GUITAR POP IS DEAD, LONG LIVE GUITAR POP Tommy Keene

The timeless tunesmith
on his new album, on coming out in 2006, on his role as both a bandleader and a
sideman, on the biggest mistakes of his career, and much more.

 

BY NICK A. ZAINO III

 

Anyone who thinks guitar pop is dead hasn’t heard Tommy
Keene’s latest album Behind the Parade (Second Motion). Or seen the power he can muster live, hitting those big,
ringing chords on his Telecaster and pulling from a catalogue of nearly 30 years
of melodic rock ‘n’ roll. He has worked up a sweat on his latest tour, thumping
through new songs like “Deep Six Saturday” and “Behind the Parade” and older
material like “Back to Zero” and “Places That Are Gone.” (The final show of the
current tour leg is tonight, Sept. 16, in St. Paul;
check Keene’s official website for concert updates.)

 

We spoke with Keene about a range of subjects, from his new
work (and the oddball synth track on the Behind
the Parade
) to the 50th anniversary of Decca’s declaration to
the Beatles that guitar groups were passé. He started the interview talking
about North Carolina,
where much of BLURT’s editorial staff is based. Though he got his start in Washington, D.C., people
would sometimes mistake him for being from North Carolina, partially because of the way
he talks, and partially because of his association with the Durham-based
Dolphin Records.

 

***

 

BLURT: Did people
associate you with any particular scene when you started, other than mistaking
you for being from North Carolina?

TOMMY KEENE: Well I think it’s probably the only time in my
career where what I was doing was kind of in vogue was right around that time,
and you know, early ‘80s you had R.E.M., you had the dBs, you had Let’s Active,
so there was this whole sort of mid-Atlantic, southern pop kind of jangly
guitar scene. That was sort of the rage for a nanosecond. And everyone was
going around trying to find jangly pop bands. So that’s the only time I’ve been
in vogue, ever. It was short-lived. I mean, you know, R.E.M. went on to become
huge. But it was a trend and I think that’s how we sort of got recognized
because we got included in that whole thing.

 

In December, we’re
going to be celebrating 50 years since Decca passed on the Beatles telling them
that guitar groups were on their way out. And here you are making guitar-driven
rock and pop, even with all of these other styles swirling around you. What do
you think makes that format or that idea so durable?

Well, it’s a very classic approach, I think. And there’s no
denying that when I was five years old I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. So they
kind of started the whole thing. And I was very influenced by them and probably
still am. I always wonder, because there were bands playing sort of around that
same time. I mean, in hindsight, it’s easy to see how great they were, what
great songwriters, entertaining and funny and charismatic they were, but what
was it that set them apart? I mean at the very beginning. You know what I mean?
If you read all the Beatles books, they’re playing the Cavern, Epstein’s
managing them, and then “Love Me Do” goes to number 46, and then two months
later, they took over the whole country. I mean, what was it about them? They
were so great, but you would think it would have been easy for them to sort of
get lost.

 

It’s a fair question.
I’m not sure if you compare the songwriting that early –

Right. That early, they were still doing all those covers.
You know what I mean? And they had maybe five really good songs. Not even.
“Please, Please Me,” “Love Me Do,” “She Loves You,” “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,”
and “It Won’t Be Long” or something.

 

They weren’t far from
covering “The Sheik of Araby.”

Oh, I know, and that was pretty jivey. “Besame Mucho?” “Till
There Was You?” The fact they put that on their debut album is real cheese. But
that was McCartney, right? The showman. They even did it on Ed Sullivan!

 

I don’t know what
made me think of the guitar quote, but I thought of it after listening to the
new record.

Now who did that guy sign after he turned them down? Was it
the Animals or the Stones? Or someone else?

 

It’s probably
Herman’s Hermits or somebody.

Right. He said, “Oh, I lost out on that,” and he signed
someone else. He probably signed the next twenty things.

 

Everybody with a
guitar.

Did you just think of that or is BLURT doing a thing on it?

 

I just thought of it.
I was thinking about guitar-centered rock and pop music, [listening to the
album]. You look at all the other genres going on right now, what’s popular on
the charts and what’s getting sort of pushed at you, and you realize there’s
still a lot of great guitar-centric rock and roll happening, no, but it’s sort
of under the radar a lot.

Is there really? I question that. I mean, I’ve been doing a
lot of interviews for this record and I think, I can’t remember what the
question was, but my answer was, in a way I’m still doing this because,
obviously I enjoy it. But I kind of write these songs and put out these records
because no one else is.

 

No one else is doing
it the way you’re doing it, or not too many people are. But if I look at just
solid, good guitar rock and roll –

What, Kings of Leon?

 

Drive-By Truckers, I
think, is what I’m thinking of.

Oh, okay. They’re a little more in the southern tradition.
But yeah, you’re right, it’s guitar-driven rock and roll.

 

Do you have any
influences that would surprise people or anybody you listen to a lot that would
be incongruous to what you actually play?

Well, on some of the later stuff, I think you would maybe
pick up on this. But some of the early stuff you’d go, “huh?” One of my
favorite bands is Roxy Music. And I’m sure I tried to write songs like Roxy
Music at one point. I think in the later, last couple of records, I kind of
succeed as far as… There’s a track on the last new album called “Elevated,” and
it was a sort of psychedelic spacey guitar thing. And on this new record, I
have this song “La Castana,” which is sort of orchestral and symphonic. That is
completely the second side of Low by
Bowie. So, yeah, there’s an example where I fool around with the keyboards.

        I [recorded]
it last Halloween. I started at eight o’clock and by five in the morning I was
done. You would never think that I was into Eno and Bowie, The Berlin Trilogy,
or whatever they were.

 

I was going to ask if
you had secret ambitions, because of that track, to join Kreftwerk or Vangelis.

No, that track, it does have all that… I don’t think it’s quite
Kraftwerk or that proggy. It’s very atmospheric but it has a basic almost kind
of show tune melody to it. It’s sort of symphonic, almost the entr’acte to a
Broadway musical or something. A very moody one.

 

Did the holiday
influence it? Where did it come from?

No. I never go out on Halloween. Haven’t in a long time
because in Los Angeles, everyone goes down to West Hollywood. They close the streets down. It’s
impossible to park and there’s about 50,000 people and everyone dresses up and
they wander around the streets. I just, I never liked dressing up at Halloween.
So it’s like New Year’s Eve to me. I will not go out and deal with that. It was
funny, because when I looked at the track sheet, I always write the date when I
started a song or when I came up with the initial idea for it, and it was
October 31. So that was how I spent my Halloween.

 

Are you that
disciplined about the ideas, that you have them all organized and you know when
you came up with them?

Yeah. Well, you know, this record… Last year there was a
two-disc anthology, the best Tommy Keene songs, that came out, Tommy Keene You Hear Me, and I kind of
thought, what am I going to do now? Okay, am I going to ride off into the
sunset? Or make another record? And I didn’t want to take the usual two to
three years which is usually not the artist’s fault, it’s more the record
release schedule. By the time you get it done, they’re like, oh, we’ve got this
coming out or coming up.

        But getting
back to the original question, I was sort of inspired, because I’d written a
couple of really good songs that year, meaning 2010, and I thought, what if I
can just knock a record out? And get ten really good songs and get it out next
year. So I had a release in ’09, a release in ‘10, and a release in ’11. And I
thought, it’s good to kind of keep your profile out there. You go away for two
and a half years and people are like, huh? They sort of forget you. It’s the quickest record I’ve ever done. So I was sort
of taking special note of when I started each track and dates and stuff.

 

Did that start with
this album or have you done that all along?

It started when I really got my own studio together about
’03 and now I’ve done four records. I did Crashing
the Ether
, I did The Keene Brothers with Bob Pollard, I did In the Late
Bright
, and now I’ve done the new album, Behind the Parade. Before, I would pay exorbitant amounts of money
to go to people’s studios and sit there overdubbing rhythm guitar parts,
spending so much money per hour. And I think the technology, even for kind of
an idiot like myself – I have a computer, but I don’t have a computer hooked up
to my studio. It’s sort of old school, I have an Alesis 24-track digital
machine which has a hard drive. And I have a board, and I have one really
good/expensive mic recompressor and I have a really great mic, which is a Sony
from the 60s – it was Jim Morrison’s favorite mic. And that’s really all you
need now to do everything but record the drums and mix. So the last record that
I did at outside studios was The Merry-Go-Round
Broke Down
and that was recorded in 2000 and came out in 2002. But since
then, yes, I’ve been sort of recording everything at home.

 

Did putting out the
retrospective bring anything up for you? Was there any thought about that being
the end of a certain era, and now you’ll begin something else?

Well, that would seem very logical… Not really. I definitely
have a style that’s distinctive. I mean, I always say that, until you become
really successful with one particular style, it’s really bogus to go up and go,
“Okay, now I’m going to do my electronica record.” Look at Elvis Costello. He
made so many great rock records and he was probably bored. So he said, I’m
going to do the Juliet Letters or I’m
going to do a record with Bacharach or I’m going to do a country album. You
know what I mean? I just think it would be sort of bogus for me to try to do
something like that. I mean, I haven’t made a pop rock record that’s sold over
12,000 copies. But this is, it’s what I do, you know, the music I love. It all
stems from my guitar playing. The style of my guitar playing sort of dictates
what songs I write. It’s a very rhythm guitar-oriented approach, where I’ll
come up with a chord sequence or am arpeggiated riff or something. Everyone has
a difference approach.

 

Do you ever feel like
you want to just see what happened if you tried something else?

I don’t know. Would people dig that? Maybe I can find a
whole new audience. An even bigger audience!

 

If you leave the
audience out of it, just in terms of your own curiosity, just to see…

I’d love to, but would someone put that out? I doubt it. I mean,
I could just put it out on the Web. Mixing is still expensive. That’s the one
thing – to pay people to get a really great mix, it’s still a little pricey. I
mean, if you don’t record drums, you just do rough mixes yourself, you can do
it for nothing. But I think I would probably have to have someone mix it, that
knows what they’re doing.

 

I don’t think fans
ever think of the expense of putting out an album.

I don’t think they do. That’s why a lot of people don’t feel
bad about downloading albums for free. Right? It’s just music. It’s just a rock
record. Yeah, indie situations, labels that I’m in, the artist is really paying
for it.

 

People probably think
you buy a laptop and a couple of mics and you can do whatever you want.

You can do that. I’m sure there are certain people who have
sold a lot of records that have done that. I think there’s probably some indie
rock bands on their way up, first couple of records, that they did for
incredibly cheap. But then it’s the whole, now we have to break out to a wider
audience and this low-fi crap is not cutting it.

        I’ll give you
an example – Bob Pollard, Alien Lanes,
which is [Guided By Voices’] biggest selling record, you know how much that
cost to make? $9.99. Two high-bias
60-minute cassette tapes. And I think they got an outrageous amount of money by
a label to put that out. His big thing is, “never been dropped, never
recouped.” Which is funny. That’s straight from the horse’s mouth.

 

Can’t wait for the
remaster of that.

Oh yeah! Let’s go back to those cassettes! Right, right.

 

Hope he still has
them.

Oh, I’m sure he does. That’s funny. It doesn’t matter if you
use the master tapes for that. It’s probably better that you don’t. They’re
probably all out of phase and corroded. Remember cassettes that you’d play a
million times, and the high end would drop out and they’d phase in and out?

 

“Deep Six Saturday,” from Behind The Parade

 

 

 

I wanted to ask about
labels and the term “power pop,” which is one I know you haven’t liked in the
past, but I’m told maybe you’ve come to peace with that?

Yeah. My problem with most power pop bands – and I hope I
don’t, and I don’t think I fall into this category – is that it’s all about
emulating something. We’re going to emulate the spirit of the Beach Boys! It’s
gonna sound like Pet Sounds! Or we’re
going to wear striped shirts like a New Wave band and play Rickenbacker guitars
and wear these Beau Brummels like they did in the ‘60s.

        I don’t write
songs about cars and girls. I might have written a few. But I think a lot of
that music that most people refer to as “power pop” is very lightweight. Very
disposable. And I’d like to think my music isn’t quite like that. I have
written some kind of dumb, romantic, anthemic pop songs about relationships.
But if you look at the big picture, I’ve been sort of fighting that from maybe
day one.

 

Is there a
description you’re more comfortable with?

Pop rock. Pop rock. Melodic rock ‘n’ roll.

 

Was it gratifying
that Robert Pollard deferred to you to record as The Keene Brothers rather than the Pollard
Brothers?

Well, it’s a funny story. He came up with that name. He’s
like, “Let’s call it The Keene Brothers.” And I said, that’s cool, because
Bobby and Tommy Keene – my older brother, my only sibling, is Bobby Keene. And
a couple of years later, I was out with him playing with this group the Boston
Spaceships and there was some talk about doing another record, and he said,
“But this time, it’s going to be the Pollard Brothers.” It was his idea, I was
like, fine.

 

That begs the
question, what happens if you make a third record?

I don’t even think we’re going to make a second, so I don’t
think we have to worry about that.

 

When you worked as a
sideman for Paul Westerberg and Pollard, did you have to take much of a backseat?
Were you able to contribute your own ideas or were you just taking direction?

Well first of all, I love taking a backseat. I’m playing
guitar in a lot of instances, lead guitar, so it’s not going to be a backseat
in like a tambourine player in the back. But I also play guitar with that band
Velvet Crush, who are from Providence, Boston. I love playing with other people
because the pressure’s off and I can just play guitar and have a blast. And
especially, these are all people whose songs I loved and people I admired. So
that was sort of an added bonus. It’s all different. Bob will give you free
reign. “Yeah, that’s great! Do it, do it!” Paul is more, “I want you to play
exactly this, and if you don’t, I’m going to get upset. Just the way I play
it.” Paul was a little more nitpicky.  

 

Did that matter to
you?

No. As George said, “I’ll play whatever you want me to play
or I won’t play at all.” I’m glad to try to play what you hear. I wish every
band member that was ever in my band felt that way. You know what I mean? I
want to really play what you’re hearing. Exactly the way you want it.

 

Once you come back to
your own band, is that a strange dynamic? Now you have to tell other people
what to do?

A little bit. I don’t like being hard ass on people. I don’t
like yelling at people, I never do. Well, some drummers I’ve gotten a little upset
with, like in the middle of a show, playing the wrong tempo or sleeping back
there.

        But, no, I
more like people to bring their own dishes to the table. That, to me, is more
interesting. Sometimes when I’m making a record, I’ll be more satisfied if I
play most of the guitars or all of the guitars. But, at the same time, it’s
always good to have other personalities brought into the mix. Sometimes I think
some of those early Prince records where he played everything, they sound
really flat to me. Play the drums, play the keyboards, play guitar. Did all the
vocals. Probably played saxophone. They sound really flat to me. But no, I’ve
always liked to bounce ideas off people, I like people who bring in their own
ideas and parts. I just think the music benefits from it a lot.

 

Did your coming out
affect your fans at all? Did you get any feedback about that?

No a peep. I don’t know, there might have been a few people
who went, “Ooh, fag, I don’t want to listen to this anymore.” I don’t think so.
And the one thing I knew it wouldn’t do was gain any other fans that may not
have heard of me. I did an interview in The
Advocate
, and aside from one of my second-removed cousins e-mailing me and
going, “It runs in the family!” that didn’t do a thing. I don’t want to get
into gay-bashing here, but most of the gay men that I’ve known throughout my
life don’t really like this kind of music. Gay men like dance music they can go
party at a disco to, and they like the trendiest, newest, cutting edge buzz
bands.

        People said,
why didn’t you do this earlier? It’s because no one cared. No one asked me. I
mean, everyone I worked with knew. I mean, I don’t really have a story to tell.

 

Was there a
particular reason why you came out when you did?

Yeah. My publicist said, “Can I work the gay press?” I said
sure, on that record in ’06. That was it.

 

That’s the most
anti-climactic coming out story I’ve ever heard.

I did an interview in Magnet,
which actually ran before The Advocate,
so Magnet got the scoop. And I told
the writer, people don’t care who I sleep with or what I do, because I’m not a
celebrity and I’m not very well known. People always want to know about Tom
Cruise or Michael Stipe, people who are huge and in the spotlight because
there’s rumors and this and that. Who knows? That’s what people are curious
about.

 

If you could go back
to 1980 or 1982 and give yourself some advice, what would that be?

Oh god. I know the answer. It wouldn’t be ’82, it would be
’84, ’85. And I made two mistakes that people talked me into which I think
greatly affected – well, I say this, but you ever know. But these two things
seem to have been mistakes. One was, we did this record with Don Dixon and T
Bone Burnett, it was called Songs From
the Film
. Dixon
was hot, he’d done the first two R.E.M. records. T Bone was kind of hot, he’d
just done Los Lobos, the Dolphin [Records] EP was top ten on CMJ, and we had
pretty decent support from college radio. And in the meantime, Geffen Records
comes along, and just out of the fact that they had nothing to do with it, they
said, “If you release this record on Dolphin, the full-length record, the deal
is off. We’re not going to sign you.”

        I started playing
with this band when I was in D.C., The Ras, when I was 19. And everyone was a
bit older than me. Two of the guys were eight, nine years older and the other
two were four years older. We were the biggest band in town. We played in front
of every major label. Either we went to New York or they came down to see us. And
everyone passed. That’s what you had to do in those days. We put out our little
indie records and we put out a live EP and two singles, very D.I.Y. But that
was the end of that band because we could not get a deal. There was nowhere
else to go. So when someone’s dangling that carrot in front of you, what are
you going to do? And it wasn’t as if I had a bidding war. There was interest
from Arista. Interest, not, “We’re
going to sign you.” And Geffen, they snuck down to D.C. to see us live and the
main dude turned to his assistant in the first 25 seconds and said, “Yes.” And 25 seconds into the first
song. So we had to go along with it.

        And the second
thing they made me do, they made me fire my manager that I’d been with for two
or three years. We were really good friends. Who is now a hugely successful
concert promoter. But he was a bit unorthodox, the way he dealt with people,
and he kind of stuck his foot in his mouth a couple of times with the Geffen
people, and they weren’t having any of that. I was naïve and I thought, oh,
this is going to hurt me, because I have this manager they don’t like. But in
hindsight, they didn’t want him there because he would challenge them, and they
just wanted to control me and push all my buttons and pull my strings. And I
shouldn’t have fired him.

        Those two
things were big mistakes. And I had to make those decisions myself. At the end
of the day, I was the one who had to say, okay, we’re not putting this record
out, and fire him. It all fell on me. Everyone around me was either yea or nay,
but their careers, their lives weren’t hanging in the balance. It was all on my
head and shoulders. And it was really difficult. So I would go back and say to
myself, do this, don’t do that. Everything else I did was probably just what I
thought I should do.

 

 

 

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