Tim Kinsella on returning to the music he’s spent most of his career trying to shake.
He’ll never admit it, but Tim Kinsella helped invent what we now know (and deride) as emo in 1989, when he was all of 14. The basement band he started in Wheeling, Illinois, with his brother, drummer Mike Kinsella, and two friends—guitarist Victor Villareal and bassist Sam Zurick—was a flash of furiously inspired kid genius, too artful and poppy to be properly called postpunk, and he fronted it like a wriggling postpubescent shaman. Cap’n Jazz, as they called themselves after a couple quick name changes, didn’t last long—they split in 1995 after only one album—but they were succeeded by what became an entire genre of squeaky boys going apoplectic over muscular riffs. Over the years, bands influenced by Cap’n Jazz have become more and more mainstream, but Kinsella has stayed underground, making personal, obtuse, and political records in bands like Owls, Make Believe, and Joan of Arc—usually with other former members of Cap’n Jazz.
In January the late-period Cap’n Jazz lineup—with Davey Von Bohlen of the Promise Ring on second guitar—reunited for a four-song set at the Empty Bottle as part of the Joan of Arc Don’t Mind Control Variety Show. Rumors flew about a reunion tour, and they turned out to be true. This Saturday’s set at Wicker Park Fest will cap that tour, which began earlier this month and included two sold-out shows at Bottom Lounge during Pitchfork. It’s also the last local Cap’n Jazz show on the books till the fall, when the band convenes in Chicago for what Kinsella says will be its final gig.How is being back in Cap’n Jazz?
We’ve been playing together, practicing, for a while, so we’ve had plenty of time to get used to it. But, like, right now we’re in a trailer backstage [at the Jelly NYC Pool Party in Brooklyn] with Lightning Bolt and No Age, huge bands, and they’re opening for us, and it’s this giant production and so—it’s very strange. It’s very simple on our end still. But here it is, a sold-out show. Packed.But it can’t be that strange—I mean, at every show you’ve played since the day Cap’n Jazz broke up, someone has probably yelled for a Cap’n Jazz song during the set.
A quarter of my income is Cap’n Jazz royalties, so I knew people were buying records. It’s weird to see who those people are and see them assembled somewhere. We played the Black Cat in D.C. and it was sold-out and the air-conditioning went out—it was insanely hot. We were just drenched. Everyone was. We played at a roller rink to 1,200 people, and today we’re playing outdoors in New York and it’s in the 90s. It’s just sweaty and insane.It has to be a lot like the basement shows and Fireside shows that Cap’n Jazz played the first time around—it’s just like sweatiness on a different order of magnitude.
The amount of physical turmoil involved now, at this age . . . I feel like I have heartburn the entire time I’m onstage. It’s intense.How’s it feel to be back in a punk band at 35?
[Laughs] I expected there to be an embarrassed feeling—and then there’s the stage diving, and I have no shirt on, which given the heat is my only option.
[/B]How are you finding the spotlight?[/B]
Having been in this band has enabled everything I’ve done since. Its popularity was abstract, because it was over before it ever started—it’s less weird now because it’s only 12 or 13 shows and that’s it. Over. That’s part of the excitement for people, I think, knowing the only time they will see it is now.You’re someone who seems to have a total absence of nostalgia, creatively and as a fan—is it embarrassing on a certain level to be part of a hugely nostalgic thing?
Everything that ever happened exists again. I didn’t expect to be embarrassed by that part. The embarrassing part is singing my sincere high school poetry in public—but it’s not like I’m suddenly endorsing it. I’m able to do it because I am so different now that I’m no longer accountable for it. It’s like I’m singing the work of a guy who happened to have my same name. I am removed and can be very excited now.Is there any particular thing you cringe at when you’re singing?
I no longer have that kind of attachment to it.What you made at 16 has had an almost 20-year shelf life—are you flattered by being able to witness that?
Of course. How I summon energy is by watching how excited people in front are. I think I am more aware of trying to be a channel for that, more than projecting out. . . .
No one likes our other band, [Owls], and they know about it and the other bands I’ve done, but they don’t care—so in that there, in the excitement, there’s an element of negating everything I’ve done in the 16 years since.Why did you get the band back together? Every other band you’ve ever had, you’ve had no problem breaking it up and reassembling it with different players. So I always thought this was something you’d never do—Cap’n Jazz in the classic lineup.
This is the first time it was really possible for all of us, in terms of schedule and willingness. There was so much distance from it, I felt OK.Early to midperiod Joan of Arc was such a strong reaction to this, to your teenage time with Cap’n Jazz.
Yes, I wanted to do a different thing for me personally—I felt trapped by it.Cap’n Jazz’s legacy is like a ghost in your career.
It’s weird to be a 35-year-old man saying "Cap’n Jazz" every day still. But it’s better than "Toe Jam," which was our original name; that’s the silliest part.Our first semiserious bands when we’re young are the bands where we learn how to be in bands. What are the things you learned from Cap’n Jazz that you go back to when you’re in this exact group?
It’s incredibly shocking how similar it is to the first time around. How we all are—the idiosyncracies between us are very much consistent with 15 years ago.Did that surprise you?
No, it’s just that you expect something like that, and when it’s exact—Did you expect something different because Davey is an accountant now and not, like, a 12th grader?
[Laughs] A lot is exactly the same, and when it’s like that it’s actually really bizarre. Scary.What are the bands that you care about that have reunited? Do you think there are good examples of how to do it?
If it wasn’t for the Bauhaus reunion, I wouldn’t be able to do this. This wouldn’t be happening.Why?
They were my favorite band ever so it was my favorite night ever and made me realize it didn’t have to be, like, a hardcore band keeping it real for the kids or something like that. This—it feels like our first shows. We are new to all these people.
Playing to all these people in Philly, I asked if anyone there was at our last Philly show in December 1994—it was a show at Jon Hiltz’s house. And here we are now, with Jon Hiltz doing monitors for our sold-out show, and this kid in front yells, "I was three!" So these are people who are new to us.Your Chicago crowds are probably people who all grew up seeing you, who can compare the old band and the new band—what are your audiences elsewhere like?
I have been hugged by sweaty bigger dudes more in the last week than ever in my life. A good amount of our audience is sweaty big guys.So does this mean Owls are back together?
We are already, I guess, in a manner of speaking. [Laughs]Is Cap’n Jazz a better band now?
We sound like the record, so it depends on what better is. We learned it as covers, these songs, from the album. We have a better sense of control and of our tones as adults, so in a way. . . . Maybe better was before—sloppy and out of tune and boundless energy. We can’t fake that. v