Keith Kenniff (Goldmund/ Helios): “Writing the music for me is kind of selfish” Interview by Innerversity Sound


Keith Kennith has been a musician since the age of 12. Having played in country music and jazz bands, Kenniff, a graduate of the Berklee college of music in Boston MA, is a multi-instrumentalist, adept at percussion, guitar, bass and piano. As a working musician Kenniff scores advertisements, film scores and TV shows. He releases music of different forms under the guises of Goldmund (post-classical Piano), Helios (ambient/electronic) and Mint Julip (Indie). The sixth Goldmund album Sometimes and the eigth Helios album Yume have been recently released.

Innerversitysound: Let’s talk about your new albums, specifically Sometimes as your Goldmund persona, in terms of its components, the environments in which it was composed or recorded.

Keith Kenniff: Golmund is predominately solo piano. I put a lot more textural stuff on this one. It’s mostly really simple, it’s like a simple loop or a couple of different layers and it’s not too magical it’s just like a synth sound run through a couple of different effects. I kept it minimal and pretty simple, so it’s a lot of reverb. Ryuichi Sakamoto did a bunch of ambient stuff on one track and there was a lot of my effects on other tracks. It’s solo piano, I don’t really put a lot of reverb on there or anything, it’s kind of minimal and something that’s really synthy and textural in the background. Usually that stuff is created from organic elements.

Innerversitysound: The Sakamoto collaboration on A Word to Give how did this come about?

Keith Kenniff: In 2011 I put out a compilation for the Japanese Tsunami that happened, we did a benefit CD (For Nihon). I just reached out, I think a friend of mine knew him, so I reached out to him and he said that he would see if he wanted to get involved. So his manager sent me an email and then Ryuichi sent me a track soon afterwards. Then I talked with him a little bit and we were both mutual fans of each other’s work and then he asked me to do a track for a benefit that he was putting together and so I sent over something that I had improvised on piano and then he sent it back a couple of days later with a bunch of ambient textural stuff that he had put underneath. It was pretty cool I never thought I would get to write anything with him. It came together really quick but that’s kind of how we met each other. I did a ghostly records showcase show, I had done a track with them and I got to meet him in person. He’s such a sweet guy. I loved just doing that little thing with him. One day, probably more, in the future.

Innerversitysound: Can you convey an impression of the general thematic idea of ‘Sometimes’. Or of the development of technique that was achieved and conveyed by this album or by any other schematic description that you would like to convey as representative of the album?

Keith Kenniff: I don’t know, each one of these albums comes together haphazardly. I don’t have any kind of theme. It was basically just me improvising on piano and recording things. Every track is like a little window on time. So I never set out to make a new album it kind of just came together. I started writing new stuff four years ago and I went back and I looked at all these little sketches and touched things up a little bit. Some were finished and some just needed a little bit of work but all of a sudden I had this track list and I had an album that came together. It wasn’t a conscious decision to make it any kind of aesthetic choice with all the textural stuff. I felt like I had done a lot of early piano with textural stuff and I just wanted to make it a little bit more interesting, a little bit more fun. Kind of keep it a little bit striped down.

Innerversitysound: There has been a lot in your interviews about this notion of no planning or of no conscious structural planning as an artistic choice. A conscious choice not to overly compose, but more improvise. Is that from a background in jazz or is that a choice about how to approach sound production?

Keith Kenniff: I think a bit of both, I don’t know. I studied a lot of jazz in college and so I like that aspect of just showing up and playing and not knowing what is going to happen. That’s always fun and I feel that when you structure something out and pre-plan everything, it kind of seems like work to me, to do a show that way or to play that way. But if you do something that’s kind of on the spot then it can either fail or succeed. I think that when it does succeed it feels a little more satisfying. Especially with the Goldmund album, with the Helios album, Yume, I set out to write an album. It just took a while and it was pretty methodical and I would take a track and I would work on it a really long time. But with the Goldmund album I just kind of recorded here and there and I think it works better if I don’t have any expectations. If I try to force out an album I think it will come out and feel muddy I guess. So this way it’s like a little journal. It spans over the course of four years and these themes are not solid. It’s very vague. They’re very short pieces, so they are even kind of half-finished ideas. I purposely didn’t take a two minute track and work it out so it’s five minute track or create some sort of build. Like you said, I didn’t want to compose these tracks, I wanted to have these kind of snippets with no discernible middle, beginning and an end. Just these little moments.

Innerversitysound: Both Sometimes and Yume are mastered by Taylor Dupree. He has a specific mastering style and a formidable output. Can you convey how this relationship developed and how the interaction between artist and mastering technician proceeded for you?

Keith Kenniff: I had done a bunch of mastering myself and that was just out of necessity. That’s really not a good way to do things. I mastered the last Goldmund full length and I was really unhappy with it. I did the album really quickly and I didn’t know that it was going to be released. I gave it a shot and I am not going to do it again. I don’t think it is a good idea to master your own stuff. So I have been talking to Taylor over the years and we have become friends. He does this for a living and he is very competent and he puts a lot of thought behind mastering, especially mastering this type of music. And so I just sent it to him and said ‘do your thing’. I was pretty sure he was going to have a nice subtle touch, he wasn’t going to squash it too much. I wasn’t going to get these tracks back that were just really slammed and compressed. He did really nice subtle things to it and just made sure it was kind of tied up. Just spruced it up a little bit, which was exactly what it needed. I do a fair amount of mixing so that the premasters had some stuff on the bus that was compressed or whatever, so I didn’t need him to transform it, I just needed him to put his little magic on it.

Innerversitysound: There is a sense of otherworldliness that is cultivated both in how you convey your sensibility and within your interviews you stress wanting to base impressions not on reality but on a hyperrealism. This sense of abstracted idealism, does it not give rise to a sense of disenchantment with the real.

Keith Kenniff: I don’t know. I think the reason I did music in the first place was that it was a form of escape. Like when I was a kid I started writing music as a teenager and it was just a way of escape all the craziness of being a teenager and when I was an adult it was to escape, when I went to school, the craziness of all the stress and everything. So writing music was always kind of a safe haven where I could tune out all the stress and things in the real world that was going on and dive into something that was pretty vague and didn’t hold any expectations, it was just kind of sitting there. It’s still that way but I don’t want to convey any specific emotions. It’s hyperreal because all the music is textural and vague and there are just these parts that come in and out and don’t make a whole lot of musical sense if you want to dissect it. There is not an A section, a B section and an ending. Each one of them has a different kind of structure and when I start on these songs, especially the Helios material I don’t have any technique I just start over from scratch. They all have a common theme, they are quiet and ambient, but I don’t set out to make them that way, that’s just how they become over time, I guess.

Innerversitysound: This disenchantment is typical of the aspect to your music which is likened to new age; when I say new age I generally mean people who have a problem with secular modernity and seek a form of gentler aspect to the world, and seem to find this in a rediscovery of the past, of a cloistered medieval attitude. Is it a form of avoidance of how life is, a blissful ignorance?

Keith Kenniff: Not really. I mean writing the music for me is kind of selfish. I don’t meditate, I feel I don’t need to because the music just serves that purpose. I can center myself and sit down and explore things without any judgement or pressure or things like that. But I really try purposefully not to think about things like ‘what it all means’. I think I have just written it over the years and it has just become like a process or thing to do. Some people need to write in a journal, some people do different things, some people meditate and for me it’s just writing music. That it’s become my career, I am just glad that it has become that but I have never set out for it to become anything more than it really was. It was just a way for me to escape things and dive into myself and explore things in a very abstract way. I don’t know if that makes sense or not.

Innerversitysound: You have a healthy commercial attitude for a musician, willing to work for commercials and films to put food on the table, while at the same time able to move creatively through the various technologies and forms of the musical environment and forms of production. Did you ever buy in to the experiment purist ideal of anti-commercialism and a strict resistance?

Keith Kenniff: I don’t know. When I went to school, even before I went to school, I was a gigging musician when I was a teenager, I met a lot of people who were just kind of sidemen. You know, joined various bands or taught lessons. To me, if you want to be a musician and have that as your career that is one thing and if you want to be a musician and have a separate career to fund your being a musician in your spare time that’s another thing. So I went to school to become a career musician because that’s what I wanted to do and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. If the music that I do for Goldmund or Helios gets licensed for a commercial I don’t have a problem with that. I need to make a living, I have kids, a family, and I don’t know how to do anything else. I spent my whole life becoming a musician so I have to make it a career and I don’t have any idealistic aversion to doing commercial work. To me it just seems to be that that’s a way to make a living because I can’t sell records. The music that I do is super niche and I have a pretty good base of people who are a fan base who have kept up with it over the years but I don’t think I could sustain either of these projects as a whole time career. And I can’t tour because I have kids, so I can’t do the crazy touring thing. I just need to figure out a way to make it work. I started making music as a musician for hire. I used to be a performer for hire, I used to play in different studios and different bands and songwriters would hire me. So I don’t think there is anything different. It’s just people hiring me to write music.

Innerversitysound: A lot has been said about your early musical life and your development through instrument, bands and musical forms. What is on the horizon for you to learn, master, produce and perform in whatever guise? What excites you at the edge of the real and the possible that is yet to be revealed?

Keith Kenniff: It’s kind of weird, I have been through different things, especially with the commercial work, I have ended up doing a lot of different things. I think it’s all kind of mashed in together. It’s not like I am going to go through my Bluegrass period. I am only good at doing some things. I’m learning to get better at what I do, but I think at this point to take on another instrument, or something, or just really dive in to doing something… I am just really developing what I really know what to do. Technology wise I am always learning how to get better at being an engineer and a mixer but I keep it kind of minimal on purpose and I stick with what works and if it doesn’t fit my needs I will just do something else. I am not one of these people that are constantly taking on new things, I tried mastering for a little while but I don’t do it anymore. I feel that there are people that do it better. You know like Taylor, he does it all the time. It was interesting, because I learnt the process and I learnt about it but I wasn’t going to become a master engineer and so I did it for a little while but I kind of leave it up to the people who know what they are doing and spend time to develop their craft specifically. I feel like I need to focus on all the things I have got going on and not focus on anything else. Just so those other things don’t get neglected.

Innerversitysound: You can’t tour, you told us the limitations, but do you play live in your home town or any other forms of live?

Keith Kenniff: Not any more, although I am kind of playing with Lubomyr Melnyk in this one off show in New York on the 27th November. It’s just kind of a one off thing. I used to tour a lot, five or six years ago but the Helios stuff in particular was very hard to pull off live. I got to a point that it really made sense that I did it live but I wasn’t releasing any records and the Goldmund stuff is easier because I can show up and just play piano. I don’t know, touring I have done it a lot and I just don’t like the life of it. I like getting on stage and sharing things with other people but the whole travelling and dealing with promoters and all that stuff. That stuff always really wore me out, so I don’t play live anymore but I miss it sometimes but it’s also really stressful and there are certain aspects that I don’t miss.

Innerversitysound: With the Helios album, it’s sort of a form of post rock music that takes aspects of the genre of rock but injects more crafted technique and precision in the playing. With Helios album, you played all the instruments yourself and convey a finely textured example of this form of highly crafted post rock. Can you tell us a little about the development of this album?

Keith Kenniff: This one took a really long time to write. I think one of the songs took ten years to write. So I kept writing it and rewriting it and coming back. It just took a really long time to kind of flesh out what I wanted to do. It sounds pretty similar to things that I have done before so I guess that doesn’t really make sense. It’s not a huge departure but I did an album in 2007 where I was singing and I kind of explored something like that. I think that the bands I like most are the ones that find something that works and stick to it and just kind of hone that song writing instead of going off in all these different kind of directions. I feel that there is a lot of emphasis on when people put out an album then put out a follow up album and well where have they gone? Where’s the development? And sometimes I feel that it doesn’t need to go on a linear path, sometimes it just needs to stay where it is and just kind of develop what it is and fine tune it.

The Helios material is all like what I wrote in 2004 on the first album but it took a long time to discern bits and pieces. There are all these different layers and all these different things and they needed to sound right in my head. I would finish a song and I could say, ‘yeah that’s alright’ and I could move on, and there would be something just irking. So it’s like a perfectionism but the songs aren’t perfect. It’s trying to make accidents happen and I don’t know how to describe it, it’s just when I write a song and it kind of works it just tells me that it’s done. So I can listen back to all the songs on this album and I don’t want to change anything. I can listen back to all the songs on this album and I don’t want to change anything. It takes a really long time to get to that point. And with the Goldmund material there is a ton of stuff that I want to change but I purposively make myself not change it. So both of those projects are really different. While I allow myself that in the Helios material to really dive into every little detail but the Goldmund material is just like I write it, I spend a day on it and I have to move on. I don’t go back to it. The Helios album, Yumi, just took a really long time to write, but I am happy with it.

Goldmund’s album ‘Sometimes’ out digitally November 13th on Western Vinyl, with the physical/vinyl on January 22nd.

Helios’ album Yume is available from Unseen Music.


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