In The Loop With Keller Williams

Keller Williams recently spent 20-something minutes talking with Pollstar about his new album and the 20-something years he’s been making music.

The innovative, prolific singer/songwriter just put out his latest full-length effort, Vape, on Monday, marking his 20th official album release. Vape features Williams backed by a group of musicians including Samson Grisman on bass, John Kadlecik on guitar, Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, Rob McCoury on banjo, Alan Bartram on bass, and  Jason Carter on fiddle.

During the past two decades Williams has offered fans a variety of different live configurations while continuing to refine his sound and experiment with different styles of music. His Facebook page refers to his genre as acoustic dance music “aka jazzfunkreggaeelectronicagrass.”

Williams talked about how he became known as a “one-man jam-band” when he started using live phrase looping during live shows out of necessity because he couldn’t afford other humans.  

Since the early days of his career the singer/songwriter has found plenty of other musicians to share the stage with. His upcoming tour schedule includes solo dates along with gigs booked as Keller Williams with The Travelin’ McCourys, and Keller & The Keels – Williams’ bluegrass side project with Larry and Jenny Keel.

Don’t forget about Grateful Grass, which was founded in 2008 by Williams, Jeff Austin and Keith Moseley, features “anything-but-traditional bluegrass versions of Grateful Dead favorites.” You can catch Grateful Grass at upcoming festivals including Summer Camp Music Festival and Floydfest. The group’s lineup throughout the years has included The Keels, String Cheese Incident’s Keith Moseley and Michael Kang, Reed Mathis (Tea Leaf Green and Mark Beneveto Trio) and more.

And then there’s Williams’ Grateful Gospel, which showcases the spiritual side of the Grateful Dead.

As the surviving members of the Grateful Dead prepare to bid farewell to fans with its final shows, Williams will help celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary with three nights at New Orleans’ Republic May 1-3. “Voodoo Dead” features Williams along with Bill Kreutzmann, Steve Kimock, Dave Schools and Jeff Chimenti.

Williams previously toured with The Rhythm Devils, which is headed up by Kreutzmann and fellow Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. Other projects have included his collaboration with The String Cheese Incident – Keller Williams Incident – and Keller with More Than A Little, his side project that’s “more than a little soulful and more than a little funky.”

Photo: C. Taylor Crothers

Congratulations on the new album! I understand this is your 20th release and 2015 marks your 20th year making music so this is a big deal.

All right, well thank you. Twenty years sounds great. It’s been longer than that and there’s definitely more releases but I like a nice 20, a good solid number, a good celebratory number.

Is it a little surreal to be looking back on more than two decades of making music?

You know, I don’t really remember most of it. (laughs) … I didn’t really first consider it a job; it was just kind of a way of life. It was what I was going to do. And even if I slept in cars, which I did, it was no big deal, that’s just how it was going to be. Instead of surreal, I just feel so lucky and so grateful to be able to do what I’ve wanted to do for so long.

To just be allowed to do that. And it’s all from people buying the tickets, really, to come see the shows, it’s what supports my world. And I’m just so grateful for that. I personally don’t really put a 20-year thing on it because it just makes me feel old.

That reminds me of your Facebook page description, which says “Keep moving! Slow music is for old people.”

That’s right, that’s right. Yeah, I’m getting older and appreciating slow music, which is kind of sad. But I’m not there yet to take off that quote. I mean, I like slow music just to break up the fast music. Like in electronica, you have the fast pumping and then it kind of drops down into half time and that’s really powerful. I really dig that.

Going back to what you said about the live show, you mentioned that’s what contributed to your success and enabled you to do what you love for all these years.   

The way that I’m able to continue to be able to do this, is people buying those tickets … Granted, they’re small shows that I play but you have to kind of adjust your expenses around the amount of money that comes in. And I feel great about it. I’ve kind of gotten down to the weekend mentality – we’ve been doing that for the past couple years where I play Thursday, Friday, Saturday and I’m kind of gone three and a half days and home three and a half days. There’s a handful of weekends off every year. And every now and then there will be a week or two off or the kids will be out of school or there will be that occasional family vacation slash working trip where I’ll take the whole family somewhere and do a couple of shows that kind of pays for that whole thing. [I’m] very grateful. Yes, yes [it’s] very surreal.

I bet being able to spend time with your family and having that balance with your tour schedule is really important. 

Absolutely. I’m in the drop-off and pick-up lines at my kids’ schools on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and then you know I’m nodding out in the TSA line going through airports on the weekends. So it’s definitely a fine balance [and] I’m very grateful to be allowed to do that.

By saying music was just a way of life and what you were going to do, it sounds like doing something else wasn’t even an option.

Well, I mean, I had day jobs like landscaping and temporary construction work but the backup plan was maybe to go into radio or to do DJ-ing somehow, whether it was $75 and free drinks at the lounge, you know, whatever. It was going to be something someway involving music, was the idea.

Photo: John Davisson
"The Hangout Beach, Music And Arts Festival," Gulf Shores, Ala.

Your Wikipedia page says you’re a self-taught musician. When did you first start playing music and what was the first instrument that you learned?

Well, I think the piano was probably the first. Just making my rounds around my parents’ house as a kid, I would go and figure out some songs on the piano. I think I figured out my first song on the piano really young. And then I would move to the pots and the pans that were in the kitchen, so that’s like wooden spoons and pots and pans.

And then after 15 minutes of that I would set up a big Peter Kriss drum set out of all of the couch cushions and chair cushions.  It would be like a mixture of Peter Criss from KISS and Neil Peart from Rush. And I would do like a surround type of drum set where I’d pretend to play. And then I would make it over to the guitar and then it was kind of awkward and weird and out of tune so I would pick up a hockey stick, which looked more like an electric guitar that Paul Stanley or Ace Frehley would play. And so it had a little piece of twine to act as my guitar strap. And then I left a little bit on the end to act as the electric cable. The hockey stick was more like [totally] pretend but I was just really ripping leads on this hockey stick to my parents’ eight-track. It was an eight-track, cassette, record player all in one that had some built in cabinet speakers.

And then I guess I was 12 or 13 when my friend Kirk Edwards showed me some chords on the guitar. I started putting those chords to songs on the radio and then a couple of years later got paid way more money to sit on a stool at happy hour at a country club and play covers. And at that time, this was in the mid-‘80s, ’86, minimum wage was like $3.35 an hour. So got paid to sit and play covers, more than it did to do those menial jobs I was doing. One of the jobs was to show up, take a piece of cinderblock and you break it in half, take that piece of cinderblock, break it in half, then you take a quarter piece of cinderblock  and you scrape mortar out of the cracks of the walls that were built with these cinderblocks. …I did that eight hours a day, 40 hours a week one week.

Once you stood on a stool and played some covers and [got] paid more than you get paid in a day of that, you realize, maybe I should focus on music. So that was kind of the turning point, that first gig I ever did. And there were years and years of gigs where I didn’t make as much as what I made on that first one. That was kind of like unreasonable at the time.

You were an early adopter of live based sampling or looping. How early on did you start incorporating that into your live shows and how did that come about? Were you inspired by one-man bands or was it something you just wanted to experiment with?

I was in bands in high school and early in college and once those bands broke up I started to play solo. [After] five, six years of just a guitar and a microphone [I wanted] to go further. I had more musical avenues I wanted to go down as a solo act without being able to afford other humans –but without being cheesy enough to hit a button like a sequencer and have all this programmed band come out. I wanted it to be organic and natural. So I guess that started in 1997 with some gear that was not meant to do what I was trying to get it to do. And it was so weird and there was so much room for error that it only happened once a set. And I would look forward to that time. And finally I got to open for Victor Wooten and he turned me on to the right kind of device I needed with the right foot pedals. Once I had this right stuff it kind of went from there. What really changed it all was when I actually incorporated the bass into the loops. That was about 1999. And then from the bass came the drums and then I kind of had my own organic rhythm section yet I was playing it all and recording it live in front of everyone. That was probably right around 2000 when it started to change sonically. And that’s what, I guess, what kind of led to an increase in ticket sales [at] that time. But I think my first looping machine was probably’ 97 when I started playing with it.

What was your vision for Vape?

Well, my vision was mainly upright bass, acoustic guitar and sick, programmed drum beats that’ll vibrate your sternum and make your pants move involuntarily with the air pushed by the subwoofers. That was kind of the idea, to incorporate acoustic music with kind of slightly walking that line of electronica. I don’t think it goes over that line at all. I think it stays pretty true to my sound, but that was kind of the idea – upright bass, acoustic guitar and sick beats.

I’m sure fans are really looking forward to hearing the new music that you haven’t played live yet.

Well, you know, I wish that I could actually hold on to a song and not play it live so I could surprise someone with it but whenever there’s a song that’s ready to go, whether it’s done or not, I’m usually going to play it live. I’m always fiending on new music and it seems to come so rarely these days that when it does happen I definitely don’t wait around to play it. There’s definitely a few songs I’m working on now that I’m having to memorize because a lot of this I’m taking whole phases and saying the phrase backwards. Not like backwards recordings backwards but saying, you take a sentence and then you just read from right to left. And it’s really interesting, it’s one of these silly little writing assignments that I’m giving myself. … So there’s still new stuff that’s coming, it just has to be memorized but other than that this record has pretty much tapped me out. (laughs)

It seems like it would be hard to wait to play new stuff live because you obviously want to show it off to fans as soon as possible.

Yeah, plus it’s just more fun for me to play new stuff. It’s great to play old stuff and to have people sing along and I love that and that’s why I do it. People singing along, I really dig that. But the new stuff is what makes me most excited, obviously.

What was the songwriting process like for this album?  

Well, you know, I usually focus on a hook first, some kind of chorus, like a catchy type of thing that I can grab onto. And then once I have that, maybe I’ll stem out on some verses and just go from there. Content-wise, it’s often like a stream of conscious type of thought on paper. Other times, like the song “She Rolls” off this new record, it was a writing assignment that I gave myself, which was to create a female character and take her on a journey. And it’s one in which she steals a cop car … Tasers the cop and steals the German Shepherd and befriends it and buys it takeout food. And they do crazy things. And so it’s basically like that. Other times I’ll just be noodling and some kind of chord progress or tune or riff will come up and if I don’t record it onto my phone immediately then it just disappears. There’s stuff that happens like that all the time where I can’t seem to get it back so I’m getting better and better with recording my ideas and hopefully stemming off of that.

Do you give yourself writing assignments often when coming up with new material?

Either I do or my wife does. (laughs) When the inspiration is not there you just try to create inspiration. All you need is a little spark and then sometimes you can make that happen. And then a lot of those songs will fall flat, I’ll play them a few times and test them out. If the response isn’t happening you just stop playing them and then they’ll disappear from your mind. There’s been dozens of songs like that as well. So that’s my process.

You released a children’s album several years ago, as well as a children’s book. And I know you were talking about your kids earlier on. How old are you kids now?

They are 7 and 10.

Do they ever come out to your concerts?

Yeah! Occasionally. You know … you talk about the kids’ record, we did like a dozen matinees in a dozen major cities and I think they came to most of those. My daughter hula-hooped on stage each night and that was fun. Occasionally I’ll play a festival where it’s either in the day time or early in the evening and they’ll appear, running around on stage. But it’s not that often. When they were babies they went everywhere but now that they’re in school and have a routine, we kind of follow that. It seems to be the best idea.

It seems like it must be fun for your kids to grow up with a musician as a father. I’m sure you play music for them at home.

Oh yeah. Plus in the basement there’s microphones and effect pedals set up and there’s instruments everywhere. … I’m not really pushing it. We tried to push piano lessons and that backfired on us. So we’re not really pushing it, just letting them find it on their own. Both of the kids, they’re in pitch, they’re in tune, they definitely can sing. The daughter now is 10 and she’s really into the theater. There’s a fantastic theater group here in Fredericksburg. They had like 200 kids audition for 96 parts so it’s competitive and there’s a big budget and she’s so into that. She sings on stage and just blows us away but she doesn’t really sing around the house or let us hear her sing.

She’s all over the kids’ record when she was 4. I had a lot of these demos of these kids’ songs that I’d been messing around with for years and I just played them in the car and she learned them. I brought her into the studio when she was 4 and totally uninhibited and just put a microphone in front of her and played the records through the studio’ monitors. She just sang along and we used almost all of that stuff. And now she’s kind of shy around us but on the stage under the lights she shines, for sure. … It’s like, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And she says, “Oh, I want to be a playwright! I want to write the plays and I want to make up the songs.” And she’s like, “Other people can do the choreography.” (laughs) And so I’m kind of excited to see where that goes.

Photo: John Davisson
MagnoliaFest at the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, Florida.

You’re running a contest called “Get All Good At All Good with Keller” and I know you’ve done other contests over the years. What’s it been like spending some quality one-on-one time with fans?

Well, obviously I’m going to say that it’s been awesome and fantastic and everyone has been different and unique in their own way. Meeting these people is really fun because they’re folks that listen to my music enough to follow it and to possibly enter a contest. There’s been a few folks that didn’t realize that they entered a contest that won, which [is] always interesting.


Some of [the winners] we just randomly pick from people that bought tickets off the website. … It’s fun hanging out with [fans] and there’s a few of them that I still see at different towns where I go, so that’s always fun to make a friend out of it.

You’ve done a lot of collaborations with other artists over the years. Is there one thing you’d like to mention that you’ve learned or any advice you’ve been given over the years that really stuck with you?

Well, Chevy Chase once told me, “You can drink in public, you can be drunk in public, but don’t be drunk in public with a drink.” (laughs) And I think that’s fantastic advice.

Looking back on the past 20 years, was there anything you would have done differently? Or, on the flip side, anything a decision that you made that you made where you think, “OK, I’m so glad that I went through with that.”

Is there anything I would have done differently? … Well, there was this late night gig that I turned down, it was a post-Phish show down in Southern Florida and it was for a bunch of money. I didn’t want to do it because it was starting at like 2 a.m. and I always regretted that and wish I kind of did that gig. Uh, let’s see, what else? That’s about it. (laughs) I can’t really think of anything I would have done differently.

You know, the jam band pigeonhole is that – it’s a pigeonhole. It’s not something that I really came up with or was striving for but it seems that’s what has accepted me. It took a few years to come to grips with that. So if you’d asked me while I was coming to grips with it, I could have probably told you different things. But I’ve definitely come to fully accept the fact that I’ve been accepted. So call me whatever you want, you know, type of thing, but just call me. (laughs)

Absolutely. If there’s this group of people accepting you, then why not?

Yeah, exactly. … There was a time after Jerry Garcia died in ‘95 there was a lot of need for people to fill that void. And so from ‘95 to 2005 I guess was a big decade for that scene. And then after that it just kind of started to become a stigma and a kind of a joke in the mainstream world and it was tricky. But now it’s something that I just appreciate people appreciating me, of course, and however that happens in whatever fashion, I couldn’t do it without the people buying the tickets to come see me.

Looking back to those nights sleeping in your car to pursue music, was it all worth it?

Oh, God yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s so easy. Instead of going and checking into a hotel [you] just go to the hotel [parking lot] and kick your bucket seat back and then you just kind of wake up there. … It was absolutely worth it. I just didn’t think it was hard at the time, either. So it was never a big deal. It was more of an exciting adventure. I was young and on a mission not to work.

Your attitude and looking at things as an adventure must have been one of the contributing factors to your success.

Yeah, you know, setting the bar low is really the secret and not to expect luck and things of that nature. And just do it for the love of doing it and [don’t] rely on money from music. … If you do rely on money and money’s not there, then you kind of blame it and it’s a bit of a burden; it’s a job. But if [you’re] just doing it for the love of it and the money comes, that’s pretty joyous and it feels like it should be illegal.

Upcoming dates for Keller Williams:

April 23 – Charleston, S.C., The Pour House
April 24 – Charleston, S.C., The Pour House
April 25 – Athens, Ga., Georgia Theatre       
May 1 – New Orleans, La., Republic New Orleans (appearing with Voodoo Dead)
May 2 – New Orleans, La., Republic New Orleans (appearing with Voodoo Dead)
May 3 – New Orleans, La., Republic New Orleans
May 9 – Virginia Beach, Va., Chicks Beach  
May 22 – Chillicothe, Ill., Three Sisters Park (Summer Camp Music Festival)    

May 23 – Thornville, Ohio, Legend Valley (Dark Star Jubilee)    
June 5 – Minden, W.Va., Ace Adventure Resort (Mountain Music Festival) 

June 12 – Boulder, Colo., Chautauqua Auditorium
June 13 – Bond, Colo., State Bridge  
June 14 – Ontario, Calif., Cucamonga-Guasti Regional Park (Huck Finn Jubilee)  
July 1 – Milwaukee, Wis., Henry Maier Festival Park (Summerfest)
July 2 – Chicago, Ill., Chicago Theatre (appearing with Greensky Bluegrass)         
July 4 – Ozark, Ark., Byrd’s Adventure Center (Highberry)
July 10 – New York, N.Y., Watermark Bar & Lounge (’s Summer Jazzfest)    

July 11 – Summit Point, W.Va., Berry Hill Farm (All Good Music Festival & Campout)     
July 12 – Felton, Calif., Roaring Camp (Santa Cruz Mountains Sol Fest)    
July 17 – North Plains, Ore., Horning’s Hideout (Northwest String Summit)
July 23 – Floyd, Va., FloydFest Festival Grounds (Floydfest)
Aug. 8 – Alta, Wyo., Grand Targhee Resort Amphitheater (Grand Targhee Bluegrass Festival)
Aug. 16 – Moosic, Pa., Pavilion At Montage Mountain (The Peach Music Festival)            
Sept. 5 – Depew, Okla., Backwoods Bash Music And Camping Festival Grounds (Backwoods Bash Music & Camping Festival)      
Sept. 13 – Arrington, Va., Oak Ridge Farm (Lockn’ – Interlocking Music Festival)  

Oct. 3 – Mebane, N.C., Leeway’s Home Grown Music Network Festival Grounds (Leeway’s Home Grown Music Network Festival)
Oct. 4 – Darlington, Md., Luna Light Festival Grounds (Luna Light Music & Arts Festival)

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