“We were preparing for a theater tour,” Troye Kinnett explained over the phone, “and John said ‘I want you to play piano—you know, that Dylan approach.’ I had been listening to ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,’ and from then on, the instrument became known as the Tom Thumb piano.”
John, in this case, is singer/songwriter John Mellencamp, with whom Kinnett plays keys. “We’ve had this 68-key Winter piano on the Mellencamp tour for six years now, and it definitely has a vibe!”
The Winter 5 1/2-octave upright piano. Kinnett originally contacted me in response to November’s column, which featured the “ship’s piano” Wayne Horvitz is using in his 21 Pianos project, and included a photo of the 5 1/2-octave upright he uses both on tour and in the studio: It’s a fine example of the type of piano built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to fulfill the need for a portable instrument that could be taken on long journeys.
“We went on Craigslist to locate one, and I found it in Grand Rapids,” he explained. “It had been sitting in a piano teacher’s house for years. One of our crew was up there, and I had him go over there and play it for me over the phone: It had the sound! But we decided not to put tacks on it, once we heard how mashed down the hammers were. It’s cool cause it’s old and worn enough.”
Although you might not expect a piano of this size and vintage to withstand the punishment of the road, Kinnett says this instrument is up to the challenge. “It gets tuned at every show, so it’s very stable. The tuners make wisecracks about it when they first see it. But after they tune it, they say it’s a lot cooler then they thought.”
Yet, even when properly set up, it doesn’t lose its unique character. “We don’t use it on everything: I can’t play thick chord voicings on it, and it sounds wrong when doing jazz standards,” Kinnett notes. “Most of the gig is B3 and accordion. But for the most recent tour, the piano is used on ‘The Full Catastrophe’ from Mr. Happy Go Lucky: The entire band is off the stage, and it’s just John and me. The song’s in D minor and the piano gives it a moody vibe that reviewers have likened to a Tom Waits approach.
Troye Kinnett’s 4 1/2-octave Kohler & Campbell. “I also play it on the intro to ‘Pink Houses,’ and on a new Carlene Carter/John Mellencamp tune called ‘Indigo Sunset’ that is due to come out sometime next year. And I brought it on the tour for Stephen King’s musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, which John scored.”
With the front panel removed, and the hammers and strings exposed, getting a consistent sound across the entire instrument can be tricky. “The piano has a Helpinstill pickup on it, which provides the majority of the sound. Then we add a mic above to capture some top-end, and another below for support.”
Once the Winter piano became an established part of his rig, Kinnett needed to find something for those times when he and the piano were in different locations. “Last year, I bought a backup that’s even smaller—a 4 1/2-octave Kohler & Campbell. That way, I have piano for session dates when the other one is on the road.”
If you want to hear Kinnett and the Winter keyboard in action, he’ll be back on the road with Mellencamp in May and June, 2017. In the meantime, visit troyekinnett.com to learn more about this multitalented musician and composer.