Exclusive interview: Mike Keneally talks about the making of new album 'Scambot 2'
Courtesy of Exowax Productions

If you’re going to compile a list of Mike Keneally’s credentials, you had better get a big piece of paper. The guitarist and keys player first gained public notoriety in 1988 as a member of Frank Zappa’s band, and select highlights since then find Keneally playing with Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Dethklok as well as fronting his own groups Beer for Dolphins and the Mike Keneally Band. Never the kind of player to focus on just one thing, Keneally is currently on tour with Satriani while simultaneously celebrating the release of his latest solo effort, a 2-CD set called Scambot 2 that includes a companion disc titled Inkling.

As you might expect from someone who cut their teeth with Frank Zappa, Keneally’s music is performed with flawless precision while also often being delightfully off-kilter, all of which is on brilliant display in Scambot 2 and Inkling. But Mike’s penchant for weirdness predates his time with Zappa; he was known as someone who reveled in the outré even as a youngster. That’s the first thing we ask Keneally about in our Q&A, conducted by email while Keneally was out on the road with Satriani. And, to make sure things stayed a little weird, we also discussed pretzels. Keneally’s commentary below is given exclusively to AXS.com.

AXS: In your self-penned bio you note that you were a weird kid. Are any of that young man’s weird ways still noticeable in your persona today?

Mike Keneally: I'm of that belief, yeah. Not that there really is a "normal," I don't think, but if there is I'm definitely not it. I'm kind of in a daze a lot of the time; functional, but feeling not quite a part of everything. I often get the feeling that I'm watching my life rather than living it. But I've usually managed to maintain somewhat normal interactions with people. Perhaps everyone has the same feelings and I'm not weird at all. But then I listen to some of my own music and think, “No, I'm weird.” I'm fortunate that there are some other people who seem to understand and actually enjoy the musical aspect of my weirdness.

AXS: Your first major professional job as a musician was as guitarist and keyboards player for Frank Zappa, who was well-known for his perfectionist attitude. Was there a moment when you thought, “Great googly moogly, what have I gotten myself into?”

MK: That phrasing "what have I gotten myself into" indicates to me a certain degree of panic, which I think I only experienced in my bed at home, trying to go to sleep, the night before I flew out to start the '88 tour. That tour was my first professional musical activity of any kind; before that I was playing cover tunes in bars in San Diego, and I had zero experience playing shows for large numbers of people. The night before I went on the road I had a real episode of panic (and I'm not at all prone to panic attacks) about whether I'd be able to deliver what was required of me. I was married at the time, and my wife helped calm my nerves. Apart from that, I did have moments of disbelief during the tour itself, but they were more in the positive sense of "I can't believe I'm lucky enough to actually be here and that this is happening to me." This would often happen during Frank's guitar solo on the song "Inca Roads.” I didn't play in that section, and it's such an iconic section in FZ history, and I was first and foremost a huge fan of Frank and his music long before I ever played with him. I remember being overcome with astonishment and joy during that part of the show more than once.

AXS: Tell us a bit about preparing for and playing at the recent Keith Emerson tribute concert.

MK: Keith Emerson was a huge figure for me growing up. Organ was my first instrument and while I loved it, it always seemed like a pretty polite instrument to me, something to play while wearing white shoes and a leisure suit. But when I was nine I heard Keith's playing on Tarkus and it blew my mind out the side of my head. Recently the opportunity arose to play some of his songs at the recent Progtoberfest II festival in Chicago. I played on the Saturday with my band Beer For Dolphins, but the night before that I sat in with the Chicago-area Emerson, Lake & Palmer tribute band Fanfare, who are pretty fantastic. They played on their own for about an hour, then I and Jonathan Schang (the drummer from District 97) came out to play four songs I had requested to play: "Trilogy," "A Time And A Place" and "So Far To Fall" by ELP, and "For Example" by (early Emerson band) The Nice. I played both keys and guitar and had a fantastic time, and it was the first time I think I publicly displayed my love for Keith and his music that way. I had learned the piano part to "Trilogy" when I was 16-years-old but had never performed it live before, so it was great to finally be able to do that. There was an official Emerson tribute in L.A. a few months ago that I was asked to participate in, with many of my friends taking part, and I was really dismayed that I was traveling and unable to play at that show. So I was grateful to have this opportunity to pay tribute to a man who meant so much to me and my musical development. I unreservedly adore Keith's writing and playing. I only barely spent any time with him, much less than I would have liked, and I miss him horribly.

AXS: Your new release Scambot 2 contains a bonus disc of additional material from the Scambot 2 sessions called Inkling. Was releasing the music this way the plan all along, or how did you decide what material went on each set? It’s interesting that the song “Scambot,” seemingly the title cut for both Scambot records, finds it home on neither but on Inkling.

MK: I just recorded and recorded and recorded some more during the process of making Scambot 2. The recording environment in Scott Chatfield's home (he's the CEO of our label Exowax Recordings) with our good and brilliant talented friend Mike Harris as engineer, was endlessly conducive to continual composition and musical experimentation, and I just continually worked on all the different kinds of sounds I was hearing in my head, and trusting that at the end of it all I would have what I needed to pull Scambot 2 out of it. The music came ahead of the lyrics in all instances. I knew that I was recording more music than could fit onto one CD, but since I was recording most of the music before the storyline of the album had completely jelled in my mind (and well before I actually wrote the story as it appears in the booklet) I kept going, since I was never certain exactly how much music I needed. At one point I thought that Scambot 2 itself might need two CDs to encompass the whole storyline, but ultimately felt that it would be a much stronger piece if I kept it to one, with an additional album containing the music that didn't fit (which is the same template as Scambot 1, the deluxe edition of which came with an additional album called Songs And Stories Inspired by Scambot 1.) Before I had most of the lyrics written, and as the narrative aspect of Scambot 2 began falling into place, I started to instinctively feel which pieces belonged in which order, and constructed the lyrics once I had placed the original basic instrumental tracks into a sequence that felt right to me. Even after recording the final lyrics, many concentrated listening sessions at home, with my girlfriend Sarah offering extremely insightful input, resulted in me pulling several of the plot-oriented songs ("Scambot," "Cram" and "Back It Up!") out of the main Scambot 2 sequence, and they became crucial tent-poles of the Inkling sequence. Inkling feels much more like a solid stand-alone album to me than Songs and Stories Inspired by Scambot 1 did. As for the song "Scambot," that was the musical starting point for the whole adventure (written before I began work on Scambot 1 or even had any idea what this whole Scambot business would lead to), and it IS funny that I never felt that it had a place on either of the main albums so far. I do think that the song might play a part in Scambot 3, whenever that happens, but it's going to be wildly re-imagined at that time, much more orchestral. That's how I feel about it now. In any case, it will be years before I begin recording Scambot 3 and there's no way for me to predict what changes of concept might feel right to me between now and then.

AXS: You’ve composed and performed orchestral pieces in the past and indicated that you’d like to do more of the same. Are you mulling over anything like this at the moment? What factors would have to fall into place for you to move forward with a project like this?

MK: I have a strong desire to do large portions of Scambot 3 with an orchestra, but as I've stated it's going to be a long time before I commence work on that album. Which is a good thing, because I'm going to need a long time to put the funding in place to make that happen, and that of course is the primary factor which will allow me to move forward. I was incredibly fortunate, in the case of The Universe Will Provide which I did with the Metropole Orkest in 2003, to have the support of Dutch National Public Radio, specifically Co de Kloet who is a producer and presenter on radio station NPS and who commissioned the project. That sort of support is traditionally what's required to do anything substantial with an orchestra (especially with music like mine that has a lot of melodic and rhythmic intricacies requiring a sizable wodge of rehearsal time. I haven't written for orchestra in years and I am definitely feeling a pullback in that direction. I suspect I'll begin the composition phase for Scambot 3 long before I start trying to put the pieces together for its eventual recording. Then there's also my grand-scale ambition for a presentation of the entire Scambot saga once the trilogy is complete, weaving together material from all three Scambot volumes, the EP The Scambot Holiday Special, and crucial pieces from the supplemental albums Songs And Stories, Inkling and what I presume is likely to be an additional album accompanying Scambot 3, into a crazed multi-hour multi-media Einstein On The Beach-style stage extravaganza involving actors, full rock band and orchestra. This will also, ahem, require funding.

AXS: About the lyrics-deciphering contest for Scambot 2 track “Pretzels;” have you made good on your promise to send a bag of pretzels to the winner, and can you reveal to us the “really good brand” of pretzels offered as the prize?

MK: No one guessed the lyrics! The brand of gluten-free pretzels that Sarah and I enjoy are Snyder's. They really nailed it; you don't miss the gluten one bit. I prefer the pretzel twists; Sarah likes the sticks. There, now maybe I'll get an endorsement from Snyder's and get the whole Scambot stage extravaganza underwritten.

Follow Mike Keneally here.