"Kurt. Kurt. Look up, man."
With his dark eyebrows arched beneath a shock of freshly bleached hair, Chicken bassist John White is reprimanding singer Kurt Klinger, telling him to look at the camera.
Klinger, quietly fiddling with the label on his beer bottle, shoots a goofy grin in the photographer's direction before his head plummets back down, leaving only his ragged John Deere cap in the frame.
Much of the photo shoot continues in this vein, and the resulting roll of film yields two sets of pictures. One set shows a camera-shy Klinger staring at the floor; the other finds him in a series of outlandish poses: mugging for the lens, kissing White on the cheek, projecting the self-assurance of a professional model.
Not so coincidentally, the behavior mirrors the odd dichotomy found in the music of Chicken, a group whose style veers wildly between laconic country and furious hard-core, often within the same song.
The band members -- Klinger, White, drummer Matt Jones and guitarist Steve Hinkle -- have gathered inside Tempe's Cannery Row, a onetime frat-boy den turned trash rock hangout, to discuss the release of their debut album. Sitting together along the bar, they seem an unlikely assortment of characters. Hinkle and White are lanky and serious, Jones diminutive and intense; Klinger, meanwhile, seems to have combined the tattooed machismo of Lemmy Kilminster with the wild energy of the Muppets' Fozzie Bear.
White, who tends bar at the club, is handing out beers to his bandmates. The earlier sparring, with White acting as worried parent to Klinger's misbehaving child, has subsided. But the pair's Odd Couple routine is nothing new.
When White and Klinger's previous group, Pig Iron, broke up after two years in late 1998, it was amid bad feelings between the two. "Basically, I was on drugs and he was mad at me," recalls Klinger with a laugh. After dissolving the band, White signed on with garage-punks the Brakemen, while Klinger left town to escape his problems and start anew in Portland, Oregon. The move to the Pacific Northwest proved less an idyllic respite than a springboard for an even deeper plunge into crack addiction.
Less than a year after leaving, Klinger returned home to Phoenix, his mind and body ravaged. What he found waiting for him came as a much-needed surprise; former bandmates White and Jones were ready to join forces again. "When I came back -- minus a lot of weight -- I was lucky enough to have these two friends of mine wanting to do something with me," he says.
Out of his earshot, both Jones and White emphasize their creative allegiance to the red-haired front man. "It's the songs, man," enthuses Jones. "I haven't found anybody that writes like him, ever. And you want to be a part of something like that."
The Minnesota-born Klinger has been recognized as a gifted wordsmith and singer -- not to mention a true character -- since arriving on the local scene more than a decade ago. But until now, little of his work has been committed to wax. Dashboard Mary (which featured Jones on drums) released just one long-player, 1991's Baby Ruthless. The only commercial appearance from Pig Iron was a spot on 1996's Exile on Cameron Harper Street compilation.
After getting together last year, Klinger, White and Jones rehearsed as a trio for several months before hooking up with Hinkle, whom Klinger refers to as "our godsend." A Kansas City native, Hinkle relocated to the Valley in '94. Though a talented musician and studio hand, he didn't boast much of a country résumé. His only previous local experience was with a group called Puppet to the Man, a modern metal outfit that didn't exactly specialize in tear-in-your-beer weepers. "It was a lot different style," booms Hinkle in a deep baritone.
Hinkle's introduction to Chicken began with a crash course in the subtleties of country guitar, a style he took to with surprising ease. "I think it turned out good," he says. "It did take a little while for me to get it to where I was happy with it."
With its lineup solidified, the band spent the next year making a gradual rise along the East Valley circuit. A debut gig at the Cannery was followed by regular appearances at Long Wong's and, later, national opening slots at Nita's Hideaway.
By the time the group was ready to go into the studio this past January, budget and time restrictions demanded that its muscular twang be honed precisely. The Other White Album (featuring a real-life Porky Pig look-alike on the cover) came together during a tumultuous two-day session at Chandler's Porcupine Studios. The deadline pressure was intense. But the one-take-or-else atmosphere fit well with the group's meat-and-potatoes ethic.
"We busted our ass for months getting ready to do it, so by the time we went in to record, we knew every note backward and forward," says Jones. "There's nothing on the album we can't do live." Still, the album does enjoy the benefit of a nice production pedigree. Porcupine Studios house engineer Jeff Harris (Fleetwood Mac, Animation) and producer Ron Barry (Trunk Federation) infuse the album with a rootsy charm that can segue seamlessly into a frenzied rock skronk without sounding forced or affected.
Buoyed by their mutual love for Johnny Cash and Buck Owens, along with a grounding in everything from garage to punk to metal, the members of Chicken produce a sound that constantly threatens to come unhinged amid a flurry of styles. Klinger's voice, for instance, pinballs between a rich, confident croon and a wounded animal howl -- from Merle Haggard to Mule in one easy step.
"This will probably sound stupid," admits Klinger hesitantly, "but I hear that part as being influenced by Jim Morrison. Not that I could ever hold a candle to him. But as far as it going from mellow to really intense, that's something that I take from him.
"The most important thing for me is that I respect people who can write and sing in a way that captures a real specific feeling, whatever that feeling may be," he adds. "Whether it's a song about jacking off in the sunset, or a sad country number, or something heavy like Tool. It doesn't matter, as long as it's got that thing."
For Chicken, "that thing" has been its signature stylistic tug of war, which immediately separates the group from the rest of the alt-country pack and their often overused Uncle Tupelo-isms. Then, of course, there are the song titles. While most of Klinger's ditties are fairly literal ruminations on life and love gone bad, the names he gives them -- "Troy's Got Sack," "Nine Holes of Pleasure" and "Zucchini Muffin" come to mind -- are anything but.
"If you say, 'I wanna dance, I wanna dance' throughout the whole song and then you name the song 'I Wanna Dance,' well, that's just annoying. And lame," says Klinger. "I might hear something a friend says, or see something on TV, and think, 'Hey, that sounds good.' Even if it doesn't have anything to do with the song."
"He's always been that way," adds Jones, shaking his head. "But, hey, it's a writer's prerogative."
Klinger's greatest talent as a lyricist is his ability to merge the sentiments of a hopeless romantic and a chronic fuck-up -- a trick he pulls off neatly on The Other White Album's "Hector." "Makes sense to string along/All the shit that I do wrong," he sings. "Just to be with you/For another day."
Putting musical weight behind the words are the veteran players -- White's steady bass, Jones' restrained backbeat and ghostly backing harmonies, Hinkle's spiky fretwork. From their jaunty acoustic treatment of the song "Tea" to the air of foreboding they create on "Don't Transfer," they're an expert anchor to Klinger's material.
The cuts on the new disc are a cross-section of Klinger's work from the last half decade. "Some of it is old Pig Iron stuff, some of it's new stuff, too," he says. "And some of it was written in Portland.
"[Portland] was good for inspiration," he deadpans. "Yeah, it was great being fucked up and not getting laid for a year."
Though the past year has been characterized by far less drama, the group has a new batch of songs ready. They promise the next record will be considerably heavier than The Other White Album, which White describes as a conscious attempt to record "our most radio-friendly material." (Not that anything as unvarnished as those 10 tracks could actually get anywhere near an FM band these days.)
As White grabs another round of beers, the conversation turns toward the band's hopes for the future. The ever-candid bassist grudgingly admits that the group is going to make a concerted effort to push the new record, submitting it to labels and looking for a deal or support of some kind. "We've got to because, well, we've all been doing this a long time, so this may be our last chance and . . ." He quickly catches himself and trails off. "Well . . . you know . . . maybe not our last chance. I don't mean that we . . ."
"No, you're right," interrupts Klinger with a grin, "it is your last chance."
Amid gales of laughter, this time it's the singer who's doing the reprimanding.
"Yeah, buddy," he drawls, shaking a finger at White. "You've got to start thinking about your 401(k)."
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