If you don’t know the name Michael Kenney, you’re not alone. However, if you’ve seen legendary heavy metal band Iron Maiden any time since the early ’80s, you’ve probably heard and even seen Kenney, sometimes known as “the Count.” He’s been playing keyboards on their multi-platinum records and often grueling world tours. Keyboard caught up with Kenney out in San Bernardino, California, where he was about to face a large and unruly metal crowd. He clued us in to what “heavy” used to mean and why ultimately, it’s all about the job getting done, and done well.
What was your background growing up?
I started playing trumpet at age seven, working my way through to the California Junior Honor Band, and messed with my uncle's ukelele. I got a guitar for my 11th birthday and had a band going the next year. At 13, I switched to bass to play with the amazing singer and organist, Freddie O'Quinn. He had a Farfisa then and I picked up some basics. Then he got a brand new Hammond B-3 with two Leslies. I was hooked! The local music store loaned me the then brand-new Minimoog for a night and I stayed up all night going through the manual cover to cover. That was my introduction to synthesis.
What bands inspired you to play keyboards and get into rock music?
Freddie used to leave the arm off the old record player with the first side of Jimmy Smith's "Organ Grinder Swing" playing all night long. Amazing! Mark Stein with Vanilla Fudge, Bill Champlin, Stephen Miller in Lynn County and Lee Michaels playing his Hammond through a Leslie into nine Acoustic 360s. Thunder! I was really lucky to have a local gig in Sacramento where all the San Francisco bands and all the guys passing through the Fillmore played. I got to see the best early on, and of course I had to get to know them. Steve Winwood was a big inspiration with that Hammond on “Gimme Some Lovin'” and the rest. He was the first person I heard playing everything himself. I consider myself a utility man. For synths, and just generally really good keyboard players, Jan Hammer and David Sancious are important to me.
What rock records influenced you? What was the first heavy rock band?
I consider Paul Revere and the Raiders the first heavy band playing riff-based rock. I think it's criminal that The Kingsmen get credit for "Louie Louie." In my part of the world it was a Raiders tune, with the other being a pale imitation. It was the first song I picked out on guitar. Of course, when the Beatles showed up it was a whole new ball game, though I quickly moved on to what I thought to be the heavier bands to follow. I was a huge Stones fan, particularly of Brian Jones, my original concept of a utility man, seemingly playing anything he could get his hands on, and with such a cool fashion sense. He was my hero for a good while. I can't fail to mention the Animals, the Kinks, the Hollies...so much good stuff. Then I heard Jeff Beck with The Yardbirds and my life was changed. I listened to all of the Hammond bands of the '60s and '70s: Vanilla Fudge, Deep Purple, Procol Harum (not so much “Whiter Shade of Pale” but other more dramatic stuff), the Rascals, Small Faces. ... I was particularly drawn to guitarists that played organ for some reason, like Stephen Stills, Joe Walsh, and Mark Farner. Jan Hammer and Jerry Goodman's first album Like Children was a revelation to me. I had to have a Minimoog after that. I played it as a bass instrument in a band I was in. David Sancious' first two albums (Forest of Feelings and Transformation) and his playing on Narada Michael Walden's Garden of Lovelight is just astounding!
What keyboards did you have growing up? What was the first keyboard you bought?
We had an old upright in the living room when I was a teen. An aunt gave me a Lowrey organ with a small Leslie and I had my first and only keyboard-led band, doing my songs. The Minimoog was my first synth, then I got my first Hammond, a 1936 Model A. I've still got it. It's a great machine. Then I started working my way up the years with Korg synths, from the Polysix on. I still use them. I have six Hammonds now. Not all Hammonds are B-3s. I finally had to buy a proper B-3, just so I could say, "Yes, I have a B-3!" in addition to an A, a BC, a CV, a D, and an X-77!
What’s your recording history with Iron Maiden?
As a player, Maiden was my first, and only, big-league recording situation. Steve Harris pretty much knows what he wants, so it was just my job to play it. I played on a few albums (No Prayer for the Dying, Fear of the Dark, X Factor and some of Virtual Xl). Around then Steve started feeling more comfortable with keys and began doing most of it. I'm still around to assist, and I handle it all live.
You're also the bass tech for Steve Harris?
That was and is my primary job. On Somewhere in Time they started using guitar and bass synths, and I helped with programming. On Seventh Son they used keyboard synths and studio toys, and needed someone to play them live. As I have a keyboard background and Steve's rig is usually pretty low-maintenance during the show, he asked if I would do it, but only if I did it as "the Count," my nickname of the time due to my nocturnal hours, long black coat, and brandy snifter. After that tour, which had me in full costume on a lift 20 feet in the air, I lost the Count garb and just played backstage. On newer albums' songs, that can be quite a lot; when we do older stuff, there's not so much. The bass rig actually takes precedence over keys; if something is wrong I take care of it, even if that means not playing. The rig is pretty comprehensive; I have spares at the ready, so changes can happen relatively easily. I haven't had to miss too many parts.
Did Iron Maiden have any keyboard player or keyboards on their records before you started playing?
Not on record. They did have one live for a while in the early days, Tony Moore. Some of the elaborate stuff on recent albums has been outsourced to a friend of producer Kevin Shirley named Jeff Bova, who does an amazing job of creating Steve's orchestral visions. It’s an interesting job, translating that to something I can play with two hands in real time, live.
How do you approach adding keys to songs that don't have them on the record? Does the band have specific instructions or can you basically add what you want?
I only add parts to songs that didn't have them when I'm asked to. Bruce wanted a choir treatment to simulate something he did in the studio on Powerslave. Steve comes up with a bit every now and then, and a lot of the synth parts are reinforcing things that Adrian used synth guitar on. Actually, those are often the most fun for me, because he will sometimes just play the bit at me and I'll come up with what I think works best. I am getting some more freedom when it comes to working out the newer stuff to do live.
How did you choose the keyboards in your current stage rig? How have they worked for you and how have you modified them or their sounds?
I've always been a Korg guy. I go way back with their stuff, at first because they were a lot more affordable than the big guns of the day, but now I just think they sound great and I'm comfortable with the way that they do things. The O1W settled in as my main go-to synth. There are certain sounds in it that we just consider to be trademark Maiden sounds. Steve will ask for them by name. I don't think I'm doing anything particularly special with them, just tweaking them to be appropriate for what we need. I do have a Hammond patch for the O1 that I'm particularly proud of, but I've only had the opportunity to use it once, on “Afraid to Shoot Strangers” from the album Fear of the Dark. As time goes on, we usually supplement it with newer models. I am also using a Triton Extreme. The newer synths have higher bit rates and more fidelity, which is great for orchestral subtleties, but I still really like the fatness of the older-school stuff.
What advice could you offer to readers - both musically and career-wise - who want to develop their skills and become successful keyboard players?
There's so much information, and the bar is raised so high, I mean, there are kids out there light years beyond anything I could have conceived even being possible. But there is still no substitute for paying your dues to achieve an overall knowledge. There are no gigs in your bedroom, and most people don't care how fast you can play. Music to me is about feeling and how you can make others feel, and the right note played the right way can often speak volumes more than a tri-modal flurry of brilliance.
What's the biggest thing that's gone wrong on tour and how did you deal with it?
Back in the Seventh Son days I relied on an Emulator 3 set of choir samples for the middle of that song. In the afternoon before, I turned it on and the display starting showing some form of hieroglyphics. Getting an E3 serviced or replaced in Iowa in a few hours isn't likely, so I got on the phone and found one at Guitar Center in Chicago. They ran it out to the airport and rush-shipped it; it arrived during the set and I had to load in a 12 floppy-disc bank in a big hurry. Amazingly, it was literally a case of the nick of time, and all went as it should. I think I probably damaged a few nerve cells in the process. I do appreciate that not many are in the position to throw that much money at a problem, and E-mu did come to the rescue in very timely fashion.
In that same era, on the aforementioned 20-foot lift, which was basically a forklift loaded to capacity, I found it best to stand right in the middle to preserve a center of gravity. One night I was feeling a bit more comfortable and took a step to the right and the whole lift swayed a few feet. I had keys on both sides of me and the next thing I played was a very loud, very jazz chord. I think had to check my shorts after that one!
Besides that sort of thing, on occasion the rigors of touring will take its toll on a synth, but that's what we have spares for, and fortunately I work with a great crew who have helped me swap out a keyboard in mid-song.
Do you have any advice for surviving tours?
The most important thing is to get along with the people you work with. We're all competent at what we do, or we wouldn't be there. The personal thing is so important. I know it's a cliché, but in our case it's akin to being married to 50 people. It is just a way of life, and a major part of the job. I chose to not drink on this last tour, which can take some of the fun out of it, but not being hung over helped a lot.
What's the professional and personal relationship like between you and the band?
We get along just fine. Aside from in the studio, I don't actually encounter them that much, except for when they hit the stage. On these plane tours, we're staying in a lot of the same hotels with them, so no doubt we'll run into each other in the hotel bar or the nearest Irish pub. Of course they are the stars, and there are security and protocol issues to deal with, but generally we're all just a bunch of blokes on a common journey, each with our own job to do.