The pop auteur passed away this week at the age of 59, breaking the hearts of his many friends, fans, and peers—but he leaves behind an inordinately rich catalog of music stretching back to the late’70s that’s destined to stand the test of time. By way of tribute, we’ve assembled a selection of interviews from our archives that show the songwriter as an insightful, introspective person who lived and breathed rock ‘n’ roll his entire life. (Photos via TommyKeene.com unless otherwise noted.)
BY FRED MILLS
In a year that has already seen far more than its usual share of unexpected passings in the music community, losing Tommy Keene is among the hardest to process. Not just because he’d been a rock ‘n’ roll hero to many since the late ‘70s— he was a core member of the BLURT extended family, having released his last five albums on our sister business, the Second Motion Records label (rechristened last year as Schoolkids Records). I got the call on Thanksgiving about Tommy, and just listening to the message from my pal and BLURT/Schoolkids owner Stephen Judge, I could tell by his voice that something awful had happened even before I returned the call. We talked for a long time about his dear friend: how much Tommy meant to his extremely loyal fan base; how he’d been writing new material and some of his and Stephen’s plans for 2018; how cool it had been to host a set by Tommy at the Schoolkids store a couple of years ago and what a nice guy he genuinely was; and how cruel life can be, particularly to Tommy’s longtime partner Michael Lundsgaard. (According to the official statement, Tommy passed away Wednesday night, Nov. 22, peacefully in his sleep, at their Los Angeles home.)
For my part, I’ve been a fan ever since hearing his early D.C.-area band, The Razz, and eagerly snapping up his first brace of solo records such as ’82 debut Strange Alliance and a pair of 12” Eps for North Carolina’s Dolphin label, Places That Are Gone and Back Again (Try…) — which of course led to his signing to Geffen and a long, prolific career that also included stints with Velvet Crush, Paul Westerberg, and Robert Pollard. In 2015 I was honored to write Tommy’s press bio to accompany the album Laugh in the Dark, so to contextualize that career, please enjoy an extended version of the bio, below, bolstered by additional quotes that didn’t make it into the official version.
Since opening our doors in 2008, BLURT has frequently covered Tommy, so after my essay you’ll also find a selection of interviews that we’ve published: “Blurting With… Tommy Keene,” from 2009, written by Matt Hickey; “Places That Are Found,” 2010, by Mark Jenkins; “Guitar Pop Is Dead, Long Live Guitar Pop,” 2011 by Nick Zaino; and “Damn! Wish I’d Written That Song,” 2013, penned, fittingly enough, by Tommy Keene himself.
Near the end of my interview with Tommy for the bio, I suggested that, from the outside looking in, he clearly seemed to be on the proverbial “creative roll,” as since 2009 he’d been releasing an album every two years. I wondered if he felt that was an accurate assessment, and if so, what fueled his tireless artistic work ethic? His response now seems eerily prophetic.
“With the way the music business is heading,” said Tommy, “I do feel a sense of time urgency, as if the clock is ticking. I have had some major upheavals in my life the last few years—financially, relationship-wise, and health scares. A lot of things have headed south. Between you and me, though, I don’t think I want to spell this out too specifically and have people ask me a lot of questions about it.
“In any event, this record (Laugh in the Dark) certainly documents that, so let’s just leave it as ‘issues’ that, hopefully, everyone can relate to. And I do want to keep on making records and playing music as long as I can—and as long as labels will release these records and people will still come to see me play.”
Godspeed, Tommy. You are already deeply missed.
Below: Keene and his band live in Japan earlier this year.
The Tommy Keene Story (2015)
Tommy Keene initially pinged the public radar in 1982 with the release of Strange Alliance on his own Avenue label, although prior to that, in the late ‘70s, he’d been a member of D.C.-area cmbos The Rage and, later, The Razz. (He was originally from Illinois and grew up in Bethesda, Maryland.) But it wasn’t until 1984, when a six-song platter of pop perfection titled Places That Are Gone (Dolphin) appeared, that Keene figured prominently on both the influential CMJ charts and in the annual Village Voice Pazz & Jop year-end poll.
It certainly attracted the attention of the majors. Signing to Geffen for 1986’s Geoff Emerick-produced Songs from the Film, Tommy wound up on MTV and landed on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart. 1986 also brought the Run Now EP, its title track turning up in the Anthony Michal Hall movie Out of Bounds. But after releasing that EP, the original Tommy Keene group disbanded, so Tommy would next go down to Memphis to record with producers John Hampton and Joe Hardy at Ardent Studios for Based on Happy Times (Geffen, 1989). Following that, he took an extended break from recording, eventually signing with Matador for 1996’s Ten Years After and 1998’s Isolation Party, which featured guests Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett from Wilco and former Gin Blossoms guitarist Jesse Valenzuela. During this period he also briefly spent time in Paul Westerberg’s touring band, although in later years he would downplay his stint with the erstwhile Replacements mainman, even opting to excise that resume detail from his official bio. Then between 2000 and 2004 he released the live album Showtunes (Parasol), studio set The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down (SpinArt), and a 20 years’ worth of rarities/demos/unreleased-tracks collection titled Drowning: A Tommy Keene Miscellany (Not Lame).
(above photo by Al Myers, from the Milestone Club, Charlotte NC 1986)
A 2004 road trek opening for Guided By Voices’ farewell tour subsequently yielded a fruitful alliance with Robert Pollard, and Tommy would join Pollard’s post-GbV band, The Ascended Masters, for their 2006 tour and, later, Pollard’s Boston Spaceships. Meanwhile, 2006 also saw the release of Crashing the Ether (Eleven Thirty), a home-recorded solo album in the truest sense of the word. Next came yet another collaboration with Pollard, Blues and Boogie Shoes, billed as “The Keene Brothers.” The rocker was nothing if not busy during this period.
Then in 2009 Tommy signed with the Second Motion label, a collaboration that would endure for years to come, starting with In the Late Bright, plus a 40-song, two-CD career overview, Tommy Keene You Hear Me: A Retrospective 1983-2009. (He would quip in interviews that he could have compiled a four-disc anthology, but his sales figures to date dissuaded him from indulging his artistic ego to that degree.) Two years later, Second Motion released Behind the Parade, which was universally admired by critics—many of whom called it his best album ever, thanks to its compelling blend of earworm-inducing pop hooks, muscular arrangements, and a deliberately ‘60s vibe.
Perhaps that sensibility prompted 2013’s Excitement at Your Feet, which found Tommy plundering his extensive record collection in order to serve up 11 choice cover tunes. Here he lovingly essayed such key influences as Big Star, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Bee Gees and Roxy Music, along with a handful of his New Wave inspirations—Echo & The Bunnymen, Television, Mink Deville, Flamin’ Groovies—but eschewing the “hits” in favor of lesser-known songs. There was also a left-field version of Guided By Voices. Tommy liked to refer to Excitement as an “unobvious covers” set.
Arriving in 2015—some eleven full-lengths, four EPs, three compilations, and one live album into the game—is Laugh in the Dark, also on Second Motion. The songwriter demonstrates no intention of slowing down, and it also would be no hyperbole to assert that he’s on an extended creative roll, what with five releases in the space of just six years.
Now, compared to some contemporary artists who post new material to the web practically on a weekly or monthly basis, this might not seem to be such a fast clip. But can those same contemporary artists claim to demonstrate the same quality control in both the songwriting and recording departments as Tommy Keene? Can they say they’ve consistently delivered songs boasting instantly memorable hooks, boldly introspective and heartfelt lyrics, and world-class production values? Do they even know the difference between a knocked-off brain blip and an undeniable keeper, one that is destined to still be standing long after the flavor-of-the-month dust has settled?
Laugh in the Dark comprises ten freshly-penned gems meticulously assembled over the course of six months in 2014 and perhaps energized by Tommy’s excursion into other songwriters’ oeuvres. The new record, while characterized as always by his distinctive flair for meaty, melodic guitar-driven rock and power pop, marks a subtle shift in his songwriting modus operandi in that, unlike most of his previous albums, Laugh in the Dark’s songs are all of recent vintage.
As Tommy explains, “There are always songs that are left over from the last project, or ideas, that haven’t been fleshed out. What I’ve done in the past before starting to write for a new record would be to demo a cover or resurrect an old song of mine that I liked but never made the final cut for an album. An example of this would be before writing the songs for the ‘98 record Isolation Party: I did a demo of Mission Of Burma’s ‘Einstein’s Day’ just to try and get in the groove. It was, ‘Hey, here’s one great song, now let’s get going!’ After Excitement At Your Feet—I’d love to do another one, but I don’t think sales were that great—I took a while off writing songs; I always do that. I know when it’s time that I can sit down and feel confident that I will be able to come up with ten really good songs and not waste my time.
“So, that said, I do believe I started with a fresh slate on this one and that all the songs on Laugh In The Dark were started and finished in a six month period last year from April through October.”
Indeed, he cites the experience of doing an entire album’s worth of other artists’ material as being key to that “fresh slate”—a clean palette, if you will, and possibly even some freshly-inspired creative avenues to explore.
“That’s really true,” agrees Tommy. “Somehow, making the covers album freed me up to not be so overly hypersensitive as to my influences. In fact, I didn’t even worry at all about songs, melodies, etcetera, that might borrow too obviously from my main muses. Hence you have a direct concoction of The Beatles meet The Who by way of Big Star, with a little Stones for good measure. When you’re younger, I think you go out of your way to try and disguise whatever is inspiring you at the moment, but you’re usually fooling no one. At this stage of te game I really couldn’t give a damn if people think I’m aping something too much. Basically, I’m writing songs and making records for myself because no one else is doing it!”
To that end, Laugh in the Dark sounds utterly free while still remaining true to Tommy’s aforementioned lifelong inspirations. Opening track “Out of My Mind,” with its brashly melodic power chords and anthemic vibe, subtly conjures image of vintage Who, while “Last of the Twilight Girls” has a Radio City-worthy opening riff and a succinct, meaty solo to remind listeners that Keene is nothing if not a stellar lead guitarist. Likewise, the title tune’s jangly invocations and wistful choruses speak to his, er, keen instincts as a pop classicist. Penultimate track “Go Back Home,” with its acoustic framework spiked by sleek slide guitar, suggests a marriage between Led Zeppelin III and Let It Bleed. And album closer “All Gone Away” is overtly Beatlesque, from its “Dear Prudence”-inspired melody to the psychedelic guitar and keyboard flourishes to a generally epic feel.
“You are totally right on all of those,” says Tommy. “I fretted about them for a nanosecond, but it’s basically riffs, not melodies or whole songs so… Yeah, ‘Go Back Home’ is one I’m most tickled with, it’s got that bluesy Zep III thing going, along with some Stonesy guitars but it’s still ‘a Tommy Keene song.’ I also love ‘Belong To You’: it has this insidious melody that I couldn’t get out of my head and it was driving me crazy when I was working on it. Hopefully others will feel the same way. And you mentioned ‘All Gone Away’—it is epic, what can I say? Very much Beatles inspired and obviously a great album- and show-closer. I think of those things when I’m writing an album, beginning, middle and end.”
It’s still a uniquely Keene project from start to finish, however, awash in buoyant melodies as well as introspective—and at times, dark—lyrical ruminations. “I have had some major upheavals in my life the last few years,” confesses Tommy, and it’s not hard to detect echoes of those issues in this collection of songs if one listens closely.
“When I’m writing an album, I look for a beginning, a middle, and an end,” he adds. “Not necessarily in a thematic sense. Sometimes I’ve tried to be thematic, and sometimes I’ve tried to be thematic on the back end—say, with Songs From the Film, the songs seemed to have that visual quality from start to finish, and also on Based on Happy Times, which was the darker, more introspective bookish album. But, usually I just try to get ten or so songs that represent where I am at the present time and hope they feel consistent. When I write lyrics, they always come from my subconscious, really. It’s as if I’m not actually thinking, but blindly writing words that suddenly make sense in retrospect.”
And about that album title?
“The title of the record comes from a ride at an amusement park, Glen Echo, on the outskirts of DC. It was kind of a crazy ride in the dark where your car ran on tracks and zipped around with crazy screams and laughs going on, while every once in a while a strobe light would illuminate you in the car in front of a mirror. This same park is where the cover photo from the Dolphin EP Places That Are Gone was taken, in front of the shooting gallery.”
He pauses, and smiles at the memory, no doubt aware of the completing-the-circle sentiment he’s just expressed.
“See, I am consistent!”
In 2009, when BLURT was barely a year old, Keene agreed to get on our analyst’s couch for one of our popular “Blurting With…” Q&A interviews.
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 (2009)
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
“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
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.
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.
Next, in 2010, we published a narrative interview with Tommy, “Places That Are Found,” to mark the release of his 2-CD anthology, “Tommy Keene You Hear Me: A Retrospective 1983-2009.
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 (2010)
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
Tommy Keene 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., saying, “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.”
Next, in September of 2011, came “Guitar Pop Is Dead, Long Live Guitar Pop,” another in-depth Q&A with Tommy, around the time of the release of Behind the Parade.
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 (2011)
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.”
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. 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 Kraftwerk 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 real y 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?
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 and 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 [Harrison] 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?
Not 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 never 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 Razz, 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.
To mark the release of “Excitement At Your Feet” in 2013, we asked Keene to pen one of our popular “Damn! Wish I’d Written That Song” essays—logical enough for a musician who’d just released an album of favorite covers.
Our favorite songwriters spill the beans on what makes ‘em turn green with envy; the only stipulation was that they couldn’t pick songs which they’ve previously recorded. This month: a power pop auteur who’s penned his share of classics.
BY TOMMY KEENE (2013)
- “In My Life” – The Beatles
Not necessarily one of my favorite top five Beatles songs but one of the most poignant, endearing and timeless of the John Lennon canon. In perhaps my most famous song I was inspired—or stole?—lyrics for the title: “There are places I remember, some are gone and some remain.” A beautiful song and a precursor to “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Lennon reminisces about people, places, lovers and things that went before. This song will surely be played at weddings, funerals and the like for centuries to come.
- “Satisfaction” – The Rolling Stones
Possibly the greatest rock riff of all time, and played through one of the first fuzz boxes on record, that I remember. The lyrics of “Satisfaction alone” would make it one of the best rock and roll songs ever written. But Charlie’s relentless martial drum beat (don’t forget the tambourine hitting on the 3-4-5 of the 4/4 beat) will resonate forever, recalling the thrill of that summer day when I first heard it blasting out of the AM radio speaker in my Dad’s car.
- “My Generation” – The Who
Pretty much a simple blues romp sped up at the suggestion of Kit Lambert, Townsend’s young man blues epic is the ultimate Who song and also the quintessential teenage anthem of all time! Serving as the stage-ending, mind-blowing finale during which they performed the ritual of smashing their gear, this song will never die even if we all do get old.
- “I Could Have Danced All Night” – Lerner and Loewe
Anyone who knows me knows I love Show Tunes, so much that I named The Tommy Keene Live Album just that. We have always used any number of Show Tunes as intro music to come on stage to. Throughout the years you might have heard “My Favorite Things,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” or the Paul Lynde ode to Ed Sullivan, “Hymn For A Sunday Evening” from the musical Bye Bye Birdie. Besides rock and roll, Broadway musicals were melodically some of the most influential sources for me as a songwriter. This song is one of my favorites from the musical My Fair Lady. The climax of the song when Eliza sings “I only know”—where the melody line stays on one note while the strings underneath form a descending pattern—is one of the most beautiful moments in any song ever written!
- “The 59th Street Bridge Song/Feelin’ Groovy” – Paul Simon& “Growing Up” – Bruce Springsteen
This could be a mashup: it’s obvious that whether he knows it or not, Springsteen used the basic chord sequence from the Simon composition for his song “Growing Up” (from his debut album). “Feelin’ Groovy” reminds me of my first trip ever to Southern California. My Dad took my brother and me along on a business trip where we visited Disneyland, which is what I think of anytime I hear the song. And it’s Harpers Bizarre’s version that was the hit in 1966, not Simon and Garfunkel’s. It’s just a happy song full of good feelings that I remember innocently as a kid.
Lyrically, “Growing Up” by the Boss is one of his best: “I stood stone-like at midnight, suspended in my masquerade, I combed my hair ‘til it was just right and commanded the night brigade.” Yeah!!!! Also some of Bruce’s best monologues from early shows took place in the middle of “Growing Up,” the best being from the Roxy in LA in ‘78. Talking to his parents who were in the audience he proclaims, “Well, one of you wanted a lawyer, one of you wanted an author, well tonight you’re both gonna have to just settle for rock and roll!!!”
Below: Keene live in 1986.