Tommy Keene | Happy Times

"I thought I’d really written a record that was maybe just not typical Tommy Keene…I have to tell you, a bunch of reviews have come in, and I didn’t succeed."



Tommy Keene is legendary, one of those musician’s musician types. His history reads like that of the legend he is: Joined Washington, D.C., group the Razz as a teenager. Released his first solo album in 1982. Recorded and released 16 albums and EPs on such labels as Geffen, Matador, Alias, and now, with Crashing the Ether, Yep Roc subsidiary Eleven Thirty. Is a renowned guitarist and power-pop wizard, having appeared on countless compilations and been named among many a musician’s influences. Touring band member for Paul Westerberg and Bob Pollard, among others.

Still, Keene sighs, he’s forever stuck in the power-pop genre. “I wanted to do something a little bit different with Crashing the Ether,” he says, jovial and chatty on the telephone despite just waking up. “I was trying to push the envelope a little bit musically and lyrically. I thought I’d really written a record that was maybe just not typical Tommy Keene; I thought it would be more palpable to people who just didn’t like power-pop music. For example, the rhythms in ‘Lies Become Lies’ would be something that perhaps people that listen to KCRW, someone who likes Beck could like.”

He pauses and chuckles. “I have to tell you, a bunch of reviews have come in, and I didn’t succeed. ‘He’s the master of power-pop; tenth record; they’re always pretty good—if you’re into this kind of thing.’ The only way I’m going to attract an audience short of David Bowie saying I’m the next Eno is if I just totally scam out and do a rap record, just do something completely different, because I think, in a lot of writers’ eyes, I will be pigeonholed forever; it’s a stigma I can’t break.”

Crashing the Ether was recorded in Keene’s home studio, the first such project he’s endeavored from start to finish. Besides longtime Keene bandmate John Richardson on drums and a few notable guest appearances—the Gin Blossoms’ Jesse Valenzuela, guitarist Steve Gerlach, and bassist Brad Quinn among them—Keene himself plays all the instruments.

“It was just a luxury to be able to work 10 hours a day or 10 minutes a day over a long period of time and see how things sat with me after a while,” he reveals. “When you’re in the studio and you do a guitar solo and you’re out of there, well, that’s the guitar solo. But four months later, I could go, ‘You know, I can do better than that. I can redo that bass part; it’s just not really locking with the drums.’ It’s this constant opportunity to improve. Sometimes you nail it, sometimes you just have to wait until the right moment comes, the right take. Most of the stuff I did do in real time. I’d work on the rhythm guitars on an hour, and then I’d do the acoustic guitars and add some keyboards and they’d be done. It was just certain bits, lead breaks or after living with the track for a month or so, I would say, ‘Mmm, that can be better.’ And on the whole record, out of 10 songs, maybe that happened four times; not that much. Usually, I’d work on a song for a night, a whole evening, and I’d be pretty happy.”

In the midst of recording, Keene had another project start-stop-starting, as well: a collaboration with former Guided by Voices frontman Bob Pollard. “In 2003, we were put in touch together and he wanted to do a record,” Keene says. “We talked a little bit about direction; he is a fan of mine and he said, ‘I want a Tommy Keene record and I want to do my thing to it. You write the music, send it to me; I’ll write the lyrics and I’ll sing over what you give me.’”

But before that project—dubbed the Keene Brothers by Pollard—got off the ground, it was put on hold. “Cut to about a year later and he calls me and says, ‘I’m going to have to put this project on hold because I’m breaking up Guided by Voices and I need to concentrate on my first post-GBV proper solo album.’ I took a bunch of these songs that I had written for him that I had no melody line for, and I thought, ‘I really like this track; I’m going to use it.’ That was interesting, because I had to come up with this melody line to something that I’d never intended to do so with. In a way, it was a new approach to writing songs.”

Prior to his own tour and the Keene Brothers’ official release later this summer, Keene’s been touring as guitarist and keyboardist for Bob Pollard. Ironically, the keyboards were Keene’s idea. “When I heard his last record, From a Compound Eye, I heard all these keyboards. There’s a lot of different sounds and textures. I was already going to go out and play guitar with him and I said, ‘Would you be up to me playing keyboards onstage?’ And he said, ‘Wow, I’ve never had a keyboard player in my band, ever.’”

As for the best part of a songwriter playing someone else’s music, Keene’s ready with an answer. “I’ve always liked playing with other people; I love taking a singing vacation. I love to just play guitar. And the best part about this tour is I’m playing keyboards, which I haven’t done in bands since I was a teenager. It’s a long show—it’s two and a half hours—and I get to sit down. I’ve got this nice little cushy bench.”

But back to that idea of breaking out. “I actually had an idea lately that I have been thinking of in the last couple weeks,” Keene says excitedly. “Of going upstairs and, in a month’s time—it sounds like a lot of time, but it’s really not—write and record a record, mix it, and put it out there. Make a real arty, noise-pop record and see what people say. What do you think?”

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