Three very different singer-songwriters have banded together for a country act that’s “musical perversity at its very best”
Between them, the Hillbilly Killers have all bases covered. Bill Chambers (“hillbilly daddy” / “Kasey Chambers’ daddy”) is an expert slide, lapsteel and Dobro player who’s truly lived the life of an itinerant musician.
Catherine Britt is a 28-year-old country sweetheart from Newcastle whose career began when she released her first EP aged 14, and which saw her settling in Nashville for six years. For the past couple of years she’s been the Country Music Channel’s first VJ, hosting their ‘Alt Country’ programme.
Then there’s Tim Rogers – You Am I frontman (you’ll be pinching yourself frantically about their just-announced retrospective tour if you’re a fan), meandering troubadour lending himself to a variety of styles, and moonlighter with the Bamboos, with whom he’s just played Bluesfest. When Time Out catches up with him he’s driving himself cross-country to some Hillbilly Killer gigs in Sydney, to avoid yet another plane.
Tim, is this project more laidback, given that you’re not the sole focus of attention?
Well, laidback would be the wrong term. Because I’m playing with people I respect a lot and people and music I didn’t grow up with, I’ve got to pay a lot more attention, and get it to the point where it’s second nature. I’m doing a lot of harmony singing and guitar stuff that I haven’t normally done, so I probably expend just as much mental energy as any other show because I’m not wanting to bugger it up. And it’s potentially great, fun music and emotional... But you’ve got to get to a point where the intention has gotta be there. I talk to people about country music quite a bit these days and people think you can just relax, but absolutely not. You can’t just go and play softer or sing softer because the themes are heartbreak and death and rootin’.
When you were growing up, was there any country music in your house whatsoever?
My dad always had an enormous affection for country music. My parents were very, very big on wanting the kids to listen to the music that they considered real and that had a bit of dirt underneath its fingernails, so I didn’t have an affection for pop music of the day, really. It was blues, rock’n’roll, opera and country was kinda in there with it.
But I definitely didn’t grow up with it in the way that someone Catherine did, who’s been singing country music all her life. As with most things, whether it’s literature or any art form, anything that indicates freedom and a little bit of trouble, I’m all for. I’m enjoying coming to things late, being around these people hearing these musical references everywhere all the time. If I thought I knew something about country music beforehand, I now know I knew nothing. I’m really enjoying the process of learning about things I’ve never heard before.
Is it nerve-racking being something of an interloper when you play a country music hub like Tamworth during the Country Music Festival?
I ended up having one of the greatest experiences of my life. I saw some wonderful stuff and just had a wonderful time. And the Hillbilly Killers’ shows were great and I ended up playing another 14 times just sitting in with people. You’re just surrounded by music the whole time and that’s where I want to be. I’m already looking for a house to stay in for next year. Whether I’m playing or not, I’m definitely going back.
I grew up in the middle of the country close to Kalgoorlie so I love going to country towns. I drive myself everywhere these days, spend a lot of time alone, and I can just pull into towns like that. go out drinking or dancing.
What’s it like travelling in a car with Bill and Catherine? What sort of conversations might you have?
Depends how drunk we are really. We really appreciate that we’re very different and we grew up differently. I get along very well with Catherine’s dad – we’ve got very similar taste in music and we’re like family now, really. We’ve been out on tour before [Catherine supported Tim on his recent solo tour] and had some rough little experiences and some really, really wonderful ones. I wanna look out for her but also realise that she’s a very tough woman who’s been through a number of things that have really toughened her up, so I believe her when she sings. Performing with her is nerve-racking... she’s incredible singer and I love doing harmonies, but I wanna get it right!
As for Bill, I don’t know whether he is like my brother or if he’s like my old uncle who’s going to get me into trouble. But he’s a very young-spirited guy – you know, once again, he’s lived a lot. And I think he enjoys in me that I’m pretty unprofessional to some degree, I just like to chance my arm to see if something works or not. And not over-think everything.
We’re talking about going back to the States in September together and I’ll probably be there with my daughter for a while beforehand. So it’s awesome you know, you just find yourself singing songs, chugging beers – when you stop driving – and just getting down to it. It is as romantic as that. I wouldn’t be involved with it if it wasn’t romantic like that. The one thing we have in common is that we’re lifers. You know, I’ve been on the road longer than I haven’t been on the road, and I will die on the road. That suits me absolutely fine. And I think everyone else is the same.
Lifers – I like that.
When you meet people on the road, whether overseas or over here, you pretty much can separate the people who you know are lifers. We’ve all got other jobs – you know, and thankfully I’ve got great employers that let me take a lot of time off. Katherine’s the same and Michael and James in the band… but we’re committed to this business.
How did your alliance with Catherine and Bill begin?
Well, Bill just sent me a text message, he and I had just been drinking a bit over the past 15 years and through Kasey [Chambers, Bill’s daughter] who is a very dear friend of mine. And he just sent me a text message saying, “Do you like Ernest Tubb?” and I wrote back saying, “Yup, fuck yeah.” And he wrote back saying, “Do you like Jimmie Rodgers?” and I said, “Bill. Call me.”
And so he called me and we had this good talk and he said, “Look, you know, Cath and I have been thinking about getting a band together and I think you’re the guy… you’re the rough edge this diamond needs.”
That’s a bit of a backhanded compliment isn’t it?
Well that’s the way he likes to describe it. I mean, I try my hardest, I think I’ve got a pretty high level of professionality, but you know, I’ve got my problems. But I do my study and my homework, rehearse up everything and turn up mostly on time.
I just jumped at it and it’s been frustrating because we’re so busy in all other regards, and particularly this year with Melbourne TV stuff, I’ve been real busy and just looking for the opportunity to get together. But we’ve finished the record. The record is good to go and we’re just dealing with the business end of it. And we’re already on to writing the next one. It’s warp speed ahead.
Did you take on any new instruments when you were recording?
No, I was just playing differently. But I’m learning piano at the moment, and clarinet and trumpet. But no, it’s just playing and singing in a different way, you know. Without a drummer, you have to provide guitar playing in a way that’s just got to give that rhythm, that chug-a-lug rhythm, and sing better because with country music lyrics, people really listen to that shit, you know? We’ve got a lot of You Am I stuff coming up soon and a big fuck-off tour, it’s making me sing a lot better I think.
I’m having so much more fun doing shows these days and being on the road. You know, I was a pretty serious kid when I started, and I want to see people having a good time and go through a bit of an experience together. Rather than learning new instruments, I’m learning how to play better and be a better performer. And Bill and Catherine and James and Michael are letting me do that.
Just to digress for a second though, I can definitely see you playing the clarinet in the turquoise velvet smoking jacket you’ve got.
Yeah, well at the end of last night I was up playing with the Bamboos up in Byron Bay, and we’re doing a big TV project soon where I’ll be involved with them. But playing with jazz people, is just for me a dream because I’m not very knowledgeable about jazz but I have particular recordings and artists that I just follow. So I ask the horn section if you can replicate this… or can you show me how to do this.
I want to know more about each different form of music but I’m not afraid to ask the questions. And I’m getting a lot from that, and hopefully they don’t mind having a chump like me around, as long as I am not ashamed to learn. Maybe this experience has taught me something and I can contribute to each of the bands.
Time Out note: since this tour is a loss-making machine for all three musicians, do the honourable thing and pick up a copy of their debut single, ‘They Call us the Hillbilly Killers’ when you see them at the Northcote Social Club.