Interview: The Show Is The Rainbow

Orbit to Leslie
The Show Is The Rainbow
Beep Beep
Johnny Brenda’s
Philadelphia, PA

Photo courtesy of Terrorbird Media

Before he began performing his song “Mother And Son,” Darren Keen, (a.k.a. The Show Is The Rainbow), explained to the evening’s crowd the song’s autobiographical significance. Apparently, back when fetal Keen was a mere presence in his mother’s womb, his face would get routinely pummeled by an endless number of strange dicks from the men she would bring home.

“That’s physically impossible,” said one of a group of females by the soundboard, either missing the joke or just wanting her position heard.

Soon after the intro, a faint unease surging through the audience, The Show Is The Rainbow began thrashing about off stage, shrieking into the microphone as his laptop carried out the tune. A projected animation depicted a crudely rendered cock aiming for a psychedelic Kubrick-ian vagina, which quickly switched to a malformed scribbled baby with an umbilical cord wrapped around it like a pink tentacle being fed to its mother’s smiling saw-toothed belly. All I could think at that moment was, “Now THAT’s physically impossible.”

“I talk a lot, like maybe half my show is me talking without me playing music,” noted Keen earlier that evening. “I love explaining what my songs are about because I think they’re pretty funny, and uh… I gotta really like… every night just talking about what the songs are about, watching people’s reactions because the songs are about some weird shit, just seeing people like, light up, because I think there’s so much pretension and like weirdness in like, music right now.

Live video projection for the song "Gothic Cajun" from 2007's Gymnasia

“People are just so serious and stuff,” he continued. “I’m serious in a way but I think like, I’m serious about what I think is honestly just me being honest about being a weird acid head dude. It’s just been cool just seeing reactions to my explanations of the songs.”

I met Lincoln, Nebraska native Darren Keen the night of April 13th at Johnny Brenda’s. Following two local Philadelphia bands, Orbit To Leslie and Instamatic, Keen was playing double duty, carrying out his own solo performance and playing bass for the headliner, Omaha band Beep Beep. When I’d arrived at Johnny Brenda’s, I left him a message on his cell phone. He called maybe two minutes later, explaining that he’d been in sound-check and then described who I would be looking for:

“I have really long hair and I’m wearing a shirt that says ‘Fuck It.’”

When he appeared at the bar, indeed he had, and indeed he was.

After a quick cell phone call to his girlfriend and mandatory drink order, I brought up his new album, Wet Fist, noting the album’s mostly agreed upon comparisons to Frank Zappa, Squarepusher and Beck. He responded, “Those are probably my three favorite musicians.” I asked him if he’d grown up in a musical household.

“Well, I wasn’t like trained,” he began. “My parents weren’t musical, my parents were both big music fans. Like, my dad… this is actually really funny… I realized this about a month or two ago: One of my first music memories were these mix tapes my dad would make and, like, my dad would have these like, mix tapes we would listen to in the car and one side would be, like, Nina Hagen and Black Flag, and the other side would be like Irish bagpipe music. So, I guess it was just like the sounds of conflicting music being together, it doesn’t seem unnatural to me in any way.”

In high school, Keen admits to being a fan of nü metal, (“I wish that shit wasn't true but it is.”), though he gained favor amongst the art crowd. “… I remember there were these… the kids I thought were the ‘cool’ kids, like, the ‘weirdo’ art kids, um, for some reason they liked me…”

The art kids brought Keen to see the band, Her Flyaway Manner and his perspective was almost immediately rethought.

“I went there with an Incubus t-shirt on and my hair in liberty spikes, no joke, and I went to the show and I like, saw this band and I was just like, ‘Oh my God, they’re like aggressive and heavy but not dreadlocked with seven-string guitars’ and like my whole fuckin’… Within a month of that show I quit the shitty high school band I was in and I was just like… I was in a whole new mindset, y’know? It was how I found out about punk.

“Lincoln, Nebraska is not a big ‘punk’ city,” Keen explained, “and I don’t have any older brothers or anything, so it took me a little longer. I was, like, 17 probably and uh, when I found out about punk or whatever I consider ‘punk’ it just like… it was a great day, it was cool.”

Performing "Roar Means Run" in Florida in 2008: The visual is unfortunately too dark to see what's going on, but the banter is worthwhile.

Though it was a relatively empty Monday evening at Johnny Brenda’s, Keen held nothing back in terms of performance. Shirtless and frantic, The Show Is The Rainbow felt more like a performance piece than a traditional set, Keen’s “band” a pre-recorded file pumped through the venue’s sound system and the aforementioned projections a visual aid to his madness. At points, Keen would pick up a guitar and play along with the computer, confirming his actual abilities as a musician in the face of any potential criticism he might get for relying so heavily on software. Consider this the “band” factor.

“The way I work, I don't use a ton of software, actually.”

Wet Fist is a marriage of technology and humanity, Keen’s live show the essential yardstick by which his album should be measured. TSITR exhibits the warmth of musicianship but makes no attempts to hide the mechanism that allows him to recreate his one-man vision for an audience.

“I use Pro-Tools and record most of the instruments,” Keen explained, “Like I record the guitars, and drums, and bass and stuff and, um, and live keyboards and I use the laptop just live like karaoke. But, um, I’m really into technology, as you said, I love that you figured that out about me, I'm very into the way technology and humans collaborate in every aspect of life. This is a big thing I’m interested in and I think with music it’s super important.”

As laptops become a commonality in live performances, powering more and more bands and acts with pre-programmed ease, with music-generating software also readily available to any non-musician with a PC, one might think an influx of mediocrity would befall all genres, talent and vision sacrificed at the hands of manufactured homogenization. Is technology leveling the playing field?

“…My studio set-up is a $400 M-Box and that’s it. I have shit that pretty much any kid could work a job and save up for a month and buy and, like, I think it’s more about creativity and how much time and how much of your brain and heart you’re going to put into your music that’s real important.”

Keen continued, “So, I think home recording software and laptops leveling the playing field is great because now no one has any excuse to be like, you can’t be like: ‘Oh, I can’t do this because I can’t afford the equipment those guys have’ or ‘I can’t afford all the synthesizers The Faint has’ or whatever, it’s like well, don’t get me wrong: The Faint is one of my favorite bands, but my record sounds pretty much as good as their album and that’s cocky of me to say but like… I’m just saying like, it’s just because I spent a fuck ton of time working on it, y’know? I think it’s great. It speaks so highly of a person’s creativity in my opinion if they can get great shit out of terrible equipment, y’know?”

The Show Is The Rainbow was recently featured in this year’s South By Southwest Festival just as Keen was beginning his tour with Beep Beep.

“This year I did way less shit,” Keen replied when I’d asked him how the festival had gone. “Last year I did seven shows in three days, actually two and a half days, and this year I did three shows in four days. It was kind of chill. Last year, I was one of the invited bands. I didn’t sign up, they asked me to play, which was really cool. And I got thrown out of my own showcase last year, so… this year I didn’t even get into the festival or anything. I just played some parties and Beep Beep played the Saddle Creek (Independent record label co-founded by Omaha native Conor Oberst) showcase, which was pretty cool.”

An altercation at last year’s SXSW earned Keen a write-up in Spin magazine and helped TSITR gain some attention.

“… It was a venue that doesn’t normally do concerts and they had a weird sound guy who was not cool and, uh, he said I broke a mic while I was playing and I picked it up and tapped it and it was on still, y’know, I was like, ‘Not broken.’ And he’s like, ‘Well, you swingin’ that mic around is gonna make it break early. You owe me $75.’ So, I crumpled up a dollar bill and I threw it on the ground and that was that.”

Before the Internet, when promotion was solely based on ‘zine write-ups, college radio and live shows, indie bands would tour relentlessly to spread their music, channels being very few and information less accessible. While Myspace and YouTube have become necessary tools for free promotion, and while Keen utilizes both, much of his reputation has been built using the traditional indie approach, having toured excessively since TSITR’s inception in 2002. “I think actually I’m kinda getting to the point where I might start settling down my touring a little bit because… it’s just been like, I feel like any reward, not monetarily, but just any personal reward or any notoriety reward I could get for touring I’ve already gotten.”

A slight emergence of mental exhaustion seemed to hang in the air as he continued, “Like, I’ve been just really busting my ass. I’ve done like over 800 shows in 6 years and it’s just like, it’s been really cool and I’ve seen the world and when I started touring I was a sober kid who lived with my parents and now I’m this like, totally different dude and I grew up, I became a man on tour as fucking weird as that is to say and it’s badass and I fucking love being on tour but, um, I think I’m just getting to the point now where I’m just like… I’m wanting to do a little bit different things with my band and I’m wanting my band to be, serve a different purpose in my life, I want to start using my band as an excuse to just do fun, cool shit that makes me really happy and I don’t want to sweat it out anymore.”

“I got the Retard Disco logo tattooed, that’s the label that put out the album. Isn’t that nerdy?”: Lifted from Keen's Myspace page. (Hope that's cool.)

As Keen’s hero Frank Zappa transitioned from group dynamics to solo work, citing the benefits of self-reliance, Keen’s thinking of taking the opposite approach. Having toured with a live band, I asked him if that is something he’d like to take another stab at. He lit up, “I want to record with a band. I have guest people come play shit. Eric from Beep Beep, he played all the guitars in Gymnasia, the album before Wet Fist. Usually I play all the instruments but, um, I really want to put together a completely live Show Is The Rainbow line-up.

Inspired, he continued, “And, I want to start doing the thing like… I toured with John Vanderslice a little and he does this thing where every tour he just has a different line-up, y’know and like, they just interpret the songs the best they can. Sometimes it’s five people; sometimes it’s three, y’know. And you know, Beck does that, too, now. I got kind of inspired thinking about that, the idea that like, I think it’d be really fucking cool to just like put together like, sometimes have a smaller line-up and just try to like, play the songs the way it sounds when those people are playing it, you know what I mean? And sometimes have the computer playing, too and sometimes, don’t. I’m interested in just trying to uh… Basically, after six years I need to do some new shit to keep myself interested and I think live musicians is the way I’m going to go and not in the writing process, I still to write it all myself ‘cause I’m a weird, crazy dude and I think my vision is pretty special and I want to keep following it but, uh, I would love to try to interpret it with some people on it, yeah.”

Midway through his set, Keen decided to give the computer a break. He picked up his guitar and strummed a melancholy little ode to working retail. Though it wasn’t energized or designed with the intent to unsettle the crowd, people were attentive and quiet, engaged with the “weird, crazy dude” that wasn’t being weird or crazy.

A quick “thanks” followed once the song was finished, and it was back to The Show Is The Rainbow.

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