Veteran musician & Filmmaker Keith Dion talks about Noel Redding, Arthur Lee, and the 60’s counterculture

"Well obviously, I miss the ability to see some of my greatest inspirations live in concert – Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and the Doors, John Coltrane to name a few."

Keith Dion: 3:05 AM... and Beyond 

San Francisco based multi-talented artist, Keith Dion has had an astounding career as a musician, songwriter, producer, and filmmaker. But the story of what made this musician great goes much deeper. Severely abused and then abandoned by his parents, he determined he would succeed. He was inspired to become a musician by Jimi Hendrix and many years later he hooked up with Hendrix's bass player, Noel Redding. Most well-known as being the producer, manager and bandleader for the late Noel Redding of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, he also has produced records for Arthur Lee and Love, and has played in New Zealand’s classic cult band The Ponsonby DC’s, as well as San Francisco alternative groups The Ophelias, 3:05 AM, and Corsica, producing records for all of them along the way. Noel, after meeting Keith in London during the awarding of an English Heritage Blue Plaque Award in 1997, performed several tours across the US with Dion's band. Recordings from these tours were released on the UK and European releases "West Cork Tuning" and "Stone Free". Video footage from these tours were shown in May 2014 during the now annual Noel Redding Tribute Festival held in Clonakilty each year. Positive feedback was also received from the Irish Cultural Minister and the head of the Irish Film Board.

Keith Dion & Diana Mangano / Photo by Stephanie Gwyn Brown

Over the years he also recorded or performed with members of The Kinks, Thin Lizzy, Santana, The Counting Crows, Weather Report, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, and The Mahavishnu Orchestra. Most recently he’s released the very critically acclaimed collaboration with Jefferson Starship members Diana Mangano and Prairie Prince - Reno Nevada and Other Songs of Gambling, Vice and Betrayal as The Great American Robber Barons. After both of his parents died in Reno, Nevada, the San Francisco-based artist discovered a whole new dimension to his musicality.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Rock culture and what does the blues mean to you?

The culture of art and music is like a window to me – it shows you what is possible and gives one inspiration to be an artist or musician in the first place. I’m only ever driven to come up with something that no one else ever has – not for the money, or the recognition, but for the fact that mayby something that I can come up with can inspire others to do the same – come up with something truly original.

The Blues? Personally I try not to categorize music into genres. To quote the greats – Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong – “There’s only two types of music: Good music, and Bad music”. The best music defies all categories, crosses all genres and is not able to be placed into just any one “box”. Labels and categories place limits – not only on the artists and performers but also on the listeners, and is not a good thing IMHO.

How do you describe Keith Dion sound and songbook? What characterizes your music philosophy?

Again, I try to make something that is truly personal and beyond categorization. As most of my music is written on the acoustic guitar, it does have a folk or folk rock base to it, but in listening to my back catalog of releases from my groups like The Great American Robber Barons, The Ponsonby DCs (my New Zealand based group), Corsica, The Ophelias, 3:05 AM, Winter in Venice or Martial Law (another of my New Zealand based groups), most are hard to pin down to just anyone genre. The last album by The Great American Robber Barons, had everything from straight folk, to jazz, folk rock, alternative rock and even a couple of piano based “show” tunes written with the great Ricardo Scales. I only started singing lead and writing my own lyrics around 5 years ago, so a whole new chapter has opened up for me as a true “singer songwriter”. I actually get more pleasure now, in writing a great set of lyrics than I do in writing a great melody or musical backdrop. The thing with lyric writing, is that you can’t “teach” anyone to write good lyrics. I’m dumbfounded as to where this comes from - from the skies!

 Which acquaintances have been the most important? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

The most “famous” people I’ve ever worked with were Noel Redding from The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Arthur Lee – the leader of the LA Based “Kings of the Sunset Strip” Love. It’s funny too, because the reason I wanted to become a musician in the first place when I was a kid, was because I loved these two groups so much – The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Arthur Lee and Love. They led by example, without ever giving me any advice – just be yourself and try and do something that sounds like nobody else. A close listen to their work also shows that their music defied and crossed all genres – Jazz, Rock, Folk, Blues, Orchestral Pop, Soul, Psychedelic Lounge, you name it! Being both Futuristic and Primitive at the same time! Now that’s hitting it.

"The culture of art and music is like a window to me – it shows you what is possible and gives one inspiration to be an artist or musician in the first place." (Photo: Keith Dion, Dave Clarke, Mick Avery, Noel Redding, Eric Bell, and Marcel Aeby)

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

So many, I don’t know where to begin! The one that really comes to mind was when I’d finished my first USA tour with Noel Redding. I was invited by Jimi Hendrix’s ex-girlfriend Kathy Etchingham to the big party in London for her book launch for “Through Gypsy Eyes: The 60’s and My Life with Jimi Hendrix”. Noel was slated to put on the music for the event and when I showed up he asked me to join in – with his European touring band which included Eric Bell from Thin Lizzy, Mick Avery from The Kinks and Dave Clarke ! Then there are the memories of when I first started playing professionally in New Zealand in the early 1980’s – endless tours of NZ from top to bottom and back again – and playing huge rock festivals in front of up to 60,000 people while opening up for or being on the same bills as people like Talking Heads, The Eurythmics, The Pretenders, Simple Minds, INXS, John Martyn, The Psychedelic Furs, Split Enz and on and on and on!

As far as recording goes, the best story is that before I left New Zealand for the USA in 1985 I went into the studio to run off a bunch of demos for The Ponsonby DCs – a group I had just thrown together with Gavin Buxton a few months prior. We had zero exposure in NZ, and only existed to be the opening act on the many NZ tours by my “main” group Martial Law. I took the tapes with me to San Francisco, and was totally blown out when I immediately got several offers to release them in North America, which I then did to huge critical acclaim and airplay across hundreds of College Radio stations. This news trickled back to NZ when we started getting 5 STAR reviews in international magazines and publications like SPIN and others. Needless to say, this was big news in NZ, where nobody had even heard of us, and cemented the reputation of The Ponsonby DCs as an all-time NZ cult classic group. The total cost for this album was only around $250! This then led to me organizing the release of the top 22 NZ groups of the time in North America across two compilations: Tuatara and Unexplored – and to me then joining the top local SF group – The Ophelias. All of these records went on to go Top 10 North American College Radio on the national charts.

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

Well obviously, I miss the ability to see some of my greatest inspirations live in concert – Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and the Doors, John Coltrane to name a few. I don’t really have any “fears” for music – despite the current fad of complete dependence on “technology” in the new music forms of Rap, Hip Hop, Techno Dance, Trance etc. – Let’s face it with all the preponderance and dependence on drum machines, MIDI samples, AutoTune, lip synching in concert to pre-recorded tapes and computer gadgets, all this is really doing is taking the human element out of music – which of course is the best part. I’m not trying to belittle those music genres, as they obviously are very popular and have huge fan bases, but it sure ain’t it for me. I remember once when I was on tour with Noel Redding and he was asked by a radio DJ during an interview, about what he thought about “Rap Music” – Noel very politely just said “I don’t really mind it, but they just forgot the “C” at the front of it didn’t they ?” LOL!

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

To return the running and managing of the Record Companies into the hands of music people and not lawyers and accountants – which it unfortunately is right now. Accountants looking at the bottom line, and how they can just make a very quick buck, regardless of the type of music they are selling – they simply do not care about their “product” – just shifting units and making the maximum financial return on the minimal financial output. Think about the people who were running the major labels in the 1960’s – Barry Gordy at Motown, Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic, Jac Holtzman at Electra, Mo Austin at Warner Brothers, Clive Davis at CBS – these were all music people and producers, not accountants and lawyers.

"I try to make something that is truly personal and beyond categorization. As most of my music is written on the acoustic guitar, it does have a folk or folk rock base to it, but in listening to my back catalog of releases from my groups like The Great American Robber Barons, The Ponsonby DCs, Corsica, The Ophelias, 3:05 AM, Winter in Venice or Martial Law, most are hard to pin down to just anyone genre." (Photo: Keith Dion & Noel Redding)

Make an account of the case of Rock/Blues in New Zealand. Which is the most interesting period in local scene?

Without a doubt – the most fruitful and interesting period for New Zealand Music was in the early 1980’s – the post punk / new wave period. Bands were running fast and furiously away from just doing tributes or cover bands, and with the original Blues Boom done and buried by the end of the 1970’s bands had to learn to write and perform their own original music, or get the hell out of the way. The Dunedin / Flying Nun scene down in the South Island brought to the forefront a more Garage Rock Lo-Fi approach but the Auckland post punk scene was just as good in my opinion. Bands like Blam Blam Blam, Hello Sailor, Peking Man, The Androidss, Car Crash Set, Lip Service and of course The Ponsonby DCs could all stand up to any of the much more media hyped Flying Nun groups like The Chills, The Clean, The Verlaines and The Tall Dwarfs. This “theory” of mine was proven correct too, because when I landed in SF in 1985 I was able to get North American distribution deals for two major NZ Music Compilations that I helped get together – Unexplored featuring the best of the North Island’s best groups, and Tuatara – featuring the Flying Nun based groups. Much to the chagrin of the NZ crowd who only would champion the Dunedin groups, both compilations got huge radio play and 5 * reviews across the North American College Radio circuits and print media – the positive and overwhelming critical response to these groups in North America were exactly the same.

What touched (emotionally) you from the poetry? What are the ties that connect: words, images & music?

I read a lot, and get most of my ideas and at least the “one liners” that generally end up as the titles, and the start of my songs from books. The rest of my inspiration for writing my lyrics comes from people I know, things I’ve observed or significant situations I’ve gone through. I try to keep things “light” too, and try keep a humorous slant to things – even subjects with dark imaging or subject matter. In this way I’m very influenced by Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed and obviously Bob Dylan. As a singer with a soft, low baritone voice, with a limited sonic range, you can also say that these three have influenced my singing too. I’ve only just started writing lyrics in the last 5 years or so, and as a newbie to the lyric writing game, I’m finding that I actually get more enjoyment now out of writing a good set of lyrics, then in writing the music. It’s surprising though, how quickly the music and the melodies can come, once you’ve written the lyrics, and have come up with the cadence or rhythm to the words – that’s the key. The cadence will dictate where the music has to support or follow the lyrics – not the other way around.

"The impact that The Beatles, Dylan, Hendrix, Stones, Bowie, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Coltrane and Motown Records had and continue to have. Think where we’d all be today without the racial, political and socio-cultural impact and inspiration these great artists gave to us all. We’d be much worse off without them wouldn’t we?" (Photo: Keith & Ricardo Scales)

How has the Beats and 60s Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Years from now the Beat Poets and the 60’s counter culture will be looked at as a true renaissance period. This is where the psychedelic music revolution started, where folk rock and punk rock styles and attitudes started, where the anti-war, free speech, civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights movements all started. The ripples from these movements continue to this day and will not be extinguished by any right-wing politicians, religious zealots or Wall Street criminals any time soon. Before my parents moved to New Zealand in the early 1970’s, I grew up on USMC military bases at the height of the Vietnam War. To say that I rejected wholeheartedly that right wing, violent WAR culture would be an understatement, and is exactly the reason I chose to become a musician, songwriter and artist in the first place. Exchanging Death Doom and Destruction for Creation and Inspiration sounds like a pretty good idea to me. What do you think?

What is the impact of Blues and Rock music and culture on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Short answer here – I’ll let your readers fill in the blanks: The impact that The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, John Coltrane and Motown Records had and continue to have. Think where we’d all be today without the racial, political and socio-cultural impact and inspiration these great artists gave to us all. We’d be much worse off without them wouldn’t we?

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

Keeping on track with the music theme of this interview, I would have to say that I would love to have been at the last day of the 1967 Monterrey Pop Festival to have witnessed Jimi Hendrix’s incredible set – widely believed to be the greatest music performance ever played. A stellar cast of others on the bill too including Ravi Shankar, The Who, Big Brother and Janis Joplin, Buffalo Springfield, The Grateful Dead and The Mamas and The Pappas too!

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