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flag US - New York - Full Moon 214 - 02/15/14

Doug Keith
In full control - an interview with...

So you don't really know who Doug Keith is? Well, don't worry, Luna Kafé will bring you up to speed. NPR sees in him "...a modern-day troubadour" and "...a well-weathered and sage source of advice and storytelling", Spin Magazine calls him "Sharon Van Etten's right hand man", and Purge believes he "...conjures the spirit of Dylan, Young, and Waits." Now, the New York-based singer/songwriter releases his excellent third solo album, Pony, which he finished last year with a little help from his friends (Megafaun and J Mascis included) after spending most of 2012 on the road as the lead guitarist (and occasional bassist, harmonium player and backing vocalist) in Sharon Van Etten's superb band.

On the album Keith strays away from the handmade, country-tinged sound of its lovely predecessor The Lucky Ones, instead mixing quieter folk and infectious pop, acoustic and electric guitars with more pronounced keyboards and synths. For Luna Kafé, Doug takes a look back on his career so far, explains how Pony came about, talks about his impressive cast of collaborators and reflects on releasing records on his own imprint, The Village Label.

LK: Where are you while you answer these questions and what is the vibe like?
DPK: I'm in my apartment in New York City, sitting on my couch with one of my dogs resting her head on my wrist as I type. I have Bob Dylan's record Oh Mercy playing in the background and a cup of coffee to my right. It's a pretty good vibe overall in here.

LK: Recently, the media has enjoyed calling you "Sharon Van Etten's right hand man". But as much as I like that expression - that's just the tip of the iceberg, right? For the uninitiated - who is this Doug Keith guy, anyway?
DPK: Ha, yes. I've been playing music for years now. Pony is my third record under my own name, but prior to that, I put out a couple records under the name the first person to see an elephant, but those are basically nonexistent at this point. They were pretty free, loose records and I'd go for this elaborate handmade packaging thing where I'd silk screen or paint them myself and put vintage slides inside and stuff like that. I've played in a bunch of bands here in New York City and before that was in a few punk bands in San Francisco. I've been in bands and playing in bars since high school. The last few years I've pretty much mainly played in Sharon's band and she's got such a wonderful crowd that it makes sense to me that that's how most people know me. SVE's like family to me, I love that lady.

LK: Would you be willing to walk us through your life as a music fan and name the stepping stones in terms of records (or concerts...) that shaped you, preferably in roughly chronological order?
coverpicDPK: Oh man, I'll try my best to keep this one short, but I've always been a bit all over the place. My older brother has always had amazing taste in music and he has been a huge influence on the music I like. Really early on when we lived in Minnesota he turned me on to bands like Hüsker Dü (their record New Day Rising in particular), The Replacements, The Pixies (Surfer Rosa stands out), Sonic Youth (Daydream Nation & Goo) and Camper Van Beethoven, but at the same time I was way into John Fogerty, Tom Petty and Paul Simon's Graceland record. The first concert I ever saw was Tom Petty with The Replacements opening. It was amazing and still stands as one of the best shows I've ever seen. Shortly after that my brother turned me onto bands like The Feelies, Uncle Tupelo, The Descendents, Operation Ivy, The Ramones, Dinsoaur Jr, REM & ton of others. He took me to see The Feelies when I was 14 or so in a small college union and it absolutely floored me. The band was on fire and I was so excited to be there. I remember thinking that I wanted to be The Feelies when I grew up. It had a huge impact on me. The guitar teacher I had at the time, Dana Klipp, had played guitar for Elizabeth Cotten when her arthritis got too bad in her later years and he introduced me to her music which just opened my world wide. I went deep into the blues and old recordings going so far as buying a victrola so I could hear the records crackle in their original environment. I started messing around with guitar instrumentals that I was making up in high school and my friend Lupe said it sounded like John Fahey who I had never heard of so I hunted one of his records down, The Voice of the Turtle (1968), and I didn't understand it, but I loved it. I went deep down John Fahey's catalog and I hear his influence in a lot of what I do, whether it's outwardly apparent or not. I moved to San Francisco instead of going to college and fell in with a punk band there and toured heavily in that world for a while. Beyond the music, I loved the very organic and free nature of the world of punk. It's very DIY and the end goal is the thing itself which I still follow in pretty much everything I do. There's probably a book long answer in here so I'll just hit the stop button here...

LK: Was there a specific turning point, a moment when you realized that you wanted to become a musician?
DPK: I can't say there was one point, but a few things definitely lead to it. I've loved the guitar for as long as I can remember. I remember loving to just look at guitars before I could play. There is something about the unknown potential of a guitar that grabs me. When I was maybe 8, my parents took the family to a winter carnival in Minneapolis where The Fabulous Thunderbirds were playing and watching Jimmie Vaughan play just blew my mind. He looked so cool, slicked hair, super thick guitar strap with VAUGHAN cut into the leather and he was just ripping. That's probably what made me want to play guitar, but then seeing The Feelies as mentioned before really made me want to play live and write songs. Their energy and fire just crackled that night and I wanted to experience it myself. Then, my first touring experience was with a band called The Gods Hate Kansas out of San Francisco, and I just loved it. Some people get homesick or claustrophobic on tour so it's not their thing, but I took to it like a bee to honey. I love everything about touring, it's so free and has this intense family aspect, it's all good. Since that first tour I knew that is what I wanted to do with my life.

LK: Having played all sorts of different styles of music on both ends of the USA - do you really consider yourself a jack of all trades or were you just trying out different things in order to find your true calling so to speak, that you seem to have found with your solo albums?
DPK: I consider myself a scatterbrain more than anything else. I just love unlocking sound and writing songs and creating songs with a group of people. I also love all sorts of music: folk & blues, punk, classic rock, country, jazz, metal, hip hop and pop. Some days I want to start a metal band in the vein of Slayer, but other days, I want to start up a sad soft folk thing and then other times I'll write drones. I think most musicians have a bit of that honestly. Maybe I'm just too unfocussed to tamp it down a bit or something.

LK: All three of your albums - Here's To Outliving Me, The Lucky Ones and now Pony - seem to come from the same place, yet each of them has its distinctive sound. Is that just a result of them being recorded in different times, with different surroundings and different influences or do you really sit down and map out a specific sonic approach for each of them before you start working?
DPK: I think that's a result of me trusting myself more and more. While I'm proud of the first two records, this one, Pony, is definitely the most me. I held things off the first two records for reasons I now don't understand, but with this one, I didn't. If I had an idea or thought, I couldn't be dissuaded from finding it, you know? It's how I ended up recording with the people I did, where I did, why the special guests are who they are. I don't sit and map out of a specific sonic approach before making a record, but I do write and demo twenty or so songs and then pair them way down to make the record. I tend to go into the studio with a fairly detailed map.

LK: The sound of Pony seems to be much more rooted in the here and now, especially compared to The Lucky Ones, where you were really striving for that wonderful early 70s handmade sound. The easy explanation probably would be that touring so much with Sharon gave you less time to sit at home listening to old crackling country-rock records on vinyl, but put you more in touch with the current wave of indie rockers. But is it that easy?
DPK: With The Lucky Ones I intentionally went in and tried to make it fast, in a live setting with a band that had had limited exposure to the songs and in a studio that was rough around the edges. I was going for that loose 70s record's sound. I was working a very taxing day job while writing and building that one, so it was made with very limited free time. With Pony I actually had more time to focus in getting things together. When not on tour with SVE, I was home writing and demoing and tweaking songs and then when we were on tour, I was messing with mixing ideas or midi sounds that would be replaced with a real instrument later or tweaking lyrics. I took my time with these songs in a way I hadn't ever before. But, I also trusted myself so much more than ever. I'm more comfortable in my own skin than I was making The Lucky Ones so I think that comes through on Pony a bit.

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LK: As far as I know you spend a lot of time demoing these new songs, even mapping out a runner order before the actual recordings. Yet you seem to have given your collaborators quite a bit of freedom to pitch in with their own ideas. Was it always easy to find a balance between your own vision and the other musicians' input?
DPK: Yeah for sure. The core band on this record are Brad & Phil Cook from the band Megafaun and Zeke Hutchins who plays drums in SVE among many other things. They are good friends and I set out to make this record with each of them specifically because I trust their intuition and think the world of their musical skill. I loved watching where they would take things. I might have given each them a map, but I didn't tell them where we were going, know what I mean? In all aspects, I like to let people do their vision and then maybe adjust from there if need be.

LK: How did you go on about choosing your collaborators? Some you had lined-up all along - like your SVE band mates - and some were drafted in late in the game for specific ideas, like Adam and J, I believe?
DPK: I had a dream of making the record with Brad, Phil & Zeke, in the hot weather, outside NYC, somewhere south, so that part was clear from the get-go. Then during the recording process I would hear something that wasn't totally there previously, like a raging solo on "Pure Gold" in the 70's and while trying to write that part realized I was just basically imitating J Mascis, so I thought, why not at least ask him if he'd be up for doing it. I'm still blown away that he was into it. I've been a fan of his for as long as I can remember. With Adam Granduciel from The War on Drugs, it was a similar deal. I loved the vibe of Black Metal Black, but I wanted a little taste of his guitar style on there to put the song in a different place and he just delivered. I think the world of that guy, he's something special for sure. Then with Heather Woods Broderick, I originally asked her to do a quick vocal thing and one cello part, but then when we got together, I kept finding places where it would be awesome to have her and then she'd get ideas and we'd just run with it. She's a phenomenal musician and person.

LK: A lot of musicians these days still speak of the liberating effect that modern recording technologies can have when you can record with decent result s in your basement and take all the time you want. You on the other hand went the other way and spend just a week in a top notch recording studio in North Carolina, often recoding live just like in the good ole days... It seems that you have realized that the way a song is recorded does have an impact on the listener (even though he might not even know that it's the recording quality that makes him enjoy what he's hearing so much)?
DPK: I'm a huge believer in the skills of a great engineer. I have a couple nice mics and a good pre-amp and some knowledge in terms of mic placement, EQs, compression, and such, but I think I'm smart enough to know that I cannot make a recording sound as good as a true engineer no matter how long I mess with it. An engineer is a studied skill, like guitar playing or drumming or cooking and I fully respect that. The way a song is recorded and then mixed and then mastered has a dramatic impact on how a person hears a song even if they have no knowledge of what is going on. It's subtle things in recording that make a world of difference and I am endlessly fascinated by that. Jon Ashley, who engineered and mixed Pony, is a genius. His skill and knowledge with recording equipment, not to mention his overall vibe, were so inspiring and mind-blowing that I can say confidently that this record would not be what it is without him. Also, I like limitations and deadlines and pressure. I work better under those conditions so sometimes I find home recording to be too limitless to where I can't quite finish. Knowing that I only have X number of days or X number of tracks helps me move faster. I think a person can sometimes get lost in fine tuning a recording when they have limitless time to do so. Sometimes it's those random unexpected moments that are driven by limitations that really make a song, you know?

LK: When you look at the whole package - writing, arranging, producing, playing, singing - in which of these areas do you feel did you advance the most over the course of these three solo albums?
DPK: All of them, without a doubt. I had a good foundation, but my knowledge and skill in all of those areas has grown exponentially in the last five or so years and honestly, I feel like it has grown since recording Pony. I'm super excited to make the next record and this one isn't even released yet. I'm still a million miles from mastering any aspect, but learning new things all the time keeps me excited and makes me want to learn more.

LK: The lyrics on Pony appear to have an overarching concept, which seems very personal and I understand that you probably don't want to discuss it in detail, so I'm just going to ask: Are you a subscriber of the idea that songwriting can be a form of therapy?
DPK: Yes for sure. I find it more in the rearview as opposed to the actual writing process. The lyrics I write tend to come really fast and sudden and sometimes I'll realize months later what I was actually writing about. Pony definitely has an overarching concept, but I know that I very well may be the only person that sees it and I can't say it was intentional. It was just where I was at in my own head while writing the record.

LK: How would you describe the balance between the music and the lyrics in your songs? Do you usually consider them to be equally important or does it change from song to song with side is "taking the lead"?
DPK: They are equally important every time. Neither needs to be complicated, but each needs to help the other put something across. Without that, you got nothing.

LK: Putting out your records on your own label always involves the risk of getting lost in the shuffle in a music world that seriously lacks filters and that's over-saturated with inferior stuff these days. Yet that is a smaller price to pay than putting yourself in the hands of a label, it seems?
DPK: I don't know. A label these days helps separate a person from the shuffle and move a record forward as you said, but that label needs to be passionate about a record in order for that to happen otherwise it gets lost, too. There are some really amazing labels out there these days and they are probably more selective than ever before. I recorded Pony exactly like I wanted to and I wanted to hold onto full control of putting it forward as I saw fit for the moment. I've learned so much releasing each record, this one included. There are definite positives and negatives to either option.

LK: Despite the somewhat grim state of today's music industry - are you happy to be a musician right here and now, or would you trade places with a musician in the 60s or 70s in a second, if you could? If it's the latter, when, where and in what capacity would you have liked to work?
coverpic DPK: Yeah, I'm happy to be a musician in the here and now and I can't say I'd trade places with anyone. There's this perception out there that it was easier to be a musician before now, but I don't subscribe to that. It's been hard to make a living as a musician since the dawn of time. I suppose, yes, you could make more money off of record sales before the mp3, but getting into that world and getting any sort of crowd outside of your hometown was super difficult. I started touring in the 90s and remember mailing CDs to any venue I wanted to play and then calling them, long distance, over and over, to try and get a show and then find them in an atlas as you drove around. It was frustrating and thankless and expensive, but I loved it. Now, you can just post a song somewhere and email a million venues and booking agents that are aggregated on various websites and follow a GPS straight to the venue. That's cool, too. Neither is better or worse, it's just a shift in how it's all done.

LK: The predictable last question: Pony was just released (on February 11th) - what can we expect from you after that?
DPK: Touring, both solo and with a band. I'm toying with the idea of recording an EP of just me and guitar songs that I have, but not sure about that just yet. I'm already looking at recording my next full length in December, so look for that in 2015 with a ton of touring.

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