An Interview with Tim Kinsella

When I find him just getting off the tour bus parked in front of SO36, Tim Kinsella is wearing a blue ‘Rainbo’-bread trucker’s hat, sunglasses, and a leather jacket on a day with weather as unpredictable as the music of his 20-year-old band, Joan of Arc.

Their body of work has always included linguistic games, from the studio album Live in Chicago, 1999 (as in ‘I live in Chicago’ rather than denoting a recording of a ‘live’ concert) to their weirdly catchy latest single, “This Must Be the Placenta” (a riff on Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place”). Kinsella is something of a man of letters, his lyrical career having begun as fifteen-year-old front man of the semi-legendary post-hardcore group, Cap’n Jazz.

The band lasted 6 years and released only one full-length album. That band featured Tim’s brother Mike on drums, who would go on to form the band American Football, who also achieved semi-legendary status in the indie/emo/post-rock/math-rock scene by only releasing a single full length album in 1999, until this year, when their sophomore follow-up was released after a 17 year break.

Meanwhile Tim formed Joan of Arc, with whom Mike also played guitar and drums between 1997-2005, but to delve into the web of every band related to Cap’n Jazz members means compiling a long list. Those related to Joan of Arc are less numerous and intricate though nonetheless noteworthy; Make Believe and Owls. The former was assembled as a ‘touring version’ of Joan of Arc, comprised of 3 Joan of Arc regular members with the addition of a third Kinsella: Tim’s cousin Nate. The latter produced two albums in a lineup not too dissimilar from the original lineup of Cap’n Jazz (only one member short), though with a notably different (and more mature) sound.

Earlier this year, Noisey put out an hour documentary on Joan of Arc called Your War (I’m One of You), in which artists as surprising as Devendra Banhart expressed an admiration for Kinsella’s career and its influence.

Their newest album, He’s Got the Whole This Land Is Your Land in His Hands is something of an unexpected noise gem, especially following the heavily guitar-driven riffs of 2013’s Testimonium Songs and 2011’s Life Like. Here the guitars have mostly been replaced by crumbling synths that establish song-long grooves. It opens with a discombobulated reaction to the current state of affairs:

‘What the fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck?/Let’s being with the presmise/that you are king/but then what?’

Their live performance that night was as sharp-edged and hard-rocking as all get-up, highlighting the intensity of the grooves on the new album and turning an acoustic track from 2008’s Boo! Human into a sturdy piece of electric rock.

Tim also has a handful of solo releases as both ‘Tim Kinsella’ and ‘Tim Kinsellas’ (you read that right). He has published two novels (The Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self-Defense and Let Go and Go On and On) and a diary of touring with Make Believe (All Over and Over) through his co-founded Chicago publishing company, Featherproof Books. As if all that weren’t enough, he’s also worked as an adjunct lecturer on Popular Culture for The City Colleges of Chicago.

Maximilien Luc Proctor: Is this more towards the middle or the end of the tour?

Tim Kinsella: This is the last show.

And how was the tour?

It was pretty good. It was all opening for Minus the Bear.  I don’t think their audience particularly loved us. Some of the big city shows were the same size as our own shows. The big difference is in small cities there were a lot more people. Cities were no one would ever come to see us, there were a couple hundred people. Super cool guys, we’ve all gotten tight. It was great.

Did you know Minus the Bear members beforehand?

No, none of us had ever met until we met in a parking lot in Dublin. We have the same management, so we were aware of each other but had never met.

How did this show end up combining with that of American Football?

You know, we were all just going to be here at the same time, so we combined them. That’s happened a couple times. We opened their New York – again we have the same management –  record release show at Terminal 5, only after we had our own show booked playing against that show for like a month, and no one ever noticed, ‘Oh, looks like that’s the same night.’

Was there any moment along this tour where you were struck by any major differences audience-wise from European to American?

No, we’ve been to Europe a lot. This was also a lot of U.K., and we’ve been there a lot a lot. There was a period, maybe 2007-2012, where we actually toured the U.K. more than the U.S. Not for any reason except that’s where people were coming to see us, so that’s where the money was. The first times I came to Europe – ’96, 2003 – I think the differences were a lot more profound. Not just because I was younger and it was new to me, but also things were sort of meeting in the middle. How they were different is becoming less and less so, in terms of show dynamic.

I’m curious about how you come up with all these ‘punny’ song and album titles. This obviously is related to your personal connection to literature, but was it a conscious choice from the beginning to incorporate these jokes or was it just something that happened?

No, there was a short period right before Joan of Arc started, and I’m sure the puns comes partly from Cap’n Jazz too…I was honestly always a bit embarrassed a bit by that stuff when I got a older and looked back on it.

Cap’n Jazz specifically?

Just all the early stuff, it’s so punny and so full of wordplay – too clever, you know? Seems show-offy or something. It distracted from the actual meaning and power of songs. But there is a moment in between Cap’n Jazz breaking up and Joan Of Arc starting, where I had two bands going, and one was sort of like The Modern Lovers and Blues Explosion-y, cool guys. And one was this ambient drone thing, and then we decided to combine them to make Joan of Arc. We didn’t know how we could combine those two things, but I think it was a very important move because it was the first time that we were totally uncomfortable, and we had to get comfortable being uncomfortable – not knowing what the thing was. It wasn’t an intentional thing to do this punny wordplay stuff, but it was an intentional move to be true to ourselves more than some vision of a genre of what we should be. That’s just how I think and how I talk.

Did you want to have this purposeful uncomfortable-ness as well when you were working on stuff for OWLS?

Oh yeah, for sure. The first Owls record definitely more so than the second. It was much more self-conscious. It was also made really quick. We practiced all day everyday for five days, wrote the whole record, and then recorded it not long after. I think at that time maybe I was a little bit bossy about things. It was definitely supposed to feel ‘barely wrong’ all the time, and I think everyone was in on that and psyched about it, but I was really pushing more than anyone else; ‘No no do the exact same drum beat but shift it back one [beat].’ Little things just to make everything off-kilter. I think that just comes from…what’s that word…Like the concept of estrangement, and just making people perk up if things are a little off. Does that make sense?

Yeah, because actually on the way here I found a quote of yours from a bandcamp interview where you said “The primary mission of poetry is to make the ordinary strange.” I googled this, thinking maybe it was from something else, and it took me to ‘defamiliarization.’ Do you think it’s more important than ever as a concept, because now it seems ‘creeping normality’ is more and more prevalent?

Have you ever seen the movie Network?

Yeah.

That’s like 1976, and they were already talking about, ‘there are no nation-states, there are only the interlocking systems of corporate ownership.’ So maybe it’s more important than ever because of the environmental impact and threats to personal freedom, and justice. The threats to justice as a common value are increasing, and people are complacent. So maybe it’s more important than ever to do whatever you can to wake people up a little bit, but it also feels infectious, and like more and more people are – you know, the one really good thing that Trump has done for America is that everyone is politicized now. No one takes their feminism for granted. Everyone is woke and ready to fight, and that feels good.

Getting more involved on a bigger scale?

Yeah and even if it’s not marching, even if it’s (not to say that making punny wordplays is the same as getting out into the streets, but) what’s getting more and more normalized is a collective consciousness that does respect the individual.

Do you take a similar approach in your writing, in trying to shake people up?

In the books? I guess so. There’s very much a common thread through everything I do, that common thread being me. Obviously they’re different tools because it’s a different formats. Like building an engine versus building a…what’s a good analogy? You know, you’re building a couch or you’re building a table: they both sort of have the same function, sort of operate on the same basic principles, but there’s different details for how they work and what’s expected of them. But I would be the same guy building both the couch and the table.

In terms of influence, does stuff you find in literature frequently influence your music and vice versa?

Yes. I can think of two parts on the last Joan of Arc record where we had direct ‘oh let’s do something like this’ moments musically, and both came from Kendrick Lamar songs. People would never recognize it, but we were like, ‘oh man, how the voice changes and the other voice comes in hard on that change with the delay, let’s do that!’ The other one was ‘C-O-M-P-T-O-N’ and then we went ‘C-H-I-C-A-G-O’. So those are like direct musical rip-offs, but other than that things get made through process. We don’t think about the result as much as…the Ramones would have a very different answer. They would say, ‘the benefit of being a band so long is you know how to make the thing sound exactly like you want it to sound.’ For us it’s like we know how to make things well enough that we can play with how they’re made. So it’s just about the process, and the process always being a way to get us thrown off balance. Since this is a film blog, do you know [Robert] Bresson’s Notes on Cinematography? You know about the ‘five deaths’? Where he’s like, ‘the film comes to life in the writer’s mind, then it dies on the page, then it comes to life in the actor’s mouths, then it dies on the camera, then it comes to life in the editing?’ You know that?

[Though I’d heard of this concept and know of the book, I haven’t read it, so I shook my head in shame] No.

It’s kinda like that. Where the thing gets made at every stage. It’s not like it got made in rehearsal and then we recorded it. It’s like: it gets made playing together, then again in recording, then again in editing and again in re-editing and re-editing. So yeah, literature factors in, philosophy factors in, movies factors in, cheese factors in, chili… There’s five of us in Joan of Arc, but we’re playing as a four-piece this tour because one of us had a family thing, but the five of us are so tight and our lives are so intertwined and the trust is so intense that it’s very easy to just submit to the momentum.

Since you mentioned Kendrick – you also talked a little bit in another interview about how you found pieces of contemporary minimalism working in the background of hip-hop, could you go a little more in-depth on this?

Sure, minimalism has always been a big part of hip-hop, and I remember Jessica Hopper, before we even knew each other, talking about the first Joan of Arc record and being like, ‘Oh, people aren’t gonna see this, but you guys are the band that understands hip-hop in the way that the lyrics work versus the repetition,’ and it was like oh cool, someone’s picking up on that. We weren’t doing it consciously, but it was there. And that was 21 years ago. I think probably what I was talking about was that we go back and forth a lot – when we are talking about being specifically influenced by any music, it wouldn’t be rock bands. We have rock band equipment, but there were some years where we were operating basically as a 20th-century minimalist group playing with rock band instruments. Which is to say, partly being like how would Arnold Dreyblatt translate to rock band equipment, and it’s partly to say, the same guiding principles: tension and repetition, tension and release.

I know Joan of Arc did a score for The Passion of Joan of Arc…

Yeah, yeah we’re doing that again this summer! It’s insane…you ever been to the Art Institute in Chicago?

Yeah.

They’re projecting it on the museum and we play on Michigan avenue! It’s totally insane. So after this tour, that’s our big priority.

And is it going to be the same as the recorded version, or sort of improvised?

It’s not improvised, it’s highly composed. But we’re going to re-write it just because we have a different line-up than [when we recorded it]. So we’re going to re-write it with two new members and without one old member.

It seems you have at least some interest in film that goes beyond standard watching. Would you ever make a film?

Oh, I did make a film, yeah. I made one feature in 2007. It actually showed in Berlin once. It showed in Tokyo, I went to that. And it was on at the opening night at the Chicago Underground Film Festival. And then my wife at the time, who I co-made it with…the stress of spending a whole year making this thing sort of provoked our divorce. And then we were both just too depressed to pursue it very far. It did come out on DVD in Japan. So there are copies floatin’ around. It’s sort of set in this ambiguous post-apocalypse kinda thing. It’s sorta like a zombie movie without the zombies, was how we talked about it. It’s just people locked in a room and you don’t know why. One of the characters had gone a little nuts – they’ve all gone a little nuts – but one guy only spoke in Willie Nelson lyrics, so it was a fun challenge to make everything he said fit into the [dialog] but also be a Willie Nelson lyric. We just didn’t think about the legal aspects of that, and it became like, as soon as we started submitting to festivals more they were like, ‘whoa, did you get Willie Nelson’s approval on this?’ Yeah.

What’s the movie called?

It’s called Orchard Vale, which is the name of the apartment complex my dad lived in, that we filmed it at. This is really intense, man. I haven’t thought about this in a long time. He died, and when he died he died really suddenly. So suddenly that he just fell over and didn’t put his arms out to catch himself, so his face hit the floor and there was a big blood stain. There was this cream-colored carpet and then a big blood stain. So we had to try to sell this condo and couldn’t. So I thought, well let’s make a movie in there, do something with this space. So we watched 12 Angry Men a lot, because that’s like how many different camera angles can you get in one room? And then the last thing we did in this one room was put the camera down on the bloodstain. And the whole movie just came to life, because the way that the blood stain was [situated], the frame was just split in half, so you had the kitchen to the right, the living room to the left, with a wall in the middle so that characters weren’t seeing each other; there was a natural split-screen. So the whole secret to the movie then became just the simple gesture of pointing the camera at the one conspicuous thing in the room. Then we sort of re-wrote things and re-blocked so that it played out that way. It was weird. Ten years ago now.

Do you think you’d ever make one again?

Yeah, yeah, I spent a year and a half working on developing this TV project with some people. It had a couple blips of looking like it would go somewhere and then I backed out because of the cost-benefit ratio, it wasn’t the right collaborators.

Do you feel any similarities between being a performer and a teacher?

For sure! Funny you should ask. Not on tour. I’ve played a hundred shows in the last five months. It’s not like a go up there and feel like I’m teaching class, but after a long day of teaching there is this similar adrenaline-slash-exhaustion happening simultaneously that only happens after shows and teaching.

What’s next for you? Even if it’s just taking a break.

No, it’s not taking a break, there’s that Art Institute thing and Cap’n Jazz shows. Maybe ten of those.

What’s it like doing the Cap’n Jazz songs again?

Financially lucrative. [laughs] Honestly. I have no shyness about the fact that it supports the other shit.

When you do those songs, does it bring up any feelings?

Yeah! They’re totally fun to do. The first practice, the first time we were hearing these again, we all got goosebumps, like ‘oh shit, how did we do that as little kids? That’s fucked up! That rules!’ There’s all kinds of little things in those songs that we don’t know how to do now as grown men who’ve been doing it for years, you know? So it’s exciting and it’s fun.

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