Lovers Lane
Copernicus Center

Robert Earl Keen interview

| October 30, 2009

How To Be Big And Rich


This summer, after his mid-afternoon Lollapalooza set, Texan singer/songwriter Robert Earl Keen found himself in a rather deserted portion of Navy Pier. Opposite a mysterious arcade machine with a sinister Gyspy skull inside, he popped in a quarter and said, “I want to be big. No! No! Sound big. I want to sound big!”

Well it could have happened — and the truth isn’t so far off. Struck by his albums’ tendencies to sound unfettered by modern (post war) production techniques, he told longtime buddy Lloyd Maines he wanted this fall’s The Rose Hotel (Lost Highway) to sound big and so it does.

“I’ve always done everything on a shoestring or out of my own pocket,” he says, “always felt that was my limiting factor: the expense of making a record. I was limited with this as well, but when I started talking to Lloyd about this record, he asked me what I wanted to do and I said ‘I just want to make a really fat . . . a lot of rhythm stuff going on, a lot of singing going on.’ He was totally behind me. There wasn’t any kind of confusion about what I was saying.”

Keen says that last bit with a hint of a chuckle. Like many from the distinguished line of Lone Star troubadours, he was sick the day they taught orchestration at school. But he also considers himself a special case when it comes to leading his band.

“One of the big jokes with my band and me is they say, ‘Oh, so you want kind of purple sunsets?'” he snickers. “‘That’s exactly right, guys!’ Matter of fact, I hired my steel [guitar] player because I told him, ‘What I want here, Marty, is I want some purple sunsets.’ He goes, ‘I know exactly what you’re talking about.'”

Fans who’ve been in Keen’s corner since 1984’s No Kinda Dancer needn’t brace themselves for a string of George ‘n’ Tammy duets sprinkled between wide-lens, Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds madness. Sunsets, while not always purple, venture towards indigo even though what’s on the horizon wasn’t exactly stirring Keen this time around.

“I find some certain themes that recur,” he says, assaying his career, “but one thing I like about Rose Hotel and one reason I called it that and like the song is it’s a little out of my league and is something I’ve been trying to lock into for a long time, which is kind of an ‘urbanscape.’ I do a lot of sort of desert/Southwestern/Texas/whatever you want to call it, a lot of my stuff has that kind of setting and I have very little urbanscape. That was what I liked about it and I locked into that song really easily. I don’t know why. That was, in some ways, out of the norm for me. However, in ‘Throwing Rocks,’ that particular song is my bread-and-butter murder ballad. I never seem to get into that kind of song without killing someone,” he laughs. “I’ve done that a lot. There are themes I don’t seem to be able to escape, which continues to this day. I’m always trying to stretch, particularly musically, because when I started I was feeling really limited. Now I feel fairly robust musically.”

The album opens with the title track, a slow-roller bustling with standard Keen fare (accordion, mandolin) but somehow sounding fuller with cameos by 12-string electric guitar and layered vocals. It’s followed immediately by “Flying Shoes,” which enters on a bass guitar pattern that sets the beat more than the drums do, while a guitar wet with delay provides the color.

“I like Ry Cooder records a lot,” Keen mentions. “Some of those ones that he made like Chicken Skin Music or Into The Purple Valley. He always had all these vocals and great rhythm thing going on. And a lot of it would be filled up by like a buried slide-guitar track and maybe an upfront, big, electric rhythm thing happening. A lot of things going on at one time. Not that it sounds like a Ry Cooder record, but the reason I give you that example would be I wanted something that it was not just linear going from the beginning to the end of the song. Just spilling out all over the place sonically.”

— Steve Forstneger

For the full interview, grab the November issue of Illinois Entertainer, available free throughout Chicagoland.


Category: Features, Monthly

About the Author ()

Comments are closed.