Keller Williams is a man of many faces. He is a musician. He is a storyteller. He is a fan. It is through this blend that his mastery spills forth.
During Keller’s live shows, listeners experience everything from campy cackle to trance driven twirls. Within his music, he meets no confines. His craft has been coined many things by many people, but most of us simply know him as Keller.
His trade keeps him busy, but we were fortunate enough to have Keller take time out to have a conversation with us from his home in Fredricksburg, Virginia, for a discussion about many things including his new album, the economy, and even the mentality of a gatecrasher.
Honest Tune: How is the weather in Fredricksburg?
Keller Williams: Hot as hell – dealing with the inland draining humid, wet heat that we have on the East coast.
HT: Are you wishing you were in the Tundra?
KW: You know it.
HT: Ok, all small talk aside, you have been referred to with a lot of descriptions, such as one man band, etc. If you were to describe, in your own words, what you do, how would you do so? Also has anybody ever referenced you professionally with a description of which you just outright disagree?
KW: [Pauses] I never really put too much focus on names and labels and titles and things. I have always been grateful to be called anything! I guess when I first started out; I was called background music [laughs.]
Later on from there, it grew into being called alternative folk. I guess from there I kind of went on to being called a pain in the ass. After that came the one man jam band thing. Nothing has really turned me sour against any kind of title. My deal is that as long as people buy tickets, they can pretty much call me whatever they want.
HT: On this record, ODD, there is a particular ‘day in the life’ song in “A Day at The Office.” When I first listened to it there were three people that I put together that I would have never thought of before: Axl Rose, Tupac Shakur, and you. [Keller laughs loudly] The reason why I say that is because your reference to Blender Magazine is reminiscent to Axl’s proverbial lambasting of Spin, Hit Parade, and virtually every other relevant magazine in Use Your Illusion’s “Get in the Ring.” Secondly, it reminded me of when Tupac blew Notorious B.I.G. (Keller laughs heartily) out of the water with “Hit ‘Em Up.”
There are times when you use your music to vent frustration and others when it is just pure hilarity. To sum it up, there is a lot of versatile writing on this record and in your songs in general. What does the writing process look like for you? Is it real life stuff for you always? For example, did you really have that “Doobie in Your Pocket?”>
KW: Yeah, a lot of the stuff is absolutely real life. It would be hard to come up with that kind of stuff without it being real life. There is some imagination involved. For example, "Elephorse," the cross between an elephant and a horse and the writing of the multi-headed beast; that is all imaginary obviously.
But yeah, I definitely had a doobie in my pocket from the festival the day before. I smelled it all day, thinking the joint was checked, and I didn’t get my bag. We were on our way to the show without any gear. "A Day at the Office" pretty much wrote itself. Everything is pretty much based on truth with maybe some imagination in the depths of it.
Like with "Ear Infection" – it was written during a violent ear infection while the pain killers were wearing off and I was trying not to take pain killers less than four hours apart. So all I could do to distract my attention away from the pain was write the song which made the song filled with oozing pain. That was a little bit of a departure from my normal lyrical stuff.
HT: Well you do it in a way that really is sharp. Like with "Doobie in My Pocket," the listener feels that stress and it is a hilarious song. It just comes through really well.
KW: I appreciate that.
HT: You have a knack at drawing the listener in to the song where it feels as though we are listening to our friend’s music, like a buddy that we grew up with. Is this just something that naturally comes out for you? KW: It might be that I have always considered myself to be a music lover first, musician second, and songwriter third. I am constantly putting myself mentally in the place of the audience member and I think that people can feel that. I am one of them. [chuckles] HT: Along those lines, you are a fan particularly of the Grateful Dead. What has it been like to actually tour with the guys that, at one time, you were just another person in the crowd at their shows mesmerized by the music that you heard? For example, when you went out with Bobby for the Ratdog and Keller joint venture in ’07?
KW: It started out to be very surreal. I think the first time that I ever played with Bobby was in 2001 and the first time that I went out with Phil Lesh was in ’99 which was really fresh after Jerry had died. It was just bizarre being out there with Phil, John Molo, and Steve Kimock – it was quite surreal for sure.
As time went on, like in 2007, we did the tour with Ratdog and Bobby was super generous, coming out and doing two songs with me at the end of my set…and I mean every day! That was just incredible.
HT: We caught it at Atlanta’s Chastain Park and you and Bobby played “Dark Hollow.” I was dancing in the mellow moment, and I remember thinking, “That’s really awesome” because you have that passion for the music from both the angle of a fan and also in the place of being a musician. So it had a surreal effect on me from an entirely different place.
KW: Well, with me being a giant fan of Jerry Garcia, actually singing his part was actually pretty wild for that particular tune as well.
HT: I can only imagine. Is that a somewhat overwhelming task to try and take on?
KW: In a sense it was. Trying to match his tone just cannot be done, by me or anyone else. There are some who are coming close. I really appreciate those that can because I look for that when it comes to Grateful Dead music. Finding those tones is really important to me to kind of round up that particular sound.
HT: Going back to "A Day at the Office" for a second, you reference “Goddamned mortgages.” How do you see this current economy affecting the live music scene?
KW: Well, people really don’t have the extra money like they used to five or six years ago. I think people are wise and being a little more frugal.
I think that everybody is seeing a little bit of the pain from the economy as far as ticket sales go. It is tricky, I think, that it is slowly coming back and I think it will be like a roller coaster ride for a while as far as people being able to afford to get back out. It is affecting everybody even up on the grander level with the arena acts that are starting to come back and look at the theater and the theater acts are going back to the clubs.
There are just tons of shows happening in my world, the place where I tour. There are so many things to choose from and people just can’t afford to go every night so they have to pick and choose which ones they can go to. I hope that it is on the bounce back and that it will get better soon.
HT: Let’s hope so. In "Song for Fela," you are obviously paying tribute to Fela Kuti. What is it or was it about Fela that left such a major impression on you? Musical stuff? Civil or human rights?
KW: Really it is his whole story of struggle. He had many wives and many children. He put up a fence around his house and called it a country. It is just fascinating.
I have never really been drawn to the political side of where he was going. It is primarily musical – him as a conductor and band leader – the 17-minute epic songs where the drums don’t kick in for three minutes; another 5 or 6 minutes down the way, he will actually start singing and in between it is all pocket grooves and really cool horn lines. It is just the whole groove of the song that abandons all pop music laws. I love that.
It is a lot of stuff that, I am possibly too white to get, but that I am really fascinated by. But I don’t think that "Song for Fela" even came close to what Fela Kuti was doing, but it was kind of an attempt and at least the inspiration was there.
HT: It is awesome also in the sense that it will introduce people to what he did who have never even heard of him otherwise.
KW: Most definitely.
HT: Having watched you on stage numerous times, I know what you do. But one particular time was at Vegoose when you played the House of Blues. From the vantage point in the balcony, it afforded the opportunity to observe from a different angle. For lack of a better term, you are like a barefooted madman up there going from instrument to instrument. Obviously a lot of that stuff is improv and it comes out sounding damned sweet. Many have often wondered, “What is going through your head up there?"
KW: Well thank you. There are definitely technical things that are going through my head like remembering where certain buttons are. I have to be sure and turn off vocals before going into a loop and making sure the proper instrument is on.
There is the constant search of lyrics sometimes – making sure that my mind doesn’t stray too far from the lyrics. It is a plethora of things that just happens and sometimes I just wander.
HT: A few folks wrote in with some questions that they would like for me to pose to you. KW: Let’s do it!
HT: Honest Tune is The Southern Journal of Jam, and Roger Patterson from Huntsville, AL asks: What is your opinion of the South because we miss you down here?
KW: I love the South. There is a certain excitement of the South. The women are just incredible down there. The whole package of the Southeast particularly is something I love. I always look forward to coming down there. I try to at least make it down in January or February of every year.
HT: John Parent from Grand Rapids, MI asks: Have you ever discussed doing any other dates with Keith Moseley and Jeff Austin for more Grateful Grass?
KW: That is kind all up to the promoters and stems upon availability from Jeff and Keith. I have also done it with The Keels (Larry and Jenny Keel) for a Jerry birthday bash. If any promoters want to make that happen, I am more than happy to do it.
HT: And finally, David Fuller from Baton Rouge, LA asks: How much wind would a gatecrasher suck if a gatecrasher could suck wind? KW: [Laughs and repeats in pentameter] That is a good one! Great question – I would think that they aren’t sucking any wind because they can’t stop sucking on their crystal meth and they’re so incredibly high and were caught up in their craziness to such an extent that they felt so compelled to do that in the first place- they can all pretty much suck the wind out of my ass really. [Dual laughter ensues]
HT: Thank you so much for the opportunity – we look forward to seeing you real soon.
KW: Thanks so much for the kind words. I really appreciate the listens that you have given and for the conversation.
For tour dates and everything Keller, visit www.kellerwilliams.net