Power pop, like bubblegum before it, is often viewed as the domain of skinny-tie moptoppers singing ditties about girls and cars. Longtime power pop icon Tommy Keene, however, doesn't fit this stereotype. His moodier music accentuates the “power” in power pop, building his muscular guitar sound upon an expert mix of jangle and buzz.
Talking from his Nichols Canyon home, Keene reveals his recipe for crafting his distinctive sound. “I double a lot of guitars…in such a way that they sound more spread out and bigger. The layering of the guitar has always been my thing. I will have the main guitar part, then I will have an embellishment and then I will have a 12-string acoustic on top of the main part. Everything fits together in sort of a stereosonic realm.”
His new album, Behind The Parade (Second Motion Records), boasts classic examples of Keene's rock craftsmanship: in the trumpet-punctuated noise pop of “Deep Six Saturday,” in the Byrdsian chime of “Already Made Up Your Mind,” and in the propulsive drive of “Factory Town.” Keene's music effortlessly projects a timeless quality, without sounding like it's trying to evoke Beatles-esque nostalgia.
After working with star producers like Geoff Emerick, Bob Clearmountain and T-Bone Burnett, Keene now creates his music in the comfort of his living room. He professes that, “all you need is one good mic-pre/compressor and one good microphone.” By recording at home, Keene finds he's no longer “chasing the demo” in the studio. “Inspiration,” he says, “really strikes once. You have to be ready to make the most of the moment.”
Home for Keene has long been Los Angeles, although the Bethesda, Maryland native typically gets associated with Atlantic Coast power popsters like Chris Stamey and Mitch Easter. He fell for Southern California when, as a kid, he accompanied his father on a business trip and visited Disneyland. A seven-year-old Keene got turned on to Buffalo Springfield when he saw them open for the Beach Boys at the DAR Convention Center in Washington DC. “I was pretty entranced at that age with West Coast music,” he admits.
It's a scene that still gets him excited. He recently realized that he lived on the same block as Gram Parsons' and Chris Hillman's fabled Burrito Manor #2. “I walked my dog past that house every day,” he marvels with a youthful enthusiasm. “Imagine what was going on there!”
A cult figure favorite among music aficionados, Keene also is well-regarded among his peers. He has toured with Paul Westerberg and Robert Pollard, with whom he also did an album under the name the Keene Brothers. He relishes the sideman role. “I'm perfectly content to play guitar and not be in the spotlight,” he confesses. “I love playing, especially when it's great music.”
And what does Keene consider a great music? He lists (in no order of preference) Big Star's Radio City, the Beatles' Revolver, Elvis Costello's This Year's Model and the Who's Who's Next as his top pop albums.
Tommy Keene performs tonight at Silverlake Lounge.