Keller Williams is preparing to release his twenty-third album, KWahtro, adding even more facets to his diverse catalog. Over the course of his career, there has only been one unchanging, undeniable element that unifies his genre hopping sonic gymnastics: a near-blinding inner joy. You can actually hear the beaming smile he wore in the studio as he has explored the far reaches of his sound alone and with some of the finest collaborators.
No matter what instrument he touches, Williams’ plays with a sense of timing, tempo and force that indicates uncountable hours honing his skills, while never losing the palpable sense of glee that informs his every note. In the first of our two-part interview with Keller Williams, we look back with an album by album discussion of thoughts, memories and wishes of the catalog of a sonic chameleon.
Our own Rex Thomson shares a silly and serious walk down memory lane with Keller in this first entry, while in the soon-to-be-released second part, we’ll look more in depth at Williams’ present and future. Enjoy!
L4LM: Before we get to the history proper, after going over your 22 going on 23 releases, I did have one quick question…What is with the single word titles? Some kind of marketing trick or are you just anti-verbosity?
Keller Williams: Well, it started in the early nineties with the first record which we called Freek. The idea was to describe the entire record…the vibe of it with one syllable. Trying to follow the “Less Is More” philosophy. A “Say more with less” type scenario. That was the idea behind the first one, and I just went from there.
In hindsight it would have been interesting to have some sort of end goal…like a phrase…with verbs and nouns and…pronouns. And adjectives! Those are important. Sentence structure. I wasn’t really thinking that far back then. But to the general idea is to describe the compilation of songs with one syllable.
L4LM: Let’s start at the beginning, because I run an orderly ship. Your current Wikipedia liner notes of your first album, Freek, list “Freky Aziz Reffelruz” listed as “Background Dancer.” Ummmm…what? Is that real or is someone having fun with you?
KW: That’s the thing about Wikipedia…you could go in right now, if you want, while you are talking to me and write your name in, and make yourself the background dancer. They’re not that reliable.
L4LM: Actually I went in and renamed one of your albums after me already. For your second album, Buzz, you made a dramatic move away from you one-man-band setting and had many collaborators, including your first collaborations with Larry Keel and Gibb Droll. Why the direction shift?
KW: You can do more with other people than you can do alone. That was the mentality. The solo thing had started as more of a necessity. I was in couple bands in the late eighties early nineties and we were playing small places and fraternity parties. Once the bands broke up I was working the same places and they were paying me by myself the same money they were paying the full bands.
I realized “Hmmmm… this could be a real job.” From that came the looping, and once that started, all this started happening for me and I always say “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” But the idea, from my teenage years on, was to be part of a band. To share that onstage camaraderie, that musical telepathy. That was the original idea. So even though I was having some success solo, I always wanted to surround myself with other musicians.
L4LM: On Spun you go into great detail about falling in love in line for a Port-a-potty… those are dangerous mental wires to be crossing. I can’t think of a fetish I’d be more scared to develop.
KW: Definitely not! The “Hot hippie girl gotta pee” dance is something I witnessed when I first started going to Grateful Dead shows in ’87. It’s a bit of a fictional tale, but definitely not a fetish. With so many festivals these days this is a more normal situation.
L4LM: On Breathe you drafted your friends from The String Cheese Incident into becoming your backing band. That worked out pretty well. If you magically front any band from the last 150 years, who would you pick and why?
KW: Oh wow. If I could magically front any band…WOW. That’s a tough one. The Denver Symphony! That would be a big pressure thing. I would love to do something like that.
L4LM: “The Symphonic Music Of Keller.”
KW: Exactly. That would be a big pressure thing. It starts with the song. You would really need to study the song choices to make sure they worked. There was an offer about ten years ago from the Jacksonville Orchestra when they were reviving their concert series. It didn’t work out, but I have always kept that in mind.
Warren Haynes does it really great with playing Jerry’s music, with playing the Dead’s music with a symphony. He’s even actually playing Jerry’s guitar. So that’s a real special thing.
L4LM: For your fifth album, Loop, you went live. It’s amazing to hear what you do in the studio, but when you’re up there all alone live building songs that sound like five people are up there with you I always wonder the same thing…is it just that you’re cheap?
KW: Once the looping took off people just didn’t want me with a band. Loop was a very infantile part of my looping. It’s an interesting documentation on where my looping started. Very minimal…but I was younger and hungrier and less jaded.
L4LM: Yeah, I usually don’t get a “Jaded” vibe from you.
KW; I’m not. It was just a late night last night. I would say I am the opposite of cheap. After a couple years went past and the looping stuff was getting successful, I started to bring in humans. I personally want to pay everyone way more than the budget will allow.
No matter what we could pay because of things like expenses…it never seemed enough. I always wanted to pay more. And the folks who I wanted to play with…no they need more. They’ve earned more. But that’s the difference between recording and touring. It’s a big country. Some places it’s hot, some places it’s not. It’s tricky to take a band.
With so many different projects I have to pick and choose where and when to do something. But sometimes it’s fun to get back to basics and do the solo stuff. So it’s not like I play alone because I’m cheap, it’s because it’s the most comfortable to me. When Loop was recorded there was a slowly building buzz around my solo shows, and that was the documentation of where I was at that point in my career.
L4LM: Laugh included a slew of your most beloved songs from this era, including “Freaker,” “One Hit Wonder,” and “Kidney In A Cooler.” Songwriting wise, were you just in a groove at that point in your life?
KW: 100% yes. That was pre-babies. I have two kids now, and eight year old boy and an eleven year old girl. In that time frame it was a songwriting boom for me. I was doing three weeks on the road, doing six nights a week like two or three hundred miles between shows for around two hundred shows a year.
That would be two or three weeks on, two weeks off…something like that. Sometimes we would do a whole loop around the country. Go across the country down through the southern route, up the west coast and then back down the east coast. That would take like six weeks.
The beauty of it was when we would get back the first week was decompression, where you get your rest and refresh in. But then the boredom would start to sit in during the second week and that’s when the creative juices would start flowing. A lot of songs that have remained in the rotation that came from that era.
When the kids started to come I adapted my touring schedule. I made it a weekend thing so that I leave Thursday and be home Sunday night, Monday so I could do drop offs and pick ups… y’know, do my dad/husband thing. There’s really not a lot of down time other than when the kids are at school or after they go to bed. Songs definitely come in that time frame, but not like they did before the kids came.
It’s interesting progression with the songwriting. When your lifestyle changes, it naturally affects the songwriting. I’m happy when the songs do come, and I think they’re getting deeper. I think it’s a good trade.
L4LM: You busted out a remix album called Dance next. With all the beats and loops you do have you ever considered going full DJ? Giant podium and dancing girls? Perhaps some sort of mask?
KW: Yes I do! I have an entire concept in my mind. To pull off correctly it will take a million dollars. But there’s no way to do it. I have been a fascinated lover of EDM for a long long time. The Thievery Corporation thing, the whole chill downbeat style of electronica.
That progressed into a house jungle area, leading into trap and more. I did have a DJ program and I worked with a buddy to set up a loop based show controlled by the laptop. We did a show and I recorded all these instruments live that I control through foot pedals. My shtick was comedian one liners.
I was working in Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Steven Wright, Kat Williams, Bill Murray. There was a lot of Eddie Murphy in there too. We could lay them in there and Lou, my sound engineer, I would play around with it after shows were done as like an after-show thing. But there’s no way I could do a whole show live like that, and make it be what I wanted.
I’m just not really that much of a computer program. I guess I like being on the other side of the tables. But I could see doing a whole record like that.
L4LM: Home was spiritually dedicated to your childhood home of Fredricksburg, Virginia. Can you describe what it is about the area and growing up there that makes it so special to you?
KW: I think it’s more special living here as an adult. It’s a historic town. It’s got the history of the Civil War. That history is at the core of the town. There was a small music scene, not a whole lot of venues and that made it small town-ish. I’m not sure what effect it had on my personality, but it was and is really nice here.
It’s nice now to be here. To feel really close to where I grew up. There’s a lot of transplants here because we’re we so close to DC. But it’s definitely a community. Sometimes you recognize a face of someone you went to kindergarten with. It’s a trip.
My parents live here. My wife’s parents live here. My wife’s 96 year old grandmother lives down the street from us, her brother has a farm right next to us. It’s just a really special community to come home to.
L4LM: On Stage, your second live album, you show off your uncanny ability to make cover songs your own. With your versatility, there really aren’t many songs outside of your range. Do you have a tune you have always wanted to try and cover but haven’t figured out a way yet?
KW: There’s a lot of Grateful Dead songs that I refuse to do. Once I start doing Dead songs, and they get into my repertoire and they stop sounding like Dead songs to me. I think any song written is usually better done as a bluegrass song.
So the answer is no, I don’t think there’s any song I can’t cover. That was the question right?
L4LM: Close enough for me. Grass is your first full album with the king of flat picking, Larry Keel and his bass playing wife Jenny. You and Larry were picking buddies before your respective careers started rising, did you ever envision yourself sharing stages and albums with him when you were jamming back in the day?
KW: When we met, I was like twenty one or twenty two and he was a bit older. I was running an open mic in Fredericksburg on a Monday and he came in with his band Fizzawah. He was always a bluegrass guy, but this was a side project that did more psychedelic stuff but with bluegrass instruments. So we hit it off and I started jamming with him from time to time.
Larry had a band called McGraw Gap that I started opening for, and that’s who I had backing me on Buzz on the track “Inhale To The Chief.” Wow. I forgot about that song. I’ve always wanted to be a mandolin player but I could never fit my fingers on frets like I needed to, and I would have to relearn all the scales.
So I would take all these smaller instruments and try and form them into a mandolin sound. While I was hanging with those guys they were looking for a mandolin player and for a bit I was playing with this bluegrass band. We did a bunch of gigs. And so doing that record, Grass, was real easy. It took just a couple days.
I did the singing, and in the studio were were separated by glass for sonic purposes, but it was just so easy, man. A really comfortable fit. Hell, we just played together Sunday! It was great! I love playing with Larry and Jenny.
L4LM: On Dream you decided that “more is more” and brought in an army of collaborators, including Béla Fleck, Bob Weir, the String Cheese guys, Martin Sexton, Charlie Hunter, Michael Franti and more. Did you ever think of just packing the studio with players and then sneaking out the back door and letting them make an album for you?
KW: No. That would be impossible! Between everyone’s schedules and the cost that would be impossible. The Dream record took three years from when the Keels record, Grass, came out. While Dream was being made I put out Grass and a performance DVD.
It was just such a long process getting everything recorded and getting people to do their tracks. Like Béla says…”Never say no.” I was like “You can say no… I’ll just stop asking.” He really wanted to do it, but it took a year and a half to get him in the studio.
All these different players, all these different locations around the country. Recording in places like Bob Weir‘s house to do a track with him there and New York City to do a track with Charlie Hunter. We had Steve Kimock and John Molo come here to Fredericksburg. A lot of the rest of it was passed from musician to musician around the country. I would work on something then send it to Jeff Sipe. A couple months later he would send it to Victor Wooten and on and on.
I’m really proud of that Dream record. It was an era of my life I wanted to document and go back and listen to when I’m old.
L4LM: You named your twelfth album 12, and it was a mostly greatest hits package with one song from each of your previous albums. Are you a fan of anthology or greatest hits packages in general?
KW: That was actually a hitless greatest hits record. I have a good buddy in the radio industry. He thought that the song “Breathe” could do well. The concept the album was to span the twelve years with my twelfth album. And of course, twelve is the last number that is only one syllable. So when you put all that together…
This was all back in the day when stores carried things called “CDs.” These were things called “compact discs” that were like physical copies of music. Compilations like these would be mixed in with other physical copies of records. If you were looking at an artist’s “Discs” in a store, and you weren’t sure what to get, something like 12 could help them learn about a band. That was the idea.
L4LM: You first digital download only disc was called Rex. I’m flattered, but don’t you think you should have asked my permission first? Lawsuits are expensive my friend.
KW: It was an homage to you so I just didn’t think I needed your permission. The Rex record is what we call Grateful Grass, Jeff Austin and Keith Moseley doing bluegrass versions of Grateful Dead tunes. All proceeds went to the Rex Foundation, which is a non-profit started by the Grateful Dead in the eighties.
L4LM: For Odd you tried something different, releasing tracks one by one before dropping the whole package. What was your reasoning behind that?
KW: That was an experiment using the computer technology and downloading. I was trying this thing we were calling “Once A Week Freek.” We would release a live track, an old studio track, whatever once a week The record grew from that, just me seeing how the new ways to distribute the songs would work for me.
L4LM: You re-teamed with Larry & Jenny Keel for Thief, a collection of re-purposed songs done in a bluegrass-y style. How hard was it picking songs to do?
KW: Some of them were tunes the Keels and I had been doing live, like “Sex & Candy.” That one was actually an afterthought in the studio. The Kris Kristofferson stuff, those are songs from my childhood. My dad had the Willie Nelson Sings Kris Kristofferson album on 8 track. “Cuss That Fiddle” and “2003,” which book-ended the record, those were songs from my childhood.
The Raconteurs thing was interesting. It’s like this western, psychedelic rattlesnake venom thing. It’s a dark, interesting song. “Rehab,” the Amy Winehouse track. Like the first record with them, it only took a couple days. Just turn the lights down and do it.
L4LM: Your style is perfect for a project like Kids. Any thoughts to doing another all ages album in the future?
KW: Well my daughter is all over that Kids record and I wanted to do the same for my son, but he doesn’t really like the confines of the studio. My daughter was more like a sponge; when she heard the songs playing as we drove around, she just learned them. When we went into the studio, she was ready to just do it and sang along with me no problem. We ended up using a bunch of that.
I think out of all the records, that one will last the longest. Parents can turn their kids on with it, and those kids can grow up and share it with their kids. There’s always going to be kids so we will always need music for them. As far as live kids performances I think I am done with that. and like I said, my son doesn’t seem too interested in it.
L4LM: Your multi-dimensional playing got super funky on Bass. You make the switch back and forth look so easy live, but is it that simple for you to go back and forth between the low and high end instruments?
KW: Yeah. My guitar style has always revolved around the bass line anyway. My style focuses on that bass line. The treble side is what happens when I am not focusing on the bass line. It’s more of a percussive thing, It’s never really more of a strumming thing for me. So playing bass is really comfortable for me.
But it is in my style though. I play with a pick. So it’s not really “Bass Player Worthy.”
L4LM: Speaking of, your next album was called Pick, but I am thinking you had a more bluegrass connotation in mind. Being a good old Virginia Boy, how does it feel to play bluegrass alongside such highly pedigreed musicians like the Travelin’ McCourys. I know you’ve also shared the stage with their legendary father. How does it feel to play with literal bluegrass royalty?
KW: It’s surreal. You’re right, to me they are bluegrass royalty. It’s amazing how open minded they are and how much they accepted me into their world. I played a lot more shows with them then I thought they would allow. I think there are going to be a handful more in the future too. They are the real deal.
L4LM: As usual, you completely changed direction and turn yourself into a lounge crooner for piano versions of Grateful Dead classics on Keys. Is this something you were already doing to make extra cash on the road, pop up piano bar shifts?
KW: Piano was my first instrument. I can write on it, but I never really had the chops. I have an alter ego named Bernie Ballad that sometimes shows up in hotel lobbies with pianos and no security guards. Between two and three AM, I’ll do fifteen minutes sets or however long it takes for someone to come and ask me to stop.
In 2006 we moved into the new house there was a piano and every time I sat down I was playing Jerry ballads. It gave me an excuse to do something completely different. Keys is just me and a piano, and again all proceeds from that record as well go to the Rex Foundation.
A lot of people don’t know about this record. It was a bit self indulgent, but I like how it came out.
L4LM: You finally get down and dirty on Funk. Coming from the the hills and mountains of Virginia, I can understand the bluegrass elements in your style easily enough, but where did your funk love come from?
KW: Go-go music came out of DC and I’m pretty close to DC. In public school, go-go music was huge. In eighth grade I played trombone in a marching band and we had a big go-go section with rototoms, cow bells and two big kick drums. We had these big armed guys who would just rock it.
There was a beat that was instilled in me then. Always just loved the funk, the dirty low down grooves. So I put a funk band together for a run of holiday sessions, just for the novelty of doing it. We recorded that record and released it, and we have just been doing a handful of shows every year since then. It’s a really fun project to jump in and out of.
L4LM: Speaking of jumping back into projects, you recently went back into the Grateful Grass world for a second helping called Dos. The energy between you and Jeff Austin is always amazing, but how hard is it to keep the two of you on target?
KW: Jeff approaches this project as my backup. With the Jeff Austin Band he’s in charge, he’s on point. This project I think is really fun for him because he gets to not be in charge. I’m not speaking for him, but he really does seem to enjoy it. We have a weekend with him after Thanksgiving where we’re playing with him, but I can’t talk about that yet.
L4LM: Can you tell me if it’s on the left hand side of the country or the right hand side of the country?
KW: It’s on the left. NO! Wait. It’s on the right hand side of the country! I was facing Mexico!
L4LM: Never face Mexico! On Vape you actually got a sponsorship from a vaporizer company for the ensuing tour. How did that work out for you?
KW: They paid for a tour bus for The Motet and I through the medical states, California, Oregon and Nevada. And on that bus was a thirty foot vape pen and our names. It was great. A super fun tour.
L4LM: How do you even hit a thirty foot vape pen? Or pack it. I’m confused.
KW: Sigh. It was a picture. They were never that lenient with the inside stuff. But the legalization of medicine is a good thing, and it is worth celebrating.
That’s it for part one of our chat with Keller Williams. After covering his past, next up we’ll look at his latest releases and the future of this amazingly diverse artist. See you soon!