Tim Kinsella :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Tim Kinsella first landed in my headphones courtesy of Cap’n Jazz’s seminal record, Burritos, Inspiration Point, Fork Balloon Sports, Cards in the Spokes, Automatic Biographies, Kites, Kung Fu, Trophies, Banana Peels We’ve Slipped On and Egg Shells We’ve Tippy Toed Over, more commonly referred to as Shmap’n Shmazz. Somewhere in the Southeastern Wisconsin spring of 1996, I got my hands on a ripped cassette copy of the already out of print CD and like a set of doors hand squeegeed by William Blake himself, the slow fade-in of Little League opened the expanses of midwestern post-punk for me. 

As infamous as those early efforts remain, the Cap’n Jazz luminary turned Joan of Arc front man is also an acclaimed novelist, film director and actor–not to mention an intermittent writing professor. Endlessly prolific, Kinsella has published several books including Sunshine on an Open Tomb (2019) and The Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self-Defense (2011). Most recently, he starred in Brielle Brilliant’s 2021 feature, Firstness

With their latest, Gimme Altamont, Kinsella and Jenny Pulse deliver an 8-song prelude to their upcoming double lp (2023) that proves a beautifully melodic and inspired stand-alone effort. Ahead of the late summer release, Kinsella and I caught up by phone. Gracious and unguarded, we talked for well over an hour covering everything from the significance of Gimme Altamont and the importance of creating systems for creativity to the lasting effects of a bad review and the endless obstacles of releasing new music in the modern world. | n lekas

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Aquarium Drunkard: Cap’n Jazz showed me that there was another side to punk music, and right in my own region. I’m wondering, what music first opened those doors for you? 

Tim Kinsella: You know, two things come to mind. I got Bauhaus The Sky’s Gone Out when I was like 11 years old. I really lucked out when I was a kid that there was these two record stores by my house that were like, especially one, the destination Chicagoland punk store, and it was a ten minute walk from my house. I went every couple days and used records were like $3. I mowed lawns and would tape them and sell them back and get a new record you know? Bauhaus was the one band with a logo that I didn’t know.  All the old punk bands like Dead Kennedy’s, Misfits whatever, Decedents, all had these logos, so I just thought Bauhaus was going to be a punk band. So that really rewired my circuitry. But then I very clearly remember sitting in my friend Angel’s driveway, I think I was 14 and we were listening to the college radio station and “Butterfly” by Can was on. That was the moment. That song when I hear it, I still want to break glass or something. It’s just so intense for me, and it brings me back to that time. It was hearing Malcolm Mooney sing like that. Part of what was so powerful was that I wasn’t prepared. I was too young to have any context for either of those things.  

AD: I think the way you describe Can, the getting rocked without context, it really reminds me of my experience with that Cap’n Jazz album if that makes sense?

Tim Kinsella: Laughs, no, even as you’re saying it, it’s like, does not compute. People tell me these things sometimes, and obviously it is very nice, but I don’t know how to understand that. I have no idea how to experience my music from anyone else’s perspective. I realized a long time ago, maybe 15 years ago, I made a good number of records before it hit me, but the moment I’m most excited about is after its mastered, and before its out, and I just get really stoned and listen to the album once on headphones just to make sure, ok we’re sending it off. At that moment, I’m always sort of stunned by like, I can’t believe this is what we’re doing, it’s so bizarre. When I’m in the middle of making the thing, I’m so focused on the particulars you know, details whether they are textural or rhythmic or whatever, I’m just looking at these micro things, and making countless micro decisions so I really miss the forest through the trees, but then there is this moment, this one time I get to hear each record and I’m always pretty shocked by the sum of it. Do you know about this movie I acted in, Firstness? The experience of making [the movie] was, there were 40 of us out in this very abandoned desert town for four weeks. So, my experience of making it was this movie is a month long, 14-hours a day and then when I saw it, it was like oh its only 80 minutes? You know what I mean? Like this is what comes out? I’m so immersed in the process that the actual byproduct itself, which is the point of the process from a common perspective, is always shocking to me cause in a lot of ways, the process itself is the point for me.

AD: I experienced that with this book I did, the finished product can feel distant from the process.

“What I do is create systems so that songs emerge from them. I know that sounds so pretentious or something but that’s what I was saying about the constellations.”

Tim Kinsella: Sitting above me is a checklist that me and Jen (Jenny Pulse) made of standards for the lyrics for our new album. It’s a list of 20 things. Every line is self-contained, details make it feel real, a fracture in every line, impressionism is the grammatical slippages and fractures.” The first drafts of all of our songs end up being like 8 pages of words and then we are just cutting away, cutting away, cutting away according to these standards we agreed on. And then in the end, here is what’s left according to the standards. But then you hear it and it’s like, wow that’s what we chose? (Laughs) That’s so bizarre. 

AD: Have you always written lyrics through an outline and or with a set of standards? 

Tim Kinsella: Yeah, I guess I do. An early part of the process when we’re starting to gather material, I am, in that stage, making big constellations like it’s something like this and this. It’s something like this and this, you know? And I’m sort of imagining the end result by how it exists within a certain particular realm of things that I’m drawn to at the moment. There are some reissues of old Joan of Arc records coming so the label is making this giant book because those first five albums were made pre-computer, or pre me having a computer, so I just had boxes full of notebooks outlining and diagraming how all the albums were made, just chart after chart. These have just been in a box in a storage space for 25 years and they scanned it all and I looked through it and it was like wow I really just make the same things over and over like I really am me. (Laughs) I know they sound different, so there are different standards depending on the thing. For example, the Staying Alive and Lovelessness record we wanted to make like a Fleetwood Mac record, even though it is called Staying Alive and Lovelessness, it was Staying Alive and Lovelessness and Fleetwood Mac in our minds. Which was very different than The Gap, which was all just about the lack of tape hiss, because it was the first digital record we ever made and we hadn’t really heard any all digital records before that for a rock band. We didn’t know within a year that’s how every record would be made, you know? 

AD: There is that saying, that every artist is striving to answer one essential question.

Tim Kinsella: I ended up at a Kurt Vile show last week and I’d never heard him before, but I was watching it and was like, “Oh he sits down and writes songs,” and that’s such a foreign concept to me. What I do is create systems so that songs emerge from them. I know that sounds so pretentious or something but that’s what I was saying about the constellations. The Gimme Altamont songs, the way those were written was I took lessons to learn how to play guitar in standard tuning for the first time, and I took Ableton lessons and Jen took bass lessons and singing lessons. So me taking Ableton lessons, I took dozens of my old favorite songs and sampled them, and made various samples on each other, and then we would write the song out of whatever rhythms and melodies emerged, from like one was Bridget Bardot’s Contact with Dom Cherry Brown Rice, and you put those two samples on top of each other and they create this other thing. But then what we released isn’t just those two samples on each other. It’s like ok cool, so this is the guitar part that I write to that, and this is the drums that we program to that, then Jen writes a new vocal melody to it. That’s what I mean by we create systems-and that’s different for every record. It’s never like, oh I’ve got all these songs written, it’s time to record. It’s more like, I have an idea for how we get songs to emerge. Like how to grow songs. 

AD: Almost a fine art approach, you create the space for the art to become itself.  

Tim Kinsella: Yeah, right. Looking back through those old Joan of Arc journals, I became aware of these early Joan of Arc mission statements that we were writing as a group and one of them was “Music for no audience.” And What we meant by that was, just like now for me, we meant for the thing to be true, we knew that we couldn’t just be tapping into some audience that is waiting for one more product to validate their decisions as a consumer of this subgenre, you know?

AD: Sure (Laughs)

Tim Kinsella: We needed to specialize so that we didn’t fit in anywhere, but that doesn’t mean music that no one likes. In my mind, everyone in the world should like it. It’s beautiful, its music literally for everyone, I hope everyone likes it. But I can’t make it thinking that I want to do something for the sake of everyone liking it. 

AD: The “difficult music” label was something Joan of Arc primarily got right?  I remember seeing JOA in Milwaukee-you were playing a white Telecaster. 

Tim Kinsella: Oh yeah, that was my first guitar. 

AD: Yeah, and I got the Busy Bus 7” at the show I think, but the point being: I think some of those narratives are retroactive. At the time, I don’t recall anyone saying the music was obtuse or whatever, I just remember everyone in the room thinking it was cool and new. 

Tim Kinsella: We got an insane number of bad reviews. Especially the Pitchfork stuff, a lot of it seemed very personal. I think listening back to those Joan of Arc records, like these ones that are being reissued, I literally haven’t heard them in 25 years-since they were made. But when I had to listen to them, I was stunned realizing how much all those bad reviews had gotten into my subconscious over the years. Because I just assumed that the records were going to sound like total garbage and I kind of had been walking around thinking I hope people will give my new thing a chance even though I’m the guy that made those things. Then I listened to them and I was like man these are cool. If people didn’t like these that’s on them and not me. It felt like a great burden lifted, I literally put off listening to them for over a year in-between the time that the label told me, “You need to listen to these because we need your response.” It actually came to the point where the label owner came down to Chicago, got an Air BnB, and sat with me while I listened. (Laughs) 

When people are like, “Is pro wrestling real?” I don’t know, are bands real? What are you talking about? That’s the wrong question. 

AD: I just relistened to a few of them in preparation for this conversation, and I think the records still sound remarkably fresh. 

Tim Kinsella: Thank you. I can tell you one thing, I can’t say if they’re good songs or not, and I can’t say if the singer is a monster or not, or whatever these reviews thought, but I can tell you they were true. I mean they were often pretty funny. We were talking about this, me and Jenny, about Morrissey, and about how sometimes people take on a persona and then the persona takes them over. Like Morrissey in The Smiths is such a lovable character, but then Morrissey solo is the same character but just a monster you know? Even like in Make Believe, I had this international persona of Jimmy Hart, the professional wrestling bad guy manager…

AD: The Mouth of the South.

Tim Kinsella: Right, the persona that we all agreed upon [was] that the singer would be like a pro wrestling bad guy. But like whatever, it’s an act. When people are like, “Is pro wrestling real?” I don’t know, are bands real? What are you talking about? That’s the wrong question. 

AD: It’s in stark contrast to a lot of your contemporaries though, at that time there was a focus on quote “authenticity” over performance or theatrics. 

Tim Kinsella: Part of what made Fugazi heroes to so many people was just how righteous they were–walking the walk and not being afraid to talk the talk. It was so bad ass right? And it was so tough and earnest, but the way that you judge if you like a band or not–I can’t imagine a world in which anyone likes a band or not according to “Do I think this person is offering me a model to live by?” That’s not what a band is for. 

AD: Well yeah, but if Ian MacKaye told me not to do something, even today, I’d take it into consideration… (Laughs) 

Tim Kinsella: Right. They were the exception in that way, and the only reason it worked is because they were a phenomenal band. 

AD: …and incredible performers. Seeing Fugazi live was overwhelming. 

Tim Kinsella: Yeah, do you know US Maple? They were an amazing band I saw 100 times as a kid, and spend a lot of the pandemic watching Youtube videos of them. Their singer Al had such a heavy persona, which I won’t even try to explain you just got to watch it. But I remember being at a Fugazi show and talking to Al and being like “It’s weird you’re here” and he was just like “Man they just sound great.” He’s like, “I hate all this shit they talk about but they sound amazing.” And me, my mind just being blown, if you’re in for a penny you’re in for a pound you know? You don’t get to appreciate Fugazi without respecting the whole thing you know? 

AD: It’s easy to forget, when you’re all in, that it’s entirely reasonable to just enjoy the art and move on with your day. 

Tim Kinsella: (Laughs) Right, All along, the one thing all the various personas I sang from have in common is channeling some voice that is in-between waking life and a dream. Not to sound too Jim Morrison here but it’s like I’m not Fugazi giving you real world advice. I’m giving voice to not knowing. 

AD: I’ve heard interviews with Ian MacKaye where he talks about writing lyrics so that they won’t be misunderstood and making things as clear as possible, and I love it, but it’s pretty foreign to my approach. I’m generally aiming beyond rationality. 

Tim K: Right, right, and that’s the fundamental problem with math rock, I’ve always been so grossed out when people lump us in with math rock, like what are you talking about? We’ve never counted a song in our lives. Maybe there is a funny time signature, but when you see math rock bands it’s like, aren’t you supposed to practice to hide the technique? The music is about creating a feeling and if you’re good at it, it’s about creating layered feelings that create a different resonate feeling. It’s not just, if you just want a feeling you can listen to Journey or a Phil Collins ballad. Gordon Lightfoot is the king of that. I’m not going to write a Gordon Lightfoot song, I wish I could but like the layering of already identifiable things creates a new resonant, mysterious thing beyond rationality, and that’s what we’re aiming for. 

AD: Yeah, when music starts to feel like acrobatics or a physical feat, I check out.   

Tim Kinsella: Which makes perfect sense. That’s not even you making a rational decision to check out, you check out because they aren’t doing their job-which is to create a feeling, they’re showing you the technique, and you’re not there to see the technique, you know what I mean, it’s not a guitar lesson. 

AD: For sure, I’m in favor of more songs and less guitar lessons. To back up a second, how did you get involved in the film, Firstness?

Tim Kinsella: I ended up in it because I’m friends with the writer and director. I think she really wrote the part for me. I don’t know if she has ever specifically told me that, but I do know that I was the first person cast in it and I was included in the conversations for who the other cast members would be. My character Keith is not that different than me. 

AD: I thought you did a great job. As a dad I found some moments excruciating to watch, but I think that was desired outcome. 

Tim Kinsella: Yeah… there was actually a moment when the kid, there is one scene, obviously the kid can’t be in New Mexico by themselves for a month, their Mom was along the whole time. We were in one room and they were monitoring from another room and the kid’s mom just couldn’t stop crying and it was just-excruciating is the word you used-yeah watching your kid go through this scene and yeah… that’s real. 

AD: I can imagine. 

Tim Kinsella: I would never be interested in acting, I just know that Brielle (Brilliant), the director, is a genius. I trust them entirely. However good of a job I did, it’s just because Brielle knows me so well, she knows how to write me. 

I think Gimme Altamont…we agreed on it as the dream of America or whatever, of liberal society, liberal democratic society, the dream is over. Just bring it on. Does that make sense? 

AD: I really enjoyed the cinematic feel of Gimme Altamont , especially songs like Ever House has a Door. The EP feels like it moves into new melodic spaces, were the aforementioned guitar and voice lessons part of that?  

Tim Kinsella: Well no, it’s not like I learned how to play now. (Laughs)

AD: No, No, I didn’t mean it like that. (Laughs)

Tim Kinsella: I know.

AD: I just meant, did that open some new melodic realms or creative doors to explore? 

TK: Right, it was opening new things. I know I’m the common denominator among all the Joan of Arc records, but they are all group efforts. Especially the last Joan of Arc lineup, the last eight years we were a band we had a very solid lineup. Having that kind of trust and camaraderie really allows you to expand what you can do. Me and Jen were together for a while before we started playing music together. We probably spent a year talking about what our band will be like. I really think being a married couple band is a life hack. It was always very hard to tour because I would miss my partner, and it was hard to tour because four people needed to get paid. Now it’s just two of us, and we aren’t missing home because we’re together, and we share all of our finances so the economic necessities aren’t as intense. I think it is the total trust and deep deep connection between us that makes all the expansiveness possible. Whether that’s an expansiveness towards a more commonly recognizable sense of beauty or a more daring kid of noise jam like we did on some Good Fuck EPs. We wake up talking about our band and we fall asleep talking about our band and we just work on it every waking moment you know? It’s like we’re in 24 hour a day band practice.  

AD: The title Gimme Altamont is a Stones nod, what inspired that?

Tim Kinsella: Yeah, yeah, you know originally, we wrote 60 songs and over the course of 18 months we cut it down to 19 songs. Then we had this 19 song, 63-minute album and the labels we talked to were all kind of like, “OK cool, we can get this out in two years.” It’s like well what are we supposed to do for two years? So, we cut a third of the album off and that’s what this EP is. Gimme Altamont, it’s a Rolling Stones thing, it’s commonly understood as the end of the dream of the 60’s, and it’s just kind of feeling so beat down by what a drag it is. The total environmental catastrophe, which could be dealt with if it wasn’t for the small number of billionaires holding the world hostage, and rising autocracy, and the senseless violence. I think Gimme Altamont, we agreed on it as the dream of America or whatever, of liberal society, liberal democratic society, the dream is over. Just bring it on. Does that make sense? 

AD: Absolutely. I wanted to ask you about “Feather and Son,” one lyric  I really liked on the EP is “On the omnipresent tip of the infinite.”

Tim Kinsella: It’s “tit” not “tip” 

AD Really? Well, there you go. Ending the EP with Yawp, one of the most haunting and beautifully melodic pieces on the record was really strong. I was curious about choosing to end the EP that way. 

Tim Kinsella: You know I’m glad you bring that one up because it was really hard, like I told you we wrote 60 songs–by the time it was down to 33 songs we had it sequenced. We spent a full year revising the songs in sequence. Yawp was the last song of the 60-minute thing and it felt really right as a closing to this epic journey but we were afraid it would get lost. It was hard to figure out which songs to take from the whole batch. We are going to release the full double album at some point, it means a lot to us for people to have the full original vision. 

AD: I was going to compliment the conciseness and potency of the EP, so I certainly wouldn’t have known unless you told me. That being said I’d like to hear it as you intended it. 

Tim Kinsella: Thank you.

AD: To close on a potentially grandiose question, from Shmap’n Shmazz to Gimme Altamont, I’m curious if you have any thoughts on how thirty ears of hypersonic technological and cultural changes have affected your art? 

Tim Kinsella: The way the record has to come out kind of answers that right? We aren’t able to release it as it was written. We spent a year and a half writing and recording this, and now it doesn’t get to come out that way. So yeah, its disruptive, but I don’t really mind because it’s all one thing. In the music industry, the engineers I’m friends with are having a hard time because people record at home now, and so the studios are having a hard time. The labels are having a hard time because the manufacturers are having a hard time, and the promoters are having a hard time because the labels are having a hard time. The booking agents are having a hard time, you know what I mean? It’s just all out of whack. I don’t see that as separate from what we euphemistically call supply chain issues. Environmental devastation is impacting everything, it’s in our politics, the fact that one of our major political parties is based on a version of logic that is crazy. It’s insane, but they need to do it to protect these few people who hope to horde resources because there are limited resources and there is a lot of people. You ask a grandiose question you get a grandiose answer I guess, but in my mind, the fact that the first Joan of Arc record we probably finished mixing in February and it was in record stores by May and now we’ve been done mixing for five months, we still aren’t sure what label we’ll work with and when we do figure it out, it’s going to be a year and a half wait. This is how this whole thing is impacting us, but it’s impacting everyone in some way. We’re just musicians so this is how it is impacting us. 

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