by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2014 Anil Prasad.
Mike Keneally’s musical vision stretches across a vast horizon. You Must Be This Tall, the latest album from the guitarist, multi-instrumentalist and composer, showcases a variety of expansive concepts that manage to work together seamlessly. It’s a largely instrumental rock recording full of drama and intricate, mercurial moments. At various points, it’s serious, zany and meditative—sometimes, all at once. The album finds Keneally exploring the boundaries of rock, pop, fusion, and ambient with a deep song-oriented sensibility. While that may sound daunting, it’s an ear-pleasing, strangely accessible release that any listener with a taste for adventure can embrace.
You Must Be This Tall follows 2012’s Wing Beat Fantastic, a collaborative effort with legendary singer-songwriter Andy Partridge, formerly of XTC. It’s an album of elegant, intelligent pop songs, infused with the wit and diverse arrangements one would expect from the duo. It’s by far Keneally’s most melodic effort to date, further underlining the elastic possibilities he’s capable of.
Keneally is known for several other major collaborations as well. He served as Frank Zappa’s “stunt guitarist” during the visionary’s final tour in 1988. He has also been a member of Steve Vai’s touring bands. Currently, Keneally performs as part of Joe Satriani’s group on guitars and keyboards. He’s also part of Dethklok, the death metal band that performs music from the animated show Metalocalypse.
Another recent Keneally release of note is the new deluxe, three-disc reissue of Sluggo, his acclaimed 1997 album. The set features a remixed stereo version of the record, a surround-sound DVD-Audio disc, and a DVD with live and studio footage. As with You Must Be This Tall, the album is a testament to creative diversity, situating imaginative songcraft within magnificently volatile contexts. Keneally also continues work on his ambitious Scambot trilogy, a large-scale epic endeavor that combines autobiographical elements with a humorous fictional universe involving a jam magnate, mood manipulation, and, you guessed it, The Scorpions.
You Must Be This Tall is drawn from material generated across many different periods. Describe how it all came together into a cohesive whole.
At various points, the songs that ended up on this album were part of other projects. A number of songs started happening when I was focused on Scambot 1. Most of the songs were considered for Wing Beat Fantastic, which might be hard to imagine given the way that record turned out. Wing Beat Fantastic is a very sleek, streamlined pop record and the most accessible, straightforward thing I’ve done. By the time I arrived at that form, I was still trying to wedge some of these other peculiar songs into it. My manager, Scott Chatfield, said “You need to think about this.” The reason being that my inclination is always the detour. I’m always thinking we need to take the sharp left turn or go careening off wildly in some other direction. But Wing Beat Fantastic didn’t work as a satisfying listen until we pared it down to the material that felt the most harmonious together. So, this left all of this other super-peculiar stuff to make a whole other record, which is what You Must Be This Tall ended up being.
At one point, it had a completely different order, plus some other material that ended up coming out on the Wing Beat Elastic companion album. It was going to be called The Cavanaugh Chronicles and be the second disc in a Wing Beat Fantastic special edition. That tentative title was designed to confer a narrative significance onto a collection of diverse material—but there isn't really a narrative link, so once the material morphed into the You Must Be This Tall album, I dropped any pretense of presenting it that way. At some point, the Cavanaugh character might show up in the Scambot plot. All told, The Cavanaugh Chronicles was about 55 minutes of music and contained all of You Must Be This Tall, plus the new music—the non-remixed stuff—that ended up on Wing Beat Elastic. When I listened to it, it didn’t hang together as an album in the running order I came up with. I also felt there was too much good stuff there to just condemn it to a second disc of a special edition. I felt it deserved its own spotlight. So, I took away some stuff and reordered it and I was really happy about how it ended up. The album was finished around the same time as Wing Beat Fantastic. We considered putting them out at the same time in 2012, but then thought it was better to keep the spotlight on Wing Beat Fantastic for 2012 and put the spotlight on You Must Be This Tall later. It worked out great because I’ve been touring so much that I didn’t have time to finish another album anyway, but I had You Must Be This Tall in my back pocket all this time, so we were able to release a new album while I was on the road, which was cool.
You’re largely working as a one-man band on this album. What are the benefits and drawbacks of that approach?
The main detriment is I can’t play drums like Joe Travers or Marco Minnemann. At the same time, I grew up loving Todd Rundgren, Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney, all of whom did albums all by themselves in the studio. There’s a real excitement and charm for me in seeing an artist who aggressively puts their thumbprint over all aspects of a song. If you really love an artist’s music, you want to know as much as you can about them. These one-man projects let you see a little more into someone’s soul. For me, it’s also just fun and satisfying. It’s like making a painting in which you control all the colors. I did use Marco Minnemann, Joe Travers, Bryan Beller, and Andy Partridge on the album, so I’ve also got energy coming in from other musicians.
The producer Joe Boyd told me he felt one of the biggest problems with music today is artists can do whatever they want, often without the creative tension that comes out of dealing with a producer’s perspective. What’s your take?
[laughs] I think records were better 40 years ago, so he’s probably right. You definitely run a risk of achieving something that feels sterile, artificial or too processed. There’s also a real sheen that comes from digital recording. I fought against that. I worked really hard on the mixes for You Must Be This Tall and Wing Beat Fantastic to compensate for the fact that they were recorded and mixed digitally. If you don’t take the time to apply equalization, effects, and some approximation of warmth that you used to get from analog techniques, then things can sound really brittle and cold—as does most popular music these days.
To achieve that warmth, I used EQ mostly, and generally speaking, the EQ plugins contained within Pro Tools. Specific frequencies I dealt with changed from song to song, but generally speaking, I would shave off a bit of the high end—where the nastiest digital artifacts tend to congregate—and apply a nice round bump to lower mids and upper lows. And the good old "Instant Karma" slapback echo, arrived at via a variety of different plugins, often gave things a "tape-y" vibe when needed.
A lot of music sounds really brittle, harsh and two-dimensional these days. I didn’t want my music to sound like that. Even though I work really hard to counteract this, there’s probably more of an element of that in my newer music than my first albums from 20 years ago. Hat was literally recorded in a garage studio, so you get a rough and ready feel in the music. You hear the innocence of an artist making music at the beginning of his career. Now, I’m many years into making solo albums. As Robert Fripp once said, “Art is the capacity to re-experience one’s innocence.” That’s what I attempt to do every time I make a record. I don’t want to ever feel like I’m too good at this gig. To a certain degree, I want to feel like I’m starting over every time I make an album.
Tell me about the photography included in the album.
That was from Scott Chatfield. He has a real affection for the feel of photography. The strange, slightly disorienting glimpses of the past reflected in the photos somehow worked. They have an amusement park theme which obviously worked with the title of the record. As soon as I saw the photos Scott had in mind, I felt like we didn’t even have to discuss what this was about. It somehow all really worked with the music and was going to help define what this album was in a really nice way. I felt we nailed it. Bullseye.
Chatfield plays a major role in your career on multiple fronts. Describe his importance to you.
Scott became my manager in 1998 and we started a record label together in 1999. I’ve thrown so many tasks at him over the years. Also, the studio Chatfield Manor is in his home. So, Scott has been essential to the existence of my solo career since the late ‘90s. He and Mike Harris, my engineer, work with me on all of the stuff I put out. Scott offers a unique perspective. He’s not in the studio with us. Generally, Mike and I are working on songs, and Scott is down the hallway, working on his own. That gives him a distance which is really valuable. But sometimes he’ll walk in the studio and say “What’s up with that kick drum?” I’ll say “What do you mean?” And he’ll reply “Go back a minute-and-a-half.” Then he’ll show us where there’s a kick drum that’s literally stopping the momentum of the song. I’ll be listening way past that point because I’m focused on some other detail. So, as a result of his observation, we’ll move the kick drum one millisecond to the right and then everything is okay and he’ll go back to his room. [laughs] Scott also has an ear for superimposition. He and Mike came up with this idea to take two songs from Wing Beat Fantastic—“Land” and “That’s Why I Have No Name” and fold them together into a song called “Land with No Name.” It’s something that would have never occurred to me. Sometimes a totally outside sensibility can be really valuable. Also, Scott and I have been friends for 30 years. He knows me and understands my work, but is constantly surprised by it, even though he’s usually in the house while I’m doing it. He doesn’t necessarily understand what I’m doing until a year after the album comes out. So, it’s all a process of discovery for him as well.
Describe Chatfield Manor for me.
It’s a large house in the San Diego area. One of the bedrooms is the control room and the other bedroom tends to be where we do vocals. We usually record guitars in a bathroom. Drums are out in the living room. So, the whole house turns into a studio. It’s actually Scott’s home. Going there is like having the best of both worlds. I’ve done some good stuff in studios that were in my house, but I find I don’t have the same work ethic when the studio is at home. The idea of having a studio in your house is “Yeah, in the middle of the night, I’ll just get up and record something.” The reality is it doesn’t somehow work that way for me. I started out making records in actual licensed recording studios. So, I’m accustomed to the idea that you drive to the studio and make your album. With Chatfield Manor, I’m driving to Scott’s place, which is the hub of everything we do, including the business we have to do to keep my career going. But the studio’s there as well, and it’s a beautiful house. So, I have a home environment, but I’m driving to go work there, which is an important part of the process for me.
The first thing we worked on there was mixing the Guitar Therapy live album in 2006. We have a Pro Tools setup and it’s pretty basic. You’re talking to a guy who is proudly non-gear oriented. I rely on Mike Harris to know what the hell we’re doing, including what plugins we’re using. I don’t even know the brand names on the vocal mic preamps. I’m literally an idiot savant when I go to that studio.
Take me through your current guitars of choice.
The shining star is a 1988 Fender Clapton Stratocaster. I got it from Fender moments after the Frank Zappa tour ended in 1988. They brought it to me to check out while I was hanging out in the studio with XTC while they were recording Oranges and Lemons. It was probably while we were playing cribbage, because that’s what we did a lot of at the time. Dave Gregory and Colin Moulding are cribbage fiends. I was turned onto cribbage by Bruce and Walt Fowler while I was with Zappa. They were cribbage sharks. They took me for quite a bit of cash.
Cribbage? That’s some crazy rock star behavior.
Oh yeah, that’s what we get up to when the curtain comes down. [laughs] So, I had met John Grunder, the artist relations guy at Fender at that time. It was through a guy at a music store in San Diego. They gave me a deal and started hooking me up with gear. They brought me one of the first Clapton Strats they made. What I primarily love about it is the neck, which feels so smooth and comfortable. The guitar just sings. It has a beautiful vocal-like quality to it and I’ve leaned on it heavily. It has a pull-up pot that increases the gain of the pickup output. The guitar can sound very delicate and it can also get kind of ferocious, but always sounds warm. The guitar has been modified over the years. I took out the original Lace Sensor pickups and put some EMG SAs in there. I also had a 2TEK bridge installed. So, it’s a bit Frankenstein from the modifications, but it’s a guitar I still feel very close to.
Another key guitar is a ‘90s-era Gibson SG of uncertain provenance. It’s very stock-looking. I’m using it on the current Joe Satriani tour and I’ve been recording with it since Sluggo. Satriani loves it because it looks like something I just grabbed off the floor and started playing. It’s not a fancy guitar, but it’s got a real nice honky mid-range grungy quality to it that’s super satisfying.
I also use a 2005 custom Charvel Koa guitar which is on the Guitar Therapy album, Scambot 1, and “Cornbread Crumb” from You Must Be This Tall. I have some Taylor acoustic and electrics as well, in addition to a Fender Baritone Special HH guitar. On "Inglow" from Wing Beat Fantastic, it's the main melody guitar. It’s very clean and deep-toned.
The Rivera Quiana is your amp of choice. What makes it ideal for you?
I’ve played through many amps but never felt like what I heard through them sounded like me. Rivera was suggested to me and I played the “I'm pluckin' the ol' Dental floss” part from Zappa’s “Montana” through the Quiana as a test. For some reason, that’s my go-to line to see if I like an amp. When I played that line through it, I felt like I was home. It’s the primary amp on You Must Be This Tall. Now, I have several Riveras, including a Venus 5 that I use on tour with Satriani. When I’m touring with Dethklok, I use a Rivera K-Tre head.
Riveras have a lot of balls and fullness. I feel like I’m still getting a lot of clarity when I’m grunging things up. It’s really easy to lose harmonic subtleties through distortion, but with Riveras, I’m able to crank up the gain significantly while still being able to satisfyingly hear the component notes of a chord, even if it’s fairly complex. So, I can play somewhat obtuse chords through it and get the music out of it with all the power and gain I need. Riveras also have a lot of creamy low and mid-range goodness, as well as all the sparkle you might ever want.
A recent addition to your rig is the Source Audio Soundblox Multiwave Distortion pedal. What do you get up to with it?
It almost sounds like a guitar synthesizer in that you can tweak frequencies with the thing in ways that almost sound like an old ARP Avatar synth. You can really get otherworldly with it. It lets me create some startling overtones and synth-like sounds that don’t sound synthetic. It can give your tone a weird morphing quality that I like.
The origins of Wing Beat Fantastic go back to 1988 when you first met XTC. Tell me about the circumstances of that initial meeting.
When the Zappa tour went to England, Scott Thunes, the bass player in Zappa’s band said “I’m going to call Virgin Records and leave a message saying XTC is invited to come to all the Zappa shows in Britain.” I thought that seemed so outlandish that it couldn’t possibly lead anywhere. I sat there laughing as he made the call. It felt like a practical joke. But he went ahead and said “XTC is cordially invited to the shows.” And as it turned out, Andy Partridge and Dave Gregory came to the Birmingham show. It was mind-blowing for me to meet them. Everyone at that point wondered if Andy was Syd Barrett or Brian Wilson. He had a breakdown in the early ‘80s and stopped performing live. I remember when Mummer came out, having an incredible sense of relief when I knew he was putting out records again.
It still seemed like he was a homebody, so I never expected to see him at a concert. But the lure of Zappa was just too strong. He needed to come check it out. It may have been the first concert he attended since he stopped performing five years previously. Andy was social, funny and loquacious. We had a great idea. He said “We’re going to be recording an album in Los Angeles later in the year. You should come by.” I said “Okay.” [laughs] That was all he needed to say. I spent every spare moment I could in the studio watching them make that record whenever I could. They were in L.A. and I was in San Diego, so I had to make the drive there anytime I wanted to hang out, but I would just keep coming up there and watch them record, then sleep on Dave Gregory’s couch. I played guitar on the basic rough track of the one song from the session that isn’t on the album called “My Train Is Coming.” So, I can actually say I played with XTC. It was Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory, Pat Mastelotto, and I doing the instrumental bits.
How did that experience lead to Wing Beat Fantastic?
That’s where the connection started. I have to thank Scott Thunes for having the balls to invite XTC, because we both idolized the band. It was like having The Beatles show up to the Zappa gig. I still remember the first time I saw the “Senses Working Overtime” video. I had a feeling that I hadn’t felt since The Beatles. It led me into a deep, obsessional rabbit hole in 1982. It was cool because there were so many singles to collect. It was like “Oh my God, this whole world has opened up to me.”
Dave was the guy I connected with, primarily. Whenever I’d visit England to do shows, I’d go hang out at Dave’s place during days off. And if he and Andy were getting along at that point in time, we’d usually go over to Andy’s place and hang out with him, too. I would occasionally see Andy and have phone calls with him. I’d send him my albums. I don’t remember which of us was the first to say “We should write some songs together.” He doesn’t remember either. It was suddenly an idea on the table and we seized it.
Describe the process of collaborating with Partridge for the album.
I’m not accustomed to collaborating on songwriting, so doing that with anyone is daunting for me. It’s also a little difficult to fall into a working rhythm that way. Often, it just doesn’t work. I’ve tried collaborations previously and if things don’t align properly, it just doesn’t happen. There was no guarantee this was going to work, so it was a bit of a gamble to fly over to England and book a week at a bed and breakfast near Andy’s place in 2006. But I showed up and we leapt into the deep end of the pool and started writing songs.
If the musical relationship hadn’t worked, it would have been torture. We might have just thrown up our hands and stopped. I would have had a very expensive week off. But as it happened, we pretty quickly fell into a working rhythm. I think Andy hadn’t been finishing a lot of songs to his satisfaction for awhile. He felt a little blocked up coming up with new pop material. He was doing more experimental stuff. The song “I’m Raining Here Inside” was just a page of lyrics that he had no idea how to set musically. It’s a good example of how another perspective can be key to something. I looked at the lyrics and I had the chord structure worked out in just 10 minutes. The words sung the song to me. The collaboration was required for that song to happen. Often, I would provide Andy with raw musical material and he would edit it in real time.
The song “Wing Beat Fantastic” started with a phrase that I had written in one of my lyric books. I brought over a bunch of notebooks to the first writing session. I didn’t have finished songs, just scraps of ideas. On one page was the phrase “Wing Beat Fantastic” and Andy saw it and said “What is that?” I said it’s “Wing Beat Fantastic.” [laughs] It didn’t mean anything but that. It was a phrase I thought of that had some power to it. The way Andy’s mind works is he immediately latched onto it and said “Okay, wing, bird, how can we approach the topic of birds from as many different angles as possible?” I don’t think there is another songwriter who can take a metaphor and attack it from so many angles. Andy wrings every ounce of nutrition out of these concepts. He also has this synesthetic ability to find music that illuminates a concept. So, he’d go “Wing Beat Fantastic. Play me a chord.” I’d play a chord. He’d say “Now, play another one a bit higher.” So, I’d do that. Then Andy would say “Take it a half step down from that.” So, it was almost as though I was a computer and instead of a mouse, he’s verbally saying “do this” and “do that.” So, I’m giving him stuff and he’s shaping it. In this way, we would literally vet every chord, note of a melody and word of a lyric until we were both satisfied. At the end of the first week, we had demos for six songs. Two years later, I went back for another week and we ended up with a total of nine. We didn’t get as much stuff done during the second week, but what we got was good. It’s where we got “I’m Raining Here Inside” and “You Kill Me,” which were really crucial songs for the album.
Why do you think Partridge chose you as a collaborator?
Andy has always had very generous things to say about my musicality. One of the first quotes we leaned on heavily when the Hat record came out was from an interview in which he said “Mike Keneally is so good it makes you want to spit.” [laughs] We were grabbing for anything we could use to promote my stuff, so we used that a lot. I think Andy responded to the fact that I had never pressured him to work together. I think a lot of people pressure him, saying things like “Oh man, XTC has to get back together. Just do one more gig and film it. It would be amazing. And why aren’t you writing songs?” I was always gentle with him. It felt very natural to both of us to work together. I think he trusted me as someone that wasn’t going to pressure him to do something he didn’t want to do. And knowing what he knows about me musically, he sensed that there might be something here that could help in getting songs written. He’s experimented with a number of songwriters over the last few years, including Peter Blegvad and Gary Barlow. I think I was part of an ongoing process of trying to unlock something inside him. It just happened to work and we were really productive.
After the second set of sessions, Partridge placed the responsibility of turning the songs into an album squarely on your shoulders.
That was unexpected. I’m so accustomed to letting ideas gestate over a long period of time. During the last few years, I worked on a whole bunch of albums simultaneously: Scambot 1, Wing Beat Fantastic, You Must Be This Tall, and Evidence of Humanity. They all came into being at the same time. It’s just a function of linear time that it takes awhile to finish each one and then they come out at different times. I look at the last few years as a large pool of music out of which I’m occasionally able to draw out a finished project from. So, I wasn’t putting any pressure on the Wing Beat Fantastic idea or the collaboration with Andy—even to the point where I didn’t know what it would turn out as. All I knew is that we were writing songs together. I didn’t know if the final form would be a Mike Keneally album. I was open it to being whatever it was. Perhaps Andy would have wanted to be involved as a performer. Maybe he would want to sing on the thing. Or perhaps he just wanted songwriting input. I would have been great with any of it. It wasn’t my job to pressure him. My guiding precept in making the project as a fan and a friend was a desire to hear new Andy Partridge songs. It had been so long since there was a collection of Andy Partridge pop songs. I love his songs, so even if I have to write them with him dammit, I was determined to hear a new album of his material. [laughs] Obviously, Andy’s DNA is really strong on the material. It doesn’t sound like XTC, but it doesn’t sound like standard Mike Keneally stuff either. It’s a melding of the two.
I understand there was some tension involved in the hand-off.
When we finished the second week of writing, I thought we were still in progress. I didn’t know where we were heading, because we had discussed possibilities at one point like having him produce me. He went “Hmm.” So, I thought perhaps that hit a nerve. I thought maybe this would be an album I would record in England at a studio near his home with Andy actually in charge of production. So, after that second week in 2008, I went back to finishing Scambot 1 and Evidence of Humanity, and working with Dethklok. I had a full, busy schedule. During that time, I’d think “I should really get back to these songs with Andy.” I thought we would do a third week of songwriting and that would be it for that phase. Then I saw an interview online in which the writer asked Andy about the status of his collaboration with me. I learned Andy was super-frustrated with me. Andy’s response was “I don’t know. You tell me. We worked for two weeks and wrote all this material. I’m waiting for him to make the record now.”
I didn’t know that’s where Andy was at with the project. He hadn’t explicitly expressed that to me. It startled me and took me aback. So, I said “Okay, in a way, this is a good thing, because it focuses me on an end game for this thing. Now, I know exactly what he wants, which is for me to take this material and totally record it from scratch on my own.” As far as Andy was concerned, his input was done and now the ball was in my court. I was fine with it. I’ll take signals from the universe in whatever guise. I was kind of grateful because I didn’t necessarily like having a big question mark hovering over me. Now, I saw a way forward. I went into my studio knowing that I’m producing and I’m in charge. It made it fun. I knew I could take all the stuff we’ve written and insert a little more of myself into things. The material was raw in its demoed state. So, I drove the stuff home.
While I was doing it, I wanted to keep Andy involved. I didn’t want to shut him out. So, during every intermediate stage of the songs, as I was writing additional material and doing overdubs and mixes, I would send him MP3s. At that point, he totally re-engaged and was fired up. He would send me lengthy emails with input. He’d say things such as “I like where you’re headed here. Try this. Try doing that vocal track again.” He essentially became an associate producer in a transatlantic sense. He gave me a lot of tremendous input that helped shape the final course of the thing, especially vocally.
Tell me about the guitar story behind the record.
I used a lot of Taylor electrics, which was cool, because Taylor is known for acoustics primarily. But they’re right down the street from where I live, practically. So, they were hooking me up with electrics as they were being made. Specifically, I capoed the Taylor T3 semi-hollowbody to get a really nice Beatles’ Revolver-type sound for the record. I double-tracked it for “I’m Raining Here Inside.” That Taylor electric tone played a larger part on that album than any of my others.
Also, I don’t play much slide, but I felt the song “Bobeau” needed it. The song underwent a weird metamorphosis and unexpectedly ended up in a really aggressive place. It starts out really whimsical and light. At the end, it’s just pounding. I felt it needed to have a big guitar moment. It’s the most chaotic, layered and weird part of the record. I needed a tone that was going to slash through all of this stuff. So I thought I should try to play my ceramic slide, even though I’m not a slide player. It reminds me of Foghat. So, that’s my classic rock moment.
“You Kill Me” features some highly provocative lyrics. Describe what you’re communicating through the song.
The lyrics are 99 percent Andy. It’s Andy’s state of the union. You’re right, it’s very provocative and I wouldn’t necessarily say that it reflects the views of the management in that it’s my record. Andy is more cynical about the Occupy movement than I was. I’m a little more Russell Brand about this stuff. So, in some ways, I felt a little strange being an unquestioned mouthpiece for him on this track. But I also felt it was such a strong statement on his behalf and it all sung so well, that the fan in me wouldn’t let me mess with it. Andy came through with a really strong, affecting set of lyrics. I wanted to present it as he saw it. Most of what’s sung in that song I’m perfectly comfortable with. But I know there are lines like “What’s the difference between a Taliban and a preacher down in Birmingham?” that are controversial. I do think there is a difference between a Taliban and a preacher down in Birmingham. I don’t think they are absolutely equivalent, morally.
I’ve had some fans say that song absolutely nauseated them. It made them not want to listen to the record because they thought it was such a mind-bogglingly unbalanced thing to sing. But I want to point out that it’s a question, not a statement. That’s where I was able to stand behind it. If the lyric had said “There is no difference between a Taliban and a preacher down in Birmingham,” I would have had problems with it. I would have said “I don’t think I can sing this, Andy.” He would have been probably fine about changing it. I think the song is trying to cause a listener to think rather than have an ideology shoved down their throat. I do think the song works as a song. Of all the songs on the record, that one has probably struck a nerve in more people because of the subject matter. It’s not an easy song to sing.
There’s another interesting element to this song. The basic track was recorded at Rick Musallum’s studio in Los Angeles. It has me on Telecaster and Rick on drums. It was recorded in the key of D. Then I got a copy of the Pro Tools sessions and brought it down to San Diego. When we put up the session, it was at a different sample rate than what we normally work at. As a result, when we played it back, it was pitched a little higher, between E flat and E. When I listened to it, I said “Oh man, I love it a little bit faster and higher.” [laughs] Also, it wasn’t originally a five-minute song. It was originally 27 minutes of experimental performances of sections and the song. I think there was a 27-minute version of The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter,” so this is my version. It’s not something you’d want to hear. When I wrote the song with Andy, it didn’t have all the parts yet. The bridge section and chords that go up in minor thirds weren’t in there yet. That’s the “What’s the difference?” part. If you listen to the demo of “You Kill Me” on Wing Beat Elastic, that section is nowhere to be found. I wrote it on the spot while I was in the studio with Rick. We would just do a section and play it over and over again until we got a groove that we liked. We did that for every part of the song.
I took those 27 minutes back to San Diego and extracted all the bits that really worked and put them together into a song form. I first cut it down to 12 minutes, then to 10, then to eight, and finally got it to the five minutes that are on the record. That’s when I started doing overdubs on it. The fact that it’s pitched between E flat and E gives the song an otherworldly feel and ringing quality that it didn’t have in the original key of D, which you can hear on the demo version. The demo has more of a campfire feel to it. It’s much more acoustic. That’s the way we kind of conceived it when we started working on it. Andy thought of it as a strummy acoustic sing-along. He was a little taken aback when I turned it into this mini electric rock opera. He really liked it though. He was thrilled with how it turned out.
You’ve released a lavish reissue of the Sluggo album. Why did you go back and remix it?
That was an album made under trying circumstances. When I was recording it and attempting to mix it, I had just joined Steve Vai’s band. His touring schedule was really demanding. I wasn’t yet used to the idea of going into a studio for a few days, making some progress, going away for a couple of months, and then coming back to the project. I was still in the mode of booking time in a recording studio as opposed to being able to go to Chatfield Manor and work with Mike Harris. Now, I just call Scott and say “Can we make noise in your house for this week?” So, it’s a lot easier for me to take a piecemeal approach that results in something like You Must Be This Tall, which is the result of years of work on and off. With Sluggo, that was new to me. I made my first records, Hat, Boil That Dust Speck, and The Mistakes with Henry Kaiser, Prairie Prince and Andy West, during very focused, concentrated periods of time. By the end of that time, usually a couple of weeks, the album was done. With Sluggo, it was torn to shreds by Steve’s touring schedule. Rather than feeling liberated by that, I felt disoriented by it.
I was really happy with the songwriting on Sluggo. A lot of songs from there remain important parts of my live repertoire. I have people tell me “Potato” is their kids’ favorite song, which is cool because those kids weren’t born when the album came out. So, the album has an enduring quality about it. But I was never happy with the mix. My first few albums were recorded on analog tape and mixed to DAT. With Sluggo, we chose to stay analog all the way through. We mixed to two-track analog tape. I thought it sounded fine and we brought it to John Golden’s mastering labs. We mastered it and I got the reference CD, listened to it and said “What the hell? The stereo spectrum is narrow compared to the other albums I’ve done.” I mixed the stuff to really pop on the left and the right, but it sounded like there was a grey band of darkness on either side of the stereo spectrum that was inherent in the master. The whole thing felt too dark to me. I said “Oh shit, we have to remix and remaster the whole thing.” At that point, I was a week away from going on the road with Steve. So, we booked these emergency sessions and remixed and remastered the album in four days. If you have your stuff together, that timeline can be great. I ended up with an album a lot of people like and it was fine, but I always felt it was a little less than fully cooked, especially in the lows and mids, where it seemed anemic. There were plenty of sparkling highs on the record, but it didn’t have the same oomph as Boil That Dust Speck.
So, what we did for the reissue is remix it. It finally sounds like I finished the album after 16 years. [laughs] We also created a surround mix. It’s the first time I’ve gone the Steven Wilson route and taken an existing studio record and remixed it in surround. It’s three discs. The CD has the stereo mix plus a couple of bonus tracks. The second disc is the DVD-Audio disc, which also has a lot of video footage from the era, including two hours of concert footage from 1998. The studio footage is of me working at the grand piano, doing solo versions of the tracks. That’s how the album started. I then overdubbed onto those tracks. There’s also a photo gallery, including the tracking sheets. It gets pretty geeky. [laughs]
Reflect on the songs and musical approach you took on Sluggo.
The song “Chatfield Manor” is about the studio where we now record the albums. At the time, it was just a place I would go to hang out with Scott. There was a feeling of getting away from it all when I went there at that point. Now, it’s the focus of my whole business life, so that’s not where I go to get away from it all now. It’s all there these days. [laughs] The album was the first time I recorded with an electric 12-string guitar. Sluggo has a crazy amount of weird guitar parts. "Egg Zooming“ was the one thing that was scored out on paper. It’s almost an orchestral piece with all these ridiculous rhythmic things happening, with strange, stacked harmonies. I never felt the point was made on the original mix. I’m grateful that on the remix, I was able to make all the harmonized guitars sound really full and clear. I thought “Oh God, I wrote this song all these years ago, but I feel like I’m finally hearing it.”
The album also has a legendary drum performance from Mike Mangini, who is now the drummer for Dream Theater. His performance is superhuman. It sounds so cool and has such a deep groove. It’s slinky and super-technical. It blows my mind. There’s also a song on the album called “Beautiful” which is a narrative about stuff that happened to me one day, which was the day before Frank Zappa passed away. I was going about my mundane activities and the day ended with me driving to see Chad Wackerman play in Santa Monica. Somebody threw a heavy object, I don’t know what it was, at my car. It cracked my windshield and easily could have killed me. Right after that, I was really shaken. So, I pulled off the road and wrote lyrics about everything that happened to me that day. It was going to originally be this Plastic Ono Band thing that would end with me screaming. But I thought it would be cooler if it was this groove thing in which I laid out the events of the day. The rhythmic approach of the vocal is so strange. I thought it would be interesting to learn the vocal part on the guitar and play everything in unison. It worked out really well. It was similar to something Zappa did several times on his The Man From Utopia record. He would improvise something vocally and then make Steve Vai learn his improvised vocal part on guitar. Then he’d overdub Steve’s playing on top of what he sung. You can hear that on “The Jazz Discharge Party Hats” and “The Dangerous Kitchen” on Frank’s album. Steve Vai heard what I did in “Beautiful” and said “How dare you do something so cool?” [laughs]
Describe the idea behind Scambot.
It’s a long-form concept piece that’s eventually going to encompass three main volumes, along with a variety of little satellites. The first thing that came out was a little EP called The Scambot Holiday Special, which is almost like a Firesign Theatre album. It’s my version of a little radio play with music. It introduced the Scambot concept. Scambot himself is this little misanthropic weird grumpy guy. I create sketchbooks when I’m working on projects as a means of generating concepts. I drew this little guy and asked myself “Who’s that?” I felt he looked like “Scambot.” [laughs] And that was it. So, the genesis of the idea was free range absurdity—my brain doing what my brain does. For some reason, it had some resonance as an umbrella concept for trying different things out.
Scambot was me pushing myself back into a fully creative and shamelessly self-indulgent arena. I started working on it while I was musical director of Paul Green’s School of Rock in 2007. It was at a time when it didn’t feel like the solo career was doing what I wanted or expected it to do. I didn’t have any sideman gigs going on at the time. Nowadays. I have Satriani and Dethklok to help subsidize my addiction to record making. Every album I make allows the next album to be made, financially speaking. However, making albums doesn’t subsidize my life. I have to do other work in order to survive. So, I’m in a happy position that I have gigs like Satriani that are tremendously great fun and allow me to get in front of large audiences and have more people find out who I am, and hopefully get curious about my solo work. So, Scambot was the rocket booster to get me back into a completely right-brained creative frame of mind, after being forced to deal with the corporate structure and frustrations of getting a school off the ground in San Diego, which was very time- and energy-consuming. I wasn’t able to produce any kind of solo work in 2007 because I was so focused on the school. I’m glad I did it, and the school still exists, though I’m not involved anymore. I appointed a guy to be my successor who has taken that ball and run with it. I am very grateful I was able to put something in motion that is paying dividends for my community. Kids are going there and learning about music. I love that. So, it was ultimately a success, but I needed to get back to being a creative entity.
Wine and Pickles, a compilation album, was the first collection of music I put together after leaving the school. It was compiled from existing masters, but I was so gratified by how well it all hung together. The vast majority of it was either unreleased or versions of stuff that were unreleased. I thought “Oh man, I didn’t even know I was making an album. This is great. Now, I’m going to work on Scambot and make an album of all-new music.” The weird, little drawing from my sketchbook held so much resonance that I decided to create a crazy, narrative, freewheeling, musically adventurous project out of it.
What does Scambot’s narrative focus on?
Scambot is a frustrated songwriter. I wonder where that comes from? [laughs] He spends his time complaining about things online. Gradually, it turns out that he is basically a toy or a tool for this guy named Boleous T. Ophunji, who is a jam magnate. Ophunji has made a fortune in the jam industry, but as it turns out, he is a megalomaniac. He’s a criminal mastermind who has chosen Scambot as the subject of his behavior and mood manipulation experiments. He has these steampunk-looking tools in his office that he’s able to control from a remote location and use to determine how Scambot feels. So, that’s the starting point.
You’re making yourself laugh out loud as you talk about this.
Yeah, because it’s nuts. [laughs] The narrative is really just an excuse for me to make more music. The narrative, music and lyrics all happen simultaneously. It’s not like I was feeling that I had this story to put forth and then created music to embellish it. It was more a means of getting myself into a creative frame of mind. The drawings inspired the narrative. The narrative inspired the lyrics. The lyrics inspired the music. And then the music would inspire me to make the whole story more narrative.
As it turns out, Ophunji ended up capturing the band The Scorpions and he has them in a recording studio, all wired up. He’s able to use these musicians as he wishes. He has a seraphim, a guy named Govin, who has incredible music in his mind. Ophunji uses other musicians like The Scorpions to get the music out of Govin’s consciousness. For anyone that’s curious, the Scambot 1 booklet has very extensive information. It’s half-story/screenplay and half other stuff.
Ultimately, a lot of Scambot has to do with meditation. The moral is to remind me to meditate more. That will make more sense when it’s done.
Where is Scambot 2 heading?
I’m partway through it, but it’s an open book from a narrative perspective. I have an endgame in mind for Scambot 3. I know where it’s all ending up, but the road that it takes to get there is unknown. I’m allowing it to reveal itself to me. One of the important guiding principles is that I wasn’t placing any timeline pressure on the thing. It happens at the rate that it happens.
I created so much music for Scambot already that I ended up with The Scambot Holiday Special, the main Scambot 1 album, and the second disc of the Scambot 1 special edition, which was songs and stories inspired by Scambot 1. If you take the two discs of the special edition and reorder the material, you can get the literal, chronological timeline of the narrative. But you’re not meant to listen to it and follow along the storyline to understand what’s happening. It’s just music. The storyline is a means to provide myself with unusual inspiration to create music.
I also have this idea that each successive volume clears away clutter, sonically. So, Scambot 1 is extremely dense, musically—almost dauntingly so. I have a vision of Scambot 2 having quite a bit more air injected into the mix so that the elements stand in more stark relief and are not as dense and overwhelmingly layered. And then Scambot 3 is going to be so airy that it’s almost about ambient kind of symphonics. Each volume is going to have an extreme distinction, as well as a packaging personality. It should be quite a journey by the time it’s done.
My other thought is that Scambot 3 might be the last album I ever do. So, I’m not necessarily in a that much of a hurry to get around to it. I don’t know if it’s true. I don’t want to necessarily make that a distinct part of it. I don’t want to pressure myself into not finishing Scambot 3 because I’m afraid it will be my last album.
What makes you want to conceive of Scambot 3 as potentially your last album?
I don’t know why my brain does certain things that it does, but Scambot is as much of an enigma to me as it is to anyone else. I don’t know more about Scambot than most people. But one of the things that has presented itself to me is that Scambot is meant to illustrate different mindsets and places that I’ve been at over the course of my life and career. Scambot 1 illustrates some creative frustration and clutter that I needed to work through in the post-School of Rock era and general frustrations about my career at that point. I like the idea that as I evolve through life and hopefully work through some of this stuff, that I can get more clarity and a little more cleanliness in my head. Scambot is the sort of place where you’ll be able to most explicitly see a narrative and musical arc that reflects that journey. Given that, I’m imagining Scambot 3 ending up at a place where I almost can’t see what else I would do after it.
Knowing me, if I’m still alive and kicking when Scambot 3 comes out, it’s hard to imagine I’m not going to make more albums after that, because album making is my favorite thing. I love the people in my life, but in terms of a thing I spend my time doing, that’s what I love to do. I still have so much affection for the album as an art form. I despair as much as any other old-fashioned music guy about the fact that the album doesn’t have the same emotional impact it used to for today’s music consumer.
How diminished do you feel the album form is these days?
It has definitely diminished for kids, but there are still a lot of kids listening to albums. I think most of the kids that love albums are loving the ones that came out 40 years ago. The role that music plays in people’s lives has changed. It’s a combination of the fact that people who bought albums 20-30 years ago are dying, and that teenagers, the target consumers for music, are consuming their music on things like YouTube. I’m not going to sit here and bang my cane and say “When I was your age…” but things have changed. There are people like me who are still in love with making albums, but the potential audience for our stuff is smaller.
Paul McCartney recently put out a record called New which hit number 3 in the U.S. and that’s on the basis of only 66,000 copies sold in America. It was heavily hyped with a big promotional machine behind it. Just 10 years ago, it would have sold five times that much. Bless him for still wanting to make records at age 71. So, I think making an album is an inherently nostalgic gesture, but I don’t think it’s a futile gesture. You don’t have to mindlessly accept that things are changing in a way that doesn’t satisfy you. Everyone has the option to continue with these lengthy, conceptual musical statements and put them out into the world. As long as people are still alive, someone will find that thing. Someone will hear Scambot 10 years from now and it’s going to have some kind of impact on them. The Zappa way of thinking was he made his music entirely just to please himself and if someone else liked it, that was a nice dividend—but it wasn’t the purpose. I’m mostly with him, but I do have some sort of idealized vision of a listener in mind when I create this stuff.
Who is your vision of an ideal listener?
Somebody who is exactly like me. [laughs] I’m thoroughly satisfied with You Must Be This Tall, in terms of the playing and writing. It has obtuse melodic and harmonic concepts, but they are made more accessible through the way it’s engineered. That’s what I was hoping to achieve. And if I think it sounds good, I have to trust that other people will as well. That’s why I’m gratified that this album, which is sort of abstract, had the immediate response back of “This might be your best record, ever.” That took me by surprise, but after thinking about it, I realized that was a function of the time we took to mix the stuff so people could really hear what was on there. Other stuff I’ve done, which I thought was the absolute greatest when I did it, feels almost raw in comparison. You Must Be This Tall feels fully baked.
Discuss your guitar role on the current Joe Satriani tour.
I'm playing guitar on about half of the show—mostly rhythm, but a fair amount of melodic stuff with Joe, and a couple of sections where we play improvised lines back and forth. I'm grateful that the improvised sections are actually improvised. We both bring different stuff to the interactive sections every night and it always feels like we're trying to do something interesting and fun, rather than merely show-offy, and definitely not trying to outdo each other. And there are a couple of parts where I'm playing things with my left hand on the guitar and my right hand on various keyboards.
What did Satriani describe in terms of what he was looking for from you?
Not much was discussed in terms of actual parts. He'll just indicate which songs he'd be interested in hearing me on guitar for, rather than keyboards, or if it's to be a combination of both. Then I'd listen to the original recording and fashion a part for myself. Initially though, he thought I'd just be playing guitar on four or so songs, but we both got to like it a lot during rehearsals and he'd keep suggesting other songs for me to try guitar on. Some of the songs are ones that I'd played keyboard parts on for earlier tours, so in a couple of instances I was adapting keyboard parts I'd played before, which had been originally based on Joe's recorded guitar parts, and making new guitar parts out of them. If Joe needs to adjust whatever parts I bring in he will, but it usually works out pretty smoothly.
Describe the intricacies of meshing your guitar approach with Satriani’s.
It's just about keeping your ears open and being sympathetic to everything in the arrangement. It's about meshing with the rhythm section as well. Fortunately, Joe's and my natural finger timbre and guitar tones are very distinct and pretty naturally complementary. Sometimes I have to simplify my rhythm guitar voicings onstage in order to allow one of Joe's melodies to sing properly over the top of it. Something may have been a ringing four-note chord played by Joe on two differently-engineered guitars in the original recording, but it really best makes sense onstage for me to boil it down to a muted fifth. Bryan Bellar and Marco Minnemann also bring a lot of new orchestration activity to the arrangements these days, and sometimes it behooves me to carve out a little extra sonic space for them to exist in as well.
The Satriani group is drawn from your own band circles. How did that situation emerge?
It has been a super-comfortable situation. Working with Bryan and Marco in Joe’s band is such a nice, familiar feeling. What happened is Joe came up to me and said “I really want some different players. Who can you recommend?” So, I recommended the guys I know and gave Joe their numbers. I didn’t know he was just going to go for that. He was at one of my San Francisco shows a few years ago and saw what Bryan could do firsthand. Joe also saw the DVD included in the Evidence of Humanity package in which Marco improvises for an hour. Joe looked at it and went “Holy shit.” So, it wasn’t a stretch for him to say “I’d like to try these guys.” What happened is he didn’t audition them. He just said “Alright, be at the rehearsal studio on this day and we’ll just practice for the tour.” Joe was trusting that it would work out. Obviously, they can play his songs. The bigger question was “Is the chemistry going to work out, personally as well as musically?” Initially, Bryan and Marco were being very respectful about the music. Joe has a reputation as being very scripted, whereas the reality is he is really open to things shifting and changing. Maybe he didn’t have other bands in which that was happening on a nightly basis. With Bryan and Marco, he chose the right guys for that to happen. After a few shows on the tour, they were still finding their way, and what they started to notice was the more they put of themselves into the song, the more Joe would dig it. The tour has been so much fun. We play the songs differently every single night and it has been great.
What are the key lessons you’ve learned as a bandleader?
To not hide anyone’s light under a bushel. When I get all these amazing players in the band, it’s because they play amazingly well. I really want to let them do what they want to do. I work with people that have strong personalities in terms of their sonics and output. I want to have that humanity and energy working for the music. I don’t want my composer vision to be an immutable, unmovable object that everyone has to kowtow to. My music thrives when the guys in my band are being themselves. You have to let people be who they are. That’s when they’re happiest. And when musicians are happiest, that’s when they play their best.
You once said you used to see brown triangles in your mind’s eye that gave you musical instructions. Tell me about that.
It was a specifically late-‘90s to early-2000s thing. I would close my eyes and there would be these brown triangles arranged like bowling pins. It would come to me in a meditative state and I interpreted it as an arcane, notational system that I couldn’t explain. It somehow felt as though I was receiving my next musical instructions. It would happen when I was playing guitar solos. I remember playing with Marcelo Radulovich who did a bunch of soundscaping effects on Wooden Smoke. I was in a basement rehearsal studio with him and my eyes were closed. I was really into the session and then clear as day, this bowling pin arrangement that went from zero to 10 appeared. All of a sudden, I started playing stuff that sounded like John Coltrane's “A Love Supreme.” The way I always wanted to play guitar just suddenly started flying out from me. It seemed all I had to do was focus on the geometry, and all of this stuff I didn’t think I was capable of playing started to happen. It stopped after awhile and hasn’t happened in a long time.
During our last interview in 2000, you said you were progressing towards a sense of spirituality that you couldn’t quite identify. Can you describe where you are with it today?
I don’t know if I can. I don’t have the words for it. There isn’t something I can funnel it into. I can’t talk about it as a discipline or relate it to someone I follow. It’s not religion. I can’t say “Go read this book and find out more.” It’s not about that. It’s just about trying to be really aware and calm. Meditation is an ongoing frustration for me. There should be nothing easier than meditation, because at its core, it involves doing nothing. But it’s one of the most challenging things to make time for. That’s why Scambot is important to me. Even though it might not be clear at this point, it’s a way to remind myself that if I want to keep my shit together and be as effective as I can be as a person and musician, I need a steady program of meditation. But it’s hard on the road. It’s also hard at home. I’m always getting distracted. There are so many things to do. There’s always a mountain of email. There are all these social networks to stay up to date with. It’s a conundrum. But I know if I meditated more, that everything else would be better. So, it’s an ongoing process. I’m still very much a work in progress. I’m still drawing out and filtering things. I’m open to stimuli from wherever it may come from.