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Mike Keneally Talks About Normalizer 2 Evidence of Humanity

March 9, 2010
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Virtuoso drummer Marco Minnemann recorded a 51-minute drum solo called Normalizer 2 and asked several composers to write music to accompany it, including Trey Gunn, Mario Brinkmann, Alex Machacek, John Czajkowski, Phi Yaan-Zek, JK Kleutgens, and Mike Keneally. Here, Keneally talks about his version, titled Normalizer 2: Evidence of Humanity.

How did the project come about?

Normalizer 2 originated with a 51-minute improvised drum solo that Marco did at his studio. He supplied a variety of musicians with the same drum solo, and everyone was instructed to compose and record their own music to go along with it. Trey Gunn put together a compilation that uses pieces of everybody’s version, and it’s very entertaining to hear the variety of people’s choices—what kind of music goes with this drum track, which is typically Marco being thoroughly mind-blowing and virtuosic from start to finish.
I was working on my version at the same time I was working on my new album Scambot, and at that point I was pretty far down the road on Scambot, and Normalizer 2 became my outlet for sheer music for it’s own sake without any concepts I had to serve other than the fact that there was a drum part already there, and that was a luxury. All I had to do was write music that sounded nice with these drums and I didn’t have to worry about rhythmic underpinnings because they were imposed on me. One of the things that I’m grateful for is that when I’m working on music the choices about what I’m supposed to do next always seems to present themselves to me pretty clearly, and because I like being productive and I like getting stuff done quickly, I don’t do a lot of second-guessing.

Describe your compositional process.

I would listen to a couple of minutes of Marco’s drum track and then lay down the first thought that came into my head that seemed appropriate. It could be a bass part or a guitar part or a keyboard part—whatever sound arrived in my head as a result of listening. Marco’s playing is so evocative and musical that it would always suggest something to me. I was never tearing my remaining hair out thinking, “Oh my God! What am I going to play here?” Listening to Marco just screamed the answer to me. It was like, obviously this is the bass part or obviously you’re supposed to play piano here, or whatever. Then listening to the relationship between what I had just recorded and what Marco had previously recorded would suggest what the rest of the orchestration for that section was to be.
I didn’t even listen to the entire drum track before I started working on it [laughs]. It wasn’t a question of trying to do an overarching theme with the motifs that would return or anything like that. It was just very stream of consciousness. Because I was working on Scambot at the same time, I wanted this to be much more spontaneous, almost as if I was jamming along with Marco, except that I was not really jamming, I was sort of half jamming and half composing.
Some sections are more improvisational than others. Sometimes I would hear something that he would play that was so concise and organized that I would write something very specific. But then there were other times that I would just let it go for a few minutes, improvising a guitar solo along with it, and then I’d go back and listen to that and find the bass notes that provided a nice underpinning for whatever I had done during the guitar improvisation. Again, there were a variety of strategies employed.

Did you beat map the tracks to establish a grid or just wing it?

I was very fortunate in that I actually recorded my version at the home studio of John Czajkowski, who also recorded his own version of it prior to beginning work on mine, and he had already beat mapped it, so I was able to use that existing framework. Of course, when you’re talking about an improvised drum solo, there’s a lot of room for interpretation as to what’s happening—tempo-wise, time-wise, and all that kind of thing. So I didn’t necessarily use the click that he had programmed for the album more than say, a quarter of the time. There were times where I was looking for an extra clue as to what was happening with Marco’s flailing virtuosity. Then I would ask John to put his click up and that would give me something that was a little more organized and allowed me to just play a bass track that stayed in time with the click, even if Marco was going completely insane on the drums. But most of the time I sort of just played along with Marco as though I was reacting to him in a real-time performance situation. It all seemed to me just to grow naturally out of what Marco had already done, and it was very, very fun!

 Look for my Mike Keneally Artist Feature in the June 2010 issue of Guitar Player.

 Photo: Scott Chatfield

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