Jimmy Keegan

Spock’s Beard’s Jimmy Keegan

Fueling the Flame

Story by Will Romano
Photos by Alex Solca

When frontman and main songwriter Neal Morse left Spock’s Beard in 2002, drummer Nick D’Virgilio assumed the lead role, pulling triple duty as singer, drummer, and guitarist for studio efforts and stage performances. Not wanting to sing from behind the kit during the progressive rock band’s live gigs, D’Virgilio called upon Jimmy Keegan, someone with a similar drumming style who could also handle backing vocals and Spock’s stew of odd meters.

Inviting another multi-instrumentalist into the ranks added considerable depth and dimension to the band’s shows, and for years Spock’s functioned well with Keegan acting solely as touring drummer. That is until 2011, when D’Virgilio was offered a full-time position with Cirque du Soleil’s production of Totem, a theatrical and acrobatic interpretation of human evolution.

Some observers predicated the death of Spock’s Beard without D’Virgilio, recalling the uncertainty following Morse’s exit nearly a decade earlier. The group has demonstrated a remarkable resiliency, however, proving the naysayers wrong. The capable Ted Leonard, lead vocalist for the progressive metal band Enchant, got the nod, and Keegan was promoted to full-fledged member, assisting Spock’s in its infinite pursuit of fresh musical landscapes.

Tapping Keegan was a savvy choice. The guy had, quite simply, been around. A child actor who received his first drumkit at age ten, Keegan appeared with the brilliant but doomed thespian River Phoenix on Real Kids, a spinoff of the early reality TV series Real People. As a teenager in the mid-1980s, Keegan formed the band Polo and regularly performed at Disneyland alongside none other than a young Josh Freese. “Josh has said in interviews that he’d played at Disneyland with another drummer,” Keegan says. “I’ve been the ‘other drummer’ for thirty years. He was on a set of Simmons pads, which he was known for at the time, and I was on an acoustic kit.”

Since his Disney days Keegan has appeared on soundtracks and completed various sessions with artists such as Kenny Loggins, John Waite, and most notably Carlos Santana, on the track “Primavera” from the 1999 megahit album Supernatural.

For the last decade-plus with Spock’s, Keegan has cut a slew of live albums and a pair of studio releases (beginning with 2013’s Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep), and he’s in the process of finishing his as-yet-untitled solo record. On the Beard’s twelfth studio effort, 2015’s The Oblivion Particle, Keegan recalls shades of both Morse and D’Virgilio, as he steps up to the mic to sing lead on the psychedelic-pop-ish and wormhole-wonderful “Bennett Built a Time Machine,” offering more startling proof of D’Virgilio’s discerning eye for talent.

“I’ve always loved the Beatles and bands that have multiple singers,” Keegan says. “When Ted joined I was trying to make a point that he’s not the only singer. I’m not interested in stepping on anyone’s toes, but when the right song comes along, I would not mind taking a stab at it. I asked if I could do a pass at it, and it turned out that everyone liked it.”

It appears that the forty-six-year-old grandfather is as virile as ever. Yet, for all of Keegan’s exuberance, one gets the sense that the drummer’s default position is that of happy warrior, entertaining the folks regardless of what’s happening behind the scenes. There are moments, however, when the talkative veteran lets his guard down to reveal details of the struggles musicians encounter while operating from deep inside the trenches. This Keegan keeps it real, making brutally honest commentary mixed with self-deprecating humor.

“I would play drums in my garage for myself—and that’s why I play drums,” Jimmy says. “But why am I in the music business? I have to pay my bills. At the same time I want to do what I want to do. I’ve chosen this type of music, the good and the bad of it, which is why I still do cover bands and weddings. I need to eat, you know? It’s really that simple.”

MD: Years ago Nick D’Virgilio told me why he chose you to be Spock’s Beard’s touring drummer: “I needed to find somebody who played in a similar style to me and who also sang. The only person I knew who I trusted to do that was my friend Jimmy.” Can you comment on that?

Jimmy: Nick and I knew each other, but we weren’t close buddies. I had read about him in Modern Drummer. I hadn’t actually sought out any of Spock’s music, but people said it was cool. Finally I found out that Nick was going to be singing for the band, and I’m pretty sure I read that announcement in Modern Drummer. I called him and made a joke: “Are you going to be a big sissy and go out front with a guitar and sing? Or are you going to front the band from behind the kit and be a real man?” [laughs] A month later he called me and said, “Hey, man. Wanna be in Spock’s Beard?” I said, “Yes, I want to be in Spock’s Beard—but you’re still a big sissy!”

I was, and still am, a single dad. My daughter was five or six then. She was finally at the age that I felt comfortable taking off for extended periods of time. I was good to go. Then I started listening to Spock’s Beard’s music and went, Oh, crap. [laughs] Playing a groove in an odd meter is one thing, but Neal [Morse] liked to compose in such a way that you’d have four measures of six followed by one measure of five and then another four measures of six. When that section in five was reprised later in the song, it would appear in a different place, not preceded or followed by four measures of six, if you see what I mean.

MD: Neal’s exit from Spock’s was shocking to some. Can you describe the atmosphere in the band when Nick left for Cirque du Soleil?

Jimmy Keegan

Jimmy: Well, Nick and I share similar families; we have kids, and we both know the struggles of being a working musician. We communicated a lot in terms of how you handle different circumstances—and not just the dynamics of the business, but also the dynamics of the family. Nick called me and said, “What would you do in this condition, if you had the option…?” My advice to him was, “If you can get a job that you enjoy doing, that pays well, gives your kids a fantastic education, and you get insurance and all the other things that we ignore…if you don’t want it, let me know. I’ll be there so fast.” We had a laugh about that.

MD: What happened next?

Jimmy: The band was finishing up the X album at the time. Nick, in theory, would stay involved. The band would schedule around his breaks, but that got impossible, really fast. We had an offer for a couple of festivals. Spock’s rarely gets a chance to do festivals, and those are the best things for us. We decided we should do them [without D’Virgilio]. Ted [Leonard, vocalist] was an old friend of the band, and Dave [Meros, bassist] and Ted have a cover band [Rolling Heads], so they work together all the time. It’s a natural progression. We didn’t want Nick to leave, but what an amazing opportunity [for him]. I would have done the exact same thing.

MD: There’s a YouTube video of you covering the Police’s “Synchronicity II.” You’re singing and playing drums at the same time. How did you develop this skill?

Jimmy: I started singing first, which is funny, because I never really considered myself a singer until years later. As I’ve gotten older, singing and drumming became my way of making sure I always got hired. The only thing difficult about singing and drumming is breathing. Sometimes the breathing you need to do to sing doesn’t match the breathing you need to do to play the drums.

MD: How do you overcome that?

Jimmy: Knowing when to breathe and always keeping proper support. But therein lies the rub: Ask a singer what proper support is and then ask a singing drummer what proper support is, and they’re not necessarily the same thing. I’m very particular about the drum throne I use, to the point where I’ve asked tech guys to go back to the shop and get me a different seat, because the seat is too hard.

MD: How did you approach new Spock’s Beard material without having Nick around to provide a blueprint?

Jimmy: Well, knowing the guys already, there was an advantage that they didn’t have to learn my personality and I didn’t have to learn theirs. Sure enough, we got into the studio and Al [Morse, guitarist, Neal’s brother] was really big on, “Play more. This is prog.” I understand that, but sometimes the song begs for a groove. It wasn’t until Al started tracking his parts that he called and said, “Dude…there’s all this space and I can do things that I wouldn’t normally be able to do.”

MD: You won them over.

Jimmy: That comes from being a session musician for thirty years. You play to the vocals or the solo and, if at all possible, stay out of the way and give the song a groove. It’s the Steve Gadd approach. When it’s time for a fill, then you add the flourishes. Having said all of this, I’m busier on Oblivion than I was on Brief Nocturnes. Finally, Al is happy.

MD: Groove and prog are not necessarily mutually exclusive terms. You prove that with a song like “Get Out While You Can.”

Jimmy: If the song isn’t groovin’, either I will change it or I’m going to ask you to change it. If you can’t, maybe I’m not the drummer for you. Then again, just because the song is in seven, it doesn’t mean it can’t dance. Gavin Harrison [Porcupine Tree, King Crimson] talks about similar things. He’s a lot busier than I am, which is strange because I think I’m a really busy player. Gavin plays a lot, but it still grooves like crazy.

Jimmy Keegan

MD: Any odd times that don’t dance?

Jimmy: I don’t like playing in 6/4. Anything 6/4 or 7/4, it’s going to sound like something got clipped off the end.

MD: The quarter-note time in an odd tempo can make the rhythm feel stilted.

Jimmy: Yeah. Do you know Karim Ziad? He does this fusion Algerian/Mediterranean music played with traditional and contemporary instruments. A lot of music from that region is in five or eleven, and he adapts traditional rhythms that you’d never know are in an odd meter. I played some of that for the guys before we did the Brief Nocturnes record, to offer a different perspective on playing in odd meters.

MD: Spock’s seems to have a history of fostering multi-instrumentalists. Neal Morse is a singer, keyboard player, and guitarist, and he wrote most of the material for the band. It only seems natural that you came along, a singing drummer.

Jimmy: I also noodle on piano. Ted can play drums too, by the way.

MD: On the limited-edition deluxe version of The X Tour Live CD/DVD, you perform a funky drum duet with Nick. At one point you stomp your feet, play the drum riser, a monitor, and the actual stage with your sticks.

Jimmy: Yeah. [Speaks in a Groucho Marx–like voice] “When I play the theater, I really play the theater.” When we were putting that drum duel together, I kept playing in my head the episode of The Muppet Show with Buddy Rich. Buddy plays the walls and a candelabra and eventually on the head of one of the Muppets. He looks at the camera and says, “When I play the theater, I play the theater!” That’s the worst Vaudevillian joke ever, but The Muppet Show was patterned upon a Vaudeville show, and Buddy was a child star of Vaudeville.

MD: Did you rehearse the drum duel?

Jimmy: No. Nick said, “I saw you do this drum solo once. You did this sort of half-time, Jeff Porcaro–pattern thing.” It sprung out of that. I don’t remember whose idea it was to get up and off the drumkit, but we tried executing a stick-tossing routine, throwing sticks to each other from behind our kits. In the end, we’d have sticks all over the floor. [laughs] I miss that little moment of camaraderie. I love Ted, but I don’t have my cohort anymore.
MD: Would you ever do a double drum thing with Ted?

Jimmy: If it happens it’d be out of humor. I wouldn’t put it past Ted to be funny, but I don’t think it would ever be something that we would do.

MD: You’re working on a solo record. How far along are you with it?

Jimmy: I have about half the songs ready, and I’ve laid the groundwork for a handful of others. I had the idea of doing a solo thing for a long time, but because I have a family I have to do what I need to. But things have changed. The time is now and I might as well do it, because I have friends, amazingly talented friends, who can help. I’ve worked with a number of names, some you’ve heard, some you haven’t. Lately it’s been, “Hey, remember the sessions we did? You really didn’t have the budget you thought you’d have and you ended up buying me lunch? Yeah, well, come on over. I’m going to buy you lunch.”

Jimmy’s Setup

Jimmy Keegan kit

Drums: Yamaha Absolute Hybrid Maple in classic walnut finish 6×14 snare /// 7×8, 7×10, and 8×12 rack toms /// 11×14 and 13×16 floor toms /// 16×22 bass drum

“I played a 20″ kick drum for almost twenty years,” Keegan says. “So the idea of jumping up to a larger drum was kind of…let’s not get too big. I can’t play a 24″ unless I do only one rack tom, because it just gets the toms too high for me. And I like the way the shallow toms sound, but the primary reason I use them is that I have short arms, and if the toms are too deep they become difficult for me to play—and you can’t see me!” [laughs]

Cymbals: Paiste
14″ 602 Modern Essentials hi-hats /// 14″ PSTX Swiss Flanger Stack /// 20″ Giant Beat ride /// 10″ Signature splash /// 8″ 2002 splash /// 16″ Signature Precision crash /// 20″ 602 Modern Essentials ride /// 18″ Signature Dark Energy crash /// 18″ 602 Modern Essentials China

“The Signature Precision crashes are the new heroes of Paiste,” Keegan says. “They’re competitively priced and sound great—more of a classic crash cymbal, with a bright shimmer. I used a Traditionals Medium ride for years, but Paiste stopped making them. I still have mine, but the 602 Modern Essentials has a little bit more shimmer, making it more versatile for Spock’s. For other gigs I’ll bring out the Traditionals.”

Heads: Aquarian. Texture Coated snare batter with dot underneath and Classic Clear snare-side /// Response 2 tom batters and Classic Clear bottoms /// Force 1 bass drum batter with Super-Thin kick pad and logo front head

Hardware: Yamaha 9500 series. Double pedal (switches between chain and direct drive) /// 950 snare stand /// 1200 two-leg hi-hat stand /// boom stands all around with a few combo stands /// Tama Ergo Rider throne

Sticks: Vater Josh Freese H-220 model and Poly brush

Microphones: Audio-Technica ATM650 on snare /// ATM25 on bass drum /// AT41 on hi-hats /// ATM450 overheads /// ATM350 on rack toms /// ATM250s on floor toms /// custom Electro-Voice vocal microphone N/D468JK (N/D468 casing with N/D767 capsule, engineered with tighter pattern; can be special ordered)

Electronics: Yamaha DTX-MULTI 12
“Spock’s doesn’t use tracks,” Keegan explains, “but there are percussion sounds and a handful of unique sounds that I’ve sampled straight off the record. There’s a percussion loop in the song ‘Submerged’ [from Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep], for instance, which has doumbek, analog kick drum, a few shaker things, reverse guitar sounds…. Whatever we can’t physically play in that section I trigger on the fly. We’re not against having extra tracks, but it has to be pretty important and impossible to play for us to do it.”

Setup interview by John Martinez