The word “craftsman” gets thrown around a lot in the realm of power-pop. Tommy Keene, though, has earned the right to be called one.
His stylish new solo album, In The Late Bright, on Second Motion Records, is a dreamy, swooning concoction of after-midnight moods, twinkling melodies, gorgeous harmonies and Keene’s signature guitar work. It also has its share of stomping rockers like “Late Bright” and jangly pop — see “A Secret Life Of Stories.”
Keene’s solo career took off in 1984 with a six-song EP titled Places That Are Gone that won the hearts of the Village Voice — it wound up on top of the Voice’s annual EP poll that year — and charted with CMJ. Before that, Keene’s first band was Blue Steel, which also included Nils Lofgren’s brother Mike on guitar. Blue Steel once opened for Nils’ much-beloved first band Grin. Briefly, Keene played in a band called Rage with The Doughboys’ Richard X. Heyman, before joining the popular Washington, D.C., combo The Razz.
After Places That Are Gone, the major labels came calling, looking to sign the pop wunderkind, and two years later, Keene released his classic Songs From The Film, produced by Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick and put out by Geffen. It spawned two MTV videos, “Listen To Me” and a rerecording of the Places That Are Gone title track. Running the gamut from bittersweet, dark and melancholic to loud and infectious, Keene albums like 1989’s Based On Happy Times, 1996’s Ten Years After, 1998’s Isolation Party, and more recent fare like 2006’s Crashing The Ether, have been marvels of pop construction.
And Keene was anxious to talk about his new record, working with Emerick and his days playing alongside former Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg.
It’s been almost three years since your last solo album. Was there anything in particular that brought about the delay?
Tommy Keene: Usually it has nothing to do with when I finish the record; it’s more about finding someone to put it out and then fitting it into their release scheduletend to label hop a bit; it would be nice to get into a regular schedule where I could put out a record every two years. That would be ideal.
You recorded Crashing Into The Ether at home, primarily with yourself and drummer John Richardson. And again, for In The Late Bright, you made the record there. What effect, if any, has working at home had creatively for you? Do you prefer that environment to a studio work space?
TK: It certainly is a lot cheaper! Since I’ve been doing this for quite a while, I actually have a very good work regime/ethic where I get into that space. I love the solitary late-night feel of being alone and having this whole canvas spread before me where I can mess around to my heart’s content. There is a theme here that obviously led to naming the record In The Late Bright, which has many meanings, one of which is the early hours of the morning.
I tend to second-guess myself when other people are in the room and focus more on what they’re thinking rather than intuitively following the track.
You’ve always had a knack for writing great melodies and strong hooks, and those are here in spades, especially on “Realize Your Mind” and “Tomorrow’s Gone Tonight.” But the song “Nighttime Crime Scene” has a certain dark, romantic drama to it that’s really intoxicating. It almost feels cinematic. Did you want that sweeping emotional quality of a great movie scene with that track?