Tommy Keene: Why His Music Matters!

There are those artists and bands from your youth whose music you listen to now only infrequently: they’re only out on LP, maybe, or your tastes have changed, or they just sound so, well…dated.

And then there are those who are still putting out new CDs, who reveal a new sound with each successive record while still incorporating enough of the old to be familiar, soothing, comfortable. Who are, in other words, like an old friend.

Tommy Keene is one such old friend.

The first thing you notice about a Tommy Keene song is his voice. Producer Rick Gershon calls him a “distinctively warm-hearted vocalist and guitarist of rare quality.” Listen to the words; he’s probably telling you something about life, about how to cope with it, or enjoy it, or figure it out. It’s not deep philosophy, but it’s real. You’ll notice the easy way the melody catches your ear, the way you’re humming along before you know what hit you. Then you notice the subtle textures of Keene’s guitar playing. This guy’s a wizard.

He has a faithful group of fans, people who have stuck with him throughout the years, the frustrations, and the label changes. Some of the fans’ names you may recognize: Paul Westerberg, Peter Buck, Matthew Sweet, Velvet Crush, the Gin Blossoms, Superchunk, Fugazi, the Goo Goo Dolls, Teenage Fanclub. Most of these bands grew up listening to Tommy Keene; you can hear his influences in the music they’re playing today.

Other fans of Tommy’s include the metro area’s native-son-currently-on-top-of-the-world, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. He and former Wilco bandmate Jay Bennett played on Isolation Party, Keene’s 1998 studio release; on Keene’s brand-new album, The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down, Bennett again helps out with keyboards, recording, and mixing. Urbana wunderkind Adam Schmitt has been working with Keene for well over 10 years and again helped out with mixing the final record.

Join PlaybackSTL now for a conversation with an old friend.

The new album seems, at first listen, somewhat of a departure from the signature Tommy Keene sound—catchy songs built upon layers of jangly guitars. The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down is, instead, more intense and direct, both lyrically and musically. You’ve got a lot of background instruments, horns and strings and saxaphone, plus the underlying odd sounds incorporated throughout. Did you set out to make this a more playful record? More rock than pop?

Playful? Well, to go back to the meat of the question, I think that, to people familiar with the live show, this won’t come as much of a departure or shock. The band, from day one was always sort of a loud rock ’n’ roll band live, and I think that finally we’ve caught up with the technology and made a record that really rocked and sounded like we did live.

Also on this new record I did try to use different instruments and mix things up a bit. There’s horns, there’s a variety of keyboards that Jay Bennett played that added a lot of color and spice to the songs, [there’s] “The Final Hour,” which was my attempt to try something different—it’s a mini-opera of sorts: it has a narrative, there is a story, there’s a beginning, middle and end, and each time the signature or the motif or the musical passage changes, it’s sung from the viewpoint of a different person.

Tell me about the creation of “The Final Hour.” How did you come up with that? Did you sit down and consciously decide to write an epic?

No, I had bits and pieces of different little musical ideas floating around and I just came up with the concept, you know: wouldn’t it be fun to do, and just sort of challenging? I just started at the beginning and I kept going and going and adding stuff, and I kind of shaped it all. I brought back certain little musical motifs: that’s what an opera does. And then I had to come up with a story, lyrically—

Oh, so you had the music first?

Oh yeah. I always have music first. Sometimes I’ll come up with a phrase that I like for a song title or a line or two, but it’s always the music first. So then I had fun with it. I knew I wanted instrumental parts in there, so I kind of came up with that and I just tied it all together.

Merry-Go-Round is your first album without a cover tune. Was that a conscious decision?

No. No, not really. I had a lot of songs. Besides “The Final Hour” being eight songs in one, we recorded 18 songs, and then I had to kind of pare it down. I never made a conscious attempt to include a cover on every record, they just sort of happened. Each one on each record sort of has its own story, but usually it’s a song that I find is somewhat different from my songwriting style, and sometimes I think that if I throw it in the mix, in the record, it will sort of shake things up a bit. I usually pick a song that is stylistically or rhythmically different from the songs I write, or a song that I would find really difficult to write. Or it’s maybe some song that I have always wanted to do, and when I’m in recording I’ll say, “Let’s just try this,” and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But there was no cover song this time; maybe I had too many songs.

So on Merry-Go-Round, is “Man Without a Soul”the song that maybe mixes it up a little?

Yeah. My brother’s wife heard it and said, “You didn’t write this.” It’s more of a rock ’n’ roll song—a 12-bar song—based in blues. That was sort of my take with trying to write a 12-bar rock ’n’ roll boogie woogie song. It’s got two bridges in it, and the second bridge is a typical Tommy Keene bridge. Jay Bennett said, “When I heard this song, I was like, this is nothing like anything you’ve written,” and then when the second bridge comes in, he goes, “Oh, OK.”

When you create an album, do you take a pool of songs in hand and go through what fits, or do you write the songs with the album in mind and kind of a common theme?

I never write an album; I just sort of write songs, and when I think I have enough good songs I go and make a record. It’s just happenstance that sometimes the songs fit together really well, and that eventually becomes a record. Each step of making a record, you come to these crossroads and things just sort of decide themselves, make their own decisions. I mean, it just becomes really apparent; it’s automatic as you’re going through it—well, that’s not going to make the record, this might—and the closer you get to the end of the record, you see the light at the end of the tunnel.

It’s kind of a nice analogy for life.

True. Usually things happen for a reason, and recording is very much like that. There’s a million little things that go on every day of recording that ultimately determine the outcome of the record. I mean, down to, should I move this cymbal mike one inch this way, and that ends up making the drum sound stick out, so then you have to do the guitar sound that fits with the drum sound, and then…it’s a chain of events.

How much do you control what the other musicians are doing in the studio?

I give them a lot of free reign, but probably a lot. I mean, I sort of conduct, or orchestrate, but I definitely encourage them to add their own personality.

A Rolling Stone review of Based on Happy Times had a quote that said, “His lyrics always suggest rather than spell out,” which seemed to appropriately capture your songwriting style. But now you’ve come out with this album and songs such as “The Fog Has Lifted.” Not only does the song have blistering guitar work, but I’m struck by the very straightforward admission of sexual desire: “I want to touch you/there’s nothing much more to say.” It’s a powerful song on all levels, seemingly indicative of something that has changed in you as a songwriter.

[Laughs loudly] You want to hear something interesting? That song was written in 1983. On the last three or four records, I’ve gone back into the catalog of songs that I’ve accumulated and picked an older song and sort of reworked it. I believe that was written for Based on Happy Times and demoed and it didn’t make the cut. I go back and listen to a lot of these songs that are lying around, and it’ll sort of strike me, like, wow, why didn’t I change that, or why didn’t it make the record? “The Fog Has Lifted” was a really old song; if you listen to the original demo, it’s very different. I rearranged it totally. I was going for kind of a Neil Young Crazy Horse sort of approach. I think it ended up turning more like, as one review said, Led Zepplin or something, which is fine by me.

I’ve heard you described throughout your career by means of a couple of comparisons: one is “the thinking man’s Replacements” and the other is “the American Morrissey.” Which one do you think fits you best?

[Laughs] I don’t know. I remember the American Morrissey comment; it was from a D.C. writer, and I remember my response to that. I mean, it doesn’t bother me. The thinking man’s Replacements, that was sort of off the mark. I mean, the Replacements music was very intellectual; Westerberg’s lyrics are extremely thinking mans.

I think Morrissey…well, there’s the thing that I’m always melancholy all the time, gloomy-doomy. Yeah, the lyrics have a melancholy tone to them, but I don’t write things like “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.” Although I love the Smiths, and I love the Replacements. It’s kind of hard sometimes. I’ll tell you what I feel about writers labeling—I mean, that’s what they have to do. They have to give an angle to the story.

You have to give somebody something to hang on to.

Like the new Wilco record. What would have happened if Reprise hadn’t dropped them? You don’t really read about the record that much, you just read about the story. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to them.

You’re right. And it’s everywhere.

It’s a story. Not only do we have this record that’s great, but we have this big story, meaningful business, music biz scandal, right? It was a good thing.

Is creating an album a freer experience now that you’re on indie labels, not looking for the big deal?

I don’t think I have a choice, basically. I don’t think that I’m ever going to get on a big label. I mean, I was on a major label, and there was sort of a window, a period of time when I think I could have gotten on another one and things didn’t work out, and now basically I’m too old.

I’m on indie labels, and that’s fine. You can definitely have a career on indie labels, and the labels that I’ve been on since Geffen have been visible labels. The records have gotten out there and they’re available. The amount of money, promotion, distribution is negligible and such. But at this point, does it free me up? It does in a creative way, but in a financial way I’m just really strapped as far as what I can do. I can only do so much to expand my audience.

What about releasing it yourself, would that be an option?

Well, I kind of did that with the live record. It’s always an option, but…I wanted to be a musician, a creative person, and then I become the record company, I become a business person. I’m a horrible businessman. I’ve had to become a sort of de facto business manager, road manager, guiding my career, that sort of thing; it ultimately stresses me out and takes away from the musical outcome. Getting into the whole business standpoint is good in some ways, because now the artist has more control over it, but on the other hand, it’s really draining. I mean, I’m not an accountant, I’m not a public relations person; I’m a musician, I’m a singer. But sometimes I have to wear different hats. It’s just more work and more responsibility I’d rather not have.

I think all artists, to a certain extent, manage themselves anyway. I mean, they have people to do certain things, and the best, the most successful artists, like Madonna, have a hand in everything. They have a million people to do whatever they want for them, but they’re running the ship. That’s what I’m doing, but I just don’t have all the people to do everything for me; I don’t have all the help.

How has your definition of success changed over the years?

Or lack of? [laughs] It’s hard to get a grip on where I’m at at a certain point in my career, especially lately. I feel somewhat fulfilled that I’ve done a lot of thingsóI’ve toured the country, I’ve been on TV, I’ve been in the movies, I’ve toured in Europe, I’ve played with a lot of great musicians. At the end of the day, I’ve made a lot of records that I’m really proud of. But as far as other accomplishments, and as far as how I view my career and where it’s at, sometimes it’s pretty confusing.

You’re going to have to help me with this, because I love the quote but I don’t remember where I read it and I’m probably going to butcher it. It was a few years ago, and it was a national magazine, and you said, “I don’t want to be 40 years old and still playing Cicero’s for 30 people”?

[Laughs] 43.

43. OK. What do you think it is about St. Louis that makes us such a hard city to conquer musically?

Nothing. I was just—it was the first club that I remember there being 30 people there. It could have been, I don’t want to be in San Diego in front of 27 people. I mean, we’ve had a couple good shows in St. Louis. A couple of those, “Oh, it rained that night,” or “So-and-so’s playing down the block.”

That is a problem, though. You played opposite Alex Chilton one night.

And one night there was this absolutely horrific storm, remember that? I just meant one of the markets where we’ve had some good shows and some pretty bad, unattended shows where the promoter lost money. St. Louis is not the Chicago, New York, L.A., or D.C. where, 9 times out of 10, there’s going to be a good crowd.

It really depends on the night. It has to be convenient for people.

There’s something so mortifying about playing a huge, empty nightclub. Because everybody in the audience, I mean—they feel it, too, like, why aren’t there more people here? This isn’t fun; there’s not a million people. It’s like the buzz of the crowd, right? If you’ve got this big, empty room, It’s just sort of horrible down the line. It’s horrible for the people onstage, and it’s horrible for the people in the audience because they feel it’s not an event.

There’s an underlying amusement park theme through your music. You’ve got The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down, you’ve got Sleeping on a Rollercoaster, you’ve got the carnival in “Underworld.”

Well, I love amusement parks; I mean that’s definitely obvious by now. There’s something about the allure of the fair.

Now that sounds like the Smiths.

I think it’s…I mean, everyone when they’re younger, when the fair comes, the circus, it’s sort of just very fantasy-evoking, it’s pretty other-worldly. Especially those old-time fairs that would come through and stay for two weeks, they were big events.

There was this amusement park outside of D.C. called Glen Echo, and I think it was built in the ’20s, it was just this amazing place. In the late ’60s, my parents would take me there, and they had one of these old wooden rollercoasters. The place just had this incredible aura and atmosphere. It was actually pretty infamous because I know early in the ’60s, mid-’60s there were race riots. It had really a long history, interesting history. The album cover of Places That Are Gone, the EP, the photo shoot was done there, and I’m standing in front of this shooting gallery, if you go back and look at it. You see this sort of art deco wall, kind of building ornaments and stuff. Let’s see…and then, Sleeping on a Rollercoaster, there’s that, and then, yeah, the carnival.

You’ve probably read where I got the title for this record, but I was driving around listening to NPR and they had an interview with this classical composer who was the protégé of—I forget his name, Carl…one of the main Warner Brothers orchestrator/composers [Carl Stalling, the editors]. He was very famous, he did a lot of soundtracks and cartoon music. His biggest claim to fame is the theme of the Looney Tunes, which is called “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down.” [hums a few bars] He didn’t write that, he just arranged it, but ironically, that’s what he’s most famous for. I was listening to this really interesting interview and I heard that title and I was like, God, I have to use that. I had a matchbook; I stopped, pulled over and wrote it down.

If you weren’t making music, what would you do?

[Long pause] Um…Well, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’ve gotten into photography. [laughs]

[ed. note: Keene has taken most of the photographs on his albums since The Real Underground.]

I have noticed, but I was going to let you bring it up.

Something creative. At one point, I wanted to be an actor. When I went to the University of Maryland, I was bordering on becoming a theatre major. There was this one—this was the moment where I just chose a different road, OK? I had done, when I was a Freshman, they did—well, in high school I was always playing in a rock band and I was always doing the musicals or the plays and stuff like that. Music always was my first choice, always. And when I got to college, there was a year period in there where I wasn’t really in a band, and I couldn’t find people to form a band with, so I kind of got into the whole theatre thing. I tried out for one show as a freshman, and I had sort of a horrible audition, and I was very embarrassed, and then I kind of got my act together and went back. They did a big production of “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” and I got in the show, so I met all these people and kind of joined the clique. The next year, my second year, sophomore year, they were doing “Death of a Salesman.” These were sort of big deal productions; the University of Maryland’s a really big school, and they had a really good drama department. A lot of the people that were in the shows were grad students, and they were older. I auditioned, and I got called back for the role of the younger son, Happy. At the same time, I had met this guy named Richard X. Heyman who, my friend down the street taught bass lessons to this guy Ricky Goldberg whose sister was going out with Richard X. and my friend John said this guy’s a really good songwriter, you know, he’s forming a band. So we starting playing together, we formed a band right at the same time this whole thing was going on. Anyway, I didn’t get the part. The guy they gave the part to was a grad student; he was miffed he didn’t get the lead, the first son, so he said, “I don’t want to do it.” So then they put a note up, please, the other three people come back for a reading, and everyone was like, oh, you’ve got it now, the other people were terrible, and I said, “I’m not going to go back.”

I would have gotten the part, and I said, no, this band’s sounding really good, and this guy’s got really good songs; I’m going to do this. So, who knows? I always think back, you know? Because I would have gotten the part, and maybe I would have stuck with that. Because I had to make a choice, you know, the band or this, because there would have been rehearsals every night of the week, so maybe I sometimes think things would have turned out a lot differently if I hadn’t made that decision.

But you can’t regret it.

No. No, I had a lot of fantastic experiences. But anyway, you asked, and maybe I would have pursued that.

On the photography, do you have shows or just do it for fun?

[laughs] No. Maybe I should; I go see so many shows and I think, My stuff’s better than that. No, I’m really a novice. I think that, from my limited experience, photography is really not about the mechanics of the camera; it’s just about the person who’s snapping the shutter. I think, with all the photo sessions that I’ve done with people—like, for example, the Songs From the Film photo shoot was a Vogue photographer they paid an extraordinary amount of money for and he took like 50 rolls of film, they were horrible. That’s why they ended up with that shot with me kind of blurry on the cover—

I like the cover.

Well, yeah, it is kind of interesting in itself, but most of the other shots were pretty horrible. I don’t know; I think it’s just the knack of composition and things and just having the eye, the instinct for photography. I’ve been pleasantly surprised with a lot of the stuff that I’ve done.

When you go on tour this summer, are you going to play “The Final Hour?”

Yes. We’re going to try to. We did some shows two years ago—New York, D.C., Philly—just to play new songs at that point.

Did you play it then?

Yeah, we did.

I was at the D.C. shows.

June 2000? Yeah, we did “Final Hour”one of the two nights.

It’s really hard to play. [laughs] It’s hard to learn, it’s hard to play. It’s a real challenge, vocally, the whole nine yards. I mean, the song was difficult to begin with, from day one. It was hard to write, it was hard to record, it was hard to mix, you know. We actually—we learned it, oh, when we did the tour of Spain in February of 2000 I had this grandiose dream of playing it. We had it almost together, we didn’t play it on any of those shows in Spain, but we did play it, I think one night—yeah, we played it twice. We played a show in Anapolis; we played it live twice.

We’re going to try to play it every night.

Anything else that you’re going to throw at people this year?

Actually, I was doing an interview a couple weeks ago, and we got into talking about songs for the tour. Now that I have quite a catalog of records, it’s going to be interesting.

I’ve just seen Elvis Costello out here in Los Angeles: it was a great show, he played great, the band was great. I came up with this analogy. He’s got three categories of songs, A, B, and C. A are the songs he has to play—“Alison,” “Watching the Detectives”—and he always plays them—although he didn’t do “Alison,” which was kind of funny. “Pump it Up.” I have those songs: “Places That Are Gone,” “Back to Zero,” maybe one or two others where if people came and I didn’t play those songs, they would be really disappointed. You’ve got to satisfy; you’ve got to play to that crowd.

Then there’s group B. Now these are not “hits”—well, for Elvis; I never had any hits—but they’re songs that he always plays and they’re album tracks, and with Elvis there are things he’s always gonna do. For example, take an album like Imperial Bedroom. If he plays something from Imperial Bedroom, he’s gonna do “Shabby Doll” or “Beyond Belief.” So I have those songs. If I’m going to do something from Songs From the Film, I’m going to do “Underworld” or I’m going to do “Marilyn Monroe,” right? And if I do Isolation Party, I’m going to do “Long Time Missing.” These are the givens.

OK, and then there’s group C, which he never does. I mean, he’ll never take an album like Imperial Bedroom and do “Pidgin English” or “You Little Fool.” He’s never done “Little Fool” live, and if you read an interview with him, he hates that song. I’m gonna go to group C, I’m gonna take songs from records that were not really well known songs or hits, favorites, and on this tour, I’m gonna go back and I’m gonna do songs I’ve never done or you would never thing I would do, like real surprises. So that’s going to be the challenge for this tour.

Now if you have any suggestions for the third type of songs, you know, starting from the very first record all the way through the new record, it would be interesting…I mean, would you pick a song you’ve never heard me do, or one you’d never think I would do?

If a lot of people said, Why don’t you play that song, and if we could pull it off, you know, I would do it. Maybe I’ll do that, a little survey.

Live or studio, and I think you’ve already answered this: which is more your true sound?

Well, with anyone, it’s going to be, and what I’ve said before is I think we’ve finally gotten that sound in the studio. Do you agree?

Mmm hmm. I can see that now that you’ve mentioned it.

I mean, take a record like Songs From the Film. I mean, do you think the way that, say, “Underworld” sounds on that record is sort of indicative of what we sound like live?


And plus, the live album, I believe, kind of satisfied that, or accomplished that goal. I mean, obviously, but as far as studio records, I think this one is the closest. And that throws people; back to your first question. “Oh, I thought you were folky, jangle, pop, birdsy band.” Well, we sounded like that on record at one point, but—that was the big complaint with Songs From the Film. This doesn’t sound like they do live. The people in D.C. had heard those songs a zillion times and then they got that record and it threw them for a loop. And that’s another can of worms we won’t go into; I mean, that was that whole Geoff Emerick joke. It’s taken a while, but we’ve finally pulled it off.

You know, I never got the criticism of that album.

Well, because you lived in St. Louis, and you had never seen us.

Exactly. And I always thought it was the most beautiful album.

Well, yeah. On one hand, that record is aurally very interesting, texture-wise and stuff, but it’s not a loud rock ’n’ roll record, which is what we wanted to make, and what everyone thought we were going to make.

I think you kind of sneaked the rock in. It’s nice.

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