Talkin’ About Seeds And Stems And Pickin’ (And Chicken) With Bill Kirchen
Since achieving liftoff as a founding member of Commander Cody’s Lost Planet Airmen back in the late 1960s, guitarist Bill Kirchen has been making his own brand of music, flattening the boundaries between country, rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, rockabilly – you name it – and grinning the whole time. What’s more, Kirchen’s weapon of choice has been the Telecaster – a guitar looked upon by some as limited in its sonic capabilities. Bill Kirchen has made a career out of proving that theory wrong, taking Leo Fender’s classic that was “born at the junction of form and function” to places way out there.
Kirchen’s newest album is called Seeds And Stems, offering a mix of originals, covers, and reworked old favorites We had the opportunity to talk with the man that Guitar Player named a “Titan Of The Telecaster” about Seeds And Stems, go-to axes, saving the world, and having too much fun.
BR: Bill, let me start off with a couple of thank-yous. First, thanks for many years of great tunes.
BK: Awww … well thank you. I just never decided what to do when I grew up, that’s all. (laughter)
And thank you for the inspiration to spin the control plate on my Esquire around to get that 3-way pickup switch away from my flailing right hand.
Oh, yeah! (laughs) I’m sure I saw someone do it and that’s where I got the idea. But I’ve been doing it so long now that it just seems right to me. That’s the only place that I have the inkling of an idea that I’m doing something better than Leo Fender did. (laughter) You have an Esquire? That’s cool, man.
Yeah, it’s a long story. I’d gone many years without an electric – just acoustics – but my wife surprised me on our anniversary with one of Fender’s ‘50s Reissue Esquires.
Oh, cool! You married well!
Oh, I know it.
That’s lovely man – I would’ve burst into tears.
Yeah, well … I was a mess, no doubt about it. (laughter)
Oh, good for you. I’ve often thought that I’d like to have an Esquire, but I’m kind of a middle-pickup guy. I’m just getting brave enough now to use just the bridge pickup if I can tame the thing. (laughs) I mean, let’s face it: the Telecaster is already stripped-down and the Esquire is like the hot rod version of that.
That’s right! (laughter) Okay, okay – we need to get focused on the new album here, ‘cause I could talk guitars with you all night.
Right, right – let’s bear down.
You got it. So … on Seeds And Stems … what was your go-to guitar?
There we go – now we’re focused! (laughter) That would’ve been my pine Tele with the Don Mare pickups. Rick Kelly made it out of 150-year-old pine – pine body and a pine neck with no truss rod. It’s as light as a feather. There’s a cool video that StewMac did of my buddy Dan Erlewine and I talking about it [see next page].
How about amps on the album?
I do have a go-to amp, but I didn’t have it in the studio for the sessions. I borrowed a friend’s Deluxe Reverb Reissue for a lot of the songs; I think I also used a 2×12 Hot Rod Deluxe on a few things … we went with whatever was around, you know?
When I got home, I would’ve used my Blackface Princeton with a 12” speaker and my Deluxe for any overdubs, but we actually didn’t do many on the electric stuff.
Which leads to the next question: there’s also some lovely acoustic guitar on the album. What did you use there?
On “Seeds And Stems” and “Swing Fever” I used a 1930s L-7 Gibson – not the huge one, it’s the smaller one. I think it was an L-7 … hang on – I got it right here … I can look in the hole.
Uhhh … I can’t see it. It says it’s a guitar, though! I like that. (laughter) Anyway, this Gibson and my Martin mid-60s 00-18 were my go-to acoustics.
There’s a great mix of originals and covers and rearranged Kirchen classics on Seeds And Stems. How’d you pick the tunes?
You know, it was easy, really: they were tunes that bubbled to the top of the soup pot – stuff from the live show that has lasted. We had to take a list of maybe 18 from the list of songs that have been the most requested at the live shows and whittle them down. Which was nice – we let the people do the choosing, you know?
Exactly. And if I have the story right, you and the band – bassist Maurice Cridlin and drummer Jack O’Dell – went into the studio hot in the middle of a UK tour, correct?
Yeah, we dovetailed it in between occasions in the middle of the tour. We showed up over there and the guy from Proper Records said, “Why don’t you guys do a studio record while you’re over here?” We had a lot of hours logged in together as a band and we wanted to take advantage of that tightness that you only get from doing that.
So that’s exactly what we did – mornings, afternoons, days off – whenever there was a chance during the tour.
A lot of driving, too – we were staying about an hour and a half or two hours away from the studio, so we spent a lot of time bouncing around in a van.
On the wrong side of the road, on top of that.
I know! It’s crazy the way they do that. (laughter)
How about we talk a few specifics about some of the tunes?
I was tickled to hear “Too Much Fun” – that goes right back to where it all began, doesn’t it?
Yeah, that was a real early song that Billy Farlow and I wrote. Hey, I just want to tell you that I’m sorry we didn’t do “Tombstone Every Mile”.
Ha! “Tombstone Every Mile” was one of Dick Curless’ big hits – he’s one of our heroes up here in Maine from wayyyy back.
Yeah! That’s what I was thinking. I met his son when I played up there in Bangor years ago. The first album I ever made, that was the title track: “Tombstone Every Mile”. I’m a huge Dick Curless fan, man – I loved him.