The Dils were among the very first of the mid-1970s punk bands to emerge from California, making an impact on both the San Francisco and Los Angeles regional scenes. Unfortunately, like many of the punk bands from that era, they didn't get to record much, their studio output limited to just three singles. In 1977, they managed to scrape together two 45s -- "I Hate the Rich" and "Class War" -- that matched the energy of anything being generated by the Ramones or the Clash, though their uncompromisingly anti-bourgeois attitude may have borne more similarities to the latter group. They continued to play constantly for the next few years -- they even opened for the Clash once. But no more records were forthcoming, until a three-song EP in 1980 that found them already starting to move beyond punk rock.
Singer and guitarist Chip Kinman, together with brother and bassist Tony Kinman, continued to work in unexpectedly diverse projects after the Dils broke up in the early 1980s. With Rank & File they went into country rock; with Blackbird, industrial and noise rock; and, in Cowboy Nation, cowboy music. In early 1997, Chip Kinman spoke at length about the Dils, and a bit about his subsequent work.
First, I'd like to clear up where you guys were from. You've been referred to both as a San Francisco band and a Los Angeles band.
To answer that question specifically about where we came from, we grew up down here, Carlsbad [in Southern California]. We went to high school down near San Diego. And we first started playing in Los Angeles. But we did move to San Francisco. So we are kind of from all those areas. But basically, Tony and I started playing music together because at that time in the late '70s, everyone was looking to Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple and Steely Dan and that kind of nonsense. And we just couldn't stand that sort of music. We were more into like New York Dolls and David Bowie and Lou Reed and that sort of thing. Since we were the only ones in our high school who liked that kind of music, we naturally just kind of started playing together. There were all sorts of bands in high school, but they all played cover versions of stuff like heavy metal bands. I just didn't see the point in that, and plus, we weren't good enough to be in a cover band. We couldn't play other people's songs that we played too crappy. The thing to do about that was just write your own songs. That probably served us in the long run.
We just kind of put a band together, wrote our own songs. Of course we could work out versions of "Sweet Jane" and that sort of thing, that stuff wasn't too difficult. We just kind of put the band together, and started...actually, we moved up to San Francisco in 1976. This was even before we played in Los Angeles. We met the Nuns up there. We saw a poster that this band called the Nuns were playing in San Francisco. We hadn't played anywhere yet. We didn't have place to rehearse or anything. We just moved up there thinking, well, it's kind of a neat city. Let's move up there and do a band up there.
We saw this poster for this band the Nuns, so we went to go see them because we thought the name was interesting. The place where they were playing, apparently when they went to set up their gear, the owner of the club thought that they were either too loud or weird-looking or something, and sent them away. So the owner of the club said, well, they told us to tell anyone who's going to come see them to go see them at their rehearsal hall, which was down south of Mission [a San Francisco neighborhood].
So we were the only ones who showed up, and that's how we met the Nuns. So we went there and met them and thought that, hey, we're simpatico, and all that sort of thing. We ended up doing a show up there, one or two shows up in San Francisco. And then we left San Francisco, came back to L.A., went down here for a little while. Then moved back up to San Francisco in 1977, moved right back up there. That's basically how the whole thing came together, if that makes any sense whatsoever. I know it's kind of convoluted, but that's how it happened. If you had to say [one way or the other], we were a San Francisco band. Because that's where it really all kind of came together for us. We were the most popular up there. 'Cause L.A. and San Francisco was kind of in two different factions. San Francisco was the more serious punk rock town, into punk revolution. Whereas L.A. was more into the nihilistic punk rock vibe. It was kind of a constant battle with those two towns, and the philosophies, with some overlap of course.
How would you compare yourself to the early punk bands?
At the time, I thought a lot of the bands were better than us. I thought the Weirdos were better, I thought the Nuns were better, and that kind of stuff. Just 'cause they were more solid-sounding. They were more, kind of in a good late-'70s punk rock style. They could really do that well. Whereas the Dils were, like, quicker. If this makes any sense, we were at the same time more melodic, and at the same time a bit more dissonant. I think the fact that Tony and I, as much as we tried to not get away from a basic pop structure even in all of our bands, we just had that basic pop song structure in our mind. I think that tended to separate our music from the others, because we actually had like bridges and all those kind of riffs and refrains and all that kind of stuff in our music. And it didn't sound forced, whereas a lot of bands, when they decided that they wanted to get a bit more musical with the punk rock, it sounded kind of forced, kind of an excuse for melody. And of course they'd go "Whooah!," and that would be a melody. A three-note descending thing, and they'd go, wow, we just wrote a pop song. It's like, well, not exactly, guys.
I think we were separated...I think we [were] more musical. We were just as fierce and fast and loud as any of these bands, but we were a bit more musical, which I think helped our music stand up a bit more over time.
Had you heard any punk records before you formed? This was at a time when there were hardly any punk records at all, and it wasn't easy to find a lot of the ones that did exist.
Maybe a little bit Ramones. Not so much Clash. It might seem like that in retrospect, but at the time, when we wrote "I Hate the Rich" and all that kind of stuff, we hadn't even heard the English bands' records. For sure the Ramones we heard, and the New York Dolls. A lot of these bands, the sound kind of sprang up simultaneously, just because of what rock music had become, and the dead end it was at. It was very simultaneous for a lot of bands, East Coast, West Coast, England, and all that kind of stuff. If there was any influence, it's probably just because we went back to the same sources as the Clash and all those bands did. We listened to reggae music and early rock music, rockabilly, and that sort of thing.
"I Hate the Rich," when we recorded that, we still hadn't heard...I think we heard the Buzzcocks records. That was really the first record to get over here, I believe, the Buzzcocks and the Damned. We might have heard those, but we certainly hadn't heard the Clash or the Pistols or anything, no. You have to realize that the second wave of punk rock bands followed closely on the first wave. And the bands that you might think are first wave punk bands weren't, they were second wave. Like X, Dead Kennedys, all those bands. That was all the second wave of punk rock.
You might even be able to argue the Avengers were second wave, simply because the Nuns and the Dils and Crime and Zeros and Weirdos and Screamers were already doing their thing before the Avengers ever played their first show. I wouldn't call them second wave, but it could be argued. A lot of those bands might have been influenced by the first wave of punk rock bands. But there was a lot of bubbling under in the '70s. You had all that art damage music, Boyd Rice and Non, and all that kind of stuff. It was all kind of bubbling right there, kind of all at the same time, all over the English-speaking world. We never, never listened to a Clash record and went, wow, that was cool, let's do that. We just thought the Clash were relevant for what they did, and we were relevant for where we were, what we were singing about, and all that sort of thing. We didn't to rip off the Clash when we could rip off Buddy Holly. Why rip off the Clash? (laughs)
So how did you make the first single, "I Hate the Rich"?
It was funny, 'cause we played the song, put up the mikes. The guy who engineered it was a hippie, right? He was just like, oh God, what's going on? He probably never even heard of punk rock. We ran in there and played it, and he went, okay, here's your record (laughs). Pretty much. And when he played it back on the monitors, he played it back really loud. And of course in a recording studio, anything you play really loud sounds fucking great. So we were just thrilled. And then of course when I got home and listened to it, it was like oh no, oh no!
So we sent it in to be mastered, and again, it was so early in the punk rock game that the people who mastered the records had no idea what was going on on the record. Now this is "I Hate the Rich," the song's about a minute and a half long, if that long. They faded it out after the first chorus, and the song doesn't fade out, it has a very definite ending. So when they were mastering it, they faded it out after the first chorus. Tony and I are like, what, is that an editorial statement? Do we suck so hard? Then of course we told them, hey, let the record go to the end. I have a couple of versions that fade out, it's very funny.
But he put it out, and that was that. And then Dangerhouse sprung up, and we did "Class War." The thought of making an album never really occurred to us. It was just like, if an opportunity came up to make a single it was great, great, great. We were thrilled. The thought of putting like 12 or 15 songs together for an album was like, oh, amazing.
How come the Dils made so few studio records? And between 1977 and 1980, there was nothing?
Mostly, no one wanted to record them. No one ever offered us a record deal. I mean, really, no punk rock bands got signed. The Dickies came along and got signed, like, immediately. And that blew everybody's minds. The Nuns were on the verge of getting signed here or there, the Avengers, people were throwing some money at the Avengers. People threw money at the Nuns. No one threw money at the Dils and wanted to record a record. We certainly didn't have the wherewithal. Jesus, we were poor! I had to go get emergency food stamps at one point in time. We didn't have any money. So we couldn't just go out and record ourselves. Which is a shame, because I listen to those bootlegs and those tapes and those live records, and those are really great songs. They're really good songs, and I wish we could have recorded them. Tony and I, we steal bits from them every now and then to put in new songs these days. But they're just kind of sitting there, waiting. We almost did [record some] last year.
I'll tell you what, man -- every time someone wants to do something, see, I'm not going to record Dils songs for a couple grand, or $1000 or something. Someone wants me to do it, they're going to have to make it worth my while. Just 'cause it's part of your life's work. People every now and then, and fly-by-night record companies, ask me if we'll record those songs. And I'll say, sure, what kind of offer you want to make me? And they say, we'll give you a thousand. And I'll say, what, a thousand dollars? And then they'll start quoting "I Hate the Rich" at me or something, and it's like, whatever, fuck you, it's really funny. But I wish they were recorded, they're good songs.
You had an image of being Communist radicals at one point. How did that come about?
It came about because we kind of...'cause we put it out there. I had the hammer and sickle T-shirt, and at the time, Tony was some sort of a leftist. At the time, it was something we believed in. We thought, well, this sounds good, that sounds right, this looks wrong, this is what we'll have to do to go about to change this, and we thought we'd sing about it through our music. Which we did, but not to the exclusion of singing about girlfriends and that kind of thing...girlfriends, cars, sex, what have you. Love lost, love gained. After a couple years went by and we started reading more and more about this whole Communist and left-wing strata, the political persuasion and all that kind of stuff, then we realized really just kind of how awful Communists really were, what a terrible system it is, how many millions have died under that system and all that kind of stuff. And we decided, well, perhaps that's not such a good idea after all.
But it wasn't an accident. We were out there on the front lines. But we never affiliated ourselves with any of the local or national Communist parties and stuff. And they always tried to glom on to what we were doing. And we would never let them do it. We said look, all these kids are coming here to see us because we play this music, not because of your stupid little newspaper. So we'd prefer it if you didn't sell your stupid little...no, you can't come to our show and set up a booth or something. So they all hated us.
The Dils were always trying to, like...we believed in punk rock revolution, not just left-wing revolution, but, I mean, punk rock to change the world, to change music, to change at least our little bit of the world. We believed in it. And in a way it did change the world, and in a way it didn't. Michael Jackson can wear zippers, and it's legit. Stylistically, it set the tone for everything to follow. But other than that, it didn't really change anything. The music business is still awful.
We always said what was on our mind, and we said it to anyone we wanted to. And that got us into trouble sometimes, but that's okay. It also held us in good stead. At that day and age in the late '70s, if they wanted to charge $5 to get into a show, it was outrageous, just outrageous. No one would stand for it. This is a case in point -- we were going to come down and play [Hollywood punk club] the Masque. We said it would be a $3 door, we agreed on that. We went down there, it was more than $3. We said fuck you to [Masque founder] Brendan Mullen, we're not gonna play. It was a big stink, and of course Brendan got the last word in all the magazines and stuff. I'm good friends with Brendan Mullen these days, but at the time it was really awful, and tried to make us look like fools and idiots and all this kind of stuff. We were always constantly...we were being held up for ridicule because of the stance we took. Some people respected us for it. But other people used to give us a hard time.
When we opened for the Clash, the Clash charged $10. Now, again, in those days, the Rolling Stones had just come to town and charged $10. And the punk rock world was outraged that the Rolling Stones would charge $10 for the show. Well, the Clash came to town shortly thereafter, and charged $10 too. Well, the punk rock world was outraged, but that didn't keep it from selling out. The Dils opened, and the Dils got blamed for the $10 door. So it was a double-edged sword. But to this day, we have big mouths and we just say whatever we want, and to hell with it. We're not very good at being corporate or any of that kind of stuff, never have been.
You and Tony have played in a bunch of non-punk bands since the Dils. Was that in part because you found the punk format too limiting by the time the Dils had been around a few years?
Totally. By that time, punk rock was devolving into hardcore. So it became like "anarchy -- but not here. No rules -- but our rules." It became codified and a set of rules, like, to be a punk rock band you have to be this. And we weren't really interested in that, and figured pretty much that the Dils had said everything that we had to say. And it was time to move on musically. So we just kind of opened up the sound a bit, and added an acoustic guitar, and slowed everything down.
'Cause our songs -- originally, well not "The Sound of Rain," but originally were like a lot faster, like "It's Not Worth It." It was like a regular punk rock song. But we slowed it all down and went wow, there's a really nice melody and chord change. And added the acoustic guitar, and of course at the time it was outrageous. It was kind of a bridge into Rank & File, where we went totally roots. It was definitely like a bridge kind of sound. We started slowing down.
The Dils were one of the few bands that would play ballads, punk rock band[s] that would play ballads. Most bands wouldn't do it, but we thought it was one of our strengths, to pull something like that off. So slowing down, we were really into...we thought slowing down was as radical as playing really fast. At that point, it probably was, because everyone was getting faster and faster.
Tony and I were always into going against the grain. When we slowed down, it was against the punk rock grain. When we went country, it was again against the punk rock grain. When we went noise [with Blackbird], it was against the country grain. We were always kind of battling what we just did before. I don't know why, but we did.
If you'd been able to record at least one album with the Dils when you were going, how do you think it would have sounded?
I think it would have sounded good. Regardless of what period we would have done it in, I think it would have been great. I would have liked to have recorded our album around the time of [the Dils' 1980 single] "Sound of the Rain," because we had a real...we entered a period of some really terrific songs like "Golden Gate," "Before the Law," and "You Don't Matter Anymore," "Love House" -- just a ton of really terrific songs. I think that would have been great. I think it would be a classic, as much as those singles are in the microworld of punk rock classics.
How do you like the live Dils material that's come out on albums?
I think they're terrific. They're hard to listen to, but they do create their own reality once your ears get used to the sound. I've got a million live Dils tapes, and I've got several videos and all this kind of stuff. And I didn't listen to them for the longest time. I went back and listened to those, and I got really a new appreciation for what we were all about and what we did. 'Cause like I said at the beginning of this interview, I've always had that insecurity, thinking the other bands were better and all this kind of stuff. When I went back and listened, I went, wow, these are really good songs. And they're played forcefully and with feeling, with verve. I think they're really terrific songs, I really do. I think they withstand the test of time, too, because it's not all rage. Rage doesn't wear real well, unless there's something backing it up.
I have some terrific board tapes from up in the Pacific Northwest where you can hear the singing real well. But also in those days -- now I don't know why we got away with this. But we played our amps on ten. I mean, everything was full up, full blast. Even in Blackbird, which was our massive wall of sound noise band, I couldn't get my amp over 3 without soundmen pulling their hair out. How we got away with having our amps on 10 in those days, I'm not exactly sure. It was just like screaming into the mike. I think a lot of it had to do with just the sheer presentation of the whole thing, and that's why some of those tapes, you won't be able to hear the vocals, 'cause probably hardly anyone could either. That's for sure. But it is kind of a shame in a lot of the songs, 'cause we did have some cool harmonies and neat vocal bits worked out, that's for sure.
To most people, your shifts in style -- from the Dils to country rock in Rank & File, then industrial drone rock with Blackbird, and now cowboy music in Cowboy Nation -- are baffling. What do you see as the common ingredients in your different projects?
In almost all of our changes, we like completely grossed out whatever our audience was before. What can I say -- we did it, and there it was. When I listen to all [the] bands, I can hear a thread in the music that's similar. But I can see how someone who really likes [Rank & File's first album] Sundown would not like Blackbird at all, I can see that. I don't have any regrets about that, simply because to me that's not what it's about. I love having an audience, and I love being able to keep putting out records. And I'd love to have a hit record, of course. But it always had to be about pleasing Tony and I first, whatever turned us on. 'Cause we get kind of bored. We'll play one style of music for a few years and go, well, there it is, we've said everything we had to say with that. What can we do that's different?
There are some fans that stick with each incarnation, but generally not (laughs). We've just had to kind of build it up from scratch again and get a whole new crowd and that sort of thing. That kind of takes its toll, I suppose. 'Cause I've read reviews of our careers, like in Trouser Press and stuff like that, and they'll call it, bizarre career moves and all that kind of stuff. Tony and I were never careerists. It wasn't like we had the sound that we had to hang onto to hold our audience. 'Cause it's always in a certain level that it wasn't like we had a lot to lose.
Actually, Tony and I were trying to be perverse. There's a certain amount of, "this is the opposite of what we did, and this is really going to get up people's noses, let's do this." I mean, Blackbird was completely perverse. Two guys and drum machine. We wanted to be totally anti-show. We weren't going to say a fucking word, we weren't going to move, we weren't going to do anything. We were just going to, like, do this incredible wall of sonic sludge that didn't stop until we got offstage.
It's funny, because after Blackbird, we took a year off. Because we thought we had played constantly and toured constantly since '77, and we went look, let's woodshed for a year and just write some songs and give it a break. And then after a year, we wrote a whole bunch of songs, we put together a band where we played our entire catalog for a year. Where we played the old Rank & File [songs], Blackbird songs, new songs. That was really kind of fun. We did that for a whole year, up to about a year ago. People came out and they loved hearing the songs again, but it was ultimately nowheresville. So we put Cowboy Nation together.
We cannibalize all of our old songs. I always go back and look for that old inspiration. The same inspiration that wanted me to write...the first original song I ever wrote was called "Tell Her I Love Her," kind of a Buddy Holly ripoff. I'm always sort of going back to look for that innocence. Maybe not even innocence, but just that wide-eyed kind of ignorance of music. I think a lot of the best music comes from someone who doesn't really know what they're doing. And I'm really always kind of looking for that.
Maybe that's [why] we're always exploring styles, because it affords us to fumble around a little bit and make some mistakes, and come up with something new. I think there's a thread, because like I say, Tony and I have never been able to get away from the pop formula. Even when we tried in Blackbird, we weren't real successful at it. We still write songs in the same way -- verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, lead, verse, chorus, out. Actually, every one of our songs has three verses. Every single one will follow that formula, almost.
So what are you and Tony up to now [January 1997]?
We have a band called Cowboy Nation. Our record came out two days ago. It's cowboy music. It's on Shock Records in Australia, and it's going to come out slowly around the world. I think Japan and Europe next, that sort of thing. It's a real simple, real minimum three-piece drum guitar and bass cowboy music. It's pretty bitchin'. It's as unique-sounding a sound as Sundown was for country music. So we figured, well, we did the country music, now we'll do the western music part. It's pretty exciting, we're having a really good time with it. We're licensing a bunch of songs to movies and that kind of stuff.
I like my and Tony's music. I like the
music we play. We've never had any major, over-the-board success. But
years later, I'm still able to put out albums and I have some sort of
out there that enables me to keep playing music, so it's cool, I'm
I dig it.
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