TOMMY KEENE: THIS IS WHAT I WANT TO HEAR
illustration by luke mcgarry
For three decades, Tommy Keene has cranked out some of the planet’s finest power-pop without ever quite bubbling up from the underground. His 1984 EP Places That Are Gone made enough critical waves to land Keene not only atop the Village Voice’s poll of the year’s best EPs, but also on Geffen Records, the major-label home (at the time) to likeminded acts XTC and Lloyd Cole. Keene made two well-received albums for Geffen, but left the label and took a seven-year break from releasing records. Since, he has bounced from indie to indie, building a seemingly bottomless catalog of solid songs built around bittersweet stories, the crisp jangle of an electric guitar and Keene’s preternatural knack for memorable melody. In 2015, Tommy Keene is not a household name—unless your household includes a pop geek—but he is a highly respected craftsman with a new album out that proves he hasn’t lost a single step. Laugh In The Dark—released last fall by Second Motion Records—is Keene-sian power-pop of the highest order. The 57-year-old L.A. resident will play a hometown show at the Satellite Feb. 3, with Portland psych-poppers Eyelids opening. This interview by Ben Salmon.
I’ve been spinning Laugh In The Dark and my takeaway from it is just how consistent you have been. It sounds like it could absolutely be the follow up to records you made twenty years ago.
Tommy Keene: I make records for myself. And this is what I want to hear. I’m my biggest fan and I’m my worst fan. I’m the most critical person of what I do. But it’s got to be a record that makes me wanna put it on on a Saturday night and jump around the room. And it’ll have some thoughtful and some melancholy songs. But that’s what I wanna hear. I’ve never ventured off into any other genres or experimentations because I thought … well, that’s what people do what they’ve made it at what they do. They say, ‘Let me try this because I’ve already proven myself with that.’ But I’ve never proven myself. So I’m still struggling to make that perfect record. And I can certainly see why people say, ‘Oh it’s another power pop record, and they all sound the same with Tommy Keene. Yup, sounds pretty good.’ There it goes across the desk. I can totally see that. And that’s a problem. But at this point I’m not making a lot of money. I’m trying to amuse myself. I’m making the records for me. And if people like it, that’s great. That’s the bottom line.
What is it about power-pop that seems to foster artists who write and record amazing songs, but never quite seem to reach a level of success that you might expect?
Tommy Keene: I do think this particular genre is almost too highbrow for a lot of people. There’s nothing really gimmicky about it. It’s not dumbed down. A lot of popular music, there’s always some element of it that’s dumbed down. Look at Bruce Springsteen. He sits there and sings a really hokey song like ‘Sherry Darling’—‘hey, hey, hey!’—and the average guy at a bar can go, ‘I like that guy.’ But he also has some really thought-provoking Dylan-esque songs. I just think if it’s Miley Cyrus or it’s Madonna or it’s Justin Bieber or whoever, there’s this lowest common denominator that makes these people sell so many records. And [power-pop] tends to be a little more—probably to its own detriment—just a little purer, and it’s sort of respecting the roots of modern, 60s-influenced rock ‘n’ roll. I think that’s why it attracts a lot of geeky fans. People that have worn out their copy of Pet Sounds. But Elvis Costello is power-pop. Cheap Trick is power-pop. Once you get beyond a certain level and sell a certain amount of records, you’ve escaped that world.
For some reason when I think power-pop, my brain automatically goes to the Raspberries and the dB’s rather than Elvis Costello and Cheap Trick.
Tommy Keene: The thing about the Raspberries—they had amazing songs but they looked like Beatles knockoffs. And that didn’t help them with people. But if you saw them back then—and I did as a teenager—they had Marshall stacks and they wanted to sound like Humble Pie. Yet the records were a little bit toned down and they had kind of stupid outfits. I’ll say it! White polyester 70s suits. So each act has this thing that kind of prevented them from reaching a mass audience and will forever cement them in geek land.
I understand Laugh in the Dark came together a little differently than your previous records. How so?
Tommy Keene: There’s nothing really mysterious about it. Of course, they try to spin it that way. I had taken some time off writing and I did a covers record [Excitement At Your Feet] in 2013. I just felt sort of rejuvenated by that and I wrote a batch of songs really rather quickly for me. From ‘I’m gonna write some songs’ to ‘we’re ready to record’ to ‘we’re mastered’ to ‘here’s the release date’ it was a relatively painless and quick process compared to other records that I’ve been involved with over the years.
Why do you think it happened so much more quickly than usual?
Tommy Keene: I involved myself in that [covers] record for a good eight or nine months, and before that I hadn’t written anything for a couple of years. I think the creativity was sort of simmering and ready to burst at that point. It became rather obvious really quickly that there was a record happening.
You mentioned not writing for a couple of years—
Tommy Keene: It was about a year and a half of … I don’t know, I just didn’t want to pick up a guitar and try to write. Either you don’t know what you’re gonna do, or you just don’t feel like it because you’re not inspired or not happy. If you pick up a guitar and sit there all day, nothing good’s going to come out. That’s an exercise in frustration. So I did the covers record because I was in a kind of writer’s funk, and that brought me around.
Have you experienced a situation like that in the past?
Tommy Keene: I’ve gone through periods like that before. I’d go nine months without even picking up a guitar. That’s not strange for me. There’s just periods where I’m not touring or I’m not playing with anyone or I’m not writing or I’m not recording. I mean, that’s unheard of when you’re 22 or 16 or whatever, but as you get older other things come into your life. But yeah—I’ve gone through periods where the well was kind of dry. I remember there was an early 90s post-Geffen period where I was not really happy with what I was coming up with. But there was a period in there for a year or two where I was sort of at sea, I think, stylistically. The whole grunge thing was going on and I was trying to see how I fit into that. It reminded me of when I was 13 and everyone wore plaid shirts and was listening to Black Sabbath. Who I liked! But grunge to me was basically Black Sabbath with a little bit of melody. I didn’t get a lot of those bands. I did not get it. Well—Nirvana, of course, I got.
But they were the most melodic of all those bands.
Tommy Keene: And Black Sabbath were very melodic. I mean, Ozzy’s favorite act is the Beatles. So they had their dirge-y stuff, but there’s melody in Black Sabbath. But I didn’t find any in some of those Northwest bands.
And that’s what the industry was heavily into at the time. Power-pop, not so much.
Tommy Keene: All these grunge bands were getting signed for millions and millions of dollars and people didn’t want any melody and that was sort of killing me. Just hurting my feelings.
So what’d you do between 89’s Based On Happy Times [released by Geffen] and 96’s Ten Years After [released by Matador]?
Tommy Keene: I started playing with other people. I played with this band Velvet Crush. And I played with this guy Adam Schmitt, and that led me to Paul Westerberg. I had a little side thing going on. Which I wish I could do more of. I just don’t really get that many opportunities. Stylistically, what I do, people have to want that. But I enjoy not being the frontman. I really do. I started as a drummer when I was a kid. And then [I moved from] rhythm guitar to lead guitar and then I became a singer-songwriter. So I slowly worked my way up to the front. But I have no problem being a side guy.
Could you be happy being a side guy and not putting out solo records?
Tommy Keene: Oh—I think I’d want to keep making solo records. In this day and age you don’t need a hell of a lot of money. You don’t need Polymer Records or any of those shenanigans. But I’d definitely like to play with more people. I’d definitely like to work more. I love playing guitar, as long as I like the songs. That would be ideal.
You don’t wanna be up there going through the motions and hating what you’re playing.
Tommy Keene: I’d prefer not to—but you know, if worse comes to worse, I guess I could go through with it. [laughs]
You said your feelings were hurt when big labels started chasing grunge bands. Do you still get your feelings hurt by the music business? Or have you learned to deal with that as you’ve gotten older?
Tommy Keene: I mean—that was sort of a joke. It was just that there was this period where I couldn’t get arrested. There were these major label auditions. I had a deal with Gerard Cosloy at Matador. He was gonna do a deal with Island Records. And he brought the guys at Island three acts: American Music Club, Yo La Tengo and me. And the guy said [he’d take me] and passed on the other two. We go through this whole 100-page contract and near the end of it the guy gets fired for sexual harassment. So there goes that deal. And then we were going back and forth with CBS in like 91 and we drove to New York to play and that went well and things were going great … and a week and a half later he gets fired. So that added to the misery. I think in this day and age there’s a lot more support for smaller, independent singer-songwriters, especially on social media. You get a lot of ‘You’re the greatest ever!’
TOMMY KEENE WITH EYELIDS ON WED., FEB. 3, AT THE SATELLITE, 1717 SILVER LAKE BLVD., SILVERLAKE. 9 PM / $8-$10 / 21+. THESATELLITELA.COM. TOMMY KEENE’S LAUGH IN THE DARK IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM SECOND MOTION. VISIT TOMMY KEENE AT TOMMYKEENE.COM.