If “Critical Acclaim” were currency, Tommy Keene would be a very rich man. But it’s not. And he’s isn’t. His blend of perfect pop harmonies and unforgettable hooks made Keene a critic’s darling in the mid 1980s, and today he remains a brilliant songwriter and virtuoso guitar player with a career full of near perfect albums including his latest “Behind The Parade.” We sat down with Keene to discuss the hits that never were, touring with Paul Westerberg and what inspires him to keeping making some of the best music you’ve never heard.
Rocker: When did you start writing songs?
Keene: Probably in about 1978. I’ve been playing in bands since I was ten and trying to write songs since 1975. The first song I felt was a complete song sounded a lot like “Born To Run.” I can’t even remember the name of the song. It was a pretty good song too as I remember. It was around the time Springsteen exploded with “Born To Run.”
Rocker: Was Bruce your earliest musical influence?
Keene: He was really big in DC. The first time I saw him friends of mine dragged me there. I didn’t really like him that much. He was very Van Morrison. He didn’t even play guitar for a lot of the show. The Beatles, The Who and The Stones were my three biggest influences.
Rocker: If you could, would you prefer to have been a songwriter in the sixties?
Keene: With my music I was either a little too late or too early. You look at a band like the Gin Blossoms who were pretty much doing what I was doing 5 to 7 years after me. They kind of copped a lot of stuff from me, and they freely admit it. They were big fans of mine. When my first major label record on Geffen came out in 1986 it was a really hard time to get on the radio. All the bands of that time, REM, The Replacements, they weren’t on the radio then. None of the “College Rock” bands, a group I was lumped into, could get on the radio. Not only were you competing with Madonna for airplay but you were also up against a lot of hard rock groups like Triumph. I think Geffen record tried to mold me into what would fit. They wanted me to be like Bryan Adams. So much so they tried to get me to write songs with a guy who wrote his lyrics. I think that if my Geffen record came out in 1992 my career would have been a different story.
Rocker: What else did Geffen do to attempt to control you?
Keene: They wanted me to dumb things down. They tried to every little thing. First thing my A&R people, who were very hands on, said, “You’ve got two bald guys in your band. This is the 80’s. You can maybe have one.” Everyone was trying to look good. It was all about hair. Literally. (Laughs)
Then they wanted me to fire my manager because he was a very in your face aggressive guy. Which is what you want for a manager but it was not what the record company wanted. They just wanted to mold me. I shouldn’t have fired my manager. “You can’t you write lyrics like this and look like this?” The irony of it is that we did theses demos in a friend’s basement on and 8 track recorder and put out an ep on our own. That’s what really started everything. We got Village Voice ep of the year. A four-star Rolling Stone review. All off an EP we made ourselves. That’s why we got signed. The major label didn’t have anything to do with that. I was 25 and I had been playing in good bands since I was 18. The years between 18 to 25 seem like a lifetime. I was in a big band called The Razz in DC and we tried to get a major label deal. That was everyone’s objective. I had been trying for 6 or 7 years, and suddenly the major label is dangling that contract in front of you, you think “This is our shot. Better do what they say.” In retrospect everything they wanted to do was wrong and kind of ruined the whole thing.
Rocker: What inspired the song “Places That Are Gone?”
Keene: I think it’s the feeling that you’re sort of never satisfied where you are at the moment and you always look back a couple years later and say, “Didn’t we have much more fun then?” You’re always looking back thinking things were better in the past. I think also subconsciously it was inspired by The Beatles song “In My Life.” “There are places I remember, and some are gone.”
Rocker: As you’ve gotten older does it ring truer?
Keene: Yeah. It’s sort of depressing.
Rocker: Do you have any moments of 80’s excess?
Keene: wanted us to re-record “Places That Are Gone” the song was originally from the Ep of basement demos. They sent us to the island of Montserrat in the West Indies to George Martin’s studio. We got Geoff Emerick to produce the record. He produced Elvis Costello’s “Imperial Bedroom” which we loved, plus he engineered “Sgt Pepper’s” and “Revolver.” We were there and it was very expensive,… private villas,… each band member had to pay a hundred dollars a day for 3 meals whether you ate or not. It all looked great on paper but in hindsight we were the only band of our stature that recorded here. Everyone else was a superstar. Dire Straits did “Money For Nothing” there. McCartney, Elton John had recorded there. Eric Clapton. It was so out of our league.
Rocker: Would you trade all the “Critical Acclaim” you’ve received over the years for commercial success?
Keene: Yes. All my career I’ve gotten these reviews. “Great Songs. Great Songs.” No one had ever said, “He’s got the best voice” but I have a very distinctive voice that I think fits the songs I write. People talk about my songwriting or my guitar playing… In the past when you sign a record deal there is usually a publishing deal that goes with it. We had a deal set up and it fell through at the last minute. I think my songs have been incredibly underutilized. It’s incredibly frustrating. I have to admit I would sell out in a second.
Another thing I really like to do is play guitar. I would love to play with other people. Which I’ve done over the years. I played with Adam Schmit, in the band Velvet Crush and played with Paul Westerberg. I love doing that because it takes some of the pressure off. I wish I could do more.
Rocker: What was touring with Paul Westerberg like?
Keene: I always loved The Replacements. And Paul loved my stuff. We sort of met and it was a mutual admiration society. My group opened for The Replacements in 1989 on a a leg of their “Don’t Tell A Soul” tour. Years later I went out and played a little guitar on (Replacements bassist)Tommy Stinson’s first solo album and Paul was there. Then around the time Paul was doing the soundtrack to the Cameron Crowe movie “Singles”, and Paul called me up to see if I would play guitar with him on The Tonight Show. That never happened, but in 1996 he was in Toronto doing publicity for his solo stuff and my band was playing there opening for The Gin Blossoms. Paul came to the show and said, “I’ve been having the hardest time finding a guitar player for my tour.” I didn’t get the hint. Then he started leaving me messages at home. I ended up joining him on tour about 3 weeks later.
He was interesting because if your followed The Replacements you think of them as this lovably amateurish punk band with great songs, but when I started playing with him in rehearsal it sounded so perfect and so tight. It sounded almost like a Replacements cocktail lounge cover band. Too perfect. As a fan I thought, “I don’t know if I want to see this.” Here’s a guy who you thought barely knew how to play and I soon realized that was complete bullshit. He’s a very accomplished player. He could name every chord, any key. If you weren’t playing exactly what he wanted to hear he would scream it you. I think he wanted me in his band because I got it, I was a fan, and my style of guitar playing fit. Then I would rough it up a bit. I still think a lot of fans thought that tour was too slick anyway. He made us wear suits to which made it even slicker.
Rocker: Do you mind being called a “Power Pop” artist?
Keene: I think it’s a musical ghetto of a lot of bands that never sold records, and that bothers me. By the same token I still have an audience of those people so I’m not going to belittle them. If you look at the concept of “Power Pop” I think I’ve been unfairly lumped in there with these bands. Probably because I’ve never sold a lot of records. What I do is just melodic music that has some balls behind it. A lot of true power pop doesn’t have any. It’s just cars and girls mixed with Beatles haircuts and Rickenbacker guitars. I always thought my music had a little more behind it lyrically and musically than a lot of the bands I got lumped in with.
Rocker: Has your songwriting process changed over the years?
Keene: Not really. I’m a songwriter that comes up with guitar things, riffs and chord progressions first. I’m not a poet. I create much in the way George Harrison did on his early songs. First comes the music, then the melody line. Once I got that I will just fill in the words. Pop songwriting, not poetry. The good part of the song, whether it’s eight notes of three chords, comes to me instantly. I know it immediately. I don’t get up every day like Bob Pollard (Guided By Voices) and write twelve songs. I get into a songwriting mode and during that I will sit down every day at the guitar. Sometimes at the piano but mostly guitar, and I’ll just mess around. If I hit on something I’ll turn on a tape recorder so I won’t forget it. Then I’ll go back later.
Rocker: Of all the songs you’ve written do you have a favorite?
Keene: I think my top five would be “Back To Zero Now,” “Places That Are Gone”, “My Mother Looked Like Marilyn Monroe,” from the new album “Deep Six Saturday” and “Long Time Missing” from 1998. There are about twenty five I think are really great followed by another twenty five that are pretty good, then there are about 25 that are not so good. I’m not the kind of person that thinks everything they write is great. I’ve written a lot of crap. But I think the great to crap ratio is pretty good.
Rocker: Why is you latest CD titled “Behind The Parade?”
Keene: That is a very self-deprecating look at my career. And it sounded like a good album title.
Rocker: What inspires you to keep making music?
Keene: I don’t want to turn this into one of those “I might be done making music” interviews. Most of the time, when I get really frustrated and say, “Fuck it! I’m done,” there always seems to be something that comes along that sort of makes me want to continue doing it. Right now, I’m waiting for that next thing to inspire me.