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By: Cameron Piko
Photo by Christophe Pauly
Mike Keneally might be best known for his stint in the final years of Frank Zappa’s touring group, or his frequent collaborations with Joe Travers (Zappa’s Vaultmeister) and The Aristocrats’ Marco Minnemann and Bryan Beller. However, the man has a back catalogue of solo work big enough to intimidate anyone. Back in September, Keneally released the long-awaited sequel to 2009’s Scambot with Scambot 2 (along with Inkling, made up of other pieces from the Scambot sessions). As Keneally has already written incredibly detailed track-by-track liner notes for both Scambot 2 and Inkling, this interview focuses more on the themes and approaches to making the albums, as well as Mike’s musical influences.
(((o))): I’m not sure if it’s possible to do briefly, but could you summarize for readers the story of Scambot so far?
Mike: Scambot is a grumpy little composer leading an unfulfilling life. Ophunji is an evil billionaire (he owns a jam and jelly company) who’s worked out how to control and manipulate Scambot’s consciousness, and he tries to program Scambot to kill a radio host named Campland Standish, who’s caught wind of Ophunji’s evil-doings, and is working in tandem with a rock band/subversive media organization called The Quiet Children to bring Ophunji to his knees. Meanwhile on the outskirts of the universe, there is a committee of enlightened beings called God, who look at and comment upon the proceedings. One of the components of God is not so enlightened; he is an evil deity named Wrangthorn, and it transpires that he’s been messing with Ophunji’s behavior and consciousness in much the same way that Ophunji has been messing with Scambot’s. A bunch of other stuff happens too, but you asked me to do it briefly.
(((o))): Whilst it might be easy to get lost in the complex plot of consciousness-controlling antagonists, tiny gnats and Olympian Gods, there’s obviously a compulsion for you to explore this universe. Are there any specific themes or questions that make you keep returning to Scambot after all these years?
Mike: In a strange, insular way, the whole point of Scambot is to remind me to meditate. In a larger sense, I started the story with Scambot 1 in 2009 and couldn’t very well just leave the narrative hanging. There will be a Scambot 3 eventually which will complete the story – not in any hurry to get to that one just yet.
(((o))): This record has been quite some years in the making, with some of the music originating as far back as the late 90s. Do you often revisit and repurpose material from your archives?
Mike: I wrote a great deal of music for some Court TV documentaries back in ’98 and ’99, and was granted the rights to use any of that material as I wished after the shows aired. Most of it was either orchestral in nature – many of those pieces made it onto my album Nonkertompf – or kind of synthy/ambient, and some of those pieces have been part of my albums Wine & Pickles, You Must Be This Tall, and now Scambot 2 and Inkling. If I have some older music around that I think is good and want to share with people, I do like to find ways to work it into current projects. Some of the songs that went onto Wing Beat Fantastic in 2012 and You Must Be This Tall in 2013 (like “Land,” “That’s Why I Have No Name” and “You Must Be This Tall” itself) were started during the making of Scambot 1 in 2008 and 2009. I had thought at the time I might save them for Scambot 2, but while I was working on Wing Beat and Tall in the interim, those songs just fit too well into the contexts of those albums to be ignored. I had several songs started during the Scambot 1 sessions which made it onto Scambot 2 (like “Scores of People” and “Proceed”), and actually the majority of the Inkling material was started during the Scambot 1 sessions.
(((o))): The lineup on the album varies quite a bit. What dictates a track requiring a, for instance, Joe Travers over a Marco Minnemann flavour, or Rick Musallum over your own guitar?
Mike: Those are all instinctive decisions. It’s kind of a cliche to say that you “cast” a song the same way you’d cast a film, but it’s really true – all of these musicians have completely distinct styles that significantly color the final version of a song. I really like for an album to evolve in a variety of ways over the course of its playing time, and working with different musicians is a wonderful way to keep an album from sounding too samey as it goes. Plus I just love the way all these people play, and it gives me a lot of joy to hear them all working their magic on my music.
(((o))): Scambot 1 had “Chee”, a piece that you essentially composed on the fly for an orchestra. Were there any other pieces on this album (or Inkling) where you experimented writing in a style you hadn’t done before?
Mike: “Roll” on Scambot 2 and “Cram” on Inkling were both written and recorded during the same experimental session, with Kris Myers on drums, and myself and Rick Musallam on guitars. For each of those songs, I would introduce a basic song idea to Rick and Kris, and we would jam on that idea for many minutes, getting different interpretations of it. After running that idea through its paces I would develop another idea for a song section, and as Kris and Rick picked up on what I was doing, we would jam on that idea for another few minutes. I continued conceiving and introducing successive song sections as we played, and at the end of it all I had over a half hour of playing for each of the two songs. Then later I got into editing mode, keeping the most prime bits and arranging them into final song form, and then doing additional instrumental and vocal overdubs on those forms to arrive at the final recordings. It made the song forms very organic and unpredictable, and especially with “Cram” it really resulted in a form that I would never have composed using more conventional means.
(((o))): Scambot 1 was a very ‘statistically dense’ (to steal a Zappa phrase) record, whilst this new album – beyond the utter insanity of “In the Trees” – seems to be a lot more open. Inkling seems to take this even further with the spacious solo organ of “Skating Backwards”. If/when Scambot 3 comes into existence, do you think you’ll continue with this trend of decreasing density?
Mike: Absolutely. That’s an important component of the Scambot narrative, both literally and figuratively. Even within Scambot 2 itself, it embodies that gradual clutter-clearing aspect, starting as it does with the craziest, densest piece (“In The Trees”) and then gradually becoming a lot airier as it goes along. My shorthand description of the upcoming Scambot 3 is that it’s likely to be my version of an Eno album – very wide and spacious. It’s going to be a while before I get to working on it and anything can happen in the meantime, but for now it exists in my consciousness as a very ambient and atmospheric thing.
(((o))): Your influences obviously come from all over the place, but with you playing in the upcoming tribute to Keith Emerson, and your incredibly meticulous liner notes mentioning the Gentle Giant influence over “Pretzels” and “Buzz”, obviously the 70s and progressive rock holds a special place in your heart. What is it about these artists that continue to resonate so well with you?
Mike: The best of that stuff – and for me the peak writing and playing of Keith Emerson and Gentle Giant definitely qualify as that – is just as rewarding to me now as it was then, because there are so many intricacies to immerse oneself in that you can continue to discover things about the music many years after you first hear it. I’m continually fascinated to listen now to music that enchanted me 40 years ago, because I’ve changed so much in the meantime, and it brings a completely different perspective to music I think I know so intimately – it’s not just a nostalgia thing for me to hear that music now, it’s an ongoing process of discovering everything that’s there, and just being exhilarated by how great and substantial so much of that music is. Or, in some cases, discovering that something I thought was really hot stuff back in the day can feel sort of trite and second-hand to me now (not naming any names there). Most often though I’m gratified to find that the stuff I enjoyed as a teenager still has merit when I hear it now.
(((o))): Speaking of other influences, you listened to a lot of Radiohead during the Joe Satriani tour and ended up seeing them live not too long ago. Are there any new albums or artists you’ve been similarly hooked on this year?
Mike: I freely admit to being awful at keeping up with new music, and I know that a lot of great stuff is slipping by me all the time. Having said that, I do try to keep up with everything that Flying Lotus and Thundercat are doing, and they led me to really digging into Kendrick Lamar, and I just can’t believe how good his stuff is. Absolutely riveting, and I thought his performance on the Grammy Awards show this year was probably in the top 3 most amazing performances I’ve ever seen on television. I also greatly enjoy the new albums by Matt Mitchell (Vista Accumulation) and Kimara Sajn under the names +1 (Future Perfect and Brave World Order) and Polyethelene Pet (Bop Science Live). Also, that last Esperanza Spalding album was unbelievable. And I love everything Godsticks puts out, especially the latest album Emergence.
(((o))): Can you tell us more about your upcoming shows? There seem to be a several different Mike Keneally band iterations on the horizon.
Mike: Just last night I performed in South Carolina with a bassist (Kevin Singleton) I played with last year, and a drummer (Mike Knight) who I never played with until yesterday, and we did about two hours of my stuff behind a restaurant in downtown Florence. Super fun! And earlier this year I played in Germany with Jaan Wessman on bass and Schroeder on drums, a trio I worked with quite a bit in the early 2000s, and I will play more with them next year. But the touring I’m doing in late October/early November involves my old pals Bryan Beller on bass and Joe Travers on drums, as Mike Keneally and Beer For Dolphins. I’m especially excited about this because I realized not too long ago, to my amazement, that this particular trio has never played outside of California as just a trio (although we have toured as part of larger configurations), and we’ve been together since the early 90s. Time to change that!