Tony in the middle
From the Dils to Rank & File to Blackbird...
Interview by Scott Bass
Tony and brother Chip Kinman are like a two-headed musical chameleon. Originally known as leaders of a first-wave, first-class West Coast US Punk band, over the years the brothers have channeled their artistic vision into a variety of genre work. In this interview from 2001, Tony shares some insight on his natural transition from Communist Punker to Neo-Traditionalist Cowboy Rocker.
This interview originally appeared in MaximumRocknRoll #215, April 2001.
Q: Was the Dils the first band you guys were in? What's the story with how you formed?
TK: Yeah, the Dils was our first band. We got started in 1977 playing in Carlsbad, California. At the time, we had musical tastes that not too many people in our high school shared. We liked the New York Dolls and The Ramones and things like that. When we started playing together and writing songs, it all started happening. We started reading magazines, and buying singles by bands. We were reading about the Sex Pistols and realized, "hey this is Punk Rock! That's what this stuff is called!" When we first heard the Sex Pistols, that sounded like the New York Dolls to us -- a band we loved. So we realized that there was a kind of outsider movement happening that wasn't like anything else that was happening at the time. And there it was, it had a name, it was Punk Rock. A lot of people don't realize that back then, there was no place to play. All the nightclubs either had regular bands that were already signed, or they had local bands doing sets of covers. If you were a brand new band starting out and you were doing all your own material, there was literally no place to play.
Q: Calling yourselves Communists probably didn't help. Could you tell me a little bit about that? Were you guys making a serious political statement, or were you following Malcolm McLaren's lead from the ending days of the Dolls... when it was just for shock value?
TK: I actually was a Communist for about a year and a half. I bought the whole thing, had friends like Peter Urban who were into it, he was our first manager. Back then your manager was just a friend of the band. And we'd sit around and talk about all that stuff and theorize about it. When I wrote the songs, I tried to put a lot of that feeling into it.
Q: What happened after that year and a half?
TK: I bagged the whole Communism thing and became an agnostic Anarchist. After that, I just let all of that stuff go.
Q: Why did you use the Tony Nineteen moniker? Was it because your brother was in the band?
TK: Yeah, for some reason I thought the whole brother thing was weird. There were only three guys in the band so I thought it would be neat if we all had different names. That really only lasted for two weeks (laughs) and then I let it go, but Chip still calls me that, some friends still call me that.
Q: It's remained in the history books! I wanted to ask you about Jeff Scott who I guess never recorded with The Dils but I've read was your original singer; collectors know him from the records he made with the Hitmakers.
TK: Jeff was a high school buddy of mine and Chip. The stuff that me and Chip were writing just turned out to be in a different direction than what Jeff wanted to do. So Jeff left and formed the Hitmakers, and me and Chip started singing.
Q: So it was an artistic vision kind of thing... did you remain friends?
TK: Yeah we did I guess, but we never saw him anymore because we ended up moving to San Francisco.
Q: In 1978, you guys made a cameo in the infamous Cheech and Chong movie Up in Smoke. How did that happen?
TK: Our manager Peter was living up in L.A. and we were still living in Carlsbad... we had only played a gig or two at the time. He heard Rodney on the ROQ announce that Cheech and Chong were filming a movie at the Roxy and they needed Punk bands to be in it. So Peter called the number that Rodney gave out on the air to see what was happening and they said it was too late, that they had already booked like 40 bands. After that, Peter called us and said "why don't you drive up there anyhow and we'll see what we can do." So it was a real guerrilla movement kind of thing.
We drove up to L.A. and pulled up in front of the Roxy. There was a huge long line of bands already there with all of their gear, waiting to audition. We parked, got our gear out, and literally walked right up to the front where there was a production guy who said "OK, who's next?" We said: "We are." And we walked right in and set our stuff up. They filmed a lot of bands that day. We were onstage for a minute or two, and they had us sign release forms, and that was it. Our drummer at that time was Andre and we had never all played together onstage before. When we were playing, it was really loud and he couldn't hear anything. He was hitting his drums so hard to hear them that he actually drove his mounted tom through the mount on his drum set. He actually stopped halfway through and said that he couldn't hear anything, but the production guy just said to keep playing. So we just thrashed our way through it for a while. We were only playing for two or three minutes. It was fun. Then later we got checks in the mail and found out that we ended up in the movie.
Q: Big checks?
TK: They paid what was called "scale." It wasn't huge, but more money than we had ever seen. I think it was two or three hundred dollars apiece. It was fantastic. And all these years later, people still watch the movie.
Q: There's little doubt that every weekend thousands of potheads inadvertently get exposed to some Dils footage!
TK: I guess so.
Q: The Dils (and also the Avengers) often get cited as first wave West Coast bands that were tragically under-recorded.You guys had a lot of material that never got documented. Are there archives of unreleased material, or do you ever plan to record some of those old songs?
TK: Not really. The Dils was back then. It was really "of the moment." It was a time and a place. The reason we didn't record a lot back then was because back then recording to us wasn't that important. It wasn't about having a career, it was about punk rock revolution. I don't mean political revolution, I mean where everything in music changed, and everything got turned upside down. So for us, recording wasn't really very important. We never thought about making an album. Never. Every six or seven months we'd record a single, you know pick the two best songs of whatever we were playing at the time and record them. That's all we ever thought about.
Q: And now, what are there four Dils albums floating about?
TK: They're basically all of the singles put on a record with some live stuff. Most of it comes from live cassettes. It seems that every couple of months we get a call from someone that says "I've got some live stuff, do you mind if I put it out?" And we say "No, go ahead!"
Q: So you don't consider any of the albums out there bootlegs? Like the Last Goodbye LP?
TK: The thing is, if there are bootlegs out there, that's fine with me too. Sometimes the people call us up and ask permission, we've never said "No." I'm not sure how many albums there are. We get calls from Australia, England, all over. I'm sure there's some people that don't bother to call. That's OK, too. It wasn't about "a band making records." It was about Punk Rock Revolution. That's what it was. I've made a lot of albums since then, but at the time, that wasn't what it was about. It was about doing things differently, and death to rock stars and all that stuff.
Q: So how did the transition from the Dils to Rank and File work?
TK: It was such a drastic change in music direction that even though it broadened the audience, it totally changed the audience. When the Dils started in '77, there was probably only a dozen bands up and down the West Coast that were doing what came to be called "Punk Rock" or variations of that. But by the time 1980 was approaching there were just a really large number of bands out there, and to me the music was starting to get pretty bad. I was pretty disillusioned with the sameness of it all. It used to be when there were shows where the Nuns would play, the Zeros would play, we would play, the Avengers would play, and every band sounded different. They even looked different. It was fun and interesting; it was a creative, fun time. But it got to the point where we would play a show and there would be three or four other bands that all kinda sounded the same.
Plus at that time, I was writing different kinds of songs. I can even remember talking with Chip about it at the time and he said "hey why aren't you writing any fast songs or loud 'songs like we used to do'" and I just said "Chip, look at this, there's four other bands on the bill tonight where that's all they do... you've got these complete testosterone guys on stage and these drummers that are just robots just pounding it out, and it's all just kind of the same." It just got to be boring and no fun anymore. So the Dils broke up.
I moved up to Portland Oregon with my girlfriend at the time and didn't want to be in a band anymore. Chip moved to New York to start a band with Alejandro (Escovedo) of the Nuns. AI had quit the Nuns around a year before and had been already living in New York. So Chip moved there to start a band together. When the Nuns and the Dils were still together, we did a side project kind of thing with Al, me, Chip, Richie Detrick from the Nuns, and Jeff Rafael, the Nuns drummer. We had that side project and we called that Rank and File, we didn't sound like the Rank and File that we later put together, but that was what we were called. So when Chip moved to New York to play with Al, they started the other Rank and File with some other people. I was living in Portland doing my own thing, and they got this band together in New York and put together a little tour that came through Portland. This was around November of 1980. By this time, I had been in Portland for almost a year, I had had it, I had broken up with my girlfriend, and I was ready to get back in a band. So I got in the van with them and finished up the tour and ended up in New York. When we got back, Chip, and Al and I talked about it and decided that if we were serious about doing this kind of music, New York is the wrong place to do it. We needed to move somewhere where we could really do it, and so we decided to move to Austin. All of us had played in Austin before and really liked it. It was around April of 1981 that we moved to Austin.That's how the band started.
Rank and File
Q: Where did the new musical direction come from?
TK: Chip and I had always loved country music, we grew up listening to it. So it was something we wanted to do, plus it was an artistic challenge: among our peer group, country music was the last "uncool" music. It was just considered totally uncool. If you sat around and talk with people who had hip and sophisticated musical tastes, they liked rock and reggae, and even some rockabilly... but no country music. So we decided to go that direction, to work in that idiom. And of course bring whatever we had into it. We weren't trying to do cover version of old country songs like Hank Williams, I've always (thought) that was nowhere. If you're not going to contribute something to what you do. then you should probably be doing something else, because you are just taking up space.
Q: Comparatively Rank and File was much more successful than the Dils, right? I mean, you sold a lot of records...
TK: Definitely, that's true. What's interesting about the band is that our success was totally by mistake. We were playing in Austin, we were doing OK, we were drawing some people. Some nights we'd get a good draw, some nights we wouldn't. We were touring around a little bit. We were playing a show once in San Francisco, playing a show with a band called the Red Rockers... you remember them?
Q: Sure they did "Guns of Revolution," out of New Orleans, right?
TK: Right. They had been signed to Howie Klein's label. Howie is the head of Sire now, but back then he had his own record label called 415 Records. Howie had signed this guy David Kahne to produce the Red Rockers' album. David had never seen Red Rockers. He came to the show, he got there early, and saw us play. He thought we were the Red Rockers. So he comes backstage and starts talking to us, stuff like "I can't wait to start working with you guys" and we're thinking "what is this all about?" Five minutes later we realize he thinks we're the Red Rockers. So we told him, "you know we aren't the Red Rockers, we're Rank and File. Red Rockers are getting ready to go on now..." at which point he said "oh, well then, don't leave. I'll come back later." So he sees them and likes them, but he still wants to work with us. Since we were only going to be in town for two days he had us come down to his studio to record five or six songs because he wanted to record a demo. So we did the demo, he took it to Slash records, and Slash signed the band and put that first record out. And the first two records ended up doing really well but if David hadn't accidentally seen us that night, we probably would have played around for another year and a half and then broken up. We weren't on any kind of a career path for anything to happen. Nothing was really going on with the band. It was completely by accident that it all happened.
Q: Fate works in interesting ways, for sure.
TK: It does. We've never been in a band that was "picked to click" at anytime. Even when Rank and File came out and the first two albums did really well, nobody expected us to do well.Then when we finally put out a record that didn't do well and everybody said "Oho, I knew it." That's something that Chip and I have always had to deal with, even with what we're doing now, Cowboy Nation.
Cowboy Nation- photo from Art Fein
Q: Tell me about Cowboy Nation.
TK: It's modern cowboy music. Stripped-down, bare-bones music. It's got a western theme, a western sound. It's not really country music. It's just guitar, bass, and drums. Our second album just came out this year and it's getting fabulous reviews, we're just sitting back waiting for a "mistake" to happen again. It's another one of those kinds of music where people are just saying "What the hell are you doing? What are you guys thinking about when you decide to do this stuff?" Every band we've ever been in has been like that.
Q: You were in that band Blackbird that definitely falls into that category... and was completely different from all of the other stuff we've talked about... and may have been the only band in history to put out three different self-titled albums. What were you guys thinking?
TK: When Blackbird first started there was a big article about us in the L.A. Times, a big review... this was right after Rank and File. The review said "this stuff is really good but these guys have got to know that they're committing career suicide." (laughs)
Q: For people who may not know, how would you describe Blackbird's music?
TK: Blackbird was all about sound. We called it "sonic sludge." It was still the kinds of songs we were writing, poppy songs, we can't ever really get away from writing pop songs, you know verse chorus verse chorus kind of stuff. We just used a drum machine and a really distorted guitar, and it was really a mess but to this day, I think it was the most fun I ever had in a band. Because we really just did not give a shit. We didn't give a damn about anything. There was a guy who thought he could be our manager and he thought he'd be able to get us a record deal, so we said "sure, hang out, do whatever you want..." We were ready to play this club, Rail's in LA, and he said "oh I've invited some industry people down tonight" and then starts asking us not to do certain songs! Because they were some of the more extreme ones. So of course when we ended up playing that night, we ended up only playing two songs in our entire set, and they were both really long version of songs he had asked us not to play. (laughs) It was awesome. That's why we were doing that band, to have fun. In the end, it's all about having fun.
ED NOTE: Cowboy Nation put out three albums in the late '90's/early '00's. The Kinman brothers returned recently with a new band, Ford Maddox Ford.
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