Interview August 2003 by Liam Edwards
Watertown, WI - I talked to Kenn over some cold beers at his Watertown, Wisconsin home. Kenn's home is that of an artist with an eclectic mix of art, instruments and a continuous selection of interesting music filling the air. We completed the details of this interview in a series of email exchanges. In the realm of music, this guy does it all, but always with a guitar in his hands or just within reach.
LE: You've said that Spiritone grew out of your passion. What is your passion?
KF: My passion is really multifaceted like so many other aspects of my life. I, of course, have a passion for "sounds" and an endless curiosity for how and why they are made. Nothing else in this world has ever touched me as deeply as music and continues to on a daily basis. I believe it is the most ancient and complex language. More importantly, my passion involves the process of creativity itself. In today's mechanized world, I believe the process of creativity is getting lost. I am impassioned with the idea of providing the opportunity for real artists to create, i.e.: write, develop, record, and market their music. I am impassioned with the concept of lending my knowledge and direction to the process of making people’s musical ideas become a reality.
LE:Leading an indie label like Spiritone requires wearing many hats. Artist, producer, historian, teacher, composer and coach to name a few. Is there one role that is the center of what you do?
KF: I don't believe there is one role that can exist without the others in what I do. They all work together like a great symphony. Each part supports all of the others. I could not be me if I did not have a working understanding and interest in each of these parts of the process.
LE:As a musician you have played many instruments other than guitar. What is it about the guitar that is different… more magical…than any other instrument?
KF: I have played many instruments [and still do from time to time when no one else will do it] I have always been somewhat fascinated with what attracts people to a particular instrument. Is it sound, or touch, or sight? I have come to the conclusion, after many years of obsessing over the issue, that it is a combination of many things. There is, however, a dominant force. For me it is touch. There is something very magical about being able to bend strings and change their sound instantly according to what your brain wants to hear. The guitar allows me the freedom to create the sounds in between the sounds. Other instruments, like keyboards, while they create beautiful sounds, you are kind of stuck with what's there. A guitarist's sound is largely created by his touch.
LE:Blues, jazz, singer/songwriter, gypsy jazz, rockabilly, country chicken pickin', Celtic, and eastern ALL seem to be your specialty. Are you an explorer more than a specialist?
KF:In one respect, I like only one kind of music... good music. Stylistic boundaries do not really concern me. I respect, and am interested, in all styles of music. I guess I am an explorer in that I want the option to be able to draw from any and all musical styles , or combinations of, to create my own music. I have always said, I do not discriminate, I steal from everyone. That is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the language of music, it applies to any and all cultures. Anyone and everyone can participate.
LE: With such a strong focus on artist development, what are you looking for in new artists?
KF: What I look for in a new artist has a lot to do with potential. I am usually interested in artists that have the ability to grow. There is also a certain uniqueness to the artists that I choose for the label. I am interested in both songwriting ability and musicianship, but I am willing to help the artist develop either, if the potential for growth is there. I believe that what a good producer does is help the artist find out who they really are. Whether or not the artist can live with this level of honesty is always the question. So, there is a certain incubation period. It's like putting a giant mirror in front of someone and forcing them to look. Many run away, but if they choose to stay then the real creativity can begin. I look for artists that are willing to stay and do the work.
LE: In both your solo work and Voltage Unit you seem to play with restraint… letting musical themes develop and evolve. Is this a deliberate decision? Do you ever just want to cut loose?
KF: Yes, it most certainly is a deliberate decision. I believe it comes with maturity. After awhile the use of "space" becomes very important. It is all about balance. A good melody must be surrounded with enough space to make it relevant. I do cut loose, but I try to make it count. I am much more interested in melody these days. A successful melody is one you can hum the next day, one that gets inside your head. I believe this can often require a deliberate sense of zen-like simplicity.
LE: How important is gear to your overall sound?
KF: Gear is a never ending obsession! And, it is great fun. I am constantly experimenting...whether it's with tunings, stylistic technicalities, gear, or some twisted combination of all of them. I am a great hunter of sounds and I will use any means to acquire them. Ultimately, gear is just the tool of the trade. It is a means to making the sounds in my head become a reality.
LE: In a way, it seems that by selecting a tuning, an axe, and a unique effects chain you are inventing a new instrument. I get that gear is a tool, but does it at times transcend that and become an extension of the instrument?
KF: Yes, I am often extending the instrument. I look at it more as an extension of myself, though. I am always interested in hearing... creating sounds or versions of sounds that I have not heard before... in essence extending the boundaries. I am by nature an extreme thinker, bursting with curiosity and looking for any and every excuse to experiment. This is always my agenda.
LE: In your live setup you play Strats and Telecasters with Voltage Unit. A Tone King Imperial amp and a selection of stomp boxes clearly contribute to your sound. What is your essential gear?
KF:My essential "desert island" gear includes: my Fender Custom Shop Telecaster, my Tone King Imperial amp, a Dunlop Crybaby wah, and a vintage Ibanez Tube Screamer stomp box. This is the core of my electric sound. Everything else is ever changing!
LE: Do you use the Tone King in the studio as well?
KF: Yes, I use the Tone King in the studio in combination with a modified [EL-34's] blackface Fender Bassman head played through a vintage Vox 2-12 cabinet, and a 1963 Epiphone Devon Tremolo. I use an active splitter to combine all three. I often use different tremolo settings simultaneously on the Tone King and the Epi. I believe these amps represent the best of all worlds!
LE: What is your miking strategy for the multiple amp setup? How do you use these different elements for mixing?
KF: When I utilize this multiple amp set-up for recording, we usually use a larger room and basically mic the room. I treat the entire set up as one amp. We usually use a close mic placed between the amps and an ambient room mic or two. The amps I use are all quite different in style and sound. The Tone King uses 6v6 power tubes which give me a buttery warm sound reminiscent of a vintage Fender Deluxe. The Tone King has 2 channels. It's like a Fender tweed Deluxe on one side and a Fender blackface Deluxe on the other. The Fender Bassman head is a total hot rod circuit designed and built by amp wizard Bill Reuter. It uses EL 34 British style tubes and gives me a very warm vintage Vox like sound. The bottom I use is a late 60's vox 2-10 cab.
LE: I am not familiar with a '63 Epiphone Devon. What is special about the the '63 Epiphone?
KF: The Epiphone Devon is a Gibson built early tremolo circuit utilizing 6BQ5 power tubes. This is the American version of EL84's. This gives me a naturally compressed high endy sound, great for rhythm work.
LE: Now I see you starting to use a Gibson SG. What's up with that?
KF:The Gibson SG is something I have been thinking about for a long time. I have come to the conclusion that the two humbucker sound is a vital sound well worth exploring. It fills an important hole in my arsenal. I have been very interested in doing more electric slide work as well. The accessibility to all of the frets [that the SG offers] is key.
LE:You seem very serious about exposing new artists you work with to a wide variety of musical influences. Is this a key part of the development process?
KF:I believe it is absolutely essential! Modern music has a distinguished and well documented history. We are all so fortunate to have this vast archive of work available to us at an affordable price. It's just like buying a textbook for a course. It is valuable knowledge. Aside from this, I believe listening to music is a highly spiritual activity. It connects us with parts of ourselves and the culture that are both ancient and indefinable. It is hard to imagine that an artist could learn to be a practitioner without experiencing it personally.
LE: Your influences seem to be very deep. Is there a short list of artists that have had the biggest impact on you?
KF:First of all let me explain that I feel I have many, many influences inside and outside of music. I believe that influences and information, for that matter, naturally integrate and then manifest themselves in whatever creative activity we choose.
I believe I am drawing from the same sources whether I am cooking [another passion of mine], painting pictures, writing poetry, or composing music. I view every aspect of my life as an opportunity to be creative. That said, I will talk about some of the more obvious musical influences. When I was in college we used to drive to Milwaukee a couple times a month to buy records at a place that specialized in cut-outs [cheap records]. I used to literally fill the back seat of the car with $1 records. This gave me the opportunity to experiment and explore a lot of styles of music that I ordinarily wouldn't have had the money for.
Of all the hundreds of records I brought home in those years, there is one that still remains a favorite today: Larry Coryell- Fairyland. It is a live trio recording done at the Montreux Jazz Festival in the early 70s. I believe this recording probably had the most impact on my electric style. Unfortunately, it has never been released on CD. I spoke to Larry in depth a couple years back and received his permission and blessing, to release this album on Spiritone, but no one has been able to locate the master yet.
Another player that remains a constant source of fascination is Duane Allman. “The Allman Brothers at the Fillmore East” live album really turned me on to electric blues. I have always been into Jimi Hendrix as well. I'm sure I was also very influenced by Clapton in his Cream years.
My acoustic style can be traced back to three key players: British finger-stylist Davey Graham, John Fahey, and Michael Hedges. I have spent decades studying and admiring these three players. I believe Chet Atkins was probably also an influence.
Final Notes: We just barely scratched the surface in this interview. The real challenge is to stay on topic and not just chat about guitars, effects, and recording. Maybe we can capture more of that in a future conversation! ---Liam