Part 1

Name: Keith Kenniff
Nationality: American
Occupation: Producer, Sound Artist
Current Release: Occasus on Western Vinyl
Recommendations: I’m reading John Adam’s “Hallelujah Junction” right now which is great. I also like Novo Line’s music and the painter William Crosby. 

Website / Contact: For even more information about Goldmund and Keith Kenniff's other projects, visit his website.

When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

I started writing music when I was about 18. It began when an older friend of mine got really into drum n bass so I kept hearing that stuff and was enamoured by the production. I'd listened to electronic music before, but it was mainly about Björk and more pop-orientated things. Then I got into Warp records and Boards of Canada and that was enough to make me want to do it. I got some basic software and started to mess around with electronic music in my mid-teens and then finally started to do it more seriously around 18. I was always fascinated with manipulating sound, when I first started playing guitar at about age 10 I would take my Dad’s various guitar pedals and mess around, he also had an old Space Echo unit that I loved playing with.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?

Yeah, my first music-making explorations were via a site called the Björk Remix Web where users would make their own unofficial remixes and submit them to a form-based site where people could listen to, comment and rate each other’s remixes. It was friendly competition but it was a really cool way to start off with some elements that were already great (Björk) and figure out a way to make it my own, and over time I eventually started to get a sound which allowed me to start my own productions from scratch. I filtered that through a lot of older Warp Records and IDM stuff, then eventually I got invited to an IRC chat room through a friend of mine which was full of other electronic music producers and we all shared our music together, and talked geeky music stuff and many people started their own things/labels (Type Records came out of that, Machine Drum was there, Braille, Merck Records, Brothomstates).

What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?

I think just hating computers and knowing that I needed them to make sound with. I had little money and hardware just wasn’t an option. I grew up learning my instruments (drums, bass, guitar) and playing in bands, but I was always less interested in performance virtuosity and more into timbre and manipulation of sound, so I still feel this pull and push of having to incorporate computers but also feeling really comfortable with them at the same time.

What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?

I’ve kept it fairly similar on purpose. Originally it was just an old Gateway computer which always crashed, then I got a laptop to do live shows, then eventually I got a more robust custom built PC for my studio now, but I have very little in the way of hardware. Just a midi keyboard, some speakers, mics for my piano and acoustic guitar, an electric guitar and a bass, and an upright piano. The piano is still such a special instrument to me, I’ve managed not to learn a lot on it properly in the way of technique and I think that’s kept a sense of child-like discovery in tact.

How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?

I like to use technology but not to think about it. I really don’t care if I’m getting sound from a vst or hardware unit, it’s all the same, whatever is easier (which for me is software). I’m a firm believer that tools don’t matter; certain gadgets expedite the process but in my case they do not inform creativity.

Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?

I stick with what works. I use Presonus’ Studio One for my DAW and most often use the stock plugins, I get a little fussy about reverbs (I like Valhalla’s stuff), but other than that I keep things as simple as possible. For all my albums up until 2008 I used an old standalone softsynth that was discontinued in 1999 called “Probe”. I still use this, but have a few others now, although I really only use one or two (I like TAL’s TAL-U-NO-LX). I’ve gotten a little more into sample libraries because of my work for film and TV, it’s just essential to be able to meet the client’s needs, but for personal projects I keep it dead-simple and have no need to change unless something is impeding creativity.

Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?

I used to do this a lot early on, but I really operate now pretty solitarily. My wife and I do a project called Mint Julep which is more indie rock/synth pop stuff, and that’s very collaborative which is really nice and feels more like being in a “band”, but all of the other projects exist a bit on an island, I don’t really send works-in-progress to friends or anything, I’ll just send it to a label and it’ll be finished.

Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?

My early morning routine is pretty hectic, I have 3 kids, so it’s always a mad rush getting out the door, then I come back to the studio and generally always have some sort of deadline - my “day job” is composing music and licensing for TV / film, mostly commercials and it tends to be very constant and quick. Typically I do most of my personal project stuff at night time, after hours. I kind of juggle dad stuff and music stuff and it overlaps sometimes, but I do try and keep a barrier on the music/work side and not let it interrupt family time.

Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?

I consciously try not to set out an have a specific idea of what I’m doing, I don’t wait to get inspired or feel that anything in particular is more inspiring than anything else. I feel like I have a pretty strong work ethic and although I don’t force the writing I do feel like I can get in the mental space of writing music very easily.

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

I like to keep the layout of my studio pretty minimal and warm, inviting. I think having minimal distraction visually helps keep my mind focused. I don’t have a lot of gear, just essential and functional things (monitors, midi keyboard, upright piano, some guitars). I feel like I’m most productive at night, and I find this is common with creators of all types, but I do notice a difference between my drive during the day and once the sun goes down. I think I got used to playing shows at night time at an early age and my body has just identified with that time of day as “creative” time.

How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?

As for Goldmund the live performances are half pieces performed from memory and half on-the-spot improvisation. I like to keep it loose and free flowing, and I feel that is reflected on the albums too. With my other projects (Helios & Mint Julep) it’s much more detailed and does not involve a lot of improvisation either live or in the studio. Half of that is functional (Helios music live is me being a one-man-band, so I can’t veer too far from the arrangement) and half of it is intentional. I like both improvisation and the concept of a composition that does not allow for that at all, and is to be played as-is.

How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?

I think of sound first and foremost. Aesthetic to me, in both performance and composition, is my way of defining a unique characteristic. I’ve never been a virtuoso in regard to either performance or composition so I discovered early on that focusing on shaping the sounds of things was more suited to my skill set. That’s not to say I don’t try to experiment with compositional forms, but generally those happen by chance and not by design, whereas the timbre of the sounds or the mix is very intentional.

Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?

I find playing the piano to be a very connected thing. The way my hands sit on the keyboard and my eyes find patterns corresponds to how my ears wish to hear the sounds, and so it informs my approach. This is different when I play guitar where I do enjoy it but not on that level. Also with the drums, since I was formally trained on those, my technique informs how I can shape the timbre of my sound (the opposite is true on piano since I was not formally trained and learned a lot of “bad” habits).

Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?

In regard to my personal life it has both meanings. It started off as a more personal endeavour and has changed over time. I had a family and I had to figure out how art and business can inhabit the same space, and my wife and I have also done two benefit compilations (“For Nihon” and “Disquiet Vol.1 and Vol. 2”). I do think art has a social responsibility. 

It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?

I think music in its various forms will be (and has been) around for as long as humans are around, and there are discernible waves of change and arcs that are consistent and somewhat predictable over time, but it’s anyone’s guess as to what they will be. We are still performing music from the renaissance. Certainly live music may change as things become more digital and somewhat more insulated from group sharing (in real life), but even that has had a predictible pattern of change (concert music to recorded music, vinyl to tape, tape to CD, Napster to Spotify etc…). It will continue to evolve, or in some cases things will be left behind to stay stagnant, but we are due for a major shift in popular music to happen soon.