“My ultimate plan is to create lifelike dolls of all of my friends and then keep them in my bed,” songwriter/guitarist Jon Keller recently told me. “Then, when they come to hang out with me, I’ll say something like ‘oh, I’m sorry you had to see this, I wasn’t expecting you so early,’ then quickly cover their doppelganger doll up with a blanket.”
Keller, who has played in a number of local bands and is now jumpstarting a solo career of sorts, is a genuinely peculiar dude. Before his DDP (Doppelganger Doll Plan) days he would drive around with a life-size clown doll in his car, slyly puppeteering it to jolt people in nearby cars.
But before all that, he himself was a clown.
“Yeah, it’s true, I used to be a clown,” he told me. “But it was never my goal to become one. I went to a Christian school in Kokomo and my homeroom teacher thought it would be a good idea for us to have a clown-themed ministry. I have no idea why. Anyways, everyone had to come up with their own clown character and make the costume. Naturally, I veered more towards the Hobo style. I used to juggle all sorts of stuff.”
Before making his way to Fort Wayne for college Keller lived 15 minutes outside of Kokomo in a town called Galveston. Not exactly a cultural hub.
“I loved growing up there. I didn’t really have any friends in my neighborhood, so the majority of my time was spent riding my bike around. There really wasn’t anything to do but play guitar or go see movies,” Keller said when asked about his notoriously eccentric taste in film and music. “I got tired of the mainstream crap movies they were showing in Kokomo, so, when I got my first car I would drive 45 minutes to Muncie a few times each week, just because they had a nice theatre that played more independent films.”
As far as his early music-related inspirations go, Keller, who now plays in The Illegitimate Sons, went through a number of phases at a young age, starting with The Beatles, Derek & the Dominos, The Allman Brothers Band, Neil Young and Bob Dylan.
“I read as much as I could on all of those bands and who their influences were. And thus, when I was in middle school I began to get into some of the more popular jazz musicians like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery and Charlie Parker – all because I read an interview with Duane Allman where he said his biggest influence was [Miles Davis’] Kind of Blue,” Keller told me. “So when I was in the eighth grade I went with my church to the Keystone Mall in Indy for some sort of dumb scavenger hunt activity. Instead of doing the hunt I went to the music store and bought my first copies of Kind of Blue and In a Silent Way. When I got home I set my stereo up with the speakers on both sides of my bed so I could listen to Kind of Blue while falling asleep. I did that for a year or two.”
Once in high school the clown got into artists who remain staples for him to this day, including Radiohead, Wilco, Tom Waits and, more than anything else, Elliott Smith.
“I actually first heard Elliott Smith by accident. I was really into a jazz pianist named Brad Mehldau for a while, and he had a song called ‘Bottle Up and Explode.’ Somehow my copy got deleted off my computer, so I was trying to find it again online, stumbling across a version by some guy named Elliott Smith,” Keller told me. “I bought all of his albums within two weeks, soon finding out that he’d just died weeks earlier.”
Years ago Lee Miles told me that Keller, known for his ability to pick up on songs as quickly as anyone, could play the whole Elliott Smith catalog on guitar, this likely due to the manner in which he first started playing.
“I started playing music at about age 10. My brother plays guitar, so growing up there were always guitars around the house that I would pick up and try to figure out,” Keller, who is currently mixing down his first solo album, told me. “The biggest thing he did was write out a few scales for guitar and bass. He told me that, as long as I figured out what key the song was in, I could play any of the notes in the scale and it would sound good. He was mostly right.”
After high school, not sure what to do with himself, Keller went to The Recording Workshop in Chilicothe, Ohio, where he learned “how to work in a recording studio.” The main thing he learned, he says, was that he didn’t want to work in a recording studio.
“After that, at age 19, I moved to Fort Wayne in January of 2006. When I got here I looked up everyone in town who listed Elliott Smith as a music favorite on Facebook, then added them as a friend,” Keller said. “You could say I didn’t have good social skills. Anyhow, I added some dude named James Musselman as a friend, later seeing that he was a musician. He was about to play a show, so I decided to go.
“So I went to his show at Convolution Records. I only caught his last song, but decided to stick around to see this other act called Lee Miles and Kyle Morris. I was immediately stuck by how much Lee sounded like a beefy-voiced Neil Young. I thought he was so good. So after that I contacted him and found out we had a lot in common.”
Soon enough Miles invited the still very young Keller to join his then-band, lo.automatic, on bass. The day Keller was set to join the group Miles called him up to tell him that he’d already found a bassist, inviting Keller to come play along anyhow.
“I remember playing a lot of bizarre, e-bow feedback type of stuff. I don’t know why he wanted me to play with him so bad. I don’t know why anybody wants me to play with them,” the sad clown said. “That was about four years ago. Since then I’ve been in a number of lineups with him, both solo and full band. We’ve also lived together many different times, which is always interesting.”
In the years since first meeting Miles, Keller has become a local staple, often playing with Wooden Satellites, Mark Hutchins and Thunderhawk, all while working on solo material, going to school, delivering pizzas and getting engaged.
And more, too.
“Lee is doing a solo album with a few guys from Sweetwater. He asked me to record it, so I think that’ll happen sometime in June,” Keller told me. “And we’re trying to finish the new Illegitimate Sons album right now. And I think I’m going to play some stuff on Mitch Fraizer’s solo album”
The highlight of the moment, though, is the Keller solo album, which has been long discussed on the local music scene.
“I’ve got pretty much all the recording done and am now just mixing and mastering,” Keller said. “It initially turned out really acoustic-y and soft, then I started attending more Superhunk and Thunderhawk shows and decided to go back and add some heavier guitars. I still sort of hate everything I’ve recorded, but at this point I’d rather just release it and get rid of it.”
Oh yeah? Well, I’ve heard the record, or at least an early version of it, and it’s anything but hateable. There’s an Elliott Smith vibe to the vocals, for sure. Mostly, though, I’m personally excited about Keller’s solo live shows.
“I’m just now starting to play more solo shows, which is completely new to me. I have to learn all that stupid stuff like singing into the mic and whatnot,” Keller laughed. “What a drag. I don’t really know what I prefer yet. I love playing with the Illegitimate Sons, and I don’t want that to ever end, but I’m also starting to enjoy playing by myself.”
In addition to the Sons, school, work and recording, Keller also has much going on personally to be excited about.
“I officially got engaged a few weeks ago and we are getting married in September. I can’t wait!” Keller told me. “Our whole dating relationship has been long distance, which has made things interesting, but still amazing. Anyways, my fiancé, Amy, is moving back to Fort Wayne in May, so I can’t wait for that. I think we’re going to stay around Fort Wayne for a while after the wedding – at least until I finish school. Then who knows what.”
Hopefully a lot of rock shows, some records and more clown-related shenanigans.
Read our review of Jon Keller’s Down in a Mirror HERE.