Mike Keneally of MFTJ: Interview

Mike Keneally has done so much in his illustrious career; you can count Frank Zappa, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Ulver, Dethklok and Devin Townsend as just some of the people Mr. Keneally has worked with. Now, he has released a second album with master producer Scott Schorr who call themselves MFTJ. You can read our thoughts on their new album, My Moms Getting A Horse, here.

We caught up with Mike Keneally and had a very lengthy chat where we talked about the new MFTJ album, what he’s currently working on, how he has adapted during the pandemic, The Bizarre World Of Frank Zappa tour, as well as chats about people he has worked with including a great story about Frank Zappa and Stairway To Heaven.

MFTJ: Mike Keneally and Scott Schorr

Hi Mike. Thank you for your time. How are you doing?

I’m doing ok…hanging in there! How about you?

Largely the same!

MFTJ – Mankind’s Final Traffic Jam…where did that name come from?!

That came from the fertile imagination of Scott Schorr; the verbal work of MFTJ is Scott. On my solo records I’m capable of coming up with some odd song titles but the specific flavour of odd that is MFTJ is a reflection of what Scott is about. I think that’s fair as I have a lot of outlets to express myself creatively,  so it’s Scott’s main outlet to work through his specific demons! My contribution to MFTJ is purely musical with Scott providing the conceptual framework, brilliantly.

Do you find that a good thing for yourself; focussing on the musical side of things?

It really is. I think Scott intentionally set this project up this way as I have multiple projects on the go, so he inserted it into my schedule with minimum pain! His brief to me was to simply improvise over the tracks he sent me, then I sent them back and he made sense of it and turned the improvisations into motifs, hooks and repeating themes. He’s brilliant at that. When he sends me the assembled ideas that I played in a very spontaneous way and they’re fully organised; it’s surreal for me as I barely remember playing the stuff! He’s very smart about finding the little bits from what I play in a way that turns into an MFTJ song which is rhythmically, completely defined by Scott. He also decided what key the songs will be in and what the bass rhythm will be like. I played a lot of bass on this record but he would send me the groove and I would improvise over it. He would send me the songs in progress back and ask what I think and I offer advice but once that is sorted, the graphic and visual side is all Scott. It’s a delight seeing how it all evolves.

Although it’s improvised and put together in the way that it is, the new MFTJ record sounds like you played together in the same room.

The two of us definitely produce a sound…what is this music?! How do we define what we do? We don’t try…whilst we’re making the music we just make music that sounds good to us. When we listen back to it…we’re asking what the hell is this?! We honestly don’t know apart from the fact that we both like it…we called it instrumental hip hop prog soup or something bizarre. It’s just a way to try and show the influences that we bring together because people need labels to stick on things – we’re not concerned about it but the world requires it. We honestly don’t know what it is that we are creating. It’s great fun.

There definitely are a lot of styles on the album. It’s a great thing that you’re not tagged to one genre and it is hard to put a label on it. The change in styles during an album can be lost on less experienced bands and artists but the MFTJ album flows brilliantly. There are flourishes of Trip Hop in there as well some hefty riffs and some very funky bass.

Are there any new technologies that you have used in the making of the album because you’re on opposite sides of the world?

This is the first full album that I have worked on in a home studio. I had to get recording at home when the pandemic hit as I knew that I needed to. I have a Pro Tools based studio and in terms of the interfacing between me and Scott, all I need to do is bounce WAV files of whatever I record whether it be bass or keyboard or guitar; as long as they start at the correct points. This helps with the synchronisation of the tracks. When he gets these, he gets to manipulating them!

Sounds like old school DJ’ing and sampling.

That’s precisely what he’s doing. Slicing and dicing for rhythmic purposes and finding the hooks. He’ll take a phrase and turn it into a rhythm. There’s definitely that old school DJ style in there, sonically.

That style plays into the tag you have given MFTJ. It’s quite psychedelic.

It really is. Every time we discuss the music and what to call it, psychedelic is something that always comes up. It’s very apt.

There are a few parts that evoke Pink Floyd as well.

That’s nice! There are some real atmospheres on there. To me, the most rewarding thing about music and sound is how nothing but sound can really paint a visual picture. Floyd was amazing at that. If you think about the grooveless section of Echoes with the dolphin calls in it, even though that’s nothing but sound, it really paints a picture in the consciousness of where that is. I think there is some of that in MFTJ’s work. Even though I’ve played on it, because of the nature of it, Scott re-contextualises it to the extent that I can’t recognise it myself! I like the songs more, the more I hear them; which is only a good thing. I don’t tire of it and I appreciate it more. Plus…it grooves! Some of the grooves are devastating…so much fun!

MFTJ’s first, self-titled album.

It sounds quite hypnotic at times.

This is the second MFTJ album now. Had you intended to do two albums because the first one only came out in March 2020?

It wasn’t discussed initially. The first album had been in the works for a while; pre pandemic! I recorded my parts in a proper studio. There was a different methodology for that record. We didn’t pre-plan this as an ongoing project was just Scott inviting me to play. It’s a production technique that Scott has used in the past with Levon, Torn & White where they just improvised over structures he provided and used the digital audio workstation to turn it into organised music. So that’s what we did. It was received well and we enjoyed it. I haven’t listened to the first record in a while. It would be interesting to hear it again as it was recorded in completely different circumstances. When the second album was discussed, I was getting the home studio together…I just had to ask Scott to be patient as I’m not an engineer! I’d done things at home before but it was always just in a demo-y way.  On my Scambot 1 album, there is a piece called Cat Bran Sandwich and that was mostly recorded at home. It sounds like a weird peek into my psyche; it’s not any attempt to record modern sounding music or pretty conventional music, it’s just weird audio; like veritae abstractions like The Residents. For MFTJ or any of the projects that I have done over the course of the pandemic, it can’t just be impressionistic art music; I have to turn out professional tracks that other people can fold effortlessly into their own projects. I had to get on the beam straight away technologically, and I’m still learning! This record was a real learning experience for me.

Having the fun element with improvisation must have taken a little bit of pressure off in a way?

Yeah…it was; at a time when I was feeling a lot of pressure. Scott has produced plenty of videos for the project, some of which are ‘making of’ videos of me at home working on my tracks and talking about them. When I watch those videos it looks like I’m in prison, but that’s not because of the project, it’s because I’m still learning and reeling from the effects of the pandemic. The second MFTJ album is the first project I have worked on in my home studio, and I’m still coming to terms with the way life is and still just feeling shell-shocked with the whole thing. It definitely had an impact on the stuff I played for the record. Fortunately, it’s not a weird dark experience to listen to the album, but there is definitely some darkness on there. It stays groovy because of the beats. That’s the magic of rhythm. You can really do anything on top of an infectious beat and get away with it, sonically; which is borne out by a lot of modern music. Things have got really eccentric, sonically and harmonically. I think that’s because people are trained to accept all kinds of strangeness, as long as the groove feels relatable.

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Devin Townsend tour poster; North America, 2020.

How have you find making your living over the pandemic? The pandemic has hit artists in so many different ways; as a teacher I’ve been lucky in terms of pay but I can’t imagine what it is like to have your industry completely changed to be so unpredictable.

I would say that over the last I don’t know how many years, 80-90% of my income has come from being on the road. It’s a real hand to mouth way of sustaining an existence; but it worked…just! For a very long time! Until it didn’t. We were halfway through a North American Devin Townsend tour in March and suddenly it was done. I flew home on March 13th and I’ve been here ever since. You look at your savings, and your work prospects, which are nil at that point. I knew it was going to be at least a few months until we could do any touring; we were optimistic that we thought we would be able to resume in September 2020 and of course it now feels optimistic that we will be able to do it in September 2021. It desperately incumbent on myself to find a way  to continue to make a living. I humbly went to GoFundMe to build my home studio. I was lucky to get a huge response from people. That was gratifying and humbling and I am extremely grateful to people to be able to get the studio at home which has meant I could continue recording to piece together a way to support myself and my wife. It’s also helped me to produce stuff for my Patreon account which I started in June. I’m posting a lot of interesting stuff on there, or at least it’s interesting to those that follow my work! There’s lots of unreleased audio on there, and journals and artwork. There are live hangouts a couple of times a month. It’s a lot of fun. Any artist who has any kind of following, I would recommend Patreon because it is completely customisable. Everyone that is there because of you, and you’re not doing battle with other voices on social networks. It’s ideal.

We find that as a website; we don’t carry ads or pay for ads on social networks and don’t want pop-ups everywhere. We rely on artists sharing the work that we do as fans of music. We run At The Barrier with a love of music as the central thread. No one gets paid, and we fund it ourselves each year.

It’s good that you’re keeping it pure and you are making your own space on the internet. I’m very grateful to Scott Chatfield who set up my website in 1994! It blows my mind that I’ve had a personal website that has been online for 27 years! Before the word blog was invented, I was writing long essays and stuff. We were doing pre-orders in the 90’s. Things that have become the norm.  The space really helped the community to form. When I was touring, there were people that knew about it solely from the internet. Now it feels like it’s the only way to communicate. This has been an incredibly testing time, but I feel reasonably optimistic for the future. I sustain myself with the feeling of what it is going to be like at the first gig when we come out of this. That first show is going to be the most intense feeling imaginable. That’s something worth looking forward to.

I cant wait for gigs again. The feeling and atmosphere. Meeting strangers. You’ll feel that on the other side of the barrier as well.

Definitely, but we feel it with the audience too. The feeling that came from the Devin Townsend shows that we did at the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020 are some of the most intense audience responses ive experienced. We can feel it on stage.

Mike Keneally on Devin Townsend’s Empath Tour in Manchester; December 2019.
Pic: Mike Ainscoe

It must be a lot of fun playing with Devin Townsend?

Oh it’s ridiculous! Everybody in the band and crew are wonderful. There’s a feeling that everyone is spiritually aligned. There’s also a lot of laughter. Devin himself is a hysterical person as well as being this freakish genius! It’s a feeling of we’re doing the right thing here, but it’s also satisfying musically in the way that he structures a show. The band is crazy too. Morgan Agren on drums; I love playing with him. We did Zappa’s Universe in 1991. I met him when Frank invited them onstage on the ’88 tour in Stockholm playing T’Mershi Duween with us. So to play along with him each night is great.

It was sweet in Europe because we had a larger band with Arabella Packford and Samantha and Anne Preis on backing vocals and Markus Reuter on touch guitar and Diego Tajeda  from Haken on keys, and Nathan Navarro on bass and Che Aimee Dorval singing; and Devin of course! It was like playing in an orchestra with incredible visuals and staging. Check out the Order Of Magnitude live album to get a flavour of that (read our review here).

You have worked with so many people over the years. Your rap sheet includes Devin Townsed, Dethklok, Frank Zappa, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Ulver. What was it like working with Ulver on Blood Inside (2005)?

That came at the invitation of the producer, Ronan Chris Murphy. I met him whilst I was in Steve Vai’s band and I was playing with Robert Fripp in the early part of the shows because Robert was doing soundscapes as an opening act for the G3 tour and I would watch his set each night. He eventually invited me to improvise over his soundscapes. Robert would do these soundscapes for about an hour and a half to the increasing lack of comprehension of the audience as they didn’t recognise it as a guitar not producing these sounds. I was honoured that he invited me up. Ronan was on his crew and he invited me to contribute to several projects, one of which was Ulver.

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Ulver – Blood Inside. 2005.

I showed up at the studio, and we met, pretty much unaware of their catalogue and history. It was another another very improvisational thing, where they played me the tracks and just said to play whatever. They wanted me to respond to the music; I hadn’t heard anything and they didn’t ask me to prepare anything. It was very spontaneous and I was an ingredient that they could use throughout. They didn’t use the vast majority of what I played but occasionally I hit upon something they could use. It was quite out there. I would love to listen to it again and remind myself of what happened there. It was a quick hit. It was a very abstract experience with atmospheric lights in the studio and the guys in the band were friendly, but very mysterious. I was only there for a moment before they had me playing and recording. It was a little disorienting which suited the music. I loved the process. I subsequently found out what a varied career they have had. I really admire anyone that subverts the labels given to them. Subverting expectations is not the goal, but the by product. The goal is to do the music you want to do. The labels and boxes that you are put into; that’s none of your concern as an artist. You do the thing that you feel you need to do. If you don’t, then that’s not good music.

Ulver have reinvented their own wheel several times. They will have lost fans and gained fans and have always divided opinion. They’ve always had an intensity but it’s just a different way of showcasing the intensity.

You cant keep making the same record over and over for thirty years. I’m struck by parallels between Ulver and Opeth. You have to do the music you want to do. See Steven Wilson! If people haven’t figured out that he is going to what he wants to do then that’s not on him. It’s never been on him. You have to leave your expectations somewhere else. That was what I loved about bands in the 70’s. You never knew what the new Frank Zappa album or the new Todd Rundgren album was going to sound like. The idea was to be surprised. I love the fact so many of my favourite artists covered so much stylistic ground.

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Similar to Pink Floyd; where they started in the 70’s and where they ended up.

Or that less than four years separates I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Sgt. Pepper. That’s a lot of ground covered.

What was it like putting The Bizarre World Of Frank Zappa show together? Revisiting the old stuff and uncovering the never before heard audio?

It was incredibly powerful. That’s what I was alluding to with Devin. The feeling of being on stage. It was like being a part of a larger living organism. The energy between the music and the visuals, and hearing Frank in our monitors; it felt like playing with Frank. Even from night to night, although the solos were the same, it felt different every night because of your responses in the moment. Backing up a long Frank Zappa solo as an accompanist is a specific kind of feeling. It elicits different responses. I realised how much I had missed it.

To play with many members of the 1988 band was great and to play with Ray White for the first time was great. And to play with Joe Travers on drums, who is the vault master for the Zappa’s, was great. He played drums in my band, Beer For Dolphins, since the 90’s. We have a deep history. To play with my dear friend Scott Thunes, who I connected with so well in 1988, and to reconnect with Robert Martin and Ed Mann who were in the ’88 band was great. To play this show, with this big framework, really affected me strongly, although it was a controversial thing as people had strong attitudes about holograms and Ahmet (Zappa) who conceived the show and put it together.

I have a deep longstanding relationship with Ahmet. I think many people don’t understand him, and what a beautiful guy he is. That show was his creative vision, and I can guarantee that Frank would have gotten a kick out of it. I saw things online like ‘Frank would be rolling in his grave.’ No. I honestly think you’re wrong. Frank would have been fascinated with the technology. Frank wouldn’t create a show that was a homage to himself but he would use it to create something else. It was an expression of Ahmet’s love for Frank. You either lock into that in the same spirit, or you don’t. I was honoured to be a part of it.

We ended up doing non-hologram shows as The Zappa Band. We played at The Baked Potato in LA and Ian Underwood came in and sat in with us. Ralph Humphrey came. And Ruth Underwood. So getting to meet them was incredibly powerful. The idea of being in a small club environment playing this music that I love so much with people that I love so much was great. We were supposed to be supporting King Crimson last year. That was obviously cancelled but we hope that can go ahead. I love what Crimson is doing live these days with the drummers and the career overview. What a band! I was just excited to see King Crimson every night.

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The Zappa Band (L-R): Joe Travers, Mike Keneally, Scott Thunes, Ahmet Zappa, Ray White, Robert Martin, Ed Mann.

(Picture: Frank Zappa Trust)

Hearing never before heard audio of Frank must have been an emotional experience?

Because it is such a technologically complex show, that feeling didn’t really settle in right away. We had so many details to work out like monitor levels, can you hear the click (track)…you have to play with a click on a show like this for synchronization. There was so much to deal with on the nuts and bolts side before you can get to that place you ask of. But when it hit, the transcendence was huge; like being carried in the arms of the music. It was only when we were actually playing the shows that it started to hit me. I remembered how it used to feel being onstage with Frank and playing with these guys.

It was important to me, and the band, that we used some unreleased music. We went through so many papers and boxes in his archives and found severeal unreleased compositions. I have frequently dreamed of being onstage with Frank again, and playing new music. So this was like my dream like state!

Did you have any particular songs that you were really excited to play again? One that stuck out for me at the show I attended was Andy, from One Size Fits All.

That wasn’t even one that we rehearsed in the initial stages. That came about during the tour. Their were portions of the show where there were no visuals or tracks with Frank. We were just playing. I was the musical director for the tour, and I said I would do it as long as we do these specific songs. Theres one long instrumental  piece called Farther Oblivion; not to be confused with Father Oblivion (off Apostrophe). That was a prerequisite of my involvement. I also loved played Alien Orifice in a melody with Village Of The Sun. But Andy came up in the tour because we all know a lot of Zappa tunes; what could we play that would require minimum preparation? Andy came up and it was straight into the show.

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Frank Zappa – The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life with the original cover.

Andy was included on The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life live album (from the 1988 tour) wasn’t it?

It was. That was a part of what Frank called modules: songs that frequently went together in setlists. It always went Pogen, Andy, Inca! Florentine Pogen, into Andy, into Inca Roads.

The thing that always struck me with that record was the cover of Stairway To Heaven.

Someone posted a video from Vienna in 1988 of us playing it. And someone posted some sound check footage of us from Philadelphia too. That blew my mind and felt like a time machine.

The story of that one was: Frank had decided during rehearsals that he wanted to play Stairway To Heaven. He asked, ‘OK…how does it go?’ He was aware of it but hadn’t heard it. Robert, Scott, Chad and I performed the best Stairway To Heaven we could so Frank could hear the song. He was like… ‘those changes during the guitar solo are really boring. A minor, G, F.’ He tried soloing over it. The thing of one minor down to flat 7 to flat 6 was like a harmonic prison. Anytime he was trying to get something going over it, it was not an inspiring progression for him. He kept trying to do solos. I knew the solo, and would play it at rehearsal when Frank wasn’t there. At one of the rehearsals, alto saxophonist, Paul Carman came over and asked me to show him the solo as he wanted to play it together with me. What a great idea! I showed him. That night, when Frank came to rehearsal, he started to improvise a solo over the solo section but Paul and I blasted over him with the solo in unison as a surprise for Frank. He didn’t know we were going to do it. Frank stopped soloing, turned around and looked at us, and he just stands there and smiles and watches us do the whole thing. He halted the band at the next section where the vocals come back in, and said, ‘OK…show it to the rest of horn section.’ We spent the next hour and half going through the solo so the rest of the horn section could write their own charts of the music. Frank said we’d play it like that. It was a remarkable moment.

What an amazing story!

Do you think that there is longevity there with the Bizarre World tour? Would you pay different sets as The Zappa Band? There has got to be a wealth of unreleased audio you could tap into as well?

That was what was intended with the chunks of the show we had. Farther Oblivion became well established but there were parts where we could change it up. There were sections where Ahmet would come up and sing with us. We would like it to carry on as a going concern but it takes a lot to put the show together with the music, the animations, the production, financially. You have to have a minimum amount of tickets sold and the venues have to be big enough to house the show. There is no guarantee that you will meet the requirements needed. It would be great to refresh it visually and musically though. We have a great canvas to work on with all the different types of Zappa shows we could do. The rulebook has been thrown out of the window though, so what you have witnessed could be the one and only hurrah of The Bizarre World tour. As The Zappa Band, we will definitely do more shows because that is a lot less of a big ask financially to just put a band on the road.

There are a lot of bands playing Frank’s music and doing a great job of it. Dweezil Zappa has taken the approach of doing very faithful representations of how things sound on the record and he has an incredible group of younger players who are killing it. There aren’t as many bands with members who played with Frank. There’s only one Ed Mann. There’s only one Robert Martin, There’s only one Ray White. There’s only one Scott Thunes. So if you wanna hear these people play this music, this is your shot. At this point, it’s the only Zappa oriented thing that I am doing. I’ve done different Zappa projects over the years but try not to do too much; like one Zappa oriented thing a year. I don’t want to go to the well too many times. I want to keep the quality high. Now I’m playing in this band, I feel very satisfied on the Zappa front.

It’s also good to have a reason to practice these songs! You have to keep yourself limbered up to play these amazing and complex songs. Its so healthy for a musician to play this stuff. It’s literally off the chart, as you have to read the music that Frank wrote in his original charts to execute it right. A piece like Farther Oblivion, a part of which ended up becoming the melody to Bebop Tango, has this crazy melody in terms of the notes chosen and the rhythm. It sounded wild on marimba and I always wanted to play it on guitar. So I challenged myself for this tour to learn that melody on the guitar. Once you get it, it’s so satisfying. It has such a composer-like quality to it. It’s so statistically dense that it can seem impenetrable, but when you decode it enough to learn how to play it and you see the repeated patterns and you see the schemes that Frank deployed to come up with these different melodies, you feel like your cracking the mysteries of the universe!

Is there anyone that you would like to work with in the future that you haven’t worked with before?

Wayne Shorter - Blue Note Records
Wayne Shorter

If I could be in a band with Neil Young, Paul McCartney and Wayne Shorter, for one night, that’s my dream! I would love to play with Wayne Shorter. There have been a couple of times where it looked like it was going to happen but didn’t. In some ways I’m grateful as I know that I wouldn’t have been ready, musically. In some ways, I know I’m still not ready. He’s well up there. He’s probably my favourite living musician. Neil Young comes close though. I love the sound of his music and the way he sings. I’d love to share a stage with him. And just to have the experience of sharing the stage with Paul McCartney would be an amazing thing. The Beatles were the first music that I truly loved when I was very young. They have a huge influence on me. We also played a lot of Beatles music on the 1988 tour with Frank. It didn’t make it to the albums due to copyright and publishing reasons, but we played I Am The Walrus, Strawberry Fields Forever, Norwegian Wood and Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds on that tour. To play music that I love with Frank, who I loved playing with was a real meeting of worlds for me.

Frank was smart as he would really surprise people when he busted out a cover with an excellent arrangement. He just wanted to blow minds! They weren’t just played ad hoc; they were well prepared and Frank wanted to dedicate some of the real estate of his setlist to another composers work. He chose those songs very specifically. It was a blast watching the audience response to these arrangements.  

Do you feel like Frank would have approved of MFTJ in the way that it is cut together and pushes the boundaries using technology?

Yeah. He died in 1993 but he was on the cusp of it with his synclavier work, which is still some of the most mind blowing digital audio work that anyone has ever done. He would have been fascinated with the prospect of music technologies. We’ve been robbed as a world of the fact that we weren’t able to hear how Frank would have utilised modern technology in recording. I think he would find MFTJ valuable. He wasn’t necessarily dance oriented but if you listen to Night School off Jazz From Hell, or even some of stuff off Civilization Phaze Three, he understood the importance of relentless groove. Some of the stuff on side two of Mothers Of Prevention…there’s a forward propulsion that keeps things moving no matter how insane the harmonic and rhythmic content gets. There’s a continuity. He always said that composition was about contrast; taking two opposing objects and super imposing them to get a certain effect. This is why he didn’t like soloing over shifting chord structures. He preferred a static environment so he could weave a melodic rhythmic thing over the top that responded in specific ways over the framework. That’s the rub between the unexpected and constant.

Are you working on anything different apart from MFTJ at the moment?

I’m working on two separate Devin Townsend records. There’s a composer called Bear McCreary who did scores for Battlestar Galactica and The Walking Dead. He’s a brilliant composer. He has me very busy. I’m also co-producing an album by post rock fusion trio called The Android Trio. They’re amazing players. I’m trying to finish a solo album that will be my first in five years. I’ve done over thirty solo albums and I never think I need to add to it but now I’m in the mood and I have the home studio. Since I’ve had the studio my time has been dedicated to other peoples projects though, which I am very grateful for, believe me. There’s also another composer named Steve McAllister who is a friend, and he hires different musicians to play on his stuff. He’s hired me and Dave Gregory from XTC, one of my favourite people from one of my favourite bands. I did an album with Andy Partridge almost ten years ago called Wingbeat Fantastic  and most of the songs me and Andy wrote together. My love for XTC is on a par with The Beatles.

There’s a lot of stuff going on and I’m trying to keep all the balls in the air, as well as promoting the MFTJ album. I’m very thankful to Scott for his work and his ability to take my improvisations and compositions and use them in the way he does. It’s exciting and satisfying. I’ve never done anything quite like this, getting into the microcosmic aspects of playing.

Our thanks goes to Mike Keneally for his valuable time. Read our review of the MFTJ album, here.

MFTJ: Website / Facebook

Mike Keneally: Website / Patreon / Twitter / Facebook / Instagram

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