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Joan of Arc (Tim Kinsella second from left); Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to interview Tim Kinsella, the Chicagoan musician whose name (whether he likes it or not) has drawn instant connotations to emo, math rock, and avant-garde genres. Having fronted several bands throughout two decades and change of activity, this year sees the 20th anniversary of his longest running act: Joan of Arc. They released their latest album He’s Got the Whole This Land Is Your Land in His Hands in January.
Ryan Gabos: Having such a large body of work, what makes a song meaningful enough to you that it stays in live rotation, considering that you’re playing songs so far back in the catalogue as “The Hands” that are sonically disparate from the songs featured on the new album?
Tim Kinsella: I don’t know, it’s funny, I don’t think of them as sonically disparate. In 2013, the last time we did a lot of touring, we were playing as a four piece and we were very aware of a sort of modularity in which – we ended up playing the same set every day on that tour, which is very different from how we’re playing these days, but what we learned from that tour was – and this comes from our collaboration with Testimonium with this performance art group that really made us think about the distinctive elements of the band… They really stripped us down to guitar-bass-drums, and we got really interested in doing this live collage of, “Okay, this is the bass and the drums, this is bass and the singing, this is the singing and drums, this is the guitar and drums,” you know what I mean? So it got to be the fifth song in the set before the whole band kicked in, so it was this live collage idea we got really into. Not that we expect anyone to watch the show and get that that’s what’s happening, but then at some point in the set in the fifth song when the whole band is playing, we still think people will feel it even if they aren’t understanding the mechanisms of how it’s working. So I don’t think of “The Hands” or “Parish School” or “White Out” to be sonically different. Really, we choose old songs according to – I mean, we just learned an old song at sound check now, “Gripped by the Lips,” that we haven’t played in a couple years – it’s just sort of a matter of one person remembers a song and then we see how it sounds with the current lineup and half the time that we try it, it sticks. Half the time we’re like, “Let’s try this one,” and then someone’s like, “Nah.” But the other half, it really works; like the key to “White Out” is Melina [Ausikaitis]’s fake guitar sounds just like Jeremy [Boyle]’s synthesizers on the original recording. So it’s really a matter of what sounds good in the current context. There’s a time maybe seven years ago where we were touring as a seven piece with such an insane amount of equipment, so we would choose totally different old songs. So yeah, it’s what can seem current.
RG: “Sonically disparate” may have been putting it poorly on my part, what I really meant to get at was that a song such as “The Hands” really surprised me to hear it when I saw Joan of Arc play Knitting Factory in October because it was by far the most conventional song that night.
TK: Oh, sure. It’s funny, I heard a Tony Visconti interview the other day talking about working with David Bowie and he said that Bowie wrote the best song on each record last. He said what was weird is that David would write the whole record – and I’m not calling David Bowie ‘David,’ Tony Visconti is – and after he thought the record was done, he would write this song that would end up being this iconic hit for the record. And Tony Visconti talked about it like it was such a mystery, and I was like, “Well, duh!” Everyone knows that, you assemble this body of work and then you can hear what’s missing. You have a standard, you have these parameters and you’re setting a sort of playing field to work within, and then you know what’s possible and then you write the best song. So when choosing our old songs, it’s like, “Oh, what’s missing in this set that might be an interesting addition that wouldn’t sound too jarring?” And it’s fun to make the old songs feel new, because we didn’t play “White Out” for twelve years before a couple months ago.
RG: I was curious about Melina’s acapella moments in your concerts. How did those come about, and does she write a new song for every show?
TK: She doesn’t, but she does have a deep back catalogue. Actually, the way she ended up in Joan of Arc – she’s old friends with all of us; she’s a visual artist primarily and we all hung out with her a lot – at some point, she was probably around 33 years old, she was like, “Hey, I wrote a song. Will you look at it and tell me what I could do to make it better?” So her project was that she found her childhood journal from when she was like 10 and 11, and it was just an intense period in her life, so she pulled from the journal to make songs verbatim out of it, so that they’re very awkwardly set to song. It felt like a performance project, not like, “I’m going to start writing songs.” So then she started writing songs and shared a similar theme, but she was more consciously writing songs, and then for a while, we started this band The Visceral Realists where it was Melina’s songs and we were her backing band. At some point, we had started doing more and more Joan of Arc stuff again and we were like, “Ah, let’s just integrate the two.” But the songs she sings now on tour are informed by the process of singing those early journal entries verbatim. That was a character she sort of tapped into that helped her write.
RG: I get the sense that that character carries some sort of southern influence? I remember the refrain from her song at the Knitting Factory was, “Your ass is grass.”
TK: She’s actually from Massachusetts, but she grew up as one of eight kids and lived in a log cabin. So certain properties and signifiers might read as southern. We all really love them. And it’s fun to play around with where they fall as a dynamic tension and release for the whole set.
RG: When I saw you at Mercury Lounge this past weekend, you ended the set with a very blitzed-out version of “Full Moon and Rainbo Repair,” and it took me a while to notice because it’s very different from the version on the record. I know you’ve done this in the past before when you’ve shifted styles of songs – an easy example being “Everything All at Once” getting a percussive section in live settings – but this interested me particularly because the record has just come out and already the live version of this song has taken on a more intense form. What inspired that?
TK: The way the record was recorded, we had never played the songs live beforehand. We weren’t liking the songs we were writing, but we were really loving jamming and switching instruments. So “Full Moon and Rainbo Repair” on the record, I know that Melina’s playing guitar, Leroy [Bach]’s playing accordion, and I’m playing piano. I can’t remember who’s doing what else. So then, when we started to figure out how to do the songs on the record live, we did a similar thing that we did with old songs, like, “How can we cover this?” “Cha Cha Chakra,” that one’s all piano and kick drum, but live, it’s this total dub-Bauhaus-guitar-bass-drum thing. Some songs like “Smooshed that Cocoon” and “This Must Be the Placenta” sounded better with the backing tracks rather than doing a cool version with rock instruments, whereas other songs were like, “Oh, here’s the song and it feels good.” Some of it, aesthetically, is just a lot of organizational things, like I was saying about making a live collage out of different pairings of instruments. It’s interesting to us to have a limited palette but seem really expansive because of the way things are combined. I think it’s a primary motivation of how we operate and what we do with this idea of different combinations of a limited palette. So there’s a conceptual aspect in that regard, making choices about how to approach things, but once we have that approach it becomes very simple. Does it feel good and can we let it feel good? We don’t overthink it or stop it or question things too much.
RG: As both an author and musician, your writing has always featured a spiraled or deconstructed aspect to it – this goes as far back to Cap’n Jazz with the “In the Clear” lyric, “Canine ate seven sick five year olds,” to song titles since then such as “(You) [I] Can Not See (You) [Me] As (I) [You] Can,” to your novel Let Go and Go On and On, to the sheer title of the new Joan of Arc record. What is the attraction to such clever and challenging language?
TK: I don’t know if I can answer that, because I don’t think I intend to be clever. My job is to be a creative writing teacher; I’ve been doing it for about eight years at a couple different universities in Chicago. Cleverness is something that I’ve been scratching out of people’s stuff. I feel like my bias is for clarity. Maybe the music is less serious in some way, like it’s an outlet for me to feel like it’s fun or something. I could give you a highfalutin shamanic answer about the world being created out of language – I used to be pretty obsessed with where the post-structuralists overlapped with ancient shamans and this idea of the world being created by language. But double meanings have always attracted me because it puts the responsibility of meaning on the listener, like, I never want to be an authoritarian figure. I’m never interested in any art form of someone being like, “This is how I feel.” Okay, make me feel it. It’s like the T.S. Eliot idea of the objective correlative; placing two objects next to each other and their resonance creates a feeling, instead of saying, “This is how I feel.” I think I’ve always been attracted to that. Some people might read it as shirking responsibility, but I don’t see any great responsibility in our band. We aren’t working on music, we’re playing music. It’s playful. It gives us great joy.
Sometimes you have a tall friend and you’re like, “Hey, do you know this guy?” and they’re like, “Yeah, short guy?” “Well, you can’t say that because everyone looks short to you.” It’s just the inherent nature of this guy that he’s tall. So I don’t even know that the language stuff is happening. It’s just a thing that people identify and tell me that it’s happening.
RG: A song title like “This Must Be the Placenta,” I think it’s one of the best puns I’ve ever come across – I laughed out loud the first time I read the title.
TK: Thank you, yeah, it’s a really gross song. There’s a lot of really gross humor about… “hanging out.” The wordplay there being “after birth” and eating the afterbirth. The big thing about all of this is that I never impose meaning on a song. It’s more like, we have a song and then I have 17 pages of one liners that I like, and then I moan along to a song, and I’m like, “Okay, this is where these lines fall, these are the vowel sounds…” and then I flip through those 17 pages and I’m like, “Ah, this is a cool phrase that fits that melody,” and once the two things are there, then it’s a lot of prepositional work and making connective tissue between the two. So this is how I can allow songs to bloom without me ruining them by telling them what they should be about.
RG: There are certain bands that warrant fans that aren’t of the fair weather persuasion. I feel like Joan of Arc is one of those bands; the standard Joan of Arc fan is an enthusiast.
TK: Right. Which is amazing, we’re so grateful for it every day, it blows our minds. This tour has just been incredible. Durham on a Tuesday last night, the room was full and Richmond on a Monday, the room was full. It’s incredible to us. It’s so great.
RG: Part of that enthusiasm lends itself to the “burden” or connotation of the Kinsella name. I read your Make Believe tour diary, All Over and Over. There are many funny passages in that book, although it seemed like mania for you at the time. Has touring gotten easier since?
TK: After the last time we did two-and-a-half months of touring straight, we had to take a whole year off, and that’s when the Owls record happened and then after a year we started writing and then we went to Japan and England and we could do a week or ten days in a row, and that doesn’t faze us at all, but the scale of this thing is hitting us now. Me and Theo [Katsaounis] both had the flu for a couple days, we’re both feeling better today, but our hotel room was like a hospital in the middle ages. Disgusting. So, it gets a little harder because you don’t have the, I don’t know…
TK: Stamina, sure. 42, not 22.
RG: There are scenes in All Over and Over that depict certain fans giving you a little too hard of a time – for instance, this one kid had convinced himself somehow and told all of his friends that Make Believe were going to be staying the night at his pad, plus he and you would be working on music later. Does it get easier as time goes on to handle fans like that who are so attracted to the emo nostalgia that your work can’t seem to escape? Especially considering how He’s Got the Whole is likely sonically the farthest thing you’ve made from that genre.
TK: The moment that I wrote All Over and Over in, I mean, that’s a long book to write in three-and-a-half weeks. I think at that point, we were on tour 200/250 days out of the year and barely scraping by, so I think it was just too much of a good thing. Now, there’s a better sense of ratios in my own real life. It’s much more manageable. I really appreciate it, it’s an amazing gift that there’s people that appreciate what I do. Obviously, me and Mike [Kinsella] do different things. I feel so incredibly lucky – Mike Kelley, the artist from LA – the Art Institute asked me to do something in response to his show that’s going up this spring and I feel like the luckiest guy in the world, to be the guy that gets that call. Or, this friend of mine who did a show at the American Museum of Contemporary Photography asked me to write an essay for the show and it blew up into a much bigger thing. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to be asked to do those sorts of things. I teach creative writing, so it’s not like I make a living off doing those things or Joan of Arc, but Mike doesn’t get asked to do those things and I don’t get asked to play giant shows for lots of money [laughs]. We have a good yin yang balance. Any popularity that American Football has that reflects on us in any way, I just see as good for us.
RG: Is there a case you can make for the super fandom? Rarely do you hear someone saying, “Oh, I like a few Joan of Arc songs.” They are often in it for the long haul.
TK: We require an audience member to be open… this might sound funny, we all love Dinosaur Jr and My Bloody Valentine and Fugazi, but we don’t really listen to rock music. We aren’t even conceptualizing what we do in terms of… I was stuck in an Uber that got stuck in traffic a couple of months ago with my two business partners, and they were talking and the driver had on some modern rock radio and at one point they were calling my name for a long time, and I was like, “Oh, I’m sorry.” I was just fixated on the production value of song after song sounding so horrible to me, and I just never really hear contemporary rock. And it’s not because I’m trying not to, it’s just not a thing in my life. I’m a 42-year-old man, I have my interests and that is just not a part of it. But I am aware that we use the elements of a rock band to do whatever the thing we do, so I think people must be open to that. I think the band is a lot weirder than people think it is.
RG: How so?
TK: Just from how people talk about it to me. Because the way that I think about it is just how I think, like it doesn’t take any effort to be yourself. So in that way, the band gets easier and easier, because in a lot of ways, it gets easier to be confident in being yourself as you get older.
You may purchase the new Joan of Arc record here.
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