Musician Interview
9:54 am
Fri September 7, 2012

Mike Keneally - Happy Accidents

Composer/guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Mike Keneally has had some good luck in his musical career, which has led to some admirable creative endeavors.

A phone call to Frank Zappa’s information hotline number in 1987 led to Keneally’s hiring as stunt guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist in Zappa’s final touring band in 1988. On the European leg of that tour, a phone call placed by bassist Scott Thunes to Virgin Records led to Keneally’s meeting with Andy Partridge, composer/guitarist and singer for British rock/pop band XTC.

It was some years later that Keneally and Partridge began collaborating on an album of songs which became “Wing Beat Fantastic”, which was released in July 2012.  Keneally is touring for the album, and will stop in St. Louis on Sept. 8 to play a show at The Gramophone. 

Mike Schrand talked to Keneally about his childhood, working with Frank Zappa and Andy Partridge and other happy accidents.

Mike Schrand (MS): What music was part of your childhood?  When did you know you wanted to be a musician?

Mike Keneally (MK):  I liked music a lot when I was a kid and would sing along with my sister’s Beatles albums.  I was about 4 years old and she was right in the teenage years – perfect demographic to be completely bowled over by the Beatles at that time. When she wasn’t in the house I would listen to her records and just loved them and I got a bug for music really early on but didn’t necessarily think I was going to play anything. 

But for my seventh birthday my parents got me an organ, an electric chord organ with one keyboard and a bunch of buttons to play a chord.  And I took to that immediately.  I was playing melodies the night that I got it and just something about the look of the keyboard was such an immediate and, to me, an easily understandable interface – you could see the music – and I took to it right away.  So I have to give my parents the credit for realizing there was something happening to me musically.

MS: I saw you at a Taylor Guitars Acoustic Show a number of years ago and heard you tell the story of how your father supported you as a musician. Can you talk about the part your dad played in fostering your life as a musician?

MK: Once again, I was just sort of following orders (laughs), getting to the end of high school and had no clear vision of what I was supposed to do. 

I’ve always approached life this way, wandering from day to day, and my long term planning has never been the greatest.  And so I was probably four weeks from the end of high school and thought I should really think 

I've always approached life this way, wandering from day to day, and my long term planning has never been the greatest.

about what I should do for the rest of my life and I went to my father and said, “I guess I should start thinking about, you know, where I’m headed next.  Do I get a job, do I go to college, what’s going on?” And he said “No, your job is to write songs.  You stay home and write songs.”  He gestured toward the keyboard and said “that’s your job.”

And he just supported me for years while I got my songwriting chops together, and learned how to play better, play more guitar, all that stuff.  It was incredibly supportive but also an indication that he saw something and I felt it was really important not to betray that.  He really saw something that needed to be worked on so that’s what I did and yeah, it was pretty incredible.

MS:  Tell me the story of how you got to be in Frank Zappa’s band.

MK: I had been calling his information hotline, 818-PUMPKIN, like a lot of Zappa fans, on a regular basis.  It was just a phone number at the Zappa office that you could call to get information about Frank.

So I called in late 1987 and the hotline said Frank was in rehearsal with a new band and that was shocking news to me, as it was to a lot of fans, and my initial thought was that maybe I’d get a chance to play in his band but somehow got the idea that maybe I should try to get a gig, even though I didn’t have any professional musical experience.

But I called and I left a message that I was a big fan of Frank’s music and I was familiar with all his work, and I could play all his stuff on guitar and keyboards and sing.  So I figured that that was as far as it was going to go.

Frank himself called me back a couple of days later and said “so, I understand you can play all my music?” And I said “well, I’m familiar with all of it.”  He said “do you have any idea how many songs that is?” I said “yeah, they’re all in the other room.”  And he’s like “I don’t believe you.  Get your ass up here and prove it.”

When I walked into the rehearsal he was playing a version of “The Black Page” on the Synclavier  (an early sampler, synthesizer, sequencer and digital music workstation) , so I plugged in and played along with that as best I could.  Then he asked me if I knew “G-Spot Tornado”, and I didn’t know that one and I said “well I do know ‘Night School.’” And he said “oh, you do, do you?”  And Bob Rice, who was his Synclavier technician, happened to have the chart for “Night School” there, so he got Frank the chart, and I stood there with just one guitar and no backing and I played the melody to “Night School” for him while he read along (laughs) and that was a nerve wracking way to start an audition.  But, when it was over, he looked up and me and raised his eyebrows a little and said “there was one wrong note!” (laughs) and actually I think I had [missed] at least three, so I was glad that he only heard one of them.

It turned out that later on somebody heard him at a press conference in Germany, I believe, and somebody was asking him about me, and he said “when I heard him play ‘Night School’ by himself at rehearsal and make only one mistake, I knew I needed him for the band.” I was grateful that I had, at some time in the past, thought it would a fun thing to learn that melody.  All those years that I was teaching myself Zappa songs for fun and listening to his records constantly, it was just like job preparation without knowing it.  So, I felt ready when I got the call.

VIDEO: Zappa band 1988 - Watermelon in Easter Hay / Mike Keneally is seen at the beginning of the video

MS: You’ve noted on another interview I’ve seen that Frank Zappa influenced you as both a musician and a bandleader.  Can you elaborate about what you’ve learned in both areas?

MK: Well, 'musician-ally,' I’ve always had a great love for his guitar playing to the extent where it’s been startling to me sometimes when I’m improvising (and I’m never consciously trying to play like Frank), I’m playing a phrase that’s clearly trademarked by Frank, and it’s just unavoidable because his note choices were so wonderful that, depending on what’s happening to the music, that’s the only place you can go.  I honestly don’t feel that responsible for what I’m playing when I’m improvising, I’m just trying to reach for input from everywhere so I can’t really feel bad when I hear Frank come out, because I hear a lot of people come out.  As a musician specifically, I just adored his fearlessness and his freedom and his willingness to try anything.

And as a bandleader, I guess kind of the same thing (laughs), because really the way he led the band and the way he arranged and the way he composed and the way he did everything was just sort of an outgrowth of the same fearlessness and adventurousness and also just the way he was effective in putting together complex arrangements very quickly in rehearsal with a 12-piece band with five horn players, and he was dictating horn parts to them on the spot without charts – they would write their own charts out from what he was dictating to them.

So I could hear how these arrangements would come together very quickly and I could start to realize, wow, a lot of this music that I love, that I’ve listened to on many Zappa records over the years was constructed in this very way – just standing in a room and you look around and you see what’s there – in this case, a bunch of musicians and their equipment and you use that to the best of your ability at that moment and so he was always working with the resources, composing in every way.  So that’s all very inspiring to me.

MS: Your friendship/musical relationship with Andy Partridge began almost 25 years ago, when you were in Frank Zappa’s 1988 touring band.  How did you meet Andy Partridge?

MK: He and (XTC guitarist) Dave Gregory came out to see us play in Birmingham which was a wonderful shock.  And it was because Scott Thunes, the bass player in the Zappa band, decided to call Virgin Records and invite XTC to the shows that we were doing in England.  And it was almost like a practical joke when (Thunes) suggested it. You just sort of giggle – “oh yeah, let’s call Virgin Records and invite XTC”.  We didn’t think there was any chance they would come.  But you’ve got to try. We sort of didn’t realize the power of Frank Zappa.

I got along great with them and they were funny and engaging and really really nice people.  And Andy said “oh, well later in the year, we’re going to be recording in Los Angeles – you should come by” and it’s what ended up being the “Oranges and Lemons” sessions (XTC’s hit 1989 album).

He didn’t realize what a Pandora ’s Box he opened when he said that.  I was there every freaking second I could spare.  I wanted to spend all my time there watching them make that record.  It was unbelievable!   Given how hard I’d fallen in love with their music, it was just as if I’d gone back in time and John Lennon said “hey, you want to watch us make this record?  I think it’s called ‘Sergeant Pepper.'" It wouldn’t have been any more significant to me than it was to watch (XTC) make “Oranges and Lemons.”  So, yeah, it was crazy.

VIDEO: XTC performing three songs in MTV's NYC studios 5/16/89. The first and third song appear on their hit 1989 album "Oranges and Lemons"

MS: You’ve cited XTC and Andy Partridge as influences on your sound, and it shows, especially on recordings like the Tar Tapes (a series of early Keneally recordings from the 1980’s through the early 1990’s, originally on cassette, then on CD). What was it about XTC’s music that drew you in and kept you listening?

MK: I just thought it was an oasis in the 80s.  When I heard XTC’s music, I felt a direct connection to the Beatles stuff I loved as a kid,  just in terms of the feel of it and also the high, high quality of the writing and the invention that you could hear in the production and how it’s performed.

I just thought it was miraculously good and I remember reading interviews with Andy Partridge at the time where he specifically said he was trying to make records so good that it hurt to listen to them and I related to that so strongly and that’s what I wanted to do with my life – I wanted to do the exact same thing.  

"I remember reading interviews with Andy Partridge at the time where he specifically said he was trying to make records so good that it hurt to listen to them..." - Mike Keneally

I couldn’t even really tell you what it was but it was just the quality of the writing and the singing.  It’s totally intelligent but it’s very organic and soulful for the time, there’s nothing overly clever about it, even though there’s a lot of wit and obviously musically there’s so much detail and fun little harmonic crazy things going on with the two guitars (when they would do the two guitar arrangements).

It was orchestral, crazy counterpoint and interlocking parts going back and forth.  So I just loved it.  I fell in love with it immediately when I heard that stuff.

MS: When did you and Andy Partridge first start talking about making music together?

MK: It must have been around 2005 and neither one of us can remember who brought it up, but it was just an idea that sort of formed, somehow, and we had known each other since 1988 at the Zappa show.

I remember I would visit in Swindon (in England), I would usually spend most of my time with Dave Gregory.  We really connected.   I have a lot in common with Dave and he’s a wonderful guy and if Dave was getting along with Andy at that point, which would wax and wane, then we would go visit Andy.  And it would always be nice to see him but we would just sort of like putter around and maybe listen to some demos (Andy) was working on in his shed and stuff.  And he wasn’t putting out a lot of new music (XTC’s last album was in 2000) and I would always kind of hope that maybe he would put out some new stuff.

So, when this idea just arose somehow that we try to write some songs together, I was very excited about that, primarily because I wanted to hear some new Andy Partridge music (laughs).  If I could actually be a part of it and help that happen, I was really excited about doing that.

MS: What was the writing and production process for Wing Beat Fantastic?

MK: We had two weeks of songwriting sessions and demoing sessions.  One week in 2006 and another week in 2008.  In both instances I flew over to Swindon and we set up camp in the shed that’s out in his backyard (which functions as his demo studio.  In 2006 we put together the basic form, and in some cases lyrics, for five of the songs on the album and then in 2008 we got another three, plus we furthered work on the initial five.  So we ended up with eight pieces…uh, I guess it was nine, actually.  In any case there are still two little pieces that will come out on further albums.

I brought over some lyric books with some beginnings of ideas for things – not completed songs, generally.  And in one case he saw the phrase “Wing Beat Fantastic” in there.  I had just written it on a page without any other context and I didn’t know what it meant.  And he says “oh, what’s this?” And I said “it says Wing Beat Fantastic”.  He said “I know, what does it mean?”  I said “I don’t know, I just wrote it.”  And he said “OK, let’s make a song out of that”, because there’s something about just the phrase that just struck him and in this instance he just ran with it.

And the way his head works, if you just say “bird”, all of a sudden an unbelievable amount of metaphor and poetry and beautiful lyrics will just tumble out and it’s all really beautiful and funny and fun.  

"And the way his head works, if you just say 'bird,' all of a sudden an unbelievable amount of metaphor and poetry and beautiful lyrics will just tumble out and it's all really beautiful and funny and fun." - Mike Keneally on Andy Partridge

It was like I was the reporter and he was the editor (laughs).  I was going out on these little assignments and finding stuff and then he would adjust it.  We went over every note, every chord, and every lyric together that way, and that was really fun.

And I saw online on some message board somebody was asking him about the Keneally collaboration and he was complaining that it was taking me forever, and he didn’t know what was going on and he was just ready for me to finish it off on my own.  In my head I thought we were still collaborating.  In his head he was done collaborating (laughs), it was my turn to take over. He had told me on several occasions that he wasn’t interested in being a recording artist anymore.

And even as I working on stuff in the studio in 2011 and 2012 I would be sending mp3s of the mixes in progress to Andy.  In some cases I would go back and re-record vocal performances.  “Your House” I probably sang four times until I got a vocal I was happy with and it was mainly because I was trying to get a vocal Andy was happy with, so he was sort of acting as sort of at trans-Atlantic associate producer that way.  It was very cool, very helpful.

VIDEO: Mike Keneally's "It's Raining Here Inside" from Wing Beat Fantastic

MS: There were some fairly big time gaps between the writing sessions with Andy Partridge and the recording sessions for the album.  How difficult was it to revisit the music after all of that time? Do you think anything was lost or gained in the interim?

MK:  I tend to think that a lot is gained from doing it that way and I do it that way a lot. I love to record a bunch of stuff quickly and not hearing it for months and months and then coming back to it and seeing what I have there and I find that the excitement that I get from sort of being presented with a bunch fresh material – in some cases being literally surprised by things that I’ve recorded months before and haven’t listened to them in the meantime – stokes the fire of creation, arrangement-wise.

So, with this Andy stuff, it was just like gift after gift.  It had been so much time since we’d worked on them that I didn’t have any ego or personal baggage attached to the songs like “oh, I really have to keep this bit."  I was just listening to them almost as if somebody else had written them and I could be very irreverent about stuff.   So I like taking time a bunch of time in the middle, and I think it’s a better album for that.

MS: Why didn’t Andy Partridge participate?

MK:  We kind of vacillated back and forth about whether he was into singing on the record or not, and then finally he said “you know, I really want to just keep it with your voice on this thing, I really prefer that it be strongly identified as a Mike Keneally record.  I think it would be a better record if you do it that way.” I wasn’t interested in trying to beg him to do it or make him feel like he was obliged to do it for some reason, and again, I’m happy with the way it turned out, so I’m cool with that choice of his.

MS: What are your thoughts, if any, on the idea of happy accidents leading to opportunities that bring satisfying creative endeavors?

MK: I rely on it so heavily but it’s not something I intellectualize so I don’t know that I have many cogent thoughts on it but I live on it.  I thrive on happy accidents.  It’s probably 75 percent of what I do – I’m talking about composing-wise, and improvisationally.

I really try not to contrive stuff.  Every time I set about to do something musical, it’s a major part of my process is to try to play something or write something that I’ve never played or even heard before.  Depending on whether or not I’m successful at doing that is not mine to judge, but it is a conscious part of the process.  So I’m just reaching for stuff, everywhere, and hoping and trusting that the universe will continue supplying this stuff.

So it’s all sort of accidental, and I don’t have anything intelligent to say about it…methodologically (laughs) but I just throw my hands up and am grateful.  Whatever’s responsible for keeping these ideas and these concepts and these desires coming, I’m very happy about it.

  • Mike Keneally (and Mike Keneally Band member RickMusallam) will perform in concert Saturday, Sept. 8 at 7:00 p.m. at The Gramophone.  More information is at http://thegramophonelive.com/

VIDEO: Mike Keneally Band performing MK composition "Kedgeree" from Mike Keneally Band live album "Bakin' At The Potato"