Almost an hour into a long-ranging interview, Tommy Keene starts discussing an upcoming solo tour that will take him back to his old stomping grounds of Washington, DC.
“I started my group August 18, 1981,” Keene says. “We played the Cellar Door.”
He takes a second to calculate.
“Oh man—our 25th anniversary is coming up this year! We’ll have to celebrate.”
Keene has been building a strong critical reputation and a mighty songbook for two and a half decades. In 1982 he released his first solo record, Strange Alliance. Two years later he released a stunning EP called Places That Are Gone that coupled some of the era’s best power-pop songs (like the title track) with a cover of Alex Chilton’s “Hey! Little Child”. He was released through Geffen through the rest of the decade, through Matador in the ‘90s, and through a few smaller labels after 2001.
Until this year, Keene was best known as a power-pop star—he appeared on the first Yellow Pills collection and on Rhino’s Poptopia! series. But in January, Keene started touring with Guided By Voices alumnus Robert Pollard as his lead guitarist and keyboard player. The two men recorded a forthcoming album as the Keene Brothers, which will match Pollard’s vocals and lyrics with Keene’s backing tracks. But before that’s released, Eleven Thirty Records is putting out Keene’s first studio album in four years, Crashing the Ether.
This is the first album you’ve recorded in your home studio. How did you put that together?
It was put together over a couple of years by a good friend of mine, John Pines, who recorded my last four records and actually plays drums on this album. About two years ago he came over to lay down some drum tracks. This house has an entryway with a 20-foot ceiling, and we played there and got a great sound. Although the neighbors didn’t enjoy that as much. He helped me get this stuff together. I have a hard drive, a Ghost 32-channel board. I don’t have a computer with ProTools—I’m old-fashioned when it comes to that. There’s a plethora of amps and guitars, and a bass. A few years ago I got a good bass and I just practiced until I could play it. And having this setup really made a difference, because I didn’t have to book studio time. For the first time I had the leisure, if I didn’t like one take, to do another and another with no problems.
Production plays a big role in your signature sound. How do you write songs? Do you hear all of the arrangements and instruments in your head when you sit down to write?
Oh, no—I sit down with one guitar and try to get a good melody line. That’s the most important part of writing any song. When I finish the melody line I do a scratch track, which sometimes turns out to be good enough for the record. John got a good idea of what I was looking for based on the drum machine patterns on those tracks. I gave him a very basic idea, of course, and then he played the drum tracks. Actually, “Black and White New York” the two main guitars left and right: those are basically live performances from the scratch tracks. At the time I didn’t know those two performances would be the keepers.
The multi-layered, overdubbed guitars are really what I think of when I think of your sound.
The most prominent aspect of my music is guitars. I do a lot of overdubbing. You record one track and then you double it, and get a really textured sound. Lindsay Buckingham from Fleetwood Mac is very good at this. James Honeyman-Scott, the first Pretenders guitarist—on their first album he recorded some guitar parts at a slow pace, and then sped them up in the studio.
I read an interview with Paul Westerberg a few years ago where he claimed he was having trouble writing songs because he kept coming up with the same chords—he was trying to change his tuning, find new chord structures
Did he say he succeeded?
He claimed he did. This was when he was promoting Suicane Gratifaction.
Well, that’s the one he wrote with the piano. His Randy Newman album! I guess that can happen, but I put a capo on the guitar and it’s like you’re picking up a new instrument. Paul used a lot of different tunings—“Alex Chilton”, “Left of the Dial” are all in a weird D turning. “Valentine”, too. A lot of his best songs. I did a lot of that earlier on, and then found when we went on the road, I had to bring all these pre-tuned guitars with me, and keep changing them during the sets. I definitely do that less these days, although “Warren in the 60s” is open tuning, and “Black and White New York” is in a different key. The rest of the songs are in normal tuning.
Your music is usually labeled “power-pop.” Actually, I just saw a write-up on the Pollard band tour that called you “Power pop paladin Tommy Keene.”
Paladin? I haven’t heard that before.
I think the writer liked the alliteration.
That’s funny—Bob likes alliteration, too. He’ll tell you about the “four Ps”—pop, punk, psych. The power pop label I think it’s accurate. In the past I’ve rejected it, but that may just have been out of frustration. One thing that unfortunately distinguishes power-pop is that it’s not that popular. The music is great, but usually gets pigeonholed pretty easily. I love some power pop bands, mostly from the ‘70s: 20/20 and the Raspberries. But the Raspberries fit in that category because they sound like the Beatles. To me, Elvis Costello is power-pop. Power-pop is rock music that has a lot of melody. The kind of power-pop I don’t like is a band up there with mod haircuts and ‘60s-style Rickenbackers, singing “Na na-na na na”.
Speaking of the Beatles and those other bands, which bands are your biggest influences?
The Who are number two. The Beatles are number one, of course, but the Who are such an inspiration to me. Especially their live act—that’s a big influence on how I play live. In this band right now, all five of us are Who fans. That’s not the norm. There’s usually some guy who’ll say, “I don’t like the Who,” and you’ll wonder “What are you doing here?” But power pop—“Warren in the 60s” is straight power pop. The last record I did was full-on power pop. This one’s different—a little psychedelic in places, a little pop in places. On “Black and White New York,” a lot of the influence was Tom Verlaine and Television.
How did you hook up with Robert Pollard in the first place?
I first heard Bee Thousand in ‘94 and I loved it. A few years ago, a writer friend of mine was interviewing Bob and brought my name up. I think he had just done that record with Mac McCaughan from Superchunk.
Go Back Snowball.
Right. So my friend was interviewing Bob and he’d mentioned that he liked my music. My friend asked, “Would you like to work with him?” And Bob said “Yeah, I would.” So I contacted him, sent him a bunch of demos, and opened for GBV in San Francisco and LA. A little while after that he called me and said, “Wait a minute, I’m breaking up GBV and I’ve got to put this on hiatus.” And he wanted to work on his solo album, which turned out to be From A Compound Eye, which just came out. I said all right, but then I hit him up for more GBV dates. And on that tour I went up to him in SF and said, “I don’t want to steal someone else’s gig, but if you need a guitarist for your next tour, I’d love to do it.” He said, “Can you do it? That sounds great!” Over all this time I gave him 28 songs, and for the record he pared it down to 12. It’s been a very fruitful collaboration so far.
The Go Back Snowball album didn’t sound quite like GBV or Superchunk. How’s this going to sound?
It’s going to be released as the Keene Brothers, and this would be truer to a GBV record and a Tommy Keene record. I asked him, “What do you want to this to sound like?” And he said he wanted a straight-up Tommy Keene record. Actually, some of the songs on my new record were offered to him first. I offered “Lives Become Lies” and “Quit This Scene”, and then during that uncertain period I took them back. He had really wanted “Lives” but I came up with another song similar to it, another one I wrote on a Baldwin Fun Machine.
What’s a Baldwin Fun Machine?
It’s this fun ‘70s organ that’s got different parts—a banjo part, for example. Actually, on “Texas Tower No. 4,” the Fun Machine is the first instrument you hear.
The kind of organ sound.
Yeah. I wrote him a Fun Machine song which he called “Lost Upon Us.” Which Bob says sounds like an anthem.
What’s the rest of the album sound like?
A couple of acoustic songs. The rest is more pop rock I’m not going to say the “p-p” word! His lyrics are incredible. He’s a true wordsmith. Check out these titles: “Evil vs. Evil”. I had working titles, like “Pop”, and handed them to him for his own titles. He did not disappoint. The songs he chose really fit together as an album. He actually didn’t pick a few that I thought were obvious. They might show up on my next album.
Where are the other songs going to show up? Do you have enough to do another volume of [2004 outtakes and demos album] Drowning?
I cleaned the vaults out pretty well with Drowning. I’m not as prolific as Bob as a songwriter I think he could write three songs when he wakes up in the morning. I could do more—I could do one a day. But I don’t think the quality would be that great. I’ll go six months and not pick up a guitar, but I’ve found you can’t force it. Sometimes you’ll be in a songwriting mood and you’ll get a lot of it done.
What do you do when you’re not in a songwriting mood?
Oh—then I listen to records! Do errands, play with other people. Now that I have the studio set up, I don’t have to do demos. In the past I had an eight-track which could record most of this. But with the recording equipment I have now, if you had some unique melody or riff, that’s there. Actually, now that I have the studio I do come down and fiddle around most days.
When you do listen to records, what are you listening to?
Wow… that’s a tough question! I’ve been so immersed in GBV songs for this tour. We do a different batch of GBV songs at every encore, so I’ve been practicing about 45 of them. I want to buy the records that everybody’s talking about… Death Cab for Cutie, that record, although they’ve been around for a while. The new Spoon record is interesting. I don’t know, what’s the last new album you bought?
Oh, I’m not sure. I buy a lot of old albums—Genesis. Sandy Denny.
I get a lot of catalogue stuff, too. Actually, I just got the new Springsteen re-issue of Born to Run. I’m a huge Springsteen fan, and the Hammersmith Odeon concert in that set is amazing.
What are your favorite GBV songs? If I can ask that.
Let me get my list. “Sad If I Lost It.” “Tractor Rape Chain”. “Things I Will Keep.” That has a great guitar solo by Doug Gillard that I try and play live. I know if I was going to see GBV, I’d want to hear that solo. “My Valuable Hunting Knife”, “Choking Tara”, and “Motor Away”, if Bob’s not too tired of that one. My favorite GBV albums are Mag Earwig, Bee Thousand, and Do the Collapse. Other songs… I’d say “Mute Superstar” and “The Best of Jill Hives”.
That reminds me. On your previous albums, you’ve always kicked off with some breakneck rock song. “Begin Where We End”, “Long Time Missing”, “Going Out Again”.
I have! Was it getting repetitive?
Well, I always liked it.
There were a few rockers I wrote that you’ll see wound up on the Pollard record. His title is “The Naked Wall”. I tell you, it sounds similar to “Nothing Can Change You.” When you hear that, imagine it with a different vocal melody and different lyrics, and that’s the kind of thing that would have been the rocker kicking off the album. Although I really like beginning it with “Black and White New York,” and those drums…
It actually reminds me of the way “Bone Machine” kicks off Surfer Rosa. Not the whole song, but those drums.
Oh yeah? The guitarist in the Pollard band, Dave Phillips, plays with Frank Black’s band. The Catholics.
Since you mentioned “Nothing Can Change You,” I wanted to ask about Based on Happy Times [rare 1989 full-length that was Keene’s last for seven years]. What happened to it?
This is always the most complicated thing I’m asked to explain. When that record came out in ‘89, it was printed 45% vinyl, 45% cassette, and 10% CD. Unless it was an artist who was selling hundreds of thousands of records, Universal just wasn’t printing many CDs. You might actually see that record finally become available again because Universal is coming to their senses, releasing stuff that might have a small audience.
Actually, that was part of the reason Drowning came out. Not Lame, the label that did a Posies box set and a Jellyfish set, came to me about compiling box set. Disc one would be Strange Alliance and bonus tracks, disc two would be the reissue of Songs from the Film, disc three would be Based on Happy Times with bonus tracks, and disc four would be what eventually became Drowning. We took it to Universal and they said “OK, but we’ll only do this if you pay us for every copy you don’t sell.” And that wasn’t going to work. The Jellyfish and Posies sets sold something like 4,000, 5,000 copies each. But this was all a few years ago. I think they’re coming around and they see the benefit of re-releasing something that may only sell to a small audience.
What were the early bonus tracks that would have been on this set?
That would have included the tracks I did with T-Bone Burnett, although eventually all but one of those have been released in one form or another. After the Places That Are Gone EP came out, I did a full-length with T-Bone that was basically going to be Songs from the Film. Then Geffen came to me and said, “We want to sign you, but we’re not going to do it if you release that album.” So being young and impressed by this, the idea of major label promotion, I held off on those tracks. Probably the biggest mistake I ever made was never putting that album out. The EP had hit the top 10 on CMJ, and the T-Bone album should have come out the next year, 1985, when we were getting some good attention. But the major label version of Songs didn’t come out until 1986.
What happened to the demos from this period, and the tapes for Based on Happy Times?
They own it forever. For-ev-er. What’s the word, perpetuity? They own it in perpetuity.
Do you think the tour with Bob and the album could expedite the release of these tracks?
I hope so. Just getting out there with him is great exposure for me because I might get some new listeners. And I hope to keep playing with him because I’m totally fine taking a singing vacation. I did that with Westerberg for a while. I love being a sideman.
I actually saw you live in 2003 in Chicago.
Ah, at Schubas?
Yeah, at that show. And you made a joke in between a couple songs about the next number being “about a struggling singer-songwriter.” Do you feel like you’re in a better place now, career-wise?
I’m having a much better time. My morale is way up, thanks to the Pollard tour. Two years ago, I was thinking, “Ugh, can I keep doing this? Is it time to call it?” But we’re about to go on a tour to San Francisco, Chicago, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, Boston. I’m almost at a career high now. If this is as good as it gets, I’m fine with it. Right now I’m happy—I’m satisfied for the first time in a while. And the Pollard band is the best band I’ve ever played with.