Innerviews, music without borders

Mike Keneally
Lifting the Veil
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2000 Anil Prasad.

What is Mike Keneally music? It’s a head-scratcher of a question. Equal parts guitarist, multi-instrumentalist and composer, Keneally walks an impressive tightrope with each of his releases. Straddling rock and jazz, improvisation and composition, the avant and the accessible, ferocious instrumentals and poignant pop, his albums represent a restless, yet resolute creative mindset.

Dancing, his eighth and latest release, takes those elements and frames them within a largely melodic context. It’s Keneally’s most song-oriented release to date. And unlike previous albums that found him burying meaning in metaphor, Dancing’s lyrics take a much more forward stance. In fact, some of its songwriting possesses an almost confessional feel—although Keneally rarely explicitly reveals what he’s confessing to.

One thing the Long Island, NY native will acknowledge is the influence of working with some of music’s most eclectic and evocative artists. He’s probably best known for his 1987-88 tenure as Frank Zappa’s "stunt guitarist." Keneally’s also performed and recorded with the likes of Kevin Gilbert, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Henry Kaiser, Michael Manring, Steve Vai and XTC, just to name a few.

Currently, Keneally, 38, is predominantly focused on furthering his solo career. And to maintain artistic autonomy and ensure his releases don’t get lost in the corporate music shuffle, he co-founded the Exowax indie label in 1999.

After returning home from trick or treating with his daughter this Halloween evening in his adopted hometown of San Diego, CA, Keneally took the time to detail his unique musical and philosophical perspectives for Innerviews.

You’ve said the new album makes you ecstatic. Why?

I generally don’t let anything out or release any albums unless I feel I’ve come reasonably close to what my intention was when I started making it. I usually have a specific vision or feeling in mind. Obviously, things go off on their own path and happen the way they’re gonna happen. You can’t control everything and I wouldn’t if I could. On this album, I probably had the highest aspirations and in some ways, the greatest fears about actually succeeding in my goals. I had very ambitious plans regarding the tone and feeling of the record just because I felt so deeply about the band. I wanted to represent them well, because a studio environment is very different from a stage environment.

When we get onstage, everybody gets a chance to really state their case musically in a more relaxed way. In the studio, I wanted things to be more concise in terms of individual instrumental statements. I wanted to make sure people could listen to this album and know this is a very special band and I think I succeeded in that. Emotionally, I’ve been feeling things really deeply lately and the songs reflect that. I just wanted the songs to reflect what I felt when writing, singing and mixing them. Everything on the album is deeply felt. When I listen to it, I really feel that. Others who respond to the album seem to hear it too. Above all, that’s why I feel ecstatic.

You’ve also said your previous songs have been steeped in metaphor because you were too insecure to come right out and say what you really mean. But the new album features some pretty direct lyrics. What changed for you to allow that?

The intensity of the need to convey what I was going through and how I was feeling required a move away from the metaphoric. Boil That Dust Speck was created in the midst of a lot of emotional turmoil and it was a lot more comfortable for me back then to couch it in metaphor and to make up stories about floating faces, skunks and things like that. It worked for me then and for whatever reason I didn’t feel like coming out and saying what I was feeling very explicitly. I’ve done a lot of hiding through the years and I’ve found in recent times that I’m a lot less inclined to hide. I think I was hurting myself and my music by concealing so much of myself. I think this album is very open, direct and welcoming. People are responding to the intimacy of it. The time had come to do this. If I had continued singing songs in the third person when they were supposed to be in the first person—for instance having people believe a song was about an egg instead of really being about me—I would possibly be doing irreparable damage to myself and what I’m supposed to be creating. It was time to lift the veil.

Did this new openness stem from a particular personal evolution or new point of view?

I’d say—with being intentionally evasive or cagey—a lot of things happened in the last couple of years that don’t necessarily need to be explicitly discussed. No doubt, I’ve gone through vast personal changes and mind boggling experiences over the last couple of years. It’s resulted in me feeling a lot stronger in general and a great deal more confident about being exactly who I am and being completely unashamed about it. That’s reached deep into the musical side of what I’m doing as well.

The album finds your vocals much more naked than they’ve ever been before.

I think this is the album where I took a big step forward vocally. And there’s a course that can be plotted down the line where I put myself out there a little bit more with each album. But this was the one where I allowed the voice to occupy center stage. A lot of it has to do with the fact that I’ve done a lot of singing live in the last couple of years and enjoyed the sensation of singing along with albums as I drive around in the car. I got to appreciate vocalists as well. I went through a serious Stevie Wonder phase where I was just listening to him all the time and trying to figure out precisely what he was doing. I’d sing in unison with it. I wouldn’t do it singing at home, I’d do it in the car.

I was listening to stuff for pleasure, but it would be a pretty good vocal instruction course. Thom Yorke of Radiohead had a major impact on me as did Jeff Buckley—two guys who I don’t share a vocal range with. My actual voice is much more limited as an instrument, but I’ve learned recently to squeeze some more power out of it. So, I’ve been enjoying that and placing it center stage on the record—with all its flaws. My voice isn’t a supremely slick instrument, but it’s good at conveying what I wanted to convey with the songs because the lyrics and subject matter had very little to hide. I figured I shouldn’t hide my voice in the mix either.

Does the album signal a new way of working for you moving forward?

I think it’s likely the next album will be an intentional retreat form having everything so explicit because it feels to me like it’s time to do that. I think this album is an advance and the right thing to do when I did it, but I don’t know if it’s a harbinger of the way things are going to be. Every time I do an album, it bears no resemblance to the album before it. [laughs] That’s the way I like it. This album is a signpost along the way. It’s a little hard to talk about without trumpeting your spiritual growth and saying "Check me out!" [laughs] I feel like I’m on a path of far greater potential for awareness than I was before things in my life got a bit jostled around. I’m very happy with the direction I’m traveling down.

You mentioned a spiritual path. Is that something significantly influencing you at the moment?

I don’t think of it as something that’s influencing me. It’s just what is. I could be no more influenced by it than by oxygen. [laughs] It’s just what’s happening. I’m of it.

Do you put a name on that path?

No, no. I have yet to feel any driving need or even a momentary compulsion to put a name on it because I’ve never been overly fond of labels.

Can you describe some of its constituent elements?

I don’t know that I would because I have the feeling it’d be doing myself and anyone else a disservice by trying to put it into words. I have a better chance of conveying the joy that I feel and the privilege that I have of basking in this experience through the music. I’m certainly not about to proselytize about something I don’t know how to fully describe, much less fully understand other than to say that I think everybody has a chance to walk along a path of greater awareness. Everyone has access to it. Some people go through their whole lives and take maybe two steps along the way. Again, I don’t feel like jumping up and down and saying "Check out where I’m at. I’m way over here." You can almost sense when you meet somebody that seems to have dug down deeper into the stuff of life. They have a sense of wonderment, excitement and delight and that’s just what I’m enjoying being a part of right now.

You’ve described the album as being accessible with some radio-friendly tracks. Those are terms usually left up to music critics to apply. Why did you feel those words served you well here?

I don’t know that they served me well. I think they may serve me ill. I just don’t feel the need to say anything other than what I think. I think there is stuff on the record that is radio friendly. I think there’s been stuff on every record I’ve done with the possible exception of Nonkertompf that have been radio friendly—and maybe there’s one or two things on there too. There’s virtually no likelihood of me getting any mainstream radio play anyway. So, I figure I might as well push things karmically in a good direction and at least mention it. [laughs] If even one guy plays it because the artist says this would fit in, that increases the likelihood of it becoming a movement. Obviously "Live in Japan," "Ankle bracelet" and "Joe"—if we take out the word "motherfucker" for the single—and "I was not ready for you" are approachable melodically and rhythmically. There’s a lot to chew on musically and lyrically but they’re not going to get up too many people’s noses in terms of the peculiar structures or anything like that. I’ve seen people enjoy these songs, so I think other people would too if they heard them on radio.

In 1987, Frank Zappa told Performing Songwriter magazine "When a guy sits down to write a song, he’s not sitting down to make history, he’s sitting down to make money. I don’t think the urge to be timeless necessarily permeates the pop tune marketplace. The urge to be rich permeates the pop tune marketplace." What’s your reaction to that and where do you fall in the spectrum?

Hee. My reaction to it is Frank is someone I love and continue to love. He was a proud cynic and often said in the press that he thought cynicism was a fabulous thing and the right way to be. I worked with the Zappas long enough to agree with that for a very long time. I think it’s part of the reason for why I concealed myself in the early part of my career. I thought cynicism was the way to be. Hanging out with the Zappas for an impressionable youth can really do things to you. I bear them no ill will, but it just so happens a lot of people who work in that organization take on a lot of the surface aspects of the Zappa view of life because it helps them fit in and makes them feel that you’re cool. The further away I got from working with them, the more I found cynicism kind of fading. I got a generally more positive and life-affirming view of things. When I sit down to write a song, all I’m trying to do is create something beautiful. It doesn’t necessarily have to be timeless. I do kind of agree with Frank that you don’t have to spend too much time worrying how you’re going to be seen in the history books. I’m only concerned with accurately getting a version of the stuff I hear in my head. I hear music in my head daily and I like the way a lot of it sounds. So, I try to figure out how it goes and then record it and see if other people will like it too.

In the lyrics to "We’ll be right back" you specifically discuss the fact that you’re trying to inject some beauty into the world.

I forgot that I wrote that specifically in that song. [laughs] I think the world could use it. I think the world of popular music could use it. Let’s take Eminem for example. The production, feeling and force of this guy’s range and anger is phenomenal. It’s something you listen to and can’t fail to be affected by. But man, there’s a strong case to be made that it’s not helping anything at all. Maybe you can say that it’s a catharsis, but it seems to me there’s a streak of general cruelty and small mindedness that’s taken hold. Sexism, racism and homophobia have strangely become a mainstay of popular music over the last few years. I’m an old guy now, so maybe I’m talking like grown-ups did when they first saw Elvis on The Ed Sullivan show. I acknowledge that dynamic. But at the same time, I have to sit back and go "Wow, there’s ugliness afoot." I don’t think it should be stopped because I think life will take the course that it will take. It shouldn’t be regulated. I think anybody should be able to create anything they want to create. I never consider it this way consciously, but my subconscious says I need to do what I can to counteract the possible ill effects of that kind of stuff. That’s not a mission statement, but it may be one motive.

Beyond that reference, How autobiographical are the lyrics of "We’ll be right back?"

The lyrics were boiled down from about two pages of densely worded spleen-venting that I scrawled out somewhere on the road in Europe earlier this year. Every word is something that I felt.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about your views on the current presidential campaign given the introduction to that song.

I’m not a huge fan of popular music artists specifically endorsing candidates. Having said that, most thinking people won’t need me to specify who I’m referring to when I refer to an "artificial man" in the opening line of that song. What can you say about the presidential race other than that it is in one sense highly discouraging and in the other sense you have no choice but to hold out a certain amount of hope that the country won’t go down the tubes. Most importantly, you have to be concerned—like it or not—because you’re living under the superstructure. The fact is there is governmental impact on our lives. There are all kinds of miserable, corrupt, soul-destroying things going on in the machinations of any country to keep things pumping through the arteries of government. If you knew exactly what was going on all the time, you wouldn’t be able to walk outside. So, I have to tend my garden like it says in the song. I’m not saying shut off your responsibility or be unaware of what’s happening around you. But first and foremost, you have to tend your garden and make sure you’re doing the best you can to keep your immediate surroundings happy, healthy and whole. Once you’ve got that stuff taken care of, you can move on from there. But don’t go poking around in other people’s gardens.

The song strikes me as something Kevin Gilbert could have written. Your vocal delivery on it reminded me of him too.

I never really think about that intentionally, but every now and then someone mentions there’s something on my albums or a vocal delivery that’s particularly Kevin-influenced. Obviously, Kevin had a big impact on me. "I was not ready for you" is about Kevin and Sluggo was dedicated to him too. But like so many of my influences, I don’t wear them on my sleeves. They’re always bubbling under the surface of my skin.

Kevin and I shared certain tastes in production. He liked to have his voice extremely out front and very present and very dry sounding. You could hear ever click of his tongue against his palette. For this album, that felt really good for a lot of the material. I really wanted the sound of my voice to be very present and real. So, I think that has a lot to do with why that song has a Gilbert-like vibe. The vocal is right up there. There’s also certain vocal phrasing things and the cadence of the song, lyrics and attitude. Kevin was great. I miss him a lot.

Tell me a little more about "I was not ready for you."

It’s a real straightforward exploration of my feelings about Kevin and our relationship. We didn’t spend as much time together as I would have liked. I think we could have been more productive in a collaborative sense. We discussed doing more work together but scheduling and other circumstances prevented it from happening. You don’t ever think what a shame that is until the moment comes where you’re fucked. Like it or not, those things are not going to happen. I was regretful about that and it took me a long time to come to terms with it. I always thought it would be good to create something that came out of that feeling. It took awhile, but then one day that song came out real effortlessly and that was that.

What did you make of Shaming of the True?

It’s a real triumph of reconstruction on the part of Jon Rubin, Nick D'Virgilio and all the people who pieced it together. I saw what they had to do to put all those pieces together. They really did some fine work. I think they ended up with something Kevin would have been very happy with. I don’t expect it’s precisely what he would have created and I think he would have paced it somehow differently and edited it down a bit. My feeling is that in terms of the narrative flow, it bogged down a little towards the end. He might have pulled out some stuff. That’s just me. I could be completely off base in that. But it’s priceless. The world is very fortunate to have that to listen to. I’m immensely grateful.

Dancing is the first true, fully-integrated band album you’ve recorded. Why did you pursue that approach this time around?

We’ve been doing these shows where the audience would be in tears practically from the band being so insanely good sounding. I thought I would be nuts not to document this moment in time. There’s never any guarantee that personnel or vibes will remain stable. We’ve been kind of in this bubble where we’re intensely creative and the natural sound of the musicians playing together combined to make this sound that was really pleasing. So, I just thought "Yeah, I really gotta get this in the studio and record it as well as possible." One of the cool things about the album is that it’s nearly live. A lot of the stuff is first takes. That’s amazing considering the complexity of the arrangements and the fact that half the material was introduced to the group four days before we started recording it.

You’re known for taking a one-man approach to your solo material. What was it like to give up complete autonomy?

It was a luxury. Ecstasy. It was really delightful for me to not have to do all that stuff. But believe me, I still have my thumbprint on everything. [laughs] I was just as much a little dictator as ever, but it was fun, fun, fun to have others contribute their unique voices to the mix instead of me playing every solo and doing all the orchestration on five guitars and six synthesizers. I was able to get all this humanity on there and all these different feelings and emotions. It makes it much more rich sounding to me.

Contrast the musical philosophies behind Dancing and Nonkertompf, your last all-instrumental release.

Nonkertompf was only tangentially concerned with anything resembling song structure. It was recorded in a very stream of consciousness way. It was meant to feel like a dream. There were no lyrics. It was a very different experience—a very internalized experience. I wanted people to enjoy it and make it a part of their lives. What I was trying to express on Nonkertompf was by necessity a real kind of insular thing. The stuff on Dancing is stuff I’m singing. It’s about personal experience—things anyone can relate to really. It results in a whole different feeling.

Dancing and Nonkertompf contain an incredible diversity of music. How do you go about determining a running order when each track is so distinctly different?

Hee. It was more arduous in the case of Nonkertompf because I didn’t go into the studio with a sequence in mind. I only knew I was going to record a bunch of stuff and stick it together later. So, the flow of that album was totally created in the editing bay. With Dancing, I had a running order for the album on the first day in the studio, although some things did get changed in the final running order. We recorded that album in order too. The first thing we recorded was "Live in Japan" and the last thing we record was "Kedgeree." Some of the elements got shuffled around, but I’d say 75 to 80 percent of the album was recorded in the order it appears. I wanted there to be a consistent journey in every way. I wanted the band to go through the same journey the listener would go through when they heard it—whatever the voyage was from first to last song. Believe me, there’s never an intention of mine to pad out an album to reach the maximum length. It’s not "Come on! We have to record two more songs to get it to 80 minutes!" [laughs] When all is said and done, for Dancing we had 110 minutes of finished music. It was tough deciding what had to go.

Describe the differences between conceiving and executing a carefully-crafted song versus an instrumental piece.

There’s really not a heck of a lot of difference. The primary difference is, of course, the lyrics. There’s the parallel, but distinct challenge of coming up with lyrics that work on their own and convey something important to me, while at the same time working in tandem with the music to create an interesting texture and musical statement. But I really apply the same standards to everything I write no matter how accessible or seemingly peculiar it might be. It needs to sound natural and real and good. It has to sound beautiful to me. Beauty comes in a lot of different forms. Some things are conventionally beautiful. Other things approach beauty through juxtaposition. Some things might be super ugly on the surface, but when you bang them all together, they turn into something that has a very odd beauty to it.

A lot of music I love is very clangy and dissonant, but I find it beautiful. So, I explore that pretty often. Generally, any song I write comes out of a fragment of melody that happens when I pick up an instrument. It just appears in my head and once I figure out what that little bit of music is, it’s a question of taking a deep breath, relaxing and seeing where it leads. I always feel that the next appropriate sequence of notes is something that gets formed out of thin air. It’s moments like that which make me feel like I’m not responsible for the music. It’s something a lot of writers comment on. I always thought it was hyperbole—some kind of claptrap. But in the last few years, it started to happen to me. It’s something that just comes after you’ve done it for awhile. You just become a conduit and it’s a nice feeling because at the end of it, you have a song that just happened.

Given your multi-instrumentalist tendencies these days, do you still feel you’re evolving as a guitarist?

Oh yeah. It’s a pleasure to not have to play as much guitar. There are only four extended guitar solos on Dancing and every one says what I needed it to say. That’s as opposed to before where I might be banging away for minutes and minutes and minutes to come up with a few phrases that I thought were really special. I have a funny relationship with the guitar. I think part of it has to do with a little self-doubt that I carried around with me for years because I never had any training on the guitar and the fact that it wasn’t my first instrument. When I got hired by Frank Zappa to play guitar, there was a part of me that found the situation so absurd because I was always a keyboard player. I thought "How can an untrained guitarist be in Frank Zappa’s band playing these songs? It just doesn’t compute." Yet, there I was. So as time went on after that and people started looking to me to be the guitar guy, I felt a little inadequate compared to people like Steve Vai—before I did any work with him. It was unavoidable for me to compare myself to him. I would hear and see how masterful Steve was at controlling every element of guitar playing including tone, phrasing, texture and all this stuff. It was phenomenal. And here I am just trying to play these songs as best I can. At the time, I didn’t have what I considered to be a personal style. I was self-conscious about that for a very long time.

In the last couple of years, I’ve undergone a lot of personal stuff that’s resulted in me being a stronger, more confident person. It’s affected the guitar playing as well. I’m very pleased that now when I get out onstage with the guitar that I’m not the least bit self-conscious. I’m just utterly relaxed. All the years I’ve been playing guitar previously I now consider to be my version of guitar instruction. I was teaching myself how to play guitar in public for years. Over the last couple of years, I’ve finally got to a point where I’m justified as anyone to stand up there with a guitar in my hand and know I’m not placing myself on a graph of the great guitar players in the world. I know I’m contributing something that is valid and really interesting and fun. There’s no longer any hesitation between the guitar playing and what I imagine in my head in terms of notes. That pathway is clear and it’s a great delight for me.

Describe the challenges and benefits of running your indie label Exowax.

It’s fun to have an album and know that it’s yours. No-one else is to blame if the things fails to achieve any kind of visibility or outreach. At the same time, you can feel good about it if you succeed. It’s an uphill battle because we’re such a small label and have no promotional budget to speak of. Radio play is a really unlikely thing for us too. But you get a momentum going, believe in yourself strongly enough and things happen for you. We have hired some people who believe in what we’re doing. We have a publicist and distribution, although it’s taking awhile for the distribution to really kick in and be effective. But it’s more than we had with my former label. There’s just a feeling of great excitement and a strong belief that the album is one that deserves a chance to be heard.

When it’s your label and you know the guy in the head office isn’t going to give up on it in four weeks if sales aren’t what he expected, it’s a good feeling. We will do what we can for the world to discover this album—forever. [laughs] We’ll never stop working it because we think people would like it. Nonkertompf earned enough money to allow us to make Dancing and Dancing will make enough money to allow us to make the next album. So, that’s not a problem. We’ll always break even. Vast stardom and mountains of riches are not what we have in our sights. What have in our sights is a comfort level and ability to self-sustain. For me, personally, I want to be able to actually support myself indefinitely with my own music. It’s a luxury I’ve never enjoyed. I guess the point could be made that it is a luxury and not one I should rightfully expect. However, it is a goal and one I’d be delighted to achieve.

I don’t have anything bad to say about the fact that I’ve worked with people like Steve Vai, Frank Zappa, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and gone and done projects like Yo Miles! with Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith. I look at the discography and see all these people I’ve worked with and it’s cool. Part of it was financial necessity, but it’s also great that I’ve managed to work with a real cross-section of people. I really enjoy everything I gain from those experiences, but I’ve been doing it long enough now. I’m so excited about what is happening with the music I’m writing, the sound the band is creating and the potential for future projects brewing in my head. I think "Wouldn’t it be nice if you could do that all the time and not have to worry about paying the rent next month?"

You recently engaged in a great deal of activity with Yo Miles!—Henry Kaiser’s Miles Davis tribute project. Tell me about your role in it and what it meant to you.

It was one of the most fabulous and instructive musical experiences ever for me. On guitar, the band had Henry Kaiser, Chris Muir and myself. It also had Wadada Leo Smith on trumpet, Greg Osby on alto sax, Steve Smith on drums, Karl Perazzo on percussion, Michael Manring on bass, Zakir Hussain on tabla, the Rova saxophone quartet and Tom Coster on keyboards—a sparkling array of incredibly creative talent. We holed up at this amazing studio in the [San Francisco] Bay Area called The Site. I lived there for five days. The place was catered with this tremendous food and we just recorded hours and hours and hours of music everyday. It’s going to be four packed CDs ranging from 75 to 80 minutes apiece. It’s good—one of the more successful Miles tributes that I’ve ever heard.

When making it, we were all imbued with the spirit of Miles Davis and the spirit of creative collaborative music making. It was very productive. There were several people that just knocked me out with the force of their musicianship, confidence, poise and elegance. Watching Greg Osby doing a sax solo is a study in quiet, non-boastful confidence. Everything he does is golden. When it’s done, he walks into the control room, hears it back and just imperceptibly nods his head to say "Yeah, that was good." I’ve been with other musicians who just trumpet to the stars when they do the slightest little thing. They’re like "Did’ja hear that man? That’s awesome! That’s cool! Did’ja hear that lick?"

There’s an inclination when you’re at the beginning of your musical journey to be awfully darn pleased about the things you do. As you go on and become more confident, you realize there’s less and less need to go on about things like that. It was really nice to spend so much time with such seasoned and brilliant musicians. We did a long show at the Fillmore too. It was one of the most fun experiences I ever had onstage. I was playing rhythm guitar a lot of the time, just chopping away at these relentless patterns for 20 minutes at a shot. [laughs] It was good exercise and really exhilarating to lock into this rhythmic place. It was a very visceral, exciting experience when I would do a solo. I would really go deep into this place into myself where I could hear what the right melody to play is and pretty much instantly process whatever is happening onstage at the same time—what textures the other musicians were creating and to quickly ask myself "What would I want to hear at this moment?" and have the answer come flying out of the guitar. It’s so much fun when that happens.

What’s your relationship to Miles’ electric period and how has it influenced you?

For years, I was a Miles admirer. I collected all the records and had a complete Miles collection without every really locking into what he’s about. Then a few years ago, I came around to appreciating his concepts from repeated listening to the Plugged Nickel box which I mention in "We’ll be right back." That collection had a major impact on my views about music. As far as the ‘70s stuff that we did in Yo Miles!, it’s really a case study In letting go and learning how to create a lot from a little. A lot of those compositions are nothing more than one repeated bassline and a four or five note motif or something like that. It’s all about what you make of it. Not all of those performances on those Miles records are stellar because maybe they caught the band on a not-so-inspired night. But some of them are mind-blowing and killing. I came to an even greater appreciation from doing the Yo Miles! project. We’d say "It’s time to do ‘Great Expectations’ or one of the main themes from Agharta." Then we’d stick on the CD, listen to it for a few seconds and from that seed or piece of information, all this stuff would blossom forth in a very collaborative way. There was a feeling of great trust and confidence in the room. Everyone was taking care of each other musically. It was nice. I’d say there is some darkness on those original Miles records. I think the way we came at it was to make it a more uplifting and joyful experience. But I’ll leave that assessment to the listener when it finally gets released.

You’ve got another forthcoming project with Kaiser and Manring.

We did an album early last year that still hasn’t been completed. Henry hasn’t finished mixing it. It’s called Palace of Love. It’s Henry, Michael, Alex Cline, me and another guitarist named Raoul Björkenheim from Finland. I play mostly acoustic piano. I only play guitar on two songs. We went in with two days of studio time and a little bit of prepared material. There was a lot of improvisation. I wrote one song for it which I think is very pretty called "Miso." It was a challenge to play acoustic piano in this sort of jazz context and have it sound like it belonged. It was a lot of fun. I think it’s going to make a really good album.

Let’s discuss your relationship to your fans. I’ve seen you amongst them and you treat them more like friends and equals—a rare thing to see.

Seeing as they are friends and equals, it’s not much of a stretch for me to treat them that way. I don’t understand anybody who treats fans any differently. I’m privileged to have them purchase what I do and then respond to it in such a satisfyingly, mind-blowing way. These people are so incredibly into the music I create. How can I be anything but immensely touched and flattered by that? Unfortunately, there are those that devalue the people who support them once the wave of support starts. I just don’t get it. It’s very important to these people to meet you. You can see it in their eyes. Some of them are nervous because perhaps they’ve had experiences meeting other artists they really respect and got the brush off and got left out in the cold. Believe me, I often don’t have the time to devote to interacting with people that I wish I did. Sometimes at the end of the gig you have to be on the bus in five minutes. Like it or not, you don’t have the time to talk to people. There have been several times I’ve heard from people who said "A friend of mine tried to talk to you after a gig in New York and you didn’t have any time." Well, it’s true. I didn’t. I’m sorry, but I’ll take every step possible to interact as genuinely as I can with these people because I want to. I can’t think of a single good reason not to. It’s just minimum decency for a human behavior template. I don’t think I deserve any special points for that.

I think you do. I’ve seen my share of musicians who hold their fans in contempt. It’s quite disconcerting sometimes.

That is true. I think it says more about those assholes than it does about me. [laughs]

You’ve been involved in communicating with fans via the Internet for many years—long before it became corporatized. How do you view the changes that have occurred as far as the Internet and music industry go in recent years?

Any musician who gets involved with the Internet has a stake and needs to be interested in what’s happening. But I kind of coast along in my own orbit to a certain degree. I’m more concerned with how I develop my relationship with my fans than I am with sea changes in the vast macrostructure of the Internet. Big movements come and big movements go. Everybody at A&M gets fired, Interscope buys the world—all this stuff happens and I’m still over here doing what I do. I’m not affected in a major way by things like Napster. So far, it hasn’t hurt me or helped me a whole heck of a lot. What helps me is the general tape trading community. The Internet has allowed people to contact one another over vast stretches of geographic space. A guy in Japan who has never seen a Beer For Dolphins show gets to hear something we did at the Baked Potato [club in Hollywood, CA] two weeks ago because somebody sent him a tape. Believe me, I have no problem with that. I’m all about people getting a chance to hear what we do onstage. These are things I’ll never have the opportunity to release because we do too much. We go out there and do these shows and each one is different. The set list is different. The way we interpret songs is different. The shows are all valid in one way or another and 90 percent of it deserves to be heard. So, I’m grateful to the unofficial distribution system that allows all these unique versions of the songs to be heard.

Mike Keneally