Deep Musicians Geeking Out
This year’s fan-run global Gentle Giant get-together, GORGG, was special for several reasons. First, we had a private concert with Mike Keneally and Andy West. Second, Mike got to meet some of his musical heroes from Gentle Giant. There’s lots more to talk about, but for the sake of this post, I’ll get right to business.
This filmed conversation is really special. If you know anything about Gentle Giant, you’ll know that they broke up in 1980 and their music has had lasting impact on musicians and enthusiasts all over the world. To get a few of the members together for a conversation (on film!) with the equally-talented Mike Keneally was a real treat. What you see and read here is exactly how it went down.
(You may be interested in our 2015 interview with Kerry at GORGG in Montreal.)
Interview Audio (Podcast)
(NOTE: hitting the “play” button requires a hefty download of the entire audio file!).
Or, download an mp3 .
Gary Green [GG]: I liked your hat last night, as well. Do you find it’s a musical hat?
Mike Keneally [MK]: Well, hats have assumed a kind of strange, mythical status in my life that I named my first album hat. . The first hat that I thought of as a talismanic object after a Zappa concert when I was still lingering on the stage and somebody wearing this purple, green felt contraption came to the front of the stage and said, “I really enjoyed your performance tonight,” and I said, “I really enjoy your hat.”
GG: I think hats are important in a musical thing. [Points to Malcolm] You’re a hat man as well.
MM: I do enjoy a hat now and again.
GG: You feel like it changes your personality a bit and you’re able to adopt a slightly different personality. Django Reinhardt had a hat he used to put on that he called his “composer’s hat.” He would put it on in order to adopt the proper demeanor to put him in the mood for writing. I thought perhaps you had one of those hats.
MK: I felt like it was a magical thing when after I complimented the guy on his hat, he threw it up to me and I just thought, “What a glorious gesture.” I put it on my head and I walked backstage and Andy Partridge and Dave Gregory were standing there.
GG: Leaping for the hat? [Laughs.]
MK: Well, no they didn’t immediately jump for the hat. But I just thought, because that in itself is sort of a magical occurrence, and I came to associate that with the hat. It’s also–as I got into Steve Vai’s band and stuff–I used to wear these absurdly weird, huge, elaborate hats and it became kind of a part of the character that I played on stage for a while.
GG: Yeah, hats and costume play a part in music production, don’t they?
Malcolm Mortimore [MM]: Of course.
Kerry Minnear [KM]: They do.
MK: And then I thought I needed to react against that and I stopped wearing the hats. Of course, everybody said, “Where are the hats?”
KM: So, did you put it back on?
MK: I gradually brang a hat, this blue hat that I got which actually has a little Carlos Santana logo on the side. Carlos Santana–
MM: It is a cool hat, isn’t it? Of course with a hat, you can sort of–Bob Dylan cover. You just do that [lifts an imaginary hat] and you’ve said so much without opening your mouth.
MK: Yeah, yeah. That’s true. Generally, I’ll wear that hat I was wearing last night. I’ll start a performance with it and almost immediately take it off. I feel that it has a certain–
GG: To let the ideas out.
MK: Yeah, and then at the end I put it back on the sort of signal we’re done.
GG: “Okay, we’ll have no more ideas tonight. I’ll keep them in til tomorrow.”
MK: Yeah, I might need these later.
Anthony Garone [AG]: All right, so speaking of last night… Mike thankfully played a concert for all of us and I was curious–
GG: Very enjoyed the show.
MK: Thank you.
GG: I did.
AG: Yeah, so–
MM: Bravo, bravo.
AG: Malcolm and Kerry and Gary, I don’t know how much exposure you had previously to Mike’s music. I know you two [Gary and Mike] had met before at Progday before.
MK: Oh at Nearfest, yeah.
GG: Yeah, with the drummer from Umphrey’s McGee , whose name I can’t recall.
MK: Kris Myers .
GG: Kris. Right. Yes. Lovely. Anyway, that was a lovely album. Real beautiful, your collaboration with Andy Partridge.
MK: Thank you.
GG: Smashing stuff. I love what you did last night. Your versatility playing across both instruments, the keyboards and that, and how it didn’t phase you at all when your guitar went up the spout and you grabbed a matchstick with wire on it and still played really well. It didn’t seem to phase you. How do you do that? How do you put yourself in a space where it’s like you’re just focused on the music. You can’t let this physical thing get in the way of that.
MK: Yeah, it’s just an awareness of no one’s best interests are served by becoming overwhelmed by it.
GG: Of course not. But if you can’t actually play the thing…
MK: Well, there’s always that.
GG: Thank God it was playable.
MK: True. But I picked it up with all the goodwill in the world. “I know this is going to work.”
GG: It sort of carries you through, doesn’t it?
MK: It does. I do believe that there’s–in the middle of a performance environment, there seems to be a greater capacity for magic to occur.
GG: You’re ready for magic to happen before it happens.
MK: Yeah, I sort of welcome it. And I almost–it might be presumptuous, but I almost assume it. I picked up that guitar thinking, “Clearly this is going to work.”
GG: You have to expect it.
MM: A positive attitude. Very good.
MK: I feel in a real way, I’ve got everybody’s attention and it’s focused and they’re all hoping to have a good time.
GG: And there’s all the will in the world in the room to have that happen.
MK: Yeah, so the last thing I want to do is be up there visibly upset or struggling over something because that deflates all the magic of a performance right away.
GG: Well, it was wonderful. Lovely to see it.
MK: Thank you. It meant the world to me to be able to play music to you gentlemen. It was a bit overwhelming.
KM: See, I find that hard to believe because I finished–really, my writing career is way back. I’ve been all kinds of things since and I’ve been a teacher most latterly, and for me, what you were doing was taking me harmonically to places that I don’t naturally go to. So it’s a delight for m’head and m’brain to be witnessing something that it doesn’t normally witness. I think that’s why I actually bought one of your CDs, which–ask my missus–that’s a big deal.
MK: Okay, well–
GG: He doesn’t buy CDs.
KM: I don’t.
MK: Well, to me it was a huge deal. The fact that you refused–I would have been happy, abjectly happy to just give you that album.
KM: Oh no, oh no. I did insist because–I can’t see why you would think it was great to play in front of me because it’s been so long and you’re still active.
GG: You’re an active happening player.
MK: Yeah, but anybody who’s watching this doesn’t need me to instruct them, and I trust you don’t either, as to what’s so wonderful and constantly giving about the music that you all created.
KM: That’s lovely to hear.
MK: And as a guitar player, certainly, I was incredibly inspired by the way you [Gary] found a way to just bring so much gut into this stuff. That was just incredible.
MK: But then also, the parts can be–it doesn’t come off academic at all. It’s just so much fun. But! The underpinning of the stuff that you [Kerry] wrote on the keyboard–because the keyboard is my first instrument–and I responded to it so viscerally. To the interplay between the hands and the way that what you created on a keyboard was then expanded upon to become full arrangements.
MK: And just the architecture of it and the delight of the way your harmonic sense–it’s just endlessly fascinating and delightful to me. It gave me so much as I was growing up.
GG: I think what I love so much about Giant music still is the interplay between the instruments. It’s not–I’m not supposed to talk about Giant music, though are we?
AG: No, that’s great!
GG: Oh is that cool? All right. [Laughs.]
MK: Oh is it? Because I could go on.
GG: The interplay between the instruments is not focused on a particular player’s virtuoso skill. It truly is a group ensemble effort and I think we’d all agree that we’re all happiest in that environment. Neither of us–none of us are spotlight people to go out front and try and do something because I’m sure we all think none of us are good enough to do that.
KM: That’s right.
GG: It’s strength in numbers I think, for us.
MK: Collectively, it’s this one colossal virtuoso statement.
GG: But that is, for me, the beauty of music. The interplay between players all the time. It’s the conversation happening between people on the stage. Whether it’s written, formalized music or improvised stuff. There’s still the need for the ears always to be listening to the other people. The interplay for that, that’s always what I respond to. That’s what makes me happy and makes me exuberant all the time.
MK: What’s great fun about listening to the live recordings is how the joy of the performance and the interaction takes hold. And, you know, you can hear the two of you throwing these things back and forth. “What about this? I’m going to come in a little bit early this time.”
GG: That’s right.
MK: Some of that, you know? It’s just so fun.
GG: But you do that with your band that I’ve seen twice now. It’s real evident that there’s so much joy with you playing the stuff. Of course, you’ve gotta have that.
KM: That’s right.
GG: At another interview today, we talked about the music. First things first, you’ve gotta enjoy what you do. If you don’t love it, you’re not going to produce anything and it’s not going to happen.
MK: Especially with all you need to undergo in order to just make it to a performance. The travel–
GG: Yeah, the technical things…
MK: The hotel, did you sleep well? Did you eat well? What’s the sound like on stage? Is the sound guy somebody that you can relate to on a human level? You know, all these things play into it. So whether you finally get to–
GG: “Are you with us or against us?”
MK: Yeah! You finally get to the miracle of “the show’s about to start. Finally! What we’re here for.” You’d better find a way to enjoy it because everything you’ve done to get to that point.
GG: I remember in the past, for us it seems to me that the number of great gigs we’ve had in all our career, it’s like you can count them on both hands. Perhaps. Great gigs. So in an attempt to reproduce those great gigs, I remember consciously trying to think, “Okay, what did we do the day before? What happened?” You know? There’s one particular gig we had in Miami and we ate at a restaurant and we all got food poisoning and Derek was off to the side of the stage every three minutes to heave in the bucket. But we played great. It was a super show. So, no there’s things–I don’t know what it is, but–
MK: Yeah, it pulls that little bit of extra out of you.
MK: Yes, indeed. Indeed. I was speaking of the metaphorical bit. [Laughs.]
GG: Of course. I knew that.
AG: Can you guys talk a little about the importance of improvisation as it relates to your compositional approaches? I know you do very complex music that is highly orchestrated and then there’s the blend or there’s usually a section for improvisation. Where does that come from and how does that feed into your process? Is that something that happens as a band when you’re composing or is that something else that happens?
GG: Well, I’ve asked Kerry about this sometimes before. I’ve asked him, and perhaps he’ll chat a bit more in this forum, but I always wondered how do you [Kerry] start the process of writing a tune? Does it start with you sitting down and sort of improvising something?
KM: [Points to Mike.]
GG: You can answer that if you like. I mean it does for me.
KM: For me, I’ve got to try to remember because it’s been a long time for me. But, as I recall, it is just that. Yeah, it is just that. You’re trying to find something that you feel has energy, has emotion, has a statement that you want to go back to. That’s always helpful. You’re not dreading working on that again tomorrow. And you go back to it and then you–I don’t have anything in mind, really, at that point. I don’t know if you’re the same [Mike], but you have to take an idea so far before you begin to realize how it could be used and what sections could be involved. But because I’ve had a writer’s block for so long–that’s why I find answering these questions a little bit difficult.
GG: Yeah, no I get that.
KM: I can’t remember what I did, otherwise I’d be doing it now.
MK: But, do you sit down and wait for things to happen?
KM: I keep going. Yeah. I try to. I have different approaches like discipline. I will start at 10 o’clock and I will finish. You know? And then other days, I think, “No, I’ll wait until I feel like it.” So, six days later I have a go. There doesn’t seem to be any particular rules, but in the days of Giant, there was obviously a deadline.
GG: This pressure due to an album.
MK: Yeah, you have a unit to compose for and a deadline to meet. It’s pressure but it’s also inspiration.
KM: It is, yeah. And it forces you to work til 3 in the morning if you have to.
MK: So when you write now, or when you set aside time to compose, do things come to you that you think, “Well, that’s good. I’ll work on that further.”
KM: I often get excited for a few minutes. [Laughs.]
MK: And then you come back to it the next day and the excitement–
KM: That can happen. Yeah. I just think–because what I want to do, I like to be inspired. So I think, “I’m not inspired right now so I’ll stop,” which is probably a mistake. If I had a deadline, I wouldn’t stop, but I think, “I’m getting a bit tired and something’s on the telly,” or something. So, I might stop and think, “I’ll pick it up and be really impressed by this tomorrow and I’ll know exactly what to do because I’ll be coming at it fresh.” And then I come at it and I think, “Eh, that’s not very good.” All the vision that was in my mind–I could hear the potential of it–is something that was at that point just an abstract imaginative thing. I’ve still got a lot, a lot to learn.
GG: Do you feel pressure from deadlines to do stuff? Or are you just self-propelling?
MK: I can take an inordinately long time to finish stuff. The most recent album, Scambot 2, was years in the works. I was lucky to be in a situation where I was working at my friend’s home, who was also the guy in charge of the label, and he was saying, “Take the time you need to get this done correctly.” I just learned at a certain point to not be too judgmental about ideas that I was having.
MK: I’d put down an idea and there were several times during the course of that album, more than any that I’ve done, and I’d be listening to rough mixes driving home and I’m thinking, “That’s entirely valueless. There’s nothing there.” But I was listening to a single keyboard part without even a bassline or any kind of a vocal thing on top. I wasn’t trusting whatever the spark that made me think as I was putting my hands down on the keyboard.
GG: This is worth it.
MK: This is a good thing to do. This is a worthwhile human pursuit. If I felt that at the moment that I had that inspiration, why should I doubt it the next day? Because anybody who hears that song will also be hearing it for the first time when they hear it. Hopefully–
MM: Could you not be too close to it to make a good objective judgment of what was good though? It’s interesting what you said there, Kerry, because I wasn’t in Gentle Giant for very long, but I can remember you rattling away on the piano the themes and tunes of Three Friends. I could see that and an album had to be made. We were going to go and tour it so there was a deadlines.
But I talked with John Weathers down in Wales sometime later and you’ve made so much music and I can’t remember exactly what he said, but he was hugely complimentary of all your talents, Kerry. He said something to the effect of, “It was all good and Kerry just wanted it to be even better, so it had to be sort of taken away from him so it could be played.” Why should you have kept making it better and better and better and produced as much? In the group environment, the agenda is, perhaps, a positive thing for finishing work maybe. I don’t know.
MK: No question.
MM: Groups are good for that thing. As Gary was saying, the interplay, there’s a chemistry of people working together. It was great for John. It was album time for bands and the whole thing was–
MK: Yeah, if there was more than a year between releases, people would start to think, “What’s the matter. Have they broken up?” I was just thinking of how I remember the break–a lot of people at the time remember the time between Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here as this endless expanse of time.
MK: It’s like, “Oh, what’s happened? Is Pink Floyd done?” And that was, like, two years or something. Now it’s routine for there to be three or four years between.
MM: It’s like Harry Potter books, isn’t it? They’ll wait for the next release. It used to be kind of–
GG: But then, it’s a very different era now in our recording. Obviously the whole industry’s totally different and the technology’s completely different. Back then, we had the pressure of the deadline and no means to record professionally at home. So, anything you were going to do was committed and had to be in the studio. So, studio time, you’re in that environment where time is money. There’s not that now, is there? It’s hard to talk about that.
MK: Well, I sort of miss that aspect. I’m sort of willfully taking a break from making solo albums right now. I’m doing various collaborative projects. I’m sort of more interested in collaboration and performance than I am with creating an album by myself from scratch. But the last many albums that I’ve done were done in that home environment where you just put down the seed of an idea and then over time–
GG: It’s more self-discipline, then, to complete something. Isn’t it?
MK: Yeah, and that’s what I would like to do next time. I’d love to write and rehearse an album and then go into the studio.
GG: I was going to say, how much of the material is finished before you take it into the studio realizing at the same time there is no studio that you take it into. You don’t get it all complete, which is what we did. We had it all ready to go and just going into the studio was this sort of almost mechanical act of recording it and putting it onto tape. That’s not the case. It’s much more organic now, this process. Just do it as you’re going.
MK: It is, but I think some of that actual–It’s two things. It’s the interaction of human beings playing in a studio space.
GG: Yeah. Absolutely.
MK: And it’s the discipline of having practiced the stuff so well beforehand so that it may seem rote by the time you get into the studio, but it also means you know how the songs go. You’ve already explored the intricacies. You’re ready to do a good performance. I’d be remiss not to mention how much I love the drumming on Three Friends. It’s incredible work.
KM: Absolutely, yeah.
MK: There are several drum fills in Prologue that are some of the best drum fills that have ever been committed to tape.
GG: Yeah, I’ve described a couple of them like, “Oh, those impossible drum fills you played.”
KM: He just used to explode every now and then. Hopefully in the right place, but he would explode. [Drum explosion noises and gestures.]
MM: Oh, I get excited for a few minutes as well.
MK: It just sounds so creative, but it’s controlled as well. That album has a very–it’s a unique feeling record in the catalog.
MM: Kerry wrote some great tunes and it’s a concept album. Phil’s writing, he’d come up with a good narrative.
MK: School Days is just unbelievable. It’s just an unbelievable song.
KM: I thought some of your pieces were almost like contemporary–
GG: Yeah, absolutely.
KM: Serious music. [Air quotes.] Serious music in a sense that it was like picture music that just took you on. It didn’t seem to be–there’s absolutely not copy and paste about anything you do.
MK: I think maybe I do get restless with myself at the idea of having a thing that just happens the same way several times through the song.
KM: I took notice.
GG: There’s not a repetition, there’s not an A/B structure.
MK: That’s because I’m trying to keep myself interested.
GG: [Laughs.] I get it! I get it!
MK: Yeah, I’m just trying to keep myself interested and presume that if it’s interesting to me, then it’ll be interesting to other people. I tend to forget–not forget, but overlook–is that a lot of listeners require that repetition in order to latch onto a piece of music in a way that means anything to them.
GG: That’s true.
MK: Which is fine.
GG: Yeah, one shouldn’t underestimate that audience. They are capable of actualizing real things they’re perceiving. Complex structures. A lot of our fans give us a hard time–
MK: Yeah, the people who are into what I’ve done and the people who are into what you do are hungry for that.
GG: Sophisticated listeners. Yeah.
MK: At this point, I’ve heard your music so many times, you wouldn’t think that you could still be surprised by it. What I enjoy now–because I still listen to your music–is that it still sounds contemporary and it still sounds completely vital. It’s instructive to listen to music that I was in love with 40 years ago and find that I’m still in love with it for all the reasons that I would love them. I think, “Oh, I actually had good judgment. It really was valid.”
GG: Me too. I have the same kind of thoughts about it. But, back to the present, the creating process. How does an idea spark in your brain? Do you sort of physically try to get yourself to a mental state where not much is going on so you can just be receptive and responsive? I know for me–and I don’t write hardly anything–but I find I have to get in a spot–of course, it’s always better to be at a guitar if you’re going to try to write something. Get in front of it.
But to just have my brain go quiet. My brain’s thoughts of, “Oh that wheel didn’t arrive. The roof needs fixing.” Those thoughts have got to go away to just get to a place where stuff starts to happen. You get rid of the clichés because I don’t want to always play the same thing when I sit down. I don’t want to be there. I want to be in a new place.
MK: Yeah, it’s that the challenge is to not necessarily accept where your hands automatically muscularly want to go because your hands tend to fall into patterns. What I always try to do is write things that I want to hear and what I want to hear is something I’ve never heard before.
MK: When you have established patterns that can be a struggle, but it’s fun to just push yourself that much more. So when I pick up a guitar with the thought that I’m going to create something, I just try to willfully make my fingers go in positions and things where I’ve never seen them go before.
GG: So, Star Trek? Where no fingers have been before.
MK: And by virtue of physics, some kind of music is going to come out as a result that I’ve never heard myself do before. And then, if it has any kind of validity, then I’ll just sort of continue traveling down that path with either variations on that theme or I’ll compose something and just sit back and imagine myself as a listener rather than as a composer and say, “What do I want to hear next?” And that’s the next part of the song.
KM: That’s interesting.
GG: I had something there, but it’s gone.
MM: Keeping life interesting is stimulating as a composer, you must be stimulated by a variation of life. Although some composers would go away to get out of their normal life, like going on a trip for three months, which is out of your comfort zone to come up with something that maybe isn’t the greatest thing, you know, because everything that you do is–
GG: For me, sometimes, I can reach that space I was talking about for me, which is sort of mindlessness almost. And I can play something and then sometimes I find something that seems to me original and mine and my identity and stuff like that. I have my little bit of inspiration, the idea, the initial spark, the seed of the thing. It’s like, “Okay, great. I’ve got that.” And that’s as far as it goes.
GG: The inspiration part is–I don’t want to say it’s easy, but it comes relatively easy once I’m in the space. After that, there’s work. And it’s like I’m resistant–
KM: To work.
GG: Do you still think that the original idea is valid? I do. I play them endlessly to death hoping that I’ll hear something else on the end of it that will metamorphose into something spectacular. But what happens is it just keeps repeating. And then it’s set in stone in memory and it looks like it could never change.
MK: Have you joined any of those bits [Gary’s] to any of his bits [Kerry]?
KM: We’ve got a couple between us.
MK: You need to join those bits and see what’s gonna happen.
MM: I see your point because for me, back to Kerry’s Three Friends composition, the way that was worked with the melody on the bass and then expanded into the big theme at the end. That was skillfully arranging and development techniques.
KM: Compositional tricks.
MM: Yeah, but tricks that worked and produced good music. “Tricks” just makes people think it’s a cheap shot.
KM: No, it’s nice.
GG: No, it’s a technique, isn’t it? But that’s when you’ve got the ideas.
MM: Ah. You do need the tune to start.
GG: Yeah. Gotta have the foundation.
KM: He’s got that. He’s got the tune. He just keeps repeating it.
GG: I’ve got a great foundation. I’ve got no roof is the trouble. Nor windows. A front door would be nice. A bit of landscaping.
MK: Can we book a studio right now? I think we need to work on some music.
AG: Mike, do you run into that where you’ve got an idea and it’s just an earworm? You’ve said you challenge yourself to send your fingers where they’ve never gone before, right? How do you escape the earworm and turn it into a full-fledged idea? That’s the root of the conversations I’ve had this week with both Gary and Kerry.
GG: It’s not a new thing, is it?
AG: No it’s not.
GG: Everybody stumbles.
AG: Right. But everyone has techniques, right?
MK: I just always assume that an earworm–and I never use that phrase, but–
AG: I don’t either.
MM: Today it is.
MK: A piece of music is something that just arrives when I’m away from the instrument and I’ll sing it into the phone. So, I’ve got many, many of these little snippets.
AG: Do you join them?
MK: I have. There have been times over the last several records where I just call out the voice memos and I’m at a part of the song where I need something to happen and I’ll almost randomly choose one and see if it fits. Almost anything can be made to fit.
KM: That’s right.
MK: It’s trusting in the process because I’ve done it so many times now that I can take a seed of an idea and bring it to some completion that will be worthwhile. It’s relaxing and it’s giving myself a break. And it’s also realizing that ultimately, what does it really mean? It’s not that it’s all an illusion, but it is also that it’s kind of a bit of fun, but it’s also something that can have so much emotional value after the fact. It’s a combination of saying, “Ultimately, this isn’t too significant. It’s just a piece of music that I’m working on,” but also the realization that once I get it completed and somebody else gets to hear it, there is a possibility that somebody’s going to be really moved by it.
GG: Well there is that thing too about a thing that’s yours becomes so precious–it does with me–that it cannot be changed. It’s immutably “this.” And for anybody to suggest that it should then “do that.” It’s like, “Oh no! That mustn’t happen.” But it can’t be too precious and you’ve gotta trust in the fact that, “Okay, I’ve had that idea.” So you’ve got to trust that there will be more. There will be more ideas. They’re in the hot pot right behind you. You’ve gotta open that valve and hopefully they’ll just come out.
MK: I’ve encountered a lot of musicians that have this issue and as a producer, I’ve worked with quite a few who’ve managed to get their ideas to a certain point and then it just wouldn’t go any further after that. It’s really one of my–I love producing. It’s one of my greatest joys to work with someone prior to going to the studio to work with them on their ideas. They’ll say, “I’ve got this idea and I think it’s great, but I just have no idea what to do with it.” And I’ll hear it. Having that distance, I listen and I go instantly, “What if it just does this?” And they’ll go, “Oh yeah.” And I’ll play that for them and then that’ll give them the next idea. The little thing that I’ve done will then inspire the next part of the song for them. And then it’s just a little volleyball.
GG: This is the function of the producer, to be able to understand it outside of the band, to look at it objectively and say, “No, not there. Go there. Do this.”
MK: So basically, what I’m doing is offering my services.
GG: Fab. Well, we’ll make that happen.
MK: Because I think when I did the stuff with Andy Partridge, he himself felt that he was in the midst of a bit of a writer’s block, even though he’d been doing some collaborating. And also I think he was feeling a bit embittered and beaten down by the state of the industry because I think he was definitely at that point of “why? Look at what’s happened. Look at what’s happened with record sales.” I don’t think he ever felt at that point that XTC was necessarily getting the kind of recognition they should have.
So it was a bit of, “Why continue?” And I’m over here as a fan and a friend going, “Well, because you’re a brilliant songwriter and the world is better when you write songs.” And I would love to help. So that’s where that all started. It wasn’t even with the idea that I would eventually make an album. I didn’t know I was making a Mike Keneally album.
I just thought I was writing songs with Andy Partridge and I had gone to his home for one week in 2006 and another week in 2008 and we had the seeds or more for 8 or 9 songs. I thought we were going to do one more week to finish things up and then I saw an interview where somebody said, “Well, what’s happening with your project with Mike Keneally?” And he was going, “I have no idea. You’ll have to ask him. It’s taking forever. I thought the album would be done by now.” I didn’t realize that I was supposed to make an album.
MM: That’s the work bit, Gary was talking about. The work bit.
MK: And actually at that point I kind of felt the looming of a sort of deadline, even though it wasn’t a specific deadline. It was just all of a sudden a form of pressure that you experienced making Gentle Giant albums, which helped make those albums so great, I think. So, I wrote Andy and said, “Okay. I understand now. I guess we’re done with the writing process. I’ll take it from here.” So I made that album.
At the time I was thinking, “Will Andy be more involved with the actual making of the record?” And we had discussed even the possibility of him producing me making the album. But, at that point, I said, “Okay, Andy just wants to move past this,” so I said, “I’ll make the album here in California. I’ll send you rough mixes.” So I was sending him rough mixes and he was writing his responses in these lengthy detailed emails.
So in a way, he was very much a part of the making of the record just by saying, “You need to do at least one more vocal take there. And I love where you’re going in this section, but maybe try this.” So he was sort of transatlantic associate producer on that record.
GG: Cool. Well the results are fab on that album. I mean, really good.
MK: And again, because it’s the nature of the collaboration and the fact that I then had this sort of pressure, which was the specter of Andy looming, “When is this going to be done?”
MK: It gave that album a different quality to all the others, I think.
MM: And your fans and his fans as well.
MK: Well, yeah there was expectation. What’s it gonna sound like when these two get together?
MM: And the way that happens with Gentle Giant, hence GORGG that brought those fans who are just so loyal. They bring us here–
MK: It’s incredible. I’m a little bit stunned that I haven’t ever been here before.
MM: They’re just so passionate about the band. I mean, my part in that and being part of the organization of Three Friends just playing Gentle Giant back catalog, I know has brought a lot of pleasure to them to see it performed live again. But for sure, the question I was always asked that Gary said was, “Where’s the new music? When’s the new music gonna happen?” And that’s [inaudible]. In fact, one of the GORGGers, he’s kind of a real [inaudible], we agreed. We both have tattoos that if the band lasted 7 or 8 years, or something like that, which it did, and then we kind of would sort of thought, “Oh we’ll change it to when there’s an hour of original music.” So, it if does that, you know. [Inaudible.]
GG: Yeah, while we’re at it.
MM: So there’s a lot of good feeling and people don’t buy albums in a world where you can get all your music for nothing. But, as Kerry’s just [inaudible] that’s fantastic to be cherished. There may not be as many as there were before, but it’s a great thing to nurture.
MK: You have a different relationship with an album that you’ve bought.
MM: For sure, yeah.
KM: You do.
GG: You have an expectation because you’ve invested. [Laughs.]
MK: And back in the day, you didn’t invest just money. You invested the gasoline to drive to the record store, the time you took to stand there and look at other records and decide which one you were going to buy. It was a whole much more invested experience and as a result, I think–again, you’re in danger of just sounding like the “get off my lawn” kind of guy–I’m not a young person, so it’s quite possible that young people do have an incredibly emotional connection to music that I don’t understand because I don’t live that experience. But it seems to me that we had a deep connection of a different kind to music in those days. But I’m going to abandon this thread.
GG: I think that’s true, but it’s as far as you can take that without sounding “get off my lawn.”
GG: A bunch of old chaps.
MM: I know how it feels to young people. My son’s friends liked these compositions. “These compositions…” Gentle Giant records. He’s a musician, plays in a band. I don’t want to advertise or anything, but that rekindled my interest in Gentle Giant and then this GORGG thing came along and then Three Friends and it was slightly embarrassing, the fashions back in the day with the silk pants and all that sort of stuff. But the music just didn’t get old because of the quality and the craft in it and the playing.
MK: There’s the logic and architecture of that music.
GG: Stands the test of time.
MK: I can see that being very appealing to a gamer, someone who spends a lot of time perfecting motions in order to execute some incredibly detailed and difficult movement in a game.
GG: That’s right.
MK: There’s something game-ish about the music Gentle Giant puts together. Are you aware–do you know who Flying Lotus is?
GG: I don’t know.
MK: Look up Flying Lotus because he’s one of the most incredibly creative people making music nowadays. He’s gotten into film direction and the movie he came out with this year is apparently one of the most insanely disgusting films that has ever been made, so maybe you don’t want to start your Flying Lotus experience there.
GG: Sounds great, Mike!
MK: But he did an album called Cosmogramma and then an album several years ago called You’re Dead! , which is–it just synthesizes all these elements of modern culture and jazz and just mind-blowing studio techniques to create this incredible stuff. It’s really amazing music. And when I met him, we instantly bonded over Gentle Giant.
It wasn’t necessarily what I would have expected to hear from this guy, but he was involved with Kendrick Lamar on this album, To Pimp a Butterfly , which is one of the most influential albums of the last several years. Flying Lotus is a big part of this scene that is creating this music and he’s a huge Gentle Giant fan. I don’t think that’s an accident. There is something in this music that absolutely remains relevant. You should definitely hear some Flying Lotus.
GG: Well, it certainly appeals to a certain type of person.
MM: We need young producers who’ve got their fingers on the pulse of music, like this guy.
GG: Some of the people who attend GORGG, they might be kind of like the people you’re describing. We have a mathematics professor, a guy who pioneers virtual reality in terms of treating veterans with PTSD, so there are people that into details. So, yeah, it dovetails right there with games. Absolutely. And they also can be a bit pedantic, some of these people.
GG: I take that back! [Laughs.] It’s true. I have a friend who’s not been very well with eye surgery and in typical pedantic fashion, he’s worked out his recovery period. He says he’s 57% of the way through it. [Laughs.] Hey Jerry!
MK: I do that when I’m making albums. I’ll do that. I’ll sometimes post online, “I believe I’m 87.3% done with the album.”
GG: But it’s tongue in cheek, right? Please tell me it’s tongue in cheek.
MK: Well, there’s a part of me that believes it to be true.
GG: Well, that’s good, isn’t it? You’re nearly done.
MK: I think you have to stand behind these statements and simultaneously see the absurdity in them and that’s kind of the way that I approach all aspects of the album.
GG: Well, there you go. Yeah. [Looking at me.]
AG: I’m good! I loved it! We’re at 45 minutes or so.
MK: Really? It just goes flying.
AG: But I think we have some action items here where we need to get Mike doing some production work for you guys. So, expect something later this year.
Morgan Miller: Is there a question I could ask Kerry? There’s this lick on the first Gentle Giant album that permeates every song at the beginning and end. Is there a story behind that?
MK: That’s from Giant.
[Everyone sings the melody.]
GG: It’s that line rearranged.
KM: Just a kind of index link. Continuity.
GG: Yes, you’re still listening to the same album. Yes, you’re not that stoned. Not yet.
GG: Yeah, that was done on Giant Moves, wasn’t it?
KM: Yeah, that’s right.
MK: But that’s a composerly thing in the same way the bass line from the beginning of Mr. Class and Quality gets totally–this epic thing at the end, which I had that album for four years. Actually, I don’t know if the film is still running. I think I told you, I spent a summer when I was 16 years ago learning every guitar part from every record at that point, up to Giant for a Day. So, everything from the first album through Giant for a Day, I learned every guitar part.
GG: Well, then I’ve got some questions for you.
MK: That was a huge part of my musical grounding. I think it was during that process I realized that the theme of Three Friends was the bass line from the first part. That made me giddy. It made me happy for a week when I figured that out.
GG: And the guitar part is the vocal line.
MK: What’s that?
GG: The guitar part is the vocal line at the end. [Sings the line.]
MK: Now I’ll be happy for weeks again. That’s awesome. That’s so good.
GG: I think there’s an album in there somewhere. But yeah, they crop up all over the place, don’t they? I was always amazed at the recurrence of the vocal, the words “so sincere.” That happens in a few tunes. I don’t know or if it just happened.
MK: The other thing I realized was I was overwhelmed last night at performing Aspirations for you gentlemen–
KM: Thank you so much for doing that. It did sound simplistic, though, after your music.
GG: Yeah, it did!
MK: To me it just sounded essential. When I played that, I thought, “There’s music. There’s something that’s just confidently perfect.” Without having to jump all over the place every two bars. But then also singing those lyrics, it’s like this song has never been sadder. The idea of people begging for leadership.
GG: God, yeah.
MK: Ouch. You know? “Make us strong.” Anyway, that’s enough on that topic.
GG: We’ve been calling that our “blue room discussions” as opposed to our “red room discussions” in there. [Laughs.]
MK: Anyway, that was a bonus track of discussion if the cameras are still going.
AG: Yeah, yeah. The encore interview.