An Interview with Keller Williams

Words by James Farrell
Photo by C.Taylor Crothers

It was a Tuesday night when Keller Williams met drummer Toby Fairchild at a local bar. The two had done a few projects together in the past, and Fairchild was hosting an R&B night with a group of immensely talented musicians. Williams was invited to sit in with them. “We played a few one-chord grooves,” Williams says. “The next thing you know we were doing all these intricate kinds of chord patterns.”

These impromptu jams covered a wide array of music, from Erykah Badu’s “Tyrone” to The Beatles’ “Drive My Car.” Without boundaries, these songs were reworked to the point where their only resemblances to the originals were the lyrics. “That’s kind of when I knew that something could happen with this,” Williams says. “And it could be really fun.”

The musicians that played together that night would ultimately form More Than A Little, a six-piece funk outfit and one of Williams’ many collaborative projects. The group released the album Funk in 2013, and is playing a handful of dates with Williams on his current tour. The aforementioned Tuesday R&B jam was a time of discovery, unexplored territory and the start of something new. However, it was also a regular night of sorts for Williams, whose unbounded creative vision and malleability has made his music so diverse, fresh and exciting.

Over nearly 20 studio albums, Williams has done it all, either alone or with groups like More Than A Little, including a funk album (Funk), a bluegrass album (Grass), an album of remixes (Dance), a collection of Grateful Dead piano covers (Keys), and even an album of original children’s songs (Kids). His upcoming solo album (which he hopes to release this April) promises to continue the trend in diversity.

“Basically, it’s acoustic guitar, upright bass, and big, sick beats that are kind of leaning towards an acoustic dance music type of revolution,” he says. “It’s also got my stamp on it, so there’s that. There’s a certain element of me and my personality that shines through that’s so not dance music. That’s kind of where my head was.”

Whether that distinctive part of his personality will be his fervently impressive rhythmic guitar leads, quirky and observational lyricism, or a mixture of both, will be seen in April. The album, Va.P.E. (an abbreviation for “Virginia Psychedelic Excursion”), will feature Sam Grisman on bass and Further’s John Kadlecik on guitar. It will be a collection of road-tested, previously unrecorded original songs.

In his live shows, Williams is just as exploratory. He is well known for his one-man band act, where he plays a variety of instruments, including guitar and bass, using loop pedals to create band-sized jams— reminiscent of a folkier Phish or Grateful Dead. “It used to be me and a microphone and a guitar and I would play hours and hours in these little corner restaurants and bars and things. I did that for a decade or so. I just wanted to go further,” he says. He picked up the looping idea from Victor Wooten, who he opened for in the late ’90s. Once he got the right equipment, his entire act changed. “Once people started to move, then they started to come to the shows,” he says. “It’s been kind of a work in progress ever since.”

Far from a loner, the other defining element of his career has been the large number of collaborations that he’s been a part of. In addition to More Than A Little, Williams has performed and recorded alongside The String Cheese Incident, The Travelin’ McCourys, bluegrass duo Larry and Jenny Keel, and many more. This past November, Williams played alongside Grateful Dead legend Phil Lesh with Phil and Friends at the historic Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York. “That was something that was very, very, very special for me because it’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of the Grateful Dead,” Williams says. His 2015 winter tour will also feature him playing with the funk/jazz group The Motet, and bluegrass group The Infamous Stringdusters.

Williams has a few more upcoming dates with More Than A Little, kicking off 2015 with back-to-back East Coast performances: a January 16 show at Irving Plaza in New York City, and the next night at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Both shows will feature a one-man band set followed by a set with More Than A Little.

In addition, That 1 Guy is slated to open both shows. “He’s a real special act that’s like no other in the world,” Williams says. “I would definitely come in early and plan on staying late.” Knowing Keller Williams, there will probably be a surprise or two of his own as well. | More Than A Little