As a key collaborator with Frank Zappa and Joe Satriani, Mike Keneally has enjoyed the rarified air of musical genius. But Keneally, a guitarist, keyboardist and vocalist, is no slouch himself. He’s released 30 albums under his own name, is in the midst of a three-album trilogy which kicked off in 2009, and in addition to his own work and his Zappa and Satriani partnerships, he’s worked with everyone from Andy Partridge of UK art-rock heroes XTC to Dethlok, the metal band featured on Adult Swim’s “Metalocalypse.”
Keneally is about to bring his band, Beer for Dolphins, to the East Coast for the first time since the 1990s formation of the group, which also includes Joe Travers (drums) and Bryan Beller (bass) in support of “Scambot 2,” the new studio album Keneally released just last month. With shows scheduled for the River Street Jazz Cafe in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. (Oct. 25) and Leftfield in New York City (Oct. 26), we chatted with Keneally via email about Beer for Dolphins, the “Scambot” trilogy and the legacy of Frank Zappa.
What makes this lineup, with Joe and Bryan, work so well? What do you get from playing with these guys that is particularly unique to this lineup?
Joe Travers and Bryan Beller have a musical rapport that’s been in evidence from the very first minute they played together at music school in Boston. They are meant to play together and they complement one another’s playing styles perfectly. It helps that they’re both virtuosos also. The three of us have known one another for nearly 25 years and it’s a deep friendship, with a lot of humor that is really evident onstage, and a mutual desire to just rage musically when we get together. It’s just a really potent combination.
What type of setlist will you be playing on this tour? Do you change it up from night to night?
We have a deep repertoire for this tour, around 40 tunes, so we have a lot of leeway to change it up a lot from night to night. It’s covering my whole span of albums from “hat.” in 1992 to the brand-new “Scambot 2,” plus at least one older song that I wrote back in 1983. Cover tunes are likely to pop up here and there too. But even when we play the same song during a tour, the way we treat the songs genuinely changes a lot from night to night. Each show is definitely its own animal.
The core of my following definitely includes a lot of Zappa fans, but the Satriani connection certainly brings some folks out, as does the Dethklok connection. But the majority of the people coming out do tend to have familiarity with my career, know the albums and have favorite songs they’d like to hear (and we’re happy to do requests, when we know them).
What were your intentions going into “Scambot 2,” especially as it relates to the original “Scambot” album?
A major building block of the Scambot concept is the idea of clutter being cleared gradually. There will be three volumes eventually, and each one will be a bit less dense and convoluted than the one before. “Scambot 1” was very intricate, abstract and layered; “Scambot 2” is still intricate, but much less abstract, and it starts with the most crazy-sounding, dense and complex song (“In The Trees”) and gradually becomes more open and relaxed as it goes. I envision “Scambot 3” being essentially my version of an ambient album, but I won’t get around to making the third volume for a long time.
What do you have planned for your next recording project?
Right now I’m taking a break from making solo albums, but I’ve been in a songwriting collaboration with a new band formed late last year, featuring Kris Myers from Umphrey’s McGee, Pete Griffin and Ben Thomas (both formerly with Zappa Plays Zappa) and a brilliant keyboardist named Jonathan Sindelman (who was a sensation at the recent Keith Emerson tribute in LA). We’ve been more focused on creating a new live repertoire, rather than aiming specifically at making a record, although that will definitely happen as well eventually.
The Beatles were the first and biggest. In a way I was probably on a path to eventually devote my life to music from the first moment I realized that The Beatles were just about the most important thing in my life outside of family. I was obsessed almost solely with them from when age four to about age eight, although there was also a lot of pop music on the radio that I really enjoyed as well. Then when I was nine I started hearing the progressive rock of the day and loving it (Emerson, Lake & Palmer, King Crimson and Yes all made a big impression on me before I was ten years old). That’s also the year I heard Frank Zappa for the first time and my life really took a major turn for the different.
What attracted you to the music of Frank Zappa?
The attitude of it just screamed out at me from the first time I heard it, and I felt like I was at home, like I finally found the music that made perfect sense to me. The bizarre sensibility, the anti-social attitude and just the way it sounded – the odd intervals, the unexpected harmonizations, the incredibly individual approach to style and content. I loved everything about it.
What did you think working with Frank would be like? And what was it really like?
I guess when I was a teenager I thought it was just like traveling around in some rarified cloud made out of heavenly music, but the reality was a lot more human. That was a strange time because there were personality conflicts between some members of the band which made the whole experience kind of sad and a bit TOO human, but the reality of day-to-day life with Frank himself was a real pleasure for me – he was a guy who liked hearing his music played accurately, and I loved his music a lot and felt a responsibility to him and to myself to play it right, so we got along great. And ultimately he was a very human guy who liked a good time, which I could totally relate to as well.
What are some of the most memorable moments from your time working with Frank? What did you learn from him?
There were so many times at rehearsals that were just spent laughing our heads off, as Frank would write a new lyric or create a new arrangement idea on the spot. It was a hugely exciting and creative environment and I loved the rehearsals at least as much as the gigs. I learned a lot about effective bandleading from him and was incredibly inspired by his work ethic and unbelievable productivity. I’ve ended up creating a pretty sizable and diverse body of work – over 30 titles so far – and I think this has been largely a response to Frank’s huge body of work, because as a fan back when he was releasing those albums, I remember how exciting it was to have so much material coming out, and all of it unique in some way. I knew then that I wanted to create a similarly large and diverse [body] of work someday.
Despite its strangeness, or maybe because of it, Zappa’s music is still beloved by a large group of fans all over the world and is the subject of many tribute acts. Why do you think his music has aged so well and continues to find new listeners?
It’s just so rich. So many layers to peel through and decode and devour. And he put all kinds of little unifying characteristics throughout the work – lyrics or musical phrases or artwork references to past works, and for a certain kind of fan it was incredibly rewarding to make the connections between the different albums. His music is deep and wide and also REALLY fun to listen to.
Obviously the Zappa family has been in the news for the contentious legal issues among his children. Dweezil says the Zappa Family Trust is suing to prevent him from using his own last name professionally. Three-part question:
Do you stay in touch with any of the family?
Not regularly, but will occasionally see one or the other of them at a concert or other event. I’m on friendly terms with all of them.
How do you feel about the squabbling that’s going on?
Super sad. I was in a band with both Dweezil and Ahmet for five years in the 90s and it was a great time – it’s really upsetting to me that they’re not getting along.
Did you ever perform with Zappa Plays Zappa or go to any of their concerts?
Right when Dweezil was beginning to put the ZPZ concept together and he was starting to develop his guitar approach for the project, he asked me over to the house to show him some of Frank’s melodies and play them into some recording software so he could study them. He mentioned to me then that he wanted me to be a special guest at a ZPZ show sometime. He hasn’t asked yet, but I’m fine with that. I’m friends with most everyone who’s been in ZPZ over the years and have seen them a bunch of times, they always sound great, and we have a fun time hanging out after the show.
How would you describe your role in Joe Satriani’s band? How would you describe your musical relationship with him?
I’m covering all the necessary keyboard playing and handling second guitar on about half of the songs. I’m kind of the orchestration guy I guess, but there a couple of points in the show where I step out with the guitar for some soloing, including some back-and-forth with Joe. It’s such a pleasure to be in his band – a very easygoing environment socially, and the music is loud and rocking and completely fun to play. I think our musical relationship feels like that of a couple of friends who both get a huge kick out of performing and enjoy sharing these really fun and interesting moments together.
What type of approach do you take when playing with a well-known virtuoso player like Satriani or Steve Vai, as opposed to leading your own band?
Well, I definitely don’t mess around with the songs quite so much! With my own music I’m a lot less respectful to the original album performances, and definitely view each performance as an opportunity to reach for something entirely new. With Satriani and Vai, there’s a definite need to stick more closely to the agreed arrangement and not get too weird or experimental. I have to execute my job cleanly and hit my marks at a Joe Satriani show, but even within that structure there are moments for total abandon, improvisation and goofing around – it’s actually a really nice balance of things. The Satriani band will be back on the road in December in South America, with Asia and Australia planned for the first half of next year.
I wanted to ask about your “Wing Beat Fantastic” album and your work with Andy Partridge. I’ve read you’re a huge XTC fan. What was it like working with him, and might another collaboration with him be in the future?
We’ve both expressed a desire to do it again. I’ve loved XTC’s music since 1983 and it’s been an incredible privilege to collaborate with him. We sit in his backyard shed studio in Swindon, UK, and he says “Play a chord!” and I play one, and he responds to it. He might suggest that the next chord be higher, and I’ll reach for one and we’ll both respond to how it sounds. We literally go through each chord that way, discussing how we like it and what it might feel like, if it suggests anything in terms of a melody or lyric. After a while we have a working basic spine for a song. For “Wing Beat Fantastic” I had a selection of these basic demo versions which Andy and I made together, and I used them as a starting point for new recordings made in California. I’d send him working versions of the recordings I was making, and he’d email back input and suggestions – even when we were an ocean apart, we managed to keep the collaboration ongoing.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention about the tour with Beer For Dolphins, “Scambot 2” or any other projects you are working on?
I am really excited to finally bring the trio version of Mike Keneally & Beer For Dolphins outside of California. Bryan, Joe and I have been going nuts onstage as a trio for so long, and comparatively few people have been able to witness it, so we are very happy to be doing this tour!