PROFILE: Mike Keneally
by R.Andrew Rathbone
Mike Keneally, 27, began practising Frank Zappa songs on guitar when he was just 13. Beginning with easier tunes, he eventually graduated to more difficult material such as "Sinister Footwear", "The Black Page", and "Montana." The practive finally paid off in October 1987 when, during his ritual weekly call to Zappa's Barking Pumpkin Hotline [818-PUMPKIN], Keneally heard that Frank was rehearsing for an upcoming tour and needed a "stunt" guitarist (or as Frank's job description phrased it, "someone who plays all the guitar parts I can't play"). On a lark, Mike phoned the studio and told the secretary that he knew the guitar parts to all of Zappa's songs, and that he played the keyboards and sang, as well.
At the audition, Frank would name a song, prompting Keneally to dive right into in. "I was playing by ear at that point," Mike explains, "because I'd played along with the songs for so long." In less than a week, Frank Zappa hired him to fill the shoes previously worn by Steve Vai and Adrian Belew.
Prior to joining Zappa, Keneally wasn't known primarily as a guitarist. A keyboardist since age seven, he played mostly keyboards in his own band, Drop Control. "I thought that was going to be my fate," he laughs, "to wear polyester white suits and play nice little organ tunes." Instead of a leisure suit, the self-described "progresso-head" picked up a guitar and plopped himself in front of the turntable to explore the instrument: "I decided a good discipline exercise would be to learn all the guitar parts on all the Gentle Giant albums," he says. "It turned out to be very valuable." But even more valuable was the time spent learning from Zappa's discs: "I managed to develop a pretty good memory by playing stuff off of them," he says. "One of Frank's names for me was Evelyn Wood because of my unusual amount of comprehension and fast recognition of patterns. I can read music, but I don't sight-read it.
After rehearsing with Zappa for four months, Keneally joined the eclectic musician for two-month tours of the East Coast and Europe in 1988. All the shows were digitally recorded, and Zappa released Broadway The Hard Way, a compilation of several songs from the tour. The CD version contains eight extra songs, including a version of "Murder By Numbers" cut in Chicago with Sting.
After the tour, Keneally briefly played in the studio with XTC and then became a Fender endorser. An avowed Fender man, he plugs his Eric Clapton Stratocaster into a Fender Twin Reverb amp, and uses Fender strings and straps. Lately, he's also been playing a Fender-made Heartfield RR, plugging straight into his amp.
Since Frank has sworn off touring, Keneally has graduated to the second generation of Zappas: Dweezil and his sister, Moon, used a band instead of a stand-up comic to warm up the audience during the taping of their CBS sitcom, Normal Life. In addition to playing in that band, Mike had a cameo role in the show, appearing as "Dweezil's guitar player."
Keneally appears on Dweezil's new album, tentatively titled Concession (sic) and due for release this month. He's played on solo albums by Buddy Blue and Mark DeCerbo, as well as on the Blood And Concrete soundtrack. As a change of pace, Keneally will play a series of concerts at the Brooklyn Academy of Music next March, where composer/conductor Joel Thome is adapting some of Frank Zappa's music for a 25-piece orchestra, rock musicians, and a vocal group.
What did Keneally learn from life on the road? "How to lead a band," he states, "how to effectively get your ideas across, and, hopefully, how to do it without hurting anybody's feelings. The way I got the job was fortuitous. It's important to remember not to get discouraged when things aren't going your way, because things can change very quickly."
©1990 Guitar Player Magazine