Mike Keneally’s musical vision stretches across
a vast horizon. You Must Be This Tall [Exowax], the latest album from the
guitarist, keyboardist, vocalist, and composer, showcases a
variety of expansive concepts that somehow manage to work
together seamlessly. It’s a largely instrumental rock recording
full of drama and intricate, mercurial moments. It’s serious,
zany, and meditative—sometimes, all at once. The album finds
Keneally exploring the boundaries of rock,
pop, fusion, and ambient with a deep song-oriented
sensibility. While that may sound
daunting, it’s an ear-pleasing, strangely
accessible release that any listener with a
taste for adventure can embrace.
You Must Be This Tall follows 2012’s Wing
Beat Fantastic, a collaborative effort with legendary
singer-songwriter Andy Partridge,
formerly of XTC. It’s an album of elegant,
intelligent pop songs, infused with the wit
and varied arrangements one would expect
from the duo. It’s by far Keneally’s most
melodic effort to date, further underlining
the elastic possibilities he’s capable of
exploring on any given effort.
Keneally is also known for several other
major collaborations. He served as Frank
Zappa’s “stunt guitarist” during the visionary’s
final tour in 1988, and he has also
been a member of Steve Vai’s touring bands.
Currently, Keneally performs as part of Joe
Satriani’s group on guitars and keyboards,
and he’s also part of Dethklok, the death
metal band that performs music from Brendon
Small’s animated show Metalocalypse.
Another recent Keneally release of note
is the deluxe, three-disc reissue of Sluggo,
his acclaimed 1997 album. The set features
a remixed stereo version of the record, a
surround-sound DVD-Audio disc, and a
DVD with live and studio footage. As with
You Must Be This Tall, the album is a testament
to creative diversity, situating imaginative
songcraft within magnificently
You Must Be This Tall is drawn from material
generated across different periods.
Describe how it came together.
At various points, the songs on this
album were part of other projects. Some
started happening when I was focused
on Scambot, my 2009 record. Most were
considered for Wing Beat Fantastic, which
ended up as a very sleek, streamlined pop
record. By the time I arrived at that form,
I was still trying to wedge some of these
other peculiar songs into it. The reason
being that my inclination is always to go
careening off wildly in some other direction.
But Wing Beat Fantastic didn’t work as
a satisfying listen until we pared it down
to the material that felt the most harmonious
together. So, this left all of this other
super-peculiar stuff to make a whole other
record with, which is what You Must Be This
Tall ended up being.
Much of the material was put together
in one-man-band mode. What draws you
to that approach?
I grew up loving Todd Rundgren, Stevie
Wonder, and Paul McCartney, all of whom
did albums all by themselves. There’s a real
excitement and charm for me in seeing an
artist who aggressively puts their thumbprint
over all aspects of a song. One-man
projects let you see a little more into someone’s
soul. For me, it’s also just fun and satisfying.
It’s like making a painting in which
you control all the colors. I did use Marco
Minnemann and Joe Travers on drums,
Bryan Beller on bass, and Andy Partridge
on guitars and drum loops on the album,
however, so I’ve also got energy coming in
from other musicians.
Take me through your current guitars
The shining star is a 1988 Fender Eric
Clapton Stratocaster. What I primarily love
about it is the neck, which feels so smooth
and comfortable. It has a beautiful vocal-like
quality and I’ve leaned on it heavily.
It also has a pull-up pot that increases the
gain of the pickup output. The guitar can
sound very delicate and can also get kind
of ferocious, but it always sounds warm.
It has been modified over the years. I took
out the original Lace Sensor pickups and
put some EMG SAs in there. I also had a
2TEK bridge installed. Another key guitar
is a ’90s-era Gibson SG. I’m using it on
the current Joe Satriani tour and I’ve been
recording with it since Sluggo. It’s got a real
nice mid-range grungy quality to it that’s
super satisfying. I also use a 2005 custom
Charvel Koa guitar which is on “Cornbread
Crumb” from You Must be This Tall. In addition,
I used a Fender Baritone Special HH
on Wing Beat Fantastic’s “Inglow.” It’s the
main melody guitar on that track and sounds
very clean and deep-toned.
What makes the Rivera Quiana your
I’ve played through many amps but never
felt like what I heard through them sounded
like me. The Quiana was suggested to me
and I played the “I’m pluckin’ the ol’ dental
floss” line from Frank Zappa’s “Montana”
through it as a test. For some reason, that’s
my go-to line to see if I like an amp. When
I played that line through it, I felt like I was
home. It’s the primary amp on You Must Be
This Tall. The Quiana has a lot of balls and
fullness. I feel like I’m still getting a lot of
clarity when I’m grunging things up. I’m
able to crank up the gain significantly while
still being able to satisfyingly hear the component
notes of a chord, even if it’s fairly
complex. Riveras also have a lot of creamy
low- and mid-range goodness, as well as all
the sparkle you might ever want. Now, I have
several Riveras, including a Venus 5 that I
use on tour with Satriani. When I’m touring
with Deathklok, I use a Rivera Knucklehead
A recent addition to your rig is the Source
Audio Soundblox Multiwave Distortion
pedal. What do you use it for?
It lets me create some startling overtones
and synth-like sounds that don’t sound synthetic.
It gives my tone a weird morphing quality
that I like. I can really get otherworldly
with it. It almost sounds like a guitar synthesizer
in that you can tweak frequencies
with the thing in ways that resemble an old
ARP Avatar synth.
Provide some insight into collaborating
with Andy Partridge for Wing Beat Fantastic.
I’m not accustomed to collaborating on
songwriting, and doing that with anyone is
daunting for me. So, it was a bit of a gamble
to fly over to England and book a week at a
bed and breakfast near Andy’s place in 2006.
But we pretty quickly fell into a working
rhythm. I think Andy hadn’t been finishing
a lot of songs to his satisfaction for a while.
The song “I’m Raining Here, Inside” was
just a page of lyrics that he had no idea
how to set musically. I looked at the lyrics
and I had the chord structure worked out in
just ten minutes. The words sung the song
to me. The collaboration was required for
that song to happen. Often, I would provide
Andy with raw musical material and
he would edit it in real time. He would say,
“Play me a chord,” and I would. He’d then
say, “Now, play another one a bit higher,” so
I’d do that. Then Andy would say, “Take it
a half-step down from that.” It was almost
as though I was a computer and instead of
a mouse, he’s verbally saying “do this” and
“do that.” I was giving him stuff and he was
shaping it. In this way, we would literally vet
every chord, note of a melody, and word of
a lyric until we were both satisfied.
What guitars did you use on that album?
I used a lot of Taylor electrics on it, including
a SolidBody Classic, SolidBody Standard,
and T3 semi-hollowbody. I capoed
the T3 to get a really nice Beatles Revolver-type
sound for the record, and I doubletracked
it for “I’m Raining Here, Inside.”
Also, I don’t play much slide, but I felt the
song “Bobeau” needed it. The song underwent
a weird metamorphosis and unexpectedly
ended up in a really aggressive place. It
starts out whimsical and light. At the end,
it’s pounding. It’s the most chaotic, layered,
and weird part of the record. I needed a tone
that was going to slash through all of this
stuff, so I thought I should try to play with
my ceramic slide. It reminds me of Foghat.
It’s my classic rock moment.
Reflect on the musical approach you
took on Sluggo.
Sluggo has a crazy amount of weird guitar
parts. “Egg Zooming” was the one thing
that was scored out on paper. It’s almost
an orchestral piece with all these ridiculous
rhythmic things happening, with strange,
stacked harmonies. I never felt the point
was made on the original mix. On the new
remix, I was able to make all the harmonized
guitars sound really full and clear. There’s
also an interesting song on the album called
“Beautiful,” which is a narrative about stuff
that happened to me one day, which was
the day before Frank Zappa passed away. I
was going about my mundane activities and
the day ended with me driving to see Chad
Wackerman play in Santa Monica. Somebody
threw a heavy object—I don’t know what it
was—at my car. It cracked my windshield
and could have easily killed me. Right after
that, I was really shaken, so I pulled off the
road and wrote lyrics about everything that
had happened to me that day. It was going to
originally be a Plastic Ono Band-type thing
that would end with me screaming. But I
thought it would be cooler as this groove
thing in which I laid out the events of the
day. The rhythmic approach of the vocal is
so strange. I thought it would be interesting
to learn the vocal part on the guitar and play
everything in unison. It worked out really
well. It was similar to something Frank did
on his The Man From Utopia record. He would
improvise something vocally and then make
Steve Vai learn his improvised vocal part on
guitar. Then he’d overdub Steve’s playing on
top of what he sung. You can hear that on
“The Jazz Discharge Party Hats” and “The
Dangerous Kitchen.” Steve Vai heard what I
did in “Beautiful” and said, “How dare you
do something so cool?”
Discuss your guitar role on the Joe Satriani
I’m playing guitar for about half of the
show. It’s mostly rhythm playing, but also
a fair amount of melodic stuff. There are a
couple of sections where we play improvised
lines back and forth. I’m grateful that the
improvised sections are actually improvised.
We both bring different stuff to the interactive
sections every night and it always feels
like we’re trying to do something interesting
and fun, rather than merely showing off.
There are a couple of parts where I’m playing
things with my left hand on the guitar
and my right hand on various keyboards.
What’s it like to mesh your guitar approach
It’s about keeping your ears open and being
sympathetic to everything in the arrangement.
And it’s about meshing with the rhythm section,
as well. Fortunately Joe’s and my natural
finger timbres and guitar tones are very
distinct and pretty naturally complementary.
Sometimes you have to simplify rhythm
guitar voicings onstage in order to allow one
of Joe’s melodies to sing properly over the
top of it. Something may have been a ringing
four-note chord played by Joe on two
differently engineered guitars in the original
recording, but it really makes more sense
onstage for me to boil it down to a muted
fifth. Bryan Beller and Marco Minnemann,
who are also in the band, bring a lot of new
orchestration activity to the arrangements
these days, so it also sometimes behooves
me to carve out a little extra sonic space for
them to exist in.
What key lessons have you learned as a
bandleader across your solo career?
I’ve learned to not hide anyone’s light
under a bushel. When I get all these amazing
players in the band, it’s because I want
them to play amazingly. Every musician I
work with has such a strong personality
in terms of their sonics, and I want their
humanity and energy to be present. I don’t
want my composer vision to be an immutable,
unmovable object. My music thrives
when the guys in my band are being themselves.
That’s when they’re happiest. And
when they’re happy, they play their best.
Must Be This Tall
Describe Chatfield Manor, the studio
you recorded the album in.
It’s a studio in Leucadia, California, located
in the home of Mike’s manager Scott Chatfield.
We have one of the bedrooms set up as
a control room and use various other rooms
to record in. We use a bathroom for the guitar
amp most of the time, we use another bedroom
for vocals and acoustic guitar, and we
use a large living room for drums. We’ve also
tracked up to four guys live in the living room.
What gear did you use during the sessions?
The centerpiece of the studio is an Altec 1567A
tube mixer. It has four tube mic preamps and a
mono output, with simple bass and treble controls.
I have two of those, so we can do stereo
stuff. Virtually everything we record goes through
those Altecs. The outputs from the Altecs go to
either an Empirical Labs Distressor compressor
or an old Spectra Sonics 610 Complimiter. We
use an Apogee Rosetta to get into Pro Tools.
That’s our record chain for almost everything.
What mics did you use on the album?
For Mike’s guitar, I usually put a couple of mics
on his amp and mix those in the Altec to one
track in Pro Tools. Those mics have included
a Sennheiser MD 421, an Audio-Technica
ATM25, and a Shure SM57. Vocals and acoustic
guitars were all done on AKG C414s. Sometimes
I’ll have a cheap ribbon mic as a room
mic and mix that in or put it on its own track.
What plug-ins did you rely on?
I used SoundToys plug-ins for delays and
effects, and Waves plug-ins for EQ and
compression. We don’t do a lot of processing
for guitar other than EQ and
a little delay to add some space.