When Keller Williams starts playing his 10 string acoustic guitar, people listen. Not only is he a virtuosic instrumentalist, but a talented singer as well. His new disk, “Breathe” features the String Cheese Incident on almost every track, and his live performances are incendiary, as anyone who caught this year’s Summer Sessions shows can attest to. I sat down with Keller at the Harvest Moon Jamboree in Vienna, NY, where he answered questions about guitar toys, Incidents, and sharing the stage with a long-time hero.
JM: Your new disk, “Breathe,” is with the String Cheese Incident. I saw you play with them last year at the Haunt [in Ithaca, NY] and I was wondering how it came about to record with them.
KW: I’ve known those guys a couple of years now, and have gotten to be close with them- we’re pretty good friends. I pretty much scoped out the time when they were going to be off [from recording and touring] and pretty much hit them up to do the project for that time period, and then went for it. I sent them a bunch of tapes, and we had one day of rehearsal. It worked out great- those guys are right on it.
JM: Did you write those songs on the record specifically to play with a band, or did you work on them as solo songs first?
KW: Well, I guess a couple of songs I wrote with the idea of an ensemble behind me, but most of my songs I write for myself. Almost every song I have can have some kind of accompaniment behind it, but I don’t really write songs thinking there’s going to be accompaniment.
JM: One of the most interesting things about your music, to me, is that you accompany yourself with both the percussion [a technique of hitting the guitar strategically that Williams often uses] and the sampler, now. Is the sampler relatively new, or have you been using that for a while now?
KW: I started using a similar device in January, and just recently got the one I’m using now, which does exactly what I want it to do, whereas the other one I was trying to make do what I wanted to do and just kind of, like, compromising, doing what that machine could do. This one I just got about a month ago and it’s great. I love it. I love that machine.
JM: How does it work? Are you running all of the instruments and the mics through it to the soundboard?
KW: The actual device is back in the console, and what we do is we take the petal and run it through the snake, so the petal is up on the stage, but the actual machine is back at the console. Everything’s pretty much running through it, and I just point to it and Lou [Keller’s soundman] turns on that channel.
JM: One of the things that’s pretty interesting to me is that is that your music is pretty organic. It’s basically acoustic guitar and vocals. But, by using the sampler, it’s bringing that electronic sound to it.
KW: It’s acoustic music using modern technology. I think it’s a great concept, and I have no fear.
JM: Richie Havens has opened up here at the Harvest Moon Festival for the past couple of years [Williams was the first performer this year,] and you’ve kind of got that same thing. You’re kind of like a folk singer, because it’s just you and an acoustic guitar. That’s not such a popular concept anymore, as it was when Richie Havens [was at his peak.] Do you feel like you’re part of a new breed of that [folk singer tradition], or how do you see yourself fitting into that, if you do?
KW: As times change, so does all the music, you know. I started out in that folk era- Richie Havens was a big influence [on me] as well- it’s basically just me playing by myself so many times, and wanting to enhance that sound, and creating more, and the modern technology really helps you to. I try to make sure it’s all still acoustic, and it’s all me playing it all- it’s nothing that’s been prepared before, I’m doing it live up there on the spot- but, yeah, it’s definitely like an alternative type of folk music. I think I’m progressing with the times, as far as folk music goes, drifting very far away from the original concept of folk music.
JM: You just got off of the Summer Sessions Tour. What was that experience like?
KW: Surreal. Very, Very surreal. The Summer Sessions shows were four bands [moe., SCI, Gov’t Mule, and Galactic. On some dates Phil and Friends also played.] and three “tweeners” [Williams, Gibb Droll, and Kevin Kinney] and we did about eight shows before the Phil and Friends shows and four shows after. Those felt really the most comfortable.
JM: Which ones?
KW: The eight before Phil and Friends and the four afterwards. It was just a bunch of guys- well, Warren Haynes doesn’t really fall into the category of a bunch of guys in a band. He’s pretty much state of the art, top of the line, choice professional musician dude, you know. He’s been around. I felt really comfortable on those shows. The Phil and Friends shows were extremely surreal because I was able to, first of all, jump on a tour bus, which I’ve never gotten a chance to travel in. I’ve always seen them on the road, but I actually traveled, did all eight shows, in a tour bus. I saw the Grateful Dead for so many years, you know, and here I am traveling to all these shows on a tour bus, with a backstage laminate, and it’s just an amazing, dream come true from the past. It’s an added bonus that you’re going to get to play 15 minutes at Red Rocks, 15 minutes at the Greek Theater, you know? There’s a huge rush to be able to play those venues, but mainly it was so surreal because I was in a tour bus [and] backstage all the time at the closest thing to a Grateful Dead show.
JM: Did you get a chance to play with Phil?
KW: No, no. Phil wasn’t untouchable, you know, I could have gone up to him, but there were always a lot of people around, and he pretty much would come in for the rehearsal, and then he’d leave and come back for the show. I’d have to really make a point of it to get up to talk to him. I pretty much just stayed out of his way.
JM: How did you feel that the crowds and the crowd reaction were at those shows, both to you and in general?
KW: Crowd reaction was great. It was definitely cool. The tweeners, I thought, really made the show. The band would be over, there’s going to be 30 minutes regardless, to change the stage, and then you have a guy over on the side who kept things going. I think people really liked it.
JM: I unfortunately didn’t get to go to any of those shows, but I heard they were kind of interesting because these bands are in the jam band genre in one way or another, but they’re playing hour long sets, or 45 minute sets, or even less, depending on their placement in the show.
KW: Yeah. 50 minutes was the given times for the bands. It’s just how you arrange your setlist, you know, you still can be a jam band playing 50 minutes. Like String Cheese, they’d only play 5 songs.
JM: You kind of have been put into that scene, you know, because of the shows you’ve been playing. Do you see yourself fitting into the scene, or how do you see yourself fitting into jambands?
KW: Well, even though I’m still acoustic, my playing is really aggressive, and I think a lot of promoters and clubs put me on as an opening act in these big clubs, opening for these bands. Strangely enough, I’ve been able to keep people’s attention doing that opening act.
So, yeah, I think I fall into that category. Whatever category people want to put me in is fine by me, you know? As long as they kind of know who I am, whatever they think about me is their choice, and I’m happy with whatever they think about me. I’d like to personally go towards the performance art category, rather than the jambands scene. The music that I play, it does lean towards the jamband kind of style, focusing on the dance aspect of the rhythmic playing. I like to think that there’s a danceable trait in my playing, and that’s a jamband type of attitude. Everyone who plays jam music wants to focus on the dance, to keep the energy flowing, that way it comes back. I’m definitely all about that. I love it when people sit, and focus on the music too – when I get a kind of “listening crowd.” I like them both, you know.
Jeff Miller writes weekly live music reviews for the Ithacan in Ithaca, NY. He can also be found at Blind Man’s Sun and Phish shows. He’s the guy with the beanie.