The Joyful Sound of Keller Williams

Watching Keller Williams play on stage is like watching a pinball machine. Williams loops different instruments to create a multi-layered soundscape. He can bounce back and forth from a bass to a drum machine, or to a cricket noise maker and back to his guitar to solo. Seeing Williams dance in delight to the music he ran around the stage making is infectious. You can’t help but dance along with him. Since the late 90’s, Williams has become a staple of the jam band scene, defined by long songs and improvisations, and pioneered by the style of the Grateful Dead. One of Williams’ typical sets might include a cover of a Dead or Phish song. Beyond his erratic and impressive musicianship, what may be most appealing about a Keller Williams show is his connection with the audience. Williams is a fan. He heartily plays Grateful Dead songs despite having played them thousands of times before. He knows what it is like to be in an audience, hearing your favorite musician, and makes an effort to leave you dancing into the night, singing lyrics about doobies. Williams is currently on tour with a four-piece band called the Keller Williams Kwhatro.

What is really great about your shows is that you can tell you’re a huge fan of the music you play. How has your fandom helped you create a deep connection to your audience and fans?

I just always considered myself an audience member. I don’t really get to go to as many shows as I would like to, but when I do, I like to get out there in the thick of it. I think people see that. With all the different cover band projects, like with the Grateful Dead cover projects, it is very obvious that people love hearing other people’s music done in a different way, and it starts with a real serious love of the material. It is like minds and common grounds that I am sharing with my audience, which is fantastic. It’s a certain kind of inspiration that comes from listening to music that you really like, and it’s hard to do what I do and not have elements from the stuff that I like come through in what I’m playing. It’s obvious.

You have been able to meet and play with a lot of your musical heroes. Was there ever a time you really nerded out on someone?

It is very surreal when I am in the presence of my heroes. I don’t know if I nerd out on them, I definitely am a little more reserved at first meet. I got to do two weeks with the Rhythm Devils with Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, and we shared a bus for two weeks. I probably nerded out on both of them on the bus because there was a lot of down time, and they were very generous with their stories. It was a super experience. It’s a very full circle, surreal type of thing when I am in their presence.

Are there any particular stories that stand out from your time with Mickey and Bill?

Yes… but I can’t really tell you.

You play all sorts of genres of music. Do you have any preferences? And what gets the biggest audience reaction?

Bluegrass is a special thing in the sense of simplicity. There is a younger audience that is really pushing it to another level of energy where bluegrass used to be of sitting and listening. Now, more and more you see these bands of bluegrass string bands that have younger audiences that are dancing. That seems to be something that when you play live it really gets people going. It’s all about that big upright bass.

What music are you currently listening to?

I love Bassnectar. I love Pretty Lights and Grizz. All of these amazing producer and engineers. Big Gigantic is really interesting. There are other bands like White Denim, playing this crazy, off-time music. The record “D” by White Denim is really fantastic. I know as soon as this interview is over I’ll remember a bunch of others I’ve been diving into. I listen to a lot of Rhapsody and dialing into to different radio stations on that, and having different songs I’ve never heard; I’m always searching for new music. For example, I listen to a lot of dubstep and drum and bass. I have all of this audio coming in and it is hard not to adapt some of that and not have it come out. I am trying to get to a point where I’m playing music that is similar to what I listen to, and what I listen to is almost the polar opposite sometimes. I don’t want to freak anyone out in the sense of doing something completely different. I just want to incorporate those elements into what I am doing.

Your lyrics are really goofy and fun to listen to. Are they as fun to write as they are to listen to, or do you have a painful writing process?

It is definitely fun to write. I am definitely trying to entertain myself knowing that if this song is going to last, it has to entertain me while I’m doing it. There have been a lot of songs that have come and gone, but definitely focusing on making myself think, and using different cadences; there are no rules.

What was the last song you wrote that you were really happy with?

A most recent one that I feel is really working with this Kwhatro is called, “Ripped Six-Pack,” which is my mind because my mind is in a constant state of mental abdominal crunches that I do all day.

The Grateful Dead have been around for 50 years and seem to be more popular than ever. You play a lot of Dead songs at you shows. Why do you think their music continues to resonate with people?

I think it is a celebration of songs and the folks that were there. For me, I was there in the late 80’s and early 90’s. I know a lot of those folks that were there with me have kids and probably played it for them. [I] know they are old enough and going to shows. At those shows, it is just a real celebration of the songs and everyone is singing along. No matter who is singing, there are people singing all around you. I think that is appealing.

One of your most popular songs is called “Freaker By The Speaker.” What is a freaker by the speaker and when was the last time you saw one at a show?  

That is someone who can’t really get what he or her needs from the middle of the room or the back of the room, it has to be as close to the cone of the speaker as they can get. People that really need it loud and it is just not the same in the middle. A person who is obviously feeling it to the point of people around the giving them space. Yes, I see it all the time.

When did you begin to use looping in your act?

It just started out of wanting to do more as a solo act. I started in bands and then the bands broke up, and out of necessity I began playing solo. After playing solo with a guitar and a microphone for years, it was just time to do something that made myself think more. I got this delay pedal, it wasn’t even a looper, it was a set time delay rack mount unit, and I would play in between those parameters. It was tricky, there were a lot of failed experiments live. In ’97 or ’98, I got to open for Victor Wooten at Ripley’s in Cincinnati, that was freaky. Watching Vic Wooten use his stuff at the time really opened my eyes to how it could be done. He was using stuff that was discontinued from the 80’s. Looping technology has progressed so much, that you can now go to music store and get a really affordable looping pedal. It is very easy to get and easy to do. It is very fun and makes things more interesting as a solo act for me. That’s where it started, trying to make things more interesting.

Is Victor Wooten as much of a magician as he seems to be?

He is a super-genius of a guy, who is very aware of people around him, and how they see him. He is very adamant about being real, and he is a true teacher. He is a wizard. I am very blessed to be in his presence the times that I have.

You are currently touring with a four-piece band. What’s the difference between playing by yourself and playing with a band?

I really truly love the both equally. I think doing a lot of one makes me want to do the other. Playing solo there is definitely a freedom to the material. When you are with a band you usually have a certain amount of material. This band is very fresh, very new, very not jaded. We have a handful of songs that we are still working on getting tight. Obviously playing with a band right now is way more fun than playing solo because of the camaraderie. It is also a great hang too, and I think that carries on the stage and off the stage. This Kwahtro is something special. With a band, the improvisation goes way deep into the music, and without talking we can go different places and follow each other. Life is good right now.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Learn more at kellerwilliams.net.