'Still Keene After All These Years'
From his start in the DC alternative scene in the early ‘80s through acclaimed releases for Geffen and then Matador in the ‘90s, Tommy Keene returns to the public eye with 'Crashing the Ether', his first studio album since 2002.
Keene’s fans, many of them fellow musicians and critics, have long recognized that Tommy has written some of the best pop/rock tunes of his generation. This sense of craftsmanship and distinctive guitar sound brought him sideman slots with the likes of Velvet Crush and Paul Westerberg.
For 'Crashing the Ether', Keene’s tenth solo release in over two decades, Tommy tried a different studio approach, recording much of the album himself at his L.A. home, with drums by John Richardson and scattered contributions from regular Keene band members and friends. The resulting tracks are arguably Tommy’s best to date.
The result is 10 original tracks, with guest appearances by Jesse Valenzuela (Gin Blossoms) and R. Walt Vincent (Pete Yorn). Sonically, the album is dazzling, with big drums – they were recorded live in the huge open foyer of Tommy’s house - and open, ringing guitars, while lyrically, the album could be Tommy’s great leap forward, with subject matter ranging from a nostalgic, black & white snapshot of New York, Warren Beatty and mixed signals via "Texas Tower #4."
With 'Crashing the Ether' and the new Pollard projects, 2006 heralds the return of one of the finest singer-songwriters/guitarists going. Here’s hoping it brings Tommy Keene the larger audience he has long deserved.
Chatting recently with Tommy, and noting that for this, his tenth solo release in over two decades that he tried a different studio approach - recording much of the album himself in LA at his home - I first wondered why he choose now to do such a thing and never before? "I finally broke down and decided to get a proper home studio together, in the past I'd done these elaborate demos on 8 track cassette which I then tried to reproduce on records with varying degrees of success. Also it is now totally affordable to make high quality records in one's house. But I did have to go elsewhere to mix because I don't have all the right gear to do so, besides Walt Vincent who mixed this record was an excellent person to bounce ideas off of and he co-produced the second track - 'Warren In The 60's'."
For the Average Joe who may not have heard of you and was thinking of buying your new CD, how would you yourself describe your sound? " Classic pop-rock, melody driven songs that are obviously influenced by 60's and 70's music yet sound contemporary."
Your album title 'Crashing The Ether' is an interesting choice, but perhaps it originates from a more personal standpoint for you? "Not really, I was reading a book of 30's to 60's hipster slang and the phrase "Crashing The Ether" means being played on the airwaves, I couldn't resist the irony."
If there was one track on 'Crashing The Ether' that truly encapsulated Tommy Keene at his musical and lyrical finest, which one would it be? "I would have to say "Black And White New York." I think the idea is interesting, it was inspired by memories of going to New York City when I was first around 5 and up to my teens. The city itself seemed very black and white, even though Times Square is and was so colorful, I remember just dark, cold streets on a winter night. Seeing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan show also reinforced that memory as it was broadcast in black and white."
"Musically I like it because it is very drone-like as in one chord during the verses but slips into a very classic melodic chorus. Also the guitar interplay and the extended lead break are cool, I think."
Please tell us more about your upcoming project The Keene Brothers ... that mysteriously only includes the one Keene (you) and Robert Pollard!! "Bob and I were hooked up by a mutual writer friend who popped the question to him about working with me to which he responded very favorably. My band then opened some shows for GBV in 03 and then five on their final tour in 04. Basically I came up with about 28 musical ideas and then he chose which ones he wanted to work on. I finished the backing tracks and he wrote the lyrics and sang his lead vocals. Bob came up with the name which I thought was funny because I have on older brother Bobby and of course we are known as Bobby and Tommy Keene."
If I came across a signed copy of your 1984 debut EP 'Places That Are Gone' and put it up on Ebay, how much do you think I would get for it?! "Hmmmm let me look. I see one for $15 what would my signature add to that?, I guess it depends on the buyer."
Just for fun, and taking the titles of a few of your album tracks, please let us know:
'Quit That Scene' - OK, have you ever quit anything and made it stick? If not, what would you like to quit if you had the willpower? "I have quit some things, vices etc. I was also thinking about relationships as well. I will quit smoking one day I promise!"
'Eyes of Youth' - What was one important vision of life that you had as a child that once you had grown into an adult you soon found to be a big fat lie?! "That all men are created equal."
'Driving Down The Road in My Mind' - If you could picture yourself doing this for real, what car would you be driving and where would the road take you? "Probably my green jeep and that would be heading back east."
Please tell us more about your Baldwin Fun Machine ... and why it was important to this new album "I got it for $100 at a consignment shop. It has this archaic drum machine that has buttons such as pop rock, polka, waltz and various cheesy instrument samples that sound nothing like the real ones. I found that sitting down at it for a limited time I usually come up with some goofy little part that can be turned into a full blown song, so far I've written "Lives Become Lies"," Texas Tower #4" and "Lost Upon Us" from the Keene Brothers record on it."
What '80's (and possibly cheesy!) pop/rock song would you love to cover today if asked ... and why?! "When we were making 'Songs From The Film,' the first Geffen record in 85 we had a party one night in the studio and recorded a bunch of covers. Lou Reed's "Kill Your Sons" was one that actually made it onto the record. We also played an all guitar version of The Human League's "Seconds" that really rocked. One day I will put that out somewhere."
Lastly, I like Penguins ... do you?! "No, but I have an affinity for small flightless birds in tuxedos."
Interviewed by Russell A. Trunk
If you would like to win an AUTOGRAPHED copy of Tommy's brand new CD, just answer this easy question: In 1986 Tommy released Songs From the Film on Geffen. The album featured two MTV videos, 'Listen To Me' and a re-recording of 'Places That Are Gone', and spent 12 weeks on Billboard's Top 200. But who produced this wonderful album and is indeed the same person who was the producer of Elvis Costello's masterpiece Imperial Bedroom?
Send me your answers and if you're correct you'll be in the running to win one of these great new AUTOGRAPHED CDs! Just send us an e:mail here before June 15th with your answer and the subject title 'TOMMY KEENE SIGNED CDs' to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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