Mike Keneally is a talented multi-instrumentalist who mainly specializes in the guitar. After spending the early part of his life on Long Island, his family moved to the San Diego area in California when he was at the age of 8 years old. Like every American kid growing up in the 1960's, Mike was exposed to the Beatles and other British invasion bands and he liked what he heard. His parents bought him a small organ and Mike's world of playing music was under way. He progressed with the times and began listening to the early progressive rock bands. When one of his buddies introduced him to The Mothers of Invention album Freak Out, he became obsessed with the music. After his brother started playing guitar, Mike acquired one himself and soon began to excel on the instrument. Through the years Mike would collect as many Frank Zappa records as he could and continue to learn his songs on the guitar. He eventually had a such a confidence about playing the music that he called Frank and told him he knows the material very well and if he ever needed a guitar player, he was available. A short time later Zappa took him up on the offer and after a challenging audition, he became a member of the band. Mike played guitar and keyboards on the 1988 tour which was short lived. Although Zappa's 88 touring band featured a large horn section and introduced some classic material, there was some dissention in the band. Frank took less of a active role in the preparation of the music. This along with his declining health may have been a factor in the cancellation of the tour mid stream. During the tour, Mike had many chances to shine on both guitar and keyboards. He also did lead vocals on the now classic "Rhymin' Man" and "Elvis Has Just Left The Building". After Franks passing in 1993, Mike continued his craft working with Dreezil Zappa. He would eventually work with artists such as Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and many other talented musicians. He has his own band "The Mike Keneally Band". Mike is currently on a world tour with Joe Satriani supporting the Shockwave Supernova album. He will be releasing his own Scambot 2 album very shortly. I recently asked Mike a few questions about his career and current projects.
R.V.B. - Where are you from on Long Island and how did you get involved in music?
M.K. - I was born in Hempstead, and lived in Islip and Carle Place when I was extremely young, but all my conscious memories of Long Island are from Plainview, where I lived from age 3 to age 8, before my family moved to San Diego in 1970. I've listened to and loved music for as long as I can remember, constantly singing around the house, and became obsessed with my older sister's Beatle albums at around age 5. I didn't realize I was destined to be a musician, but somehow my parents did, and they bought me an electric organ for my seventh birthday. As soon as I saw it I knew it was meant for me, and in my recollection I walked to it and started playing "Paint It, Black" right away – the keyboard made total sense to me, I could see the music on it. But I gradually developed a desire to play guitar also, and asked for one for my eleventh birthday, and from that point on I developed my abilities on both instruments.
R.V.B. - What were your early influences? What were some of the early songs you tackled on the guitar?
M.K. - The Beatles were the first huge influence. They seemed absolutely magical to me (they still do) and were probably the main reason I wanted to play guitar. After I was playing organ for a little while, I started listening to experimental FM radio (which was a huge, amazing phenomenon in the early 70s) and I heard Emerson, Lake and Palmer's Tarkus, which opened up my horizons enormously – I now knew it was possible to do really adventurous things and get away with it. Then when I was nine, I heard Frank Zappa's "Help, I'm A Rock" and was completely floored – that felt like music that was truly made for me, and over time Zappa became my primary obsession and influence.
R.V.B. - Tell me about some of your early gigs? How did they go?
M.K. - I didn't actually do that much gigging while I was developing musically; my brother Marty started playing guitar too after I got one, and then we got hold of a 4-track reel-to-reel tape recorder, and we spent hours and hours recording our own versions of our favorite songs. That was sort of my version of being in a garage band – I was less interested in being onstage than I was in experimenting with sound, dissecting arrangements and building up tracks through overdubbing. It was endlessly fun for my brother and I. But there were a couple of gigs now and then. The first one, apart from odd little events at school assemblies and stuff, was at the Miss Santee Beauty Pageant. (Santee is a town in the East County of San Diego.) The group, which only existed for this one gig, consisted of me on organ, bass pedals and rhythm box, my brother on electric guitar, our friend Ed on acoustic guitar, and our other friend Tony on accordion. Quite a lineup. We played "Samba Pa Ti" by Santana and "Light My Fire" by The Doors, and the audience was polite. The most memorable thing about it was a result of us not having taken the time to think of a name for the band; we played our two songs, and all the MC could think of to say was "Let's hear it for a group." A few years later my brother and I formed another band called Affable Mort; we did mainly really difficult progressive rock covers, nothing commercial at all. We rehearsed for one year, did exactly one gig (at a New Years' Eve Knights of Columbus party), and then broke up.
M.K. - It was the kid across the street who made me listen to "Help, I'm A Rock" when I was nine. He said I needed to hear this song, because it was weird, and I was weird, so I would appreciate it. He was right! Shortly after that, an older kid at my elementary school named Everett, whose job it was to monitor activity in the playground and make sure no one got out of hand, also noticed I was weird and brought me a couple of albums to take home and check out – one was Living In The Past by Jethro Tull, which I really dug, but the other was We're Only In It For The Money by Frank and the Mothers of Invention, and that album completely blew my mind. I had to play it repeatedly for days on end, I couldn't believe how much I loved it. My true obsession with Frank probably started then, and I began collecting everything I could. Learning the repertoire was actually a gradual process that began years before I joined the band or met Frank; I loved his music so much I would teach myself how to play it off the records. It was the best musical education I could think of to give myself, figuring out these insane musical passages note by note, and it eventually proved to by extremely helpful years later when Frank hired me. I didn't realize I was doing job preparation for the future during all those years of teaching myself Frank's music; I just did it because I loved it and wanted to figure out what made it tick.
R.V.B. - Once you were accepted in the band, was it just a matter of working your own knowledge of the music into figuring out the new song arrangements? How long was it before you were ready to play live?
It was sometimes a rude awakening to discover that songs or passages that I thought I knew properly, I really didn't know properly at all, as I quickly discovered when I attempted to play them alongside musicians who really knew how these things went. It was a baptism of fire where I quickly had to adjust my perception of things and get in line with the rest of the band in a hurry, or risk losing my gig. Every day was a severe education in so many ways. I was absolutely green; I'd had literally no professional musical experience prior to getting the Zappa gig, and here I was suddenly in a world-class operation headed up by my number one musical hero. I wouldn't allow myself any option other than to succeed, so I just got my action together as quickly and unobtrusively as I possibly could. I was lucky that I loved the music so much and had such a wide knowledge of his repertoire; that's really what secured my spot in the band. The band rehearsed for four months, five days a week, eight hours a day. That's what was required to get a 12-piece band up to speed on a song list consisting of about 120 of Frank's pieces. We needed to have that many songs ready because Frank was devoted to changing up the set list nightly, especially since we were doing a lot of 2-night and 3-night stands in the US, and Frank knew people would be buying tickets to multiple shows – he wanted to make sure those concert-goers were thoroughly entertained and surprised by what they got each night.
M.K. - I played the difficult composed parts for guitar, like the fast lines on things like "Zomby Woof," "Alien Orifice" and "Eric Dolphy's Memorial Barbecue" (plus some chordal rhythm parts and comping during some of Frank's solos; I also did guitar solos on certain songs), I was the second keyboardist (mostly supporting parts, but occasionally would take the lead, eg. that's me playing solo electric piano at the beginning of "Eat That Question" on Make A Jazz Noise Here), and I sang background, and very occasionally lead (I'm the lead singer on the songs "Elvis Has Just Left The Building" and "Rhymin' Man" on Broadway The Hard Way).
R.V.B. - What did you think that you added to enhance the music of Frank Zappa?
M.K. - I think my primary contribution was my awareness of the repertoire; when Frank decided he wanted to try playing a song from way back in his career, he would frequently rely on my knowledge of the song's structure to begin piecing together an arrangement for the full band. My clearest memory in this regard was the day he said "I think I'd like to try playing 'Who Needs The Peace Corps?.' I think that song would sound really good for this band," and then he just turned and looked at me. I said, "OK, give me a second," dredged the chord progression up from my memory and then over the next several hours Frank used my memory as the basis for the 12-piece band arrangement. As someone who loved his music so much, it was an incredible thrill to be able to help out this way, and be a part of bringing old songs I adored back into his live repertoire. Other than that, I think my youthful enthusiasm was useful for that group, and I think I did some good playing, although what I mainly hear when I listen to recordings from that tour are all the things I would do differently now.
M.K. - The most memorable has to have been the very first show in Albany. I should have been absolutely mortified with stage fright since it was the professional show I'd ever done, the first time I'd ever played in front of that many people, and the first time I could potentially disappoint Frank with my inexperience…he was my musical hero and I wanted nothing more than to please him. But once it got going it was just pure delight and excitement. And during the second half of the show, Frank seemed to be making a point of featuring me, at one point having me playing guitar, keyboard and singing simultaneously. It was extremely fun – and then when we went back onstage for the encore, the first thing Frank said was "Mike Keneally, ladies and gentlemen!" I couldn't believe my ears, and for a long time thought I certainly must have imagined it, but years later I heard an audience recording on a cassette, and yep, there it was. It's still hard for me to believe – in some ways, the entire Zappa experience still feels like a long, unbelievable dream to me.
M.K. - Oh sure, lots of differences. Frank had obviously been leading bands for many years by the time I joined his band; in contrast, Dweezil was still very young and at the beginning of his journey as a bandleader, so the situation was very different. Also his brother Ahmet was in the band too, so that brother dynamic they shared was a unique feature of that band. It was a much younger band too: whereas I was the youngest member of Frank's band, suddenly I was the oldest member of Dweezil's – that was a VERY big change. I also had a lot more involvement in the arrangement of the music in Dweezil's band, especially when it came to my own guitar parts. It was unfortunate that we never really captured the vibe of Dweezil's band in the studio – it was a ferocious beast onstage, some of the most powerful gigs I've ever been a part of.
M.K. - I played guitar and keyboards, and a little percussion. The main thing that was unique about playing Steve's music was the degree to which he insisted I learn VERY specific aspects of his guitar phrasing, so that when I was playing in harmony or in unison with him, we would sound extraordinarily tight together – I'd have to make sure that when I bent a note upwards with him, it would be at the PRECISE same speed that he bent upwards, and would have to release the note and bend back downwards at the PRECISE same time and rate that he did – things like that. With Frank's and Dweezil's music it was more like I was playing their compositions, but using my own playing style – with Steve I had to completely obscure aspects of my own style in order to basically become another Steve (to the best of my ability). It was outrageously difficult, and at the beginning of the rehearsal phase I wondered if it might actually be beyond my abilities, but I just kept at it until I could execute the stuff. As I've said before, rehearsals with Steve were the best guitar lessons I ever got paid to take.
M.K. - I have a real fondness, I'm happy to say, for the brand new one that's just coming out, Scambot 2. As a complete album experience, to me it's as satisfying and complete as anything I've done. As for older albums, I think Sluggo! was a really good collection of songs – I got lucky with the songwriting on that one. And for setting a mood and sticking with it for a whole record, the acoustic album Wooden Smoke might be the best thing I ever did.
R.V.B. - You've worked producing other bands and artists. How does it differ trying to make suggestions to a unit that you are not in as opposed to musicians working on your music?
M.K. - When I'm producing someone other than myself, I'm trying to help another artist achieve their vision rather than my own, so it calls a whole other set of skills into play. I'm a lot less likely to spend endless amounts of time chasing down the smallest details unless it's important to the artist I'm producing that I do so. There are a lot of psychological aspects to producing others – providing encouragement, boosting confidence etc. – which aren't as applicable when I'm producing myself, because the music itself keeps driving me forward; I don't have to deploy as many strategies to keep myself motivated because I have a sound in my head I'm chasing and that in itself keeps me going. When I'm working with other musicians on my own music in the studio, it's sort of just like they're extensions of myself in a way, except that they bring so much energy and many ideas that I could never generate on my own; but it's more like being a bandleader preparing for a gig, and it's distinctly different from working with a band on their own music. Producing someone else is not about me in any way, although I have to bring a lot of myself into the project to make it happen the right way for the artist. I love producing a lot, and I'd like to do more of it.
M.K. - This I actually find to be profoundly draining to be honest. It's something I've done quite a bit of in the past, but it's no longer something I gravitate toward (unless it's a special case like The G4 Experience, the guitar camp I've worked at with Joe Satriani for the past three years – but even this is nothing I'd normally choose for myself, and I'm always surprised by how much I enjoy it after the fact – I tend to dread it a bit as it's approaching). I think I feel the pressure too much, the fact that I'm helping to shape someone's musical vocabulary and techniques in such an elemental way. I might be self-conscious about the fact that my own musical background was so self-guided; most of what I learned was self-taught or gleaned from listening to records. I had a wonderful organ teacher when I was younger who grounded me in a lot of the basics of harmony and rhythm, and she was fantastic at it. Anything I know of contemporary and rock music was self-taught, though, and I know how idiosyncratic my journey was, so I think I feel that it's not a set of guidelines I can necessarily share with others. When I have worked with students I've tried to just determine what it is they want to accomplish and bring all I can to help them achieve it; it's sort of like producing in that sense, but it just takes so much more out of me. I'm happy though that the students I've worked with do feel that they've gained something from the process – I guess I must have done something right.
M.K. - As I type, I'm in Europe touring with Joe Satriani, still in the midst of a lengthy touring cycle for the Shockwave Supernova album that we recorded last year, and have been touring in Europe and the United States on and off since September of 2015. We still have touring yet to do in South America, Asia, Australia and New Zealand before this album promotion cycle is completed in March 2017.
In a couple of weeks my record label Exowax will begin shipping my new album Scambot 2 out to people who've pre-ordered it. This album has been in the works for years and I'm grateful to finally be able to get it out. It's available as a 2-CD special edition which also contains a second album called Inkling, and includes performances from Bryan Beller, Joe Travers, Marco Minnemann, Kris Myers, Pete Griffin, Rick Musallam, Doug Lunn, Gregg Bendian, Ben Thomas, and my daughter Jesse Keneally. I'm thrilled with both of the albums and can't wait for people to hear them; the package is available at store.keneally.com.
I'll be touring in late October in the US with the trio configuration of Mike Keneally & Beer For Dolphins, which is myself, Bryan Beller and Joe Travers. I've played my music live with many different musicians, and this particular trio is easily one of my favorite groups to perform with – so fun, natural, and hugely energetic. We're friends going back so many years, there's so much shared history, and it all seems to flow out when we play together. We'll be announcing the dates soon and posting them on keneally.com.
R.V.B. - Thanks for considering answering these questions
M.K. - My pleasure!
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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For more information on Mike Keneally visit his website. www.keneally.com
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