Talkin’ About Seeds And Stems And Pickin’ (And Chicken) With Bill Kirchen
I had a copy of Dylan’s first album when I was 15 or so. I found one of those brown corduroy caps like he’s wearing on the cover and didn’t take it off for about a year.
Good for you, man – good for you! (laughs) Dan Erlewine – my buddy that I mentioned earlier – was one step ahead of me. We grew up together in Ann Arbor and he got the first Dylan album before anyone else in town did. And he got one of those hats, too! (laughter) You and Danny.
Listen: do you think if we could take all the world’s leaders, set them down in one place, and make them listen to “Truck Stop At The End Of The World” that it could straighten things out?
Oh, sure! (laughs) I think so. Here’s the problem: the world’s leaders simply haven’t thought things through, man. They haven’t done the math on what they messing around with. But that’s a good point – that song could … could … well, it could save the WHOLE WORLD! (laughter)
Super. We’ll put that out there and see if it catches on. Now, here’s another thought: I tried to do the quick math in my head to estimate how many times you’ve played “Hot Rod Lincoln” –
Oh, man … (laughs) I’ve probably played it … I guess you could safely say 200 times a year for 40 years, maybe? Sure. So that’s, what, 8000 times? I don’t know – I bet I’ve played it 10,000 times.
But when I hear it on this record, you guys are playing your asses off and having fun with it.
Oh, yeah! And people ask me, “Aren’t you sick of playing it?” And I almost feel guilty in a way that I’m not … it’s like if I was a real artist, I would be. (laughter)
But I’m totally not sick of it, and I’m delighted to have in my back pocket a song that people have loved for a long time. It’s a great song that’s tremendously fun to play.
It tickles me that on top of everything else you’re doing with all those quotes during “Hot Rod Lincoln” – everyone from Chuck Berry to Stevie Ray Vaughan to the Stones and Ray Charles – you’re doing it on what so many folks refer to as a “limited-sounding Telecaster.” You prove how wide of a range of sound can be drawn out of that beast.
That’s right – exactly. And there are a couple other side angles to that: first off, most of those sounds are being made by just a guitar plugged into an amp. Maybe by the time we hit the Stones and the Sex Pistols, I had an outboard distortion device going, but now I don’t remember.
Everybody worries about having millions of tones, but … if you have one good one, you’re ahead of 20 not-so-good ones, you know what I mean? You’re way ahead of that.
And then there’s the fact that so much tone is in your hands, as you and I both know. Your hands and your brain – that’s where the tone comes from. A Tele – or an Esquire – there’s a lifetime of tones there.
Exactly – just a fraction more of the tip of the pick out by the meat of your thumb …
That’s right! Right now, I use onboard reverb on the amp if I’ve got it; analog delay with a single repeat … just enough to give it some air. Sometimes I’ll have a clean boost; sometimes I’ll have something like a Tube Screamer for when the gloves are off and the subtleties are off and you’re just looking to kick it over the top one more notch. That’s all you need.
Doing the quotes during “Hot Rod Lincoln” and banging them out one right after the other, have you ever hit the wall, cracked yourselves up, and gone right into the weeds?
Once in a blue moon, the wheels will come off slightly – but it’s never been terminal. (laughter) Every now and then things will act like they’re starting to stall, but we roll on. There’s sort of an order, but there’s really no set order … I’ll mix it up just to make it so you’re up on two wheels with your fenders hitting the guardrails – just to keep it loose. (laughter)
I could certainly see paying tribute to BB King and Albert King and Freddie King and even Ben E. King … but when you got to the “Don King” moment, I said to myself, “He’s lost his mind right there.” (laughter) I mean, when you said that, what could you do? Grab a handful of hair?
Yeah, I played with one hand and grabbed a handful of hair with the other.
Not to mention Billy Jean King …
Yep. “His mind’s snapped like an old rubber band – it was bound to happen sooner or later, ladies and gentlemen …” (laughter)
“Talkin’ About Chicken”: I don’t know if there’s an award for combining filth and wholesomeness, but if there is, that song should win it, hands down.
I know! (laughs) Here’s the backstory on that: my wife Louise and I had been writing songs with Sarah Brown, who’s also a great bass player – she was the house bass player at Antone’s down in Austin, for one thing. Sarah had flown up to where we were living and we’d spent all day writing. My wife had bought us a chicken feed – one of those cooked chickens you get at the store, you know? We’d been eating this chicken all day and feeding the scraps to my dog and we’ve got a bunch of songs that we’ve done … and now we’re all exhausted and about to go to bed.
Sarah’s scratching my dog Rufus and she’s saying, “Boy, Rufus, this is your lucky day.”
And I said, “Yeah, you don’t usually get chicken.”
And Sarah says, “I was talking about the love.”
And I said, “Well, I was talking about the chicken.”
BOOM! We wrote that thing in about half an hour, minus the bridge – laughing hysterically the whole time, seeing who could come up with the naughtiest couplet. I think my wife won with “Stir the gravy until it starts to thicken.” (laughs)
All right, all right – that’s enough. I’m not going to pursue this line of questioning any further. Stop right there. (laughter) How did Jorma Kaukonen end up on that tune?
I teach at Jorma’s Fur Peace Ranch. I knew him back in the day when we used to do a lot of gigs with Hot Tuna and we used to pal around together a little bit. I hadn’t seen him for decades and about ten years or so ago he had me come up to the ranch to teach. Jorma’s a great guy – he has me up when they do the annual Beacon Theater show in New York. He’s fantastic.
When I started out on guitar, I was doing that sort of fingerpicking – wanting to be like John Hurt and all those guys. That style was always fascinating to me – and it was Jorma’s background, as well.
You’re right: I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing both he and Jack Casady … they’re just sweethearts.
You got it.
So you have plenty of shows coming up, as usual.
Oh, yeah. We’re working hard – we’re everywhere, man. I mean, last year we played gigs in Palestine and Lapland. (laughs) But it’s hard to get everywhere you’d like to.
I hear you … but get up here to Maine.
Ha! All right!
Bill, thank you for taking the time to do this today. Beyond the “official” part of this, it’s a big treat for me to get to talk to you.
Man, it’s great to talk to someone who’s obviously as passionate as I am about all this crazy shit. You never know who’s going to be on the phone, but this has been delightful for me, too. You’re a good egg.
Brian Robbins parks his semi-truck over at www.brian-robbins.com