Mike Keneally is one of an elite stripe of musicians whose professional “big break” occurred when he landed a gig in Frank Zappa‘s touring band. Playing guitar and keyboards on stage alongside his musical hero for four months in 1988 was undoubtedly a professional feather in his cap. Still, far from resting on those enviable laurels, Keneally has built an impressive solo discography over three decades. Additionally, he’s become a highly sought-after touring musician, logging in dates with artists like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani and enjoying a fun side gig as a guitarist in Dethklok, the band Brendon Small assembled to create the music for Adult Swim’s Metalocalypse. Currently, Keneally is enjoying the best of both worlds, as his latest album, The Thing That Knowledge Can’t Eat, was released in late February, and he’s currently touring Europe as a member of Devin Townsend‘s band.
Longtime fans of Keneally’s solo albums have been understandably itching for a new record since his last one, Scambot 2, was released in 2016, and even with a consistently busy schedule of touring with other bands and the occasional session work, he’s managed to release albums at a pretty steady clip. There’s also been a remarkable variety to his solo work; ever since his debut, hat., was released in 1992, Keneally’s output has ranged from power pop/progressive rock hybrids (Sluggo, Dancing) to pastoral folk (Wooden Smoke) to odd, heavily instrumental freakouts (You Must Be This Tall, Nonkertompf) to a warm, tuneful collaboration with XTC‘s Andy Partridge (Wing Beat Fantastic). So why the nearly seven-year delay for The Thing That Knowledge Can’t Eat?
“Touring with Satriani, the Zappa tribute shows…live playing kind of became my focus for a few years,” Keneally explained from his Arizona home just before heading out on the Devin Townsend tour. “But even during that period when I wasn’t consciously working on an album, I was still creating material here and there. Even so, the new album feels like a coherent statement.”
With all the songs composed or finalized during the lockdown, Keneally was required to play and sing the lion’s share of what ended up on The Thing That Knowledge Can’t Eat. As a result, he needed to upgrade his home recording equipment, which entailed quite a learning process. “I had done home recording before,” he explained, “but it was always sort of idiosyncratic stuff with things like cassette Portastudios. Very eccentric things. This album is the first time that I was trying to do things that felt a little smoother and more pro by myself at home. It was a steep learning curve just figuring out how to wield the Pro Tools by myself.”
Keneally uses “Lana” as an example of this learning curve. “The song has a great deal of information contained within it; that’s what my head insisted on. That was the hardest song to mix, and I worked on that by myself during lockdown. It was a major training ground for me to figure out my process and figure out how to combine these very active musical events that are often happening at the same time in a way that’s listenable and coherent.” He adds that The Thing That Knowledge Can’t Eat‘s closing song, “The Carousel of Progress”, presented similar challenges. “There’s a lot of information in there,” he said, “But I didn’t want it to come off as overwhelming. I wanted it to be very whelming.”
“The Carousel of Progress” also provided Keneally with the record’s title, as the song contains the word “yielbongura”. The Dagara tribe of Africa uses the word, as they have no word for “supernatural”. “It’s basically another way of saying ‘can’t get your head around something’,” Keneally explains. “The thing that human knowledge and awareness and thought processes can’t quite cover or attain.”
In addition to the home studio sessions, The Thing That Knowledge Can’t Eat also includes some special guests, including his old friend (and fellow former Zappa guitarist) Steve Vai, who plays guitar on the riff-fest “Celery”. Dr. Dog drummer Eric Slick contributes to the low-key folk rock of “Mercury in Second Grade”. One of the most ambitious songs, “Ack”, was recorded partly in the Netherlands in 2006 with members of the Metropole Orkest, who worked with Keneally on his 2004 orchestral LP, The Universe Will Provide, as well as his longtime bass-playing partner in crime, Bryan Beller.
While Keneally continues to delightfully confound his progressive rock-loving fans with power pop gems like “Both Sides of the Street” and gleaming Brian Wilson-isms like “Big Hit Song”, there’s still plenty of the usual trademark Keneally weirdness on The Thing That Knowledge Can’t Eat. The opening track, “Logo”, sounds like some odd hybrid of They Might Be Giants and Sparks attempting musical theater. “I really wanted to write a piano song,” Keneally said. It was that simple. There’s an almost ‘show tune’ vibe to it, and I just sat down at the piano and started playing the music I heard in my head.” Keneally adds that there are a number of disparate influences to that particular song, ranging from Henry Cow to Todd Rundgren to Laura Nyro. It’s a testament to Keneally’s wide range of musical influences, which began at a young age when he discovered his older sister’s Beatles albums.
“I inherited my sister’s Beatles records at the point that they became too weird for her,” said Keneally, who was born on Long Island in 1961 and grew up both there and in San Diego. “She had everything up to and including Rubber Soul. Revolver was a step too far for her liking. So I ended up getting all of her previously purchased Beatles albums. I was five or six and became obsessed with the Beatles.” The eccentricities of late-period Beatles, particularly on songs like “Helter Skelter” and “Revolution 9”, helped give the young Keneally some of his first glimpses of the abstract notions of rock music, which led to his discovery and lifetime love of Frank Zappa’s music.
“When I was about nine years old,” Keneally recalled, “A kid who lived across the street from me was about four years older than me and was friends with my brother Marty. He’d come to his own conclusions about my psychological makeup. He said to me, ‘You’re weird; you need to hear this song.'” The song was “Help, I’m a Rock” from the Mothers of Invention’s 1966 debut album Freak Out. Thus began Keneally’s love of Zappa’s music. “I stood there, flabbergasted. I had never heard anything in my life that felt so much like myself to me. My psychology, my obsessions. It felt so right to me.”
Keneally’s longtime love of progressive rock – not unlike that eureka moment when he fell in love with Zappa’s music – was what he called “a natural follow-on from my obsession with the Beatles. Many of the Beatles’ textural things are a part of prog rock, with the sound of the vocals and the variety from song to song and adventurous instrumentation. Listen to “She Said She Said” and tell me that’s not a prog song.” Keneally took up his first instrument, the organ, at the age of seven, and eventually hearing Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Tarkus was another seminal moment for him. “The idea that you could do something that bad-ass on a Hammond organ was huge for me,” he said. “I was completely flabbergasted to hear an organ take the lead on a piece of music sounding so mean. It was a combination of the timbre and Keith Emerson’s compositional obsessions.”
Keneally’s skill on keyboards, coupled with his taking up the guitar – the instrument for which his prowess is well-loved and documented – made for impressive dual capabilities and a variety of small local bands through the 1980s. His consistent love of Zappa’s music resulted in Keneally calling the Zappa hotline phone number, which Zappa himself fortuitously answered in 1985. “I said to him, ‘It’s always been a dream of mine to play in your band,’ to which Frank said, ‘Well, I’m never touring again, so keep dreaming.'” Fortunately, Zappa didn’t stick to that promise and went out on the road one last time in 1988, and Keneally successfully auditioned as a guitarist and keyboard player. This prompted the notoriously hard-to-impress Zappa to refer to Keneally in the press as “the best new guy I ever had in the band.”
While the 1988 world tour was plagued with band member conflicts and Zappa was forced to end the tour before the final leg, Keneally remembers the time with obvious fondness, albeit somewhat distractingly. “I kept being pulled down to earth by the gravity of what was going on,” he said, referring to the in-band fighting. “It was such a tumultuous line-up. I was a very wide-eyed innocent young lad who wanted nothing more than to be walking on air. I literally couldn’t understand why the entire band wasn’t suffused with joy and gratitude at being able to go out on the road and play the music of Frank Zappa. It was all I wanted from life.” Being strictly a bar band musician by the time he joined Zappa’s tour, it was a challenge that he was ultimately able to conquer, thanks to his musical skill and innate familiarity with Zappa’s catalog. “It was the baptism of fire of all baptisms of fire,” he said. “But it was also my dream gig. After four months of rehearsal, once I felt like I belonged there, it was absolute heaven.”
As to whether Keneally fans will need to wait several more years for a follow-up to The Thing That Knowledge Can’t Eat, Keneally’s touring schedule will likely dictate that. The album was originally going to be a two-LP set, and he put out the first part separately. “The second disc was going to be more of a catch-all, a repository for a lot of lengthy experiments and crazy instrumental stuff,” he explained, “but it took me so long to finish the first half that by the time I finished it and felt satisfied that it was a statement from start to finish, I was pulled away by touring. So I thought, let’s put this album out because it really has a personality of its own, a coherence, there’s a sequence, it feels like a complete thing to me. I’m really glad we decided to do it that way.”
Like his hero and one-time employer, Keneally’s music combines often dizzying instrumental skill with healthy doses of humor and absurdism. This prompts the question that was also the title of one of Zappa’s albums: Does humor belong in music? “Clearly, it does,” Keneally said. “Arguably more than ever these days. People are turning to music for a real sense of something other than the very stark reality of what life is these days. If you can manage to make everyone smile in the midst of everything, then you have performed a valuable public service.
“It suits my present sensibilities to come up with something that makes me smile as opposed to something that impresses me deeply with its import and profundity,” Keneally continued. “I’m less interested now in trying to create great art than I used to be. I don’t feel pretentious right now. I’m just looking to have a good time. And I think the fact that I’ve been doing it for a while has made it possible for me to find combinations of tones, sounds, and notes that feel good, even when the content itself can be potentially hectic.”