If you live in Philly and you’ve never seen Kenn Kweder perform, you need to put it on your Philly bucket list. A local legend, he’s been on the Philly rock scene for over 40 years, and has played with some of the biggest names in rock ‘n’ roll. Furthermore, he’s crafted some absolutely incredible songs, ranging from the hilarious (Crackhead) to the epic (Diablo). And of course his cult classic Heroin, which is simply a mindblowingly great rock ‘n’ roll tune. He’s also an incredibly cool guy. In our interview, he talks about his infamous meeting with Clive Davis in 1977 (Davis wanted to sign him, but only if he’d make his music more accessible), where his favorite places to play on South Street were back in its heyday, and how legendary producer Ben Vaughn changed his outlook and his life. It was an IM interview, so capitalizations for emphasis are Kenn’s. Enjoy.
JGT: How’d you first got into music?
Kenn: As a kid, whenever I heard music that I really liked on TV or the radio it gave me the chills, a certain type of happiness. An unbelievable feeling. Then one day I thought, “Why not try to do the same thing and become a musician to send out the sounds to make others happy and to feel good?” So I bought my first guitar with saved up coupons at age 16 and started to play.
JGT: And where were you playing when you first got started? South Street?
Kenn: Started off in coffeehouses and churches in Southwest Philly, and West Philly. Then migrated to open air gigs in Rittenhouse Square. All folkies used to play in the Square back in 1970, 71. By 1974 I was on south street and played a zillion gigs at clubs on South Street for the next couple decades.
Kenn: It was a dream come true to perform at GRENDEL’s LAIR (ed. note-When South Street went corporate, it became the Gap at 5th and South). Grendel’s was legendary! Also a place called Positively 4th Street (4th and Gaskill) and of course JC Dobbs.
JGT: What was Grendel’s Lair like? What was so special about it?
Kenn: All the cats that I looked up to had played there, cats I would hear on the UNDERGROUND radio stations: Dave Van Ronk, Mose Allison, Phil Ochs, etc.
JGT: What kind of music were you playing at the time?
Kenn: Pure folk stuff–Dylan, John Prine, Kristofferson, Phil Ochs, Arlo Guthrie, Woody Guthrie, Roger Miller, etc
JGT: But you sort of moved into rock ‘n’ roll by the late 70s, right?
Kenn: 1975/76 was when I started the band. Although I LOVED folk music I would eventually be banned from every folk club in Philly for what they deemed OUTRAGEOUS behavior on stage, so I had no choice. I would have PREFERRED to have made my way via FOLK anyway over the Rock route but I had no choice at that point. I ended up taking all that so called “outrageous behavior” to the Rock rooms and it ended up benefitting me and my music ambitions to perform. I used to bring sword canes, whips and firecrackers on stage at the folk venues, so I guess I see their point now.
JGT: Hahahaha! Well, there was an infamous TV interview (ed. note: this is an absolute must watch, for a number of reasons. For one, the club where Keder was playing is now the Ten Stone) where you were described as playing punk rock. You never did anything close to punk rock, did you?
Kenn: Everyone was confused back then with the labels to describe what was actually happening. I think perhaps the “theatre” of a Kweder performance was a bit “punky”(guns, whips, truck tires, traffic lights, etc. on stage) but the music was solid with serious musicians and great melodies. To me PUNK was not about the latter. So I distanced myself from that label and immediately went from punk rock messiah to a leper in the punk community.
JGT:So that interview damaged your reputation locally, because you said punk was out of tune and unintelligible?
Kenn: Oh GOD, yes! The repercussions were something you would never want to experience, and it went on for many many many years. The anger, hatred directed at me because of that inarticulate interview was OFF THE HOOK. To this day I will occassionally see someone from the punk community back then that still has it in for me. Of course by now they no longer play music.
JGT: I find it funny that punk, which is supposed to be all about not giving a shit, gave such a shit.
Kenn: Soooo very true. Total contradiction. Which drove me even more frustrated in their weird negative behavior towards me.
JGT: Anyways, around this time, you had a meeting with Clive Davis, correct?
Kenn: The Clive thing was in 1977.
JGT: Oh, ok. So you had a meeting with Clive, and he told you he wanted you to sign, but drop your band?
Kenn: And to write simpler more “accessible” tunes so no one in Iowa would be offended or be confused or have to “think”. That suggestion was anathema to me!
JGT: Would you say that meeting was the “crossroads” of your career?
Kenn: One of the “crossroads” for sure. In 1979 I had a similar, yet less notorious meeting with the prez of Infinity records. Same exact nonsense went down. Basically a request for Kenn to agree to be defanged and artistically castrated. I said no thanks!
JGT: Why was it that people wanted things so dumbed down? I mean, there were some popular groups at the time, The Who, Led Zeppelin, etc. who weren’t at all dumbed down and who sold millions.
Kenn: Things really changed everywhere after the STAR WARS mentality set in—by that mean STAR WARS was such a huge success, a MEGA MEGA BLOCKBUSTER that everyone in the entertainment field wanted a BLOCKBUSTER success. This mindset continues to this day. The Who and Zeppelin were already Gods from pre-blockbuster mentality and could do as they wished. Me, I was an unknown drifting into the record business that was hell bent on another SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER blockbuster ambition. So it was only logical for them to ask me to “tone done the lyrics to something simpler” for the so called “everyone, everywhere” to enjoy without exerting much brain power. But certainly some very intelligent artists penetrated that filter force field of the industry like DEVO, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, etc and sold lots of records. For whatever reason I did not succeed with that.
JGT: At what point did you say, “You know what, I’m never gonna perform in stadiums, but I’m still determined to record and perform kickass music for appreciative crowds?”
Kenn: 1985 when I met Ben Vaughn. He’s the guy!!
Kenn: He simply said to me “Hey man, why you getting so fucked up all the time? Step back a second. Think. Think about this Kenn. When you wake up everyday YOU know what you want to do, right? You wanna play music. Am I right, Kenn? Then realize this…..that 90% percent of the people ain’t as lucky as you are, they either do NOT know what they WANT to do, or they ain’t doing what they WANT to do. Get it! So stop fucking yourself up!” That little pep talk pretty much turned my world around to the point I can do a gig in a closet full of brooms to people in a hoagie shop ordering sandwiches and actually get a kick out of it!
JGT: Haha! OK, let’s talk a little bit about the job itself. What is a typical day for you like, or does such a thing exist?
Kenn: I’m sure our days are similar. Emails correspondence galore, texting, phone calls—-pretty much non stop administrative stuff to keep the gigs coming in. Stopping by bars, clubs to drop off Kweder CDs, press kits. Practicing guitar–Working on small projects, bigger projects, etc always in motion. Non stop. Basically announcing my existence to new club owners or constantly, proactively reminding club owners at places I may have just performed at that I actually still exist(ahhh the ephemerality of Showbiz!!) and to rehire me.
JGT: Let’s talk a bit about the music. You said at the beginning that your inspiration was to make people feel good when they hear your music. Do you feel that, by making fun, funny, and up-tempo songs, you are fulfilling your goal as a kid to make people feel good? Because I’ve been to a few Kweder shows and the operative word is definitely “fun”.
Kenn: You’re darn right. It is work to get work but THAT is what we do as we BELIEVE in what we do! And the payoff in many ways can be so great. Better than a medicine sometimes. And yes I think I’ve been able to deliver some type of happiness to folks. Maybe a “happiness that has a bit of irony within it”. And that makes me feel pretty good.
JGT: What are three of your favorite places you’ve ever performed?
Kenn: These would all tie for First place: Bijou Cafe, Tin Angel and JC Dobbs–Philadelphia Ethical Society would be close Second place (honorable mention). By the way, I am the only performer in the history of the Ethical Society where the Police were called to quell a “disturbance”. TWICE!!
JGT: What about travelling? Have you played anywhere cool on the road?
Kenn: The Ad Lib in London was always great to me as was the Carnarvan Castle Pub in London—CBGB’s, Max’s Kansas City, Tramps in NYC were always a favorite of mine.
JGT: One last question: when you write songs, do you sit down, carve yourself out a few hours, and plow through, or is at all inspiration that you suddenly “feel it” and run to a notebook and write it down?
Kenn: Most of the time it is crazy head popping inspiration to create the anchor of the song. Then take a little time to mold the anchor into the shape needed to do its job to anchor itself inside people’s brains.
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