Interview by Scott Preston
Keller Williams has built a career on his uncanny ability to captivate a packed house—all by himself. He’s been called a “one-man band.” A “solo cult-hero.” “Music’s mad-scientist.” All of which are clever labels for what seems to be an essential truth: On stage, Keller Williams works alone.
For over 100 shows a year, Williams has proven himself to be a master of improvisational performance art. In his one-man show, he pads barefoot from guitar to bass to percussion stations, using looping effects—and enough instruments to stock a strip-mall music store—to layer sound atop sound until the stage swirls with a full-blown composition.
While Keller has made liberal use of technology throughout his career, he knows that musicianship is ultimately a human undertaking. With a seemingly unquenchable thirst for all genres of music – bluegrass, jazz, and—who’d-a-thunk-it—hard rock – occasionally Williams puts unyielding faith in a backing band. Whether performing with solo or with Grateful Grass, Keller, Moseley, Droll and Sipe or Grunge Grass (just a few of his “band” projects), Keller Williams knows best how to please a music hungry crowd.
Cincy Groove: Tell me about your new album ODD.
Keller Williams: Physical copies of the album are available today (8/12). I released the cd one song at a time on my website through a series called the “Once a Week Freek”, which is a weekly music downloading series. I’ll released one song a week from the cd and occasionally there will be a free track or video. I released one track a week starting 13 weeks ago and today was when the final track was released. There are just so many different ways to go about promoting in this business and I’m constantly looking for new and interesting ways to release my music. Other people might have done something like this before, but I have never done something like this. People really like when you keep things fresh and this was definitely one of those ways to do exactly that.
A lot of songs on ODD is me playing all the instruments. There are a few songs that I have guests on, Jeff Covert who is the engineer as well as Jake Starling who is an amazing multi-instrumentalist. It’s generally easier for me to go into the studio by myself and put the music down. But it’s always good to play with humans.
Cincy Groove: It’s been about 15 years since the release of your first album. How did you handle that one compared to your latest release, ODD?
Keller Williams: Well when I did the first album I was about 22 or 23 there was just an over abundance of excitement that was hard to contain. That first album was definitely full of that energy. I think the first couple albums was me showcasing what it was at that particular time that I was going through. I think most albums are like that, every record is like as snapshot of what I was doing. I think there are a lot of similarities that run through all my records, especially the first and the last one. With this latest one I went off the beaten path a little lyrically and all the songs except for one have been played live over the course of the last year or so. That made it quite easy to make this record as opposed to some of the other ones that I have made.
Cincy Groove: I see that you have mostly solo gigs on your calendar, but do you have any side-project shows coming up?
Keller Williams: We have a band show coming up at the Mishawaka Amphitheatre in Bellvue, CO on August 22. I’m playing solo on 8/21 and then the band is playing on 8/22. We recently just did a gig at The Gathering of the Vibes in CT about 2-3 weeks ago, so this will be our second gig of the summer. It’s really exciting for me to get to play with these guys. There’s so much admiration and respect for each individual band member and there is a true connection when we play music together on stage. The touring band was from the summer of 2007 to the end of 2008 and consisted of myself, Jeff Sipe on drums, Keith Mosley on bass, and Gibb Droll on guitar. Over the 4-5 tours we did, we ended up putting out a double live record with a companion dvd. It’s some of the finest music I have ever released because I was so excited to play with this band.
Cincy Groove: What was the first instrument that you started playing as a kid?
Keller Williams: I think it started with pots and pans with wooden spoons and eventually ended up graduating to the piano. So that was probably the first real instrument. I pretended to play the guitar from age 3 until age 12 when I finally learned a couple chords. From that point on it was mostly guitar and the hand drum as a solo act.
Cincy Groove: When did you start experimenting with looping?
Keller Williams: I think it was about 1997 or 1998 when I started experimenting with it once per show. I was using the wrong tools in the beginning, but once I started using the right equipment at the end of 98, beginning of 99 I really started to dive into it a lot more. My looping was 100 percent influenced by Victor Wooten. I got to open for him in Cincinnati, Oh at Ripleys for a couple shows, and that was when I really got to see a master looper at work up close and using the right equipment.
Cincy Groove: When did you decide that music was going to be what you were going to do for the rest of your life?
Keller Williams: It was probably when I started playing restaurant gigs at age 16 or 17. I was just playing over in a corner of a restaurant that didn’t charge a cover and I would get dinner and make $50. Then the next day I would work some crappy temp construction job where I would make about the same amount of money but in a 8 hour day. When I knew I could sit on a stool for 3 hours or so and make the same amount of money as an 8 hour day at a construction job is when I knew music was going to be what I wanted to so for the rest of my life. The manual labor day job definitely makes you a stronger person both physically and mentally but I also think its good for a teenager to have that type of job so they know what its like to work hard.
Cincy Groove: Is there someone you would like to play with that you haven’t had a chance to yet?
Keller Williams: I would like to go out with the Phil Lesh band. I think it would be a lot of fun to play some Grateful Dead songs with Phil Lesh. There are a lot of local musicians in my hometown of Fredericksburg, VA that I would love to take out on tour with me.
Cincy Groove: Are you still doing your radio show?
Keller Williams: I do, we are up to 124 episodes and are on about 36 stations. The show was recently resurrected, I’m back up to doing weekly shows. But first and foremost this is a very expensive hobby to have. One of the best things though is being on publicity lists for free promo copies of cd’s. When I’m doing the show I try not to repeat any songs and there is no one dictating the play list except me.
Cincy Groove: What have been some highlights for you so for this summer?
Keller Williams: The Rothbury Music Festival the past few summers has been a lot of fun. The band gig at Gathering of the Vibes was another high point of the summer. Anytime I get to play with Moseley, Droll and Sipe it’s very exciting.
Cincy Groove: When did you first hook up with String Cheese Incident?, because I know you have played with them quite a few times over the years.
Keller Williams: I first saw SCI in 1995 at a bar in Telluride, CO after the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. I moved out to CO in 1995 and the Telluride Bluegrass festival was my first stop. I approached them as a fan and handed them one of my cd’s and said I would love to open for them. Between the spring of 1997 to the end of 1998 I opened for them about 50 times. It really got me out of playing these restaurant gigs. That really jump started my career and gave me a ton of exposure.