Interview with Tommy Keene
By Sean Koepenick

Right: Tommy Keene (photo by Ye Rin Mok)
What more can be said about Tommy Keene? Well, plenty for those of you who are unaware of his accomplished history. Started playing music in DC in the 1970’s. His second band-The Rage also featured Richard X Heyman within its ranks. But it was Razz that began to garner a large local following and squeezed out a few records before their demise. Tommy then went out on his own, bringing Razz’s rhythm section of Doug Tull and Ted Niceley with him. With the addition of Doug Connelly on guitar, this line-up recorded for Geffen Records in the 1980’s. The 90’s and onward version of the Tommy Keene Group includes John Richardson on drums and Brad Quinn on bass. Along the way there have been outside collaborations-Paul Westerberg and now Robert Pollard have been the most notable ones. But through it all, the bolts that held the wheels on have always been the outstanding quality of the songs. Finer guitar driven rock you will be hard pressed to hear anywhere else. There are so many fantastic tunes, I could go on forever. Pick up any of his discs right now and I guarantee you won’t be able to get any of the songs out of your head. For my second interview with Tommy I decided to look back at the past as well as ahead to the future. So read on to hear about playing with The Jam back in the day. Then fast forward to becoming a part of The Ascended Masters with Pollard that recently did a few shows opening for Pearl Jam. Keene’s star continues to rise and his new record-Crashing The Ether sets the bar so high that any other songwriter will find it difficult to escape from its shine.

E.C.: I’d like to dig a little bit into the past before talking about your latest projects. Tell me what you remember about these shows and playing with these bands: The Romantics on 12/10/81 at The Bayou in Washington DC.

Tommy Keene: There was a rumor that the Stones were playing under the pseudonym of The Romantics; since they were in town at the Capitol Center and had a night off. The place was sold out as a result. We got booed at one point near the end of the set as some dumb asses expected Keith to materialize. When you hear two people loudly yelling “BOO!!!” it sounds like 50.

E.C.: Playing with The Jam on 5/14/82 at Ritchie Coliseum in College Park, MD.

Tommy Keene: It was the opening night of their last US tour and the first time they had played anywhere near the DC area. Since they were a 3-piece there was no lighting center stage where I stood during our set. I remember my brother frantically motioning from the pit for me to go sing in one of the side mics. I didn’t know what he was talking about so therefore I was literally unlit the whole time! You think they would have predicted this situation. Afterwards I had an audience with (Paul) Weller who was very nice. But all the time in the background Bruce Foxton was throwing a fit and screaming at the road manager because some of his friends had not been put on the guest list. Weller looked at me and just rolled his eyes.

E.C.: Playing with Modern English on 4/14/84 at The Ritz in New York, NY.

Tommy Keene: We opened for Modern English at the Ritz in NYC when they were really hot. I don’t remember much about this show. We opened for a lot of British bands there around this period, mainly because we were booked by FBI (Ian Copeland’s agency) and snagged a lot of good gigs.

E.C.: Playing with The Church on 11/24/84 at The Ritz in New York, NY.

Tommy Keene: I remember The Church show. Alex Chilton was supposed to be on the bill but ended up canceling. We opened for them in Philly a couple of nights later but when we got to the venue we saw that there was a play going on early. The show was to start later-around ten. I had gone back to the University Of Maryland at this time. I had a midterm the next morning and I was studying on the drive up. The club said either no one gets soundchecks or The Church do and the opening act will be cancelled. Guess what their decision was? We went home and yes I did poorly on the test.

E.C.: Playing with Aztec Camera and Guadalcanal Diary on 4/3/85 at Ontario Theatre in Washington, DC.

Tommy Keene: The show opening for Aztec Camera was kind of a big deal, but I remember it sounding really awful on stage. I couldn’t hear the monitors and thought we were terrible. Upon exiting the stage my then manager was saying “wow you guys were great!” I thought he was nuts but a lot of people saw us at that show and became fans. Who knew?

E.C.: What was a highlight of your time in the following outfits: Blue Steel.

Tommy Keene: My junior high school band opened for Nils Lofgren’s band Grin at our high school. Nils had gone there as well as his brother Mike who was in our band. It was the first time we played with monitors and we had no idea what they were.

E.C.: Razz.

Tommy Keene: We opened for a lot of people as we were one of the more popular acts in DC and we had a draw. I recall playing the Warner Theatre a few times. One show was opening for Patti Smith which was exciting. On the other hand I remember getting the iciest response EVER when we opened for Devo. The show was at Gaston Hall on the Georgetown University campus. They had just been on Saturday Night Live and their first Warner Brothers record had just come out. A lot of press from England had flown over for this show. We stunk!

E.C.: The Rage.

Tommy Keene: The highlight of The Rage’s career was opening for Razz.

E.C.: Fast forward to the present day. What was the most challenging aspect of recording Crashing The Ether at home?

Tommy Keene: I would say the drums. But my friend Jon Pines did a great job of miking and recording them. Also, outside the house it sounded like cannons going off. But we managed to do five days of recording before we got a complaint from Mrs. Kravitz. By that time we were done!

E.C.: Were there any songwriting topics that you explored for the first time on this record?

Tommy Keene: No, not really. But I tried to get away from what people refer to as love songs. YEECH! Next time there won’t be any of that!!

E.C.: What song are you the most happy with on the new record?

Tommy Keene: “Texas Tower #4” and “Lives Become Lies” seem to sound the most different to me.

Right: Tommy Keene (photo by Michael John Wolfes)

E.C.: I know there was a discussion of a possible comprehensive DVD package of some of your performances. Is that still being planned?

Tommy Keene: Well, I have a lot of archival footage in the can so to speak from 82 to the present. We filmed the set at the 9:30 Club in September 2004 opening for GBV which came out well. But I didn’t think it was that stellar a show. Not bad but… So I would like something current to be represented before I give the idea another thought.

E.C.: What about a CD reissue of your hard to find first record-Strange Alliance with some bonus tracks-is that on the table?

Tommy Keene: Hmmm…If I had the master tapes. Which I don’t; the only remaining ones are lost in a vault somewhere at Universal. I would press up 500 or whatever. Maybe some time.

E.C.: You recently completed a tour with Robert Pollard. How has it compared to other tours you have done with musicians in the past?

Tommy Keene: For one thing it was/is a long show so there is a lot of material to be learned. But the thing about Bob is, he lets you pretty much play what you want-as long as he thinks it sounds good. Other people, no names please, tell you exactly what to play and harass you about it. Stopping the band mid-song and yelling “You Suck” in front of 500 people.

E.C.: How did the new line-up for your current 2006 solo tour come together?

Tommy Keene: I knew Paul Chastain from playing with Velvet Crush. Dave Phillips from playing with Bob. He also lives here in LA. It was nice changing up the band a bit.

E.C.: Was the recording of the Keene Brothers record with Pollard a passing back of tapes or was there more collaboration involved?

Tommy Keene: I did demos for Bob to listen to. I’d say around 30 and he eventually picked the 12 that he wanted to work on. It was kind of passing back and forth of the tapes. After he did his vocals, Walt Vincent and I did some more work. Adding harmonies, keyboards and other tasty bits.

E.C.: What are some of your favorite songs on the Blues and Boogies Shoes record?

Tommy Keene: I really love “Death Of The Party.” That is one where after we got Bob’s vocals we thought of some additional ideas. The drum track we had wasn’t really up to snuff. So Walt came up with the idea of adding a percussion loop. It was mixed in with the original drum machine pattern that worked really well. Also, I added a funeral type organ and he played the Fender Rhodes piano which put the icing on the cake! I also like “Evil vs. Evil.” I have to admit I sat down and tried to write a Pollard/GBV type of song that would come in at under a minute. I think I succeeded.

E.C.: What subjects have an influence on your songwriting-politics, art, day to day events?

Tommy Keene: Emotions come into play mostly when writing lyrics. Whether they’re about people, places or things. Lately I’ve tried to write more topical songs. Don’t know if that’s my forte but I’m trying. See “Alta Loma” and “Texas Tower #4.”

E.C.: Any band or artist that you have seen recently live that impressed you?

Tommy Keene: I saw Sparks here in LA in May and they were awesome. I’d only seen them once before at the old 9:30 Club back in 82, 83? They had a full band this time and came out and played their whole album with really interesting video bits playing all the while. They took a break and did a lot of great older songs from all phases of their career.

E.C.: How did your new relationship with Eleven Thirty Records start?

Tommy Keene: I sent a copy of the new album to Jon Wurster who passed it on to his girlfriend. She was then the publicist at Yep Roc. Eventually it wound up in the hands of someone who had been a long time fan and that was that.

E.C.: What have been some advantages to your career with living in LA versus DC?

Tommy Keene: Obviously there are more music people out here, not that I hang with industry types mind you. But there’s the chance you might run into someone who could do something for you. Sadly that hasn’t really happened-just kidding!

E.C.: Are there any aspects of the DC music scene that you miss?

Tommy Keene: No.

E.C.: Any ideas or thoughts on what shape your next record will take?

Tommy Keene: I’d really like the next record, if there is to be one, to be a lot less conventional. Noise, feedback, strange sounds and little bit of melody. I’m thinking of calling it “THIS IS POWER POP!”

E.C.: Thanks very much for your time!

Selected Discography:

Strange Alliance-Avenue Records-1982
Back Again (Try…)-EP-Dolphin Records-1984
Places That Are Gone-EP-Dolphin-1984
Songs From The Film-Geffen Records-1986-(Reissue-1998)
Listen To Me-12”-Geffen-1986
Run Now-EP-Geffen-1986
Based On Happy Times-Geffen-1989
Sleeping On A Rollercoaster-EP-Matador Records-1992
The Real Underground-Alias Records-1993
Driving Into The Sun-EP-Alias-1995
Ten Years After-Matador-1996
Isolation Party-Matador-1998
Showtunes: The Live Tommy Keene Album-Parasol Records-2000
The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down-SpinArt Records-2002
Drowning-A Tommy Keene Miscellany-NotLame Records-2004
Crashing The Ether-Eleven Thirty Records-2006

With Razz:
Airtime-7”-1979-Limp/O’Rourke Records
You Can Run 7”-1979-Limp/O’Rourke

With Others:
Adam Schmitt-Illiterature-1993
The Goo Goo Dolls-Dizzy Up The Girl-1998
Velvet Crush-Rock Concert-2000
Jesse Valenzuela-Tunes Young People Will Enjoy-2002
Keene Brothers (w/Robert Pollard)-Blues & Boogie Shoes-2006

To see Sean's previous EAR CANDY article about Tommy Keene Click here