To purveyors of power pop, Tommy Keene needs no introduction. A reliable force in music for the past 30 years, Keene has pretty much experienced it all: from being on major label Geffen’s roster for a period in the ‘80s, to working with lauded indie labels such as Matador after that. Now at a point in his career where he has been afforded the two-disc retrospective treatment—2010’s cheekily titled Tommy Keene You Hear Me: A Retrospective 1983 – 2009—Keene has now turned his sights to covering those who have influenced him: both on the excellent and always interesting upcoming covers album Excitement at Your Feet and a one-off to benefit guitarist Slim Dunlap, ex of the Replacements, who suffered a stroke recently. PopMatters recently chatted with Keene about the selection process for what makes a good cover, what it was like working with Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices (of whom Keene covers on his new record), and where he plans to go from here at this point in his career since he is now, unabashedly, a master of his craft who can interpret a wide array of artists.
PopMatters: What was the criteria for selecting covers to take for this album? It seems that there’s a broad array of artists that you chose for this particular release from all sorts of different eras. And, outside of Donovan’s “Catch the Wind”, none of the songs made a dent in the American Top 40. What was important for you in selecting a song that you felt was worthy of the covers treatment?
Tommy Keene: The main criteria, besides obviously loving the song, was whether or not I could pull it off vocally. There were many artists I considered like the Smiths, but singing Morrissey can head dangerously into parody. Also, I actually recorded a rhythm track of a Beatles song and finished all the overdubs but in the end, what can I do with a John Lennon song? There’s a fine line between karaoke and being able to bring something of my own to the table. I am not a fan of people covering a song and making it almost unrecognizable—the object is to be faithful (thanks, Todd) and still add your own distinctive take on it.
PopMatters: It seems to me that most bands wait until they’re late into their career before tackling a covers album. I’m thinking of Rush and their EP, Feedback, as a prime example of that. Was wanting to record a covers album this deep into your career a reflection of perhaps wanting to give something back to those who had influenced you over the past 30 or so years, or even before?
Tommy Keene: The idea was first suggested to me back in the ‘80s. The A&R guy who signed me to Geffen liked hard rock and power pop as I do, hard rock meaning cool ‘70s bands like Aerosmith, UFO, Montrose, etc. After he got to know me and my history of buying records since I was five (Beatles, etc.) and getting to see a lot of amazing concerts while still a pre-teen (the Who, Buffalo Springfield, Led Zeppelin, the Byrds, the Stones etc.), he suggested I do my own covers album à la Pinups, the Bowie record where he covers all his British rock influences. In fac,t it was the A&R guy’s idea to record “Kill Your Sons” and put it on Songs from the Film, my major label debut. He saw us play it live and said that HAS to go on the record. My history with cover songs has always been to select a song that is somewhat out of my mileau, which provides a nice contrast to the other original songs on the record.
PopMatters: Did you do anything in particular to put your own particular stamp on these covers? It seems to me that your version of Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Puppet” feels shorter than the original, for instance.
Tommy Keene: “The Puppet” is shorter because I used the arrangement from the movie Urgh! A Music War, where they played the song live. It seemed more compact and tighter to me. Besides the Donovan and Big Star songs and to a certain extent the Bee Gees’ tune, I wanted to get a rock ‘n’ roll fun, jukebox feel on most of these songs.
PopMatters: I’m also curious about your decision to cover the Bee Gees. Most of the material on the album is fairly rock-centric—the Who, the Rolling Stones, Big Star, Roxy Music—but taking something from what’s overtly a pop act is interesting. What was your impetus there?
Tommy KeeneThe early Bee Gees albums are phenomenal up to Two Years On. They had a major influence on me and my songwriting—they had great ballads, soul tunes, psychedelic songs, and cool rockers! They have a bad rap in a lot of people’s minds because of the Saturday Night Fever era, but if one goes back they’ll discover a treasure trove of A1 material from their early period.
PopMatters: I’ve noticed that you cover Guided by Voices’ “Choking Tara” on the album, but you were also a member of Robert Pollard’s backing touring band at one point and recorded an album with him as the Keene Brothers. Is this a sign that there’s another Keene Brothers’ album on the way? What was it like working with Pollard?
Tommy Keene: I don’t know if there will ever be another Keene Brothers record—I’m up for it but don’t know about how Bob feels, he tends to move on after doing a project. The process of doing that album was that I sent him rough sketches of songs with drum machines to full-on fleshed out studio versions of about 30 songs and then he whittled it down to the 12 he felt most comfortable with, as in I think the 12 that he could hear melody lines and lyrics to. One song which I thought was in the bottom-tier quality-wise was one he picked and it ended up becoming the best song on the album! The song is “Death of the Party”. He came up with a fantastic melody line over my chord changes and great lyrics! This is an example of true collaboration: all too often when you’re writing with other people who are more successful than you, they tend to hold back their good bits for their own career or record, you have to bring something to the party to make it work and he did!!
PopMatters: You also recently contributed a cover track to a project to help benefit Slim Dunlap of the Replacements, who recently suffered a stroke. How important was that to you to help out another musician in need?
Tommy Keene: Well, I got to know Slim when we toured with the Mats in 1989. I’m also good friends with Peter Jesperson, the guy who discovered the band and signed them to Twin/Tone, their first label. He was telling me about the project and I said I would love to do a track. Slim is just the sweetest guy, he would hang around with us in our dressing room on that tour a lot, maybe to get away from the madness! My favorite memory of him is in Atlanta before a show. I had asked a woman with the promoter backstage if I could get an iron and an ironing board. After trying unsuccessfully to iron my shirt for the show, Slim said, “Nah, Tommy, let me show ya how to iron a shirt,” and he took over and ironed my shirt perfectly with everyone looking on amused. “There ya go,” he said, he took pride in his work!!!
PopMatters: Now that you have a covers album coming out, what’s the next step in terms of the evolution of where Tommy Keene goes from here?
Tommy Keene: Well, perhaps another album of TK original songs? Is the world ready for that? Seriously, at some point maybe next year, I’m going to try and finish the first and probably last Tommy Keene DVD. I have tapes of live shows from 1982, the Peppermint Lounge, opening for Translator, to three-camera pro shots from 2011 and 2012. Lots of old 9:30 Club footage, plus a little comical rockumentary that we made during a short tour in 1990, which has onstage footage plus backstage, hotel, soundcheck, traveling etc. It’s quite entertaining.