Not so much boiled as cut in half: Mike Keneally talks ‘The Thing That Knowledge Can’t Eat’
Mike Keneally’s latest album, The Thing That Knowledge Can’t Eat, ends a seven-year hiatus from releasing albums.
Speaking from his home in Arizona on the eve of departing for a European tour with Devin Townsend, the Long Island native is game to discuss his much-welcomed return as a recording artist.
Not that the period between this new LP and his last efforts, Scambot 2 and Inkling was marked by inactivity. As Keneally explains, he found himself working on a variety of projects that included touring stints with Townsend (including a run that ended just as COVID-19 lockdowns took hold), Joe Satriani, and productions projects. He also found time to record two releases with producer Scott Schorr and make a remarkable EP with The Bird Brain with fellow luminaries Pete Griffin, Kris Myers, Jonathan Sindelman, and Ben Thomas.
The Thing That Knowledge Can’t Eat was at various points over the last decade-plus, but finished, primarily, in relative isolation between 2020 and 2022. Off the road for the first time in many years, Keneally established a GoFundMe to help build a home-recording rig, which would allow him to work on various projects during the height of the pandemic. It allowed him to appear on records by other artists and complete his latest opus, too, a record that was, for a long period of time going to be a double disc set. (He also established a Patreon account which affords fans direct interaction with him via crowdcasts, access to drawings, rare recordings and diary entries, all with a relatively flat tier system.)
What he instead emerged with was a succinct, 42-minute recording that highlights his inimitable songwriting style, infused with humor, warmth, and an ongoing hope for humanity. The title, Keneally explained in an essay that appeared on his official website, Keneally.com, comes from the writings of late workshop leader/author Malidoma Patrice Somé, whose book, Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman, Keneally has quoted in writing about the album.
He added that a passage from that book reads: “In the culture of my people, the Dagara, we have no word for the supernatural. The closest we come to this concept is Yielbongura, ‘the thing that knowledge can’t eat.’ This word suggests that the life and power of certain things depend upon their resistance to the kind of categorizing knowledge that human beings apply to everything. In Western reality, there is a clear split between the spiritual and the material, between religious life and secular life. This concept is alien to the Dagara. For us, as for many indigenous cultures, the supernatural is part of our everyday lives.”
Throughout, there are tales of social media divisiveness (“Mercury In Second Grade”), belief in the life-altering power of music (“Big Hit Song”) and a deep nod to his progressive rock roots (“Carousel of Progress”). Guests include Keneally’s former boss and former fellow Frank Zappa sideman Steve Vai, Eric Slick (Adrian Belew, Taylor Swift, Dr. Dog), and Nick D’Virgilio (Spock’s Beard, Genesis, Tears for Fears).
The Thing That Knowledge Can’t Eat ultimately serves as a welcome return disc from a musician who has inspired a deep sense of loyalty within his fan base since issuing his first solo set, Hat, in the early 1990s.
In conversation, Keneally is predictably warm, funny, and generous with both his time and answers about the material on The Thing That Knowledge Can’t Eat.
Portions of the following interview have been edited for length and clarity.
I remember that a few years ago when you mentioned that you were happy not to have the idea of an album at the back of your mind. What led you to take a break from releasing album projects?
It was just time. Scambot 2 (2016) was a long, long process making that record and its accompanying album, Inkling(2016). A lot of that music had actually been in the works from Scambot 1, which was 2009. It was kind of like one big era that started with that album. There had been a break from making records after Dog and The Universe Will Providewhich came out in 2004. I didn't come out with any albums of new music for a few years.
I did a live album, Guitar Therapy (2006) and there were reissues for the Hat and Boil That Dust Speck (2007) albums. But there wasn't really a whole bunch of new music. I got involved with the School of Rock around 2007. That was one shorter period of non-album making.
Then I put an odds and sods record out called Wine and Pickles (2008), as a way to re-emerge from that into album making. Then there was just a really fast succession of music that I was making all at the same time: Scambot 1, Evidence of Humanity (2010) with Marco Minnemann, the live album, Bakin' @the Potato! (2011), then Wing Beat Fantastic (2011), the album with Andy Partridge. Then there was You Must Be This Tall (2013), which I made at the same time as Wing Beat Fantastic [and had] all the weird songs that didn't end up on that album. Then there was Scambot 2 which mopped up a lot of music from that whole era. It was kind of an era that was bracketed by Scambot 1in 2009 and Scambot 2 in 2016.
I got all those albums done, was really happy with all of them, and I felt like, "I keep making albums and selling them to the same people!" [Laughs.]
I kind of thought, "Well, maybe I'll take a break from album making and see if I can find some other way to get my big mug out there and get peoples' attention. Maybe they can explore this vast body of work." Between various special editions and stuff I've put out over 30 titles since the early '90s. I was just looking at this stack of albums thinking, "That's good for now. I feel like taking a break." Like you alluded to, during that whole time I had been thinking, "Gotta finish the album. Gotta finish the album." It was kind of exciting to have a period of a few years where I wasn't thinking that.
Sonny Rollins had a period where he went up and played saxophone on the Williamsburg Bridge. He didn't make records or do gigs. He rediscovered his creativity somewhere in the process. Is that part of taking a break like that?
It did feel like it was a good time to not force ideas out. I'm fortunate that when I'm in a creative frame of mind ideas will come. At least musically. Lyrically is another thing. The struggle is always to come up with words to these things. But the music seems to be streaming all the time. But it was nice to say, "OK, I'm going to be kind to the muse and not always pounding on it, "Give me something! Give me something!"' [Laughs.] It was just, "Let me think of other things for a while."
It was during that period that I met and started doing things with Devin Townsend and there was three years of going out on the road with [Joe] Satriani. I was just happy to be going out and playing in Joe's band. That was always fun. He treats his musicians really well. I was recording with him too and working with various other artists. I enjoyed the sideman thing and I enjoyed not having to force my creativity to come out. I decided that I would allow things to occur at their own pace.
That seems like a natural thing to have happen.
Then, around the end of 2018, I wrote a song for about the first time in four years. That was "Big Hit Song." I remember sitting on the floor of my bedroom at the time and just feeling like, "I'm going to write a song." I hadn't done that in a real long time. That song came out real quick and real natural and I really liked it. I thought, "I guess this is happening again." At that point, I was dealing with [business partner] Scott Chatfield with the concept of a possible box set. A retrospective box set. We were kind of excited about that and we were gathering up material and stuff that we had in the archive but wasn't released. But we realized that we needed some new music. I said, "Well, I wrote this new song, let's record that."
In very quick succession we did "Big Hit Song," "Logos" and "Mercury In Second Grade." Originally that was going to be the new material, the sweeteners on this box set, which was going to be mostly previously released stuff. Then the pandemic hit and, through conversations with Scott, we realized that no one was earning any money, everybody was concerned about their financial futures, and so it just didn't feel good to a retrospective release at that time. We were going to put out a box set where at least 50 percent of it was stuff that people had bought before.
The people who like my music, we've formed a relationship through the years and they want to support me and I didn't want to abuse that trust, so we abandoned that idea of the box set. With the help of very, very kind people that answered the call at GoFundMe because I was panicking about my financial future, I was able to put together a recording rig at home. At that point I said, "Let me take this new music that we had in the works that was going to be the new stuff on the box set and instead create a new album." I liked those new songs. They were worthy of standing alone just as songs on a new album.
You were essentially working on the album alone.
I have relied so strenuously on the creative efforts of recording engineers, particularly Mike Harris and Jeff Forrest who are just so good at what they do. I was starting from square one in terms of being an engineer. I’ve done home recordings, including things that have wound up on albums but they tended to be really eccentric, really peculiar stuff. Idiosyncratic stuff, like “Cat Bran Sammich” on Scambot 1 that weren’t meant to sound like anything but a weird snapshot of the weird shit that goes on in my head.
With this material, I wanted it to be more slick in particular because I knew there was going to be stuff on the album that had been engineered by Mike Harris and I wanted it to sit side-by-side with that professionally engineered music. So that process began. And that was a lengthy process. [Laughs.]
The music comes from different eras and you were thinking about a longer record at one point, right? And you kind of boiled it down.
I didn’t boil it down as much as chop it in half. [Laughs.] What you hear on the new album is what would have comprised the first disc of a proposed two-CD set. At the time I was working on it—and I started working on it in 2020—it was still in the depths of lockdown—I thought, “Surely I can get this album done by the time that lockdown is done! By the time we all step out, squinting into the sunlight again, I’ll have this record finished.” At that point it was going to be a two-CD set with the second CD being much longer than the first CD. It would also have been a collection of recordings from over the years but whereas the first disc, which is now the new album, is more accessible, the second disc is mostly instrumental and often very abstract, very peculiar. They were very much two sides of the coin which is me.
But it took so [expletive deleted] to finish the first album that I didn’t want to keep it waiting for the second disc. At this point the second disc is still here in my laptop. It’s about 70 percent done, I think. That last 30 percent—considering how much touring I’m about to do this year—is going to take some time.
The more I listened to the first disc, the more I thought, “Man, this is a statement by itself. This album works all by itself.” Instead of doing an endless epic a la Scambot 2/Inkling or Dancing (2000)—which is 80 minutes of music on one disc—I said, “Let’s make this one of the concise albums.” Every once in a while I do that: Wooden Smoke (2001) is around 45 minutes long, Wing Beat Fantastic is 40 minutes long, and I’ve noticed—I don’t think it’s coincidental that those albums were very well received and I think part of what people liked about them is their concision.
They come from a place of the records that we all grew up with. Around 40-ish minutes, easily fit on two sides of vinyl even though neither of those records came out on vinyl. We are talking about doing vinyl for the new record but we haven’t done it yet. I thought, “Let’s have this be another in that tradition.” Wooden Smoke came out in 2001; exactly 11 years later, Wingbeat Fantastic came out in 2012. Here we are 11 years later in 2023; apparently it’s time again for another short-ish album. So this now is another one in that lineage.
There are baseball teams that claim they only make it to the World Series in even years, you only make concise albums every decade plus one.
Yep! Every 11 years I put out a fairly short album. [Laughs.] But it’s been seven years since my last album came out. There was something to be said for not getting a dump truck and unloading a bunch of stuff on peoples’ heads. This album is being received very well and once again I think it’s because it’s something that people can grasp; it’s not something you have to devote large amounts of hours to trying to decode. [Laughs.] There’s a couple of peculiar things on this record, but because it’s a shorter album you’ve got more time to figure it out. [Laughs.]
Your acoustic playing on this record really struck me and I started me thinking about how you’re one of the people who has a distinct approach to both acoustic and electric guitar.
I guess it’s just the guitar telling me what to play because there’s a sound that an acoustic guitar produces that an electric guitar doesn’t. It does tend to lend itself to a different style of playing and maybe more open strings and maybe more alternate tunings and things that ring out in a different way. Tonally, timbrely, its own beast. They’re both from the guitar family but they really are different instruments that want to be treated differently. But, also, an acoustic guitar is a beautiful, orchestration thing.
In “The Carousel of Progress,” which is the last song on the record, which is this crazy, multi-movement prog epic, on the choruses, once it gets into the song part of it, finally—like three minutes in—when it gets to the chorus section—what I think is the chorus—I’m layering electrics and acoustics. That’s a beautiful sound to me, when you have electrics and acoustics playing the same rhythm part together, it’s so rich and nice sounding.
The song “Celery,” which is the main hard rock song on the record, or “Lana,” which is the other crazy kind of heavy thing, it wouldn’t have made to have too much sense to have acoustic guitar be the primary instrument on those tunes; those songs want to be blasted out.
You brought Steve Vai in for “Celery.” And he plays beautifully on it. You must have known you were getting a certain quality performance but I’m guessing there was part of you that was also wondering what shade of amazing it would be.
What he plays is perfect and obviously I couldn’t be happier for what he did for my song. It totally validated my choice of my asking him to play on it. He was so utterly willing and very generous. He doesn’t screw around. I knew that he would come up with something great. What I didn’t know, necessarily, what an incredible creative patch he’s in right now. His own new record, which came out last year [Inviolate] is just phenomenal. He’s just like really, really inspired. I feel like he listened to the track I gave him for “Celery” and just instinctively knew what the song needed and I couldn’t be happier.
You wrote some notes about the material on this album and, for the song “Both Sides of the Street,” you mentioned that it was inspired by a dream in which you were a roadie for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. We recently lost David Crosby and I wondered if you could comment on the impact his work had on you.
Of the four [in that band] it’s probably him and Neil Young that probably had the biggest influence. Neil … every once in a while when I’m playing acoustic guitar I’ll do a chunky rhythm in a way with maybe a half tone dissonance between the open E and F on the B string and I’ll say, “Oh, there’s Neil, he just showed up!” But Neil’s influence on me is primarily as an electric guitar player. The coda of “Cinnamon Girl” echoes throughout my entire career I think.
With David Crosby: If I Could Only Remember My Name was an amazing record but I think really the thing that was the crazy moment of David Crosby’s career that really sticks with me is the live version of “Triad” from 4 Way Street. There’s a song that was recorded during the Dancing sessions but didn’t get released until Wine and Pickles called “The Endings of Things.” That is, in equal measure, influenced by Jeff Buckley, who I was obsessed with at the time, and that performance of “Triad.” If you listen to “Endings of Things” and think about “Triad” you will definitely hear it echoing throughout.
But then there’s his approach to alternate tunings and the way he uses open strings in his guitar parts. Like in “Guinevere,” which is unbelievably beautiful, just haunting. That stuff definitely takes hold when I get an acoustic guitar in my hands. That influence runs deep.