MIKE KENEALLY - The "Scambot 2" Interview

US-American multi-instrumentalist MIKE KENEALLY has just released his latest album „Scambot 2“. 17 years in the making, „Scambot 2“ is the long-awaited sequel to the 2009 release „Scambot 1“.  We wanted to learn more about the recording of the new album, his time with JOE SATRIANI and FRANK ZAPPA, as well as his tipps on how to become a better musician. (Photocredit: Per Sviggum)

"Scambot 2" continues the epic tale of a grumpy little guy named Scambot, whose behavior and personality are being controlled by an evil fruit jam magnate named Ophunji. The album contains guest performances from the likes of Kris Myers, Pete Griffin, Bryan Beller, Joe Travers, Doug Lunn, Gregg Bendian, Ben Thomas, Jesse Keneally and Marco Minnemann.

Dear Mike, thank you for this opportunity to conduct an interview with you. Congratulations on the release of “Scambot 2”. Can you please tell us about the background of the title of your new record?

It is indeed part two (Scambot 1 was released six years ago). Scambot is the name of the lead character, although it wasn't his birth name; he was renamed Scambot by the evil industrialist who's been manipulating his consciousness. Scambot stands for Serial Consciousness Agent (Military division), Bringer Of Truth. I recognize that this answer probably brings up more questions than it actually answers.

You are such a prolific musician, working as a member of JOE SATRIANI’s band, and being a guitarist in the live band DETHLOK. Where and when did you find the time to compose the songs for the new album?

During time off the road, over the last several years. Some of the music was actually written as early as 1999, but the majority of the music on "Scambot 2" was written from 2013 to 2015. The CD edition comes with a second album called Inkling, and a lot of that music was worked on at the same time I was working on Scambot 1, from 2005 to 2009. As for where, I wrote most of it either at home or in the studio. When I was younger I was able to do more writing on the road, but nowadays I can't focus my energy that way - if I'm in the hotel or on the bus, I'm probably resting!


What about the recording process for the album: where did you record?

The majority was recorded in the northern San Diego home of Scott Chatfield, the CEO of Exowax Recordings (the label that has put out all of my albums since 1999). I've done most of my recording there over the last decade. But there were also recordings for the album made in Chicago, LA, and in my old condo in San Diego.


Did you capture ideas at home or on tour on a mobile recording device, for instance?

Melodic snippets and lyric ideas would often be recorded on my phone's voice memo app; I've got hundreds of such tiny recordings, waiting to be repurposed somehow.

Did some of those parts end up on the final product?

On "Inkling" (on CD 2) there's a song called "Cram," and there's two lines that go "She doesn't care. She doesn't even know you're there." I tried re-delivering those lines a bunch of times and I just couldn't get the same quality in my voice that intrigued me in the original voice memo, so I finally just held my phone up to the microphone in the studio and played the lines, and that's what's on the final recording (you can hear that the vocal has a different quality there - it's the sound of my cell phone).


Photo: Tore Kersten


What equipment did you use?

We recorded on Pro Tools using a bunch of my engineer Mike Harris's favorite tube pre-amps. Most of the guitars were recorded using my Rivera Quiana amplifier. I used a lot of different pedals, including stuff from Pigtronix and Source Audio. I used some soft synths in the computer, but also used my KORG SV1-88 and KORG Karma keyboards quite a bit.


In particular, we would be interested to hear whether you have a favourite guitar, and why?

My favorite guitar is the 1988 Fender Clapton Stratocaster that I've been playing for 28 years now. It's still the guitar that feels most comfortable to me to play, the one that feels the most "me" to me.

Can you please talk about your beginnings. When did you start playing the guitar and the piano, and when did you know you would do this for a living?

My first instrument was organ, and I started playing that on my seventh birthday. Four years later on my eleventh birthday I got my first guitar. I had organ lessons when I was young, but I was self-taught on guitar (initially transferring what I was learning on the organ over to the guitar, and eventually starting to teach myself things off my favorite records). I started imagining myself as a performer probably around age eigth or nine.

Can you also talk about the creative process: what inspires you, how do you compose?

I'm not sure where the ideas come from, but they just arrive in my head and I capture them however possible, either with the phone, or on paper, or in the computer. Sometimes it's just an idea for a "kind" of song - for instance, "Freezer Burn" on Scambot 2 had kind of a shape in my head for months before I started putting down any actual sounds or settling on what the notes would be. It was a feel and a structure long before it was an actual piece of music, but when I started actually composing it, it was just a process of trying to filter out all possible distractions and focus in on that initial impulse, that "feel," and stepping around musically very gently so as not to play too many "wrong" notes and distract myself from capturing the initial intent. I got pretty close, but it's hard to get 100% in those circumstances. Most of the time though, I just pick up a guitar or sit at a keyboard and see what my hands decide to do. If I like the sound of it, I stop playing and listen to the silence until I figure out what the correct next thing to do is.

Photo: Per Sviggum

Would you consider yourself a better pianist or guitar player? How do you divide your time playing each instrument?

I don't consciously divide my time, it's always just, whatever feels like the right thing to play at that moment. I can do things on each instrument that I can't do on the other; I honestly don't judge my own playing enough to even have an opinion on which one I play "better." I think I can do fancier stuff on a keyboard, but more expressive stuff on a guitar. I'm very grateful to be able to play both.


You were hired by the FRANK ZAPPA when you were 25 years old. Can you please tell us what you had to do to get the job?

Step one was to call his office and ask for a job! I told the guy who answered the phone that I was familiar with all of Frank's work and could play it on guitar and keyboard; Frank called me back the next day and said he didn't believe me and to get my ass up to his rehearsal space and prove it. He told me a couple of songs to specifically have ready ("What's New In Baltimore" and "Sinister Footwear II"), but for the rest of the audition he just named songs to see if I really knew them. I was such a huge fan that I really did have all his songs stuck in my head all the time, and was able to recall them from memory. He got a kick out of that and said "well, come back on Monday so the rest of the band can witness your particular splendor." I was nervous at the audition, but ultimately it was really just the ultimate in fun for me: the opportunity to demonstrate, in real time, to my favorite artist how much I truly loved his music. It was so much fun.

Is there a particular memory that stands out of your time with Frank?

There was one soundcheck when Frank asked me if I knew the song "Can't Afford No Shoes," and when it got to the bridge with its weird chord changes, I started fucking up. Frank immediately began to make fun of me, saying "Encyclopedia failure! Encyclopedia failure!" and everyone in the band had a good time razzing me. As he was leaving the stage immediately afterward he walked by me and whispered quietly to me "you're the best new guy who's ever been in the band." That little moment has kept me afloat through a LOT of moments of self-doubt in the years since then. It gives me chills to think about it now.

Photo: Marc Mennigmann

We would also love to hear how it is to work with the mighty JOE SATRIANI? Do you guys ever jam, trade licks or discuss music on a, let’s say, philosophical level, for example?

We will mess around with guitars in the dressing room before the gig sometimes, and there have been some late night bus conversations about music and other topics which have bordered on the philosophical. The Satriani touring environment is very fun and easygoing and we mainly joke around about everything, but sometimes things get a little deeper for a minute.


When you still studied, how would your daily exercise routing look like?

My organ teacher would write my weekly lessons in a little brown book, and I would do the minimum amount of daily work necessary to have my work ready for the next lesson. When I was teaching myself guitar, I would grab a stack of records I wanted to learn and just sit next to the record player for hours at a time. When I was 16 I spent an entire summer teaching myself every guitar part off of every Gentle Giant album. This was to the exclusion of most normal teenage social activities, but I was having a really good time doing it.

What would you say should a young, aspiring musician focus on most? Is there a single exercise that you particularly would like to recommend (out of thousands, we assume)?

Focus on listening to EVERYTHING YOU POSSIBLY CAN. And be very patient with yourself as you are developing your own voice as a player - it's a process that takes years, and, in fact, never really ends. As far as an exercise, I read in an interview with Allan Holdsworth a long, long time ago that one of the exercises he used to do was an E Major scale, starting on the low E, but using all four fingers on each string. For instance, on the low E, you'd play E F# G# A B, using all four fingers, then moving on to the C# on the A string and using all four fingers on that string. If you do it properly, the high note is A on the 17th fret of the high E. It's obviously not challenging harmonically, but it really gets all four fretting fingers into the game, and it's a fantastic warm-up to play it forwards and backwards repeatedly, gradually increasing the speed.



We would be particularly interested to hear whether you have got a recommendation on how one can become a better rhythm player.

Find yourself a fantastic drummer and lock in with him! And listen to a lot of funk records (start with Sly Stone and James Brown) and really study what's happening with the guitar parts. Focus hard on that stuff. It's some of the coolest shit going.

To paraphrase the legendary FRANK ZAPPA: does humour belong in music?

Oh hell yes it does!

What’s next?

I've got most of the end of November off, and I need it! I'll be in South America with Satriani for most of December, and we're in Asia in February. I'm doing the NAMM show in January with my band Beer For Dolphins, I'm doing a guitar festival in Larvik, Norway in March, and I might be heading out on the road playing keys with Mastodon in April (that's not set in stone, but it would be cool if it worked out). I'll be back in Europe with my European trio in Summer 2017.

Thank you Mike for taking the time to answer our questions. All the best for the future & hope to seeing you on tour soon!

My pleasure Richard!