By Jennifer Powell (Photo/Barry Toranto)
To say they have gravitas is like saying Bill Kirchen plays the guitar, and Austin de Lone plays the piano. The two men, who have been friends and collaborators for 40 years, are known as musical treasures and fantastic players for what they describe as “roots-conscious” times.
Kirchen and de Lone are widely credited as pioneers of two major musical movements. Kirchen — the “Titan of the Telecaster” — co-founded the original Americana band, Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen, as his trademark guitar licks drove their hit “Hot Rod Lincoln” into the Top 10 in 1972.
De Lone — “Godfather of Pub Rock” — dropped out of Harvard to start his band Eggs Over Easy, moving to London and recording with Jimi Hendrix’s producer in 1970. The Eggs are credited with being the predecessor of British pub rock, the first link in the chain to punk, new wave and beyond.
The superlatives and praise have piled up ever since, with Johnny Cash’s praise for Kirchen, “I think he’s great,” at the very top. Kirchen has written for, played and toured with, among others, Nick Lowe and Emmy Lou Harris, while de Lone has worked with Elvis Costello.
The duo’s tightly crafted new album “Transatlanticana” is a gem well worth a listen in advance of their concert next month at The Birchmere.
Relective of their reputations and longtime ties with the UK music scene, these sessions were helped by all-star friends on both sides of the pond. Crafted by Kirchen and de Lone, at least two of the songs have been in the hopper for 20 years and represent the core elements of Americana music — R&B, country, rock and even gospel.
The men recently took time to talk about their tour.
Alexandria Times: Thank you for gifting us with this great album, “Transatlanticana,” to listen to.
de Lone: That’s the reaction we like.
Kirchen: Hard to pronounce. I just did a radio show where the DJ wouldn’t say [the title]. He’d have me say it the whole time.
The compiling of songs includes some that were written many years ago.
de Lone: That’s what we do.
Kirchen: Austin’s a good old buddy of mine. We’ve always collaborated, but never formally like this and that feels good.
How do you prepare for the upcoming tour while in two different states?
Kirchen: We recorded a lot of it together so that [prepar- ing] sort took care of itself. My rhythm section was on half the record, so we’ve done some rehearsing here.
The only way to get our schedules together is by flying to Utah a day early. So two days will be our only real rehearsal. But we have played together so much in the past.
We’ve been friends since the 70s, band mates with the Moonlighters back in the 70s and have toured together, so we have a lot of connection and know what the other guy will do. It’s a real treat. We’ve put a lot of time in together so it’s going to be nothing but fun.
Who will be backing you on tour?
Kirchen: The Transatlantic side, the U.S. side of the Atlantic, and that is Rick Richards and David Carroll. They’ve been my band now in Texas and on most of my touring for three years now. I am very excited to bring both my Texas band and my California compadre to D.C.
Of course, The Birchmere is my home in D.C. That place has been so good to me. I played there with Commander Cody in the 70s. Now I play there three or four times a year and once a year at First Night Alexandria. I don’t play other local shows, I just concentrate on that.
We learned so much from the album’s song notes. Bill, you lived near here in Maryland and Texas is home now?
Kirchen: I lived there in Maryland from ‘86 on. I moved back here to Texas in 2012. There is a wonderful musical community here in Austin, but Washington, D.C. is really great too and perhaps more of a commercial scene. Of course, I miss my musician friends in D.C.
It sounds like you try to debunk the myth that Bob Dylan was booed at the New- port Music Festival when he “went electric”?
Kirchen: I didn’t catch any of that. It wasn’t a surprise that he had gone electric. He had a rock ’n’ roll record out already. My impression was that everybody loved it. I sure didn’t hear any booing.
Love the quote that [that concert] “pretty much ruined me for normal work.”
Kirchen: It did. Not just Dylan, but all the music I saw just inspired me so much. I hitchhiked [to Newport] from Ann Arbor twice. I’d go up to New York and see The Loving Spoonful in a little club.
Ann Arbor had all sorts of great music come through, like Bill Monroe and Odetta, the kind of music that is hard to grab these days. For better or for worse, a lot of music has gotten very homogenized.
Back then people were playing a lot of regionally specific music. Blues guys from Mississippi didn’t sound anything at all like the blues grass players from Virginia. Yeah, it was thrilling times.
Austin, What were you studying at Harvard?
de Lone: English. I was angling towards being a poet. So I changed my tune slightly. Well, added a tune would be more appropriate.
When I left Harvard, I went out to California to meet Alan Chance, a songwriting partner of mine, in ‘68, came back to New York in ‘69 and started my band with Jack O’Hara and Brian Hopkins.
Towards the end of ’70, we signed a contract with Canada Music Group, went to England and met Chas Chandler — Jimi Hendrix’s producer — and recorded an album with him.
For various contractual reasons, the Eggs Over Easy album was only recently released as a retrospective as we were credited for starting a movement called pub rock. It was the scene that set the stage for punk rock.
After a year in the UK, we came back to the U.S. and recorded an album for A&M records. After moving to Marin County, [Calif.] in ‘72, fairly shortly thereafter I met Kirchen.
Do you see yourself as vocalist, songwriter or primarily as keyboardist?
de Lone: I think of myself as a rock ‘n’ roller. Piano, guitar, sing, write, that’s me, that’s what I do. Most people would likely think of me first as a key- boardist and piano player, piano B-street player, not particularly a synthesizer player or imitation violin, that’s not my route.
Bill, can we talk about your guitar? As well rounded as you are as a songwriter and vocalist, it all starts with the guitar.
Kirchen: Well, I’m known probably first as a guitar player. The first mark I made was as guitar player on the hit “Hot Rod Lincoln” in 1972. I’m playing now on a guitar I’ve had for five years. It’s made by a guy in Manhattan out of salvaged old growth pine from the Bowery and lofts in New York that are being remodeled.
This is old, old pine — stuff that came down the Hudson River from the Adirondacks 150 years ago to build New York City. It ends up in my guitar and is from a loft that is owned by filmmaker Jim Jarmusch.
It’s a pine body and a pine neck. It’s the most lively thing that feels like it’s going to jump out of my hands sometimes, it’s so responsive.
I don’t think I’ll even bring a second guitar. Ninety-nine out of 100 [times] I use this guitar. I had to leave it on the East Coast recently for two weeks. I just got it back and it was a tearful reunion.
Some of the sounds you cre- ated are really inventive. We were trying to figure out the popping sound you made.
Kirchen: I would say that’s my one interesting feature. I really think that’s my one unique contribution to the literature of guitar, is that noise. I really came upon it by accident. It’s hard to describe. I put on an instructional video recently, and that’s one of the lessons in there, how I make that noise. Somebody asked me once how I did that, and I looked at my guitar and I went, “You know, I have absolutely no idea how I do that.” I had to stop and de- construct myself.
We were also really impressed with your wah-wah and slide.
Kirchen: That is all done with the tone knob and the volume knob on the guitar. I’m don’t use the wah-wah pedal and don’t use a slide. Whatever I do happens with my fingers on the guitar.
What would you like Alexandria to know about your upcoming show?
Kirchen: I have to say that Austin de Lone was a real musical mentor to me. He opened the door for me to let the power of the lyrics come out and to sing in my own voice.
I really do think that Audie is on the short list of fantastic musicians that I’ve ever met. I’m really thrilled to get him back to D.C. He played with me once before and got stuck for three days in a blizzard.
It’s always lovely for me to get to play for all my old friends and new friends in D.C. I was there for the better part of 25 years and it’s great to be back.
de Lone: I’ve played with Bill in lots of places, but The Birchmere is great. We’ll be running through the tunes from the album plus some others. I’m a big fan of Ray Charles, so I’ll do a couple of those.
Kirchen does all his fantastic country stuff. We do some wild and wooly Bob Dylan stuff. We expect to be untamed and have a good time.