In 1984, Tommy Keene stood at the top of the jangle rock heap along with the Replacements and R.E.M. Places That Are Gone, his six-song EP, was bracing power pop that remains invigorating today, and it brought him the college radio crowd that was so influential at the time. Since then, the singer-songwriter has faced a series of ups and downs.
There were record labels that didn’t understand him. There was a stint as Paul Westerberg’s guitarist on the ex-‘Mats 1996 solo tour and a collaboration with Bob Pollard of Guided By Voices, dubbed the Keene Brothers. He’s continued to record, if at times sporadically, and just released In the Late Bright (Second Motion), a gem that finds him continuing to pen sharp guitar hum-alongs while expanding his palette with lots of atmospherics. Keene appears Monday, April 20 at Emo's. Other than some gigs as bass player for locals Sally Crewe & the Sudden Moves, who open the show, it’s his first Austin appearance since 1998.
Geezerville: You’ve been playing with Sally Crewe and now you’re touring with her. Will you be doing double duty for these shows?
Tommy Keene: We did about seven shows in the UK and we’ve done three or four in Austin. She’s opening half the tour, but I’m not playing bass with her for these shows. It would have been hard for me to do double duty because we’re going to play about an hour fifteen, an hour-and-a-half. So if I was on stage with her for 45 minutes it could get a little crazy.
G: You’re touring in the van. Is that tough?
TK: No, not at all. You’ve just got to get into that mindset where it's, “Okay, we’re going to be in the van today for ten hours," and just sort of amuse yourself. It doesn’t bother me. I quite enjoy it actually.
G: I read a review of In the Late Bright that said some of the songs would have fit into your first couple of records. That’s 25 years ago. I was wondering if you viewed that as a compliment or not.
TK: Well, sure, as long as they don’t say that I’m this guy retreading things from the past. Basically, these days I’m making records for myself. If other people can appreciate them that’s fantastic. I try to progress with each record and I try to keep it timely and competitive sounding. I don’t want to get into that power-pop ghetto of sounding like guys with Rickenbackers and Beatle haircuts and stuff. But I draw from the same sources: the Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones, the Byrds, Sixties pop. I try to keep it as current as possible. So yes, I think it’s cool. I mean, wouldn’t you like Springsteen to come with a record that had stuff that sounded like what was on his first three records?
G: I saw Springsteen here in Austin last week and walked away thinking it would be great if he did a show of his songs up to 1980 or so. Not that I don’t enjoy the new music, but he’s got such a catalog that he’s all over the place. When he opened with “Badlands,” I knew it was going to be a good show.
TK: I saw him two nights before in Phoenix.
G: I guess some people don’t like to be pigeonholed or there’s the mindset that you have to progress. There are some things on the record that are different than in the past.
TK: That’s what I try to do. Is that a good thing? It’s like an old friend.
G: One of the songs that sticks out is the instrumental, “Elevated.” You’ve never done one before. What was your thinking behind that?
TK: Since I’ve had my studio in my house, where I do everything but drums and mix, I’ve always been interested in atmospheric little sound collages, sort of. I actually started this record saying, “I’m going to make a left turn along these lines.” I came up with that song and then I came up with a few more things and then, of course, I said, “Wait, I can’t put a whole record out like this. It would just be too ridiculous, turning off the small amount of fans that I have.” I actually had two songs like that on the record, but I took one off at the last moment. I think that’s something I want to do, a mainly instrumental, atmospheric, kind of cool record utilizing a lot of guitars and keyboards and stuff. The pop stuff will always come back. I just can’t get away from that.
G: Have you heard Explosions in the Sky?
TK: I’ve heard of them. They’re an Austin group, right?
G: Yeah, but that’s exactly what they do. There are a couple of different bands with the same idea.
TK: I love that. It brings to mind a band like Mission of Burma, who did that kind of thing but had vocals and loud guitars. That’s sort of the perfect blend of being slightly risky but having the basic foundation of a good pop-rock song and taking it to a different place. That’s what I was trying to do with “Elevated” and I think that’s what I might do in the future.
G: To me it almost sounds like a Television song.
TK: Thank you. You’re the only person, critic, interviewer that’s got it. I was just doing Verlaine. Everyone is saying it sounds like Ronnie Montrose or something else. No one’s gotten it. It was Television, who are one of my favorite bands of all time.
G: No one has a guitar sound like that.
TK: Right, it’s very jazzy, but you can also turn it back to McGuinn and the Byrds when he was doing the raga thing. I love that. It’s very experimental, but very cool.
G: How many guitars are on there?
TK: Let me look.
G: What was the most guitars you’ve ever overdubbed on one track?
TK: Probably eight or nine. There’s the main guitar and then you double it. There’s the acoustic twelve-string, then the rhythm guitar provides the accents. On “Elevated” there were probably about seven.
G: Sounds like the home recording studio is dangerous. You’re having a lot of fun.
TK: Late at night, it’s in the basement, I can sit down here and go till my heart’s content. Not overdo it, but it saves a lot of money and time. The old days you would overdub in the studio, which is insane. I can really just get it exactly the way I want it. It’s amazing.
G: There have been moments in your career when you haven’t made a record for a long period of time and this one comes fairly quickly after the last one. Has having the studio accelerated the process or are you going through a period of creativity or inspiration?
TK: Actually, this record would have come out a year-and-a-half earlier, but it’s always finding the label and fitting into a release schedule, which always adds a year on to when the record should come out. But since 2004, when I started recording Crashing the Ether, I’ve had a really good run. When I did that record, I knew I was going to do a record with Bob Pollard, so basically I was writing two records at once. I came up with about 30 songs, ten of which made Crashing the Ether, twelve of which went on Blues and Boogie Shoes, the Keene Brothers record, and then I had some leftover. One song, “The Right Time to Fly,” I offered to Bob, but he passed on it for whatever reason. So I finished it and I’ve got a lot of stuff still in the can. Just the freedom of having my own studio and being able to record whenever I want certainly has accelerated the whole process.
G: How has the downturn in the record industry effected you?
TK: It’s funny that I can always find people who want to put out my records. My records keep selling less and less. I’m not sure if that’s people downloading or stealing or people getting older. I’ve been told that I had the most downloads and the most pre-orders for Second Motion, my current label. So hopefully the fans are sticking in there. I’m a survivor. This is what I do. I love making music and I’m going to keep putting out records until they tell me to stop.
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