Live, Keeler and singer/drummer Sebastien Grainger create an astonishing variety of sounds for a duo, spaying their grooves with expressionist bass and unpredictable—and often guitar-like—blasts of synthesizer.
Photo by Debi Del Grande
When you were writing back then, did you think you’d have a more traditional band configuration to play your songs?
I wrote three songs and showed them to Seb under the guise of, “We can play guitar over this.” And one day he came to me and said, “Why don’t I just sing and play drums at the same time?” So, we went downstairs to try it. He pulled a mic over to the drums, we played one song, and looked at each other like, “Oh, it worked! That was actually pretty cool.” And that brings me to today [laughs].
Has your relationship to the bass changed since then?
My relationship with the bass as my instrument has only existed from the day that I was trying to write songs on it. That was basically it. That’s still the core of my approach. I like the restriction of having just four strings. People say, “You could have five strings or six strings or use something else.” The Dan Armstrong has 24 frets. I’m happy with that many octaves and it’s comfortable for me to play. I’m just trying to write songs, really.
Speaking of the Dan Armstrong Plexi bass, that wasn’t your first bass, was it?
I feel like the Dan Armstrong is an instrument that, when you’re a kid, you see it at some point and you’re like, “Wow, that’s so cool,” and then you never actually hold one [laughs]. You know what I mean? No one actually has one.
The first bass I bought was a ’74 Gibson Grabber, which is full scale, incredibly neck-heavy. You use half your left arm strength just holding the thing up. There’s no way to harness that so it doesn’t fall over on you all the time. But the pickup was really hot and it sounded really good and I bet if I picked it up right now after not picking it up for years, it would be perfectly in tune. It’s just the way that bass was.
Why did you switch to the Dan Armstrong?
I wanted something else because we started playing bigger shows and being on the road for longer and longer periods of time, and I thought I should probably get another bass. So, I went into a music store and there was a Dan Armstrong. I tried it and thought it felt weird and wrong. The 12th fret, when you’re holding it on your body, is like where the 22nd fret is on the Grabber. Just trying to move over to it felt foreign. It felt like a toy, but I bought it anyway because I thought it would be cool to have two octaves to play around with.
But you only really started using it in the last four or five years?
That’s because I took it home, re-strung it—we had a show the next day—went to the show and, when I was tuning it up, one of the tuning pegs just snapped in half. I already thought it seemed sort of delicate with the little rosewood bridge, but when that happened I was like, “Fuck, this thing is not roadworthy. If I bring this out and that happens, I’m screwed.” I took it back to the store and they offered to straight trade it for something that was the same price. So, I tried this ’75 or ’77 Rickenbacker 4001 and liked how it sounded, even though it sounded a bit thin compared to the Grabber, but I took it, played that for years, and now I seem to be known for playing the Ric.
What made you switch exclusively to the Dan Armstrong?
When we started working on the last record, as we were writing, very early on, I thought, “You know what? I’m going to try that bass again.” So, I tracked one down. Friends at Chicago Music Exchange put the feelers out and found one for me. That first one that I got is still my main bass. I’ve got four of them now. But that first one is just magic. From the day I got it, I started writing. You know how it is when you have a new instrument: Sometimes it’s just a flood of creativity as you get to know it. Interestingly though, it hasn’t stopped for me with that bass. I’ve been playing them now for four or five years and I still feel like I’m learning things about them. They’re all very different.
What’s different about them?
I learned from someone who worked there that they were making the necks by hand. I was scared about short scale not being deep enough, but that’s not a problem. I was worried about keeping the intonation in over the whole neck, but I had this luthier design a bridge for the bass so it would have individual string height and intonation, so that’s not an issue anymore. He machined it entirely from a chunk of aluminum and put brass seats on all of them.
Who was the luthier?
Les Godfrey [of Toronto’s Godfrey Guitars] designed the bridge so that it would use the exact same mounting holes and the same screws, because you really can’t screw in and out of Lucite a bunch of times. Once the grooves are there, you want to stick with them. And so, he’s made me three of them and I have one bass that has the original bridge and that’s my “home” bass. It doesn’t come on the road.
What about the pickups?
Kent Armstrong, Dan Armstrong’s son, is out there in Vermont making pickups, and although he doesn’t have them on his website, I reached out and asked if he could make pickups for his dad’s old bass. He’s made me about six so far. I’ve got some single coils—we tried different magnets: single, double. I think this is it for me. I’m happy with this bass. When I hold it in my hands, the distance from my brain to what you hear coming out of the speakers is the shortest it’s ever been.
When writing, are you influenced by drum grooves? How do you go about crafting your parts?
Generally, I’ll have some sort of melody or riff idea and most often it’ll be when I don’t have a bass in my hands, so I’ll grab my phone and turn on the voice note recorder and hum it in. If anyone ever stole my phone there would be albums of humming and humming [laughs]. Sometimes I’ll tap the phone to give myself a meter, tapping the mic like a kick drum. Then I’ll get a bass and figure out what I hummed. Sometimes I go through voice notes and find the same idea keeps popping up and I’ll go, “Wow, I guess I really like this idea,” because I keep rewriting it [laughs].