I only met him five minutes ago, but I’m already wondering if Darren Keen is going to get me arrested. As I sit beside him in his dad’s turquoise Dodge Caravan, my eyes flit between him and the street before us. He’s in the driver’s seat, smoking weed out of a wooden pipe engraved with a death’s head. I warn him that cops often cruise the Campustown block we’re parked on, but the information doesn’t seem to faze him.
Keen is a twenty-six-year-old musician from Lincoln, Nebraska. He’s best known for the glitchy, baldly autobiographical songs he records as The Show is the Rainbow, though he’s also played bass with the Omaha-based rock band Beep Beep. Over the past seven years, he’s become renowned for his near-constant tours – both as a headliner, and as a supporting act for bands such as the Mae Shi and The Faint. His marathon gigging has taken him all over the United States, as well as to Europe and the UK. On this October evening, he’s come to Ames to play a show at the office of the Ames Progressive. His dad Al came along to keep him company on the road, but right now he’s sitting outside the office, doing a crossword puzzle.
I hadn’t expected him to be this calm. When I’d called him the day before, he’d sounded panicked – almost desperate.
“This is a really, uh, interesting time in my life for you to profile me,” he told me. “I’m kind of having a meltdown.”
Now, despite his earlier intimations of distress, he looks mellow. His straw-colored hair falls over his face as he moves to draw from his pipe. From behind thick-lensed glasses, his blue eyes fix on its skull-shaped bowl.
“I haven’t told a lot of people yet,” he says. “I don’t want them to hear this grim stuff about the band.”
The “grim stuff” that he’s alluding to is the recent demise of his laptop, which crashed last week. The crash wiped out the instrumental backing tracks and videos that he uses to accompany himself when he plays as The Show is the Rainbow. This sudden technological failure forced him to cancel all the TSITRB performances he’d booked for October. He would have cancelled tonight’s show as well, had he not been so distracted by his computer problems that he forgot to he’d agreed to play here in the first place. This evening he will play a set under his own name, using only an electric guitar and a practice amp held together with neon-green electrical tape.
Keen has already sent his hard drive away to a data-retrieval service, but isn’t sure the tracks that were on it can be salvaged. Though he’s all but resigned himself to the loss of the tracks, he’s trying not to let it discourage him. As he clears the last bits of resin from his pipe, he resolves, “Rainbow will ride again.”
Having somehow avoided arrest, he and I walk from the minivan to the suite where the Progressive office is located. After we find seats in the hallway outside the office, he keeps talking about his latest misfortunes. Due to the breakdown of one of his external hard drives in May, he lost the master tracks for his TSITRB albums Radboyz Only!!! (2003) and Gymnasia (2005). He tells me these losses came at a time when he was tiring of performing, and questioning the wisdom of going on the road for months on end.
“I’ve been touring really hard for six or seven years,” he says. “Playing an astronomical number of shows. Now I’m put in this position where I can’t really play shows…I don’t see myself as going on a tour that lasts for more than three weeks ever again. I want to keep recording and releasing albums and playing shows for people all over the world, but I’d rather focus my time.”
One of the many things he’d rather focus on now is his relationship with his girlfriend Lacy, whom he met five months ago. They’re currently living together in a house in Lincoln. He works 40 hours a week at a Greek-owned pizza place called Yia Yia’s to pay the rent, and says doesn’t regret trading the debauchery of his touring days for a stable relationship and a job.
“Being in love is way better than eating acid in Berlin,” he explains.
We wait another hour before it’s his turn to play. Finally, he introduces himself to the audience (which comprises only about a dozen people) and says, “I’m going to sing some songs about my elaborate life.”
As elaborate as his life may be, the songs inspired by it turn out to be fairly simple. Several of them, such as “Hot Air Balloon” and “There Are No Rules,” are taken from this year’s Slumberparty Record, the first album he’s ever released under his own name. They average just about a minute-and-a-half in length. They’re just as unabashedly autobiographical as his old material, but the arrangements are far less frenetic than the typical TSITRB song. They actually verge on being tame. There’s no mid-song genre switching, screaming, or dissonant electronic bleeping. Keen doesn’t writhe on the floor or run around the room as he sings them. He accompanies himself with lightly strummed barre chords, never daring to play one of the spastic guitar solos that animate a few of his early tracks.
His between-song stage banter often exceeds his actual songs in length. Once, when the name of a song he’s about to play eludes him, he covers his face and says, “I’ve replaced so much info in my brain with so many bad decisions! I should write an album mourning the loss of my intelligence.”
About 25 minutes after he spoke his first words into the microphone, he’s already playing the final song of his set. It’s another Slumberparty cut, called “Rainbow.” After a few repetitions of the chorus, the audience joins in, the pitch of their voices gently rising with his as he croons the last lines:
“Sing it loud / Sing it proud / You’re a rainbow now upside down”
After he loads his gear back in the Caravan, I join him on a walk through campus. He sounds a little tired. Reflecting on all that’s happened to him in the past few months, he says, “All my technology is failing around me. There’s a ghost in the machine. I’m going to go home and destroy all my electric guitars and computers. I’m going to use completely acoustic instruments!”
I know he’s exaggerating. Earlier tonight, he told me he’d already assembled a live (non-acoustic) band to back him up at future TSITRB shows. Still, I can’t ignore the note of genuine frustration in his voice. Returning to the office to watch the next band, we run into his dad Al again. He appears to have finished his crossword. Keen greets him with a one-armed hug and asks what he thought of his performance.
“It was great,” the elder Keen says. “Just don’t quit that day job.”