How Tim Kinsella Works

Chicago’s Joan Of Arc and its eccentric lead singer Tim Kinsella have a knack for making listeners think, an ability all too uncommon at a time when so much music is devoid of meaning. Formed from the ashes of underground punk favorites Cap’n Jazz, Joan Of Arc’s first two albums — A Portable Model Of and How Memory Works — make an emotional impact without relying on standard “emo” style guides. But after the departure of bassist Eric Bocek and guitarist Sam Zurick, Kinsella and Jeremy Boyle were left as Joan Of Arc’s only members (Todd Mattei joined shortly thereafter).
The solution?
Hole up in the home of noted producer and engineer Casey Rice and work gradually on Live In Chicago, 1999 (Jade Tree). This new approach has yielded a very sophisticated record, with a myriad of possible interpretations for Kinsella’s quizzical lyrics.
Kinsella and Mattei took the road for a short tour in early May, prior to Live’s release, to test out songs in highly stripped-down renditions. Nude As The News associate editor Jonathan Cohen met the duo in the basement of New York City club Brownies to discuss the new album, the recording process and their favorite Fiona Apple videos.
NATN: How many shows have you guys played on this tour?
Tim Kinsella: Six shows, I think. We were just going to go on a trip, but it ended up that we were asked to play some shows. We actually didn’t even practice before we left. We didn’t know how it would sound.
NATN: Who is in the band currently?
TK: Originally my brother Mike — he played drums on the last record — he’s been in and out the whole time. He played drums before the first record was recorded, quit before we recorded that record, toured for that record, recorded the second record, toured for that and then quit.
Eric and Sam, who played bass and guitar the whole time, quit and started Ghosts And Vodka, which is way more mathy and rocking than this. We replaced the two of them with Todd. We downsized a bit.
NATN: Can you talk about the basic differences between the last record and this one?
TK: Sound-wise?
NATN: Or, compositionally.
TK: Well, the process of making this was a lot different than the last one. For the last one we had completely written songs, we just went into the studio and recorded them.
This one, instead of going into a big studio for a short amount of time, we went and recorded it in Casey Rice’s living room and were able to spend about four months working on it. The songs were really just kind of “parts.” We could then put the parts on tape, and write to the recording and re-arrange it.
NATN: Some of them are more fragmented than others. But “Who’s Afraid Of Elizabeth Taylor?” and “If It Feels / Good, Do It” seem pretty fluid.
TK: Even those were put together during the recording process. We recorded it all on Pro Tools software, so you can just chop it up and say, “Oh that was nice. Let’s repeat that this many times, or let’s shorten that.” They were all put together that way.
NATN: Having had the experience: Which method of recording do you prefer?
Todd Mattei: I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about the future. It’s one really interesting way of doing things.
TK: I think I’d be interested in doing the opposite approach, just to get back in the habit of actually writing songs as a band. I wouldn’t say we’re going to do one or the other for good.
NATN: Can we talk about the meanings of a couple of the songs?
TK: The meanings?
NATN: Well, there’s some very interesting imagery on some of the new songs, especially “Me (plural).” (a piano-heavy duet with singer Jen Wood)
TK: I wouldn’t really know how to [explain the meaning]. I think we’re all kind of way more into throwing something out there and seeing what we’ve got, instead of starting from an idea and trying to focus on that idea. So, uh, that song is about a couple different things, and you can kinda have your idea what it’s about…
NATN: So, you guys are comfortable with each listener interpreting the songs differently?
TK: Oh, yeah. I mean, that’s a large part. That’s why we did these shows [ed. note: a short tour with only Tim and Todd performing] without the full arrangements of the songs. The songs sound completely different. “Me (plural)” for example — without the bass line, the drum roll and the piano, it’s a completely different song. It is very interesting to say, “OK, this is how we made the song sound — now if we just play these parts, how will it sound in different peoples’ heads if we just play these parts — how will it sound without those parts there?” I’m all about leaving it open to be finished by someone else.
NATN: Talk a bit about the cover art and the tie-in with the movie “Weekend.”
TM: That’s a really tough one. I think it’s a fun thing because the cover art can be taken as sort of in a similar way to the music. It’s there to be part of it, and not just a dressing. I guess that’s all.
TK: That’s kind of how I see it. The cover art makes no sense. You can’t make a story out of the stills we have depicted from the movie. It’s like us doing these shows without the whole band. If you take those parts of the movie and isolate them, you don’t get the whole movie by any means. Some of the themes are sort of similar (to the music), so I like that, but it’s also open-ended and cartoony and that’s kind of important.
NATN: Is that Casey Rice stuffing a sandwich in his face?
TK: Yep.
NATN: What’s the movie about?
TK: I can’t really explain it, but it’s definitely worth seeing. I’ve seen it like 10 times. It’s kind of a funny, apocalyptic, socialist manifesto told backwards. It addresses every element of culture and fucks with it.
NATN: I’m sure there’s already been a fair amount of confusion over the album title, no?
TK: (asking Todd) You, or me?
TM: Oh. You’re the word guy.
TK: I’m kind of curious to see what you think. We’ve never talked about what he thinks. The way I see it is: In Chicago, there’s this very small neighborhood from this bar named the Rainbow to this other bar named the Goldstar, to our house, to this cafe named Jinx to this restaurant named Leo’s. Casey Rice lives in there, we all live in there. Everyone we know lives in a six block radius — it’s like being in a college dorm. You all know who is sleeping with who that month, or who quit which place to work at another place. And that’s what we were in the middle of when it was happening. It’s very much like, in my mind, a record about me living in that little microcosm.
NATN: What were the last few records you guys bought?
TK: I just bought Scott Walker 2. And Autechre.
TM: The new Bonnie Prince Billy is really good.
NATN: Are you guys psyched for the Joan Of Arc miniseries on TV?
TK: I’ve heard about, but I don’t know anything about it.
NATN: So, how does memory work?
TK: I don’t know, man. The week that record came out, we were on tour. I don’t remember where we were — South Dakota or some shit. We were at a convenience store and Newsweek that week had “How Memory Works” really big on the cover — a special issue all about how memory works. You can read that Newsweek and find out. I bought a couple copies.
NATN: What’s your favorite Fiona Apple song?
TK: I just like the videos.
NATN: What’s your favorite Cap’n Jazz song?
TM: I like the whole anthology (released on Jade Tree Records).
TK: I don’t really have a favorite.
NATN: Okay then, how about your least favorite?
TK: The name! We can start with the name, which would be my least favorite.

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