Published on 9th May 2020
To tie in with the release of MFTJ, the recent collaborative release between Mike Keneally and Scott Schorr, Roger Trenwith spoke to Mike about how this pairing came about, as well as offering a brief insight into the music. Mike also speaks about the current lockdown and how he has been occupying his time… working with Devin Townsend, Frank Zappa, Andy Partridge and more…
Hi Mike, and thanks for giving your time to this interview. Speaking of which, some of us seem to have more time on our hands than ever before right now, while others seem to be working harder than ever, but for much less return, be that in terms of money or creative reward. How and where are you coping with lockdown?
Coping okay – as with everyone else, some days are better than others, some moments in the day better than others. But we’re healthy here and keeping busy. I’m in my home near San Diego, which is a lovely city, but I’m not seeing much of it – I’ve barely gone out the front door more than ten times in the last seven weeks, go for a quick drive to keep the car battery charged and come back home without touching anything.
Are you using the lockdown time to write and record new music?
Yep. Soon after the lockdown began, I looked at my live gig prospects (nada) and my savings (not much more than nada) and realised that I needed to get a home recording rig together – for whatever reasons, I haven’t had a really functional recording rig at home for around a decade, and it was time to fix that. Swallowed my pride and started a GoFundMe which allowed me to start putting together a really nice, functional rig, and slowly piece together my tech know-how (I am NOT a technically-oriented dude). In the last week or so I finally started making some actual music, and this week I’ll be starting work on my tracks for the second MFTJ album, in addition to about six other recording projects vying for my attention, and the beginning of an active online presence through Patreon, Bandcamp and Twitch.
Have you played or do you plan to play any “virtual” gigs since the lockdown?
Not yet. I’ve done a ton of video interviews but no playing yet to speak of. Soon, though, for sure.
When lockdown hit, I hear you were in the middle of a tour with Devin Townsend?
Yeah, we were at precisely the halfway point when it suddenly became clear that it was time to pull up stakes and get home as soon as possible. March 11 is when the travel ban from the EU to the US was announced, and also the last show of our tour in San Francisco was cancelled, with other shows likely to follow suit; that was the turning point that made us realise that we needed to get everyone in the entourage home as soon as possible, and also made us question the morality of continuing to hold concerts at all, and we flew home on March 12. Within days, everyone on the road came to the same conclusion. I really fondly remember the last Devin show we did, in Dallas; it was, conveniently, the best show of the tour – didn’t realise at the time it was the end of an era. Eventually there will be live shows again, but I don’t think everything will ever feel quite the same after this.
You have a new album out as “MFTJ” in collaboration with producer Scott Schorr. Tell us how this collaboration came about.
I met Scott through Marco Minnemann, who was making albums for Scott’s label Lazy Bones. Marco and I were touring with Joe Satriani, and Scott and I went out for a couple of meals, discussing the possibility of various projects and just hanging out. We found that we got along really well and shared a lot of musical ground. Early in 2019, Scott proposed a process of collaboration which I readily agreed to, and that resulted in MFTJ. I’m very grateful that he proposed this album, because I’m really freaking happy with the way it turned out – I’ve never heard another album that combines different musical ingredients the way this one does, it’s really uncategorizable and to me extremely pleasurable to listen to.
How does the writing process on MFTJ work? Scott is based in Australia I believe? Did you ever meet or is this classic case of internet file swapping?
Classic swapping. He would send me rhythm tracks that he had recorded on his own, and I did a bunch of overdubs on guitar and keyboards, which he then manipulated, turned into song forms, and sent back to me – then I did another round of guitar and keyboard overdubs on the new tracks and sent them back to him, and he manipulated and wove those new tracks into the song forms. It worked incredibly well. Since I didn’t have home facilities for the first album, we had to book studio time for my stuff, but for the next album I’ll be able to do my stuff on my own time at home, which will probably make the second album even crazier than the first.
From the first bar of the opening track, I am struck by the high production values. Scott certainly seems to know his way around a mixing desk!
Scott has incredible instincts regarding his editing process – he’s super quick and creative with his choices. He, like me, is more into the content and the actual notes than focusing on every aspect of the final sonics, so we were very fortunate to have Jeff Forrest recording my overdubs, Chris Albers doing the final mix, and Forrester Savell doing the mastering – all those guys played a big part in the production values you’re hearing. Scott is a wizard with a digital razor and his instincts have played a huge part of the impressive Lazy Bones album roster; he’s building a great catalogue of progressive music.
That first track, Liquid and Fumes, references Zappa’s Wind Up Workin’ in a Gas Station – it does to me, at least! I love the way it bursts into your ears like it’s already been going for five minutes! Which brings me neatly round to your time with the great man. How did you end up playing in Zappa’s band, and was it scary?
Well, any reference to that song was purely unintentional, although I do love that song! You’re right though, it does kinda start like “we now join this song, already in progress…” I got the job in Zappa’s band by calling his office and asking to be considered for the gig; I never remotely imagined that it would work, but thank goodness it did. I’m grateful that Frank took me, a completely unknown kid calling out of nowhere, seriously enough to give me an audition and a shot. I was really only scared two times: my last night at home before heading out for the beginning of the tour, and walking out onto the stage for the first show in Albany. Once the show started, the fear subsided because it was so much freaking fun, but I still spent a good portion of the tour in absolute disbelief that it was really happening at all.
How does working with Devin compare to working with Zappa? Both strike me – a thoroughbred non-musician – as very technically demanding.
They are very different, but both have very specific technical demands inherent in their music. A lot of Frank’s music is very obviously difficult to execute from a dexterity standpoint, and some passages of Devin’s songs are as well, but a lot of the difficulties in Devin’s music are more subtle. In particular, much of the sound that Dev is after when he’s playing together with another guitarist involves both players playing the same parts in perfect unison. This is difficult to achieve onstage, but through the use of in-ear monitors, with both of our guitar signals split hard left and right, I’m able to settle in and focus on the job of locking with him as perfectly as I can. The other major point in getting Devin’s music to feel right involves, simply, not rushing the beat. This is a simple matter but I never discussed it with another bandleader in so basic a fashion, and it’s become a major focus in my musicality since I started working with him: essentially, focusing on the fact that a piece of music feels completely different when a musical part lays just behind the beat rather than just ahead of it. I’ve known this intellectually forever, but to focus on it as an essential component of a composer’s ethos is new – I’ve absorbed how music feels stronger and more confident this way, no matter how crazy the musical setting might be, and I’ve applied it with great results to my own recorded work. Finally, with Dev almost every song is played in an open guitar tuning, so the entire night of music is spent on an alien planet if you’re used to playing in standard tuning. This isn’t really a problem for composed, learned material, but in the occasional part of the show where I’m called upon to improvise or just be extemporaneous in some way, it definitely requires careful thinking. It’s no issue for Dev because he’s been playing in open tunings forever, but for me, once I realised that I’d be soloing on occasion, I had to quickly indoctrinate myself in this strange new territory. Exciting, nervy stuff for me.
You have also played with Frank’s son Dweezil. We saw the Hot Rats tour last year, very entertaining!
I was in Dweezil’s band for about five years in the first half of the ’90s. Initially it was called the Dweezil Zappa Band but we eventually changed our name to Z; Ahmet was the lead singer. We made several albums, which were good, but our real comfort zone was onstage – man, Z was a FANTASTIC live band. There’s some good footage on YouTube of us doing our thing.
One of the sadder repercussions for me not being able to do any live playing this summer was the cancellation of the King Crimson/Zappa Band tour. The Zappa Band consists of several FZ alumni (me, Scott Thunes, Ray White and Robert Martin) along with Joe Travers (the drummer in my band Beer For Dolphins, who also played with Dweezil’s Zappa Plays Zappa group) and Jamie Kime (who was also in ZPZ). We were going to spend six weeks opening for King Crimson this summer, which would have been absolutely incredible. It’s been rescheduled for 2021 – I sure hope we’re able to resume gigging by then!
Your large back catalogue covers all sorts of bases. One of my favourite releases of yours, and one of the best albums of recent years, in my never humble opinion, was Wing Beat Fantastic, the album you made with Andy Partridge. How did that come about?
Thanks for liking that one! I’ve been in touch with Andy recently about doing more songs, now that I’ve got my home rig going. I first connected with him on the road with Frank in 1988, when Scott Thunes, who like me is a tremendous XTC fan, called up Virgin Records and invited XTC to attend any Zappa show they’d care to come to during the UK leg of our tour. I never imagined they’d come, but Andy and Dave Gregory ended up coming to our Birmingham show, and subsequently invited me and Scott to attend their upcoming LA album sessions (which resulted in the album Oranges and Lemons). I spent every moment I could spare watching them make that album and hanging out with them. Over the years, I stayed in touch with Dave and Andy, and while I can’t remember whether it was Andy or I who finally proposed we try writing together (he can’t remember either), SOMEBODY proposed it, and I ended up going to Swindon for a week in 2006 and a week in 2008, putting songs together with Andy in his garden shed and ’round his dining room table. It was left to me to make final recordings of the music we made together, which I did in San Diego with engineer Mike Harris in 2011 and 2012. I’m very happy with the final album, and perhaps more importantly to me, so was Andy – I kind of viewed him as the primary audience for that one.
You seem to have a boundless appetite for gigging, and long may it continue. Over here (UK) we are aware that a significant number of live venues may not survive the lockdown. This is just one worrying impact of the bug de jour. Presumably, the situation in the USA is no better?
The Troubadour in LA, where I played one of my favourite gigs ever is one of those places struggling to see a future. I really love this room, and I know it’s not the only one in trouble right now. Here’s a link to their story, I hope they pull through: CLICK HERE
There’s no way to predict when gig life will return to normal, and frankly I’m in no hurry. The world is on virus time right now – humans are not in charge at the moment. There is a wave of people right now trying to WILL the US back into activity as normal, and science indicates that this mindset will simply result in more death. I’ll be staying at home.
Before the bug, were there any plans for solo gigs in Europe? It would be great to see you in action, should we ever be allowed closer to each other than 2 metres!
I would very much love to return to Europe for my own gigs – there were plans to do some German gigs in July and August with my European band The Mike Keneally Report, including the Zappanale Festival in Bad Doberan, and of course all of these have been postponed. I haven’t had a band of my own in Europe since some German dates in 2017, and appallingly I haven’t toured the UK since 2013. It is going to be an incredibly sweet feeling when it’s possible to gig again, and if finances permit I would absolutely love to bring Beer For Dolphins to the UK once again, we had a wonderful time in 2013 with the great band Godsticks opening for us.
When this awful pandemic passes, things will never be the same, despite the wishes of our respective wonderfully woeful leaders. It is hoped the value of those previously too often overlooked workers who keep us all alive will be properly rewarded, though I’m not holding my breath.
It galls me horribly to see people complaining about being required to wear masks in grocery stores, as though this qualifies as some foundational infringement of their human freedom, while we have health workers dropping in droves and bodies stacking in spare rooms. The people on the front lines doing their best to keep us safe can never be thanked or rewarded enough.
Well that was an interesting exchange. Thanks again for your time, Mike, and keep safe! We all look forward to seeing you on the other side.
I hope it was 🙂 You’re very welcome Roger, and thanks so much for your interest. You stay safe too!
You can read Roger’s review of the MFTJ album HERE.