The under-appreciated singer-songwriter Tommy Keene is equal parts an aficionado and creator of pop music.
By Blake Maddux
As reluctant as I am to describe a phenomenally dependable talent by way of a cliché, the fact is that Tommy Keene is a classic example of a “criminally underappreciated” singer-songwriter. Of course, that designation applies only if one measures success by the bottom line.
The truth is that Keene is as highly regarded by his modest number of fans as better-selling artists are by their millions. Part of the reason is that Keene is equal parts an aficionado and creator of pop music. On 2013′s Excitement At Your Feet, he recorded his own versions of several songs that were originally the creations of some of his favorite artists, such as Echo & The Bunnymen, The Bee Gees, The Rolling Stones, Roxy Music, and many others. He is prized by those-in-the-know because he knows what he is doing: 2010′s Tommy Keene You Hear Me is a 41-track compilation that is not artificially padded by uninspired re-recordings, inferior live versions, or cuts that were B-sides for a reason.
Keene — who will open for Matthew Sweet at the Paradise Rock Club on Saturday, July 19 — spoke to The Arts Fuse by phone from his home in Los Angeles.
Arts Fuse: Your 2010 two-disc career retrospective was oh so cleverly titled Tommy Keene You Hear Me, which almost perfectly quoted a lyric from The Who’s 1969 album Tommy. Why did you choose to quote another song from the same album for the title of 2013’s Excitement At Your Feet?
Tommy Keene: [Tommy]’s definitely one of my top five all-time [favorite] records. And beside The Beatles, The Who are my favorite band in the world. I saw them when I was a little kid in D.C., and it just blew my mind, basically. I thought of the title Excitement At Your Feet for any record, but then I thought that it particularly applied to the covers record. It sort of refers to a kind of fan worship. I was paying homage to the bands that I cover.
Arts Fuse: Do you have a standard procedure for selecting songs to cover? Did you apply that method to this record?
Keene: I’ve done a fair amount of covers on various records throughout my career. I would say that usually I look for something that is sort of unlike my particular style; something that I would find hard to write or come up with. For example, I covered a Mission of Burma song, which is pretty far off from me stylistically, but there’s a little bit of cross-referencing.
For this project, I approached it sort of differently. They’re just songs that I always wanted to cover. The acid test was whether I could pull off the song vocally. There are a lot of songs that are sort of out of my range or too histrionic. I was talking to one writer and I told him that I was considering doing a Smiths song, and I just realized that Morrissey is Morrissey, and there were certain people who I just didn’t want to touch.
Mainly I did material that I really liked and just sort of put my own stamp on it. I don’t generally like cover songs when someone does a completely different take on it. The version should honor the work in some way.
Arts Fuse: If you had to — for whatever reason — do a cover album of songs that were all by the same artist, all from a same year, or all from the same album, which artist, year, or album would you choose?
Keene: Hmm. Wow. That’s a really interesting concept. I’d have to think about that, because when I was choosing songs for this record, Excitement At Your Feet, I basically went through my whole record collection, CDs, cassettes, etc., and wrote down a huge list of possibles. I would have to do that again with that in mind. Nothing off the top of my head …
Actually, this would be really challenging, although I don’t know if I could pull it off: >Marquee Moon [1977 album by Television]. That would be a real lot of fun from start to finish, because I did “Guiding Light” from Marquee Moon on the record. They’re a very unusual band in the sense of their approach to the guitars. [Tom] Verlaine is basically kind of a jazz guitar player — as if one was sort of thrown into The Rolling Stones, I think. His vocals are unique, but he’s got a lot of traditionally great pop songs.
Arts Fuse: Whom would you most like to hear do a version of one of your songs?
Keene: Somebody like David Bowie would be really interesting because he’s such a trendsetter and tastemaker. I think that would be the ultimate tribute. Someone like Bowie or [Brian] Eno or somebody that is known for their idiosyncratic reputation.
But basically anyone and I’d be flattered! I just thought of someone that people do know about who did do one of my songs: The Goo Goo Dolls did a song called “Nothing Can Change You.” I was really excited because I thought that it was going to go on their record but it ended up as a German B-side. [According to his website bio, it was an Australian B-side.] The record it was going to go on sold three million copies, so…oh well! [Laughs]
Arts Fuse: This Saturday night you are opening for Matthew Sweet at Boston’s Paradise Rock Club. How does the experience of supporting differ from that of headlining?
Keene: Supporting is a lot less stressful. You’re not really responsible for putting bodies in the room. Or if there aren’t enough bodies in the room you’re really not going to be blamed.
It’s kind of challenging to go out and try to win other people’s fans over. That’s the challenge that I find kind of exciting. In the early days, when I was in 19, I was in this band called Razz. This was ’78-‘79, we opened for Patti Smith, we opened for The Ramones, we opened for Devo. When I started my band, in the early 80s, we opened up for The Jam, The Psychedelic Furs, and you know, a whole mess of people.
It’s always exciting to play a bigger venue than you could headlining. But nowadays when I open for people it’s usually artists like Matthew or Guided By Voices, where I think we have a lot of the same crowd.
Arts Fuse: Vinyl has rebounded in popularity quite a bit over the past several years. Based on the songs that you selected for Excitement At Your Feet, I bet that you have a kick-ass record collection.
Keene: Well, I did at one point. When I was younger, I didn’t always care of my records as much as I would have liked to. When I moved to California, I left a lot of the vinyl at my dad’s house. As soon as I got to California, which was ’88, it was basically the CD era. So I didn’t buy vinyl from ’88 until, you know four or five years ago, when vinyl started to make a resurgence. Then there was a flood in my father’s house, and it basically wiped out what was left of my vinyl collection.
It’s funny because when I go through my vinyl out here — besides the obligatory Beatles, Who, Stones sections, and Roxy Music, Bowie — it’s also the ’80s stuff. So to answer your question, I did, yes, I don’t now. Everything I have out here right now is basically ’78 to ’88, and then I stopped buying vinyl and it was all CDs. If I would have taken care of my records and nothing would have happened, I would have had a pretty smoking vinyl collection!
Arts Fuse: What are your thoughts on MP3 downloading and music streaming services such as Spotify?
Keene: To be quite honest, I don’t download music. I’ve never stolen music off the computer and I’ve also never bought music off the computer. I think once, there was this new hot band, so I downloaded it. It was a MP3 and it didn’t sound very good. I didn’t think it was what a record was supposed to sound like.
I guess I’m old school. I still go to record stores, I still buy records. I don’t like to sit at a computer listening to music. I have a room, obviously, where I have my stereo and everything and that’s where I like to listen to music. And I like to go through all the sleeves of the vinyl.
I really hate iPods. Having your whole record collection at your fingertips is convenient, but it’s really annoying when you are riding in a van with other musicians who are listening to their iPods. You’re subjected to their whole record collection. That can be quite annoying.
I had an iPod and it broke after three months. This was like twelve years ago. I like physical things and what’s so great about vinyl being back is the artwork. You can hold it in your hand and read the lyrics and such.
If there was something that I really wanted I guess I could download it, but I could always go buy it, right?
Arts Fuse: Do you know Matthew Sweet personally?
Keene: I ran into Matthew about a year ago. We were both doing a Beatles benefit for autism. I hadn’t seen Matthew in a while and we were chatting. He said that he and Susanna [Hoffs, lead singer of The Bangles] had just finished the ’80s [cover album Under the Covers, Vol. 3].
I said, “Oh, what’s on it?” And he said, “Well, I should have done a Tommy Keene song!”
He lived in L.A. for a long time, but I think he moved back to Nebraska. I’d run into him from time to time. I met him in the late ’80s, probably like when his second album came out. He’s always been close with Ric Menck and Paul Chastain, who were in Velvet Crush, who I toured with as their guitar player in ’94-’95. They’re touring again with Matthew, so it’s going to be sort of like a reunion.
There might be some surprises at the Boston show.
Arts Fuse: Surprises? Do you mean personnel-wise or in terms of song choice?
Keene: Both, but that’s all I can say now!
Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to DigBoston and The Somerville Times. He recently received a master’s degree from Harvard Extension School, which awarded him the Dean’s Thesis Prize in Journalism. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife in Salem, Massachusetts. He will be teaching a class during the spring term on the First Amendment in American History at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education in Cambridge, MA.