Ken Burchenal

When Rock and Roll Meets Literature

Students may have taken an English course from Professor Ken Burchenal, but many of those students are unaware of his separate life in rock and roll. With a lifetime of changes from obtaining jobs in places such as psych wards and being a full time musician to becoming a respected English professor, music has always played a significant role in his life and literature has only added to his inspiration. When not attending to his academic profession he is playing with several different bands, one in particular called The Happy Campers. With his outstanding reviews as a professor and his love for the arts, Professor Burchenal was chosen for this week’s professors that rock series and the Paisano had a chance to discuss his love for both.

How did you get started with music? How long have you been doing it?

My first musical instrument was when I was 10 and now I’m 50, so that was 40 years ago. They were drums, my father was a jazz drummer and I guess he wanted me to follow in his footsteps. I don’t know if it was the instrument or the teacher who I still think of like an archetype for some kind of nasty pedophile troll guy, I hated him he was just creepy and I had to sit there for an hour and play paradiddles. After that I picked up the guitar and started playing and moved on to other instruments with strings, and as of lately pianos.

Are you taking lessons for the piano?

No I understand music, if I was going to be a good piano player I would definitely do that, I’m not contemptuous of being taught. I did get lessons in the senses of my friends, but no formal lessons. I considered going to music school and getting a degree, but presumably in my early twenties I looked at music as being so personal and so much about feeling. I had immature ideas about music as a discipline, I felt like it should be an expression of your soul as opposed to sitting there doing drills, which scant years later I realized that was the only way to master the instrument. I went through a great deal of training but it was self-driven. I would sit and do scales; I used to work in psych wards and work the overnight shift in the locked ward and be back there playing while my patients raved behind doors.

Why English as opposed to music?

I was a professional musician for many years, but I think I eventually wanted to stop living off girlfriends and start having a place of my own. Before I went back to college I made a shift from performance to production in music. When I got married and had a child, I decided that scraping money as a musician or having the jobs that I had before no longer made sense, I started to think of what else would I want to do, and I had always loved literature and had always thought about going back to school at some point.

Do you try to keep your life separate from being a musician and being a professor?

Well I don’t market my students that for sure, that’s an ethical boundary. I am not ashamed of it, a lot of my students hear from one place or another that I am a musician, but I am not going to hand out flyers to my show.

Do you work with one band or several bands?

I have done a variety of different things over the last three or four years, or since I have been at UTSA. I am a song writer, and so for the past six or seven years I have always had a band that was predominately keno centric that was about playing my songs.

When you are writing you’re songs are you just having fun or are you trying to get a message across?

Each one is different; it’s similar to the question of does the music come first or the song? and the most creative actives that I have found start with an idea. With music it may just be a beat and from there I start to build something in my head. The last several years I have tried to write more selectively, I used to be more prolific. A lot of my songs are not me, they are not autobiographical, and sometimes it’s just a cool phrase that I don’t believe in necessarily, like a blues stompy song. It doesn’t have to mean anything, but I have written some songs where I am trying to say something and they are more didactic.

Do you think that literature and songwriting coincide?

Most definitely, I have never had any pretentions to writing literature or being a poet, but I did have PhD my PhD by the time I really understood poetry. For 21st century people poetry is an archaic art from and we don’t really know what to do with it, but the importance of rhythmic speech and patters of sounds and how they work with patters of meaning really helped me in song writing.

When you’re not doing your own music what are you listening to?

There is nothing that I exclude; I am not super big on symphonic music, even though I was studying Bach this past week because I didn’t know much about Baroque music. I wanted to figure out what was beautiful about it, because it always seemed like math for the ears. I like hybrids; I was listening to Citizen Cope this past week. So I guess I listen to everything and anything; I recently bought a Lady Gaga album to figure out what was all about it, and I get it because I got Madonna. 

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