As we push on into 2017, it isn’t surprising to find Keller Williams hitting the road and playing under multiple musical formats – solo, acoustic dates with Leo Kottke and reuniting with his magnificent 2016 band project KWahtro – that allows him to touch upon his interests in folk, rock, bluegrass, pop, funk and EDM.
In addition, he’s making the bold move of releasing two albums simultaneously. SYNC finds him collaborating in a studio setting with the three other members of KWahtro—Gibb Droll, Rodney Holmes and Danton Boller. Despite the musicians recording their tracks in their separate residences across the United States, KWahtro’s debut album maintains an organic and exciting sensation as if the quartet is playing together in one room.
Originally, he wanted the music to reflect the acoustic dance sounds of their concerts but it “morphed into a type of acoustic acid jazz that draws on imagery in both the lyrics and the music.” The release also includes special guests Mike Dillon and The Accidentals.
As if one album release wasn’t enough for 2017, Keller’s first all solo acoustic album, RAW, will also be released in January of 2017. Keller started working on RAW in 2011, but got sidetracked by a number of other projects that began to take form.
Inspired by Leo Kottke during their Shut the Folk Up and Listen dates last year, Keller returned to his earliest roots when it was just one man, one guitar, no loops, no bandmates and just inventive acoustic musicianship and catchy songs.
JPG: I reviewed the KWahtro show for Relix. After seeing all your different band projects that one’s my favorite. We’re going to get back to that but first since you’re about to do some more dates with Leo Kottke. I don’t think we discussed him in the past but listening to his playing and then yours, particularly on the new solo acoustic album RAW, I can see the influence. Which brings up this, tell me what it is like to hear and perform with him each night?
KW: It is like no other inspiration I have ever gotten in any kind of co-bill or anything. The quick answer is sure positive outlook on what I could possibly do with my career. Watching him and how he operates and how he travels and how simple he keeps it is not only an inspiration in life but also in music and personality.
This concept of he and I touring together has been around since the early 2000s but he’s always been adamant about wanting to play first and not wanting to play second. And I always had a real problem with that. It seems disrespectful for me to go second. That was the mentality in the early 2000s. It took that long to come around and be okay with it. I understand now. He wants to sit down and talk and play and then he wants to stretch and then he wants to leave. (laughs) And I totally get that. After he’s been doing it as long as he has he’s entitled to that.
He doesn’t use any monitors. So, the first couple shows that we did, I use in-ear monitors. I have these little headphones that go to a wireless belt pack. Then, that goes to a transmitter and the monitor board. I can hear every single thing that he’s doing. I’m offstage during his set with my headphones in listening to everything that he’s doing – his voice and his guitar. People backstage are talking to me and trying to carry on a conversation with me but I have to shush them because when he’s onstage I want to hear every single note and song that he played and every story and every deviation that that story takes. Usually during that time I should be warming up. I should be playing. I should be getting my fingers ready. I should be tuning guitars…but I’m definitely right there listening.
The weekend before we did, my cases didn’t show up with my pre-amps and my in-ear monitors. Nothing. I just had a monitor wedge. What I did was I put a little monitor wedge offstage because I didn’t have my in-ears. That really opened up my whole world to something completely different. When I’m solo with no looping or no other humans, and it’s just me and a guitar and the room and the speakers filling the room, without in-ear monitors—I’ve been using them for so long, there’s nothing we have to play along to—it opened up a whole new world for me and I’m real excited to approach this project with no in-ears at all and just listening to the room and listening to people sing.
When Leo and I play together, I’m totally in on his sonic level because he’s not using monitors. What we do is he plays his set. We play at the end of his set. He’s first and then he’ll say, “The show’s now over. This is the encore.” Then, he brings me out and we play three songs together. Then, there’s an intermission and then I do my set. Playing with him without monitors was a little bit frightening but it makes perfect sense when people actually shut the folk up and listen (laughs)
JPG: How did you come up with the name of the tour?
KW: Shut the Folk Up and Listen was a concept that my wife and I came up with. Leo Kottke has that dry sense of humor and he’s not super-artistically uptight. And he’s funny. He liked the dryness of it.
I’m used to playing places without seats. When you play a place with seats and people are used to seeing you without them a lot of people can be social and chatty in that kind of theater environment. Playing with Leo brings in that crowd that’s used to being totally quiet; mixing the two, that’s where the name came, kind of stay on that path for a night at the theater.
JPG: That brings us to a nice segue to talk about RAW. Like your dates with Leo, it’s going back to your roots type of album. In hindsight all those years ago when you first started and played solo acoustic in coffeehouses and small places like that did you learn anything that you use today?
KW: Yeah, absolutely. It was the simplicity of trying to create a dance vibe with just a guitar, pre-looping, pre-everything. Just trying to kick a beat with my right hand as I’m playing to the point where it can translate into at least a head bob. That’s kind of what I was going with at these places where there’s music in the corner and it’s not meant to be paid attention to. I was there for ambience and atmosphere. People weren’t necessarily coming to see music. So, people weren’t paying attention to me. I didn’t pay attention to them and I was able to hone what I was going for.
Also, at those types of places whenever the song stops and there’d be no applause, no anything like that, that taught me to string everything together so there was no awkward silence. (laughs) I took that and ran with it, too. The list could go on, man. I could go probably come up with all kinds of things I took from that – hours and hours of entertaining myself in the corner.
JPG: Well, at least you had that. As far as RAW, you started it in 2011. There was a version that you completed in 2012 but scrapped it.
KW: Yeah, the whole record, the idea was 12 songs on 12 different guitars. That was the idea. At the end there were three songs that I liked out of the 12. So, it was the concept and I ran with it but what I did was I took those three songs that I liked and moved them over to this record. Then, I recorded seven other songs.
On the SYNC record “Missing Remote” was on three different records that I scrapped – the Travelin’ McCourys record, the Bass record as well as that solo 2011 record. I think that’s kind of off topic there.
JPG: That’s okay. It connects with everything here. Anything goes. You’re in a safe place…to talk. By the way, thanks for the shout out to Relix in “Missing Remote.”
KW: My pleasure.
JPG: Speaking of lines in a song. After all these years listening to you this particular one in “Short Ballad of Camp Zoe,” may be my favorite one ever — “The DEA and the IRS, FBI and the ATF they all carpooled one day to the show.” Maybe it’s the visual of all those federal agents stuffed together in cars. It’s such an Arlo Guthrie type of thing.
KW: Yeah. (laughs) Do you know about that whole debacle? That was a huge sting that went down. The band The Schwag, I think they were out of St. Louis. The main guy, the bass player, Jimmy Tebeau. They were a real deal Grateful Dead cover band. They bought this old summer camp down in central, southern Missouri. A lot of the old folks went to camp there when they were little. They bought this thing and started having four festivals a year. They called it Schwagstock, these little camping festivals the bands would play and have other bands. It grew into this big huge utopian thing, possibly ungoverned. I played it a bunch of times but I think it was a glorious place. I think String Cheese took it over one year.
Long story short, just a looong sting operation on all fronts came in and took the place down and took Jimmy with it. Jimmy did time but everything’s clear now. Jimmy went on to play bass with Melvin Seals and JGB for awhile (and is with The Schwag playing dates now). There was a lot of really good times there.
That song went down really quick. Luckily, it just made it into the 90-second mark, which allows me to put it on iTunes. (laughs) I don’t think you’re allowed to put anything under a certain time frame on iTunes. So, when you say “Short Ballad of Camp Zoe” that’s what it is.