Q&A With Tommy Keene

One of MAGNET’s favorite former guest editors and guitar-pop singer/songwriting legends, Tommy Keene has returned with Behind The Parade (Second Motion), his ninth LP. Some (including Keene) are saying it’s his best since 1989’s Based On Happy Times; while that notion notably shortchanges 1996’s Ten Years After and 2006’s Crashing The Ether, Behind The Parade is inarguably as insistently and consistently entertaining as anything the man has done in his roughly 30-year career. Keene is supporting Behind The Parade with a short September jaunt featuring a mostly new group: Drummer Rob Brill (Berlin) and guitarist R. Walt Vincent, co-producer and mixer of Keene’s last two LPs, will be joining him along with longtime bassist Brad Quinn. (Brill, who played on Behind The Parade, has kept time in Keene’s band before but not since the Songs From The Film tour in 1986.) We spoke to Keene from his house in Los Angeles about his songwriting approach, tunes he won’t perform live and the late Clarence Clemons. (Fun fact: Keene is a diehard Bruce Springsteen fan, having seen close to 60 Boss shows.)

“Deep Six Saturday” (download):

“Running For Your Life” (download):

MAGNET: This is the fourth time I’ve interviewed you, so I’m wondering what we should talk about.
Keene: Are you going to ask me what’s different about this record than the other ones?

No, I wasn’t going to ask that.
Good. Thank you.

Let me cross that question off the list.
[Laughs] Are you serious?

No. But seriously, I am wondering what we should talk about.
Anything you want. Except that. I’ve been doing a lot of interviews, and every one is, “So, Tommy, what makes this new album stand out? What’s different about this record?”

I meant to ask you about this when it happened, but what was your reaction when you heard Clarence Clemons died?
I was really sad, actually. He was such an integral part of the E Street Band, and without him … I mean, he was Number Two from the get-go. It’s just not going to be the same. It’s like a Beatle dying or something. I know that (Springsteen) has had some substitute drummers and guitar players and keyboard players, but Clarence was just so important to him. I don’t know what he’s going to do, but that might be the end of the E Street Band. Probably not, but is he just going to have some other guy up there playing sax? It’s not going to be the same.

We played (Clemons’) club twice, in ’81 and ’82, around the time of Strange Alliance. It was Big Man’s West. We were third on the bill, and on one of the shows his band played. They were doing a soundcheck. We were sitting in the dressing room, and the monitors fed back, like squealed, and we heard him go—this is not going to be good for the Big Man’s image—“None of that shit, motherfucker! I don’t want to hear that shit!” We were like, “Whoa, it’s feedback, it happens.”

So that was your one interaction with him?
Yeah, we didn’t even meet him. I don’t know why we were even there. The whole reason we did it both times was [whispers] because Bruce might show up. One of them was the opening night of the club, with (Clemons’) band playing, us going on at like 8 and some band in the middle.

But no Bruce?
Nope. Neither time. We trucked up there again, thinking Bruce was going to be there, but no.

Now, I won’t ask you how different Behind The Parade is from your last record—
Well, let me just tell you. When I put out the retrospective last year (Tommy Keene You Hear Me), I kind of thought, “Is this it?” I didn’t know if I was going to write songs. But I started writing and I wrote a couple of good songs. I thought if I could do this really quickly and get another album out the next year, that would be good, rather than sit around for two or three years. I had a real creative period and I just said, “I’m going to put everything into this.” I thought if I could come up with 10 songs that I think are all good, I’m going to do it. I actually came up with about 17 and threw things out until I had 10. I think the album benefits from that approach—not too much time to think about things, not too much time to second-guess or over-ponder. It was a challenge to myself, and I think I did it. I think I came through.

What I was going to ask was how you thought Behind The Parade stands up with the rest of what you’ve done.
It’s my favorite record since Based On Happy Times. I’ve had a couple of longtime fans tell me that it may be their favorite record of all. Everyone likes Songs From The Film, and I said, “Really? More than Songs From The Film?” and they said, “Yeah.” And these are opinions I trust.

How did the “Deep Six Saturday” video come about?
Chris Rady, who shot the pictures for this record and who also did the pictures for (2009’s) In The Late Bright, said he wanted to make a video. It was obvious that there was going to be no budget, but he had this idea. He said a friend of his owned a bear costume, and he had this idea of someone playing the bear. It worked out really well, I was surprised. I was dreading it. I’d done three videos, and it’s just really asinine to mouth in front of the camera. I had a great time. It was really fun and painless. But it was really hot driving around in the car. L.A. had a heatwave—it was like 102 or something, and you can’t have the windows open because it blows your hair all over the place.

I’m guessing you didn’t have to convince Matty (McLaughlin, the guy in the bear suit in the video) to be in it.
No, he was all for it. The only worry we had was that he fit into the bear suit. [Laughs] Once we had a fitting and it looked like it was going to be OK, we all breathed a sigh of relief.

On the tour, you’ll have somewhat of a new band. Are you going to mix up the setlist at all?
Well, we’re going to do a lot of the new record. The last tour was all of Songs From The Film, and the tour before that was a lot of In The Late Bright, so we’re going to go back and pick out songs we haven’t played for a couple of tours. I don’t think there are going to be any great surprises with deep cuts or anything. With two new guys, it’s kind of hard to delve. We don’t need to delve too far into the really deep cuts, I don’t think. I know the songs I want to play, and I know the songs people really want to hear.

“Eyes Of Youth” (from Crashing The Ether) being one of them?
[Laughs] Oh, no. That would be a deep cut, indeed.

What would you say is your favorite song that you’ve written?
[Long pause] Probably “Back To Zero Now.” A song off the new record, “Nowhere Drag,” is really one of my favorites.

Have you ever written a song and thought it sounded too similar to something that you’d written 10 years ago so you threw it away?
Oh, yeah. There’s a bunch of those. They kind of fall into a category. I’d say “Eyes Of Youth” is one of those. It was a last-minute replacement. We’ll argue forever about this. That’s an example, to my ears, of something that sounded like something I’d done before. Most of the examples didn’t make the records.

You have a certain sound that you’re known for. Do you get bored writing in a certain style? How do you keep it interesting to yourself?
If a song doesn’t really excite me, I’ll throw it out, even if it’s within my distinctive style. I don’t think I could really write in another style, other than sort of a moody, orchestral instrumental piece or a moody, atmospheric jazzy kind of thing. I don’t think I could write funk songs. I tried—“Tell Me Something” was sort of my funky stab. I can’t go too far our of my comfort zone, for better or worse. A lot of people knock me for that. I write the records that I want to hear and that I’m not hearing much lately. Someone’s got to do it. I don’t hear really classic, melodic, powerful pop rock ’n’ roll anymore. I hear childlike women singing with toy pianos and regurgitations of country ’n’ western and such. Maybe it’s what I’m searching for, so I write it because I can’t buy it or find it anymore.

When you write a song, do you have the music first, or do you have lyrics and then try to fit them into the tune?
Always the music. Sometimes I have an idea for a title and I’ll try to fit that into some piece of music I’m working on. A lot of times I’ll just sing nonsensical lyrics and some of the things that I come up with spontaneously will end up in the song.

How much of your lyrical content would you say is directly personal? Do lyrics have to mean something to you or do they just have to sound good to you and fit the music?
Both. I would say 15 percent autobiographical. Lately, I’ve been trying to tell little stories. I’ve been trying to get away from the romantic/unrequited love/yearning thing that was ingrained in my head. I’m trying to get more literary in terms of telling stories. If you’ve been following the last three records, you’ve picked up on that. I’ve moved to sort of this Beat writing, where I wanted to write about characters on the fringe with no moral or sexual boundaries—just people out there living it up and not really caring what people think. That really interests me. You’re talking about the dregs of society all the way up to rich people. It’s not really class-conscious—people pushing the envelope and living their lives, just getting wild. Rock music has always gone hand in hand with that, besides the boy-girl, “I love cars” stuff. That’s always interested me, and I think that I’ve successfully integrated that into my songs.

I really got bashed over the head (about) having to write a hit song so everyone could to relate to it. I remember the A&R person from Geffen listening to this Miracle Legion song that came on MTV. It was their hit, “The Backyard.” The line at the end was [sings], “I think of her.” And this person says, “Why can’t you write something like that? ‘I think of her!’ It’s so simple, and everyone can relate to it.’” I didn’t really know how to answer that. It’s not interesting to me.

It’s funny you say that about trying to write the perfect hit single because “Deep Six Saturday” is the perfect hit single. You did it anyway.
Yeah. “Deep Six Saturday” is nonsensical, all of the lyrics. I wanted it to sound colorful and interesting. In reality, a deep-six Saturday is a funeral. Someone else came up with the idea that a deep-six Saturday is the day after a Friday night going crazy, sort of a hangover or something. That fits. But it’s nonsensical. I wanted Saturday in there because it fits perfectly, and I had to come up with two adjectives in front of it: “Something something Saturday.” And that’s what I came up with. It’s not poetry—it’s just crafting pop lyrics and trying to make them interesting and not ridiculous and stupid. There are great pop songs with horrible lyrics. Like “Cuts like a knife, and it feels so right.” Come on. It’s a great song, but…

If I could hook you up again with someone to make another Keene Brothers type of record, who would it be?
[Long pause] Could I give you a few? Springsteen, Paul McCartney or Elvis Costello.

I’ll see what I can do about that. I don’t think I have any connections to them, but I’ll figure it out.
I think it’s within your reach.

—Matt Hickey