. In order to save the guitar, I
took two strings off to loosen the tension and then tuned it down a ½ Step. I took off
the high E String and the octave low E String. That really enabled me to get more bass out
of the guitar without the octave low E String. I did that just to save the life of that
guitar and it sounded so cool and I was getting so much more bass tone out of it that I
just continued to do it.
VR: The title track features the hammered dulcimer of Jamie Janover. The instrument is
often overlooked as too new age-like, but it fits in perfectly with the tune. How did you
come across the playing of Janover?
KW: He lives in Boulder. I met him through String Cheese Incident and became friends
with him. His new album (Realms) is really amazing. You can order it through the
String Cheese Incident web site. He has an all-star lineup on it Jonathan Fishman,
Jazz Mandolin Project. It has a little bit of that new age thing you were talking about
but he also crosses into hip-hop and other styles. Hip-Hop and the Hammered
.go figure! I have seen very few hammered dulcimer players period and
then to see somebody of Jamies caliber is very amazing.
VR: In listening to Breathe, there seems to be a lot of references about nature and
environment but judging from the amount of time you spend touring and on the road, there
should be more road songs?
KW: The record, Spun, which I did in January 1998 had a lot of road songs. I had
a 1974 Chevy Blazer. Instead of the removable hard top, they made a slide in pop camper
that fit on Broncos. I had one of those and I called it the "Blaze-ebego". That
is a song on the Spun record and there is also a song called Running on
"Fumes". Those are two total road dog songs. It is really easy for me to write
road songs but I am really trying not trying to write them.
VR: You spent time in Steamboat. Are you a skier or a snowboarder?
KW: I was a skier for about thirteen years and then I moved to Steamboat and I picked
up snowboarding. I just came back from spending a week at Keystone. We were thinking about
this: A majority of snowboarders must have lived in a ski town at one time because most
people whom ski, when they go to a place for a vacation, they dont want spend time
learning a different sport. Once you snowboard in powder there is not a chance of going
back to skiing.
Check out Keller Williams Breathe. To get more information, head on over
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