By James Calemine
John Keane stands as a pillar in the Athens, Georgia, musical community. Keane’s credentials include working with R.E.M., Widespread Panic , Uncle Tupelo, Vic Chesnutt, Indigo Girls, Nancy Griffith, 10,000 Maniacs, Billy Bragg, BR5-49, Drivin N Cryin, Indigo Girls, Jack Logan, Robert Earl Keen, Warren Zevon, The Jody Grind, The Bottle Rockets, Cowboy Junkies, Bloodkin and Taj Mahal to name only a few. He also originated the stellar cover band Strawberry Flats back in the 80s as well as served as a musical conduit to many artists in Athens. In this Swampland interview, Keane talks about Athens in the 80s, music, recording, his book on Pro Tools, his favorite sessions, Widespread Panic and his latest musical endeavors.
James Calemine: I know you began playing guitar at 8. What other instruments can you play?
John Keane: I also play bass, pedal steel guitar, and a little banjo on occasion.
JC: What influenced you to record/produce music? Instead of being in a band?
JK: I’ve always been a bit of a recording geek. When I was a kid I wasn’t shy about dumpster diving, and my room was full of broken amplifiers and cast off clock radios. My dad was in radio, and there was always a tape recorder around, so I was always recording as a hobby. When I joined a local band named Phil and the Blanks, I suddenly had access to a mixer and some microphones. Shortly afterwards I bought a Teac reel-to-reel four track from Randall Bramblett and started making demos with my band and other musician friends like Randall. I managed to get some of that material played on the local campus radio station, and pretty soon word got out that there was a guy in town who could record bands. There were no studios in town at the time, and it was very expensive to go to Atlanta to make a recording, so I stayed pretty busy. I started charging a fee for my services, and the studio evolved from there. After a few years, I decided to quit playing in bands for a living and record full time.
JC: You opened your Athens studio in 1981. What was Athens like back then? What do you think makes Athens a vital musical location…talk about the town’s magic for you.
JK: Athens had more of a small town vibe back then. There were only two or three places to play in town, and the music community was much smaller and more closely knit than it is now. The musicians all knew each other and supported each other by going to shows. In the summer the students would all leave and we townies would have the whole place to ourselves. Downtown Athens would be completely empty at night except for the Forty Watt, the Last Resort and Tyrone’s, and these clubs really struggled to survive while the students were gone. When a band would play at one of these venues, it was a real event, and the same crowd would pack the place and rock out. It was more like a party atmosphere, and people really got into the music more than they do now. Nowadays it’s like Mardi Gras every night, and the students are more into socializing in non music venues than going to hear bands.
JC: You’ve said R.E.M’s Out of Time album was one of your favorite ‘in-house’ recordings. If there are any, what are your favorite Widespread Panic albums?
JK: I’ll always have love Space Wrangler, but Til’ the Medicine Takes is my favorite. That record is an amazing collection of songs.
JC: You are a trusted ally in the Panic family. You’re really a member of the band…literally at times. Talk about your rare relationship with Panic.
JK: I go way back with Widespread. I remember when they started playing around town. They were the antithesis of what was going on in the music scene at the time. Everybody thought they were nuts to play Grateful Dead covers. That was considered by the hip townies to be about the most uncool thing you could possibly do. They lived in a house down the street from me, and that place was party central. The cops would show up over there on a regular basis, but they had a hard time figuring out who actually lived there. I knew they had a unique thing going, but I didn’t realize how special they were until they came to my studio to record Space Wrangler. My studio was pretty primitive then, and I had no idea what a record producer was. I just put them in a room full of microphones, stuck my head in the door and yelled “rolling” and off they went. We’ve been thick as thieves ever since. In 2006 I got to tour with them four a few months, and I had the time of my life. It was like running away and joining the circus.
JC: You literally wrote the book on Pro Tools–a revolutionary element in the recording industry. Talk about your insight, expertise and the book you wrote.
JK: If you had told me in 1986 that I would soon be recording music on a computer with no tape involved, I’d have said you’re out of your mind. But in 1991 I took the plunge and bought a Mac and a small Pro Tools rig and set about learning how to use it. The learning curve was unbelievable, and I was very discouraged for a few years, but I stuck with it and eventually found uses for it. Several years later, they came out with a “consumer” version that was affordable, and musician friends were buying these systems and trying to use them at home, often with disastrous results. There were no books or training courses available, everyone had to figure it out on their own. I was getting lots of phone calls, and I realized this must be happening all over the country. I decided to put together a series of step-by-step lessons to guide beginners through the basics, and published The Musician’s Guide to Pro Tools on my own. McGraw-Hill has it now, but there won’t be any future revisions. The book has instead been converted to an online video course, which is available at Ashbury Music Hall.com.
JC: Didn’t Panic work on their latest material at your studio a couple of months ago?
JK: Yes, they came in for a few days to work on some songs for the next album. They’ll be coming back in January to start a new record.
JC: It was great to see your old band Strawberry Flats perform again. Any other gigs lined up?
JK: We play every couple of months at the Melting Point in Athens. The next show there is Friday February 5. We’re also coming back to Saint Simon’s March 26 and 27 at Gnat’s Landing.
JC: Excellent. What are your latest and upcoming projects going on now?
JK: I’ve recorded an album of acoustic piano numbers with Randall Bramblett that will be coming out soon. It’s a beautiful record recorded with piano, upright bass and drums. I’m currently mixing a live record that Widespread recorded at the Classic Center in 2000. It will probably be out sometime in the Spring. I’m also working on projects with Nathan Sheppard and The Incredible Sandwich.