Chip Kinman celebrates brother, career on "Sounds Like Music"
By Brian Baker, August 2019
For a brief moment last summer, the news of Tony Kinman's death was, if not greatly exaggerated, then at least fortuitously premature. The roots rock icon, known for his work in The Dils, Rank and File, Blackbird and Cowboy Nation with his younger brother Chip, had been diagnosed with cancer in March 2018, and his health waned in the weeks prior to his eventual passing in August. Information about Tony's decline was interpreted as a death notice and announced online, sparking a flurry of tributes to a beloved fallen music hero before he had actually fallen.
What could have been an awkward who's-walking-on-my-grave experience ultimately turned into a sweet, positive moment of reflection. Tony had the rare opportunity to read his own impressive and appreciative obituaries, and enjoy some clarity and self-satisfaction.
"All this stuff started coming in, and Tony looked at me and said, 'We really did something, didn't we?'," says Chip Kinman. "And I said, 'Yeah, we did! You know we did.' He was gratified by that. He really was."
As often happens, Tony Kinman's tragic passing and the subsequent outpouring of love inspired a surge of curiosity about the Kinman brothers' diverse and fascinating catalog, as well as Chip's current endeavor, a blues rock outfit dubbed Ford Madox Ford. As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats.
"I'm hoping that there's a real interest in this – and it's a weird word to use – revival of the Chip and Tony thing," says Kinman. "Everything has picked up tremendously."
Rank and File - "Amanda Ruth" on Alan Thicke Show, 1983
That current interest is tangibly evidenced by "Sounds Like Music," a compilation of unreleased archive material encompassing every facet of the Kinmans' incredibly broad output. Chip wanted to assemble a compilation for years; a conversation with his friend, Gia DeSantis, brought the idea into clearer focus. DeSantis knew people at the Omnivore label and made the necessary introductions to get the ball rolling.
"The first idea was to do a compilation of released material; that seemed daunting because you'd have to deal with Warner Brothers and so many different labels to get the rights," says Kinman. "We wanted to do something a little bit quicker so I'm racking my brain, and Tom DeSalvio, who co-authored the new John Doe book, suggested, 'Why don't you do unreleased material? You own all that, and people would probably be interested in hearing it.' Omnivore had asked if I had any unreleased material, and I didn't think I did. It turned out I had a lot."
"Sounds Like Music" is an apt title for the Kinmans' career-spanning collection. From the very start, the Southern California brothers were creatively restless; even their first band of note, the Dils, funneled their punk rage through a country filter. Their breakthrough band, Rank and File, featuring future Americana icon Alejandro Escovedo, was critically well received and became leading lights in what was dubbed the cowpunk movement, a mantle they shed with their eponymous third album, which found them leaning in a decidedly protometal direction.
"We did it to ourselves," says Kinman with a laugh. "We went from playing sold out nightclubs to every empty nightclub. That was tough to do, man."
After shuttering Rank and File, the Kinmans explored blustery rocktronics with Blackbird, and then did a complete 180 and got back to basics with their country/folk duo Cowboy Nation. And yet, no matter how they chose to interpret their vast and varied influences, the result always seemed to be distinctly reflective of Chip and Tony.
"The one thing that does carry through everything is our sense of song," says Kinman. "We were severely damaged by Beatlemania and the whole '60s thing – The Beatles, The Stones, glitter rock – so even when we thought we were being our weirdest, there was a song in there somewhere. We thought we were being strange. We really did, but it was like, 'Nope, still a song. Verse, chorus, a middle part, and we scream before the lead.' There's a good Beatles reference."
The Kinmans' sense of song connects everything on "Sounds Like Music," but the other quality that stands out is the duo's restless creative nature. In retrospect, Chip realized that he and Tony seemed to follow an unconscious pattern of recording three albums in their various sonic identities before moving on.
Part of the Kinmans' nomadic outlook may have stemmed from the fact that they began as outcasts in Carlsbad, Cal., listening to David Bowie, T. Rex and The New York Dolls, when their peers were into Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Yes. But once they became musicians, there were more fundamental reasons for their stylistic shifts.
"We didn't like to sit still, and we didn't like to repeat ourselves," says Kinman. "And I don't like to call myself an artist, but I think that was probably the arty part about it, We listened to a lot of different types of music, and one thing we always listened for was, 'Who were the innovators? Who were the ones who invented it?' The Bakersfield sound; that was Merle (Haggard) and Buck (Owens). Everything after was influenced by Merle and Buck."