An exclusive interview with Bob McKee
by Glüton Diner
Glüton Diner (from Germany) interviewing Bob McKee (St. Louis, USA) for Teeter Totter Magazine. December 2022 issue.
***Featuring the special release of his first single off the album I Don't Want You In Here!***
Glüton Diner: What were some albums from your youth that left a major impact? I remember being really into Hysteria by Def Lepard when it came out. I grew up with rock music in the house, but it was around the height of Hysteria that I started to pay attention to current rock music and I watched tons of MTV. That was 1987, so I would have been 10. That album is still burned into my brain and it was the album that awakened me to the magic of rock music and inadvertently changed the course of my life.
Bob McKee: Man, the music of my youth was full of misdirection! I had Megadeth, Dokken, Rush, and Racer X on tape, but a lot of Andres Segovia and Vivaldi, too. I played violin through high school and really dug into classical guitar for a while. I guess they all impacted me as far as understanding what could be done with the instrument, but it was artists like Bob Dylan, Richard Buckner, and Jay Farrar who took me down winding roads of lyrics and moods, and people like Alejandro Escovedo who showed me what perfect songs and performances really are. I’d also say grunge bands, especially Nirvana, moved me quite a bit. That said, I can still plug in & play Dokken’s “Unchain the Night”!
GD: Describe the worst show you ever played. It could have been a show that you were really excited about, but went down in flames. Or it could be playing to no one but the sound guy. Or a member of the band was too intoxicated to make it through a song. There are many possibilities to have proper ingredients for the worst show ever. I feel like I have had many worst shows ever for all of the reasons listed.
McKee: That’s an easy one…my good friend and bandmate Dave Hansen, who gets credit for assisting with the production of my record, once called me up and asked if I could open for his band Aintry at the Way Out Club in St. Louis, with a short 2 hours notice. I threw together a setlist and showed up, only to play to a room consisting of just the Aintry band members, who were honest to god sleeping at a table. I had this gear bag my cat had peed on, it was up on stage…and the Way Out had these two cats roaming around who were going nuts over my gear bag! That was a night.
GD: Have you ever had any major equipment malfunctions during a show? A blown amp? A broken string and you didn't bring a spare? A broken drum head? What was something that involved an equipment malfunction that ruined your show?
McKee: Yeah - the Vondrukes were playing The Pageant and I popped a string - no big deal, so I grabbed my second guitar (at least I brought a backup) and started playing the next song. But I’d forgotten to tune the guitar, and that sucker was tuned to notes that don’t exist. Fire from my bandmates’ eyes as every riff I played sounded like a bad joke. You could say it was a “sour note” to an otherwise fun show. Lesson learned.
GD: What was your strangest relationship/experience with a fan of your band? I feel like I should share my story, because it's a good one. My old band played multiple shows in Lansing, MI - where we met a super-fan-girl named Bethanne who fell in love with our singer, Chris. She wrote him long love letters on our band's Myspace account, and she even wrote and recorded a love song for him. The song consists of her open strumming a guitar(as if someone who had never touched a guitar before) and singing a bizarre love tale over it. I am the only person with a copy of this song and it will remain that way... buried on my hard drive. At one point, we played Lansing again on a Midwest tour. Bethanne showed up to the show and invited us to stay with her and offered to cook us food. We were tired and hungry., so that sounded great. The bass player kid from the opening band told us that this gal (Bethanne) was crazy and we should stay at his house instead. Given the creepy stalker-fan vibe Bethanne was giving off, we took the bass player kid up on his offer... for better or worse. Upon arrival, he gave us a tour of his house. When we got to his bedroom, he showed us multiple bottles of pills he was on... shaking the open pill bottles and showering pills all over his room - then immediately went into a panic - worrying that his cats would eat the pills and die. It is important to mention that a Ska band was also staying at his house for a reason that I will never understand. This happened around 2005, and I thought all Ska bands had died by that point. The Ska band was in the living room smoking huge amounts of weed. There were multiple pipes and joints floating around at the same time. The living room was the only place in the house to hang out/sit down/sleep. It was a crowded space. So... if you were inside the house, you were forced to interact with the Ska band and also felt compelled to smoke marijuana with them. It was too much to the point of ridiculousness. They asked us if we had any grass, to which we answered yes, but it was too wet and sticky to smoke and needed to be dried out or it wouldn't burn. They aggressively told us to go get it. They were huge dicks and Ska sucks. I slept outside on the back porch.
McKee: I can’t compete with that, Glüton. I do recall an opening solo gig for Fred Eaglesmith - it was a great show and I met a lot of nice folks afterwards. The next year Fred came to St. Louis, someone else opened and I went to the show as a fan. This gal next to me said “Hey - didn’t you open for Fred last year? You were great, why aren’t you up there?”. It was both a compliment and a punch in the gut.
GD: Does the gear that you and your band use play a crucial role in your sound? What are your general feelings or preferences on specific guitars and amps? Are you a gearhead? What do you look for in an instrument and amplifier? How about effects pedals?
McKee: The most important part of a song to me is understanding what each song needs. Whether it’s working through a new song with your bandmates, or composing the parts of I Don’t Want You In Here at home myself. Every song has specific parts, sounds, and nuances to be discovered. Next to performing live, that’s the most exciting part of music to me.
I do like finding gear that pushes me in different directions or has a certain tone that fits the songs. I’m a big fan of vintage amps and analog pedals. I used an old Ampeg Gemini on almost every track of this album and ran various overdrive pedals for gain staging, an 80s era Ibanez chorus, and a rad DOD Rubberneck analog delay. I wanted a real ethereal vibe on some of the tracks and was happy with the results.
There are different electric guitars on the album, but the workhorse was a Godin Session Custom with a couple of special pickups in them. It’s not the sexiest, but the guitar is so easy to play and sounds great with the pickup mods.
I used a few acoustics as well. There’s a Guild, an Alvarez, and an old Stella in there. And a few different basses on the tracks.
GD: What is your favorite piece of gear? If your house was on fire and you could only rescue one piece of gear, what would it be and why?
McKee: I’d grab my Guild acoustic, “Lilly”. I’ve had her 20 years now and several songs on this album were written while playing it. And maybe in the other hand my ‘60s Truetone Speed Demon my wife got me for my 40th birthday. The neck was in bad shape and a local luthier, Tom Gilreath, replicated the original with a few upgrades. Best neck ever. It’s hard not to write a new song every time I pick it up.
GD: Explain what some of the material on the new album is about? Did you draw inspiration from personal experiences? If so, please elaborate. Was any of the music directly influenced by other bands' music? If so, please explain.
McKee: Yeah, this is an intensely personal album. There were a couple songs I left off because they were just…they were too close and too deep to include. There was one song I set aside because I couldn't make it all the way through without crying, and it just wasn't healthy for me. I’ve wanted to release a full solo album for almost 20 years, and I spent a lot of time choosing the songs I wanted on here.
A lot of the songs I write with The Vondrukes are very message-forward. Same with my old band The Poorhouse Says. Whether that’s political, talking about religion, social topics, or whatever. This album is full of familiar themes we all experience, and the songs reflect how mine have played out. My sister makes an appearance on Parasol Games and that was extra special.
The album cover even reflects the personal experiences…there’s a badass musician and graphic designer out of Omaha - Ethan Jones - who did the artwork. The title track mentions a blue fan blowing in the window. Growing up, I spent countless summer nights with the windows open and that fan on, with cicadas in the background, putting me to sleep. We all have some kind of memory like that.
GD: If you had a time machine, what show/band would you go back to see play live? Also what year/period of that band's career would it be?
McKee: So many to choose from! Bob Dylan at Newport? Woodstock? Rush’s first 2112? The Stones circa ‘65? Any Muddy Waters or Freddie King show? An Amadeus concert in a king’s court? Early Sheryl Crow or Sarah McLachlan? Petula Clark!? Blue Mountain? AC/DC? Uncle Tupelo 1990-91? U2 Joshua Tree? Nick Drake? Ooh, Nick Drake! The Whole Sick Crew at Frederick’s? Richard Buckner when he’s not pissed off? Nadine at Lemmon’s basement? Beth Bombara at the Ryman where she belongs? Cindy Wolff back at Off Broadway bringing me to tears? Anders Parker at Iota?
The Beatles? That would be pretty amazing. But I have to go with Alejandro Escovedo. Any era, anywhere. No one makes a show special every time like Alejandro.