Tommy Keene in the Naughties (full interview)

In September 2006 I talked with Tommy Keene about his early brush with success, his new record Crashing the Ether, his disdain of genre labels, and much more. While it started out as an interview, it quickly became a conversation. In our lively and wide-ranging talk, we covered a great deal of material. He gave insight into his experiences with big-name producers, and shared an amusing (is there any other kind?) anecdote about Iggy Pop. The short “feature” version of the story is here. Below is the full text of our conversation.

Your music has enjoyed consistent critical plaudits. But as much as I thought that your major debut Songs From the Film meant you would be the Next Big Thing two decades ago, you’re something of an underground sensation and a giant in the eyes and ears of discerning music fans. How do you feel about that? Is commercial success a goal of yours?

Well, it might have been at one point [laughs]. I think that when the whole Geffen thing went down, they set it up as ‘this is gonna have to happen in a certain amount of time and if its doesn’t work we’re gonna go on to the next thing,’ which is typically a major-label mindset. Because they put a lot of money up and if it doesn’t happen then they’re gonna move on. Now that was that particular situation. I think that in other situations you could give a band a little more time to try to develop and attract a little more of an audience and sell records. I think if you look at the 70s … well since the 70s, I could name you 10 bands where the label stuck with the act, kept promoting them, kept nurturing them, and eventually the acts broke. I mean, look at Cheap Trick. It took three albums and it was finally a freak live album; you know, Blondie, and the list goes on and on. I think in the 80s after a certain point Cheap Trick was a very cold sell. They desperately needed a hit.

My A&R guy at the time, I was his first signing. Then he signed the group Tesla from Sacramento, and that hit pretty well. Then he signed Guns N’ Roses, then he signed Edie Brickell. So you had four records, three of them platinum, and you can see where I didn’t get the attention…and they kinda just moved on. So I think that was a chance, and then after the Geffen period there were several major labels where I almost had a deal. Everything was done…one was CBS, one was Island, and at the last minute something strange happened, something which didn’t have anything to do with me or the songs I was presenting to them. I think in once case an executive who wanted to sign me was fired for sexual harrassment and in the other case the head of CBS who was gonna do the deal the deal got fired for an unknown reason. So it’s all luck and stuff, and these things happen.

I think you’re right about that. You don’t hear stories of labels really nurturing the artists. Really the only one I can think of in recent years has been Warner Brothers with the Flaming Lips, because they put out records for a long time that almost nobody was buying, but that’s definitely the exception that proves the rule I think.

And they had three critical college records in the 90s. A friend of mine is the West Coast director of publicity for Warner Brothers and the Flaming Lips are his act, and that’s an act they wanted to keep around which they eventually started selling, but that is quite an exception.

On the new album “Warren in the 60s” would have been perhaps a more obvious commercial-sounding leadoff track. How much thought goes into the album track sequencing and what sort of things do you consider when ordering the songs?

That’s a good question. I think that “Warren…” Well I just think thought that “Black and White in New York” was the obvious opener because of the drums in sort of a dramatic way and then everything kinda came, was sort of exciting, and then followed that up with “Warren…” which I think is a good choice. There’s a real art to sequencing. I think more goes into it than most people think. You sort of mess with the order and change things around, but you usually have a pretty good idea what’s gonna start the record and what’s gonna end the record, and what’s gonna be in the very middle of the record and the spaces between and you have to sorta work with that. “Warren…” I knew would be an obvious second. It would be up there at the front of the record.

On listening to “Warren…” I mean this in a good way but I don’t know if you’ll take it in a good way or not, but to me the sound of it would have not been at all out of place on something like Songs From the Film. How do you think your music has changed in the last 20 years?

I think in just very pretty minor ways. I mean I think I have written different types of songs and I think what really dictates the change is sort of keeping up competitively and sonically with how records are sounding. Obviously I’m very influenced by artists from the 60s and 70s, and for me “Warren in the 60s” is totally inspired by Big Star.

I mean, look at Tom Petty. I would sort of compare myself somewhat to him–not that I am as good as him or as bad as him or whatever–Tom Petty has a certain identifiable sound and even on his records sort of shifts throughout the years its that distinctive sound that hear that makes you go, ‘Ah! This is Tom Petty!’

It’s the new Tom Petty but its still Tom Petty.

Right, and I think that the core of every artist who just has a distinguishable sort of trademark sounds and I think that that certainly applies to me.

Sure. I’ve read some comparisons in print between the new disc and Songs From the Film (and I’m gonna quit bringing that album up over and over again). That one was produced by Geoff Emerick. Can you talk about the difference between having an outsider “name producer” aboard and the “do it yourself” approach this time around, and is there a down side to producing your own album?

In my position I don’t think so. I mean, if somebody still could come in and I would get along with them pretty well with a lot of really good ideas that would be great. Obviously where I am career-wise I don’t necessarily think I need a producer. But I’m not ruling out the possibility that I couldn’t work with someone who could come up with some really good ideas and enhance the record. If that situation would probably only come about if I was on a label who were pumping a lot of money into it and who they thought “you know, this guy would be sympathetic to what you are doing and I think he would really help you and bring out some things that you normally wouldn’t come up with on your own.” Now to go back to the Geoff Emerick part of the question, Geoff Emerick was basically an engineer and really didn’t come up with a lot of “production ideas.”

When your album came out I was surprised to see his name on it because I never thought of him as a producer…I thought of him as an engineer.

After the Beatles his claim to fame was Imperial Bedroom by Elvis Costello. A lot of [the Costello sound] was Steve Naive, and I think they were just tickled to be working with the guy who engineered Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, and thought “let’s get more psychedelic here.” So they did a lot of phasing, and 60s music stuff, which of course appeals to me and I love that record, but we decided to get him because we had agreed with the A&R guy at Geffen about who to get and we had this list that he wanted these people and we wanted these people, and there were three or four people who were on both of our lists, and the person who was originally supposed to produce Songs From the Film…which is interesting…was Martin, um,…the guy who [produced] the Buzzcocks…

Martin Rushent?

Yeah! Martin Rushent. It was a done deal. And Emerick was always like number two or three. So the plan was that we booked a show at the 9:30 club in DC just so Martin Rushent could be there. Five days, or three days before [we were to start the session] he called and said “I have a family or personal emergency so I cannot do it.” So we called Emerick and he was on a plane on the way. So you kinda have to think, “what if?” And that would have been…

Yes, it would have had a harder edge for sure.

That’s who we wanted. And to cover a lot of ground here, what people were most disappointed with Songs from the Film production-wise was that it really did not have a hard edge and everyone in the band and the record company wanted a real rockable, and we didn’t get that. Then we tried to go to the Record Plant. So we went to the Record Plant later to try to “toughen it up,” but it wasn’t possible because of the way he had recorded everything.

Emerick was basically…he really didn’t offer that much in terms of production. I could tell you on two hands his ideas. We were tracking songs and recording at the same time and everything sounded amazing. The problem started when he started mixing the record and he had a totally different vision of the way the record should sound, and that’s what happened.

It is fairly slick. I mean for me as a college student listening to it I could hear through that to hear the songs, but it was slicker than it might have been.

Oh, yeah, definitely. All of the layering of guitars was exactly what I had done on the Places That Are Gone EP which everyone liked so much…. the basic drums and basic sort of different mixing…I mean the vocals were mixed way up, the additional amount of compression he put on everything and the way he recorded the drums was very soft, whereas we wanted a sort of loud raucous record. Basically what he did on it which sortta changed everything was he went and took performances and if you recorded them a little bit differently the whole story would have changed.

That’s a good lead-in to my next question. You mentioned earlier the big drums on “Black and White New York” and I think on this album the drums really have a distinctive kind of sound. What I was going to ask you (and I think you pretty much answered it ahead of time for me), was that an arrangement goal on your part for the drum sound or did it come from John Richardson’s approach to the song?

No…there’s this foyer in the house I’m in that has a really high ceiling, and we all said “we gotta record drums in here.” So we hung these mics all over the place and got this amazing drum sound which is sort of reminiscent of the Steve Lillywhite and Hugh Padgham sound.

Yes. When you were talking about producers before I was wondering if Lillywhite had been on the “short list” back then.

Ah, he was number one but the record company … well, I’ll tell you exactly what happened. He had done a record for Geffen and they had gone way over budget and I guess he was having some problems, and at that time the record sounded terrible and they dropped him from the label and he was a “no-no” and they said they weren’t even gonna deal with it. He had done a record that had gone way over budget and the record sounded terrible and they dropped him from the label and they dropped the band and they refused to put the record out. Oh, he would have been number one. [Bill Kopp says: Keene’s recollection is close to what happened, but the album in question was mostly likely Peter Gabriel’s So. Lillywhite worked on the album but all of the tracks he produced were scrapped. Of course So went on to be Gabriel’s commercial breakthrough.] Anyway the drums have an all-natural reverb sound.


Yes, there is nothing dialed in. It’s just ambient miking. You know how these drum sounds come and go? People tell me “oh, these drums are dated.” I mean, I really don’t care for that. That’s what we wanted to do. And we could rein in the amount of ambience on the drums so it would be really dry, or we could go crazy. I don’t want to make a record that sounds really dated. I mean, Songs From the Film sounds really dated…sounds really New-Wavy.

Yes, a little bit.

tommy_keene_photo That was what was going on at the time. You know, a lot of the guitar sounds and the sort of echoey thing that was going on and the tempos were all pushed forward. When I listen to that record everything is too fast. I think that was the result of playing those songs a lot live and really being sort of intimidated by a really expensive pro studio. I think that when you’re younger you tend to sort of play things too fast [laughs]. We were nervous. That was sorta the punky, New Wave thing. Sort of like “yeah, let’s push it.” But that can be a good thing. But that’s what I hear when I listen to that record. I hear the tempos whoa…like galloping away. There are things on that record that sound dated to me….certain songs and certain sorts of guitar patterns and stuff like that. I mean I hear how I used to play, and stuff like that, and it sounds funny to me. I mean, we play them live now and I think they sound better.

I was just listening to Marshall Crenshaw’s first album last week, and I remember when it came out I was thinking that it was a really timeless record and I still love it, but the drums on that sound horribly dated, but I didn’t think so at the time.

The first, or the second?

The second …that really has a terrible drum sound on it. But even on the first one there’s a lot of compression on them and ….but the second one, everybody said that’s a disaster from a production standpoint.

Yeah, I like that record.

Well, I do too but…

That was Lillywhite too…

Yes, that was him, but I think Crenshaw’s songwriting was stronger on the second album but I still love it.

You’ve worked with Velvet Crush and Bob Pollard and a few other notables. What is different, and what is appealing, about collaborating with other artists as opposed to working on a solo project?

You mean playing with them or collaborating?

Either way.

Well, I guess I’ve only really collaborated with Bob, particularly since we put this record out. But that was a songwriting collaboration. Plus I have played in his band; I just love to not have to be the lead singer with all of that pressure. I love to sortta play “second fiddle” or play guitar, play keyboards, sing backup, and it’s just a lot of fun and you don’t have to carry the show….and especially if I like the band or the person’s songs. Actually I wouldn’t go out and play with someone if I didn’t like their songs [laughs] I love it…it’s like a singing vacation.

Sortta like George Harrison playing with Delaney and Bonnie or something…

Yeah yeah, or Clapton playing with them, or …people should do that more. People don’t really do that anymore. [Aside] Isn’t Johnny Marr with Modest Mouse or something?

Is he?


I’ll have to ask my teenage daughter because I like Johnny Marr but she likes Modest Mouse.

From what I’ve read, I think he’s already a full-time member.

Really? I’ll have to ask her that because she has their stuff on vinyl.

Who would you like to work with either playing or collaborating with that you haven’t [worked with] already?

[laughs] Uh…Bruce Springsteen..

There you go!

Paul McCartney.

Well you know Jason Falkner got to work with Paul McCartney.

Yeah Yeah.

You never know.

I don’t know…Paul McCartney has a band of his own obviously, and so does Springsteen. I don’t know…that’s a good question. I mean there are lots of people. It’s funny, I guess I need an agent for this. I don’t know where.

I understand you don’t really like the term “power pop.” I’m a big fan of the genre but I don’t particularly like the term either because when I try to explain it to people they don’t really know what it is…it sounds dorky. Can you speak to what you don’t like the term and what we might best call it, and where you fit into the whole genre.

Well, I think for me I’ve grown to realize it’s inescapable, and I’m trying to sortta get away from it but I probably never will because like it or not I’ve “mined that ore,” so to speak. I think that all of my collective influences have led me into that direction. When I think of power pop music …I love power pop music, obviously. I don’t like the fluffier stuff. I don’t like guys with Beatle haircuts strumming Rickenbacker guitars and singing about the girl who will never like them. That’s too nerdy. That’s what a lot of it is. I just think it has to have some substance and some balls to it, and there’s a lot of power pop bands that do and a lot that don’t, and the line is pretty easy to see. As a genre on the whole I can’t embrace every single band that a lot of people like. Obviously that’s 90% of my audience. I don’t mean to be rude, and say, “oh, I hate this power pop stuff.” I don’t want to knock my audience. As I said, I think Elvis Costello is really power pop but no one else would really lump him in that ghetto. But basically it is a genre that has never sold records. There were some very insignificant bands that did sell a lot of records that sortta gave it a bad name. I won’t mention names but it gets very little respect.

The Knack is the one that I think would fall…

Well, I didn’t want to name names. The drummer was great.

Yeah. But the term didn’t exist at the time to apply to groups like Big Star and some of the Raspberries’ better stuff, and even some Hudson Brothers fell into that category.

Yeah, I mean I think it sortta started in the early 70s with Big Star, and the Raspberries. It was always around as an influence. I mean the Who were the number one power pop band.

That’s right!

…and the Beatles.


And you have people like the Hollies and all of the 50s bands that were very melodic.

Yes, the Move and a lot of their stuff.

You combine that with more of the hard rock element of the 70s and voila! There you have it. And the group that fits that description best is Cheap Trick.


So, the Hollies and the Beatles, plus the hard rock of the Move and Led Zeppelin and the Who, and that all created [a set of influences for] a power pop band.


Because that’s where it was born.

I was listening to an audience recording of a recent show from June 22nd in Chicago at Schuba’s. It looks like you’re doing about five or so numbers from the new disc. How do you decide how much of the new material to work into the set?

Well, the album has 10 songs. I didn’t want to go out and play the whole album because that gets a little tough for people to digest, and I tried to pick five songs that would work and we’re gonna go out and play three more shows next week in Minneapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, and I’ve sortta chosen more two songs from the new album and have dropped two and rotated stuff. And every time we go out we try to rotate the older stuff. So it just seems that five out of ten is a good number so as not to have to stress too much of the new stuff.

You doing anything from Based on Happy Times?

Oh, yeah. A couple songs…actually we’re doing one we have not done in a long time…a song from 1994 called “Hang On to Yesterday.” It’s one of my favorites from that record, and “High Wire Days.” It’s tough. The larger your catalogue becomes its tough to pick. Some of the things …there’s always somebody who [wants to hear something we’re not doing]. We usually play an hour and a half, and we can’t play everything we’ve done.

If I was in the audience I would be saying “Ah! Why didn’t he do ‘When the Whip Comes Down!'”

(laughs). Yes, that one you probably won’t hear. That was a sortta throw-away thing we did that night.


Yes, I think we’ve only played that once or twice…that was definitely the first time we’ve ever played it. You can tell because we don’t really know the chords. I think we didn’t get that middle part right. We rehearsed it once or twice and then went on.

You liked it enough to stick it on the record, though.

You know, they were saying that instead of a double-sided 12 inch single do you have any other stuff to put on there and at the time it was sortta trendy to put on some live covers. The Replacements had done a T. Rex song…

Translator did “Cry For a Shadow” by the Beatles, so…

So that was the sort of thing that sortta added more music….

…for your entertainment dollar.

Make an EP instead of two songs.

What is your affinity with Lou Reed’s “Kill Your Sons?” I thought it was an odd cover when I heard it in ’86 and I see it’s still in your sets.

Well, that’s a good example of what I was just talking about. I got Live In Italy around ’85 where he’s playing with the band with Fernando Saunders and…I forget his name…the producer guy [drummer Fred Maher — ed.], and Bob Quine…Robert Quine. That was a great band. Then I saw this videotape [Coney Island Baby — Live in New Jersey].


And I never really gave that song that much thought. But when I saw it in that context, I was thinking “ah, this is a great song!” At a rehearsal I just said “let’s learn this song and do it tomorrow night” and we did it that night somewhere. So we did it and we enjoyed playing it. And then we did it again at a show where the A&R guy from Geffen came and he said “Oh! That’s awesome. You’ve gotta record that and put that song on the record.” And we were thinking “really?” And he just kept pushing and pushing, so when we made Songs From the Film we had a night where we threw a party and we just played a bunch of covers in the studio live, and that one came out well. And we went to try to remix the record (when we went to New York, as I said earlier) that tape was all live. I re-did the vocals and added a rhythm guitar but the rest was basically a “live in the studio” thing. And they liked it so much that they said “we’ve gotta put it on the record.” So we put it on the record and when they put out the EP Run Now they took a version of it from this show we did in New York. And having done it on those two records it became an audience favorite. And so that’s why it continues to be in the set. I thought “we’re never gonna cover a Lou Reed song” for a major label …

Not an obvious choice.

Right, right.

But a good one…

Yeah, next to “Sweet Jane” I think it may be one of his best songs. It’s a classic.

How do you feel about fans recording and sharing your shows?

Oh, I have no problem with it. I heard that show you’re talking about and I mean it was an audience show and it sounds okay. But sometimes I wish that ….we recorded that show in 16- or 24-track, the guy who did sound for me and I would like to hear it back but he really hasn’t mixed it yet. I just wish the quality was a little bit better [on the audience recordings].

Sure. I’ve got some soundboards of yours from I think the ’96 tour.


Yes. I’d have to go back and ….

[Groans] It wasn’t that radio broadcast from Connecticut, was it?

I think it might have been.

Oh, God…. To me that is not a very good recording. I think….Jay Bennett was playing with us at the time and every time I did a… you know the guy he couldn’t see us. He was in a room behind us and he used to sing live to two-track. So every time I did a solo I think he thought Jay did all of the leads so I think he [pushed up the faders on] Jay’s rhythm guitar.


No, that’s not a very good recording. I have a whole archive of live stuff. I’ve already put out Show Tunes which was a live record but …I mean I don’t mind people listening to, downloading, or trading my stuff. The sound could always be better, but that’s kind of out of my hands.

Well the Razz LP circulates that way too.

The what?

The Razz.


‘Cause I don’t think there’s a way to go buy that anymore.

You mean the four song live EP? Airtime.

Yes, I have that around here someplace. Just a dub of it because I’ve never even seen …

No, I think….the guy who helped put that record out used to have a record store out in Rockville called Yesterday and Today Records. He has a web site and he still has boxes of ’em.


Oh, yes. Its I just think he had boxes of ’em and he’s just …I mean they’re not outrageously expensive either. I just think he has boxes of ’em and he has just continued to sell ’em. I mean, Strange Alliance is totally unobtainable. But I think the Razz stuff is good too. [The LP] is only like $10 or something. [The Airtime EP is rarer and thus more expensive, but is indeed available — ed.]

No, that’s not bad. But I had no idea.

That was a WHFS broadcast. A live broadcast. When we opened up for Rockpile.

Oh, wow!

And that was a good show; we just mixed it and put it out. I mean, you know nothing was overdubbed or anything. That was a radio broadcast that was live and it was later mixed to two-track.

My last question. Are you ever going to play a date in my part of the country?

(laughs) It’s been awhile since we’ve been down that way. I don’t know…the South is a tough market.

No kidding! I mean…

It’s funny. We used to go down there all of the time. We went down to Richmond, then down to Atlanta and even Birmingham and over that way. We used to go there more than to the Midwest.


Yeah, and I think that once we started going to the Midwest regularly we found out that was more where the audience is. On a national tour — like this one with Bob Pollard — I definitely know that the South has always …I mean it’s always the worst attendance. Why is that?

Yes, you know, when I’ve gone to see …well, no, I guess people down here, they don’t get that. They don’t get that kind of music because when I go see somebody who I’m really into it’s no problem walking right up and leaning against the stage because there’s nobody else there!

I particularly remember the Paul Westerberg tour, and we started off in the Midwest and that was sold out. And the Northeast was amazing. The West Coast was great. And we ended the tour in the South. And I remember five or six shows that were very poorly attended and Paul got very upset over it. I think Texas, New Orleans, Birmingham. Atlanta was always good for us. Athens [Georgia], I remember we used to do so well. I don’t know. That’s one of the tough ones. It’s just that part of the country. I think it used to kind of be a stronghold for these acts. My group toured with the Replacements in ’89 and we basically did Philadelphia down to Miami, and Birmingham. We did Nashville, and such. And I remember they weren’t well-attended, once you get south of DC.

Right. ’89?

North Carolina…Raleigh, that was a good market. I think I used to go down there a lot more because Dolphin Records was out of North Carolina.


…and at one time we had a big audience there with a lot of college kids, but they moved back to where they were or they got jobs in other cities…and you know college towns like Chapel Hill, or Boston, naturally…It’s very transient group of people. They come and go to graduate school and then they go back [home]. I could see when we first started putting out records we did well, for four or five years we had a crowd. So that’s probably why we stopped going down there, because eventually the shows we did weren’t very well-attended.

Yes. Well, that exactly parallels my life because when those records came it it was when I was in college and after that I wasn’t and I quit going to shows.

Where did you go to college?

I went to Georgia State in downtown Atlanta.

Yes, we used to play at 688. Oh, yeah! I saw Iggy Pop there. It was when I was a kid. They had a special “teen night.” I was 16 years old. It was when Glen Matlock was playing bass with them.

Oh, yeah?

It was pretty strange. I was 16 years old and getting there and Iggy strips down to his socks and underwear and says “does anybody have any drugs?” And that’s how the show started.

Yeah, that was just his really dark period. Matlock was on bass?


Wow. There’s a great video from that tour from San Francisco. Was Clem Burke on drums?

I don’t think he was. This was when Soldier came out.

Okay, yes. I remember my ex-manager took me to do an interview with [Iggy] on WHFS during that time. The radio station was in an apartment building in downtown Bethesda and they were going in and he said “wait a minute…I gotta pee.” And he whipped it out. In broad daylight. You know, they had a rest room in there. So [before the interview] he said “what drugs you got?” Some girl pulled out a whole bag of stuff. I think he took them all and didn’t even ask what they were.

Yes, I think he’s in better shape now. Because if he weren’t we’d be talking about him in the past tense.

Yes, yes.

I have to tell you, it’s been a real pleasure and an honor for me because I’ve been a fan for half my life. This is really cool. And I really like the new disc.