Keller Williams on Leo Kottke, Waffle Houses, and Not Selling Music

Keller Williams is like a perpetual motion machine. The prolific self-taught guitarist has been collaborating and recording for over 25 years, sometimes producing multiple albums with multiple projects in the same year. His music, too, has a never-ending cyclical feel to it, often fueled by a dizzying mosaic of loops he creates in real time.

It's no surprise that his work resonates with the the jam band crowd. After touring with The String Cheese Incident, Yonder Mountain String Band, Umphrey's McGee, Ratdog, and Larry Keel, word of his heady and humorous solo and collaborative efforts spread. He found his audience.

Don't mistake his penchant for looping as a gimmick, though. Keller is a serious musician with virtuoso chops, albeit one who doesn't take himself too seriously. Fingerstyle and 12-string legend Leo Kottke saw a kindred spirit in this. The two have now paired up on the Shut the Folk Up tour, offering listeners a showcase of incredible acoustic chops grounded with wit and whimsy.

I recently caught up with Keller to talk about why he continues to release records in today's world of free streaming, how he chooses his touring guitars, and the hospitality of Waffle Houses.

I know that you’re on tour with Leo [Kottke]. Is that wrapping up about now?

Yeah, we do weekends. This coming weekend is solo looping, not with Leo, and then the following week is off. I think there’s 6 more shows left after that. We’re in a little two week recess, as far as those particular shows go.

I love the name of the tour: Shut the Folk Up.

Thank you. You would think people would be more quiet, with a name like that. That’s a luxury problem. Just getting them through the door is all we need to do, and just trying to create a thing with that name. But Leo brings in that total pin-drop silent crowd. It’s mainly for my crowd that we kind of came up with that name.

Is that what you’re seeing on tours? That there’s kind of a disparate 50/50 split, between an old school, and for lack of a better term, a new school sort of crowd?

Yeah, my crowd is definitely not young, like the EDM crowd or anything. But there’s definitely a difference in personalities, to say the least.

Obviously, you’re one of the kings of looping, as it were. Are you using a lot of that stuff on tour with Leo?

No, this is 100 percent loopless. It's a back-to-the-beginning type of freeing show, one that I’ve been waiting for. No signal pass, no other humans. Just playing songs and singing, focusing on material that really gets overlooked at the normal places I play – the places that don’t have seats, where it’s a social atmosphere, a party.

That’s where the looping comes in handy, because you can just be one of them and have a good time. The material I’m focusing on with Leo is a little more funny, a little more thought-provoking. Some of the stuff that just gets overlooked in the dance vibes.

I’m assuming that you’ve been a Leo Kottke fan for probably just as long as I have.

Absolutely. Since the ‘80s.

Keller Williams' KWahtro - "Baby Mama"

What’s it feel like to share the stage with a guy that has been a pretty heavy influence?

It’s very surreal. The more we play together, the more comfortable he gets. It fills me with such pride to be able to see him smile and laugh on stage as we’re playing together. The influence runs deep. Not only musically, but also as a solo acoustic act. A lot of similarities in our personalities come from being a solo act. I think he’s a little more of a real deal solo act than I am. I’ve been allowed to play with other humans.

Not that he hasn’t. It’s just a thing that he chooses. I think he blew out his ears in the Navy. He’s never really had an easy time with stage monitors and cymbals and things like that. It’s more of a necessity for his hearing to play by himself, I think.

It’s just what we all know and love. We share a minivan over the weekend and just hearing the stories, just hanging around with him – it’s very surreal. I’m going to definitely miss it when it’s over.

I used to be in a touring band before I got this desk gig, and the stories from the road were half of the fun of it. Coming back with a laundry list of things, crazy stuff that happened. Are there any cool road stories between you and Leo that you can share?

Let’s see. Road stories between me and Leo.

Or if there’s anything that Leo has talked to you about, in terms of back in the day…

Keller Williams

Sure. There are two stories that are both very related. Normally, the way the show goes is Leo starts at eight, and then by nine o’clock, he’ll say in the microphone: “Well, that’s it. That’s the end of my set. I’d like to go ahead and play the encore now without the facade of walking off and walking back on.”

Then, he introduces me, and I come out and play with him for three songs. Then there’s an intermission, and then I play my set. Leo is usually in the hotel by ten, quarter to ten, at night.

Right.

One night in Florida, maybe – I don’t remember where it was – he had some family come in, and he stayed the whole night during my set. We were going back to the hotel, and I’m feeling loose, like I usually do after a show.

In the parking lot of the hotel was a Waffle House. I was like, “Hey Leo, let’s go. Let’s go to Waffle House, man.” And, he was like, “Oh, Waffle House.” I was like, “Let’s go get a waffle.” He was like, “Oh, no. I can’t, I’m not going to get a waffle. I will get a couple of cheese burgers.”

It’s like 12:30 a.m., and I’m in a Waffle House with Leo Kottke. That right there could be the end of the story: I went to a Waffle House in Florida after midnight with Leo Kottke. That’s pretty awesome just the way it is...

Yeah.

...but then he tells me a story while we’re sitting at the Waffle House.

He was on tour with Lyle Lovett – I think he was opening for him – and they were sharing a bus. They were at a Waffle House. Then another bus pulls in, and it’s Little Feat. Lowell George comes up, introduces himself kind of nervously to Leo Kottke, and says how much of a fan he is. It’s Lowell George coming to Leo, and Leo’s dumbfounded.

I’ve spent many, many, many nights, early mornings, even afternoons, in a Waffle House. It’s amazing how much of a meeting place that place is on the road.

Yeah. It’s a beautiful thing. If they don’t say hi to you right when you walk in, you should just leave.

What guitars are you using on these shows?

I have a carry-on that I take with me everywhere, just in case the hard cases don’t show up. It’s made by Dan Becker. It’s a company called Becker Guitars. The dude that actually made it is Ryan Martin. He has a new company called Magic Wand now. I need to plug that.

But this is a thin-body acoustic guitar. It’s called a retro acoustic by Becker Guitars. Basically, it was a block of mahogany that he routed out into a bowl, and put a top and a beautiful neck on it. It sits in the commuter jet overhead. It’s with me everywhere. I usually walk out with that in an alternate tuning. Some kind of low, open C type of thing to get some low end.

Then the next guitar I pick up would be a Martin HD-28 from about 2000, maybe 2001. It looks like it’s from the mid ‘70s, because it’s just beat to hell.

I’ve gotten that thing glued a couple different times in a couple different places, so, hopefully it’ll stop breaking apart. They say wood and glue, better than new...that’s what they say. That’s what I say.

Then the star of the show, recently, is a baritone guitar put out by Alvarez but designed by Joe Veillette. Are you familiar with Joe Veillette?

No, I’ve never heard that name.

He’s out of Woodstock, New York. Becker Guitars is out of Massachusetts. I don’t know if Becker is still making guitars. I know Ryan Martin at Magic Wand is still making guitars.

But this is an Alvarez guitar designed by Joe Veillette. I think Alvarez bought the design and put it out. I don’t know for how many years, but it’s been long since discontinued. Joe Veillette still makes that guitar, but it’s not an Alvarez. The guitar I use says “Alvarez,” and then in small letters, it says, “by Joe Veillette.”

For some reason, I grabbed it, and Leo just fell in love with it. It’s this low-sounding baritone, like a cross between a bass and a guitar. Those are the three: the Becker, the Martin, and the Alvarez made by Joe Veillette. Kind of a long answer.

No, that’s perfect. Jerry used an Alvarez for a long time. He had that signature. Did I hear right, that you guys are playing “Bird Song” on these sets?

Jerry Garcia with an Alvarez guitar

No, we are not. Jerry’s guitar was an Alvarez body and a Modulus neck.

Wait, it was a Modulus neck on that thing?

It was Alvarez body and a Modulus neck.

Weird.

My friend paid $80,000 [USD] for one. Two days later, there was an intervention, and he went into rehab for thirty days. But he still has the $80,000 guitar.

There’s the prototype that was sent to Jerry, and he took a picture on a field. You know, he had this long, black, leather coat, and he was in a field of wheat, playing this Alvarez. Then I think he handed that off to his guy, Ramrod, and ended up getting two more guitars with pickups in them. That one didn’t have a pickup in it.

But Ramrod kept it. Ramrod died, and his son put it up for auction, which is when my friend bought it. That and another Doug Irwin guitar.

When you said that you and Leo are playing some sort of intermission, or Leo’s encore, what are you guys collaborating on, and how did you guys choose those tunes?

I chose tunes that he is comfortable with, ones that he plays all the time, to make him most comfortable. I just let him do his thing and then interject my own thing. After playing it several times, we’ve definitely found a really cool groove.

I don’t want to tell you the songs, because we play very similar ones every night. I’d like to have a little more element of surprise.

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I play acoustic fingerstyle guitar, and when I collaborate with somebody else on stage, or even in my living room, it ends up feeling a lot different than it does on stage. Do you feel the same way, or have you been able to bring that campfire, sort of round robin approach to the stage where it still feels intimate?

Yeah. Leo’s sitting down, and I’m standing up right next to him. We’re not using any stage monitors. He’s only hearing the house and the slapback. Then he’s hearing the actual acoustic sound of the guitar. So he and I are definitely vibing off the actual sound of the guitar, which is not really normal in my world, as far as live acoustic music.

I always have in-ear monitors. I’m not using anything like that on this run. I’m just listening to the house. I have some floor wedges that I use during my set, but when he and I play together, there’s no monitors at all. So I can really hear everything, like the house, and that’s a really cool thing.

When we play, I think it’s similar. I think it’s pure. When we play off stage, there’s definitely a lot of starting, stopping, and trying to change things. Stage is cool because we play straight through without stopping.

Keller Williams Guitar Store Tour

Right.

Leo’s always very concerned with the sound. He’s always experimenting with different preamps and pickups. He’s got two pick ups on his guitars: K&K transducers and the mag pickup.

He’s constantly trying different microphones and going back and forth with different preamps. So there’s definitely nothing that’s really stagnant in his sound. He’s constantly trying to change it and make it better.

Have you been influenced at all by the gear that he’s been using on stage, or maybe vice versa? Has he looked over at maybe that Becker guitar and thought, “Oh shit, maybe I should check one of those out…”?

Yeah, he definitely loves the Becker. Just a tiny little box, but it’s acoustic. And the neck is so little, it goes anywhere. He digs that. As far as sitting down, doing his own set, I’m thinking those Taylors are pretty much his sound.

Some nights there will be a hotel that’s close by, within walking distance, and we’ll just say, “Leave one of your guitars, so you don’t have to carry two guitars.” Then, I’ll take it up to my room, and I’ll fucking play it.

He knows, and he’s cool with it. It’s wild, because when you listen to Leo Kottke, and then you play his guitar that you’re listening to him on, it’s him. It has a lot to do with his fingers, but there’s also that Leo Kottke signature model Taylor 12-string. It’s definitely not like normal 12-string guitars. There’s some kind of beautiful thing to it.

Just to cap out the conversation, I know that you have a couple of records that are coming out – I don’t know if they have been released yet – but I saw the cover of one where it looks like some crazy, reclaimed wood sort of a guitar. I actually wanted to ask if that was a real thing, or if that was just an art piece?

It’s an art piece now, but it was probably a 1982 Ovation, maybe a Celebrity. Maybe it was a copy of an Ovation. I don’t remember. It’s actually hanging in a tree, just the shell of it right now. I ended up using it in a photoshoot, as a pinata, and beat the shit out of it.

I have one actual music video that I made. I don’t think it ever made it to MTV, but it’s a three-and-a-half minute music video of me lip-syncing or whatever. It’s called “Play This.” You can dial it up if you want.

Keller Williams - "Play This"

There’s a section in the video where I’m standing on a cliff, and I just throw this guitar off the cliff. It bounced, and you can see it almost go in the water. This is a guitar, an Ovation, that I’d played a bunch when I was a teenager, and it just never went away. I ended up hanging it up outside on my porch, where birds were making a nest in there. As it stayed outside for five years, the actual wood started to peel up and look like that. It made for an interesting cover, I think.

With releasing two records at the same time, are there any considerations? How much music can you actually release in a single year and still feel like you’re being effective?

I don’t think I’m very effective in the record department. For me, making records is about documenting my ideas and where I am in that particular era – having a catalog for folks to go through later in life.

The Raw record, the one with that Ovation on the front, came out of an idea from 2011 of doing twelve songs on twelve different guitars. I did that in about five days. Sitting around listening to it, I didn’t like it. So I scrapped it.

Then this Leo Kottke co-bill came up, and out of all my records, there’s nothing that was really representative of what I do in a co-bill acoustic situation like this, where there’s no looping, no other humans. I revisited that record, pulled four songs from those twelve, and then recorded six more. So that record was probably done in a couple of days.

Keller Williams - Raw

The Sync record – the second one that was with Keller Williams Kwahtro with Danton Boller on bass, Rodney Holmes on drums, and Gibb Droll on guitar – that one was done over the course of months, by way of individual tracking.

I did my tracks first, in a couple of days, and sent them to the drummer, Rodney. Rodney did a couple of months, sent them to the bass player [Danton Boller]. Bass player did his in about a month. Then Gibb Droll came in, and knocked his out in a day or two.

That whole process took about eight months or so. It’s not like a whole lot of work is going in on my end. I mean, there’s a lot of work in the postproduction – a lot of mindless mixing and trying to get it right in that way – but when you step back and look at these two records, it’s definitely representative of two different sides of where I am at the same time.

I’m very grateful to be able to do that. In this day and age, everybody knows people are just going to pluck the song they want, if any, online. With that in mind, these records are about 40 minutes each, which lends itself very nicely and conveniently to vinyl. I’m discovering that’s a medium that people are still actually purchasing.

To say the words music and purchase in the same sentence is becoming very foreign in this day and age. It’s a perfect, beautiful time to be a music lover, with so many different ways to hear it completely free. Or for a few dollars a month, there are so many streaming sites that have everything that’s been recorded at your fingertips. It’s pretty amazing. So making records to sell is kind of silly.

That’s where the whole documentation thing comes in. I was looking at a record today that I’d made in 2004. It’s an hour and fifteen minutes long. Like, fifteen songs long. I’m thinking, “Wow, times have really changed,” because it’s kind of a long record.

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Yeah. It’s true, man. In the CD era, a 75- or 80-minute record was at least a double, if not a triple, LP back in the day, right? Because you only did 20 minutes a side.

That’s exactly right. So things are changing, but I feel really good about having a body of work that I’m proud of. Both [albums] came out on January 20th, so they’re up and running right now. I saw every track on YouTube. I guess YouTube does that, and puts the album art as the visual.

You can hear all that stuff free on YouTube. I’m told that they pay royalties on streams of stuff, but we’ll see if that ever happens.

You should be proud, man. You’ve got an incredible body of work. There are a lot of people that play the guitar. One of the hardest things for a guitar player is to be able to carve out a unique voice, where I can be blindfolded and hear a couple riffs from Hendrix or Jimmy Page and know instantly who it is. I feel like you’ve been able to do the same thing.

Obviously, it’s a lot different than a Hendrix sort of thing, but I do think that I don’t know anybody else that sounds like you, man, and that’s a credit to you as an artist.

Cool. I really appreciate that. Thank you very much.

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