That '80s Sound

With help from Wilco and the Gin Blossoms, Tommy Keene chases down the sound he was after 20 years ago

Emerick, onetime right-hand man to George Martin and house engineer at Abbey Road Studios, helmed some of the greatest-sounding albums ever made on four- and eight-track recorders. Revolver. Sgt. Pepper. Abbey Road. "But," snickers Keene, "he also produced Air Supply and Art Garfunkel! I learned a valuable lesson there. You don't pick a producer based on what records they've done. You pick him based on him getting the sound that you want."

It seems inconceivable that the guy who miked the massive, widely imitated drum sound of "Tomorrow Never Knows" couldn't get that sound. "Wouldn't might' be the operative word there? He didn't like the way we sounded when we rocked out; he thought we were too raucous. Basically, he heard me as a singer-songwriter and wanted to record me that way."

While opening up for the Replacements in 1989 in support of his next album, Based on Happy Times, Keene watched the label drop the ball. "Not only did they not promote it, but David Geffen said that, with all my knowledge about pop music, I should come to work for the label as an A&R man," Keene wryly recalls.

Peachy Keene: The Gin Blossoms' Jesse Valenzuela and Robin Wilson guest on Tommy Keene's new album, recorded mostly at Wilson's Mayberry Studios in Tempe.
Peachy Keene: The Gin Blossoms' Jesse Valenzuela and Robin Wilson guest on Tommy Keene's new album, recorded mostly at Wilson's Mayberry Studios in Tempe.

Not only did Keene not do that, he didn't record a full-length album for seven years. When he did, he called it Ten Years After. Some might have thought the title reflected his stepped-up fretwork and was some kind of homage to Alvin Lee or, at worst, a desperate bid to sell records to nearsighted hippies.

According to Keene, "It was because it had been 10 years since I recorded the first Geffen album." He denies that the Geffen relationship was sardonically reflected by the downward spiral on the cover. "Actually, I just thought it was a cool picture."

Keene's last album, Isolation Party, employed much the same cast of all-stars as the new album. This time out, he felt looser and more willing to experiment with the pop idiom. Which brings to mind the 15-minute opus "The Final Hour," which ties together five separate songs and chronicles a relationship from inception to plane crash to thoughts of suicide. Keene candidly admits the reactions to this meisterwork have been mixed.

"Some people have a notion of what pop music should be and don't feel like a 15-minute song fits into that, that it's prog rock. And then other people really go nuts for it. It was originally two distinctly different songs that linked together, but then I thought of trying to do an extended piece."

Did Keene study Yes in preparation for this herculean task?

"No," laughs Keene, "but I was toying with the idea of listing the separate songs with Roman numerals, but then we thought that would be a bit too much. I grew up listening to Yes and ELP, but actually the Who's mini-opera A Quick One was what we were going for. We also have an A Day in the Life' moment in the middle, when Jay Bennett [formerly of Wilco] recorded a piano lid slamming down with the sustain pedal. Then we looped it, and right at that point in the song, there's a plane crash."

Perhaps more controversial were his decisions to use horns in "The Man Without a Soul" and to plunk a sax solo in the beautiful "The World Where I Still Live," a song some would say is marred by a sax solo that sounds like it was lifted from a Clarence Clemons tribute album. "Basically, I just didn't want to do another guitar solo. . . . I thought it'd be amusing, but people have a violent reaction to sax since the '80s, like John Cafferty ripping off Clarence Clemons."

Strangely enough, it sounds like a song Geffen would've proclaimed a hit single in 1989. But even hit singles aren't what they used to be. A bona fide hit single sells about 300,000 copies now. Keene has managed without one for 20 years with his soul intact, thank you.

"But," he adds, "we still mix records on a small monitor to see if it'll sound good coming out of a small speaker." Just in case.

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