Perfect Sound Forever

"I Would Go Anywhere":
The Kenny Millions Interview

photo courtesy of Sushi Blues Cafe

by Mark Swartz (March 2002)

Keshavan Maslak (aka Kenny Millions) has been to the avant-garde and back. During the 1970's New York loft scene mini-Renaissance, he gigged at The Kitchen and MoMA's sculpture garden, associated with Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and John Cage, and, like Glass, drove a taxi at night. Eventually, the twin forces of commercialism and impossible real estate prices forced the composer/multi-instrumentalist out of New York but not out of creative music. With his wife Junko, he opened the Sushi Blues Café, Hollywood, FLA, where he still performs regularly. When he finds the time, Maslak/Millions teams up with jazz and experimental musicians (notably Paul Bley, Sergey Kuryokhin, Otomo Yoshihide, and Katsuyuki Itakura, with whom he has made two marvelous Erik Satie tributes), releases CDs on his Hum-Ha label, writes poetry, and works on his yard. On the day this conversation took place, I was looking out the window at a below-freezing New York, and his disposition steadily reminded me of his climatic good fortune. Like his music, KM is sunny without being sun-baked, open minded without being empty headed.

MS: What kind of music will people listen to in a hundred years?

KM: The music that appeals to people's emotions. The music that will endure will have melodic and emotional content. In the end, people want to hear a good melody. They want to feel the music. It's not just a head trip. I don't care what some people do, how much they want to freak out. Put it this way: when you go back into human history, into early civilization, what was music about? Simple melody, simple rhythm, simple harmony. Those are the things that endure, not the intellectual, cerebral, mental masturbation.

MS: What was life like in New York in the 1970's?

KM: In those days, you could rent a loft in Tribeca for $200. You could make your own thing. You built your own bathroom and put a mattress on the floor, then you put a sign on the door saying you're having a concert. Two dollars admission, come hear the latest shit, and maybe ten or twenty people would show up, maybe more. It was a vital, energetic scene. The sixties and seventies in New York were the pivotal time for new music. During those days, everyone was hanging out together and discussing their theories together. It was like Paris in the twenties. And, actually, I'm living off that energy still. Everything I do now is just an extension of what I took in during those days. The attitude, especially, how you approach creative expression.

MS: Did you really drive a cab?

KM: That was a low point, because I drove the night shift, from six at night 'til six in the morning. In those days, New York was hard-core heavy- the whole rip-off junkie scene. You learn to drive around crazy to throw them around in the back seat. You made 'em scared so they just ran out of the car. You had to. Because I used to drive into Bedford-Stuyvesant, Harlem, wherever. I would go anywhere. But I think that's what drove me out of there.

MS: But don't you miss what's left of the New York music scene?

KM: I'd have to say no. In New York, it's all about who's fashionable. After a trend is started, everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon because it's fashionable, not because they're feeling it themselves. Getting away from New York helped me to free myself from being involved in the fashion. You have to grow up and ask yourself, 'What am I about as an artist?' For me, it's about being a musician, not about creating gimmicks and cliches just to get over. To be in isolation in Florida is healthy for my mind.

MS: When did you leave?

KM: 1986. After fourteen years, it was time to graduate. The last time I was back was in 1997, for a tribute concert at the Knitting Factory for my friend Sergey Kuryokhin. I had met him in Russia when I first went there in '88. Of course it was the Soviet Union at that time. I came to St. Petersburg, which was called Leningrad at the time. He was familiar with my recordings, and I was familiar with his. We both were with [record label] Leo. Then we met up again for a Leo festival in London a few years later. After that, we played together a lot, in Europe, Japan, and America.

MS: Are you originally from Russia?

KM: My family emigrated from Russia to Detroit to work for Henry Ford. The household I grew up in was Russian. My Russian is a little rusty, but when I go there, I start picking it up again.

MS: Did you have an immediate connection with Kuryokhin?

KM: It was like a meeting of the minds. We could just look at each other and play without rehearsing. He was a really rare talent. I've played with a lot of great musicians over the years, but he was special. Talent oozed out of his skin. He could play any style music on the piano- jazz, free, bebop, blues, avant-garde, European classical--plus he was an actor and a poet.

MS: Just like you.

KM: Kind of, but he was a big star over there. He acted in movies. It was almost rock and roll status in Russia. He was very revolutionary in those times because he wasn't afraid of the system. The Soviet system was very much (against) avant-garde art, Western-influenced art, whatever, and he just busted through that. He didn't care if he got in trouble. They hassled him for a long time and threatened to throw him into prison or send him to Siberia or whatever, but he didn't care, because he had developed a big following. So anything they would try would have caused a big scandal. He opened a lot of doors for a lot of artists.

MS: How about Otomo Yoshihide?

KM: We hooked up in Japan, with Sergey in '95.

MS: How would you compare the two of them?

KM: Otomo is coming from that heavy electronic thing. He has a good mind, and his ears are big. He's a great improviser on his electronic instruments.

MS: They both appealed to parts of your musical personality.

KM: Right, the extreme parts!

MS: Along with the your other collaborators, you've also made a few recordings with your teenage daughter, Melissa.

KM: My daughter and I performed many times together a few years ago. She's no longer interested in a career in music so she doesn't perform with me anymore. That's quite all right with me since I really don't want her to go through the same bullshit as I went through. A musician's lifestyle is not for everyone, thank God! She's twenty now and working in a bank and she has a desire to become a stockbroker and live a normal life.

MS: When did you and Junko open the restaurant?

KM: We opened in '89. We just decided to give it a shot, and it seemed to work out. It's the food that keeps them coming back. We've learned that over the years.

MS: What's the difference between food and music?

KM: They both have the same function. People eat food to feel nourished and to enjoy the experience. A restaurant is entertainment. People want to feel better than what they would have if they'd stayed home. And that's why they go to concerts. Because they want to feel better than they previously did. I feel that food and music have equal importance. I'm not an elitist. You can live without music for a few days, but you can't live without food. In that sense, I'm glad that I'm in the restaurant business. I can see how important food is to people's happiness and well being.

MS: What's the difference between Keshavan Maslak and Kenny Millions?

KM: Actually, my legal name is Kenneth Keshavan Maslak; that's what's on my passport. Kenny Millions is kind of an extension of that. Maybe it's the theatrical thing in me, the American entertainment thing. Any performer assumes an alter ego when they get onstage, whether they're aware of it or not. Even if you're playing an instrument, you're still an actor. When I get onstage now, I don't feel like Keshavan Maslak, I feel like Kenny Millions.

Also see some of Kenny's favorite music

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER