First-hand Frank Zappa tales plus the just-released Scambot 2
October 18, 2016
By Jon Liebman
Mike Keneally is a guitarist, keyboardist, vocalist and composer. Widely known for having performed and toured with the legendary Frank Zappa, Keneally has also worked with Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Dweezil Zappa, Chris Opperman, Wadada Leo Smith, Dethklok and many others, in addition to his prolific work as a solo artist and bandleader. Mike’s newest recording Scambot 2, was released September 9, 2016, on Exowax Recordings.
FGPO: Let’s start with the early days. Where are you from?
Keneally: I was actually born in Long Island. My family moved to San Diego when I was really young, in 1970, so I was 8 years old at the time.
FGPO: You got a piano first, then a guitar, right?
Keneally: My first instrument, actually, was an electric organ. That was when I was 7. I got that for my 7th birthday and then, four years later, for my 11th birthday, I got an acoustic guitar. I had four years lead time with the keyboard! [Laughs]
FGPO: You didn’t seem to lose any interest in the keyboard when you got the guitar.
Keneally: I definitely have maintained a healthy interest in both instruments. I love playing both instruments. I really enjoy composing using both instruments ‘cause they’re so different and I really get different things from both of them, so I’m grateful to be able to have access to both. In fact, when (Joe) Satriani hired me for his band in 2010, it was strictly as a keyboard player. I was in Joe’s band for three years before I even picked up a guitar. And then ever since then, since 2013, I’ve been dividing my time pretty much equally between the two. So I’m very, very happy that I can play both instruments. They’ve given me a lot of pleasure over the years and sort of increased my opportunities. It’s nice to be able to do both.
FGPO: Do you come from a musical family? I mean the musical influences you’ve cited include everyone from the Beatles and the Stones to the Beach Boys, Radiohead, XTC, Miles Davis and John Coltrane to Laurie Anderson, Thomas Dolby and Leonard Bernstein. That’s quite a variety!
Keneally: Yeah, it’s all good. [Laughs] I’ve always been interested in things that were undeniably excellent, no matter what the genre. My family wasn’t musical in that nobody was playing any instruments. I didn’t grow up with family members practicing at home or anything, but there was always music going on in the house. There were always records being played and my dad had a wonderful singing voice. He didn’t pursue it professionally, but he definitely could carry a tune. He also had an amazing ability to whistle [Laughs]. And so I took it for granted that there was this musicality.
And then later on, years later, I found out that when my dad got out of the army, after serving his time during World War II, a big band asked him if he wanted to sing. They actually offered him a gig with a big band. And he said no because he didn’t think it was solid enough employment. He had a young family and thought he would do better with a 9-to-5 gig. But that was like a revelation to me later on. I always knew my dad had a really nice singing voice and it was cool to discover that that was recognized by other people as well.
FGPO: What kind of records were playing in the house? Does anything stand out in your memory?
Keneally: You know, the mid-‘60s kind of adult-oriented stuff, like Ray Conniff and, oh, my dad really loved the Mills Brothers, that close harmony group, so I got used to hearing that – harmonies and vocals intertwined and these fairly complex harmonic things. And Herb Alpert and stuff like that. That was what my parents were playing, but my sister down the hall was playing Beatles records because she was a teenager and it was the mid ‘60s and that’s what you did. But then when the Beatles started putting our records like Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, that was when they got too weird for her liking and she stopped listening to the Beatles and I inherited all her Beatle albums and posters and everything. I was developing this Beatles obsession all the time that she was listening and then I kind of inherited her Beatles fandom and became firmly obsessed and focused on the Beatles for years after that. That was sort of a gift that my sister gave to me.
FGPO: Was she sorry about that, years later? Did she regret it?
Keneally: She regretted it, not even years later. She regretted it pretty much instantly because that was all I could talk about and think about. I became, at age 6, obsessed with the Beatles to the expense of almost all other things in life! She made it plain to me on a couple of occasions that it was becoming really tiresome [Laughs].
FGPO: You’ve described yourself as having been “a weird kid.” What did you mean by that?
Keneally: Well, I guess primarily that I didn’t seem to be as intrigued by a lot of the things that the other kids in my age group were interested in. While they were on the playground or on the street playing stickball or whatever it is they were doing, I was much more inclined to just be in my room absorbing music. I loved it! Plus, I had a peculiar sense of humor, which I discovered was peculiar because the jokes that I would crack that I thought were just outstandingly funny very often fell on deaf ears. My humor was off the beaten track and my taste in entertainment and just the way I preferred to spend my day was off the beaten track. I was a loner. I had friends at school, so I wasn’t anti-social or anything, but I tended to make friends with, you know, the slightly more Bohemian crowd, not necessarily the most popular kids in school. I tended to hang out with the non-conformists and the ways that I liked to spend my time seemed a little bit eccentric compared to the rest of the kids. I was occasionally outright told by somebody that I was weird and that kind of helped bolster my viewpoint that that was the case [Laughs].
FGPO: Do you think, if you could trace it back, that that might have led to your being called “the leading progressive rock genius of the post-Zappa era”?
Keneally: [Laughs] Well, first of all, that’s a really humbling statement and I’m really grateful that that was said. I suppose that that’s true because I think progressive rock isn’t necessarily the most conventional form of music and I think that a lot of fans of that genre might describe themselves as being a little bit eccentric and a little bit off-beat compared to what the standard is, so there might be come correlation there. But, specifically, I think it was my weirdness that directly led to the Zappa thing because the kid across the street when I was 9 years old said to me, “Hey, I’ve got this record that you really need to listen to. I think you’ll like it because you’re weird” [Laughs]. And it turned out to be “Help I’m a Rock” from Freak Out, the very first Zappa record. And he was right. I loved it. And it was weird. And I felt like I have now found my music. This is the music that I’ve been waiting for. So there’s no doubt that my “weirdness” led me directly down the path of hardcore Zappa fandom at that point.
FGPO: I bet you never imagined at that point that someday you’d be working with Frank Zappa.
Keneally: No, I was loving his music while I was growing up and part of the expanse of loving his music was teaching myself how to play it because I was just mesmerized by it. I was especially fascinated by the intricacies of his melodies and trying to decode these very, very complex song forms and melodic shapes and stuff. So I would teach myself how to play it to the best of my ability just from listening to the records. I didn’t have any sheet music or tablature or anything like that. Obviously, there was no Internet, [so there] was nothing to study. There was one songbook that had like twenty songs in it, but the rest of the time I was listening to stuff on records. That’s an example again of me being just so obsessed by music that, rather than going out and pursuing more conventional, teenager-type social activities, I’d be home trying to teach myself “The Black Page” off of a record. But it helped me to an extent years later when I had the opportunity to audition for Frank and all of the stuff that I had taught myself to play for fun, basically, ended up helping me to secure me the gig. I was doing “job prep” without even realizing it all those years.
FGPO: Tell me about the audition.
Keneally: On the phone, he had told me a couple of songs that he wanted me to play, which were both really, really difficult. One, I had already taught myself, which I was grateful for. The other one was one I had never played before, so I very quickly had to get those both up to snuff, or at least reasonable.
FGPO: What were they?
Keneally: One of them was called “Sinister Footwear II” and the other one was called “What’s New In Baltimore?” I had learned “Sinister Footwear II” because I heard Steve Vai playing it on guitar and 1981 was right at the beginning of Steve Vai’s ascendancy. He had already been in the band for a year and the first year that Steve was in the band, it was clear that he was a really cool player. But it was the second year, 1981, that Frank gave him a bunch of insane stuff to play. Specifically, I remember the moment of hearing him play the middle section of this song called “Montana” that had this really fast melody (sings) “I’m plucking the old dental floss,” that whole thing, and hearing that executed on guitar was a “Wizard of Oz goes Technicolor” moment for me that I remember really clearly because I didn’t think it was possible to play that stuff on a guitar!
A lot of those melodies that Frank was writing were written for keyboards or for tuned percussion, like marimba and xylophones, or horns. It is somewhat easier to execute that stuff on those instruments than it is on a fretboard, but Steve just like opened this door for me, thanks to Frank making him play this stuff. [It was] like, “Okay, you can execute that stuff, that material, on the guitar” and that just upped the ante for me and I started figuring out how to do it.
Frank had told me on the phone, “Work on these two songs” and he had heard, because when I called his office asking for a job, I told the guy working there that I knew all of Frank’s material. In saying that, I didn’t mean to say that I could flawlessly play all of Frank’s material, only that I was such a huge fan and I had listened to the records over and over and over again that I basically had his entire catalog committed to memory. It all lived in my head. Give me a moment and I’ll be able to perform some kind of a representative version of a song for you and give me a day and I’ll be able to learn the thing and play it for you. So Frank was like, “You know all my music? I don’t believe you. Get your ass up here and prove it.” That was literally his position on the topic.
When I got to the audition, first I played the two songs that he wanted me to play, and then he just started naming songs to test my assertion that I really knew his whole catalog. And everything that he mentioned, either I had played before or I knew so well that I would just say, “Okay, give me a second,” and I would just sort of call the thing up from memory and play a version of it for him. What he sought was a resource that he could utilize and he did it once we got into rehearsal with the full band. Several times he would say, like in the case of a song like, “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” that hadn’t been played in twenty years, he would say, “You know what? I’d like to play ‘Who Needs the Peace Corps?’ I think that would be a really good song for this band and then he just turned and looked at me and waited for me to start playing it. It was whatever version of that song I was able to dredge up from my memory that we were able to start piecing together the arrangement for this twelve-piece band.
It was really gratifying for me to able to provide that service and also just to be in the band with him. I was playing guitar and keyboards and singing, so I was in heaven, just playing my favorite music on the planet and gettin’ to hang out with Frank and these musicians that I respected so much. And that was my first professional musical experience. Up until then, I was just playing, you know, Top 40 in bars or working on my own music at home. So that was a serious baptism by fire to begin my professional career with the dream gig. That was all I wanted to do when I was coming up, to play in Frank’s band and that’s where I started, so that was mind-blowing in and of itself.
FGPO: Who was in the band at the time?
Keneally: It was a 12-piece group with a 5-piece horn section. It was: Frank and myself, Ike Willis was the vocalist and rhythm guitarist, and Robert Martin was on keyboards and vocals, Chad Wackerman on drums, Scott Tunis was the bass player, Ed Mann on percussion, Bruce Fowler on trombone, Walt Fowler on trumpet, Albert Wing on tenor sax, Paul Carmen on alto sax and Curt McGetrick on baritone. That was an early 1988 tour. It was a 12-piece band with a repertoire of about 120 songs [Laughs]. We rehearsed for four months before we went on the road, so it was a well-oiled machine.
FGPO: What was he like to work with?
Keneally: I loved working for him. He knew exactly what he wanted, which I appreciated. It was always interesting, you know, super smart, super funny and just in pursuit of excellence all the time, so it was inspiring and it just was a privilege. It was great.
FGPO: In listening to your recordings, the Scambot records in particular, you seem to have a real passion for instrumentation and arranging, putting all kinds of different textures together. Is that something that you really spend a lot of time and energy on?
Keneally: Yeah, that’s really my joy. I do love performing and I can’t help but feel a lot of energy onstage; it just happens naturally. I really love it up there, but getting in the studio with some instruments and some multi-track capabilities, that’s my jam, you know. I think that might be the purest expression of what it is that I’m after. Certainly there’s no substitute for just getting on the stage with a single instrument and expressing yourself that way. I love to do that, but I think that maybe it’s through the use of harmony and layering and orchestrating that I really express myself most fully because that’s what I hear in my head all the time.
I hear melodies, but I hear them set in very specific ways and the recording process for me is just an attempt to decode all this information that arrives in my head from wherever music comes from and turn it into something concrete that other people can listen to. It takes a long time because Scambot 2, working in tandem with the engineer, Mike Harris, who’s brilliant, the compositions are dense, but I don’t want them to sound overwhelming. So in the mixing process, it’s carving things away and placing all the elements in the proper proportion so that it sounds musical, trying to create something that’s really beautiful to listen to, even though the building blocks of the mix might be some pretty aggressive material or sometimes kind of unorthodox harmonies. I’m always after the most beautiful version of it.
FGPO: I bet you’re pretty excited about the release of Scambot 2.
Keneally: Well it’s been in the works for a long time, so I’m really delighted that people can finally hear it. I’m extremely grateful that it’s out and I’m very happy with the album.
FGPO: What would you like people to know about it?
Keneally: Well, if people are curious, there is a storyline, so if people are interested in the conceptual aspect of it, it’s the sequel to an album called Scambot 1 that came out in 2009. It does have this rather elaborate story with a plot and it’s all laid out in the booklet – or the digital booklet if you get the download – with some artwork that accompanies it, so it’s a conceptual work. It goes as deep as you want it to, but more than anything, I don’t want anybody to feel that it’s in any way daunting or that you have to be able to grasp the storyline in order to enjoy it or appreciate it. It is definitely, first and foremost, a musical experience. I just wanted to craft something that would be very rewarding and adventurous and enjoyable to listen to. It covers a lot of ground, stylistically, which my albums tend to do, but it’s a nice adventure to listen to the whole thing from start to finish.
It starts off really crazy. It starts with this ten and-a-half minute epic that is very intricate and very aggressive and kinda metal and then from that point on it gradually travels through all these styles and moods and it gets wider and more open and airier as it goes.
It starts at its most frantic, sort of claustrophobic and convoluted and then, as the album continues, it’s like more oxygen gets let in to the sound. I find it to be really satisfying and I’m really gratified by the response to it. I’ve done a bunch of albums – this is like my 25th album – and I’m seeing a lot of people online who are saying that they feel it’s the best so far. Obviously, you work at something really hard and you want it to be received well and I couldn’t be more gratified by the way this album is being received. I’m a happy camper.
FGPO: Well, you should be. Congratulations. And I thought that was a very interesting and accurate description. I’ve listened to it and I’m glad it’s off to a good start.
Keneally: Thank you. I appreciate that, Jon.
FGPO: Tell me about your equipment.
Kenally: My primary guitar is one that I’ve had since 1988 and that’s the green Fender Eric Clapton signature Stratocaster, one of the first ones they made, and I was fortunate to have Fender present me with that instrument very early on, a couple of months after the Zappa tour ended. I love that guitar. I respond to the neck on that instrument more than any that I’ve played and I find that it really just responds well to my touch. More than just about any other guitar I’ve ever played, it really kind of sings for me.
Charvel made me an instrument about eleven years ago. That was my primary guitar for a few years. Last year, this independent company called Black Devil, up in Humboldt County, made me a kind of an SG-style guitar, except it’s chambered and it has some very ornate carving on the headstock. It’s just a beautiful instrument with a very, very solid tone, very assertive with great sustain that’s a real dream to play.
I’ve been working with Rivera amplifiers for about 20 years now. They’ve provided me with many beautiful pieces and what I’ve been mainly using when I do may own gigs is a Rivera “Quiana,” which is just a little 1×12 amp that packs a huge punch, tremendous presence and a gorgeous tone, gorgeous sustain and, again, it just responds well to what I do.
I keep changing pedals out. I’m always looking for different things and lately Pigtronix has been hooking me up with some pedals that I’m really enamored of. They have a Class A boost pedal that has really become a real bedrock of my sound. I love that thing. And a modulation pedal called a “Quantum,” that is a real delight. I got an old DynaComp that I’m digging, although I love the Pigtronix “Philosopher’s Tone” compressor, which is awesome. It’s interesting; I haven’t used a wah-wah lately. I used to rely really heavily on wah-wahs and I think I started to feel like I was leaning on it as a bit of a crutch, so as of late I’ve steered away from it. I might find myself steering back just because I miss it. I don’t have like huge banks of effects, especially live. I kind of tend to prefer a more direct sound with just a few things for spice.
FGPO: What about strings?
Keneally: Dean Markley, 10s, generally, so regulars. I’m happy to try various different things, but the sort of a signature series, nickel steel electric regulars are cool.
FGPO: Now that you have Scambot 2 out, what about the future? What else do you have coming up?
Keneally: Well, I’m going on the road with Beer For Dolphins in October and we’ll be playing some of the material from Scambot 2 and also just a wide range of material from my past twenty-four years of solo material. This particular configuration of the band is Bryan Beller, who’s the bass player in Satriani’s band, but he also has been the bassist in my bands since the early ‘90s and he also plays bass in the Aristocrats these days. He’s finally getting the attention and respect that he deserves after many, many years of excellent work. And the drummer is Joe Travers, who has been playing with me on and off for over twenty years. Bryan and Joe and I were all in Dweezil Zappa’s band together back in the early ‘90s.
In the ‘90s, we first started playing together as Beer For Dolphins, but shockingly, I realized that this particular trio configuration of my band has pretty much never performed outside of California. We always just kept it real close to home. I’ll be bringing this trio configuration on the road to the East Coast and the Midwest and a couple of Southern dates and I’m really delighted by that, for people to finally experience the energy of this particular power trio because our history goes way, way, way back. We play together really well. It’s a total explosion of sound on stage, so I’m glad to finally be able to unleash that particular beast on the planet, or at least on the East Coast part of the planet.
FGPO: You’d think Bryan would want to sit down and relax for a minute since he’s been on the road forever!
Keneally: I know! Between the Aristocrats and Satriani, it’s been non-stop for a couple years, but he’s agreed to wedge this Beer for Dolphins tour in the midst of all this stuff because right before and after this tour, he’s got Aristocrats stuff and then with the Satriani band, we’re heading back to South America in December. He’s given himself a punishing schedule, though I’m very grateful that he agreed to make the time to do these dates with me. It’s definitely something people should check out.
FGPO: What would you be if you weren’t a guitar player? Or a keyboard player? Something outside of music.
Keneally: I really love drawing. I did a bunch of little character drawings for the Scambot 2 booklet. I actually had designs on doing a Scambot comic strip at one point, but there just wasn’t any time. I think if I wasn’t expressing myself through music, I would have focused more on doing it by drawing, possibly doing some kind of a daily strip or animated thing or something. I have a real fondness for that and some amount of raw ability in that area, but I was never trained to do it. I might have gotten a little more serious about that. I also just love the written word. Sometimes I think I might have focused more on writing fiction. I doubt I would have become a professional football player, put it that way! [Laughs]