Keith Kenny interview: A solo act with a big sound

Keith Kenny interview

SHERRY RUBEL

Keith Kenny performs at White Eagle Hall in Jersey City, April 6.

Keith Kenny, who describes his recent gig opening shows on a tour by the Dean Ween Group as a “dream come true,” will be back in his home state for a show at White Eagle Hall in Jersey City, April 6. He’ll actually be one of eight acts appearing at the event, which is a birthday bash for Nick Ciavatta, who promotes concerts via his Friggin Fabulous Productions company and plays guitar and sings in the band Sea of Otters.

Joining Sea of Otters and Kenny at the show will be Sylvana Joyce and the Moment, Chrissy Roberts, Twiddlin’ Thumbs, the Terry Haman Band, Plastiq Passion and Michael Lally. For information, visit whiteeaglehalljc.com.

Kenny will perform solo, as he usually does. He generates a big, musically eclectic sound, though, with effects pedals and foot percussion, in addition to his guitar and vocals.

I talked to him earlier this week, by phone.

Q: Is this going to be your first time at White Eagle Hall?

A: Yeah, it will be.

Q: Have you played a lot with the other bands on the bill?

A: Well, I started playing with Sea of Otters, probably about a year ago, in Hoboken. Nicholas Ciavatta is a really good promoter in the area, and we connected. He had heard about my stuff and had me for one of his afternoon brunch shows at Maxwell’s and then we ended up doing this thing called Live on the Palisades, a festival at Riverview Park in Jersey City. It has a beautiful skyline view of New York City, so that was a really cool setting to do my show and then see Sea of Otters.

Sea of Otters, in action

Q: Will you play with them at this show?

A: Yeah.

Q: So where are you living now?

A: I’m based out of Monroe Township. That’s where my studio is. But my two main hubs are Asbury Park and New Hope, Pa., as far as playing goes.

Q: I know you recently did a tour with Dean Ween. How did that go?

A: It’s a cliché to say it, but it was a dream come true. Playing for his audiences was like a perfect fit. I think a lot of Ween fans and fans of the Dean Ween Group are kind of used to an eclectic batch of songs, or a setlist that spans from almost heavy metal to blues, jazz, folk. They like a lot of different elements. That’s kind of how I see myself, as an artist: Not really sticking to one genre.

Q: Did you play with him at those shows?

A: Yeah, the first night of the tour was in Indianapolis and that was kind of like a test run for all of us. We were just seeing how the crowd would respond. And because that was probably one of the smaller stages, I didn’t sit in with the band that first night. But the second night and then for the rest of the tour I sat in with them for at least one song every night and on a couple of nights there was two songs we did together. So that was really fun.

Q: Was it the same one or two songs each show, or different songs?

A: “Mercedes Benz” was the song that we did together the most. It’s got this kind of funky, blues kind of feel. And I think Mickey (Melchiondo, aka Dean Ween) really liked my playing on that. He kind of mentioned that it added an element of a percussive thing to the song that he really liked. So I ended up sitting in on that one almost every night of the tour.

Mickey Melchiondo, aka Dean Ween.

Q: So I guess you got to know him pretty well in New Hope?

A: Yeah, it was kind of cool for me because I had heard of Ween, and I was kind of familiar with the name. But I didn’t really know any of their material. It was just something I never got around to checking out. But I was always playing at the (New Hope) club John and Peter’s, and after the show some guys would come up to me and go like, “Dean Ween really likes your stuff, and he was rocking out.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s great.”

I actually saw him perform for the first time in the Moistboyz, which is one of his side projects. And I didn’t know that that was him. I just noticed, like, “Wow, that guitar player kicks ass. I’d really like to meet him.” And then it kind of clicked: “Okay, I get it now. He’s Dean Ween and he’s a badass guitarist.” It was really cool to get to know him, and and after a while he invited me to play at the Invitational (his weekly jam at John and Peter’s). So it just kind of blossomed from there.

Q: Getting into Ween … you can spend a lot of time. I mean, there’s so much music. You could really get into it deeply if you wanted to.

A: Right. And that’s kind of how it worked out for me. It wasn’t like an obsession at first; it was just like, “Maybe I’ll check out this album.” And I started getting into their music and I really started to like it a lot. It just was a whole new terrain of stuff I had never heard and it was cool to get into it. Then at the same time, to be playing with the guy … I think that it took a little of the pressure off because when I told some other people who were fans of his that I was playing with him, they would kind of freak out and look at me differently. But for me it was just kind of making a new friend and then really enjoying a kind of collaborative thing.

Q: Do you think you’ll be working with him more in the future?

A: Well, this tour went so well and by the end of it we were all kind of bummed out that we were parting ways, because they’re going out to Australia. Actually, he has a different group of musicians going out with him for this tour in Australia. He did mention, though, that going forward, when they do the next tour in the U.S., that I’d be a candidate for being on it again. So yeah, I definitely think there’s some potential for more shows.

The cover of the album, “Keith Kenny.”

Q: I know he made a guest appearance on your last album. Any plans for more recording with him?

A: Well, he has a new album out now (Deaner Rock 2) and I’m kind of getting batches of songs together … I got my new album (Keith Kenny) out just at the end of last year, and the vinyl finally came at the beginning of this year, so I’m kind of in the infantile stages of putting together some more songs and the next idea of what I want to do.

So, as far as the studio goes, we haven’t talked about that very much yet. But I would love to collaborate with him and any of the other musicians that he was playing with. (Drummer) Sim Cain, who has played with the Henry Rollins Band and such, was on this tour, and he mentioned that he might want to sit in on some stuff the next time I’m recording.

It’s really cool to have this caliber of musicians that are interested to play with me. It’s like a dream come true since I’ve been doing the one-man-band thing for so long.

Q: The on-man-band thing … was that kind of born out of the attempt to create a band-like feel without being able to afford a band? Or do you just like what you’re able to do as one musician?

A: Well, the dream in the beginning was always to have a band. I started really young, so I met some really good musicians around town, through high school and then early college years. But it kind of fizzled out. It was a trio that was focused around my songwriting, so we were just going under my name. …

Q: And when you say “around town, that’s …

A: It was mostly Monroe Township. That’s where I’m from, that’s my home base. It’s funny because it’s like you tell someone Monroe Township and they go, “Where the hell is that?”

Q: It’s not known for its music scene.

A: No (laughs). It’s known for its elderly homes, really. There’s a ton of them there. But we’re close enough to New Brunswick, Asbury Park and New Hope that you can just get around. That’s what cool about this state, is that there’s so much around, in the vicinity.

But when things weren’t working out with the band, the solo idea was always there, because even when I was performing with the band I was doing solo acoustic stuff, using loops and some kind of foot pedal kick — always some kind of, like, foot percussion, whether it was like a stomp board which kind of turned into the big red suitcase thing that I use now. But there was always some kind of creative thing going on with the solo stuff. So after the band fizzled out I just kept going with it, because I always wanted to play live, and I wanted to keep being creative. And once I decided to go full time with music and leave the day job behind … I just stuck with the one-man-band thing. But in the future, I’d love to get a group of guys together to get that full band sound.

A few red suitcases.

Q: I saw on your Indiegogo campaign you were including red suitcases as incentives.

A: When I first started touring, mostly I was doing East Coast states up and down from Jersey to Florida, and then I was going up to the Northeast. And I just thought it would be a cool way to engage with fans: instead of taking a selfie by the side of the road, taking a picture of the suitcase that people are familiar with. So I started doing that near road signs and state signs, and then people kind of started to like it. I customize my pedalboard to fit inside a suitcase, and then it ends up being my kick drum during the show.

So the people who had already kind of caught onto it, when they saw the Indiegogo campaign, they were really into the idea of getting these 3D-printed suitcases that hold the new CD and stuff. It was a lot of fun to sit around and design the thing, and then make it come to life. It’s kind of my logo at the moment. We’ll see where it goes.

Q: Does performing solo so much affect your songwriting? I mean, do you write stuff with a one-man-band arrangement in mind, as opposed to just writing whatever comes to mind? Do you gravitate towards things that will really work well in the one-man-band format?

A: Yeah, I guess I do. Sometimes the effects pedals will influence me a lot, too, on the direction of the writing. I’ll get home to the studio and set up in a similar format to the way I’ll play live, and having those effects turned on will affect the way that I’m playing. That’s become a part of the writing too, lately: Knowing that there’s going to be a certain kind of delay here, or that this would be a place where I could loop something and make it sound bigger. And then you start thinking about “Well, what will the vocals sound like over this?”

So, yeah, there is kind of like a direction for writing as a one-man-band, instead of just coming up with a guitar part and then seeing what somebody else adds to it.

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