“Funny, you know,” Tommy Keene recalls, “when I started playing music, I played drums, and then I eventually worked my way out to the front of the stage,” as guitarist with D.C.’s legendary punk-era pop band the Razz. “I sang backup vocals, but I still wrote a lot of songs.
“Then, of course, I had my own group, so I just went from being the drummer way in the back to the frontman singing every song in the show. And I think when I started doing thatgoing out with, say, the Tommy Keene GroupI was just experimenting. I didn’t know where it would lead. In the back of my mind, I thought, ‘Well, I’ll do this for a couple of years and see what happens,’ and I’ve just continued to do it.”
Keene’s experiment, which he has carried on from Los Angeles since moving there 10 years ago this April, is still linked to D.C. in many minds and hearts. Fans from his early days on indie labels like Dolphin and from his later Geffen period will find his second Matador full-length, Isolation Party, both comfortingly familiar in its catchy dissections of romance and loneliness and more daring in its displays of Keene’s thrilling lead-guitar work. The latter has always been a hallmark, if an underappreciated one, of Keene’s energetic live shows.
“I did think a lot of people miss it,” he says. “I love to play lead guitar. I wouldn’t say I was aI’d say I was probably a rhythm guitar player who basically writes his songs around the guitar parts I come up with. I think I just have a distinctive style that forms the basis of the songs and is probably one of the trademarks of my songwriting.”
While frequently pegged as a power-popperthe Geffen version of his “Places That Are Gone” was a highlight of Rhino’s recent Poptopia! retrospective, and he’s a favorite of many of the related festival’s regularsKeene has always gone for a rockier edge than many of the form’s other practitioners. Past cover versions include tunes by the Stones, Lou Reed, and Alex Chilton (“Hey Little Child” from the superdissipated Like Flies on Sherbert).
Isolation Party offers a take on “Einstein’s Day,” from the catalog of another ’80s college-rock staple. “My musical taste isn’t limited to power-pop music,” Keene says. “I like a lot of edgier stuff; I like a lot of more esoteric rock music. I love that band Mission of Burma. I used to see them at the old 9:30 Club a lot, and they were funny, because they would write these great pop-rock songs, and then they would veer off into this really kind of hardcore kind of out-there stuff. That’s what they were known for, but I always thought they had a few pop songs that were sort of gems, undiscovered, lying in there somewhere. The idea of me doing a Mission of Burma song is, on one hand, me trying to go a little further in one direction and take the Mission of Burma song to my direction. It’s sort of a welding there.”
At the same time that his early work is undergoing something of a second wave of recognition (and there’s talk of Geffen’s issuing an expanded edition of 1986’s Places That Are Gone on CD, a format it has never appeared in), Keene has found support at one of the industry’s most adventurous rock labelsone that hardly goes in for nostalgia acts.
“Tommy Keene is one of the finest songwriters we know,” Matador co-president Gerard Cosloy says. “Anything we can do to introduce his music to more people, we’ll try. What led us to sign Tommy Keene to Matador was that no one else had bothered. Plain and simple. There was no commercial gambit or philosophy involved; it just made no fucking sense that music as fine as his was going unheard. Same reason we’ve signed every artist to the label so far.”
Keene, for his part, recalls meeting Cosloy when he, the Slickee Boys, and the Velvet Monkeys all made an excursion to play Boston in 1983. “Gerard was in high school at the time, and he was the DJ at the club. And ‘Back to Zero’ had just come out, the single, and he came up and he had this fanzine called Conflict, and he introduced himself and said, ‘I really love the single,’ and he had this write-up, ‘Single of the Month’ or something. Which was great, at the time. So then we just kept in touch.”
Keene calls his relationship with Matador “a very informal situation; every record I’ve done has been a one-off. I just send [Cosloy] demos and say, ‘Do you like the songs?’ and he says, ‘Yeah, let’s do a record.’ So it’s not really comparable to other major labelsor indie labels, for that matter.”
Matador, at the very least, will probably never place Keene in an Anthony Michael Hall flick, as the soundtrack-happy Geffen did. Keene and band, still featuring D.C. uberproducer Ted Niceley on bass, bashed through Out of Bounds’ “Run Now” as Hall, um, ran.
Keene’s guitar skills have also gotten him invited on tours with pals like Paul Westerberg and Velvet Crush; even plugged in at the side of someone else’s stage, he exudes confidence and glee. His association with Westerberg, which included opening dates on the Replacements’ Don’t Tell a Soul tour, dates back to 1987. In the notes of last year’s Placemats retrospective All for Nothing/Nothing for All, Keene remembers a night in D.C. when Westerberg “summoned [me] to the dressing room….Paul motioned over to me and croaked, ‘I’m losing my voice. Will you sing some tonight?’ I thought to myself, ‘Oh no,’ but said to him, ‘You’ll be fine.’” Later, Westerberg announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, tonight we got Mr. Tommy Keene.” “The crowd cheered,” Keene continues, “I slid down in my seat, and then to my relief he added, ‘He paid me five bucks to say that.’”
Even after a decade and a half, Keene admits to feeling “a lot of pressure being the frontman, going out there and having to sing every song. When I do my own thing, I get all neurotic and”he laughs”nervous. When you sing every song, you get that sort of inner voice talking to you while you’re singing. It’s a very strange experience….You’re singing the song, and, inside, this voice is going, ‘Uh-oh, you hit that wrong note. Guy over in the audience, he hates it, blah blah blah.’ It really starts to freak you out. It’s funny. I wonder if other singers have these experiences, because you’ve gotta control it. Once you control it and relax, I think it gets a little easier.” He fondly remembers his Velvet Crush tours”They’re a real band. They sort of think alike, act alike, dress alike, they all like the same music”as well as the Westerberg dates. “It’s so much easier, actually, just to go out there and have a good time.”CP