...Currently on Tour with Ivan Julian
By Henry Lipput
Tommy Keene, singer, songwriter, and major guitar hero, has been delighting power pop fans since his debut album, Strange Alliance, was released in 1982. He's currently doing a solo acoustic tour with his friend, ex-Richard Hell & The Voidoids and former Matthew Sweet guitarist, Ivan Julian. I recently had the great pleasure of speaking with Tommy on the phone about his career, the tour, his influences, and what's next.
Henry Lipput: You're touring the States now, but you just got back from playing in Japan. How did that go?
Tommy Keene: It was great. I went over there about a year and a half ago as part of this band The Small Square which is Paul Chastain and John Richardson. John Richardson has played drums with me on and off since '89. Paul was in Velvet Crush and I toured a lot with him in '94 and '95.
We toured on their record but the promoters, when they found out I was in the band, said would you do a little opening solo set, so I said yeah. I did that, and then this time we went over and did seven days of me headlining with a rock outfit. It was great. It was a lot of small clubs very packed with people. Everything is about space over there.
It's interesting because the crowds there are a little younger, I think, because the two Matador albums in the '90s I put out ten years after Strange Alliance came out there in Japan. So I think people probably discovered me around then, '96, '98. and then went back and maybe got the other things.
It was a really great trip, and audiences were fantastic, enthusiastic, and really nice people. It was really cool.
TK: In DC, I joined a band called The Razz which was a big, big band in town, kind of new-wave, for lack of a better word. I'd been in a band that opened for them so I joined this group, and the bass player, Ted Niceley, went to school with Ivan Julian, and I met Ivan and then we became friends.
When The Razz broke up, he said come and move to New York -- Richard Hell & The Voidoids had sort of imploded -- and we'll put a new band together. We hung out from December, January 1980, February, March. I hung with Ivan and stayed in his apartment, went all around the city, and hung out in all these cool places, and met all these celebrities. He was sort of a kingpin up there. He was in one of the top five CBGB bands.
Then I got this offer to join this woman, Suzanne Fellini, who had an album out on Casablanca. It was really good money so I did that. Ivan went on to form The Outsets, which was his band, and we kept in touch. After that experience with her, I moved back to DC and I got my own band together.
We've sort of just been in touch throughout the years. He played with Matthew Sweet for about five or six years and I would see him every time he came to LA.
But about a year and a half ago, he was diagnosed with cancer and I was trying to get a hold of him and then he got a hold of me finally. He told me that everything was great and he was in remission. He said what are you doing and I said I was going to Japan to do this solo tour and he said can I come along? Can I get on that? And I said sure, that's great. I thought it would be better than just Tommy Keene going out playing these dates. It was more of an event. Because Ivan hadn't toured under his own name for so long.
So that's where we are. And we've been working really hard to promote and get people out.
HL: It looks like you and Ivan are doing some interesting stuff. It says it's acoustic but what I saw on your website has you plugged in and he's playing acoustic.
TK: Well, my set is 75% acoustic and then 25% just playing electric guitar, just a couple of the more rock stuff. And for the encore at McCabe's we did "Mother's Little Helper" -- I don't know if we're going to do the same song every night. But the point is, after my set, he's going to come on and we're going to do a song together.
HL: You've got what I think is a wonderful, clean guitar sound, especially on your earlier recordings, and some of my favorite guitarists have that kind of sound. I guess the best example is Glenn Tilbrook from Squeeze but also Peyton Pinkerton who played with Pernice Brothers. What were your influences?
TK: Certainly the Beatles, number one, and then I would say The Who. It's funny, just the other night, I wouldn't really want to show my age here, the anniversary, March 31st, 1968. I was nine, and my brother and I saw The Who in DC at the DAR Constitution Hall on The Who Sellout tour. And that was just so amazing, just a life-changer.
I would say if we're talking just about influences, guitar influences, I like the clean sound a lot but then I also love groups like The Who and Led Zeppelin and on and on.
My deal is I have a kind of a two-sound or a two meshed-together sound. I have a clean sound and a kind of over-driven, distorted, very rock sound. On stage, I have what's called an A/B box where I'm going to two amps at the same time. So I can have a clean amp on or the dirty amp on or both. And a lot of people have copied this -- and I won't name names -- but all more famous than me. Because when I was starting my group in the early '80s, I could never find one amp that did what I wanted. So, finally, this friend of mine said use two, find the two that get what you want and you can just run this A/B box between them. I've stuck with that ever since.
HL: Your first album came out in 1982. I was wondering: in the early '80s, there was a lot of American power pop. There was your album -- I just recently reviewed for CoolDad Music two reissues of New Jersey-based power pop bands, The Modulators and Smart Remarks. There seemed to be a lot of power pop going on in that time period.
TK: I remember being in high school and wanting to sound like Aerosmith. We couldn't really play those songs because the lead playing was quite advanced so I think we stuck to songs like The Beatles and The Who and stuff that was a little more power chords and rhythmic stuff rather than super-fast lead breaks.
And, at the same time, I noticed groups out in LA and a few in New York were coming out by the dozens -- there was 20/20, The Plimsouls -- and it seemed to me they were doing sort of what I was trying to do. Probably what caused that uprising of power pop groups was that whole LA scene. And in '83, or a couple of years later, I think 20/20 came out in '79, all these bands are trying to do that.
It was amazing that all these big record companies were signing all these bands because it was just a trend. We tried to get in on that. We didn't get in on that trend, but we got in on the next trend.
We did a bunch of what we thought were demos at a friend's studio. And we tried to get a major label. All these people came to see us and no one bit. We got hooked up with this little label out of North Carolina called Dolphin, and they said we want to put out an EP. It had six songs from the demos and ended up being the original Places That Are Gone EP.
And it was perfect timing because the whole mid-Atlantic, Southern thing of Let's Active, R.E.M., the dbs -- although they'd already broken up by then -- that thing was totally in vogue and then the record companies came back and started checking us out. Which eventually led us to a deal with Geffen.
So for once in my career, I was doing what was really trendy, for lack of a better word. And we were in the right place at the right time.
HL: Your last album, Laugh In The Dark, came out back in 2015. Are you working on anything now?
TK: I am, but very slowly. I want to take a little more of a break this time. I put out a live record on my own, called Showtunes2. Showtunes came out in 2001. That was through Parasol. But I wanted to put something out because we were doing some tours, just to sort of fill the gap in between my next record.
We did a Midwest tour last October and in February was the Japan tour and now April into May is going to be this solo tour. I wanted something to sell on the website and sell at shows as a sort of holdover and really hunker down at the end of May and take the next six months off and write.
What I'm hoping is to come up with enough good songs to comprise a record and have it come out sometime in 2018. Probably later 2018, say August or September. That's kind of my game plan for right now.
Tommy and Ivan are performing in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, 4/25, at Club Café. Here are the remaining dates for the tour:
April 27 – Chicago, IL – The Hideout
April 29 – Madison, WI – Kiki’s House of Righteous Music
April 30 – St. Paul, MN – The Turf Club
May 4 – Washington, DC – The Black Cat