Four Decades of Bill Kirchen
By Nick Schwab
It has often been said that no man can do well at something that he doesn’t love. It should almost be a law or even a divine mandate in the self-help guide to living a well-lived life.
This is evident when talking to roots-rocker Bill Kirchen. It is apparent that he does not like being a musician … instead … he loves it.
It also is evident when talking to him that he dedicated his life to it, having been a musician since shortly after receiving his first Telecaster guitar from a co-worker while working as a motorcycle messenger in San Francisco in 1969.
“My longevity is because I’ve just kept keeping on,” explains Kirchen about his career path. “I’ve been lucky enough to navigate [career detriments] for a good four decades now.”
Music is a career path that can be likened to one big giant hurdle every step of the way. No prior concert or album means much when creating something new, since one always has to start from scratch, and the old works may even work as a barrier to your audience when they hear or choose not to hear your new projects.
Therefore, if the music industry were an institution, many musicians would have dropped out by their junior year.
Kirchen describes that the high dropout rate in this field is because music is not a definite career path.
“I don‘t think you can study it in college and march on down to the recruitment table for a job,” he says.
Starting in the late 1960s with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, Kirchen has persisted on with his heart as well as his soul, and has achieved what many simply don’t have the initial knack for: a full-time job.
“I caught the public eye at a time when the roots rock n’ roll and country that interested me was not generally available,” he said. “I had the opportunity to turn people on to music that I loved, and at the same time help create a sound with a wide blend of influences.”
Yet, despite Kirchen sometimes being referred to as a progressive artist, he does not really think of it that way. Instead, he is a little averse to the term artist as it seems pretentious to him.
“I don’t generally refer to myself as an artist. Musician, yes, entertainer, certainly, but producing art is really not my primary objective,” he states.
Despite Commander Cody’s once being thought of as a rebellious band due to its counterculture attitudes, Kirchen does not think of himself like that, or even outside of popular culture.
“A rebel to me means actively opposing something. I’m just trying to embrace the music I like, not hassle you about your tastes,” he states, then continues about the culture aspect, “I’m not outside of popular culture. I entertain, which is what Lady Gaga does. I just have a smaller demographic.”
Kirchen has also had a solo career since about the early 1990s, and he tells how his song writing has changed through the ages:
“When I first started writing, it was for and in the specific vibe of the Commander Cody band. I can still write like that and I do occasionally, but I also have the luxury of writing songs that are a little closer to the bone. For instance, ‘Rocks Into Sand’ is a pro-evolution song … the more you learn, the more that opens up ahead. It’s never ending,” describes Kirchen about both songwriting and instrumentation.
Kirchen hopes he will give his audience times they can cherish, but he hopes they will make up their own minds about his music, instead of following common tastes or popular opinions.
“I would like to leave songs, recordings and memories that people enjoy,” he says. “But, there’s no thought police,” he jokingly adds.
When asked if he regrets anything in his career, he gives an honest and hopeful answer.
“Very few regrets. There are a few people that I wish that I had paid more attention to when I had the chance,” he admits. “But they all led me to where I am today, which I’m comfortable with.”
At the end of the interview, he adds some advice to aspiring musicians to help better their craft, and perhaps help them have a long career in music. “Learn from others, but find your own voice,” he advises. “Do what I do, get in front of an audience and, just for today, try not to suck.”
(Bill Kirchen & Too Much Fun will play at the Canal Street Tavern on April 29th. Doors open at 7, the show starts at 8:30 and tickets are $15. For more information visit www.canalstreettavern.com.)
Reach DCP freelance writer Nick Schwab at NickSchwab@DaytonCityPaper.com.