Keller Williams on Creating a One Man Jam Band: "I Couldn't Afford Humans. That's Where the Gear Came In"
Keller Williams has been a fixture of the post-Dead hippie jam band circuit since the early '90s.
The scene can arguably be traced back to the o.g. wave of 1960s psychedelia. The jam band circuit, as it exists today, fermented in the twin wake of North America's obsession with festivals, as sparked by Lollapalooza, and Phish's evangelical, Black Flag-like touring.
Williams is one of the genre's stalwart champions, his greatest contribution being the eclectic, hydraheaded nature of his output as engendered by bend-over-backwards versatility. He rose to fame for using gear to forge a singular path as the world's first One Man Jam Band. And he's held the Bonnaroo demographic's attention ever since with records covering everything from bluegrass to R&B, and sessions with some of the biggest Deadhead improvisers around.
In anticipation of Williams' upcoming concert at Revolution, we spoke to the axeman about the secret life of jam bands.
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New Times: You have a reputation for your gear, and have been tagged "a one man jam band." In the early '90s, were you already in that mode or is that something that developed over time?
Keller Williams: The idea was to play music with a band and share that camaraderie with other people. Try to create a dance groove the natural way, with humans. But I couldn't afford humans. That's where the gear came in.
I imagine as equipment has become more sophisticated, your experience has evolved. What are some recent additions to your arsenal?
I've been using this little toy called a Kaossilator, a little handheld touchscreen synthesizer. It makes a lot of fun, interesting sounds. I've seen guitars come and go, y'know? Still waiting on a certain guitar from the Martin company and I'm excited about that.
Do you think digital integration is necessary for rock music to keep up? Is rock otherwise obsolete if it doesn't have new gadgets?
Oh, hell no! Absolutely not. Humans can achieve more interesting [results] than computers. It takes a human to program a computer. It starts with a human being.
Earlier in the year the New York Times said that EDM was the new rock 'n' roll, suggesting that electronic composition had supplanted blues-based music as the dominant form. Do you think rock 'n' roll can become rock 'n' roll again?
I am 100% a fan of the EDM scene. It's definitely a product of the digital age and social media. There are so many festivals and so many artists that so many people have not heard of, but all the right people have, in terms of what makes that movement move.
I'll tell you what does it for me. Everyone is on the same wavelength. Not necessarily drugs. Drugs definitely play a part in that energy and that vibe. They're there. They explain why there's so much energy at 3:30 in the morning. But that's not the only thing. Everyone in attendance is feeling this bass and feeling this build up, this ramp up. And everyone explodes when it drops. No one really knows the music or the song. There's no lyrics. But everyone understands the forumla. And everyone is there together and they don't need lyrics to get there.
You sometimes play with groups like The String Cheese Incident and Umphrey's McGee. In those ensembles, do you play different situational roles or do you bring Keller Williams to those groups?
When I'm playing with these folks it's usually a sit-in. So there's an element of both. I try to bring what I have to the table, but be a part of the conversation and not overrule it.
Your discography is impressive. How do you keep up that kind of productivity? Do songs just fall out of the sky or do you have dense periods of writing?
There's a whole lotta covers. I'm a music lover first, musician second and songwriter third. It's not all my music. But it's all music thats stuck in my head, and I have to play it to and record it, to get it out. As far as songwriting and making records go, it's always been my way to document my songs and the songs I'm playing at the time. Where my head is.
The songwriting process is few and far between these days. I have kids. I'm home a couple days of the week. My only time to really be creative is at night and these days I'd rather sleep. But songs still come. I have a couple records that are recorded, kinda like concept records. One is piano and vocals. The other is solo guitar and vocals. I'm gonna sit on 'em for a little while. I don't know when they're going to be released. I've been rehearsing with this R&B band that has kind of a soul/funk direction.
I was just about to ask about your new bluegrass record...
Bluegrass is a genre that appears in my solo set, which I kind of call my day job. This is actually my third bluegrass record. Its with the Travelin' McCourys, who are bluegrass royalty. The record was a lot of fun to make. We don't really play too much together. We've had about 30 shows in the past year. It doesnt happen as much as I like, but when it does its very special.
Tell me about the R&B project.
It's called "More Than a Little." It's bass, drums, keys, guitar, and two female singers. Right now, we're coming up with a real solid set, and we're looking at forty percent my music in a R&B/funk style and the other sixty percent is covers. Not really take my audience somewhere completely different. Take songs that they know and funk 'em up.
Do you ever see yourself releasing your own version of Trans?
Y'know, the Neil Young record with the vocoder and the synth-pop songs.
Oh, wow. Haha. No. That didn't go well for him. You have things like that... You look at those, and you learn from those mistakes. To him it was probably the coolest thing ever. But there's a fine line when it comes to what your audience will go for. I think my audience, even if I did go there, they wouldn't stop coming to the shows. I think they would understand I was going through something, just like Neil Young. I do have a remix record that I made years ago. I took samples of [my record] Grass and that was a lot of fun.
Much like jazz, jam band music relies on a lot of improvisation: Rolling with the punches, stumbling upon stuff and riffing on a groove. I know you've been doing this for decades but is it ever scary to improvise?
I wouldn't say scary. There's definite room for error, and you kind of learn where that goes. There's a few avant-garde areas you can go before the fear really sets in. You can bring elements of your background and your influence in, but you gotta know the licks. I think having space to explore is super exciting. Fear is not part of that sentiment.
Do you have any kind of mystical relation to that kind of thing?
Wow, that's deep. I like that way of thinking. But I never really thought about it like that. That's one thing about improvisation. You can't really overthink it.
Keller Williams at 9 p.m. Saturday, November 17, Revolution Live, 100 SW 3rd Ave., Ft Lauderdale. Tickets are available through ticketmaster.com starting at $29.
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