Interview with Mike Keneally

It’s no secret that we at Proglodytes love Mike Keneally. How could you not? As Cedric said in our Proglodytes tribute: he is the ultimate “musician’s musician”. With an enormous list of credits that includes everyone from Frank Zappa to Mastodon to Ulver to Dethklok to Andy Partridge (and so many more), his skills as a guitarist, keyboardist, collaborator, composer, and bandleader are unparalleled. As a solo artist, he’s released around 24 albums, with more in the works. Despite his incredible work with some of the world’s most skilled musicians, he has a well-known reputation for being a down-to-earth, pleasant guy with a great sense of humor and a genuine interest in good music and art.

With most of 2020’s biggest musical events cancelled, musicians have had to find new ways to make income and stay productive. For this and many other reasons, Mike Keneally has created a Patreon page. Mike’s Patreon features longer-form journal entries, live hangouts and Q&A sessions, content from his personal archives (which, with a list of credits like Mike’s, he’ll have amazing content forever, really), but also behind-the-scenes info on some of his new (and amazing) projects. Mike stopped by Proglodytes to chat about how he’s handling quarantine life, some of his current and future projects, and the benefits of platforms like Patreon,

First of all: How are you holding up in these crazy times?

Hanging in there! Some days feel more sane than others, but I’m yet to fully go off the deep end, so that’s a win. Grateful to be able to work from home. I’ve perpetually got a large pile of projects that I’m trying to keep up with, so I’m glad to be busy.

Photo credit: Per Sviggum, 2019. Facebook

You recently worked with Devin Townsend on his Empath record as a co-producer. Tell us about what it was like working with Devin, and what your work as co-producer entailed.

It’s been a ridiculous pleasure working with Devin – we have a lot in common and get along really well, which makes the process of creating music together hugely enjoyable. A lot of laughter, and a lot of time spent happily obsessing over small details. My co-producer job shifted depending on what phase of the production we were in, and it started with no specific goal in mind, when I went to his place in 2017 and we started writing and recording music together just for fun. This ended up planting the seed for my involvement in the album, and after I went back home and continued doing other things, Devin was making demos and sending them to me to get my reactions, and gradually the form of the album started to take shape. I went to his place several more times to co-produce some of his own overdubs, do some overdubs of my own, co-write a couple of sections and continue giving input about song forms, mix decisions etc.

Then in early 2018 we spent a week at Monnow Valley in Wales, where most of my producer energy went to producing Nathan Navarro’s bass tracks in one room while simultaneously Devin was producing drum tracks with different drummers in the main studio. At night we would all get together in the main studio and jam- here’s one that we just posted a couple of days ago:

Finally I spent one more week with Devin in Vancouver pre-mixing everything on the album (basically giving my input about levels and placement before Dev undertook the final mix). 

Last year you toured with The Bizarre World of Frank Zappa hologram tour.  What were some of your favorite moments from that tour, musically or otherwise?

It was a great honor to be able to play that music again with so many guys that I love, most of whom were in the ’88 Zappa band with me, but also Ray White who I’d never played with before, and Joe Travers who’s been the drummer in my band Beer For Dolphins for a long long time but also is the Zappa Vaultmeister and continues to be a huge voice in the Zappa world. Add in the unreleased vocal and guitar performances from Frank that we were playing along with every night – alternating with songs that we would just play by ourselves without having to be tied to a specific set of cues – and it was a really well-rounded evening of Zappa music, and emotionally very powerful. Audience response was amazing. I was so looking forward to playing with the guys on the King Crimson/Zappa Band tour this year (where we’d have been playing without holographic visuals, just a band onstage doing our thing), but of course that’s not happening. It’s been rescheduled for 2021 and I’m looking forward to doing that like I can’t even describe.

Tell us about your collaboration with Scott Schorr, MTFJ. (click for link to Bandcamp)

That’s a blast. Scott does rhythm tracks at his place in Australia and sends them to me, I improvise on top of them using different guitars, basses and keyboards, I send those tracks back to Scott and he slices and dices them and looks for the hooks in my hours of improv and turns them into repeating motifs and textures, then he sends those back to me for more input and overdubs…the end result is music like neither of us has ever heard before. I’ve already completed all my overdubs for a second MFTJ album, Scott’s doing his devil wizardry on that stuff right now… 

You recently started a Patreon. Tell us about what drove the decision to use that platform. What can Patrons expect from your Patreon?

I, like all other musicians, have had to get creative about ways to earn money, with live playing off the table for the foreseeable future. I think Patreon is a wonderful platform, in that all the eyes and ears on your content are there specifically for your content, and are not being distracted by whatever else is vying for your attention on a given platform. This past weekend I had a two-hour live chat where I went through the multi-track transfers from my debut album hat., and it was great fun uncovering things that were hiding in the tapes – it was a really good time, and I’m going to continue doing that for all the albums I’ve got the tracks for here at home. I’ve also been posting scans of archival material, including the notes I took during rehearsals on the ’88 Zappa tour, different in-progress documents for the making of my albums through the years, and rare live and studio tracks and voice memos – I’ve got enough archival material to feed Patreon forever, and in combination with behind-the-scenes video content for current projects, there’s a whole lot for people to check out if they’re interested.

With live shows in limbo for the foreseeable future, what advice would you give musicians who are trying to stay afloat? 

Find your following and feed them. I recommend Patreon highly, and obviously Bandcamp is a very musician-friendly platform – presently I’ve only got the first MFTJ album on Bandcamp, but I will be using Bandcamp for my own solo music in the future as well.

What technology would you recommend for effective remote collaboration?  

As far as real-time online collaboration, I’m way behind – I’m not tech-minded, so this lockdown period has been a steep learning curve for me just to be my own Pro Tools engineer and learn how to stream anything at all, much less anything collaborative in real time. But as far as just sending files around for people to record their parts to, that’s as easy as pie, I just bounce WAVs out of Pro Tools for people to record parts along with, and make sure that the WAVs they send back start at the same time as the WAVs I sent them so that they line up in Pro Tools properly. Right now I’m getting drum tracks from Malcolm Mortimore (who played on Gentle Giant’s Three Friends and whose playing I absolutely adore) for a new song of mine, and the process of getting his tracks from WeTransfer and incorporating them into my session is just a delight, it feels like a miracle in a way.

You mentioned that you have several new projects in the work for 2020. Anything you’re ready to share? 

The main one is that I’m finally doing a new solo album – the last one was Scambot 2 in 2016, so I’m well overdue. Malcolm’s track is on there, Steve Vai is on one of the songs, Nick D’Virgilio and Bryan Beller and David Ossman from the Firesign Theater and all sorts of cool folks. I’m in the finishing-up stages on this album and it will be out in the second half of 2020.

MFTJ2 is on the way this year too, as well as another batch of new songs I’ve recorded with a San Diego band called Back To The Garden – I didn’t have material ready to go, so I’d show up at the studio (the studio time was donated by Jeff Berkley, thank goodness) and write things on the spot, which they’d learn instantly and we’d play through each section multiple times. We got eleven songs recorded this way. The whole process was recorded so I’ve got a LOT of vetting and editing to do on that.

Photo credit: Daniel Work

I also have another secret band in the works since 2015; it’s me, Kris Myers from Umphrey’s McGee, Pete Griffin and Ben Thomas from the old Zappa Plays Zappa band, and Jonathan Sindelman on keyboards. We’ve been collaborating on new material, with seven new songs in the works, three of which we’ve got really good recorded versions of (I need to do some work on those tracks as well – yet another project for me to work on at home once I get the solo album finished).

There’s also a collaboration with Todd Rundgren in the works, an elaborate stage production, the future of which is obviously in question right now, but I’ve still got a lot of writing to do on that before it gets anywhere near a stage anyway. I’m about 40% done with my initial work on the composing, all of which I’m handing off to Todd for him to manipulate and write words to. All the collaboration has been remote for this project, but at some post-COVID point some real-time face-to-face collaboration will likely be necessary.

There will be more music with Devin Townsend as well, we just spoke yesterday after we posted that Monnow Valley jam about doing more stuff…

One thing we really respect about you here at Proglodytes is that you are both an incredible musician, and also a big fan of music- something that is rarer than one might think. Any musicians and artists that you’ve discovered lately that are inspiring you? 

I really appreciate that. I wish I was more on top of new things in music but I find myself turning more these days to comfort music from my past, when I’m not working on new stuff. Lately it’s been Neil Young, Gentle Giant, Bob Dylan and John Coltrane almost exclusively. I do still get highly inspired by all of these artists and continually find new things in their music, even though it’s been in my life for decades (and I’m very grateful that Neil and Dylan continue to be productive). As far as more current artists, I’m always inspired to hear Knower, Kneebody/Nate Wood, Thundercat, Jacob Collier, Kimara Sajn and Esperanza Spalding.

Bonus questions:

Favorite obscure folk instrument?
Does the Paloma Bulbul Tarang count as a folk instrument?

Least favorite color?

Favorite moon in our solar system?
As a hardcore Thomas Dolby fan I gotta say Europa.

Thanks, Mike! Please head to Mike Keneally’s Patreon page and check it out. While some artists restrict certain content for higher tiers, Mike offers the same content for all tiers, and allows fans the option of choosing to pay more. And in times like these, every bit helps.

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