Tommy Keene, a singer-songwriter and Bethesda native, makes a brand of guitar-heavy pop with an edge often compared to power pop musicians of the 1960s like The Kinks and The Who. Though he doesn’t discount the label – “Whatever people want to call it, as long as they like it,” he says – he distinguishes himself from the genre and its sometimes lightweight lyrics about fast cars, cute girls and trips to the beach by penning the often bittersweet, poignant and heavy tracks that have earned him a cult following since his first album, 1982’s Strange Alliance.
Keene is touring and promoting “Behind the Parade,” the latest in his decade-spanning catalog, and spoke to the News-Press before his Friday show at Iota about the ups and downs of decades spent making music.
LP: As a D.C.-area native, what is it like to come back to the area and perform?
TK: My family is still there, and it’s where I have basically my best audience. A close runner up is Chicago, but the D.C. area has good audiences because they used to have good radio stations. It’s always been a great community for musicians, and people have been very supportive.
LP: How did you get your start?
TK: I grew up in Bethesda, and I joined a band in 1978 when I was 19, which was The Razz, sort of a big band in town. Long story short, when they broke up I went up to New York for a year or so, to visit some people, came back and formed my own group. I just recently celebrated my 30th anniversary of my first show ever at the old Cellar Door club.
LP: What was the music scene like in D.C. then?
TK: There certainly were a lot more places to play around the Washington, D.C. area, before the advent of video bars. When video bars came in, it was like “why have a band when you can show videos?” There were a lot more places to play. It was more of a thriving scene back then. Now, there are many great local bands, but not that many places to play. It’s a little different.
LP: What do you imagine that Tommy Keene, from that era, would think of Behind the Parade?
TK: I think he’d love it. It’s funny because some very good friends of mine, and colleagues, really have a vested interest in me and have been around and been fans of mine for a long time. These people that I respect think it’s maybe the best record I’ve ever done, which I know sounds somewhat ridiculous – everyone says the new album is the best thing you’ve ever done – but it’s right up there. It’s the best since maybe Based On Happy Times. I did it really quickly. I came up with 10 interesting songs, and I was really motivated because after the compilation last year, I wanted to get a new record out very quickly, and the planets were aligned.
LP: When you released the retrospective of your work in 2010, why did you feel that was the right time to put together those tracks?
TK: The timing was right. It wasn’t as if I was going to stop writing, but I think we had a huge backlog of catalog that we wanted to gather together in one package. We remastered all of the back catalog, and I chose songs to put on [Tommy Keene You Hear Me: A Retrospective 1983-2009 (2010)]. It’s hopefully a vehicle to introduce new people to the music, since I have a history of – besides the current couple of records I have out at the moment – having a lot of stuff that is kind of hard to find and unavailable for one reason or another. Now it has been tidied up into a new package.
LP: Rolling Stone magazine once described you as “one of America’s greatest, unheralded songwriters.” How do you respond to that classification?
TK: Well, I’m glad they said it. I got some really great breaks early on and then I missed out on a few, but it doesn’t really bother me because I think you have to look at the whole body of work, and I think I’m still writing good songs and putting on good shows. I can’t look at myself and say “why am I not famous, why am I not selling out Merriweather?” I don’t know the answers to that. That’s just the way things sort of go sometimes.
• For more information about Tommy Keene, visit tommykeene.com.