Mike Keneally: From Zappa to Dethklok


Mike Keneally. Photo courtesy of the artist.

It is, for all practical purposes, impossible to neatly fit Mike Keneally’s career into an easily labeled box. His first ‘real’ gig was touring with Frank Zappa. Since then, he’s had live and studio collaborations with a jaw-dropping list of artists. He’s recorded and toured regularly with Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, each considered the greatest guitarists of their generation. He’s released two albums featuring songs written with XTC’s Andy Partridge, and plays in my all-time favorite fictional metal band, Dethklok.

Keneally will be performing with percussionist Gregg Bendian and bassist Doug Lunn at Alvas Showroom in San Pedro next Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, May 13-15. The members, all heavyweight players and composers in their own rights, are getting together to cut a new live record.

A word about the venue: Alvas Showroom is tucked away in a one block one-way street. By day, it is a dance studio and, at night, becomes one of the best music venues I’ve been to in years. It is intimate. They can, with a crow-bar, fit about 65 people into the room. There’s no food, no bar, and the sound system is impeccable. The lighting and acoustics are perfect for live music. If you plan to go to this or any show there, get your tickets in advance. They often sell out, and no amount of begging will gain you admission once the seats are full.

Long Beach Post: I guess we should start with the trio. How did that group coalesce?

Mike Keneally: I’ve been knowing Doug Lunn forever. He was on my first solo album “hat.” In 1992, and was in the trio I put together to play songs from that album live (with Toss Panos on drums), so he and I go way back.

Gregg I met around the time he put out his Jack Kirby album and I was double-billing with The Mahavishnu Project at the Bottom Line in NYC. So I had relationships with both of those guys separately, and then they informed me that the two of them were also doing projects together. Eventually, it made sense to pull the strands together and try doing trio stuff together.

Going in, was there a plan about material?

We knew that we could make things happen with a minimum of prep time, since we’re all comfortable in the improv realm. I was especially intrigued by how the trio handled a couple of covers we’d decided on. In particular, I wanted to do “Chimes of Freedom” by Bob Dylan. Something happened when we played that song that was just incendiary. Also Gregg wanted to do The Partridge Family theme song, and that had a little special something as well.

Playing together, and learning the musical and social dynamics of the group, is always a process of discovery. Has that inspired anyone to create new material for the trio?

That process is underway at the moment, actually. We’re all bringing some new motifs to work with to these Alvas performances. We’ll have a full day of rehearsal prior to the shows, and I expect that this new ideas will fall into place quickly. These shows are going to be heavily improv-focused, but we’re bringing in this new material to work off of (and also a few previously written pieces of ours, and at least one cover [the Dylan tune]).

What does it feels like to explore musical ideas with this specific trio?

Different from any other group of musicians I work with. Doug has pretty much defined a whole region of bass adventure for himself, timbre-ally and melodically, and Gregg has his vast background as a multi-percussionist informing the way he deals with a kit, so it never feels like standard power-trio stuff. It always seems redolent with different kinds of possibility, and rarely genre-specific. It can go spinning off into any direction at any moment, and that’s constantly exciting and inspiring for me. Whenever I play extemporaneously on guitar or keyboard I’m trying to come up with things I’ve never heard before, and playing with Doug and Gregg really encourages those tendencies.

Aside from the motifs, and the covers, is there a plan for the shows?

The main idea that I have is that each night will begin with an improv, and that on each of the three nights it will be started off by each one of us in succession—so one night will be kicked off by Gregg, one by Doug, and one by me. I think that will effectively impose a distinct character on each of the nights right from the off.

When you were a kid, growing up, what role did music play in your home?

Records constantly spinning on the Magnavox console in the living room, and my Dad whistling old tunes non-stop. Music was everywhere. Mills Brothers were my Dad’s favorite. A lot of Ray Conniff. And my sister was just the right age to be completely bowled over by The Beatles, so I would play those records whenever I could. I became obsessed by The Beatles by about age five.

What moved you from listening to playing?

My parents got me a Magnus chord organ for my seventh birthday. I didn’t even know that I wanted to be a musician, but as soon as I saw that thing I started playing Paint It Black on it. It felt like a logical step to play keyboard. It’s such a graphically approachable musical interface. It just made sense. I’m real grateful that my parents figured out I was supposed to be a musician before I did.

We moved from Long Island to San Diego in 1970, when I was eight. We got a private teacher, and I took lessons from her for about five years. I got an acoustic guitar for my 11th birthday, and started a self-imposed course of study on that simultaneously with my organ lessons. I never had any guitar lessons. It was just transferring what I was learning on organ to the fretboard, and figuring out stuff off of records.

After all that study and practice, were you itching to perform?

Actually I was more interested in recording, as was my older brother (who also got interested in guitar after I got my acoustic). We ended up getting a TEAC four-track, and another TEAC two-track for mixdown, and we would record our own versions of songs we liked. We had a little laboratory going where we would just record stuff all the time. That kept us from ever getting too involved in performance. I think we just found recording too interesting to want to be distracted from it. Eventually, in 1980, we formed a band, but we just rehearsed for a year, did one gig and broke up. I think we just enjoyed rehearsing.

How did you land a gig playing with Frank Zappa?

I called his office and asked for a gig!

Really? I mean… Why? What inspired you?

He was pretty much it for me for years, starting from when I was a teenager. I loved all kinds of music, but he was always at the top of the heap in terms of my fascination with his music and his persona, wanting to collect magazines with him in and making sure to see whenever he was on TV. I was absolutely delighted by him and his work.

In fact in 1985 his 818-PUMPKIN hotline advertised that he’d be in the office taking phone calls on a specific day, and I called him (I was the last one to make it before the end of the deadline for calls) and told him it was my dream to play with him. He told me, “well, I’m never going on the road with a band ever again, so keep dreaming.”

So in late 1987, I heard that he was in rehearsal with a new group, so I just assumed this would be my last chance to work with him, which had been my dream for a long time. I called the office and, the next day, I got a call and heard a female voice say “Will you hold for Frank Zappa?” I said, “Yes.” He got on the phone and said “So. You know all of my music?” I said, “um…well, I’m familiar with all of it, and can play a lot of it and can learn to play any of it, so, yeah.” He said, “Do you have any idea how many songs that is?” I said, “yeah, they’re all in the next room.” He said, “I don’t believe you. Get your ass up here and prove it.”

He told me a couple of songs to learn for the audition: What’s New In Baltimore and Sinister Footwear II. Both are pretty fucking hard. I had never played Baltimore, but I had taught myself “Sinister” a few years before. I boned up on both of them as quickly as I could. The next day my brother drove me up from San Diego to LA with me in the backseat trying to play every Zappa song I could think of on the guitar, and freaking out.

Marty, my brother, pulled over the car, looked back at me and said, “You’re never going to be more ready for this audition than you are at right this second.” That was very wise, and I calmed down and enjoyed myself for the rest of the drive.

We walked into the rehearsal space, which was a cavernous soundstage on what used to be Francis Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios, and the only people in this huge space were Frank and his computer assistant Bob Rice. 

For those who don’t know it, can you give a thumbnail sketch of SF2, just so people can have some idea of what you’re talking about. I mean… It isn’t exactly a simple 4/4 rock/pop tune.

Well, it’s got a slow pulse, so the basic beat is not too difficult to process. It starts with a really lovely melodic intro but, over the top of the slow pulse, it eventually transitions into a pretty endless series of very complicated and fast melodies, in extremely odd, mathematically complex rhythmic groupings, which are being phrased in unison by a variety of instruments. So a couple of things are required – the ability to make some really challenging intervallic leaps very quickly, and the ability to memorize and execute very unorthodox rhythmic groupings (eventually in unison with a bunch of players who already know the piece and can play it in their sleep). It’s also a long piece, so there’s a lot of long-form memorization required.

In your audition, were you playing to a tape? How did that work?

No, although he was playing a Synclavier rendition of “The Black Page” while I was plugging in the guitar, and I played along with that to kind of show off. After that it was just me playing by myself which, in the case of something like “Sinister,” is kind of insane because there’s no pulse to play off of. All those little rhythmic peculiarities really only make sense when laid over a basic pulse, but I just had to tap my foot and hope for the best.

At one point he asked me if I knew “G-Spot Tornado,” which was from the Jazz From Hell album, mostly songs created on the Synclavier and thus never played by humans up until that point. I didn’t know that one but I had taught myself the first song on the album, “Night School,” and I offered to play that for him. He asked Bob Rice to find the sheet music for the melody so he could read along while I played the lead line.

I played the whole freaking four-minute melody with no backing while he sat there reading along. When it was done he looked at me and said “There was one wrong note.” Actually there had been at least three but I was glad he didn’t catch that.) Later, I heard him doing an interview in Europe where he claimed I played it perfectly, and that that was the moment I clinched the audition.

Then he wanted to check my sight-reading, which was not too swift. I sat at a Yamaha DX-7 keyboard and he put up the sheet music for “Strictly Genteel.” I knew the song well enough to play it by ear, but I read the sheet music while I was doing it.

He was looking at the chart, and looking at my hands, and then he stopped me and said “wait, wait. Are you reading that or are you playing it by ear?” I admitted I was playing it from memory and his eyebrows went way up. He dug it. He shook my hand and said I should “come back on Monday so the rest of the band can witness your particular splendor.” Marty and I drove back to San Diego screaming the whole way.

Once you got the gig, how long did you have in rehearsal before you hit the road?

Four months of rehearsal, five days a week, eight hours a day. We rehearsed for as long as we toured. We had a working repertoire of around 120 songs.

Was this your first big tour?

Yep—my first tour of any kind. My live experience was pretty much limited to playing top-40 tunes in dive bars in San Diego prior to this.

What was it like the first time you stepped onto the stage with the band?

Surreal, ridiculous. I remember hyperventilating during Frank’s solo on “Inca Roads.” I thought I would be more scared than I was. The crazy energy of the whole thing kind of kept me afloat. And during the second set (we had an intermission during the US leg of the tour during which audience members were encouraged to go out into the lobby and register to vote, the first major tour to include voter registration as a part of the event), Frank decided for some reason to keep featuring me. He had me playing guitar, keyboard and vocal simultaneously at one point.

We finished with “Stairway To Heaven,” which ended with me on my knees at the front of the stage. And when we came out for the encore, the first thing he said was “Mike Keneally, ladies and gentlemen!” To say I was blown away doesn’t even begin to cover it. To this day I’m still astonished that he did that, in fact I thought I must be remembering it incorrectly until I heard an audience tape years later.

You are a member of my all time favorite fictional metal band: Dethklok. How did that happen?

Believe it or not, MySpace is the reason I got into that band. In 2006 I was in Europe and my girlfriend wrote me and said “Hey, Brendon Small is on MySpace. You should write to him and say hi.” So I wrote him and said, “Hi, don’t know if you know who I am but my girlfriend Sarah and I are huge fans of Home Movies [the series he had on Adult Swim a few years before Metalocalypse], and I just wanted to say hi and, you know.”

He wrote back “Duuuuuuuuuuuuude. HUGE fan. I saw you in 1996 when I was a student at Berklee – we should totally get together and hang out.” He told me he was working on a new series that would somehow bring his love of metal into play. When the show came out it went through the roof.

He put out that first album and it became the fastest selling death metal album in US history—totally defied expectations. There was a need for a live presentation to promote the album and the show, and Brendon had never actually been a member of a band before. He wanted to surround himself with people he felt comfortable with, and asked me if I would do it and if my bassist Bryan Beller might like to be involved too.

Talk about exhilarating! Those Dethklok live gigs are insanely fun. Audiences lose their minds and the music is so much fun to play. Being live onstage while Gene [Hoglan, the band’s drummer & a Long Beach guy] does what he does is like strapping onto a locomotive, man. It’s unbelievable. I sure hope we do more.

Are there other projects you’re currently involved in, aside from the trio?

Well, I’m out on the road with Satriani right now. We’re winding up a two month North America tour and heading out to Europe and South America later this year. I’ve got a solo album called Scambot 2 which is coming out this year. I’ll be doing some solo touring in Europe in June with a couple of European musicians I toured with in the early 00s, and I’ll be touring with Beer For Dolphins (Bryan Beller and Joe Travers) in October. All this is why I’m only able to do these three nights with Gregg and Doug [smiles] Which I’m really looking forward to!!

Alvas Showroom is located at 1417 West 8th Street in San Pedro. To get there, drive West on 7th to Weymouth Avenue, turn left, and then left onto 8th. To purchase tickets in advance, call 310. 519.1314 or visit AlvasShowroom.com. To learn more about Mike, visit Keneally.com. Read an interview with Gregg Bendian.

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