Q&A with New Jersey-based band-of-one, Keith Kenny - developing a unique approach to his live shows

"I think the most important lesson I’ve learned from music is to take some risks in life. Sometimes the best opportunity is just right around the corner, but you won’t get to it unless you take a chance."

Keith Kenny: Express The True Feelings

"Lifetime Ago Motel" (April 2, 2021 / iNtuRecords) is the fifth album from veteran New Jersey-based band-of-one, Keith Kenny. It was written over a three year period and recorded at his Studio 303 facility in Monroe, New Jersey, self-produced by Kenny. Among special guests contributing is drummer Sim Cain (Regressive Aid, Gone, Rollins Band). Most of the new record was written while Kenny was on the road promoting his last, self-titled album which was produced by 3-Grammy winner Justin Guip (Hot Tuna’s touring drummer and sound engineer for the late Levon Helm). What should have been a victory lap that included dates opening for The Dean Ween Group was filled with stress and anguish. Kenny had recently married, but time spent away from his new wife strained the marriage to its breaking point; the economics of modern day touring had Kenny barely breaking even despite scoring impressive gigs from coast to coast, including a residency at the House of Blues in Las Vegas, and weekly appearances at Dean Ween’s “Invitational” jam nights in New Hope.               (Keith Kenny / Photo by Amiee Blasko)

When Kenny got back home, he began tracking the songs using what he had learned from working with Guip to produce himself. This project wound up being especially personal, so he felt it was more appropriate to take control of all aspects of the recording – which proved incredibly cathartic. Kenny’s story began over a decade ago with his first shows at Asbury Park’s legendary Stone Pony setting him on the path to developing a unique approach to his live shows: Kenny recreates the sound of a full rock band line-up playing acoustic guitar with an unusual, percussive finger-picking style, creating rhythmic loops on the fly and adding atmospheric texture via an array of effects pedals. The finishing touch is a vintage red suitcase (dubbed “The Big Red Suitcase”) he uses as a kick drum. Over the years, Kenny built fan bases throughout the United States and abroad with multiple tours the world over including performances in Southeast Asia organized by Aqua Survey who search out unexploded ordnance, raising awareness of this problem. He has shared stages with the likes of John Butler Trio, Leon Russell, John Hammond Jr., New Riders of the Purple Sage and others, impressing all involved with his high energy, expert, super-infectious playing and songwriting. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Roots and Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Working as a musician has taught me to keep an open mind and given me a more positive view on humanity. I really can’t count how many times a complete stranger has helped me in some way to get down the road, whether it be a hot meal or a couch to crash on. I have been overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers who seemed to understand the struggle of being a musician. It’s easier than ever today to get caught up in the 24hr news cycle / social media and I don’t think that always represents reality. There is a lot of distortion in headlines and opinions and it’s important to observe what is happening for yourself out there.  There is a lot more kindness and generosity in the world than can be perceived through the looking glass window.

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

My ultimate dream is to be a one-man heavy metal band! Haha! But truth be told I have a lot of different influences; metal, blues, folk, fingerstyle, industrial, rock… so I think all those influences comes through in the songs. Most of my songs are written from a personal place so albums tend to be a portrait of that time in my life. The new record “Lifetime Ago Motel” is definitely a testament to that. My main music philosophy is to live in the moment so that you can express your true feelings. If you feel it, then there’s a good reason to pursue that musical idea.

As far as creative drive, I have no idea where it comes from. I remember feeling pretty restless in school as a kid and always wanting to tap on the desk or get rid of some internal rhythm somehow, so when I finally started playing the guitar it was easy to get obsessed with it. There have been times when I’ve wanted to turn it off because it keeps me up at night and other times when I wish I could turn it on so I could finish the song that I’ve been working on. It’s like a ghost that visits you when it wants. I have noticed that seeing other artists perform is my biggest inspiration and that’s what I have missed the most during the quarantine. You get to pick up so many things from watching other people play, everyone has their own unique approach.

"I think what I miss most is the demand for physical albums. Streaming is great for discovery and convenience, but it doesn’t do the artform justice. There is something special about sitting down and really listening to a full record, reading the liner notes, checking out the artwork. All of that is part of the experience for me." (Photo: Veteran New Jersey-based band-of-one, Keith Kenny)

What would you say characterizes New Jersey music scene in comparison to other local US scenes and circuits?

I first started gigging around New Jersey in 2005 and realized pretty quickly that it’s a competitive scene. If you weren’t willing to sell tickets to your show, then there were plenty of other bands that would. We are so densely populated here so it makes a lot of sense. There are just more bands to choose from. I think that gave me a good work ethic in the beginning, you had to hustle if you wanted to play live. Two local scenes that really kept me going were Asbury Park, NJ & New Hope, PA. There was pressure to do well there, but also a great feeling of creative freedom which is so important when you are starting to play out. Once I ventured out of the tri-state area, it was a relief to find out that other places in the US weren’t as saturated. I found that staying away from major markets like DC, Baltimore, Philly, etc was a good move in the beginning because smaller towns seemed to appreciate you coming through a lot more and it could help you build up into getting into the bigger cities. 

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

I’ve found that most of my fondest memories come from the unexpected. Back in 2013, when I was first taking music full-time, I was given this incredible opportunity to perform in Southeast Asia to raise awareness about unexploded bombs. The big headliner gig in Vientiene, Laos was what I was anticipating the most on that trip and it all went down really well. But what I remember most about the trip was a very special moment where I performed acoustically in a Women’s Disabled Center in a small village. It was one of those things that just came about very spur of the moment, so I had no expectations going into it. Once the show started, I could feel this overwhelming feeling of joy in the room because this show was most of the women’s first concert experience. I felt so privileged to be sharing that moment with them, it was really beautiful.

And it seems like that’s how it always works out for me, anytime I build up an event in my head I end up enjoying it that much less. Another example of that was the Invitational jam hosted by Dean Ween at John & Peter’s. It was the weekly Wednesday night jam and we always wanted to keep it fresh, so we’d come in with all these ideas about different songs to play. Nine times out of ten we’d end up having the best jam on something completely sporadic instead of planned out. That’s what I loved the most about it, you never knew what you were getting into until you were there.

I’ve also had similar experiences in the studio. With this last record, I had Sim Cain come in and play drums on a few tracks and I was really excited to have him on the album. I had sent him a couple tunes beforehand and he had them down pat. We ended up only having to do one or two takes. But the track that I think actually came out the best was “Waiting for the Kill” which I sprung on him at the last minute. He came up with this awesome New Orleans rhythm on the spot which completely changed the vibe of the song and brought it to life.                                      (Keith Kenny / Photo by Paul Sky)

"The most beautiful thing about music is that in the purest sense there is nothing visual about it. If you only had the sound recordings with no images you can still feel the emotion coming through the speakers. So, with that, I think it is the most unifying language in the world. No matter what color or creed, we can communicate through music with no judgement. Everyone has the right to be themselves, to express themselves, and I think music is the best vehicle for that. It is a unifying force!"

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I think what I miss most is the demand for physical albums. Streaming is great for discovery and convenience, but it doesn’t do the artform justice. There is something special about sitting down and really listening to a full record, reading the liner notes, checking out the artwork. All of that is part of the experience for me.

I’ve recently been listening to Mike Watt and he has this awesome song called “Against the 70’s”. One of the lyrics is “The kids of today should defend themselves against the 70’s, it’s not reality, just someone else sentimentality, it won’t work for you”. And I think that is such an amazing lyric. He’s kind of saying, Hey… don’t get stuck in the past, that happened and it was cool as hell, but you are living today and there is more cool stuff to do.

What touched you and what were the reasons that you started the one-man-band researches and experiments?

The one-man band thing kind of came out of necessity for me. I knew that I wanted to travel and play shows but it’s really difficult to keep a band together with all the other life pressures that exist. So as bands I was in started to fizzle out, I always had this solo thing in the background and just kept it going.

A guitarist named Michael Hedges was a big turning point for me in my musical direction. His percussive guitar technique and compositions reshaped my approach to the instrument and gave me a little more confidence to perform solo. Unfortunately, I never got to see him live because he died tragically in a car crash in the 90’s. But I found another big Michael Hedges fan in Keller Williams who I saw perform back 2003 and he was another huge inspiration. Keller has an incredible ability to sound like a full band with his fat guitar sound and looping techniques. I had just started experimenting with looping at the time, so it was inspiring to see someone push the boundaries with it.

"Working as a musician has taught me to keep an open mind and given me a more positive view on humanity. I really can’t count how many times a complete stranger has helped me in some way to get down the road, whether it be a hot meal or a couch to crash on. I have been overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers who seemed to understand the struggle of being a musician." (Photo: Keith Kenny)

What would you say characterizes New Jersey music scene in comparison to other local US scenes and circuits?

I first started gigging around New Jersey in 2005 and realized pretty quickly that it’s a competitive scene. If you weren’t willing to sell tickets to your show, then there were plenty of other bands that would. We are so densely populated here so it makes a lot of sense. There are just more bands to choose from. I think that gave me a good work ethic in the beginning, you had to hustle if you wanted to play live. Two local scenes that really kept me going were Asbury Park, NJ & New Hope, PA. There was pressure to do well there, but also a great feeling of creative freedom which is so important when you are starting to play out. Once I ventured out of the tri-state area, it was a relief to find out that other places in the US weren’t as saturated. I found that staying away from major markets like DC, Baltimore, Philly, etc. was a good move in the beginning because smaller towns seemed to appreciate you coming through a lot more and it could help you build up into getting into the bigger cities.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

I think the most important lesson I’ve learned from music is to take some risks in life. Sometimes the best opportunity is just right around the corner, but you won’t get to it unless you take a chance. I’ve had several times where I’ve wanted to call it quits but then something came up and inspired me and got me back on track. Those are the moments that I live for. I think another big lesson is to not compare yourself to others and it’s one that I definitely still struggle with from time to time. I remember before I had started touring, I would check out other artists tour schedules and be so envious. It wasn’t until I had booked a tour of my own and got it all together that I realized it really was nothing to envy. It’s hard work! You’ve got to take some time and look at what you’ve accomplished, have some pride in what you’ve done or else you will just keep chasing the dragon.

What is the impact of music on the racial, human rights, political and socio-cultural implications?

The most beautiful thing about music is that in the purest sense there is nothing visual about it. If you only had the sound recordings with no images you can still feel the emotion coming through the speakers. So, with that, I think it is the most unifying language in the world. No matter what color or creed, we can communicate through music with no judgement. Everyone has the right to be themselves, to express themselves, and I think music is the best vehicle for that. It is a unifying force!

"As far as creative drive, I have no idea where it comes from. I remember feeling pretty restless in school as a kid and always wanting to tap on the desk or get rid of some internal rhythm somehow, so when I finally started playing the guitar it was easy to get obsessed with it."

(Keith Kenny / Photo by Chad Roadfeldt)

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

So, I’m taking some liberties with this question and allowing myself to take two trips in the time machine using the movie “Back to the Future” as my inspiration. Remember when Marty goes back in time and he gets to meet his Mom & Dad when they were teenagers? Well, both of my parents have two different concerts that they talk about that they didn’t go to together. My Dad was Zeppelin at MSG in 1972 and my mom was Pink Floyd (not sure of the venue) but right around the same time. I wouldn’t necessarily try to find them at the concert because I would not want to risk the fate of the future, but I would definitely want to experience both of those shows and talk about the setlist with them in the year 2000.

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