“Old churches always make good venues,” Keller Williams says over the phone as he prepares to return to the Brooklyn Arts Center on August 5. “And just the vibe of that room and feeling in those types of places … it’s been a long time since I’ve been to Wilmington, and I’m looking forward to coming back.”
Since Keller Williams got his start in the mid-1980s, he’s been hard to peg by the music industry and genre labels that neatly categorize music and bands. His first album, “Freek,” was released in 1994 and he’s added roughly two dozen albums to his eclectic catalog of rock, bluegrass, funk, dance, electronic and acoustic projects since. In particular, Williams has gained a following for his unique solo looping performances.
His first gig was in the mid-’80s and in the ‘90s he discovered he wanted to create more sound by himself. Looping turned out to be the answer that would allow him to explore different avenues without more people—who he, frankly, could not afford. “I wanted to create a dance vibe by myself,” Williams explains, “but I wanted it to be a little more organic. Just being able to create something on the fly for the audience without a net.”
Williams uses a computer onstage to trigger instrument samples, as well as synthesizers, to build upon guitar riffs, bass, piano, and more as he progresses a song. Looping always has been a feeble attempt to entertain himself.
“My whole career is kind of like that,” he quips. “With looping I’ve allowed technology in and now I’m able to do more with less—less toys and technology—and do as much, if not more.”
Since computer technology entered the scene a few decades ago, it’s become easier to acquire and incorporate into music. Like cell phones and computers that have gotten smaller, more accessible and “smarter,” so have the looping tools Williams uses. There’s so much more to do with computer technology in music now than ever, though he says what he uses is still relatively outdated. When he first started out, Williams used discontinued machines.
“I’d start collecting them on eBay,” he recalls, “and finally moved into something a little more accessible. Lots of different tweaks and upgrades have been made since the ‘90s.”
Nevertheless, his solo performances are rooted in acoustics and songwriting, with a side of dance. His songwriting is often known for its fun and interesting folk-style storytelling. His approach usually starts with penning the structure of a tune based on a true story, then filling it in. For example, the stressed and somewhat paranoid narrator in the popular “Doobie in My Pocket” (“ODD,” 2009) is Williams himself, who’s standing in an airport pondering over where a joint gifted to him by a hippie is—only to find it in his pocket in the end.
“That’s all true,” he divulges. “Everything in between came out once without really even writing it down. It was one of those off-the-cuff streams of consciousness. And I definitely have several songs like that, in that frame of thinking and writing. All the important parts were real; all the silly parts weren’t.”
When it comes to marrying lyrics with instrumentals, Keller often finds a hook while “noodling” around—or vice versa. “It comes in different ways,” he continues. “It never really comes on purpose; it kind of has to appear somehow.”
Family life and kids provide a balancing act for Williams when paired with his touring schedule. That also means juggling the creation of new work. “I would love to have a little more time to just focus on writing,” he says. Williams has become known for putting twists on popular songs from many genres. Most simply get lodged in his head and won’t come out until he releases them onstage. Dead Heads likely are familiar with his covers of “Fire on the Mountain” and “Birdsong.”
“I don’t play as many Grateful Dead tunes as I used to in my solo sets because I have a couple of Grateful Dead novelty projects I’m working on,” he tells. “Lately I’ve been doing this fun song, ‘Return to the Moon,’ by alt-rock band EL VY and random different covers I want to tell you about, but there’s a certain element of surprise that I need.”
The singer-songwriter also stays busy with collaborations and side projects, including the Keller Williams Incident, The String Cheese Incident, Keller and The Keels, and he’s been known to pick with the Travelin’ McCourys. His most recent endeavor is a four-piece band named “Kwahtro,” which also features Gibb Droll (guitar), Danton Boller (upright bass) and Rodney Holmes (drums). With Williams’ original songs, the band adds “improvisational bursts” of disco, reggae and jazz to create acoustic dance music. Despite having about 30 shows under their belt and a dozen more to come this fall, Williams says they’ve been working on a new record this past year remotely.
“It’s one of those records where I get all my tracks and send them to the drummer,” he explains, “and the drummer puts down his tracks and sends them to the bass player, and that’s where we are now.”
Though Williams admits it’s most ideal to have everyone in the same room when recording an album, it’s now the landscape of the music industry that artists navigate. “Everybody’s got different projects and families going on,” he says, “and the way recording technology is these days—and these guys happen to be very savvy—we decided to go with everyone can do their own tracks on their own time, in their own space, at their own pace, and it’s really working out great for me.”
(Kwahtro is looking to release “Sync” by October 2016.)
While Williams constructs his solo sets out of material ranging from newer records like “Vape” (2015) and early favorites from “Freek” (1994) and “Dance” (2003), he also tries to accommodate requests from Facebook fans. “Freaker by the Speaker” from “Laugh” (2002) and “Best Feeling” from “Breathe” (1996) are most demanded. “But I try not to get too stagnate when it comes to solo shows,” he adds.
One way Williams remains fresh in his approach is listening to completely different music from what he plays. Lately, he’s been into White Denim’s 2011 record “D” and older work by Bassnectar—who’s been a prominent DJ in electronic dance since the ‘90s. “I really like the record ‘Ruby Vroom’ from Soul Coughing,” Williams continues. “It’s a band from the ‘90s as well, with upright acoustic bass, drums and samples and poetry. Just really groovy.”
Williams admits he’s even toyed with the idea of a DJ alter-ego project. He already has a lot of relevant material already, but it’s the idea of nameless autonomy that attracts him to the idea. “The beautiful thing about electronic dance music is 95 percent of it available is out there and free and faceless,” he explains. “There’s hours of music by this one person you have no idea who it is. . . . It would be nice to release something without people being totally bummed that it doesn’t sound like my other stuff.”