A Man and His Guitar: A What’s Up Exclusive Interview with Musician Keller Williams
Photo by C. Taylor Crothers
It’s not too often that you see a music artist release albums so frequently—in consecutive years, more specifically. But then again, Keller Williams is not your average artist.
Dubbed as a “one-man band jam,” Williams has been on the music scene since the early 1990s, releasing his first album, Freek, in 1994. Now, over 20 years and 20 albums later, Williams is on the move again with releasing not one, but two albums, Raw and Sync, in 2017.
“In the world of record releases, we’re not changing the world in any way. It’s just documentation and representation of where I am.” –Keller Williams
Although he may be considered a solo artist, Williams has worked with a number of artists throughout his career, a lot of them who have made appearances in some of his albums, such as Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead, solo performer Leo Kottke, and Larry and Jenny Keel. Williams has also been a part of several bands, including Keller and the Keels and Keller Williams’ KWahtro, a band assembled in 2016.
Keller Williams will be performing alongside Leo Kottke at the Lincoln Theater in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, February 18th at 8 p.m. Tickets are $35.
You’ve been working as a musician for over 20 years. What made you decide this was a career you wanted to pursue? Was this something you’ve always wanted to do or did it develop over time?
No, I think it started as a kid, pretending to play. That kind led to different chords, then those chords being put on the radio, and playing covers as a teenager. It led me to never get a construction work job again for $3 an hour.
All of your album titles are very simple. What made you decide to use one-syllable words as titles for your many albums? Where did the inspiration come about for the albums?
It started from the very beginning. First, trying to record more with less—a very simple mentality of describing an entire compilation with one syllable. Whether it was a word that presented itself in those albums or it was just based around a concept of more with less. In hindsight, it would be nice to throw in some verbs and create more of a sentence with 24 one-syllable titles. For example, one is called Sync and one is called Raw. These records were all done individually, but they all come together; hence the one syllable. Raw was me and a guitar—stripped down “raw.”
It seems as though each of your album titles has a story behind it, like Grass, Vape, and your most recent albums, Raw and Sync. It’s been noted that each of your records is “a little snapshot of history.” Can you elaborate on this? What sort of history are you looking to tell?
I am looking to document my music in the pristine form of documentation. I want a little snapshot of history—like the lyrics, form, and style. Each record is a little bit different, but they’re all about documentation.
It’s been mentioned that you wanted to create sounds with a “dance groove.” How would you define a “dance groove” sound? What is your inspiration for creating sounds like that?
A dance groove back beat is accessible and danceable. Head-bobbing and moving to something positive, yet dark, as far as minor keys. Even as a solo act with no other musicians or technology, I’m still trying to push forward as a dance act, which is kind of my goal—it just happens naturally. The origin of dance music came from a dude with a fiddle and a stump in Ireland, where dance music began. Dance music then took a serious turn, and I’m trying to trace those origins back to that—original acoustics. But I’m not saying I’m on a stump playing a fiddle! Just a metaphor, so to speak.
What encouraged you to create an alternative folksy/groovy electronica sound for your music?
I think it’s love and passion for that type of music. It’s me putting my place in the audience, and what I would want to see as an audience member. My whole career is an endless pursuit to entertain myself, in hopes that it entertains the audience as well. But a job of this nature seems like it should be illegal because it’s so fun. It’s a beautiful thing.
It’s been noted that when you’re performing live, you create looping sounds onstage live in front of an audience. What is your thinking behind this? Why not record it earlier?
The whole looping thing is about the moment in front of the audience and creating in front of them. I think audiences that are familiar with it are excited to watch and see the mistakes and how to get out of the mistakes. At the Lincoln Theater, there won’t be any looping. Looping is more reserved for night clubs and dance groove festivals. Lincoln Theater is the actual tour that focuses on single pattern looping. It’s just me with a guitar and a mic, entertaining for myself and hopefully the audience with material that often gets overlooked. It’s less of a social atmosphere and more of a “pay attention and listen” type of material. It is material that will make you think, listen, and hopefully laugh. I know I’ll be laughing! And the Lincoln Theater is a special place for me because I’ve been there and I’ve been in the audience. Now I’m really excited to go on stage and perform!
Albums like Laugh, Home, and Dance appear to have been released in consecutive years. You have even released two albums in one year on a few different occasions, like Raw and Sync in 2017. You seem to produce your albums in a very short amount of time. Is there a specific reason for this?
Again, it was documentation in terms of what was happening at the time as far as the two records go. The Raw record concept began in 2011 with an idea of doing a recording of 12 songs with 12 different guitars, but I ended up scrapping the whole idea. Then this tour with Leo Kottke came around. I took three different songs from that 2011 session and recorded it from there. And the Sync record started last April. I wanted it to be done by early fall, but it didn’t happen. It was timing with that situation. In the world of record releases, we’re not changing the world in any way. It’s just documentation and representation of where I am. The Sync record is a very beautiful thing and I am very proud of it—world-class musicians backing me up. And Raw is a very simple representation of working with Leo Kottke.
Why release two albums (Raw and Sync) together? What was the process like recording these two albums simultaneously? Can you tell me a little more about Sync and why you decided to record your first studio album with your acoustic dance ensemble KWahtro?
The Sync record is vocals and guitar, and was recorded in three days. Three months later, the drum tracks were ready, then three months after that, the bass tracks, and then one month later, the other guitar track was finished. It was mixed and mastered. The Raw record was pretty much guitar and vocals. Putting them together on my end was a very simple process. Again, documenting that piece of my life. Everyone was kind of in different directions though. But to get all four of us to get 50 shows in a year is really something I wanted to document. Everyone can spend their time how they want, to get in the studio when they want, give everyone their freedom and time to produce their tracks the way they wanted to.
Can you discuss your “Shut the Folk Up and Listen” tour? Where did you develop the name from and what can audiences expect? Is there any particular reason you decided on an all-acoustic set?
With all the projects, bluegrass, funk, KWahtro, along with matched solo looping and so much technology, it’s good to put all that aside. It’s just me, a guitar, and a mic. I performed in small restaurants and bars—I was the guy in the corner with the background music. I would go to places in Annapolis like Rams Head and see shows with my heroes, and it was pin-drop quiet. And then my audience would not be used to having seats and it was social. We’re trying to have a fun, interesting, funny night at the theater. The name, “Shut the Folk Up and Listen,” kind of grabs the funny. It’s passive-aggressive funny. It’s not a common dance party, it’s “shut the folk up.” And Leo Kottke was my inspiration as a teenager. I was studying solo acts and I just have massive respect for him, and the way he’s toured the last couple of decades—all nice places. He’s had such a rapid following for years. Having his crowd and my crowd may not be something folks are familiar with. But the fact that Leo Kottke is allowing me into his world is beautiful. Don’t take it for granted.
Throughout your 20 years of being an artist, has there ever been a memorable moment or a really embarrassing moment while performing?
One moment I always reference was in Live Oak, Florida at the Spirit of Suwannee music festival. It’s a large campground, golf cart community with multiple stages, cabins, and campsites. There are usually eight different festivals there yearly. But one of the amphitheaters there is covered by trees and Spanish moss. One of the trees fell where I was performing, and on a tree limb was a giant snake with half of a squirrel in his mouth. The snake’s jaw was extended open. No one was afraid because the snake was paralyzed. This happened all during a song, about twenty feet away from me. By the time I was finished, they scooped up the snake.
Outside of music, are there any other hobbies or interests you have?
Nope. I have two kids—eight and twelve. I’m home from Sunday to Thursday mornings, so when they’re not at school, I’m trying to surround their world with my time. Lots of drop off and pick up lines, extracurricular activities. But when they’re at school, I’m focusing on songwriting, playing, and staying healthy, and hanging with them when they’re not at school.