LMD: I know Michael Hedges is one of your biggest influences. How has he affected the way you play and how has he influenced you?
I got turned on to him when I was about 18-years-old and my brain was just a fresh little sponge that was absorbing everything. I got turned on to the Grateful Dead when I was 16 or 17 and I saw them for the first time and I realized it was about much more than the music. That’s when I realized there’s this whole culture that follows the band. I got really swept up into that at a very early age and my mind opened up to so many things. All of the sudden I got turned on to Michael Hedges and got really into it. I studied him and I’m not a classically trained musician so I didn’t really know exactly what he was doing. I got so much from him in the sense of tuning and just the funkiness of a solo acoustic guitarist. The main thing I learned from him was how to take a cover song and turn it into your own, but keep the integrity and the respect of the original tune. I never want to do a cover song the exact same way that it’s done. I’m always into taking liberties for better or for worse. My motto is to go out and entertain myself and hope that other people are entertained along with it. What’s strange is when people hear me play a song for the first and they think it’s mine. I don’t talk a lot in between songs and I probably should.
LMD: The first time I saw you was when I was 14-years-old. We rode to Atlanta, Georgia to see the Acoustic Planet Tour. Yonder, so was Bela Fleck, lots of sit-ins. You remember that tour well?
It was a seamless transition where there were three acts and nine humans on stage with no changeover. Bela Fleck would always close and Yonder and I would rotate on who played first. At the end of our respective sets, someone from the next band would come on and play. One by one they would come on and then I would leave and the next act would come on. I was so proud of that, that was such a great thing because everyone’s stuff was up and there was no changeover. Anyone could come and play with anyone at anytime. That was such a beautiful tour.
(We keep talking and Keller discusses Grateful Dead tribute album – Day of the Dead)
There’s a new Grateful Dead tribute album out called Day of the Dead. Bela Fleck has one song on there. Some of it is odd, some of is really cool, but it’s all art. The Bela Fleck thing is really cool because they’re singing “Help on the Way.” They go into Slipknot and then they go into last verse of “Help on the Way” and it’s really inspiring. That’s coming from me who’s working on two Grateful Dead novelty projects that won’t die for some reason. It’s really fun, but I never thought it would go past one gig. If you’re a Grateful Dead fan or a Bela Fleck fan I highly recommend listening to “Help on the Way” by Bela Fleck. It’s all like Indie Rock on that album which makes it so incredibly different.
LMD: You’re playing a lot of shows right now with other people and you’re doing your solo thing. Your always kind of popping up places. Does that keep things fresh for you as a musician?
I’m able to play with different projects because I have a fan base that allows me to do that. If they just wanted one thing they probably wouldn’t come to those shows with those projects, but because they do that allows me the luxury to be able to do that. It absolutely keeps things fresh. Too much of anything will take you down. In this business you can really stagnate and get into a motion. I’ve noticed that I have released the stress of trying to play completely different songs every night even if I’m in different time zones. In the past I would never play the same song on back to back nights even though no one would know. I took that really seriously. Nowadays I’ve really been getting into bring the A game. As for the projects I play, there are some songs that I only play with certain projects and it’s really exhilarating when you only play a song a couple times a year. So many people allow me into their world and I’m so grateful for that.
LMD: I read where you talked about “Kidney in a Cooler” and how it’s a real story. “Gate Crashers Suck” is obviously a real song which your Mom still hates. Are there any other songs that are real stories that you’ve written about?
“Doobie in my Pocket” starts and finishes true. There was a hippie who gave me a doobie that got put into my pocket and I was worried about it. It was big, fat, stinky doobie. I was thinking that if someone opens that bag they’re going to smell that doobie. In the song, there’s the whole journey of that particular doobie and where it went with my luggage. At the end of the song I realize that the doobie wasn’t in the luggage, but I was actually wearing the shirt that had the doobie in the pocket. There actually was a hippie that gave me a doobie at a festival. It got put in my shirt pocket and I thought I put the shirt in my luggage. I’m sitting on a plane and I realize the doobie is actually in my pocket.
LMD: In the beginning it was just acoustic for you and then you later incorporated the looping. When did you decide that would be fun?
When I started looping we didn’t have the technology that we have today. It used to be a delayed unit where you set the parameters and turn it up. If you played too fast it wouldn’t work. I would play smaller gigs starting out and be in the corner of bars and no one was paying attention to me so I would just start looping and playing around. Then I started experimenting and using those gigs as kind of like a paid rehearsal. That’s where it started. Once I brought in the bass that really started to move air and people started to bob their head and dance. It was 1998 or 1999 when that started to happen and then we started to incorporate actual drums. It just kind of evolved very naturally. Once I started making a little more money and getting more gear the next thing you know there are several different stations around the stage. Everything was very precision based.
LMD: What’s special to you about Delfest and Del McCoury? You’ve played so many great festivals, but Delfest seems like an idea place to play if you’re big into acoustic. Del McCoury is one of the last big bluegrass legends around. What do you like most about playing here?
Before we talk about Del it starts with the High Sierra folks who put on this festival. They also put on a festival called High Sierra out in California. It’s a very similar vibe. They’ve had years of experience putting on festivals. It starts with the foundation and the people putting it on. Then you have Del who is the living legend. He’s happy and positive all the time. He puts off a great vibe. He’s so grateful that so many people come and gather. He’s not just like that at Delfest, it’s every time I see Del. He accepts the love, realizes it and gives it back. It’s so genuine. I only know him from backstage at shows and festivals, but he just seems so genuine. The positivity that comes off when he’s on stage is something that you can’t fake. His voice is so perfect and his guitar resonates. You can feel it in your knees. He used to be a logger during the day and then play music at night so he comes from a genuine source of America. It wasn’t handed to him.
LMD: Any new projects or anything you’re looking forward to? Is there anything you’re recording or doing on the side?
I’m in the middle of two recording projects right now. My most recent project called KWahtro has Danton Boller on the bass and he’s incredible. He plays with a ton of avant-garde New York folks. I’m so grateful that we’ve started working together. We have Gibb Droll on guitar, he played with Bruce Hornsby yesterday. Rodney Holmes is on the drums and he played with Santana. He went around the world with that big record Santana did with Rob Thomas and Wyclef. We’ve done about thirty shows together. We’re doing a project right now where Rodney does his tracks and Danton does his tracks. It’s a slow process. I’m in another project with my friend Tim Bluhm who is the guitarist for Mother Hips which is a California-based band. I’m so into his songs, songwriting and the production of his music. He got really hurt in a paragliding accident. It was a bad landing and it snapped his leg in half. Insurance only covered so much of it and he was left with having to pay a lot of pocket. I love his music so much that I’m using his medical bill issue as an excuse to record my favorite songs and we’re bringing in other people that are close to him to collaborate. We’re putting together a six song bundle that we’re selling digitally for $5 with all the proceeds going towards his medical bills. I feel like it’s one of my best records ever because I love these songs so much and I’m so passionate about them. That’s all happening right now. Every day I get different tracks from different people and I’m listening to them. My relentless journey of documenting music continues.
*Special thanks to Carl Krausnick