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Friday, March 12, 2010

A Funky Elegance: Bill Kirchen at Six String Cafe tonight

Posted by on Fri, Mar 12, 2010 at 8:17 PM

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It’s not a stretch to describe Bill Kirchen as one of the music world’s Zeligs. There he is back in his Ann Arbor, Mich., childhood in a school picture with Bob Seger and James “Iggy Pop” Osterberg, Jr. That’s him, Fender Telecaster in hand, in the team photos for Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen and for proto-new wavers (found in that big tent’s roots-revival corner) the Missing Moonlighters. Shots of Doug Sahm, Emmylou Harris, and Elvis Costello in a studio or on a stage would reveal Kirchen, guitar still smoking, nearby. Spot him backing Nick Lowe as an Impossible Bird, and then spot Lowe backing Kirchen on the latter’s 2007-released Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods, a genre-hopping gem. You can even catch his name in a George Pelecanos book.

Of course, the difference between Zelig and Kirchen is that Woody Allen’s fictitious chameleon was a passive bystander. Kirchen, while as unassuming as they come, is always right in the middle of the action. And with a new record due in May and a busy touring schedule, he clearly intends to stay there for as long as possible.

A standard Q&A phone call quickly turned into a roaming conversation between two music geeks—one just happened to be the King of Dieselbilly, a gent once described by Lowe as “a devastating culmination of the elegant and funky,” and one of the best guitarists in the land (the other decidedly none of those things). Below are just a few of the things Kirchen had to say.

On the (over)categorization of music…

Even when I was coming up in the ‘60s, there were issues like that. I was big involved in folk. I went to the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 and 1965, and although they did have bluegrass and old-timey music, there was a distinction drawn between the two, which I think is rather artificial. And there were camps: people did like clawhammer banjo and didn’t like three-finger picking. It’s like (in a pretty good teen-girl voice), whatever! [Laughs.] So, it’s ever been thus, I think. The saving grace now is there’s so much available. XM and the proliferation of different ways to download music, legal and illegal. So that being said, now there’s probably more access to a larger variety of music than any time in the past. For better and for worse. Some of the stuff you wish you didn’t have access to. [Laughs.] “How did I get the Suck Channel?”

On how Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen were described and how they described themselves…

That’s an interesting question. I almost can’t remember, you know. There are terms now that are in vogue that weren’t in vogue then. For instance, I consider us kind of an early Americana band, but there was no talk of that (at the time). As a matter of fact, we kind of ran afoul of that. For a while, in the early ‘70s, Dot and Paramount were the two sides of our record company. We were putting out what we considered rock and roll records on Paramount and what we considered country records on Dot. Well, that all came to a screeching halt when we put on our third album a song called “Everybody’s Doing It Now,” which prominently featured—I think the F word showed up 87 times…. So that ran us out of country music, essentially. They slammed the door on us in Nashville. We were already suspect because we had long hair and we sang some overtly seeds-and-stems type lyrics. Where am I going with all—oh yeah, labels. I don’t know what they called it. There was always a temptation just to list a bunch of genres. We considered we played Western swing and boogie woogie and some straight-up swing and rhythm & blues and rockabilly. Have I successfully skirted the question? Danced around it?

On his continuing to play so many styles of music…

I just like all these different kinds of music. I not only like ‘em, I love ‘em. I’ve never made a conscious attempt to hit all the bases, but I think just when I’m picking or writing songs, they just come out in those different ways. That’s really all I can say about that. As a matter of fact, when you said that to me [I’d rattled off the styles present and accounted for on Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods, a list ranging from country-soul and rockabilly to r&b and primal rock], I had to stop and think, “Oh yeah, he’s right. There are all those different genres.” And, at least today, I hadn’t really thought of. Certainly, you’re right; it comes as no surprise. But I don’t think in those terms usually. To me, that’s all kind of in the palette of what I enjoy. I certainly don’t want to pretend that those distinctions don’t exist. I try to honor some of the conventions of those genres. But I’m also not a, what would you call it, historical purist for what I’m trying to do. I’m not trying to say, “No, they didn’t use an electric bass back in 1940...”

On Arthur Alexander and the blurring of styles…

He was one of the more country of the soul singers. And he was at the ground floor of the Beatles. The Beatles owed a debt to Arthur Alexander. [Among other things, they covered Alexander’s “Anna.”] So he had a big foot in the door of pop music there, but he was also a soul singer. He’s a great example of that, of the blurring. Then there’s stuff like the swamp pop scene of the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Texas, and even San Antonio. Doug Sahm, he would call it “the West Side sound,” but it was essentially the same. The same artists doing what they’d call swamp pop in Louisiana. And there, for me, it was the last place – I had no idea whether I was listening to a black or a white artist. And that’s kind of cool. They’d take those 6/8 ballads and those country tunes and mix them all up. Then you had a guy like Johnnie Allan doing “Promised Land,” which is just a great record.

On his new record…

It’s coming out May 22. It’s going to be done this Monday, and the publicity machine is gonna put it out to all the mags and whatnot. It’s pretty interesting. It’s got everybody—I used to say everybody in the past who’s not dead yet, but unfortunately one of the guys passed away. It’s all the people I’ve played with through the years, well a lot of them. The person who passed away was Norton Buffalo, the wonderful harmonica player. I’ve got Nick Lowe and Paul Carrack doing a song. I’ve got Elvis Costello singing one of my tunes. I do a duet I wrote with Maria Muldaur. I wrote a song with Dan Hicks. Pretty cool record. We’re in the throes of it right now.

Bill Kirchen and his band play at the Six String Café on Friday, March 12, at 8 p.m. The Taters open. Tickets for the 8 p.m. show cost $15.

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