VR Logo2.JPG (2055 bytes)     The Vermont Review     VR Logo2.JPG (2055 bytes)

       Interviews                How About Some  Jazz                   Vermont Bands                  Concert Reviews     

CD Reviews                     Essays                          Links               Home         Contact                   Photos


Return to the Vermont Review

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 well.

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 William’s live experience – high-energy solo acoustic music. For his latest release, 1999’s 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 Williams’s 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 Springfield……….Journey……Billy Joel. It was definitely cool. I definitely got into Billy Joel through her………and Supertramp. After that phase occurred, she really didn’t 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, let’s 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 that’s 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 behind it.

VR: Is there going to be a Keller Williams/String Cheese Incident tour to support the album?

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 troubadour?

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 don’t 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: That’s 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 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 Dulcimer…….go figure! I have seen very few hammered dulcimer players period and then to see somebody of Jamie’s 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 don’t 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 to http://www.kellerwilliams.net

Return to the Vermont Review