Brian Kehew: Getting in Tune With The Who’s Keyboard Tech
Musician, sound engineer, producer, and author Brian Kehew (Class of ’87, B.A., magna cum laude, audio recording/music synthesis) recently spoke to a class of digital media arts students, recalling his introduction to California State University, Dominguez Hills – and to a career that has included his own synthesizer-based band, mixing and producing albums for a firmament of stars, writing the definitive book on how the Beatles recorded their albums, and stumbling into every music fan’s dream: performing onstage with one of his favorite bands, The Who.
After working with The Who since 2002 as keyboard technician for John “Rabbit” Bundrick, Kehew was asked to fill in for 25 performances when Bundrick had to leave the band’s 2006-2007 tour to be with his wife who had been diagnosed with cancer. Kehew says that the decision was based on his rapport with the band, his knowledge of the set and ability to work with the band’s freeform performance style.
“They called me on a Thursday and said, ‘Do you mind playing keyboards for us this weekend? We don’t have time to get anybody else,’” Kehew remembered. “’You know the keyboard rig, we know you can play.’ I thought about it for a microsecond and said, ‘Sure, I’ll do it.’
“It was a great example of how you cannot always plan what you’re going to do,” he said. “If my plan was to play keyboards for The Who that would have been an impossible goal. I knew these guys as friends and we’d worked together for years, but it was a real sudden call to say, ‘You’re going to play in front of the Hollywood Bowl,’ which I think seats 18,000 people – that [was my] first show’ and without a rehearsal.”
Kehew was on the road crew for The Who and their performance at the 44th Super Bowl earlier this month, helping to prepare the band to play on a stage that was constructed on the field in a six-minute commercial break before the halftime show. He said that the ability to adapt quickly is critical for students who hope to work in the music industry.
“For us, the Super Bowl was an easier show – not so many songs to play, and we had several days to set up for one event,” said Kehew. “But the big change was the weird stage, an all-new environment and special requirements for TV. It’s nothing like our regular shows, but we’re skilled enough now to handle almost anything they can throw at us: new songs for tonight’s show, half the stage space we normally get, or build something today to fix a new problem.”
Kehew credited CSU Dominguez Hills with building not only the technical skills he needed in the industry, but with providing the hands-on experience and individual attention that larger - and pricier – schools cannot provide because of large class sizes. He recalled visiting the campus from his home in San Bernardino and being given a tour of the campus by professor of music David Bradfield.
“He took me around the school and showed me the studio,” said Kehew. “I was amazed by it. I remember seeing a student working on a channel out of the mixing board and he was fixing it. That’s a really good skill to know. It’s not like watching somebody work in a glass booth and then going home and trying to do it yourself. On that day, students were in the lab - and it wasn’t necessarily a school day, it was summertime – doing projects on the synths and recording. I thought this was a really good thing.”
Kehew said that while he carried a double major in audio recording and music synthesis, he benefitted from other classes within the musical disciplines, as well as the diversity of technical experience available to him as a student.
“I learned how to sing, which I’d never done before,” he noted. “I was in the choir and it taught me a lot about pitch. As a producer working with artists, I can tell them how to be more on pitch and show them tricks to sing in tune, or how to hold the notes better.
“I used to do extra credit and record the recitals and concerts here, orchestral stuff, experimental composers, students playing the piano. When I left school, I suddenly could show all this experience. Most [graduates] can give you some hip hop or trance music that they recorded with their synths. I could play you a Beethoven symphony that I recorded. Here you get this amazing experience doing things that are almost impossible to get at a student level that you can put on your resume.”
Kehew spent 15 years writing “Recording the Beatles” with Kevin Ryan. He said that being able to visit Abbey Road Studios in London was “a dream come true.”
“I was fascinated by the Beatles and their records,” he said. “We learned how creative they were with very little equipment. They had about eight microphones in their whole career. They had one microphone pre-amp. The drums went through it, the strings went through it, all the vocals went through it. They had two, maybe three compressors. Now all these things are available to you a million times more than what the Beatles had. What I learned from studying them was that they didn’t have a magic box or anything special about what they did. They were just creative people.
“Many artists have created their own styles with very little,” he told the assembled students. “Try to work with what you have. You can be infinitely creative with a few colors and a paintbrush on a canvas.”
In 2008, Kehew and Ryan released “Kaleidoscope Eyes: A Day in the Life of Sgt. Pepper,” featuring photographs taken by photojournalist Henry Grossman during the Beatles’ recording session for the song “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” An expert on early synthesizers, Kehew has an extensive collection of vintage instruments including four Mellotrons, two rare Chamberlins, and two rare Con Brio, Inc. synthesizers.
As a friend of the late Robert Moog, the inventor of the first commercially successful synthesizer, Kehew helped Moog’s family establish an archive of the inventor’s work and last summer, helped curate an exhibit at the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad, Calif. Kehew founded Moog Cookbook with former Jellyfish keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning, Jr., and the duo recorded renditions of well-known songs using vintage keyboard synthesizers on the albums “Moog Cookbook” and “Ye Olde Space Bande.” In 2006, they released a collection of previously unreleased material titled “Bartell.”
Kehew has mixed and produced albums for artists of many genres including Fiona Apple, Aretha Franklin, The Ramones, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Elvis Costello. He has also performed live with Air, Hole, and Dave Davies, founding member of The Kinks. He also does consulting and programming for music equipment manufacturers, including contributions to the Moog Minimoog Voyager, Little Phatty synthesizers, Moogerfooger pedals and the Alesis Andromeda, Ion and Fusion synthesizers.
The diversity of the student population at CSU Dominguez Hills was an advantage to Kehew who learned about many types of music that that he would not have ordinarily explored on his own - and the technical aspects of recording it – from his classmates. He said the experience illustrates the importance of being able to work collaboratively.
“I became a fan of sound, not just music,” he said. “I went from listening to the same CDs over and over again to being exposed to all different kinds of people who would play me their favorite records, and they would explain to me why they liked it.
“There’s a lot of tendency now with laptops and having your own studio to develop your own way of working,” Kehew said. “But more and more I find that working with other people is the real reward of music. You can make amazing music by yourself, but it typically means the most to you. But the more you work together as a group, I think you will find music that will affect more people. You may be the next genius who can do everything yourself. But [artists like] the Beatles and Prince had producers and other musicians that gave them input and feedback. Most of them tended to do their best work with other people.”
The spirit of collaboration is a recurring thread in Kehew’s work, encompassing everything from making valuable contacts throughout the music industry while working at a Los Angeles guitar shop to his ability to bolster the confidence of artists that he works with. He says that while resumes in the music industry can impress on paper, the real proof of professional worth is bringing “something to the table besides the things you’ve done.”
“Most of my skills are good, maybe even above average,” Kehew said. “But they’re not necessarily the best of this or the best of that. I do get a lot of work because people like to sit in the room with me. We like to talk, we like to tell jokes and have fun, but we get work done. I’m the person they hire to be an honest critic, an honest coach. Sometimes giving confidence means to be literal with someone, saying, ‘It was pretty good, but I think you can do better.’
“I think that resumes are fun, and maybe they’re a good way to impress people when you walk into a room, but then you have to show up and do the job, and be good at it. The most important work you’ve ever done is the work you’re going to do today.”
- Joanie Harmon
Photo above: Brian Kehew joined The Who onstage during their North American tour in 2006 at the Hollywood Bowl.
Photo by J.J. Blair