BLURTING WITH… Tommy Keene

The songwriter on his
new album, on working with Robert Pollard, on coming out as a gay man, and on,
er, miming to Spoon songs!

 

By MATT
HICKEY

 

When I
first interviewed guitar-pop singer/songwriter Tommy Keene almost 11 years ago,
he brought up the notion that he might quit the music business, at least as far
as making records. The Bethesda, Md., native turned L.A. resident would
continue to be a hired gun (having previously done so for Paul Westerberg and
Velvet Crush), but the travails of a critically respected, commercially
hit-and-miss career were wearing on him.

 

A couple of
funny things happened in that article’s wake. First, Keene has been more active
in the last decade-plus than he was in the previous, releasing four solo LPs,
including the excellent new In the Late Bright (Second Motion), an
outtakes compilation, a live record and a collaboration with Robert Pollard (Blues
and Boogie Shoes
, billed as the Keene Brothers), and toured in two
incarnations of Pollard’s backing band, most recently Boston Spaceships. And
second, whenever the press bothered to pay enough attention, writers kept
asking him why he hadn’t yet retired.

 

On the eve
of heading off to Europe for another sideman job, this time playing bass (for
the first time onstage) with British pop songstress Sally Crewe, Keene spoke
about how things have gone for him lately-and his possible new gig moonlighting
in commercials.

 

 

***

 

 

BLURT:
Let’s talk about that article a decade ago, where you mentioned retirement.

 

TOMMY
KEENE: You zoomed right in on that angle.

 

 

Yeah, I
did. And you obviously didn’t stop. How do you feel about your career now?

 

At this
point, I’m doing it to amuse myself. I don’t mean to sound catty. But as long
as I feel like I’m being productive and writing good songs and playing with
good musicians and songwriters and having a good time, then I’m going to keep
doing it.

 

 

In one
of the articles that referenced the retirement stuff, you claimed that I simply
caught you on a bad day. That’s not true, is it?

 

No, that’s
actually very true. Sometimes you look at your career and you think, “Why am I
doing this?” Other times you think, “Of course I’m doing this, this is what I
love to do.” It’s difficult being the sort-of unproven, unsold artist. You’re
always going to doubt yourself.

 

 

When I
hear unproven, I think-

 

OK, unknown
to 99.9 percent of the population on Earth. (Laughs) How’s that for pessimism?

 

 

That’s
pretty good. You must be having another bad day.

 

No, I’m
having a good day.

 

 

What was
the Boston
Spaceships tour with Pollard like?

I had a great time. I
love the Boston Spaceships record (Brown Submarine), and I really like
Bob’s last record, Off to Business. We did about four songs from the
second Boston Spaceships record (The Planets Are Blasted), which I think
is really great. I hadn’t been out that long for a while, as Bob hadn’t, and I
think it was a little difficult for both of us. But I kind of adapt naturally
to those situations.

 

 

As
someone with more than a passing interest in the Keene Brothers, give me the odds of another
record.

 

I would say
better than one would think, but nothing has been scheduled or hinted at. Bob
did tell me that this time it’s going to be called the Pollard Brothers. That’s
only fair.

 

 

“The
Right Time to Fly” on
In the Late Bright is a Keene Brothers instrumental track that wasn’t
used. Are the rest of the songs new, or are any of them also things you had
lying around?

 

All new,
with the exception of “Hide Your Eyes.” That was written in 1984. It’s always
been a song I really liked, and I always wanted to record it. I even presented
it to Paul Westerberg the one night we got together in 1987 to try to write
songs. He liked the riff and came up with a lyric: “Watch the lucky ones flop.”
I wonder now if he was directing that at me or himself.

 

 

What
period of the day is the “late bright”?

 
The late bright is the early morning hours or the late-evening hours. It’s the
time of day that I usually find most productive. I write a lot in the
afternoon, but when everyone goes to sleep and I’m left to my own devices,
that’s the time I enjoy recording and working on records.

 

 

Have you
always been on that kind of late-night schedule?

I’ve always been a
late-night person. I think it started when I was little. My parents would
reward me for good behavior by letting me to stay up late and watch horror
films on this local D.C. station.

 

In high
school, my band would play frat parties at the University of Maryland,
probably about three or four times a month. We would play from 9 o’clock to 2
in the morning. We would do four sets in the basement of these frat houses, and
they’d supply us with beer and stuff. I was 15, 16, 17. By the time we finished
and loaded the equipment and drove home and unloaded it at the guitar player’s
house, I’d get home at 4 in the morning, and I’d have to get up at 6:45 to go
to high school. My parents were cool with it.

 

 

A lot of
the Crashing the Ether reviews said, “This is more of the usual Tommy
Keene stuff,” even though I know you tried to do some different things. Given
the general laziness of the rock press, I imagine you’ll hear some of the same
things with Late Bright. I was wondering if that bothered you or if
you’re resigned to it.

 

I’m totally
resigned to it. Hey, my stuff’s not groundbreaking. It’s just fun. It’s just
good music and good songs. At this point, who fucking wants to reinvent the
wheel? There aren’t enough people out there doing what I do or what Bob Pollard
does-just making great rock and roll records, or trying to. There are too many
idiots experimenting and not getting it.

 

 

During
that last round of press, you also talked for the first time about being gay. I
was wondering what the reaction was. Did anyone care? Did anyone say anything?

 

No, zilch.
Gay men are unfortunately pretty stereotypical in their tastes. They like dance
music. Madonna. Beyoncé. Or they like the flavor of the month in rock bands,
like the Scissor Sisters or Vampire Weekend or Arcade Fire. They think, “Wow,
this is cool, this is cutting edge. I have to get in on this.” Gays have always
been ahead of the trends, but I don’t think a lot of gay guys like power pop,
which to me is the Beatles, the Byrds, the Replacements, Guided By Voices. That
to them is about as fashionable as last year’s diva. But, no, that admission
didn’t make a blip, which I knew it wouldn’t. And that’s fine.

 

 

I asked
you in that first interview what you would be doing if you did retire from
music, and I believe you said you would maybe try acting or something like
that. Fast forward to today – if you gave up music, do you have any clue what
you might do?

 

At this
age, I don’t know. But last week, through a friend of mine, I auditioned for a
TV commercial. Dig this, man. It was a national commercial. The role was a guy
playing guitar, singing a song.

 

 

Typecasting.

 

Right. At
the end, people from the company – I’ll leave out the name [Editor’s note: It was controversial managed
health care organization Kaiser Permanente
.] – they come out and go, “The company and you, we rock together.”
Guess what the song was that I had to mime to? It’s not what will be in the
commercial, though.

 

 

I have
no idea.

 

Spoon, “Don’t
Make Me a Target.” [Laughs] A woman
came up to me afterward and said, “I like your moves.” I was just doing my
thing, moving with a guitar and miming to Britt Daniel. I got up in front of a
camera and jumped around to a Spoon song for 40 seconds. I don’t think I got
it, though. I haven’t heard anything. Maybe I was too realistic.

 

 

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