Only I Can Fuck it Up: an Interview with Tim Kinsella of Joan of Arc
March 30th, 2011
Interviewed by Ryan Donar
Five til six I stand in this seedy, cathedral lit bar in Ukrainian Village of Chicago fumbling through change to find a quarter to start a game of Pac Man. After a death my girlfriend turns to me, “Tim is waiting at the bar”. I leave the system with two lives left and greet him. We talk for a bit about Parts and Labor, The Skull Defekts and The Simpsons then proceeded to a side table in the back of the bar.
So you’ve had a pretty busy year so far with the release of the collaborative Oh Brother LP and the new Joan of Arc line up debut for Life Like as well as playing SXSW. How did you come up with the idea for Oh Brother?
It didn’t feel like much work. It doesn’t seem like my year has been busy because of that or anything like that. I finished grad school last May so I bought my first new Pro Tools set up at home in like ten years. There’s a big difference in Pro Tools 5 and Pro Tools 8, so I couldn’t really figure it out for a long time, and I kept pulling up old sessions to fool around with to get a hang of the editing. We had started practicing and writing new songs and were talking a lot about what a record should be like in an era of mp3s and the way people listen to a record; a side of a record versus laptop on shuffle. So we decided, “well songs should be 20 minutes long on each side”, and Oh Brother kind of just grew out of those things.
You worked with a lot of people on Oh Brother; how did you pick these musicians for the record?
The sessions happened over a long time. The Friend/Enemy portion of it was recorded in 2004 on the day of the Bush/Kerry election, and at that point all of us in Joan of Arc were living in a loft together, so we were recording all day every day anyways, and Zach Hill was on tour and planned a day or two off to be in town to record with us. The Mineral Totem stuff happened when my friends and I planned to go to this artist residency at the same time, and we were there at the same time as Todd and Jeremy, so we ended up playing a lot. Lichens was me and Rob Lowe, who I had hung out with for fifteen years until he moved away. They were all supposed to be separate records that never got finished and were just woven together.
When writing it, did you have parts already picked out and just improvised around them?
I don’t know when the writing happened. A lot of it was just mostly jamming. We are working on this thing now; we’ve written a soundtrack for the silent movie The Passion of Joan of Arc which is happening at this big church down the street, and it got us really thinking about music versus songs. Because music is this thing that I really love playing and writing songs is this craft separate from music so a lot of the early Joan Of Arc records, there’s a lot of tension between moments where we were playing music and moments where we were crafting songs out of the music. So I would say Oh Brother was more like a lot of music being played which wasn’t written until the editing. The crafting was all in the editing.
Do you have the soundtrack all written out for The Passion of Joan of Arc?
We’ve spent the last month all day, every day writing it. It’s sort of crazy; I’ve never written an eighty-five minute instrumental piece of music before. We have six major themes that we came up with and lots of variations according to the scenes of the movie and lots of harmony, tempo change and inner-cutting the themes into each other. It’s a lot of fun, especially after Life Like, where we were very much just like a rock band; guitar, guitar, bass and drums. Now for this it’s the same four of us, but I play acoustic guitar, electric guitar, air organ, synthesizer and drums so each of us have this stack of instruments.
So Victor Villareal has been added to the Joan of Arc line-up. How and when did this happen?
While we were doing the Cap’n Jazz reunion we were talking about making a new Cap’n Jazz record or a new Owls record, and somehow it just wasn’t coming together or feeling right. We aren’t very similar to each other, the five of us in Cap’n Jazz so there were always various tensions. It was more likely an Owls record to happen rather than a Cap’n Jazz record but even that we weren’t able to work out, so after Victor returned back to the world from being a hermit for the past eight or ten years he had a lot of people ask to join their bands so every time I’d see him he would be like ‘hey do you know this guy, he asked me to join his band’ and ‘hey, this guy asked me to join his band’ and Victor doesn’t really know that many people so he was getting kind of weirded out by all of these offers. We had written the record as a three piece, which was weird and spacious which I sort of regret, well I can’t say I regret not making that record but it was a lot like the Meaningful Work 7″, and then Victor asked us to join Joan Of Arc right before we went on tour and we all started practicing the next day.
You recorded with Steve Albini for Life Like. This is the first in-and-out studio album that Joan of Arc has recorded am I correct?
Yeah, Make Believe recorded with him as well as Owls and this Chris Connelly album I produced.
Which studio did you record in?
Studio B. Are you familiar with Electrical?
You do recording there?
Ha, no. Just a big Albini fan.
Ah yeah, he’s awesome.
Is there any future for Make Believe? Are you guys on hiatus?
‘mmmmmmmmmmmm’ We don’t talk about it. Yeah, actually I doubt it. There was a while when it seemed like it would still happen, then I quit and then I was like ‘alright I can do it’, then Nate moved because his girlfriend went to Grad School but now Sam Zurick has disappeared into the desert about two weeks ago. I was the last person he was still talking to for the past few months but now he’s stopped talking me, and last we knew was that he went out to the desert. There’s some interpersonal conflicts between another couple of us that seem irresolvable that seems too bad. I wouldn’t count on any new Make Believe any time soon. It would take various different miracles.
You’ve done some films in the past, how is that going?
Not really much film, I mean Orchard Vale yes, but not really.
I’ve looked for that movie for quite some time and the only place I can find it is on this Japanese site, and I can’t read Japanese.
It was only released in Japan because there’s a lot of Willie Nelson lyrics in it. One of the characters actually speaks only Willie Nelson lyrics. So there were legal issues because we weren’t able to get the rights to them.
Orchard Vale was shown up here at a festival right?
Yeah, there were a couple screenings up here, one in Tokyo and one in Berlin.
Is there any way to see it?
Yeah I have a copy of it at my place that I could grab for you. It didn’t end up like it should’ve; obviously there’s the whole challenge of making anything is getting across to be expressive in some way similar to how it is in one’s mind. There’s sort of a mastery of other things other than film. There’s always a margin of error of how something comes across and with Orchard Vale I think that margin of error was pretty big.
I saw one of your short film’s, A Lover’s Discourse; how long ago was that made?
Five years ago? Six years ago? I guess six, seven years ago. Yeah it was all of the same people that made Orchard Vale; it was sort of our practice run. We knew that we had to film Orchard Vale very quick due to our budget restraints. Our sort of practice was to make this thing where we shot and made as many locations in two days because mostly what we needed to practice was setting up and breaking down. It was like five a.m. to midnight two days in a row, breaking down and setting up.
You mentioned Graduate school a little while ago, what did you study?
I got an MFA in writing at the Art Institute here in Chicago. I was never one of those people that thought about going back to school. I made Orchard Vale with my ex-wife, and it was the editing that sort of ended our marriage. Then I sort of woke up one day and I was in graduate school and was like, ‘What the hell am I doing here? This is horrible!’ but it’s whatever, I’m glad to be done with it.
Rumors say that you are beginning, or have already started a novel. Is this true?
Yeah, it’s sort of a natural continuation. It makes sense to talk about this after Orchard Vale because my ex-wife is a film maker. She makes mostly political documentary films, and it was a natural way for us to collaborate which we were both co-dependent for seven years or something we were like ‘Oh wouldn’t it be fun to make something together and spend all day making things’. So that was like the meeting of the middle, then the collaborating destroyed our relationship, and I feel like I was a good sport about it I wasn’t like, you know, I didn’t, eh whatever I did my best. The novel is what Orchard Vale would’ve been if I wasn’t married to her and she wasn’t a film maker, Orchard Vale would’ve just been a novel, it would’ve been a different novel because it was written specifically because of our means because we knew what we could afford these two locations and these five people to connect, what’s the story around them. The story was written around our means and the novel feels satisfying because I can sit in my apartment in silence and not talk to anyone, and it’s so much different making a movie because on that level there is so much collaboration. With music I constantly fluctuate between collaborating and playing solo and then like collaborating in a way where I’m bossing everyone around and collaborating where it’s very open so it’s always moving. The novel is the ultimate solo endeavor. My editor and publisher are great help pointing out to me ‘this paragraph is really hard to follow, maybe this sentence should be at the beginning of the paragraph instead of the bottom, and this character seems confused’. But at the end, it’s still the ultimate solitary thing to take on. Only I can fuck it up.
You recently just got back SXSW; how was that this year?
I don’t think I need to go back anytime soon. It’s like spring break, and I don’t really have the disposition to do well at parties. SXSW is like being trapped in a crowded bar on a Saturday night for four days straight. It’s my third year in a row going this year, and it’s kind of cool to see friends from everywhere, but you play five shows in forty-eight hours and you don’t get paid, you just do it to kiss the label’s ass a little bit.
Has SXSW changed over the years?
I never went until a few years ago because every year of my life from 1995 I’ve always had a record label bug to me go do it and I always said, ‘no, I don’t want to go to this spring break, false sense of community, which is actually a corporate community thing. We could play Austin a week or two later and it’s one of those cities in the states that we do the best, so it’s like why go play for free there when I could make a couple hundred bucks playing any other time of the year, and I need that because a couple hundred bucks is a big deal to me. So I refused to go, but then I went a couple years ago and enjoyed it then I went back, and went back again, now I don’t need to. You know when you dread something and then you do it and your like, ‘well that wasn’t so bad’ so then you go into it thinking, ‘this is actually pretty fun’ then you go back into it thinking, ‘well I had fun last year’ then you’re like ‘fuck this’. It’s all a matter of how it exists in your expectations.
Did you see a lot of shows down there?
Not really, we played five sets in like forty-five hours. I accidentally saw OMD and that was totally stupid. I saw J. Mascis and that was cool. We played this noise show that was really good but I don’t know any of the bands’ names.
Where do you think the future is music is heading with all of these copycat and laptop bands?
The contemporary music culture is just not interesting to me but it’s also like, repulsive because I am dealing with what I have to deal with and I can block it out and when I do have to be aware of it then it really doesn’t pertain to me.
You haven’t really played the Southeast in a while have you?
Well we just played the Southeast for the first time in a couple of years, and I don’t think we are going to do that again.
I don’t know. I hate it; I hate not being in big cities. I mean, Asheville is beautiful, but I mean in Richmond the doorman was mugged at the door during the show and all of the money was taken, the club owners were real cool and they had a guarantee. Then I caught the flu, and then Victor got the flu. Then we gave this guy a jump and he went to go close the hood to our van and it went down and bent the arm that holds the hood up, so the hood wouldn’t close and he was like ‘Oh, that sucks, see you later’. Then there was a tornado when we were in Orlando and the band['s van] we were touring with (Pillars and Tongues) broke down. Then we played this one show where we were like, ‘let’s just go this isn’t even worth playing,’ that show was the show that nothing actually happened. It just sucked so much; it was like five born-again Christians playing alternative punk in a strip mall. The next day a bar room brawl broke out in Pensacola while we were setting up. In Gainesville I got into a horrible argument with the audience the whole time, they were just totally like harassing us.
So there’s probably no possibility of coming to Asheville anytime soon right?
Oh we played Asheville three or four times and no one ever showed up, and all of our friends’ bands would go there and they would always be like, ‘ahh it was a great show’ then we’d go and no one would be there.
I saw Parts and Labor down there expecting a lot more people but was really surprised; there was like at times only seven people actually watching the band.
We never played for seven people down there; it was more like zero or one.
The Cap’n Jazz reunion seemed to be a really big success, sold out shows right?
Yeah, they were great.
The original Cap’n Jazz fanbase back in the days of the band, was it big?
Well, depends. We had our fans, and if less than forty people showed up it was a rough night, if more than two hundred then we must’ve been doing something right.
You’ve been playing a lot of Owls songs on tour with Joan of Arc and the self-titled LP was just reissued. Is there a possibility of an Owls reunion?
I don’t even remember it happening, being told it was going to go back in print, I didn’t even know it was out of print. The Owls reunion depends on if Sam emerges from the desert. I’d like to think that if you asked them the same question they would. I’d like to think that I’m in the position to get along with everyone.
Polyvinyl just released a box set of Joan Of Arc cassettes after some records began to go out of print such as the first LP, A Portable Model Of.
The point of the box set is to attach mp3s to the album.
The song “Fogbow” off of Flowers, did you or Bobby or write that?
We wrote it together. He actually had the riff on guitar and he brought it to Joan of Arc. Flowers is one of the few records where we really hit it, really got across what we meant to do. Flowers is the last one that was really representative of what we wanted to do. Bobby showed up with instruments, no songs and didn’t know what to do. We liked the riff to “Fogbow” and added synth to it.
Do you think that you hit it with Boo! Human?
Well, that’s a very distinct record from all of the others. My ex-wife, who was with me for 8 years (we never argued), woke up one morning and was like, “Should I move out or should you?” So I was doing really bad and I was sent to the studio and started recording.
What are your thoughts on contemporary music and the contemporary underground right now?
It’s not really relevant to my lifestyle you know? Obviously it affects my lifestyle greatly. I’d like to think it will get better, but it never was.
Why do you think Pitchfork hates you?
I have no idea. I don’t know. Its super weird; they are all like Chicago people, but I don’t know them, don’t know who they are. I don’t know if I cut in front of someone in line or stepped on someone’s toes. They blacklisted us. Those reviews got really personal. There was an interview a month or two ago where one of the guys from Pitchfork talked about how I threatened to fight one of them or something. I don’t know what he’s talking about on public radio. I’ll take all of Pitchfork. I wish they liked us more. More people would come to shows. I’m almost always broke, almost always out zero.
What do you think about Pitchfork always hyping up these Animal Collective copycats and whatnot?
I don’t know. I wish we had the Pitchfork hype. It’s pretty distinguished; I don’t know how one would separate it from organized crime. It gets darker and darker.
We then stopped recording the interview, finished our beers and proceeded out into the cold Chicago wind towards his apartment. He handed me a personal copy of his film Orchard Vale in his living room. After making small talk about a kitten and a Castro poster, Tim followed us out to lock up behind us and wished us best of luck.