JBO Gets to Know Keller Williams Past, Present, and Future

Article and photos by Lori Sky Twohy

Finally Keller and the Keels new album “Speed” was released this weekend. It is hard to believe, but this is Keller Williams twenty-fifth album and his third with The Keels flat picker Larry Keep and his wife bassist Jenny Keel. 

Why cover someone else’s music just to try and copy it note for note, when you can play it in your own signature trademark psychedelic Appalachian-bluegrass style as Keller and the Keels have done here for the third time. 

Just recently JBO was given the honor of talking to the main man himself about this latest album and it could not have been more fun.

This album has two originals; Medulla Oblongota written by Keller and Lizard Lady written by Larry, both killer songs, but the list of covers are like a bluegrass journey back in time mostly to the 90’s with songs by Ricky Martin, Fiona Apple, The Presidents of the United States of America and Weezer, just to name a few.

You can see the whole song list (and order the record) here:

Jam Bands Online: Hey there Mr. Keller Williams. I have to admit first off that I am a huge fan, so I am a little nervous. How are you doing today? 

Keller Williams: Oh? Thank you! I’m doing great! It’s an overcast day here in Virginia and I like it like that. 

JBO: Oh yeah it’s overcast here too. We are calling you form North Carolina in Asheville. It’s not too far from your upcoming show in Brevard on December fifth that I am looking forward to attending. Ironically, I first saw you play with the Keels right after I moved here in 2010 at Pisgah brewing on their beautiful outside stage and I just recently saw you with your Grateful Grass project at Lockn and wow, that was beautiful, but I first saw you in 2003 in Las Vegas playing with The String cheese Incident for their Halloween set, so that was how I was first exposed to your music. This is a real treat to talk to you now after all these years. 

Keller: Ah, thank you! That’s so sweet! 

JBO: So I listened to the new album “Speed” a few times and what I love is that you always put your own style into the covers you choose to record. You take songs from so many different genres and spin them into your own thing so effortlessly. How do you decide to do these particular songs?

Keller: Well they kind of chose me in a sense of them just getting into my brain and not coming out, you know? So it was more like the ones that were really happening at the time that were stuck in my brain. And this record, just like the other two Keller and the keels ones, was just an excuse for me to be able to hang out with my friends Larry and Jenny both in the studio and then hopefully pushing this record. It’s just an excuse for me to be able to hang out with them. So it’s a little self-indulgent. But, some of the songs I feel are so popular, that some folks probably forgot that they know all the words to them. Once they hit in a bluegrass fusion, watching their reactions is quite entertaining from the stage. 

JBO: Yes and I have been one of those people. I couldn’t help but notice you got a lot of 90’s songs on here. I just got back from seeing your friends String Cheese play a killer 90s set at Hulaween. I’d love to veer off my line of questioning to ask you if have any plans to play with them again any time soon? You do so many collaborations and have so many projects, its hard not to ask. 

Keller: I’m going to hang out with Keith and Billy at the Jeff Austin tribute memorial show. Keith and I also have a gig coming up in December in Keystone Colorado with Gibb Droll and Jeff Sipe, but with string Cheese as a band, there is nothing on book right yet, but you never know.

JBO: What’s great is you just answered one of the other questions I had written down for you. I was going to ask about your getting back together with those guys Mosley, Snipe, and Droll. 

Keller: Well Jeff Sipe and Gibb Droll and I have done this really cool power trio a few times. We did it recently in Ohio and I’m happy to say that he and Jeff will be with me at the Brevard gig you mentioned. I will be playing bass and we will be playing longer songs with lots of room for improve. 

JBO: Really? So like more of a small jam band? Killer! Oh, I can’t wait! That got me thinking…are there any other artists you have yet to collaborate with that you you’d like to? 

Keller: Hmmm, Esperanza Spalding would be a very interesting combo. She’s a beautiful bass player and singer. That would be really interesting. Id love to play behind Michael Stipe [REM} one set. That would be interesting. Just kind of thinking out loud here. Never really thought of it that much. But yeah, Michael stipe would be an interesting colaboration.

JBO: Wow! I was reading your biography earlier in preparation and I noticed you grew up a lot of REM and some of the same punk and more alternative bands that I grew up liking. We are from the same generation. 

Keller: Yeah and I haven’t really heard anything from him in a while, so it would be interesting to sit down with him and play some of his songs and harmonize with him. 

JBO: ironically, I think I just heard that he released something solo recently. Maybe that’s a sign that it could happen. 

Keller: Oh? That’s good, I haven’t really kept up with him, but it just kind of popped in my head when you asked me that question. 

JBO: Speaking of the 90’s, I’m sure some of our readers might like to know if you have ever played with any of the Phish guys? I personally would like to know if you ever played with Trey? 

Keller: I’ve met Trey, but I’ve never played with him before. I’ve played twice with Mike Gordon up in Burlington. He was kind enough to sit in with me on two different occasions. I think I sat in late night with the Travelin’ McCourys at maybe the first or second Del Fest and Jon Fishman was playing drums.

JBO: Oh cool. He’s a great drummer and a great guy. The one I’ve gotten to know the best in my Phish meetings. 

Keller: yeah, I met Page a couple times too, but never played with Trey or Page. 

JBO: Well that would be something to see. Maybe it will happen some day at a future festival. You never know

Keller: You never know. 

JBO: Sounds like it would be a cool Lockn collaboration. 

Keller: Oh that would be great! 

JBO: Speaking of Lockn, I am loving your Grateful Grass project and your Grateful Gospel, which have both played there obviously. What would you say are your favorite Grateful Dead songs to play? 

Keller: Well, in the gospel set up, I love the more obscure Jerry songs that go kind of deep into the gospel like, “I’ll Be With Thee” or “Sisters and Brothers,” “Mighty High;” things like that. The real deep Jerry tracks are fun in the gospel world. In the bluegrass world…wow, there are so many…Shakedown done in a kind of Django Reinhardt kind of fashion has been a favorite for the last couple of years, but as a solo, probably “Bird Song” would be my favorite. 

JBO: Keller, just for fun and to make the interview a little more interesting, I went on social media and asked some of your friends and fans what they would like me to ask you since we still have some more time. 

Keller: Of course. You’re cool. We can stretch. 

JBO: Awesome, well a lot of guys who play wanted me to ask you about the technical stuff, about your looping equipment and style?

Keller: Yeah, well I could tell you, but I would have to kill you. 

JBO: (Laughing hysterically) That’s what I thought you would say! That’s what I was afraid of (More laughing)!

Keller: Yes, it’s very much a secret (laughing)! No, but all the stuff I use is very consumer based. I’m not sponsored by anyone, but its pretty obvious the type of stuff I use. The only thing I use from a computer would be midi samples that I use with this pickup called a guitar synthesizer. It’s a small pickup that goes under the strings that’s different from the actual guitar sound. They pickup the vibrations and they wirelessly midi transfer into the computer and then it comes out of the computer as maybe a saxophone a grand piano or like some kind of dub step helicopter landing for example. There are so many places to go with that midi controller. But my looping stuff is all consumer based you can get it overnighted online There are many different things you can buy now in the consumer world. When I first started I was using this gear that was discontinued and I’d have to find it on eBay and then sent it to some little basement repair shop in some other time zone to get it fixed, but now everything is all out at the stores and the quality of it has just really been perfected since when I first started.

JBO: So cool! I’m not a musician, but I did do a midi class in college while I was taking some music appreciation course just for fun. Finally it’s coming into use, because I actually know what you are talking about (laughing). It helps that I actually know a little bit about. Sweet!

JBO: Another fan wanted me to ask you about your colorations with Tim Bluhm and then I noticed that you actually did record a Mother Hips song here on the new record.

Keller: There are actually two songs by Tim Bluhm on the album. The first one is “Little Too Late” made famous in my world by Nicki Bluhm and that’s very much her song, but it was written by Tim and the new one “Do it On The Strings” is from my favorite Mother Hips record, but yeah he is definitely one of my favorite song writers and just one of my idols. 

JBO: I almost forgot to ask you about the non-covers on the album. Is the Medulla Oblongata one of them? 

Keller: Yeah, that’s my contribution to the song writing. 

JBO: being an old Psych major, I just happen to know what that means. So did you write this song to express your feelings for your favorite part of the brain (laughing)? 

Keller: Medulla Oblongata? Well, I just like saying it and the way it sounds. I don’t know if serotonin affects that part of the brain, but it kind of goes along in the same sphere of the brain (lots of laughing between us both).

JBO: Well thank you for all that. That was my fun question I came up with. Is there another original that Larry wrote? 

Keller: Yeah, that’s called Lizard Lady. Lizard Lady is written about an old like a Hawaiian legend. 

JBO: Somebody else wanted to know why you play in your bare feet? 

Keller: Well, when I was doing little bars and I was just a guy in the corner and there was no cover charge and people really weren’t coming to see music, it was just to feel comfortable. But later on it became more technical in the sense of pressing buttons with my feet. 

JBO: Oh yeah, well that makes sense, duh? 

Keller: Yeah, so a lot of times with the amount of floor buttons that I have, if I have shoes on I will definitely step on two at the same time, which is very, very bad (laugh). 

JBO: Someone wanted me to ask you if you miss Camp Zoe: 

Keller: Oh yeah, that was definately and era in time that was really interesting for the folks in that area. That was with a band called The Schwag. There was a wonderful guy named Jimmy who ran the property, which was once, and old camp. I have friend who attended that camp when they were kids. It’s about 2 hours south of St Louis. So it meant a lot to a lot of people, just like any party that comes to an end and that was a huge party era that went on for 7 or 8 years or so. I absolutely miss it. Sure.

JBO: Well, now I got a question here from your friend Bo Carper from New Monsoon.  He wanted me to ask you about your connection to Michael Hedges? 

Keller: Well he was probably my main influence on how I adapted my style. 

JBO: Wow!

Keller: I guess I got turned onto him around 88 and I was really just getting into the Grateful Dead and opening my mind up to different ideas with that type of music and then I got turned onto Michael Hedges. So my brain was in a very absorbent stage, being 18 and taking in everything that he had done and everything that I could get my hands on at the time. Obviously there wasn’t a way to just click on YouTube, you know? I started listening to all his records once you get into the tape trading community of the Grateful Dead back in the 80s, people start to talk about other musicians and that were aloud to tape and there were all kinds of Michael Hedges bootlegs on cassette that were going around between a few dead tapers. So I was hearing all this stuff that wasn’t on his records, like covers, and there were so many amazing ones that he would do and with changes. He would do them his way. Things like “She Drives Me Crazy” by the Fine Young Cannibals and Lucky Star by Madonna. 

JBO: Wow, I’m getting goose bumps listening to you describe him, because that is so you. Very obvious to me now he’s your big influence. I need to check him out. 

Keller: Yeah and it wasn’t just that. It was his alternative tunings. You know? He would definitely not play in a standard tune and that would kind of change the sound around and once you tune your guitar a different way, it’s almost like starting over. And just connecting on that level and his right hand with his spunk and the way he would do the covers. He was definitely a huge, huge anchor in my world when it comes to the beginning of my style I guess.  

JBO: I am old enough to remember when the community was that way. But I did have to Google him after Bo brought him up, so when I started to read, I thought this sounds a lot like you and the next think I knew it was time to call you. So this was quite beautiful, because sometimes asking a musician straight up who their biggest influence is can sound like such a generic and over asked question, so I’m glad it just came up so organically like this through asking your fans and friends online. And on that cool note, it might be a good time to end here. Is there anything else you’d like me to promote for you that we didn’t bring up besides this great new album and upcoming tour?

Keller: Well, I will be playing the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving with the Keels for Thanksforgrassgiving at The National in Richmond at the Hamilton in DC. Lindsay Lou is on this year as well. There also 2 nights at the old rock club in St. Louis over New Years. There’s a lot of fun stuff coming up. Jam Cruise with Love Cannon, doing Grateful Grass stuff. 

JBO: It was so great to talk to you. I will hopefully see you at this show in improvisation show in Brevard as my next Keller experience. I can’t wait! Have a beautiful day. Thanks again! 

Keller: My pleasure! Thank! Bye now!