PLACES THAT ARE FOUND Tommy Keene

With a sparkling new
career retrospective in stores, the pop auteur is comfortable in his own skin
and with cult artist status. And he still gets excited about playing.

 

BY MARK JENKINS

 

As he’s the first to admit, Tommy Keene is not a rock’n’roll
star. But the singer-guitarist is beginning to feel like a success.

 

“I’ve never sold a lot of records, obviously,”
says Keene by phone from Los
Angeles, where the Washington,
D.C. native has lived since 1988.
“But I feel that as I get older — maybe because I’m persistent and keep
putting out records — I get a little more accepted, and a little more
respect.”

 

The occasion for such musing is Tommy Keene You Hear Me: A Retrospective, 1983-2009 (Second Motion),
a 41-song compilation that covers most of his career. (It excludes his 1982
solo debut, Strange Alliance, and his
work with such late-’70s bands as the Razz and the Rage.) Keene’s style has sometimes been dubbed
“power pop,” but these songs toughen jangly rhythm guitar with
assertive lead, and counter upbeat melodies with melancholy lyrics. The result
is music that’s immediately accessible, yet a bit more complex than the
Knack’s.

 

The two-CD set includes material originally released by a
half-dozen companies, including Geffen, with whom Keene had a classic major-label misadventure.
He’s now philosophical about Geffen, which released 1986’s Songs from the Film and 1989’s Based
on Happy Times
. “Starting a band in D.C., attracting an audience,
getting played on the radio, and then getting the Geffen deal was just an
experience I went through,” he says. “Looking back, it wasn’t that
unusual.”

 

You Hear Me includes seven songs each from Songs from
the Film
(expensively and controversially produced by Beatles engineer
Geoff Emerick) and Based on Happy Times.
While the former was finally released on CD in 1998, the latter has never been
reissued. Keene
estimates that only 1,000 CD copies were pressed, making it as much of a
collectible as his early tiny-label singles and EPs.

 

Programming the compilation “was really
difficult,” Keene
says. “I went back and forth with 50 drafts. I have a lot of demos, a lot
of unreleased songs. I could have put out a four-CD thing, which doesn’t really
make sense for an artist who sells the amount of records that I do.”

 

Ultimately, he explains, “I put together the track
listing for myself. Songs that I was proud of, or wanted as the legacy of this
period of my career. I left off some obvious songs.”

 

When surveying his musical past, Keene notes, “I’m my worst critic, and
my biggest fan. I vacillate. I can tell you what’s wrong with every song. And I
can tell you why I like most of them.”

 

In part because of their fuller sound, the musician prefers
the compilation’s more recent selections. “I’m actually most pleased with
the second half of the second disc,” he says. “It’s sometimes hard to
be objective about the older stuff. The complaints about production, I share
with a lot of people.”

 

These days Keene
records in a home studio, where “it’s so much easier to get great
sounds” than in the kinds of places he worked in the Geffen days. “I
wish we had back then what I have now.”

 

At 51, Keene
allows, he’s less driven. “When you’re young, you’re thinking, ‘I want to
do this and I want to do that,’ and you can’t see the big picture. I’m a
musician. This is what I do. I love to make records, I love to write songs, I
love to go out and play live. If some people enjoy it, then it’s
worthwhile.”

 

“It’s sort of like the pressure’s off,” he says of
his cult-artist status. “I can just enjoy myself, and put everything I can
into it, without having to worry. Plus, the whole music business has completely
changed. People get music for free. It makes it almost easier.”

 

In “Underworld,” a song from Film, Keene
claims “right now I really know my place,” and that’s not necessarily
in the spotlight. He’s played guitar or bass with Velvet Crush, Paul
Westerberg, Robert Pollard, Suzanne Fellini, Adam Schmitt, and, most recently,
Sally Crewe. “I love playing with other people.” he says. “Not
having the responsibility of being the lead singer. I wish there were more
people I could collaborate with.”

 

Keene
has always insisted, in fact, that a solo career was not his long-term plan.
“When I was in Razz, I was the guitar player who wrote songs and sang
backup, and I was perfectly comfortable in that role. The reason why I ‘went
solo’ in the first place was because I couldn’t find anyone in the D.C. area to
form a band with. I couldn’t find a lead singer to make it work.”

 

It’s early June, and Keene
has just returned home from playing a show marking the 30th anniversary show of
D.C.’s 9:30 Club. He was joined onstage by two members of his ’80s band,
guitarist Billy Connelly and drummer Doug Tull, and reconnected with old
comrades.

 

“I tell people in L.A.
about the 9:30 Club, and all the bands that really were a community. The fact
that the guys in Fugazi liked my stuff. Everyone’s very respectful in D.C. It’s
a great group of people. And it could not happen in a city like Los Angeles. It’s too
spread-out, there are too many subgenres, and it’s under the eye of the music
industry.”

 

Living with his partner of 19 years — which frees him from
being “the major breadwinner” — Keene
is comfortable in L.A.
“I like living here. I know a lot of musicians. But it doesn’t compare to
D.C.”

 

Keene didn’t always seem so
relaxed in Washington,
where he penned such uneasy tunes as “Places That Are Gone” and
“Back to Zero Now.” Asked about these songs’ characteristically
wistful lyrics, he chuckles and says, “maybe I saw the future.”

 

But, lack of rock stardom aside, the future didn’t turn out
all that bad.

These days, he explains, “I’m just a little more
comfortable in my own skin, because I’ve been doing it this long.”

 

“It’s definitely a different motivation now,” Keene says of making
Beatles- and Who-inspired rock in a tween-pop age. “But I still get
excited about playing. And on stage I still act like I’m 27.”

 

 

 

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