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Kirkwood Dellinger Has a New Sound That’s “Not Dug From the Same Graveyard As Everything Else You Hear”

If anyone's compiling a reel of defining Arizona 21st-century rock moments, don't forget Kirkwood Dellinger's January 2008 appearance on Good Morning Arizona. Falling squarely, and I do mean squarely, under what Elmo Kirkwood will frequently categorize as "corny crap," the band briefly played to the commercial break a snippet of a Brian Dellinger-sung song called "Transmogrification." Shortly thereafter, they were joined on the Channel 3 soundstage by eternally smiling he-and-she newsbots who banter with Kirkwood and all but completely ignore the other half of the group's namesake, no doubt to Dellinger's great relief.

Kirkwood is unfailingly polite, answering the same dorky questions they probably ask every band but giving answers they're not accustomed to hearing. As to what's the inspiration behind their songs, Kirkwood mischievously says, "We write a lot of songs about our friends, whether they know it our not," and when asked what they're going to play next, he introduces "Human or Gorilla": "This is about deciding how far from apes we've evolved, if you subscribe to that sort of mindset." More atypical 8 a.m. music ensues, with Dellinger on bass and drummer Ken Ezell commanding a militia beat against which keyboardist Brian Boyer adds circular prog-rock licks and Kirkwood switches from heavily echoed percussive guitar (à la The Edge) to spacey slide guitar before brutally being cut off mid-song by another commercial.

It's doubtful anyone went on the ­ Web site to find out more about Kirkwood Dellinger or even got up early to watch this actually pretty enjoyable appearance, but it's proof that since this band's inception in late 2006, Kirwood Dellinger has seized every dues-paying opportunity, counterbalancing plum gigs, like touring with Meat Puppets (the band featuring Kirkwood's dad, Curt, and uncle Kris) with playing a J-Heads show on a Tuesday or a Modified gig in which a national band with no draw in Arizona is counting on the opening band to bring the love.

"Every time we've played Phoenix, it's tied for the fuckin' bottom," says Kirkwood. "If we play the Modified, there's guaranteed six people there. We've played some pathetic shows. Decent shows, too."

As the group's naturally outspoken spokesman, Kirkwood can veer from stratospheric confidence that "this band can do anything" to boldly confessing, "We don't really know how to do this, man. No one's given us any advice. My dad never tells me anything and I don't fuckin' ask him."

Anyone coming to see them at a home-base show at the Yucca Tap Room will see a band doggedly determined to capture the sound of its studio recordings. This has led to the addition of Dellinger's sister Chelsea for more vocals and instrument-switching onstage. A lot of it.

"We all play xylophone, mini-bells. Chelsea also plays percussion and sings," says Dellinger. "It's a lot more fun for us because that's how we recorded the stuff, whoever does whatever. It's pretty messy onstage, climbing over this cord to get to that keyboard. It used to take us five minutes each song. When making a set list, you have to take into account what the easiest switches are."

Kirkwood and Dellinger, friends since high school, actually began recording the first KD album, Beast Boy, at Dellinger's house while Kirkwood was helming another band with Boyer. Kirkwood pauses with slightly queasy embarrassment before uttering its name: Broken Robot.

"It wasn't very good," he admits. "We had a different rhythm section. It was corny. More hard rock. It sucked. We tried to be spacey, but the songs weren't very good.

"I went on tour with my dad, playing all his shit acoustically, and we took the CD that Brian and I did together on the road with us because me and my dad knew it was cooler than the shit I was doing with my band.

"Basically, there was a month between the two bands. That band, I was in for a year and a half and nothing happened. At the end, we gradually started to get a little more recognition, but we had to work a lot harder because we sucked."

Says Dellinger, "(Elmo) just made better songs. He wrote songs with the other songwriter in the band that were kind of cheesy. Just not as well written.

"Within a few gigs after this band starting to play, we got write-ups, a lot of gigs, and a good reputation. But I don't think we could back it up as good as we should've been able to. We weren't as tight as we could've been."

Although their MySpace page self-classifies Kirkwood Dellinger as "experimental/Afro-beat/zouk," Kirkwood admits, "I didn't know what to put on there. It used to be 'religious Chinese pop.' Calling your music experimental is stupid because all music is experimental."

What Kirkwood Dellinger did originally on Beast Boy sounded experimental, because there was what Dellinger calls "a lot of random shit going on. We still have a lot of stuff going on, we just mix it better."

"I want things to meld together so I can't hear the separation," says Kirkwood. "We just smack a bunch of shit together like MacGyver — put a bunch of effects here and try to find a cool way to keep it loose and groovy enough."

Although not poppy in the traditional sense, Kirkwood Dellinger employs a psychedelic-pop sensibility, mixing in influences from mid-period Beatles to prog rock to Dr. Dre. Take an adventurous new song like "Plants and Animals," as yet unreleased and featured in demo form on the band's MySpace page. Hearing its majestic chord progression and monolithic sound may make you think of prog rock, but its block harmonies are the dreamy stuff of power pop.

"Majestic, see? That's what I was going for," says Kirkwood. "It's kind of corny, but if you put a groovy bass behind it then the majestic gets less corny and it doesn't sound majestic like Chick Corea or the Moody Blues. You can avoid that shit. I was thinking of Can or Yes with that bass line."

Or a song like "The Other Child," which features percussion that sounds a washing machine but is actually Dellinger mouthing a beat into a mic, sent through a phase shifter. And like Ween, a band that neither K nor D ever listens to, Kirkwood Dellinger can write an unashamed dance pop song when it wants to — like "New Juice," which amounts to Kirkwood "trying to steal a Dr. Dre thing with the keyboards. Like a Mary J. Blige track."

"Our shit is for music geeks, I'm positive, because we have so many reference points," says Kirkwood. "Even some of the melodies and chords are not dug from the same graveyard as everything else you hear. I think I can say that it doesn't sound like too many other bands.

"I think our shit's catchy . . . but weird."

This devolves into a discussion of some of the great hit-and-miss bands of all time, bands that have albums with one great song surrounded by a pile of dog shit. Kirkwood volunteers such alternative-rock sacred cows as The Pixies, REM, The Misfits, and even Meat Puppets.

"You mean albums that suck except for three songs, like Mirage, Huevos, or Monsters, which sucks except for one song?"

Even the last album, the reunion that Elmo Kirkwood helped make happen ("I just told my dad that Kris wasn't a douchebag anymore, which is a half-truth, especially in our family"), doesn't escape a son's scrutiny. It's probably this frankness that led Meat Puppets to enlist his aid as co-producer on their upcoming album.

"I like the idea of the songs, but the last record's sound was tacky, like someone did it on the motherfuckin' Cakewalk. Curt likes to do things really quick. Almost too quick, to where he doesn't give a shit about the end result. Here's a bullshit drumbeat, and he doesn't care, whereas you can take five more seconds and put a groovier drumbeat in. Shitty vocals, they can always get away with that. I shouldn't be saying these things, but, fuck, it's my dad. I can be as much of a critic as I want. But the new one's really pretty."

That kind of perfectionism has yet to infect Kirkwood Dellinger's recordings — which is obvious in everything from the back-trunk distribution of Beast Boy down to the homemade packaging of their Miniature Stallion EP, released this past summer. It indicates a tentativeness, that it all will be a thing of the past before long. But there's no doubt this band will likely figure things out, bust a few big moves, very, very soon.

"We're pretty much convinced we're the most important band in the world," says Kirkwood before breaking into a shrug. "I know that sounds conceited. Because we are."

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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic