Keller Williams Talks Funk, Bassnectar and Go-Go Beats

C. Taylor Crothers

Some things you just expect every year:  Jim James or My Morning Jacket performing at Bonnaroo, teases of another Led Zeppelin reunion show and Keller Williams releasing a one word and syllable titled album that reflects his current creative soul.  Williams’ music – although most widely appreciated by the free-spirited outdoorsy kind – has previously hit upon amongst many things:  bluegrass, folk and electronic and dance. So  it’s no secret his fan-base likes to unleash their inner freaky side on the dance floor, so rightfully due his latest album Funk starts off with a track called “I Told You I Was Freaky.”

This ten track live album with his newest project More Than A Little was recorded live with a four-piece band and two female vocalists, and incorporates a mix of covers and originals. Covers of “West L.A. Fadeaway” by the Grateful Dead and “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads are standouts along with a spirited cover of “Mary Jane” by Rick James. With Funk, Keller drops the ‘one-man jam-band’ tag in favor of collaborating and getting his groove on and we recently had a chance to talk about Funk and his secret love of EDM.

I wanted to ask about your collaboration with More Than A Little on your new album Funk. Over the past 20 years you’ve proven how adept you are of playing with different musicians from various genres, most noticeably your work the Travelin’ McCourys. How did you choose this particular project in the funk/soul area and why now? Knowing how much your fans like to dance I figured we’d see this before a kids or covers album.

(Laughs) Yeah I think just had to knock out the obvious first like the Kids album was looming and looming for years.

Really I would think a funk one would be the obvious?

The Kids one was definitely looming for many years and it was haunting me and so it was nice to be done with that. And the covers record, you know every record could be a covers record as there are so many amazing songs I can record so I have to be careful with that. You say funk band but this is more than that; this is a group of super deep soulful inspiration pocket feelers, these folks feel this. They play a lot but they don’t play a lot out of the area. They really appreciate going into different vibes.


How did you choose these particular cover songs on Funk? I know you covered Rick James’ “Mary Jane” and you’re a big Talking Heads fan and Grateful Dead fan and could have chosen amongst 30 songs from each band. So why did you choose “Once in a Lifetime” and “West LA Fadeaway?”

“Once in a Lifetime” was kind of a bridge connection between where I was musically and where this band was in terms of finding common ground. This is a song that resonates all over the world and everyone kind of knew it and it was an easy to way to incorporate soul, jazz and gospel into this scenario. Also I was trying to put myself into the place of an audience member and wanting to connect with the audience with something they know as well

I’m a huge Jerry Band fan and the whole concept of a band like that and having backup singers and keyboard players. And I can just totally just sing along to the backup singers’ parts to Jerry Band songs and I didn’t want to go there. I went with “West LA Fadeaway,” because it had the kind of Jerry Band vibe without the backup singers and I wanted to create my own idea of that without going straight Jerry Band but yet paying homage to where the idea kind of came from.

Was your band familiar with the Grateful Dead or Talking Heads or was there a democratic say into what kind of covers you would perform?

“Once in a Lifetime” they were familiar with, but the Grateful Dead stuff they weren’t. We did “Samson and Delilah” at the end of the record and totally put a gospel feel on it. It’s a bit of a gospel song but the Dead do it super fast.

You called it “Samson’s Wine.”

That’s correct. There’s a Danny Barnes song that starts off called “Wine.” On the record you’ll be able really to dive in and read over the writer’s credits there. Yeah Danny Barnes wrote the song called “Wine” and from there it goes into “Samson and Delilah” and kind of skips back into “Wine” and the two kind of intersperse back into that arrangement.

Why the decision to release a live album and was there any interest in going into the studio with More Than a Little?

Getting the band together was specifically for a set of five shows that I also play in between Christmas  and New Years and the idea was to put a band together for that specific run of shows. And the rehearsals leading up to it seemed like it was going to be super good and positive and I definitely wanted to document that the best way I could. And that’s pretty much what the record is about, it’s a documentation of those five shows that we were planning on playing together.

What went on at these rehearsals that gave you the feeling that this was going to be something really good and worth recording?

Well what was totally unique for me was the total R & B, gospel harmonies that were filling my soul with happiness and this was in rehearsals without any audience and I was so excited to share that and I knew it was going to be good and I kne w that I was going to want to record it the best way possible.

How did you meet up with these musicians originally?

The initial connection came from Toby Fairchild who is the drummer. He and I were in a project I put together called The Added Bonus. He was doing an R & B night at a local bar on Tuesday nights and I did it for a year I think with interchangeable folks to come in and play. And on the night I was there, this was the band you know?  Except there was only Tonya Lazenby Jackson and not Sugah Davis, so we added Sugah later. That night I sat in with them and a real connection was made and I can tell just from playing with these guys that I can definitely be happy with this. So we got that particular band on that particular night and added Sugah and went from there and started rehearsing once a week and did that for a couple months for those shows.

You’ve talk often about your love of acoustic guitar and banjo but can you share with us your personal love of R & B and Soul?

I guess it really started for me but as far back as I can remember and it’s always been there in my right hand. Even playing solo as a teenager there’s always been some kind of back beat that I’m going for with my right hand and my rhythm. So I think the funk has always been there and it’s not something I really think about.  So where I think it really came from was Fredericksburg, Virginia south of DC and in the early 80’s Go-Go music was really common and it really spread to Fredericksburg with Trouble Funk and Chuck Brown.  I just happened to be in the first eighth grade class to be allowed to high school. So I was in the marching band playing trombone and this was in the early 80’s, when the Go-Go music was so strong that the cadence that we would march to without even playing music was a full on Go-Go beat with cowbell and roto toms and several kick drums all playing the same super heavy beat and just being immersed in that, I think that’s where it started as an eighth grader in the marching band.

One of the most unique parts of your musicianship has been your looping techniques. What is the creative limit for looping in your opinion?

Well all the gear I’m using is consumer based outboard gear you can get at Guitar Center. The DJs have taken it way further beyond where I have it now by taking it live with multiple computer programs and doing it that way. Like EOTO is an amazing inspiration and is a perfect example of how far you can take a concept of this nature. They are a perfect example of creating something so relevant and current.

But with my particular music.. with technology, I’m pretty much using what I need to create the vibe I can control quickly without any kind of learning curve. Musically though I think I’ve only scratched the surface. I haven’t really even taken the time to learn scales. The most rudimentary and elementary things… I need to focus on that and scales and really listen and study more Coltrane. A lot of things I have a problem with, what is it A Love Supreme because the sax is all on the left side, I can study it but musically it’s so stereo. I’m getting off the subject, but musically I can evolve by studying theory and actual rudimentary elements that I never really focused on and just kind of dove into my own world of rhythm.

Well don’t cut yourself short you’re very lucky to have the fan base you do that encourages you to record new albums with different themes and most importantly be yourself.

Yeah I’m very lucky to have the fan base that I have. I wouldn’t say they encourage me to do the next thing, it’s more like they allow it and listen to and accept it for a what it is type of thing and they find what they like with my music in there and I’m very grateful for that.

Is there anything that you have experimented with that you think didn’t went off well, like “oh man I won’t be doing that again.”

Well I went into a real heavy Ableton phase to where I was allowing myself four minutes a show with the laptop computer and holding it and picking it up and having the mini jack and earphone thing and holding it up. And I had like 200 samples in this one program with multiple beats and my shtick was comedian one liners and I had samples from Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin and Kat Williams and Richard Pryor. I had it loaded in such a way that I can drop it at certain rhythmic beats and it would coincide. It was all very mathematically timed out the way it’s done. I did that for a few months and I got some interesting recordings out of it. I realized that I enjoy it much more in front of the speakers when somebody is doing it who knows what they are doing. That was one element where the folks who are behind me really didn’t hold back on their dislike of it.

Can’t win em all, so there won’t be album called Joke coming out?

No it will be called Womp and that will be my version of acoustic dub-step. And I’m not saying that’s not coming out actually, it’s no time soon, but nothing is off the table.

You were talking before about bands like EOTO, but what are your thoughts on bands like Pretty Lights and Bassnectar who have been hugely successful performing over pre-recorded music. What are you thoughts on their current role in the live music scene?

Well both Bassnectar and Pretty Lights have both swayed me into their world. I get online and I figure out the shows I can go to and I put it on the calendar like months in advance and I look forward to it. I get to see Bassnectar and Pretty Lights both about twice a year in some random place I’m allowed to go to like on a Monday and I get the pass months in advance.

And with that crowd you’re allowed to wear sunglasses and bandanas over your face and hats and get right out in the middle and I feel it man… I dig it!  And the fact that they aren’t playing instruments. in no way in my mind makes them any less of a genius. Because what they are doing is creating this music that is coming through these speakers – many many many speakers. Bassnectar for example can create all these interesting sounds and colors and then all of a sudden drop this beat. So what it creates is this type of energy that was kind of the idea of the 60’s and the whole Merry Pranksters and the whole psychedelic movement of the Grateful Dead and how everyone at these acid tests were on the same wave-length without really talking or knowing any of the music that the band is playing, but yet everyone is on the same page.  And that’s what happening…especially at Bassnectar shows, those are the one I’ve been the most to in the sense of not everyone knowing the music. There’s a whole contingency of folks who know every beat and every sample that he drops and anything new is really cool. And then there’s a whole element of people who have never been and but yet they are hearing it for the first time and still they are on the same vibe and page of everyone who knows it. And then all of a sudden at the same time there is this drop and the whole place explodes and comes together. And however that can happen whether it’s with a band or a person with a laptop or a person with an iPod, that’s pretending to do everything else. However that can happen is positive.


That’s really cool and progressive of you, coming from the old school and loving stuff like the Jerry Band and then embracing this burgeoning scene.

No, I truly love it. And the fact that I am the only one that I know loves it and it makes it a very personal thing for me cause I get to go to these shows and since nobody wants to go with me so it’s a very personal thing between me and the music and the vibe and the crowd and the amoeba that’s happening in that particular thing. There’s a love in opposites and there’s an opposites attract thing and I’ve learned I enjoy it more when other people do it then when I try and emulate. I love it so much that there’s elements of that formula that appear in my solo shows that can’t be denied and the lovers of real electronica music can feel and hear that. And there’s an element of those types of folks that are appreciating it more recently I’m hoping: there has been more of these festivals where younger people are catching on.

Looking back at your catalog – you’ve obviously been very prolific – what album do you revere the most or if you had a guest over who had never heard your work, what would you play for them?

Well first of all I would ask them what are they most into. And I’m very grateful to be able to choose from a variety of things to play for someone first.  If it was just me, the albums I personally listen to are Dance, which is the remix I did ten years ago, I just recently re-released it in a one track format to where the whole record is in one track.  It was supposed to be a couple days where it was free but you can still find it on Soundcloud and online. And the other two records I listen to are Dream which is chock full of these incredible sit-ins which took me three years to complete and Live which is Moseley, Droll and Sipe a product that I’m super proud of and I’m basically reliving my childhood fantasies of playing rock fusion.


So if you were going to do another Dream record, do you see yourself collaborating with Bassnectar?

I would not do another Dream record, but I would be happy to give Bassnectar all my raw tracks and have him do whatever he wants with it. That would be the best way to collaborate with him you know. It would be me sending him raw tracks and that would be the extent of the collaboration (laughs).

I saw a tattoo the other day and it was really kind of amazing. It was the Steal Your Face skull with the Bassnectar thing in the inside- obviously “Steal Your Bass.”

So in some ways it’s all coming together?

But not really though, as there are a not a whole lot of people in the true Grateful Dead world who really appreciate it and I understand, I’m an odd bird and have a different way of thinking and I respect that. Same in the bluegrass world, there are a whole lot of folks that are very traditional and see me as a bit of a joke and I totally can relate. That’s kind of what I’m giving off at the shows and not taking anything too seriously and hopefully people can be entertained without thinking about their problems.


Related Content

2 Responses

  1. Good interview. Enjoying Funk as I read and now as I’m typing. I would suggest Dream and Live, but also Grateful Grass with K-Dub, Jeff Austin and Keith Moseley.

  2. You can tell how happy Keller is when he is on stage with More Than a Little. It is refreshing to see him smile again! The band kills it every time too!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Recent Posts

New to Glide

Keep up-to-date with Glide