- 26 Nov 21
The ink wasn’t dry on the reviews for David Keenan’s debut album before his head was off somewhere else, and then life handed us all a two and a seven. “It’s about recalibrating, and enjoying the process,” he tells Pat Carty. Portraits: Miguel Ruiz.
Just back in Dublin after high profile American support slots with Rodrigo y Gabriela – “it was great but it was absurd as well. Part of me was back here making a mess with paint. Stepping out – just me and a guitar - in front of four thousand people? What the fuck am I doing?” - David Keenan is about to hop on the promotional carousel for album #2, WHAT THEN? When Hot Press spoke to him after the first record – A Beginner’s Guide To Bravery – he was already planning his escape, his next move. Immediately following that album’s release, our young hero hightailed it to the city of lights for a month.
“I wanted to get away from becoming a caricature on stage with braces. I looked out into the crowd in The Olympia and there was a fella dressed like me and that was the end of that,” he says, making an admirable point.
The title of the new album was the question he was asking himself, What Then?
“What then? Who am I after this?” he asks himself, again. “It was the end of a cycle. I had to fall out of love with it to fall in love with the process again, as a writer. I didn’t want to make Beginner’s Guide, Part II. I wanted to go to Paris because I always wanted to go to Paris. I wanted to drink copious bottles of wine because I always wanted to do that. I wanted to type on a typewriter. I wanted to get hungry again. I wanted to be afraid. I wanted to be in a city where I didn't speak the language. I wanted to be nobody.”
“I didn't want to be playing ‘James Dean’ for another two years, or ‘Lawrence of Arcadia’,” he continues. “I can come back to that now, but in February of last year the idea was to get away from it all and to be isolated. A Beginner's Guide To Bravery was for everybody else, this record’s for me.”
It was a brave artistic gambit. The obvious move would have been to capitalise on what had been achieved.
“It was a kamikaze mission, going to Paris having just released a debut, but it was a necessary Kamikaze mission to get some danger back.”
The new songs and the new sound were already percolating in his head.
“I always have songs knocking around but I never had that extended period of isolation, a month, which is a long time when you’re in a room.”
We all had a lot of that, which we didn’t see coming, in the months that followed.
“Well I got warmed up in Paris for that,” he points out, before shifting back to his creative urges. “I was thinking of this androgynous entity, this feeling, this Joe Soap, the narrator who’s going to take me on this journey, take me by the hand and lead me to this record, like John Berryman’s The Dream Songs. But hold on, Joe Soap is me because I have no identity anymore. David Keenan is that guy with the braces, he’s gone, so who the fuck are you now? Are you capable of more than that?”
“Sonically, I wanted it to be totally different. I wanted a kind of ambient malevolence, something brewing under the surface, that I feel when I’m writing lyrics. I wanted to replicate that in sound and that’s where [producer] Jonathon Mooney came in, because he was doing something similar, like Ennio Morricone, with Other Lives. Aaron Steele [percussionist] is the backbone of it, it was just the three of us in the studio.”
Kennan answers my next question before I even ask it.
“I said to Jonathon, I was willing to turn people off with this record, to turn me on. And, as a by-product of that, you can turn other people on to what you’re doing. We were trying to create a landscape, ‘The Grave Of Johnny Filth’ is an exaggerated landscape. I went in without the band from the first record or anyone involved with that record, so I could prove something to myself, that I had it in me. I needed to go in with this vision, without any distraction.”
Would it have been easy to make A Beginner’s Guide, Part II, could you have done it?
“I could have, but it just would have been pouring the ice-cream and handing out the cones.”
Saying One Thing
Listening to the album, one could interpret some of the lyrics as being born out of frustration at the treadmill. There’s talk of “barking like a little dog” and “you say one thing and I’ll do the other.”
“Frustration at the world around me, but frustration at myself,” is how David sees it. “’Bark’ is an angry song, and it’s anger channelled as indifference at the way things are going. But it's me being self-deprecating as well, in a healthy way because I can carry all this shit around in my head or I can get it out in a song and then I can scream it live. With this record, it’s just more honest, it's more direct. It's less romanticised. It's the inner workings of my being, spewed out.”
He says less romanticised but then there’s ‘Grogan’s Druid’, the song that closes the album and features his grandad speaking. It would seem to be returning to the theme of family again.
“If you break down what I'm trying to achieve in the record, and this is only evident in hindsight, I'm trying to school out all the shadow,” he explains. “It's redemptive in the middle with the likes of ‘Philomena’. There's a change, it’s this maternal coming home, being in bits and, after that, it's a coming home to myself, and ‘Grogan’s Druid’ is literally that. For me, it's just a song that I'm singing to myself on the way home, to the end of this record, which was a journey in itself. By ‘Grogan’s Druid’ I’m not going ‘here's a cryptic message to get your head around’. It is a beautiful, I think, closer because it's just me singing the song. I've done the work in the rest of the record. I've said everything that I wanted to say, it’s coming home and finishing with laughter So by the end of the process, ‘what then?’ becomes less of like ‘Who the fuck am I?’ and, at the end of ‘Grogan’s Druid’, it’s what then? Give me more living. It's an assuring thing.”
He mentioned anger and it’s there in ‘Sentimental Dole’ which appears to be angry at many things.
“It’s anger at bolloxology, at sources of trauma,” Keenan confirms. “I reference de Valera and the Pope and that relationship and the whole George Floyd thing was kicking off. I saw it as a way of channelling systemic anger right at that, and also the boloxology of politicians in this country who can't lie straight in bed and who haven’t got a fucking a sincere bone in their bodies. It’s spewing anger at that, it's my way of venting. Sentimental dole, give Joe Soap a ball of yarn to keep them happy. Look at how our artists were treated during the pandemic. It’s probably me being more direct with myself and how I approach other people, calling out oppression and boloxology and political tokenism. It’s everywhere.”
There’s a line in ‘Hopeful Dystopia’, “We are scum, unadulterated scum, but the butterfly phase has begun”, which is beautiful but I don’t know what he means. Why the word ‘scum’?
“Because it's embracing everything that you are,” he says, with arms spread. “All the ugliness, all the beautiful ugliness about yourself. In a meaningful relationship there’s chaos and there's calm, and it's also embracing the detractors, people who begrudge you. It’s an outcry, ‘we are scum, unadulterated scum’, I am totally at one with everything that I am and everything that I was, and the butterfly phase is coming and that’s the ‘Hopeful Dystopia’ that I'm talking about. If you don't have a belief that things are going to change for the better, you're in that fashionable fucking nihilism place, and that's not healthy to me.”
I ask about the great ‘Peter O’Toole’s Drinking Stories’. First of all the line about “tiptoeing towards immortality”, is this more about where he found himself after record #1?
“Tiptoeing towards immortality, laughing into the wind is throwing off the suit of expectation. I'm not trying to immortalise myself as one of the greats; it's actually relieving myself of that. And the whole thing about living through the last eighteen months has shown me that it's not about being that ice-cream man. It's about being fulfilled in what you do in life, in your art, with your circle of friends, your family, the people you love. It's how you treat them and how you treat yourself, It’s not about being up on a twelve-foot fucking pole. You can see in this record, I'm having fun, Pat. Colour has come into my life for the first time in the last year.”
That’s good stuff but I try a different tack. The stories of O’Toole romanticise drinking, and serious drinking at that.
“It's part of the demystifying the romanticised bowsie. It's done in a loving way, I'm not going ‘I was an absolute toe rag!’ It’s about when I first moved to Dublin, wearing that black coat I used to sleep in. I'm looking back. In the past when I knew less than I know now, which is fuck all, I lived for those stories, I would eat them up and I would go out and drink.”
But did Keenan fall into a trap with that?
“You know what I’m talking about, you’re a literary man, and it’s so easy to fall into that trap, but I’m not saying that was wrong and this is right. It's holding my younger self out in front of me, going ‘There he is now.’ The ‘archaeology of memory’ as I say in the song. Throughout the record I'm trying to figure out who I am and who I was at that time. In order to do that, you have to go digging in previous versions of yourself. Certainly, I’ve fallen into chaos many times with drink, but you pull yourself out of it.”
Falling into chaos with drink is not always a bad thing.
“If you don’t have enough chaos outside of you, something terrible happens to the chaos within you. As the fellow said, it's all about the balance.”
This is why I love the guy.
And You Give Yourself Away
There is real honesty and self-examination in ‘Me, Myself, and Lunacy’ when he states that “it's hard to accept that your mind is sound when your heart’s become an art exhibition.” Was his sense of well-being and maybe even his sanity under threat by being constantly on display?
“There's no doubt about that,” he reckons. “You’re trying to hold yourself together, and you're fucking naked on stage in front of people. The exposure of that, it’s not just like, ‘Show time, baby!’ I've been on the road since I was nineteen and you're trying to grow up, you're trying to figure things out, but there was no real privacy for me to do that in the last two or three years, constantly on tour, constantly onstage, constantly having to answer questions about my development. And, by the way, everything that I would consider private and secret is going out in the songs for everyone to listen to anyway.”
“I thought, with that song, ‘You want some honesty? Well, here it is.’ This does have side effects. Of course it does. I'm only human, and if you're in a bad place in the public eye, it exacerbates it. Throughout the last year, it's about putting boundaries up and protecting myself a bit more. When you're a younger, you think you’ve got to be grateful for everything and you’ve got to take every gig that's coming and you can't stop, you can't stop, because you’ll miss your fucking boat.”
That’s not solely the preserve to the young, I ruefully think to myself.
“I’m past that now, I'm past caring about the boat. I'm sailing the boat. There's nobody fucking else sailing it, for better or worse.”
Did the lockdown help clarify that? Did the enforced rest period allow you to consider this?
“Yeah, it did. I fell in love. I moved to Barcelona with my girlfriend and, and I made a home,” he says, forming an idyllic picture. “ I swam and got into nature. I ran. I took photographs. I painted. I put a poetry book together, flogged it, a cottage industry in the gaff helped keep me busy. And I was thinking, life isn't too bad when you're not constantly on the hop. I grew, I feel more whole now. I do feel it helped me in many ways.”
The ‘emergency’ was a good thing for you, personally?
“I was ready to burn out, in a bad way. Now, I feel more fulfilled. I can chat to yourself and I can do gigs. It's like there's a real appreciation. It's not overkill.”
I ask if saying no is a liberating thing.
“I've learned to say no. I'm not as much of a people pleaser as I used to be. I’m more direct with people. It is liberating,” he concedes. “A Beginner's Guide To Bravery was an amazing experience, but I had nothing left for myself. I gave everything out, I was empty. This record is about recalibrating, putting myself back together, and just enjoying the process.”
Back Into Another Place
The fact that the record was finished last year leads me to a question that harks back to where we came in. Is he already somewhere else?
“I have a four-track on the road. I’m hoping to release another record after this.”
Which is what he told me the last time. Can he listen to WHAT THEN? now?
“I can listen to parts of it but I don’t sit down with a cigar and go ‘this is a great record!’ All the emotion happened for me during the recording. This is the gift of recording songs and writing songs, you go beyond being honest with yourself. Something else kicks in when you're writing, you reach a deeper level of truth within yourself. You transcend the ego David and the real fuckin’ stuff comes up. ‘Philomena’ is like that. I don't want to relive that, the sweat and the tears, that's all in the record. So I don't sit back and listen to it.”
But he’ll have to relive it, surely? First of all he has to talk to prying eejits like me, and then he has to play the songs live.
“When I play it live, it will be living it in front of people. Being on the road, with just me and the guitar, engaging with a couple of 1000 people every night, has helped me get back into another place, which resulted in more new songs.”
Was the setlist a mix of the two albums, or what did he do?
“I don't think I played anything off A Beginner's Guide To Bravery. I don't know why, maybe because of Gar [Kane, Keenan’s close friend and former bass player, who passed away last year] it didn't feel right. I played songs from an EP that's coming out after this record. One of them I wrote about Gar, ‘2019 BC’, 2019 before corona, and ‘Michael Street’ and a song called ‘Bloomsday’, so these are new songs coming out. Yeah.. I forgot the question.”
That happens a lot when people are talking to me. What’s the plan for the gigs? Is there going to be a band? Will he be on his own? There’s three questions.
“Europe and the UK will be solo, and Ireland is going to be all band gigs.”
And how do you approach that?
“This is the thing. The band is different, but when I'm on my own,” he starts to swirl his arms around, “it's free-roam for me to tell the story of the song. I’m going to have to balance that out, and it's a new challenge for me with two records, and Eps, and so many songs released. It's important that I sculpt a kind of a narrative that's going to fit together. But that's another challenge that I'm looking forward to.”