The Art of Acoustic Dance Music:
Keller Williams Discusses His Latest Project, Kwahtro

Words by Corinne Casella
Photo by C. Taylor Crothers

A troubadour for the modern age, Keller Williams’ versatile playing and stage presence makes him one of the most professional and sought after musicians in the business. Often dubbed as a one-man band, his cross-genre playing has enabled him to work with talented musicians spanning the musical spectrum. His latest endeavor, The Keller Williams Kwhatro, puts him into a more collaborative role. The acoustic quartet features Gibb Droll (guitar – Brandi Carlisle/Bruce Hornsby), Danton Boller (bass – Roy Hargrove/Jazz Mandolin Project) and Rodney Holmes (drums – Santana/Steve Kimock).

On the heels of a performance at New York’s City Winery, Williams checks in with us to discuss his latest musical adventure….

What inspired you to form Kwahtro?

KW: Well, I guess since I was a teenager the idea was to play in bands, and to collaborate with other human beings, and share that camaraderie of music. As I got older, out of necessity, I played solo. I started playing by myself, and luckily that kind of took off. It wasn’t broken, so I wasn’t trying to fix something that wasn’t broken. So just the solo thing went on and on, and about ten years ago I was able to actually [start to] play with bands and humans. So since I’m allowed to do that now, I look for people that I really respect and appreciate, as their music and their personality goes. And these guys are just amazing, both in their musicianship as well as the hang. The fact that they allow me into their world is pretty great. These are guys that are just so world-renowned in the sense of who they’ve played with and where they’ve been.

It was just kind of like, “What makes them want to play with me?” I never really got that. The end result is just a fantastic thing that is fresh and new and exciting. We’ve done about six shows together now. So it’s still very in that fresh stage. I guess I’m trying to pull together this vision that I have of acoustic dance music. The upright acoustic bass is a real tricky monster of an instrument, and to find someone that can play as well as Dan Boller does is a real treat. And the world-renowned Rodney Holmes on drums. He’s just known all over the world for the drum seminars that he gives. And Gibb Droll, a good old friend, on acoustic guitars, well it was just this undeniable thing that we have together. And I’m really happy about it.

What inspires you the most about this new group?

KW: I think, I would say its ‘acousticness’. The fact that it’s acoustic guitars, the upright bass, and drums. And that we can actually rehearse without any kind of amplification. When you do that, you can take those dynamics to the stage. You can capture that acousticness on stage. Then with a step of a button, it could sound electric. So the fact that we have that ability to have those dynamics, and the fact that each individual on stage is really listening to each other, and the fact that we’re all able to improvise and go different places, and the only way we can do that is if we listen. With the combination of those dynamics and the listening, it’s very inspiring. Is that less of a novel for you [chuckles]?

No, that’s perfect. So I know you’re doing some reinterpreting with your own music. What’s the best and worst part of doing that with other artists?

KW: I don’t think there’s any worst parts. There’s some songs that I’ve been playing for years and years that I’m a little bit tired of. But yeah, these are songs that people request and sing along to with gusto and because of that, I definitely play them. But I can’t really think of too many worst, too many bad things about reinterpreting the music. I guess, a couple of different Grateful Dead themed projects that I have that people seemed to like and want. I go out and play bluegrass Grateful Dead songs or Grateful Dead songs in a gospel sort of way, I’ve done that a lot the past few years.

The fact that I can go out and play my own songs is very inspiring and makes me feel like I’m doing something for the arts. I never really looked at it as an art, it’s more– my whole career is kind of like a feeble attempt to entertain myself. That’s where it starts first, is entertaining myself. If I can’t be entertained, then I don’t see how anyone else in front of me can be entertained too. And to me, it’s entertaining to take my songs that I’ve made up and do them differently. Not so differently that they’re unrecognizable, and the people that listen to the records and follow the music get it, and it’s not too different. But to do it in kind of a different sort of dynamic is very exciting and inspiring.

I know you have a lot of projects going on at once. I mean, what what keeps you focused?

KW: Adderall [laughter]. No, that’s not true. It’s– just kind of like the weekends. I’ve adapted this weekend warrior mentality. It’s only playing on the weekends. Thursday, Friday, Saturdays are the good nights, the good music nights, at least for me. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, I can kind of get into the mindset of what’s happening on the weekend. Like this past weekend I did three nights in Florida and then flew out to Montana. All those shows were bluegrass shows; Keller & the Keels for three nights and then The Travelin’ McCourys on Sunday night. And just leading those days, leading up to that, just picking bluegrass and playing mandolin. So just kind of like getting into it on the days leading up to it, really helps the focus.

With the tour coming up, is there anything that you’re hoping for?

KW: I’m hoping to document this four-piece, that is the Kwahtro, and to pick just the best recordings that we can pull off and hopefully having a new record come out this fall with this band, hopefully. And with that record, hopefully just this project can continue, and flourish, and evolve. That’s what I’m hoping for.

See Kwahtro perform Friday, February 12th at New York’s City Winery. | Kwahtro