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Mike Keneally

June 1, 2010
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Mike Keneally is one of those guys who can play anything. You know the type. He got a gig with Frank Zappa because he could play Zappa’s entire repertoire. He perfectly mirrored Steve Vai’s licks while performing with his fellow Zappa alumnus (not to mention recording an album of piano arrangements of Vai’s tunes). Robert Fripp routinely asked Keneally to join him onstage during a G3 tour to increase the scope of his soundscapes. And lately the chameleonic guitarist has been using a Randy Rhoads model Jackson to pulverize audiences alongside Brendon Small in the cartoon-based death metal juggernaut Dethklok.

Unlike many jack-of-all-trades-type players, however, Keneally is also the master of his personal aesthetic universe— and the songs on his latest album, Scambot [Exowax], follow the exploits of his own cartoon character. “The origin of Scambot was actually a meaningless little comic strip that I doodled in a sketchbook back in 2001,” explains Keneally. “There was something about that character that resonated, and for years it stayed in the back of my mind. So after I’d completed two major recording projects in 2004, I allowed myself the indulgence of returning to it to see how I might develop the concept— and it turned into this behemoth!”

Following on the heels of Dog (“my idea of a hard rock album”) and The Universe Will Provide (a large-scale composition featuring the Metropole Orchestra), Scambot presents a stylistic joyride through jazzy Zappa-esque romps, quirky pop ballads, heavy riff rockers, Flo & Eddie-like vocal abstractions, Funkadelicapproved grooves, Beatle-ish acoustic outings, and a lengthy Fripp-meets- Stravinsky composition—“Gita”—that is arguably Keneally’s masterpiece. (Scambot includes a 21-page booklet containing the written story, and the Special Edition includes a second CD with 13 additional tunes.)

The ever-prolific Keneally is already 15 songs into Scambot 2 and has begun arranging music for Vai Piano Reductions Vol. 2. In his spare time he composed and recorded 51 minutes of music for drummer Marco Minnemann’s Normalizer 2 project, as well as producing and mixing debut albums for Dane Runyan (Looking Below) and former GP senior editor Matt Resnicoff (The History of Now).

What was the origin of Scambot?
The story evolved over a long period of time, though I always intended it to be a musical experience first and foremost, and the plot line was essentially a device to get me to continue creating new music. One aspect of the project would inspire another, be it lines of dialogue or plot contrivances that would inspire me to write a certain kind of music, or vice versa. Once I realized this was going to be my next album, I had a vision of what the music was going to be, and even though it is a fairly unusual album, it was originally going to be a lot more unusual in the sense that I was going to do it all myself—one guy with a computer plumbing the depths of his psyche type stuff. But I had several other projects underway, including an acoustic album with [bassist and longtime collaborator] Bryan Beller, and I wound up bringing all of that music under the Scambot umbrella as well.

“Gita” is a remarkable composition. How did that piece come about?
“Gita” is an example of a piece that wasn’t initially conceived as part of the Scambot concept, but made perfect sense to fold into it. The composition was originally commissioned for a Dutch ensemble called the Zap String Quartet, and though they enjoyed the piece they didn’t want to play the whole 12- minute thing. They wanted to do a shorter version that would give them some opportunity to improvise, so we did an abridged version, but I still liked the whole thing and decided to orchestrate it with a lot of guitars instead of strings. Rather than scoring it out, I wrote it in the computer by playing sampled strings manually on a Korg Karma— some of which wound up on the final track—and developed it from there. Marco Minnemann also played a crucial role in the piece. He approached the drums more as an orchestral percussion section than as a drum kit.

You got lots of great tones on the album. Were you mostly using the green Strat or the brown Charvel?
I used the Strat a little but I mostly used the Charvel that I had custom built to my specs a few years ago and have been playing regularly. The guitar is made of koa wood, which appeals to me aesthetically and tonally, and the humbuckers give it a beefy midrange, but also a nice high-end scream and lots of sustain. Played through my Rivera Quiana amp with a lot of gain, I can get some pretty glorious tones and lengthy sustain. It’s also the first guitar I’ve ever had with a dependable whammy bar that I could really go to town on and still be reasonably in tune when it came back up. That’s something that I’ve had a lot of fun being indulgent with. I also used the new Taylor electrics that came out a couple years ago, especially for the longsustained lines on “Gita.” There’s a lot of nice tonal variety in those instruments and they’re fun to play.

So the Rivera Quiana was your main amp?
Yes, for just about everything. We set it up in the bathroom next to the little room that Mike Harris and I were working in. I also used a T-Rex Dr. Swamp Dual Distortion pedal to supplement my amp distortion, which I like a lot—but mostly it was just the sound of a guitar into an amp, because I wanted the long, distorted sustain, but I also wanted roominess.

To get roominess you set your amp up in the bathroom?
Yes, a lot of the ambience was achieved by putting the microphones in different portions of the bathroom to get different combinations of tones. Typically we would have a Shure SM58 positioned a few inches from the speaker, and a condenser positioned anywhere from a foot to six feet away, depending on the effect we were looking for. We also did a lot of post-production EQ to get everything to fit together and to leave enough room for the other instruments. Because the record is really intense and there is so much information, it was important to make it as comfortable to listen to as possible. I wanted the sound to draw people in.

There are a number of synth-like guitar sounds throughout the album. How did you get those?
That’s the Soundblox Multiwave Distortion pedal. It produces very peculiar and unconventional distortion sounds, and depending on how you set the controls you can get multiple octaves and weird phasecancellation effects that result in overtones popping out like crazy. We used it as an outboard effect, running the already recorded guitar tracks out to it and recording the processed sound onto a separate track, then blending them in various ways. In some cases, I manipulated the controls in real time as the track was playing through the pedal.

You get a lot of great textures. Are any of them the result of using your fingers as opposed to a pick?
The majority of the electric playing was done with a pick, but some of the lines on “Gita,” for example, could only be articulated the way I wanted to hear them by using my fingers. There’s a nice expressiveness and delicacy you get with a highly distorted electric guitar by just touching the strings lightly with your fingers, even though the actual tone is super saturated. Other than that, if something sounds like it was played with my fingers it probably was. When I did use a pick it was either a Fender Medium or a Dunlop Jazz III, though I’m currently using the Dunlop Ultex 1.0mm picks that Brendon turned me onto during the last Dethklok tour.

What do you get from playing with Dethklok?
Brendon and I met online and became friends after discovering that we were fans of each other’s work. Then, when it became obvious that Dethklok needed to become a live entity he asked Bryan Beller and me if we wanted to do it, and we thought it would be totally fun. Besides providing me with the opportunity to apply myself to another musical discipline—one that’s done wonders for my speed-picking technique and endurance because it’s a very demanding gig musically—the vibe of the shows is exhilarating. The kids are so passionate and just give themselves to the moment so completely that it’s an amazing thing to be a part of.

What was the single most inspirational thing that you took away from your association with Frank Zappa?
It would be the fact that there is nothing to fear. There’s no music arbiter saying that it isn’t okay to put this on top of that or attempt this harmonic movement or see how it sounds to cut directly from this to that. Frank’s fearlessness was incredibly inspiring to me. Also, during rehearsals, although he was a commanding bandleader and completely in control, we would be laughing our ass off the entire time. It was a joyful thing. That made me realize that the construction of music—even when it needs to be rehearsed over and over again— because it’s so detailed and difficult to execute, should never be undertaken in a drudge mindset. Every once in a while maybe you could share a moment like, “Geez, this is really tough,” but with a smile so it doesn’t feel like work. And then continually remember to revel in the joy that we get to do this in the first place, because it is a privilege. I try to never lose sight of that.

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