A native of Utica, New York, John Keller began playing guitar and writing songs as a teenager. Since that time, he has honed his skills to become a well-received performer/songwriter, as well as a sideman with several musical projects.
He hosts a Songwriter's Circle at The Tramontane Cafe, as well as the weekly Open Mic in Rome, NY. When not performing, John owns & runs a vintage record shop on Utica, Off-Center Records. Music runs through the heart and soul of John Keller, and he wouldn't want it any other way.
John Keller/Off-Center Records
116 Bleecker St.
Utica, NY 13501
The Music Never Stops
by John Keller
Copyright 2012, Mohawk Valley Living, Clinton, NY
The Mohawk Valley is a giving community. This area has raised tens of thousands of dollars for needy local charities and events. All of the raised monies have helped countless families and individuals. Now it is time to help those who have helped us all. May 18-20 there will be a benefit for The CNY Veterans' Outreach Center. Located on Washington St. in Utica (former site of the YMCA), The Center provides shelter, counseling, information and other valuable resources for current and former members of our Armed Forces. I spoke with Rich Massucci, organizer, on this, and other events.
What are your CNY roots?
I was born and raised here. My father was from Utica, and my mother was from New Hartford. I too grew up in New Hartford. I attended school there, until I graduated in '91. Like so many people I know, I moved away from the area for a number of years, and then eventually found my way back. I lived in both Orlando, FL and Hollywood, CA , for a while, but was never very happy in either place. I guess for all the things that you can say those places were, I never really considered either to be my "home". My family still lives in the Mohawk Valley, and of course, I wanted to be close to them. A good number of the friends I had when I was younger still live in the area as well, so I suppose that too had a lot to do with it. I still keep in touch with just about all of them.
You've been involved with a few other benefits and causes. What attracted you to The Veteran's Outreach Center?
Well, I knew from the very start that we wanted to do something to pay tribute to America's active soldiers and Veterans. I just didn't know what. There's a lot of overdue attention that's finally starting to be paid to them these days, and rightfully so. Throughout history, the American soldier has sacrificed everything they have to make sure the people of this country are kept safe. It's only fitting that we acknowledge and show our appreciation for that. So, I guess my biggest dilemma was trying to figure out how exactly we wanted to show our support. We started looking into a lot of different organizations that work with veterans, to see what types of things each offered, and how they could benefit from our help. There's a lot of really great organizations out there, and they all are doing a fabulous job. It's hard to sort through all of them, and narrow it down to just one. I think the big thing ultimately, was that we wanted to try to keep things local. Many of those organizations operated nationally, and there was no guarantee who or where your money was going to go to help. So, in that way, we ultimately decided to work with the Central New York's Veterans Outreach Center. Not only is it local, but, the wonderful things they are working to do down there is a very worthwhile cause. I really think this will be a good thing for everyone, in the end.
What are your goals for the "Salute To America's Veterans" weekend?
Well, of course, our main goal is to raise money for the Outreach Center. They operate in the old Utica YMCA building, and unfortunately, most of the building is in VERY rough shape. When they bought the building, there were a lot of repairs to make already, and of course, there's some remodeling that they need to do to make the building adequate for the plans they have. It's just an enormous task, which requires quite a bit of money. They've made some positive steps over the years, but there's still a long way to go. I'm really not too sure how much of that they can continue to do without community involvement. It's such a huge building, and they honestly are trying to make most of these things happen with little to no money. So, I truly believe this benefit will help them out a lot.
In addition to helping out the Outreach Center, another goal of ours is to show our support for our troops. And we want that to encompass both active and retired military. I think we've got a few things planned which will do just that, and hopefully, people will come out and show their support as well.
Who do you have performing?
Pretty much everybody! Every time we put a benefit together, we try to consider ALL musical tastes, and we don't like to leave out anyone. This time around we have "A Dying Breed" and "Armed With Valor" playing on Friday. On Saturday, we have Randy Niles, "Sybil". "Wild Honey", "Strange Brood" with special guest Randy Case, John Keller, "Mirror Of Sins", Kim Monroe and Chris Eves, "The Ward", "Autumn Fire", "Structural Integrity Compromised (SIC)", ".soundbarrier.", and "Nineball". Then on Sunday… yes, there's more… we have "Sybil", "Stop 7", "Rustbelt Riot", "Middle Class Heroes", "Brassknuckle Intercourse" (BKIC), "Sinner's Ink", "Syndicate" and "The Bomb". It looks like we might be adding a few more bands before we are done actually. We originally were aiming to have about 25 performances during the three days. I think we're pretty close.
In addition to the bands, we also have a few special events planned. On Friday night, before any bands even play, we will be showing the documentary "Silver Wings, Civil Rights: The Fight To Fly", which is actually a film that I had the pleasure of working on. I guess, without going into great detail, it's basically the REAL story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first recognized African American fighter pilots in our US military, Most people are just starting to become familiar with the Tuskegee Airmen, thanks in great part to the George Lucas film "Redtails". We started filming our documentary back in 2001, and conducted interviews and re-enactments for just about 2 years. It's a very accurate account of what really took place with these guys back in World War 2. I highly recommend it to everyone, even if you're not a huge "history buff". What is really going to make this event so special, is that 3 of the original airmen, as well as the director of the documentary, have all agreed to fly in for the benefit, and do a "Q & A" after the film .I'm pretty sure they are going to be signing things as well - posters, books, that kind of thing. It's a great opportunity to meet some people that are literally "living history".
Also I should mention that on Saturday morning, we will be doing a "salute" to our veterans. I don't want to ruin the surprise by talking about all the details right now, but I will say that it should be very special. I hope everyone comes out to join us.
When is the event?
The event covers 3 days, Friday May 18th through Sunday May 20th.The Salute to America's Veterans is a several part event. Friday there will be several book signings by Lt. Col. James Warren at the Utica Library & Oneida County Historical Society, among others. That night, several bands will perform at 12 North Sports Bar in Marcy, kicking off our event. Saturday begins with an 11AM showing of the documentary at the Uptown Theater. This is followed by the main events at The Sickenberger on Varick St. There will be bands and performers throughout the day and evening on 3 stages, inside and outside. There will also be a signing with the Tuskegee Airmen. Sunday continues with more music at The Sickenberger. All events and times can be found on Facebook - http://www.facebook.com/#!/events/178760538871784/
Will this be a yearly event?
I would love to make this a yearly event. I want to see how successful we are this time before I start announcing plans for next year. Of course, I can't imagine this not "taking off". It's going to be a great time, with just about all the best in local music. In the end, we're raising money for a very worthy cause. What's not to love about it?
Are you a musician?
I am, actually. I'm sure a lot of people don't even realize that because I haven't really "promoted" myself as one. But, I've been playing guitar for just about 25 years. I started when I was roughly 13 years old, and immediately after graduating from high school, moved out to Hollywood, CA to attend Musician's Institute, for those that may have heard of it. I spent a little while out there testing the music scene, which of course, was a lot different during that time. It was a lot of "big" hair and neon spandex (this being the summer of 1991), and to be honest, I couldn't see myself fitting into any of that. It really wasn't too long before I decided to throw in the towel and head back home. I was only 17 at the time. Maybe it's a good thing I left when I did. Who knows where I may have ended up. I still try to find time to play. I just joined a band not too long ago actually. We haven't decided on a name yet, but I'll let you know when we play out.
All of your projects center around music. What ties do you have with the local music community?
Well, being a musician, I've always had an interest in the local music scene, but, I was never as involved with it as I seem to be these days. In fact, for a while, when I was living in Florida, I really had little connection to it at all. I had decided around that time to try to pursue a career in film rather than music, and most of my time was spent attending college and working on projects that dealt with that. When I eventually left Orlando and moved back to this area, nearly all of the work I was finding in the "film world" was happening in Los Angeles, even then, I wasn't really able to focus on many of the things going on around here. I was busy flying back and forth, and living out there for months at a time. I guess it wasn't until about five years ago that I decided I was tired of the travel, and living out of hotel rooms. I decided to "retire", so to speak, from that lifestyle and concentrate my efforts around here. I started working for the entertainment department of Turning Stone Casino as a stagehand, which was really about the only place I figured I could put some of the skills I had developed to any practical use. Of course, Turning Stone doesn't really deal so much with film, they do more with shows and live music. It took a little bit of re-learning some of the things that I already knew, but eventually I started getting more and more familiar with it. What was even better, I suppose, was that I was staring to meet and reacquaint myself with many of the people that were involved with the local music scene. People that worked with live sound and lighting, and knew the "in's and out's" of stage rigging. That was really very into important I suppose, with regards to what we do now.
As to my current ties with the music scene? I like to think they are very good. We try and go to as many shows as we can, and support those acts that continually support us. In addition to the "benefit ties" that we all share, I've really been able to develop friendships with many of these guys… Autumn Fire, The Bomb, Nineball, Brassknuckle,, S.I.C. I talk to these guys regularly now, and I'm very proud of that. There's not one of them that doesn't go out of their way to help us out, and all in all, they are just really good people and, very talented musicians. They do a lot for the community, and I hope people recognize that.
There are a lot of really great bands & musicians that are floating around this area. I encourage people to get out there and check some of them out.
One of your major concerns is animal abuse, for which you host an annual event, Animal for Animals. How did you get involved with this?
Well, the main focus of the "Animal For Animals" benefit, of course, is to raise money for the Stevens Swan Humane Society, for which I'm a firm supporter. I think they do a fantastic job up there at the shelter, and I'm always happy to help them in whatever way I can. But, you are absolutely correct though, in regards to what you said about my concern with animal abuse. I guess I can't say it any other way, than it completely sickens me. I'm literally mortified by the way I see some people treat their animals, and in the end, there really is no excuse to justify abuse of any sort. I'm a firm believer that we need to make our penalties for animal abuser more severe. Twenty hours of community service and a $100.00 fine, which seems to be about the extent of what many of these people get when they are sentenced, seems like a slap on the wrist if you ask me. It's not really deterring people at all.
To answer your question, my views on animal abuse kind of led me to get involved with organizations such as the Stevens Swan Humane Society, as well as several other rescue sites throughout the country. These days, I seem to spend a lot of time trying to help rescue animals find new homes, while at the same time, trying to discourage people from buying their pets from breeders and "puppy mills". It's really tragic when you consider the number of perfectly adoptable animals that we euthanize in this country every year simply because there aren't enough homes for them all. Last time I looked, I believe it was something like 8 million dogs and cats put down just last year alone. When you hear that kind of thing, I can't figure out for the life of me why we "encourage" breeders and puppy mills to continue on with what they do by purchasing pets from them. It's foolish for anyone to believe that the overpopulation of dogs and cats we have will ever "right itself" without shutting down these people that continue to increase the numbers. It's a huge problem in this country.
When is the next Animal for Animals event?
We haven't come up with an exact date just yet. To be honest with you, this will be the fifth year we do this, and even now, I still find myself guessing a bit at times. If you try to do something in the middle of the summer, there's a good chance that most people will be away on vacation or even just heading out of town for the weekend. You also have to try to figure out the weather, which is a total nightmare either way you look at it. If it's nice outside, people don't want to spend the day in a bar, and if you plan the event outside, there's a chance that you'll get rained out. , It's a bit of a gamble which ever way you go. On the other hand, if you try to plan something during the winter, the weather might get you there too. We had an ice storm hit us on the exact night we had our Animal For Animals benefit two years ago. We were at 12 North Sports Bar at the time, and people were afraid to drive their cars up the hill (on the arterial). We still had a decent turnout, but nowhere what we had hoped for.
Anyways, I think we are going to try something new this year, and have our benefit in the Fall. We are most likely aiming for the second weekend in October.
What, in your opinion, is needed to widen public awareness for animal abuse?
You know, it's a very hard to try and "widen awareness", as you say. The internet, I think, has done an incredible job of opening many peoples' eyes as to some of the things that are going on out there in the world. With the tools we have available to us, such as Facebook and Twitter, we are able to hear about these cases of abuse, which for the most part, would have never been heard about before. Animal Planet, actually airs about 3 or 4 reality shows which follow the ASPCA as they investigate animal abuse cases in different cities. I think you'd be very hard pressed to find a person who hasn't heard about the problem with dog fighting in this country. I'm not really sure if there's a shortage of "material", per se, with which we can educate people these days. The biggest problem, if I had to be honest, is getting people to step up and do something about it all. I can't tell you how many people I talk to that say "I don't want to see that kind of thing.", or "I can't watch… it breaks my heart." Believe me. I completely understand. I don't want to see it and it breaks my heart too. But I also don't want to stick my head in the sand, and pretend that it isn't happening. I was told something long ago, and it has stuck with me for years: "If you are not part of the solution, then you are doing nothing". I suppose that sounds like a lot of "common sense", but, it's something that I actually take as a bit of a challenge. I can't let myself be one of those people that turns away, or in my mind, I am no better than them. I don't claim to have all the answers on how to stop animal abuse, but I know that for me, personally, ignoring it isn't the answer. That's why I continue to do things such as donate, and work with rescue organizations that are also trying to end abuse. This is a very hard world to understand and accept sometimes. I guess all you can really do in the end, is stand behind the things you believe in and hope others do the same.
How is community support, for all of your projects?
Community support has been great. We've been very successful doing these benefits, so it really goes without saying that people are doing what they can to help out. From the bands that continue to play time and time again, to the businesses that donate to us year after year, and of course all the people that continue to come out and give what they can We can't thank everyone enough for all the support that they given to us these past 4 years.
Are there any other benefits you are organizing?
Well, I have my hands pretty full with this one right now, so I don't have anything else "in the works", except of course, the "Animal For Animals" benefit later this year. My girlfriend, who typically helps to set these benefits up, decided to try her hand at organizing her class reunion this year, and being that she is from Florida, you can just imagine how busy her schedule has gotten. So, without her, things are a little more hectic than usual. We might have to wait until next year to tackle any new projects.
How can the public help, and become involved, with your projects?
Well, first and foremost - DONATE! Come out and be part of what we do. One hundred percent of the money we collect goes directly to the organization we are supporting. If you don't have cash to give, we also accept both donated items and services. Even if you think it's something we could never use, you'd be surprised. We set up raffles for everything from clothing and sporting event tickets, to pizzas and haircuts. Nothing is ever wasted.
For those looking to be even more involved, believe me, we are always welcoming volunteers. Whether you have all the time in the world or just a few hours, I'm sure we can find something for you to do.
Feel free to look me up online. I can be found on our "Animalforanimals.com" website, or you can just drop me a line on Facebook. I'm usually on there about a million hours a day. For those not online, you're more than welcome to even give me a call at 315-790-8877. If I don't answer, leave me a message, and I promise to put you to work very soon. All kidding aside, I'm not a hard person to find.
Interview with Rich Massucci
The CNY Veterans' Outreach Center
May 18-20 , 2012