Interview: Bill Kirchen’s real country for hippies by “The Titan of The Telecaster”

How Pete Townshend helped Bill Kirchen get his first Telecaster and working with the UK’s Nick Lowe.

Bill Kirchen is one of the legends of americana due to his time with genre-defining band Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, his work with the UK’s own Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello, and his own solo career. He was one of the few guitarists who came of age in the ‘60s who favoured the Telecaster which was in decline as far as the new rock music was concerned at the time. Guitar Player magazine subsequently named Kirchen “The Titan of The Telecaster”. UK americana fans have the opportunity to see Bill Kirchen in action as he tours here during July. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Bill Kirchen over Zoom to talk about his affection for the UK and the story behind his compilation albums ‘The Proper Years’ and ‘Waxworks – The Best Of The Proper Years’ and what it will be like having his UK label boss as his drummer for the tour. Kirchen also recounts how he first met Nick Lowe at a Commander Cody gig at Dingwalls in the ‘70s and how Brinsley Schwarz covered Commander Cody’s cover of cult rockabilly artist Ronnie Self’s ‘Home In My Hand’. He also explains how Pete Townshend was indirectly responsible for him getting his first Telecaster. While humour has always been part of Bill Kirchen’s songwriting he names his favourite composition as the pro-evolution paean ‘Rocks Into Sand’ from ‘Hammer of The Honky Tonk Gods’ as one of his personal favourites.

How are you?

OK, apart from the three-figure heat we’ve had for over six days. It is over 100 degrees in Fahrenheit and I haven’t a clue what that is in centigrade, but it is real hot, real hot.

How did you cope with the pandemic?

First off it was interesting because I hadn’t ever been home for six consecutive months, much less two years, I’d always been on the road for part of the time but my marriage stayed intact, which was good, haha. I did do a lot of Livestreaming, I put up an hour and forty-five minute Livestream every two weeks. I had a lot of things come in with people wanting me to do this or that. We called the Livestream ‘The Cabin Fever Reliever’ and it was real nice because I would get a core audience and then different people every two weeks. The audience would also talk amongst themselves which was also nice because it was like there was a little community out there, and it got that when I was looking at my little iPhone camera I could sense the people out there and I was connecting with them which was good. My friend Blackie Farrell was online, and they were like, hey it’s Blackie, he wrote ‘Mama Hated Diesels’, and they would just chat amongst themselves. That was really an important part of the pandemic, and I managed to get through all of it without getting COVID, but in December last year and then two months ago, I got it twice. At least I waited until the virus had worn down a little, haha.

All those years ago in San Francisco, there was Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, Asleep At The Wheel, and Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, all playing retro roots music. Was Commander Cody a country rock band or were you a very good country band who had snuck in there with the hippies?

I was a card-carrying hippie, but I loved country music and we did play country music and we didn’t try to happify the country music, except we might have sung about pot and stuff like that, you know, we had ‘Seeds and Stems (Again)’ instead of ‘The Bottle Let Me Down’. We really tried to sing and play country, including the old honky-tonk stuff and western swing, things that weren’t necessarily in vogue at the time. We were a hippy band but we were trying to play good country music. We learned as fast as we could, that’s for sure. We met some great people, and I was just talking to Andy Stein recently about a show we did in maybe ’69 or ’70 with a lot of members of The Texas Playboys, Bob Wills’ band, out there in California. I think Joe Holley the fiddler was there, and we did a show with mandolin player Tiny Moore one time, and that was good because we really tried to meet our idols, not necessarily the big stars but the people who made great music.

Do you ever get sick of playing ‘Hot Rod Lincoln’, which comes from the early days of Commander Cody?

I’m almost embarrassed that I’m not sick of playing it, haha. It is not that I have this angst-ridden catalogue that I feel I must shove down your throat, I’m an entertainer and that is a great song, and it is made all the more fun by the impressions in the middle. I love playing it, and it works, so it is good to have that in your quiver, so to speak, haha. I just love playing it and I pretty much do it every gig which is fine with me.

What drew you to the Telecaster which in the late ‘60s, it wasn’t the guitar of choice for most guitarists at the time?

It was the cheap one, you know, haha. I started out with Commander Cody with an acoustic guitar with a pick-up, and I bought a Gibson SG from John Tichy my fellow guitarist who was kind of the original guitarist because Commander Cody was in his band in 1962, which shows how far back that relationship went. So I had a Gibson SG but the people I loved, the guys on the Buck Owens and Merle Haggard records, and as it turns out the guy on the Red Simpson records probably didn’t have a Tele though that twang sounded like a Tele to me, haha. I was in San Francisco in ’68 doing the last job I ever had, I was a motorcycle messenger delivering blueprints, and I would sit on a bench with another messenger waiting for orders to come in, and he had just seen your boy Pete Townshend smash up a red SG and he wanted one and I had one. He had a Telecaster and I wanted one to be like James Burton, Roy Nicholson, and Don Rich, and that is how I got into Teles. I stuck it out, none of that fancy stuff for me, haha.

You don’t use many effects either, do you?

I have a loud button for when we are playing rock & roll just to get that bit extra when things are going haywire in a good way, and I have a delay but I don’t use much other than that. The delay just gives it some texture, I don’t use it for a rockabilly type delay, so yeah, not too many effects. I didn’t get a pedal board until I was 50, I’m a slow learner and I still don’t know what they do, haha.

You’ve also had a long successful solo career, and you have recently released a compilation album, ‘The Proper Years’, how involved were you in the process?

The CD package was two CDs that comprised my solo records on Proper Records, and Malcolm Mills put it out on The Last Music Company as ‘The Proper Years’. That was easy, because it was just those three albums and he moved it over to his label, and for the LP we put out called ‘Wax Works – The Best Of The Proper Years’ the tracks were selected from those two CDs. We sat in the van last time we toured, and we were in Norway I think, and Malcolm and I decided what the order should be and what the songs were going to be. That was also pretty easy because they were all original songs that I had written and one Bob Dylan song. That sort of narrowed it down, and we decide what to leave out, and Malcolm Mills has been extremely valuable, and he is a buddy as well, so that’s good.

He is also your European drummer as well, isn’t he?

Haha, I know what’s not to like with a guy like that.

Can you still tell him off if he drops the beat?

Malcolm, please….., haha. He has heard it all, and it is great to see his collection of music posters. I think he and Paul Riley were both on stage together at a Jimi Hendrix show in Croydon, there were so many people there they both got crowded-up to standing on the stage, asses to elbows, haha, and that was in the mid-’60s.

Paul Riley has his own musical history with Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers and the Balham Alligators.

Yeah, I met him when he engineered an album I made for Demon Records by The Moonlighters, and Nick Lowe produced and Paul was the engineer so we got to know each other then. We then later toured with Nick together.

The Moonlighters were a great band who should have been bigger than they were, why do think that was the case?

I don’t know, I’m surprised when anything works, haha. It is hard to say, and I really don’t complain about that because I never made a business plan and then watched it fail or succeed, I’ve always preferred to get in the canoe and just go downstream in it. If it doesn’t turn into something so be it, but on the other hand, it didn’t change the world but it was another stepping stone in people’s careers letting people play and do what we love to do. It was great working with Nick, a wonderful experience and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’d forgotten it wasn’t a big giant hit until you said that, haha. I have such great memories of it I have no sense of that whatsoever, working with Nick and Paul, and then Austin DeLone who I still work with, and who is on all my Proper records. Austin is the reason we were there because he knew Nick Lowe from the old days.

That would be from when his time with Eggs Over Easy. Commander Cody was very influential with the London pub rock bands and you’ve played with Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello over the years.

Yeah, I’ve played with Elvis off and on and he has always been keen to let me know how very well aware he was of us, which is nice, you know. I’m glad we didn’t scare him off being a musician, haha. I remember coming over to the UK and we met some of those guys, I met Nick when we played Dingwalls, and he mention he learnt Brinsley Schwarz’s  ‘Home In My Hand’ the Ronnie Self song from something I’d sung on the flip side of ‘Hot Rod Lincoln’, just stuff like that. The first gig we played in London was the Hammersmith Odeon, and I remember people coming up and saying they were sure Mick and Kieth were coming to play, haha. That was something people used to say at any point in time in those days.

You’ve written quite a few songs over the years, how do you approach your songwriting and how do you get that nice balance of humour in your lyrics, which is not gentle but also not vicious?

Thank you for saying that because for the humour stuff I grew up listening to Gilbert and Sullivan, and also some British humour like The Goons which got through to us, so I’ve always liked a good gag and funny songs and I’ve always liked The Smothers Brothers in the States. I’ve never wanted to be like, this is serious, and I’ve always wanted to keep it light. Rock & Roll is for kids.

No matter how old we are.

That’s right, haha. One thing that happened was I went to make a record with Nick, the first Proper record called ‘Hammer of The Honky Tonk Gods’ with Geraint Watkins, Austin DeLone, and Paul produced it, and at that point, I went I can’t just write a bunch of I’m a truck driver songs, I can’t really do that. I mean, I have enough of those, haha, but I should really try to write something closer to the bone so I did try to write songs that were a little more serious. They weren’t too bad, just a little serious, haha.

What are your favourite self-written songs?

Well, I really like ‘Rocks Into Sand’ which is not typical of what I write, it is my pro-science, my pro-evolution song. At that point in time, there was a rise in the right in the US and along with that came anti-science and science deniers. I like that song and I love playing it, I like the melody and stuff. On the other hand, I love ‘Too Much Fun’ a song I wrote with Billy C. Farlow almost fifty years ago, that is just the other thing, the rockabilly stuff, I’m this guy who does this shit, you know. So, I like them both. I never thought about it in those terms, you scared me, haha.

What is the difference between a show with your UK band of Malcolm and Paul, and one with your American band?

Well sure there is a difference, but I don’t really know how to put my finger on it. It is not very different, we’ve all listened to the same stuff. I don’t know how to describe it, but there is a little bit of a difference but not so much that I feel I need to change what I do. Maybe it is a little bit more rock & roll but that is not really fair because they all do that. I don’t really know the answer you’ve stumped me, it is different but it is a good different. They are both good, I like both groups, and I don’t know whether it is because of the pond in between and the different nationalities involved. That is a good question, I want to think about that now, haha. I going to turn round in the middle of the show next time I’m in England and go OK guys, what are you doing, haha.

You still play occasional sessions.

Yeah, I play some but not a whole lot. I shouldn’t really be talking about this because it’s not out until the spring, but we’ve made an album with the surviving Lost Planet Airmen. We were doing some shows out in California so that was fun being back in the studio doing that, and I’ve done some sessions for other people. Lately, I’ve been doing that from home with my home recording studio and that works pretty well. I started doing that with Paul Riley when we’d finished up recording what we could in England, and I went home and added some vocals, some with my wife, and I dubbed some guitar and that worked fine because of the technology. I can’t tell you of any great sessions I’ve done recently, I can’t report that but I wish I could, haha.

Your last album was ‘Transatlanticana’ with Austin DeLone. As you’ve said you’ve worked with Austin a lot over the years so why was this a duo recording, what was different this time?

We’ve done so much together, and actually Audie and I had done a lot of work as a duo back when we both lived in Mill Valley, California, and I think we called ourselves the New Beatles at one point, haha. I really admire his songwriting and he is a tremendous player and singer, and it was a no-brainer to me just to get together, and rather than just make him my sideman on my records which I didn’t think was fair, or me be his sideman on his records which I love doing as well, it was nice having us both picking and choosing what we want to do. So yeah, it came off good.

There was a Dylan cover on that album as well if I remember right.

Yeah, I think ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ was on that one. I did the rock & roll arrangement of it when I was excited about the run-up to Obama’s election, that’d when I kind of arranged it in that way but that seems a very long time ago. I don’t want to be a pessimist because I don’t see an upside to being a pessimist, but it is a struggle not to be about the political outcome. Things do ebb and flow, they swing both ways so I’m hoping for the best.

If we could go back to San Francisco in the late ‘60s and meet your younger self, what would you say?

That is a great question, haha. It would be nice to see that, I think I would say you are doing good, and the other thing I might say is to watch out for the drugs and alcohol because you have no idea, haha. I would go back and hear some of the stuff I was playing, there is a recent record that Owsley’s estate put out of us opening for the Grateful Dead in 1969. I was just 21 back then and we were up for some good stuff, my heart was in the right place so I would just say go get them, and don’t cut your hair man, haha. That is a nice question, I haven’t thought about that.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums, or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

I’m listening to Chuck Prophet, and I decided to go back to some of the songwriters I’ve missed, like I didn’t listen to much Sturgill Simpson when he first came out, I don’t know why so I’m catching up with him. I had a chance to write some stuff with Big Al Anderson and I’ve been going back and catching some of the stuff he did with the World Famous Headliners and under his own name. I will always chase some rabbit hole on YouTube, you know, some old stuff that I love. I was listening to some classical music, which I haven’t done for a long time, because of Ukraine. I was listening to Dvořák that I played as a kid when I was a classical trombonist, but that is not usual, I don’t often do that. Every now and then I will go on a John Prine kick because what’s not to like. I tend to be listening more to songwriters lately, I love acoustic blues, Mississippi John Hurt, Son House and stuff like that.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?

I love it over there, and my mother’s two sisters married two English men before the war and I grew up with packages from England every Christmas with model Jaguars, and the Eagle Annual, Christmas pudding and cricket bats and everything. I’m an Anglophile, and I cherish every chance I get to get over there. All I can say is here is my promise to you, I promise to try not to suck, haha. That’s about all you can do.

Have you ever sucked?

I’m sure I have, but I can conceal it when it happens, gloss over it, sleight of hand, haha. I’m really looking forward to the tour, I’m with a great group of people to work with. I drink English tea at home now, I’ve been converted to Yorkshire Tea, but you can’t get good biscuits for it over here, but you can get McVities sometimes. This really feels central to what I’ve been doing lately because this is where I made my last three or four albums really, and playing with these guys over here on ‘Transatlanticana’, though I also had some American musicians on it. It really feels like home to what I’m doing. Of course, I play more in The States, but just to be back here with the people I made the records with is a really cool thing to do. I also hope to see some of my old pals in England because I’ve been going over there for fifty years, I suppose. It is quite a formidable tour, Malcolm is working me like a rented mule, haha. Mind you he’s the drummer so he works harder than I do, I just stand there and twiddle on the skinny strings, haha.

Bill Kirchen’s ‘The Proper Years’ and ‘Waxworks – The Best Of The Proper Years’ are out now on The Last Music Company Ltd.

About Martin Johnson 399 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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Andy Trott

Lovely interview Martin, with a fella who has to be one of the most affable Legends around. So looking forward to seeing him again in Bristol next week.

[…] music stretching all the way back to the 1960s. Whilst he told AUK’s Martin Johnson in a recent interview, that he never tires of playing the song, tonight showed beyond all doubt that Bill Kirchen is […]