A Chat with Keller Williams
By Dennis Cook
Bass, the new album from Keller Williams (released December 13 on SCI Fidelity Records), begins with a warming blast that's akin to finding expected sunlight outside when one opens the door. It's a thick, inviting sound and the studio debut of Keller's live reggae-funk band Kdubalicious, where he's joined by Jay Starling (keyboards) and Mark D (drums). It doesn't take long until one is feeling fine, toes to the sky," and the album keeps this positive momentum going with good humor, undulating, interlocking playing, and a song selection filled with smile-raisers and even an ace cover of Beck's Hollywood Freaks." 17 albums in, Williams is still pulling happy surprises out of his trick bag, and the treat for listeners is music that's both intelligent and unabashedly lighthearted at times. Funny stuff and heavy thoughts get equal weight in Keller's universe, which is a tough juggling act but he rarely seems to miss a throw or catch. And this time he does all of his instrumental talking on the bass instead of his trademark guitar pyrotechnics. Indeed, the surprises never end with this talented chap.
As Keller and Kdubalicious head into their final shows of 2011 (see the full slate of dates here), we scored a few minutes with Williams to discuss getting his low-end on, this current trio, The Keels and more.
JamBase: You're SO identified with guitar. What was it like to put down your trademark instrument and focus on bass? Was it a bit like playing without pants?
Keller: [Laughs] Well, it was exciting. It seems like there's so much more power leading a band with a bass than with a guitar, and my playing style is very based around basslines. I often play the basslines first and let the other strings fill in the parts not covered by the bass part. So, it's not that much of a stretch. Some people have a hard time singing and playing bass at the same time after playing guitar and singing, but it's not a problem for me because my guitar style is so focused on basslines anyway.
JamBase: Rhythm is one of the first things the ear picks up on in your playing. You're very interested in providing a groove.
Keller: That's correct, and that stays the same either way.
The voice of the bass is a little different. Did that shift things for you as a composer?
No, I think all the songs were made up on guitar. Some are done differently solo than with this three-piece. For example, Thinking Out Loud" is done really reggae style with the trio and on YouTube you can find a goofy solo acoustic version that's not reggae. I took some songs and adapted them to this trio. I don't think anything was specifically written for this album. These are songs that have been waiting to be put to sleep, so to speak.
As usual, your taste in covers is impeccable. The Beck tune is inspired, and it points out a side of your personality you don't always get credit for, i.e. you're kinda raunchy. You swear, you talk about sex and drugs, and I've always enjoyed that aspect of your music.
Well, thank you. It's a huge compliment. It's always fun for me. When I was a teenager and in my early twenties listening to this type of music it would always pique my interest when someone would go there, almost in a defiant sort of way. It's how we think and how we talk. It's real.
It also plays to the party people that come to see you, many of whom are probably getting loose.
That's very true.
Do you sometimes feel it'd be nice to not be so immersed in the party/festival scene? Are there times you'd perhaps like a recital type atmosphere?
It's funny you mention that because I'm fresh off a weekend where three out of four venues were sit-down listening rooms. Infinity Hall in Norfolk, CT has beautiful wooden beams and wood on the ceiling from the 20s, the sort of place George Winston plays without amplification. Then, there was the The Historic Blairstown Theater in Blairstown, NJ, and that's about 200 seated and a little open space with room for about 250. That place became a theater in 1913. And then, the Sellersville Theater in Sellersville, Pennsylvania. All three of those venues had pin-drop moments where it definitely wasn't about the party. It was about silence and people breathing with me, and that's a whole other kind of energy.
You mention that people who come to see me like to get loose, and even this weekend with the sit-down kinda venues there were still people up and screaming and trying to get others to stand up and dance. Some of the patrons just come up front to see what you're about, and there's some young girl trying to pull them up, almost creating an awkward situation that has to be defused from stage, in a very polite way. Sometimes the crowds don't collide the ways I would like, but I'm very thankful to have those sorts of venues still around that are ballsy enough to allow me to play there.
I've been thinking a bit about where you fit into the larger musical scheme of things. You've had a lot of recognition in the jam world. Serious players in the jazz, folk and rock scenes know about you because your technique and skill. You've made a kid's record. Where do you see yourself fitting in?
I've kinda nestled into a certain kind group of folks. Every show there might a few younger folks and a few of the NPR crowd but basically, there are a couple hundred folks that are very supportive and have been with me for a long time. I like to think I fit into a performance art situation where it can be the best of both worlds, where someone can sit in a seat and be entertained for an evening of music AND someone could dance and get down. I'm hoping that both can exist in the same show.
You have such a strong comfort level onstage. You're very natural, or at least that's the impression one comes away with. And you can pull off a performance suited to both these two worlds all by yourself. You remind me a bit of Michael Hedges.
He's a huge influence. At the Historic Blairstown Theater this weekend someone showed up with a soundboard-monitor patch from Michael Hedges at The Bottom Line in 1988. It is just pristine, and he played songs that I've never heard him play before. So many people know about my love for Michael Hedges, and they're happy to share their recordings with me. Over the years I've accumulated quite a few.
Your mixture of humor and serious musicianship, instrumental and vocal music, echoes Hedges' approach.
I'm very passionate about what I took from him, including the way he wasn't afraid to play covers and do them his way. It's ballsy. Playing solo, if you play something that everyone knows it can bring people together and then you can lay some heavy mental on them [laughs].
How does it change for you playing with the trio versus playing solo?
Obviously, it takes a lot more rehearsal with the trio. The solo thing is just endless amounts of freedom. I can slip in bits of songs between verses of another song and really do anything I can think of. With the trio, we need to have certain areas down and memorized, and other parts that we can really open up, and these guys are really great at that, as well as reading each other. Being a keyboard trio, there's a lot of space, a lot of breathing room. I just absolutely love it. I wish I could play with people more. My solo career is definitely the breadwinner, but it's really fun to play with folks, especially these two guys. It's a real treat to me. I'm really looking forward to these five shows at the end of this year (dates and details here).
On Jam Cruise in January you'll be playing with The Keels [described by Keller as simply a bluegrass thing']. Do you enjoy these huge swings of style and mood with the two trios?
It takes getting into the right mindset, which isn't usually a problem for me. And New Year's Eve [at the Brooklyn Arts Center in Wilmington, NC] it will be a mixture of my two favorite trios, Kdubalicious and The Keels, and combined it'll be a spacey mix of bluegrass and reggae with a lot of fun involvedsuitable music for buzzes of all kinds.
It's easy to be cynical, and I appreciate how you resist that in your work.
It is easy, especially after many years of ups and downs and whatnot. It's easy in this business to go there, but I think a nice little mix of optimism and cynicism works well.