Mike Keneally's Mercurial Muse

The guitarist's musical vision spans a vast horizon.

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 volatile contexts.

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 of choice.

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 favorite amp?

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 Tré head.

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 tour.

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 with Satriani’s?

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.

Engineer Mike Harris on Recording You 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.