It’s been a while since we’ve heard Patrick Keeler driving the Raconteurs on a brand-new set of noisy, infectious, and hard-grooving songs. In fact, for those scoring at home, it was eleven years and three months between studio albums for the all-star rock band, which also includes singer/guitarist/ songwriters Jack White and Brendan Benson and bassist Jack Lawrence, aka “Little Jack.” That’s just too long without hearing Keeler’s heavy-duty swing and glorious snare drum ring on some new Raconteurs jams.
To put the Raconteurs’ extended absence in perspective, consider what has happened in the world at large between the release of the band’s 2008 sophomore album, Consolers of the Lonely, and its third, Help Us Stranger, released this past June. The explosion of social media. The emergence of smartphones as a way to manage your life from the palm of your hand. The Great Recession. Game of Thrones. Podcasts. The transformation of Donald Trump from reality TV star/ business magnate to President.
You get the idea. Huge changes, everywhere you look. For Keeler as well.
After the Raconteurs wrapped the touring cycle for Consolers of the Lonely in late 2008, Keeler kept busy behind the kit. He made contributions to Jack White’s Lazaretto and Blunderbuss albums, Elle King’s Love Stuff , Wanda Jackson’s The Party Ain’t Over, and Butch Walker’s The Spade. In 2010, Keeler recorded instant garage rock classics with the Parting Gifts (Strychnine Dandelion) and the Greenhornes, his long-standing band with Lawrence (****). He also toured and recorded with alt-rock veterans the Afghan Whigs. But a big change came a couple of years after Keeler relocated from Nashville to Los Angeles in 2013. Somewhat unexpectedly, he ended up with a full-time job as an illustrator for the boutique clothing company MadeWorn, which specializes in not-inexpensive reproductions of vintage rock tees.
The MadeWorn job isn’t a stretch for Keeler. He studied art in his native Cincinnati after graduating from high school, and he’s been designing logos, posters, and album covers for bands and labels as long as he’s been a professional drummer. It’s just not every day that you see a successful musician who’s played on hit records and is accustomed to performing before thousands of people put their instrument aside to pursue a “proper” job, albeit one in a creative discipline.
“I kind of fell into this job with MadeWorn,” Keeler explains. “It wasn’t really a hashed out plan. I went to their studio and we just hit it off, and I started hanging out a lot. I said, ‘I do this stuff. I did all the Raconteurs artwork. I’ve done posters and designs for all my favorite bands. I’ve done lots of stuff for Jack White.’
“I basically said, ‘Can I intern?’ I hadn’t had a job since I was in my twenties, bartending. I didn’t have a résumé or anything like that. So they just threw me into the fire and said, ‘You’re hired.’ So here I am, forty years old in Los Angeles, getting my first job, really focusing on the art stuff.”
Though Keeler’s MadeWorn job came complete with a daily commute to an office, business hours to keep, and all that working-stiff stuff, the gig did afford him scheduling flexibility. So when the Raconteurs regrouped to see if there was enough of a creative spark to begin work on a third album, Keeler was all in. And it’s clear after listening to Help Us Stranger that focusing his creative energies on illustration for several years didn’t cramp Keeler’s drumming style one iota. He picks up right where he left off with the band in 2008: grooving hard, and cramming a lot of great drumming moments into each song without ever overplaying.
Keeler has all four limbs and some big band mojo working overtime in an amped cover of Donovan’s “Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness),” rattling o a swinging snare-and-toms combination that stays deep in the pocket. There’s more gonzo drumming in “Don’t Bother Me,” as the band stops the leaden, Sabbath-style shuffle cold to give Keeler room for a few Bill Ward–style drum breaks (and the room mics space to capture his left foot keeping time on the hi-hats—a great old-school sonic touch).
Typical of the band’s first two albums, Stranger features shape-shifting songs that require Keeler to pivot frequently, as he does on “What’s Yours Is Mine,” sliding back and forth from a quasi march pattern on the snare to a cowbell-driven old-school hip-hop groove. And speaking of grooves, the funky strut he puts to “Help Me Stranger” has a killer machine-like feel and sound. Keeler achieved it by tapping out a two-handed 16th-note pattern with a super light touch on a pair of oversized hi-hats and maintaining that light touch for the backbeats, which he played on the resonant side of the snare.
Let’s hope it’s not another eleven years before we get to hear Keeler playing on a new Raconteurs album. But even if it is, the discipline, creativity, and taste he exhibits on Help Us Stranger is more than enough to tide us over.
MD: When you finished the last Raconteurs touring cycle, was there any plan to get back to it eventually?
Patrick: Not really. That band was born out of, “Hey, let’s try this.” There was never a hard plan on exactly what we were doing. The first record, we just did it so quickly. And before you knew it, we were out there playing shows.
And then the second record we spent some more time on, but then we dropped it really quick. And those were kind of back-to-back. After taking a break from it for ten years, I was going back and listening to those records, watching old performances almost like an athlete would watch tapes of games. And there’s part of me that’s like, How did I do that? or Why did I do that? There are some twists and turns that I don’t know if we’d do like that now. The new record and the recent live performances are a product of me doing this for twenty-five years.
MD: Were you going back and checking out old stuff to relearn songs for touring purposes, or to get your head back in the Raconteurs dynamic?
Patrick: Both. It’s not like I was sitting around practicing Raconteurs songs for the last ten years. I had to relearn how the songs went. There’d be certain songs where I’d think, How did I do that? I’d have to watch video and see that I was leading with my left hand—Oh, that makes sense—that kind of stuff.
It’s not drastically different, but the Afghan Whigs really was a shift for my playing—just a much different approach to playing, especially live. With the way the songs are structured in that band, there’s a lot less room for improvisation. I needed to kind of learn control with the Whigs. It kept me very controlled— parts A, B, C, that kind of thing. With the Greenhornes and Raconteurs, and just a lot of the stuff I worked on with Jack and Brendan, it’s just whatever you want to do. Especially live, you just take it wherever it goes.
MD: At some point, every drummer has to go back and woodshed and figure things out, no matter how long you’ve been doing it, or at what level.
Patrick: I grew up taking drum lessons and practicing and learning rudiments. I was reading music and playing in orchestra and jazz band and marching band [in school]. But when we started the Greenhornes, it was just like, “Forget all this shit and just play.” Since I was eighteen, I’ve never been one to just sit around and practice.
With the Afghan Whigs I had to learn thirty, forty songs, kind of verbatim. I’d never done that. I’ve been listening to Led Zeppelin my whole life, but I couldn’t play one of their songs verbatim. I was never that guy sitting down to figure out a song and play it exactly like it was on a record.
MD: Did you have a method for learning such a large body of work with Afghan Whigs? Were you charting things out?
Patrick: That was the first time outside of a session that I did chart it out, in my own little chicken scratch. And it was the first time I started writing notes on drums. It started out on my snare drum. Things like, “This song has a fill change,” or “This song has a measure of five,” or something. That soon turned into my drumset looking like [the lm] Memento. The notes got longer and more precise. I’d have to take a picture of the head before we’d change it. But with the Raconteurs there are no notes. It’s going to happen how it happens.
MD: Those bands seem to require two very different approaches from a drummer. There’s a deep sense of groove to both, but the Raconteurs is like a celebration of crazy, creative rock drumming, whereas Afghan Whigs sits further back in a much deeper, more controlled pocket.
Patrick: It comes from two different worlds. Greg [Dulli] and John [Curley] from the Whigs are two of my oldest, best friends. And Jack White, Jack Lawrence, and Brendan Benson are also three of my oldest, best friends. But it’s two different worlds.
MD: You told me for a story back in 2008 that the hardest thing about being in the Raconteurs is that everybody’s a drummer. Still an issue?
Patrick: It still rings true. [laughs] It helps, but it’s still a little intimidating sometimes. It’s no different in the Whigs—Greg’s a great drummer. Greg is vocal melody and drums first.
MD: But given how Jack has worked with such great players like Carla Azar and Daru Jones, and that he’s such a great drummer himself, whatever suggestions he makes are coming from a pretty informed place. You’re going to grow as a player playing with a guy like that, just as you would grow from playing with Brendan Benson, who operates in that Todd Rundgren/mad pop scientist world. Or Greg Dulli, who’s such a compelling songwriter and performer in his own way.
Patrick: For sure. That’s what’s cool about having guys who understand what you’re doing. I’ve tried other things in the studio with people I don’t know, who aren’t drummers, and certain things you can do, and certain things don’t work. I’ve been pretty blessed to be surrounded by drummers. I’ve heard some of Brendan’s demos, and I’m like, Oh, man, those drums are done. He’s got a unique style when he plays drums. He plays stuff I wouldn’t think of. “Steady as She Goes” came from a groove he played. There was a hiccup in the middle of the beat, almost like a reggae thing. I don’t know that I would’ve thought of it. And that leads to, Hey, what if we put the 1 here? That became kind of the way everything developed with that band.
When I first got to Nashville I started hanging out with Steve Gorman. Growing up, the Black Crowes meant a lot to me. We got together and played and it was like, Wow, Steve Gorman’s playing that pocket—there it is. Certain people have their thing.
MD: Besides the Black Crowes, what other kinds of things were you listening to growing up?
Patrick: As a kid it was all about the Stray Cats or Joan Jett. I had a CD player early on, and one of the first CDs I got was Television’s Marquee Moon. It came in the mail from Columbia House. And I only had so many of these things, so I listened to the same ones over and over. Born in the U.S.A. was in the collection, probably some Billy Joel. A lot of it came from what my dad listened to or what my brother listened to.
MD: Were there any drummers in particular who were turning your head?
Patrick: Mitch Mitchell was a massive influence for me. Michael Shrieve, after I saw the Woodstock video, that freaked me out. But I was learning “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” when I was twelve, so it was all over the map.
MD: You could play “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” at twelve?
Patrick: Well, it was kind of my version of it. [laughs] It was passable. I was just so into the sticking and all that. When I was a freshman in high school we started a little band, doing classic rock covers. So we started going to Bogart’s and Sudsy Malone’s in Cincinnati when we were really young, and I got to see a lot of those Dayton bands like the Breeders and Guided by Voices early on. My band won one of the Battle of the Bands at Bogart’s, and the prize was to open for the Guess Who and Dick Dale. It was super cool.
MD: There’s such a great tradition of funk and R&B in the Cincinnati and Dayton area, with the Ohio Players, Bootsy Collins, James Brown, and King Records. Were you aware of that stuff as well?
Patrick: The Greenhornes were influenced a lot by old soul music. We’d cover “I’ll Go Crazy” by James Brown, and a lot of soul stuff. Going up to Detroit a lot as young men, there was the Motown influence. That’s always been where I’ve lived, musically. I definitely was always rhythm heavy when it came to the music I liked. The first time I heard Fela Kuti, I was like, Whoa, who’s the drummer? And then I found out it was Tony Allen, and that turned me on to other stuff.
MD: I can hear that very disciplined swing of big band drumming in a lot of what you do with the Raconteurs. Were you listening to much big band or traditional jazz coming up?
Patrick: I think that swing is a product of my drum instructor growing up, Brian Daverman. He always had this behind-the-beat kind of swing. He played a lot of fusion and jazz at this place in Cincinnati called the Blue Wisp, so my dad took me a couple of times to see him play. When I got my driver’s license, I’d go to see a drummer there I really liked, John Von Ohlen. I asked them if I could take money at the door. So at seventeen I started working there a couple of days a week just to see these guys play. It was definitely a formative experience. I really liked the big band stuff, but I was seeing all kinds of stuff there.
MD: You go back almost that far with “Little” Jack Lawrence. You guys started the Greenhornes in 1996. Bands don’t really exist these days as they once did—people record remotely and play with different people all the time. So it’s rare to see a rhythm section having logged as many miles together as you guys have. What does that relationship mean to you, in terms of having a rhythm section partner with whom you’ve been through so much together?
Patrick: The first time I did something without Jack as a professional musician, it was bizarre. Nothing against anybody else involved, but there was an unspoken pocket that we had; we didn’t even have to look at each other. We were always glue. I know I took that for granted for so long. It’s how I came up playing.
Besides the Raconteurs’ [break], Jack and I took a break from playing with each other for the past few years. Getting back together, it wasn’t like, “We’re making the Raconteurs’ third album. Here’s the songs; let’s go.” It was, “Let’s try this and see if it works,” kind of like how we did the first record. I remember that first day, sitting there—with all those guys, but especially Jack Lawrence—just feeling, That felt so good. I missed that connection.
I learned how to play rock ’n’ roll with him, you know what I mean? I learned how to play like me with him. We both came up learning a bunch of stuff together. [Getting back together] felt very familiar, but very fresh and new. It just felt so good.
MD: As a drummer, there’s really nothing like having a bass player you’re locked in with on an almost telepathic level.
Patrick: There really isn’t. If I had not met him, I don’t know that any of this would be happening. We’ve definitely gone through the re together.
MD: There’s a fair number of Raconteurs songs that start as one thing—a swing, a half-time shuffle, maybe a riff-based thing— and then morph into something with a completely different feel and energy. On the new record, “Bored and Razed” is a good example of that. You start with a gentle swing with ghost notes, and then you’re really off and rocking, digging in with those 8th notes on the snare. And “Don’t Bother Me” goes from the shuffle, to the rock part in the middle, to that heavier shuffle. How labored over are those transitions? Are you drilling those? Are there edits?
Patrick: They’re mainly live. The first record had some edits, but it’s mostly just us playing in a room. Especially once we started playing live. Jack [White] likes to shift, quickly. Some of these things are just jams. “Bored and Razed” is how it is. We were playing that little thing, and then it was, “What if we did this?” And I started playing the main verse thing on the snare, and we took it from there. It wasn’t super thought out.
MD: “Don’t Bother Me” has that pretty crazy drum break. When you’re listening back, does every single lick you’re playing have to voice in a certain way or at a certain volume for you to sign o on it, or is it basically the take with the best feel wins?
Patrick: I’m all about hit it and quit it. A song like that especially, whatever you can get in there, get it in there. If it works, great. If not, let’s try it again. I’ve never really sat and worked on fills being a certain way. I think that’s kind of the jazz thing, too, and what I love so much about that music. It can take such a turn at any point if you’re doing it live. And if you mess up, do it twice— make it a part. That’s the way I’ve always approached the way I play. Just go for it, and hope it works out.
MD: Typically, the drum sounds on a Raconteurs record are very resonant and roomy. That’s the case with this record, with the exception of “Help Me Stranger,” which has a lo- , almost machine-like quality. It almost sounds like a loop or a drum machine.
Patrick: We recorded this record live in one room. That particular track I had to record insanely quiet, almost as if I was using pencils. I put the snare drum upside down and played the resonant side. And I used these Zildjian 16″ K EFX crash cymbals as hi-hats. It’s got that chunk to it. And it has the holes, so it kind of inherently gets rid of the accents.
I was just trying to play it as straight as humanly possible, with two hands. There’s no click tracks or anything. There’s a bongo part overdubbed, and some choke-y splash stuff. The meat and potatoes of the groove is the kick, the resonant side of the snare, the hi-hats, and a Zildjian Trashformer crash. I was trying to do an electronic sound on an acoustic kit, as if I was the drum machine.
MD: How close to the snares are you hitting? It’s got to be tricky to find a sweet spot on the resonant side when you’re playing a double-handed hi-hat pattern.
Patrick: It was kind of a little rimshot—a little rim, a little head. Not unlike the way I play normally. I’m not banging it super hard, so I wasn’t really worried about going through it. I found a long time ago it kind of turns into a Roland 808 sound; it sounds electronic. It’s a cool sound. Jack [Lawrence] was playing some old bass synth pedals, and Jack and Brendan were face to face on a mic, playing acoustics and singing it. It was a pretty small room with everybody just playing it live.
MD: Are you trying to cop that vibe live when you play it?
Patrick: When we play it live, I change the hi-hat top out to the EFX, and I play the groove on a snare to the left of the hi-hat that I use for “Hey Gyp,” an 8″ deep raw brass Ludwig with a Kevlar head on it, cranked tight like a marching snare.
MD: What prompted the move to Los Angeles? Was it to get more work as a drummer or to pursue things based on your background in art for a bit—like a palate cleanser almost?
Patrick: I think it was geographic. Just to change it up. It seemed like a good time to come to L.A., because it seemed like everybody was moving out here. I had friends and family out here and had spent a lot of time here, so it was nice to finally pull the trigger and do it.
MD: I think people are more aware these days that having a few successful years as a musician certainly doesn’t guarantee financial security for the long haul. Did you pursue the illustrating job out of a need to find work, be it music or something else?
Patrick: Nothing was financially driven. But at the same time, you’ve got to do something. I just got inspired when I saw what MadeWorn was doing. I thought, I want to do that. It was more to keep from going crazy by doing the same old thing, or by constantly seeking out a session or waiting for the phone to ring. It was nice to have a steady gig where I got to go home every night.
That company is so music based that it never felt like a far departure from what I was doing. I was getting the same hit, creatively. It gave me the same kind of enjoyment, but maybe in a new way, because I never really focused so much on [illustration], the way I have been for the past three years. It was a cool change of pace. Learning something new, but still being in my wheelhouse, strangely.
MD: You’re really fortunate to have found steady work that was so creatively fulfilling.
Patrick: Right, I’m absolutely fortunate. I think about it a lot. They ask you what you want to be in kindergarten. I said, “I want to be a drummer or a cartoonist.” For all intents and purposes, I’ve gotten to do both. When I said [to MadeWorn], “I can do this,” I had no clue what I was doing, but I knew I could figure it out. That’s the same with most music things I get into. I’ll get asked, “Hey, do you want to do this country record with Loretta Lynn [2004’s Jack White–produced Van Lear Rose]?” I grew up listening to country with my parents, but I’d never played it, ever. I didn’t know what a waltz was. I mean, I knew what it was, but I didn’t know how to play one. You just say, “Yeah,” and then learn it on your feet.
MD: Did you find that when you focused on the drums again that you had more of an appreciation for it, like you were recharged to play?
Patrick: Well, I was still working at MadeWorn full-time when I did the first Afghan Whigs tour. I was trying to do it abroad. If anything, it was hard for me to wear two different hats. A lot of the design stuff I do is digital, so I can do it on the road. But it was hard. It was hard to keep an eye on the ball with either one.
There was always a debriefing when I’d come back into town. The first week I’d be back at work, and I’d be like, What do I do again? The same when I would go back and play drums. Me play drums? [laughs] You’re just kind of scatterbrained with it. That’s just a personal experience. Other people seem to have no problem with that.
When we started doing the Raconteurs again, I was doing a big project in Paris that I’d been working on for months, building this massive installation for MadeWorn. The whole time we’re in there jamming, starting work on the record, there are emails coming in about this project, so I had to organize these two different things. When it got to be, “We’re making this record, for sure,” I needed to go for it. I took a sabbatical from MadeWorn, and I’m just focusing on the Raconteurs now.
MD: Do you think you’ll go back at some point?
Patrick: If there’s a job for me, for sure. I feel like it’s open-ended, but it’s hard to say. I’m still doing some stuff for them. I’m just not going to the office every day like I was, or as soon as I’m [returning from a tour]. I’m checking in and I’ve done some stuff while we’ve been touring. It’s nice to have that kind of trust, when they’ll call me.
MD: And I guess the Raconteurs’ future is an open-ended thing, too.
Patrick: There’s no pressure on it. I think we have the luxury of everybody having other gigs and doing it when it feels right. It’s not the old days of a five-album deal. When it happens, it’s gonna happen. I’m just really happy the way the new record turned out.
Drums: Ludwig Patrick Keeler signature Copper Sparkle Vistalite
A. 8×14 Ludwig Patrick Keeler signature engraved Raconteurs raw brass snare
B. 6.5×14 Ludwig Copper Phonic snare
C. 8×12 tom
D. 14×14 floor tom
E. 14×18 floor tom
F. 14×26 bass drum
1. 14″ Trashformer crash
2. 16″ K Light hi-hats*
3. 20″ K Dark Thin crash
4. 24″ K Light ride
5. 18″ K Dark Thin crash
*16″ K EFX crash used as hi-hat top for “Help Me Stranger”
Sticks: Vater Patrick Keeler signature Help Me Stranger Studio sticks
Hardware: Ludwig Atlas at base cymbal stands and hi-hat pedal, Tama Speed Cobra bass drum pedal
Heads: Remo Controlled Sound Coated snare batters, Controlled Sound Clear Black Dot tom batters, Powerstroke P3 Clear bass drum batter
“Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness)”
We could devote this entire story to Patrick Keeler’s jaw-dropping work on “Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness).”There’s just so much great stuff happening: the pattern, the shifting accents, the swing— oh, that swing! We took a deep dive on the track with Patrick to learn about what’s going on.
MD: Your drumming definitely gives the song a different energy from the Donovan original, or even the Animals’ version. That snare pattern that starts the song has such a classic big band vibe. Did someone suggest that crazy “Sing, Sing, Sing” type of feel?
Patrick: It was just born out of us messing with that song, and that was the first place I went. I always liked things like “Sing, Sing, Sing.” The Greenhornes used to do the Yardbirds song “Lost Woman.” And it was the same kind of thing, starting o on the floor tom, playing this pattern over and over. I love that kind of stuff.
MD: So there was no practicing a “part” in advance?
Patrick: Zero. It’s the first thing that came out. It was just this impromptu live thing. A lot of it came out of me and Little Jack playing that Yardbirds song for so long. It’s not the same, but it has that vibe.
MD: It sounds like you’ve got two snares going: the main one you’re playing the pattern on, which is really tuned high, and one in a lower tuning for accents.
Patrick: Yeah, that was two snares. I had the [8″ deep Ludwig raw brass] snare to the left of my hi-hat, doing a thing between that snare and the floor tom. And the accents that happen later in it, that’s the main snare. I’m going back and forth between two snares and two floor toms—14″ and 18″.
MD: What’s the sticking?
Patrick: The sticking pattern is a mix of singles and doubles. It’s kind of a mix between 16th notes and a six-stroke roll. There are doubles happening on both sides at some point. That whole thing I’m playing wide-armed, right hand on the floor tom, left hand on the snare drum. And for the accents on the main snare drum, I come back with the right hand. And then I add in the rack tom during the verses.
Everything on the right stays on the right; I just move it around. I think that came from early lessons, when it was like, “Here’s a paradiddle,” and you’re playing a paradiddle on the snare, and then it’s, “Put the 1 on the rack tom; put the 1 on the floor tom.” When you start moving things around, suddenly it doesn’t sound like a paradiddle. When I was a kid, I loved doing that.
MD: You need quite a wing span to pull that off.
Patrick: Oh yeah, I feel it playing it live.
MD: Are you playing traditional grip?
Patrick: Yeah, you kind of have to.
MD: Did you get an entire basic track with you playing that pattern?
Patrick: For sure. I think we recorded that song one time. I think that was it.
MD: When it came time to play it live, did you have to relearn it?
Patrick: Honestly, that’s very much me, so it’s not a hard thing to summon to do it. That’s how I would play it.