Keller Williams on Yo Gabba Gabba!, Overly Demanding Musicians, and Charity Work

Virginian musician Keller Williams is known for being so much more than just another singer-songwriter. He dabbles between genres from reggae, funk, folk, alternative, bluegrass, and children's music. He's got a handful of side projects with other musicians as well, plus he keeps busy with a weekly radio show.

Keller will be throwing down a jam session tomorrow night at the Marquee Theatre. Don't miss a one-man musical variety show like you've never seen before.

We caught up with Williams to chat about children's television, the art of the cover song and  Neil Young.

Up On The Sun: You've been pretty heavily involved with children lately. You have two kids yourself, and you released a children's record in October called Kids. On top of that, you were also involved in some live Yo Gabba Gabba! shows. Most artists aim to appeal to people who are old enough to pay for their music, so why was it important to you to spend so much time making something special for the youth?

Keller Williams: People have always told me my music is playful and that kids like it. It seemed like a natural progression for me in how my tastes and my career kind of bounce around from genre to genre and different projects and whatnot. It's something I've been wanting to do for a long time. I even made up some songs before I had kids. Once the kids showed up, that produced a whole new wealth of inspiration. It was a lot of fun to make. I definitely took my time making it. I think they even shelved it for a year after it was done, so it took me a while to come to grips with the whole thing...not so much coming to grips with it, but just wanting it to be right.

The record was done when we had gotten that offer to play on [the Yo Gabba Gabba!] tour. I didn't feel there was anything that was Yo Gabba Gabba!-worthy on that record, so I went back and recorded "Hula Hoop To Da Loop" just to have something to do that was cool on Yo Gabba Gabba! while at the same time pushing this record. That's how "Hula Hoop To Da Loop" slipped into that record.

UOTS: You've been doing a few kids' matinee shows on select tour dates. How did that get started?

KW: When you play music for 20 years, you actually only play music for about two years and you hang out for the other 18. Here's a chance to play music on stage in front of other people in the afternoon on Saturdays. What a concept. Being a parent myself and wanting to have cool places to take my kid, and [have] music to see in a family environment, and how little of that there actually is, that's where the inspiration came from. Plus, this new record is definitely an inspiration behind that as well. It's been getting a good response from folks who turn their kids on to this music and sing along at the shows, and we're looking forward to it.

UOTS: You also made a video where his daughter Ella picked the winner of the Keller and the Keels on Your Couch contest out of a salad spinner. You put up a blog post about how the contest wasn't rigged. It also involved a satirical bit about all the things you were sarcastically going to demand for your performance. Clearly you seem to think that artists sometimes take their special requests too far these days. They ask for crazy things, and it can be so unnecessary.

KW: Yeah. It's a common thing unfortunately. I think Warren Haynes was at one time leading a campaign to figure out what to do with all that stuff left over at the end of the night that the bands don't need. But then they have all these health issues with the leftover food and whatnot, and the FDA. It's a tricky thing, for sure.

UOTS: You're participating in Neil Young tribute concert in February, which is being put on to raise money for music education programs and undereducated kids. Additionally, you recently worked with underprivileged music students with Avon Elementary's School of Rock program. Tell me a little bit about how those got started.

KW: [The School of Rock program] was an old acquaintance that was fronting that program. Right in town there is [the venue] where I was playing that night. They reached out and I accepted, and I came in to hear a bunch of kids that had learn the "Hula Hoop To Da Loop" song, and we all played it together. It was really a moving experience to have these little second, third and fourth graders singing my songs.

[The Neil Young tribute concert] is an honor beyond belief to be able to perform on stage at Carnegie Hall. That's really what sold me. Like everyone else, I'm a lover of Neil Young's music, and I'm very grateful to be a part of that, for sure.

UOTS: You have a feature on your website called Once a Week Freak, where you make some extra tracks available for your fans. People love it.

KW: There are some that are for free, and then there are some that are a buck. It's a different medium to get the music out and share some of the live stuff that I've been recording. It's a wide open world and it's a great way to get that out there.

UOTS: You also do Keller's Cellar, your weekly radio show. What's the idea behind the show?

KW: That's an hour-long narrated mix tape of stuff I'm into. I'm constantly trying to listen to really interesting types of radio stations on the internet and on Rhapsody. I've been trying to find stuff I've never heard before that I think would kind of inspire me to play more music as well as people listening to the show that would possibly go out and get some of this music. It's a lot of fun. It's very much an expensive hobby because the stations pay nothing to get it. It's on about 40 channels on public stations and AAA stations and smaller college stations and whatnot. I wish I could do it every week. Right now we're up to about 170 episodes.

UOTS: The album Thief is an album full of covers. Why make an album of covers rather than your own material? I understand you were busy with the album Kids, so was it just a fun side project?

KW: That was a very self-indulgent, fun project, one that I've been wanting to do for years, similar to the Kids record. I've got 16 records out now. I don't really have a plan to not make any records. It just seemed like an obvious direction to go. I can't say that it'll be my last [cover album].

UOTS: What can we expect from you in the near future?

KW: This past holiday run I did a reggae/dub/funk project. It was me on bass, my buddy Jay Starling on keyboards, and my buddy Mark D on drums. There was no guitar. It's really different. It was really reggae/dub/funk-oriented and really fun.

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Lenni Rosenblum