Best Musical Questions for the 21st Century—Kim Fowley Interviews Chris Darrow

In this revelatory meeting of the minds: two visionaries converge as Kim Fowley quizzes longtime friend Chris Darrow providing a music history lesson and questions galore that run the gamut from Facebook, drug use, alcohol, and fast food.

“The loneliness of a visionary is that you might be the only one in the universe at that time who recognizes magic. I’m a magical person, and so I recognize other magical people. It takes ones to know one.” –Kim Fowley

Consider this juicy nugget of a quote swiped from punkazoid opus colossus We Got The Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk courtesy of the much revered, more reviled iconoclastic songsmith and legendary producer of the glorious, and foul, and indecent, Kim Fowley. The proto-glam Cali stalwart served as the skuzzbucket genius architect behind original all-girl punk hooligans The Runaways, produced the Germs, penned songs for Kiss, was covered by Sonic Youth and Nirvana, was ripped off by Malcolm McClaren and that’s only a shred of his oeuvre. So Fowley is well-versed in the visionary and magical shit.

Enter Fowley’s left coast bud and fellow pioneer, Chris Darrow. Not only did the twosome first start collaborating in early 70s Southern California on a Fowley solo record but Darrow’s musical resume is just as staggering, albeit slightly more anonymously. The multi-instrumentalist flame thrower fried minds in the 1960s with his psych-experimentalist hippie band of gypsies Kaleidoscope (count Camper Van Beethoven as huge fans), lent his fiddles, dobros and mandolin finger-plucking prowess to Leonard Cohen’s 1967 landmark debut (the one with “Suzanne” on it), James Taylor’s 70s classic Sweet Baby James (“Fire and Rain,” anyone?), stinted in The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and backed up folk godhead John Fahey on a load of his seminal records. Dude even went to high school with Frank freakin’ Zappa.

Not only does the famously volatile Fowley bow at the altar of jack-of-all-instruments magician Darrow but intrepid Drag City label indulges in the same hero worship. The Chicago-based imprint just reissued Artist Proof, Darrow’s expertly woven epic SoCal-flavored sprawl, originally released in 1972. Illuminating with a sublime Americana lens, country twang bustle, druggy highway boogie-rock jammage and folksy mind trips, Darrow’s Artist Proof is ostensibly the unsung progenitor of the No Depression movement, and other countless scenes of yore, and maybe no other apropos label destination than Drag City exists for Darrow where kindred spirit Bonnie “Prince” Billy has wielded his own songwriting magic.

While we await the prospect of a dream Darrow-Bonnie collab, there is this revelatory meeting of the minds: two visionaries converge as Fowley quizzes longtime friend Darrow providing a music history lesson and questions galore that run the gamut from Facebook, drug use, alcohol, and fast food.

Kim Fowley:What is the difference between 21st century and 20th century Rock 'N' Roll?

Chris Darrow: Rock and roll music of the 21st century is derived from many previous styles and has little of the originality that rock 'n' roll had when it was introduced in the early fifties. Granted, rock 'n' roll rose out of blues, gospel, country and R&B, but there hasn't been a major change in music of this magnitude since the British Invasion exploded in 1964. The Beatles emerged at a low point in American rock 'n' roll history and were certainly original and talented. However, they were basically throwing versions of our classic rock 'n' roll back at us, as were the Stones, the Animals and many other artists of the time. Where is the new Elvis, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly or Little Richard? Groups like The Crickets, The Coasters or The Platters came out of a totally different environment than what exists now. The current rock 'n' roll music isn't bad, but it doesn't seem to have the spark of the early stuff. Since I was around when it was first introduced, maybe I know too much about how the music got to where it is today. There are so many categories and subcultures in music these days, from alternative and indie rock to hip-hop and trance, that it is hard to know what’s really going on. Rock 'n' roll just used to just be called, rock 'n' roll. There is always going to be good music out there, but, for my taste, the great examples are now fewer and far between. My favorite rock 'n' roll song of the new millennium is “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley. Great song, great production and wonderful singing.

Why is analog better than digital?

Analog is warm and digital is cold. By that I mean, analog sound has a warm, tube component to it and, in contrast, the cool, digital sound is based on computer chips that break everything down to a code based on ones and zeros. The vacuum tube allows for the sound to be affected by its variable sound quality, depending on how much of a signal is sent to the power amp. The digital chip is crisp and non-responsive to power shifts and breaks down when you overdrive it. They both work and do the job, but given a choice, analog would be mine. I heard that Neil Young liked to mix his records, made on analog machines, at +5 on the monitor level because he preferred the sound he got. I use both analog and digital when I record in my own studio and try to get the best results from both profiles.

Why is the drum machine overrated?

A drum machine can only approximate a real drummer. Like digital sound, drum machines are mechanical, cold and non-responsive. They are fine for songwriting and trying to get a feel, but I would always prefer to have a flesh and blood person, with an opinion and a personality, behind a drum kit.

Why do you like women with teardrops in their voices?

I worked with Linda Ronstadt for a number of years and she is a great example of a female singer with teardrops in her voice. Her song interpretations had a definite, emotional impact on me and obviously on others as well. It’s the real emotion that comes from a great singer that gets to me every time. Think Billie Holliday or Dolly Parton. Unfortunately, that “cry” is not a common quality that many female singers possess. If you combine that essence, with a great song, there is nothing finer.

Why do you like smaller amps?

For me, the main reason for using a small, guitar amp is the great tone that one can get in a limited space. While playing in a club or a studio, it’s easier to produce a proper volume, without having to turn up the amp so loud that it overrides everything else in the room. I like a small amplifier, with a single 10” speaker. That allows me to get real, natural distortion without having to use a foot pedal or some distortion device.

Why is time important as a requirement for a rhythm section player?

For me, the most important aspect of playing or recording a song is to find the correct “pulse” for that piece of music. A song can have a great melody and words, but if the pulse or groove is wrong, it can make or break an otherwise fine composition. Muscle Shoals, Hi Records and Alan Toussaint recordings were tremendous influences on me and are premier examples of this concept. I always try to keep this “pulse” concept inherent in everything I do in music. 

Which is better to end a recorded song with: A fade or a nightclub ending?

A nightclub ending is never correct on a record, unless it’s live, and even then it is wrong. Get rid of nightclub endings!!!!

Why don’t you tour?

I was on the road as a musician for many years, starting when I was in my early twenties, and was able to travel the world, see new places and meet great people. After a time I got tired of touring and got more interested in recording and producing records. I felt that recordings had a kind of longevity, that live performances didn’t have, and that there was an international forum that was more easily reached with recorded music. So I began creating independent recording projects for myself and other artists and also started publishing my own music and the material of many of the artists I produced. Kim, as you and I always say, “live local, think global."

Why don’t you live in a big city?

For most of my life, I have lived a 45-minute drive from Los Angeles, one of the two major cities in America. That allows me to go to L.A. whenever I want, without having to actually live there. I grew up in Claremont, California, considered by many, one of the best, small, American towns, and I live there today. There are eight colleges within the confines of the community of about 35,000 people. Claremont is situated at the foot of a 10,000 ft. mountain, called Mt. Baldy, and it is located equidistant between the desert and Palm Springs, to the east, the beaches of the Pacific Ocean, to the south and the city of Los Angeles, to the west. I like the intimacy of small town living yet also the obvious advantages of having access to a large city like L.A.. This gives me so many options that I feel that I get to live in the best of two possible worlds.

Clarify the difference between Claremont and Austin; Nashville and L.A.

Claremont is basically a small town in the shadow of a large metropolitan city. Many local musicians and artists from our greater community have used L.A. for merchandising themselves on both a national and global scale. Over the years, musicians from Frank Zappa to Ben Harper have come out of this region and moved into the international arena. Austin is a more isolated and self-contained musical environment that certainly attracts artists from everywhere. However, it doesn’t have the business resources of L.A. or New York, which are considered the two major music markets in America. Nashville, Tennessee is a city that is known primarily for a certain kind of music it produces. Country music can come from anywhere but the business of country music is centered in Nashville. Los Angeles is a huge, music business town, due to the numerous record companies and opportunities that exist there. L.A. is also a music town, but there is no style or genre that determines the musical style of the city.

Who are you a modern version of? Willie Dixon, Jerry Garcia, Billy Strayhorn, or Luther Perkins?

None of them. Each of these musicians have qualities that could possibly pertain to aspects of my own musical style, however, I don’t think I am a direct link to any of these guys.

What do you think of music videos?

I think that MTV introducing the music video severely damaged the music business, by putting looks, age, and visuals ahead of the music being played. I believe that many artists of the 50s and 60s wouldn’t have done as well, had there been music videos at the time. In the pre-video age, the early music was so important to us, that what somebody looked like, what race they were, or what they wore wasn’t an issue. Videos do serve a purpose and allow the listener to see the artist that is performing the song. There have been performance visuals of records for years dating back to the days of Al Jolson and early jazz. However, when the video becomes larger than the song, the way many are today, the “movie” aspect takes the place of a listener’s own mental picture.

What do you think of Facebook?

I like Facebook as a concept. I have a page myself. But for some reason, I don’t use it, like many do, as an advertisement for my personal career. Maybe I would be more popular if I did.

Favorite Drug?

Music! I don’t know how I could live without it.

Favorite Alcohol?

Gin and Tequila, or should I say Martinis and Margaritas.

Favorite Fast Food?

In-N-Out Burger, Double-Double with Cheese, an order of fries and a Dr. Pepper.

Biggest Musical Influence?

I think that I’d have to say Duke Ellington. Ellington, for a long time, has been a major inspiration for me. He was an extremely elegant guy, who was completely loyal to his musicians and friends, and was, in my mind, the greatest, American composer of the 20th Century. It’s not just his music, but how he lived his life, that gets to me. I have a quote from him on my Email page that reads, “Music is my mistress and she plays second fiddle to no one." What else is there to say?

Biggest Spiritual Influence?

I got to meet the Dalai Lama once and got to shake his hand. That was really good. I got to meet Al Greene and also got to shake his hand. I received an electric shock from him that went through my entire body. That was great! Paramahansa Yogananda’s book, The Autobiography of a Yogi, changed the way I look at life.

The person you dislike most in music?

I think it is a toss-up between Chubby Checker and Vanilla Ice!

Best song ever?

I think that the best song for me is “Amazing Grace.” I never tire of it and it has a perfect melody. The words suit it so well that I can’t imagine changing a single one.

Best recording ever?

“Sleep Walk” by Santo and Johnny is my instrumental favorite. “Last Date” by Conway Twitty is the vocal one.

Biggest opportunity regret?

I don’t really have any regrets. An opportunity is not an opportunity if you don’t recognize it!

Best musical achievement that you are proud of?

I always wanted to make records; so just being a recording artist is the achievement I am most proud of.

What do you think music in heaven sounds like?

I don’t have any idea.

What do you think music in hell sounds like….why is it better?

I wrote a song about the Devil called “Old Scratch” and I played a fiddle solo at the end of the song that was supposed to be the Devil playing a violin. It’s one of the best violin solos I ever took in my life.

Chris Darrow’s 1972 solo debut Artist Proof was recently reissued via Drag City; Kim Fowley’s Official, Authorized and Uncensored autobiography, VAMPIRE FROM OUTER SPACE is available now

Photos by Steve Cahill.