Tim Kinsella on the New Joan of Arc, Orchard Vale and the Craft of Writing

Interview by Chris Hampton with illustration by Kristian Bauthus

Chicago has a number of favourite sons, and, to be certain, Tim Kinsella counts among them.  He’s something of a landmark in the city – a prolific musician,  now film director, author and college teacher who you can still find keeping bar at the Rainbo.

He’s well loved here at Southern Souls, and we all had something to ask.  Mitch, Jordaan and I all got together on this one and Tim kindly played along.

SS: The first thing I noticed about Life Like is that Sam is still absent, but Vic has returned to the fold.  I know you guys did the Cap’n Jazz tour last year, did talk of his addition begin then?  How does it feel to be working with Vic in a creative capacity again?

TK: Yeah, it was actually around the last cap’n jazz show. Victor was telling me about how all these people he didn’t know kept asking him to join their bands and he was excited to play again, but didn’t want to get into some weird situation. So he asked if he could join Joan of arc. Bobby and Theo and I had most of Life Like written and were leaving on tour about 10 days later to play it live a lot before recording. So we gave him some demos to write parts to and had a couple days of crash-course practices and then left on tour. And Victor’s playing is as good as ever, maybe even better. He’s loosened up a bit and doing so has definitely expanded his already imaginative and expansive playing. So it’s been really great.

SS: On Sam’s departure, I read the 4 question interview turned Sam Zurick manifesto that you posted a few weeks back; how do you take something like that?  I mean, it’s either super-cryptic or entirely straightforward and deeply thoughtful depending on how you know the guy.  You mentioned something about how important his spiritual guidance and otherwise has been in your life, is that typical Sam?

TK: Oh yeah, there’s nothing cryptic about it at all. It’s just very much the Sam that’s been one of my best friends for almost 25 years. It’s funny. Strange as it may seem to people that don’t know him, it couldn’t be more typical of how Sam always is. He’s always super-funny and always super-sharp.

SS: More on Life Like: Owls did it, Make Believe did it, but this is the first time you’ve put Joan of Arc in front of Albini.  Was it different taking this project to Electrical Audio?  Obviously you have some affinity for the guys work, what exactly do you like about the product you guys turn out together?

TK: I guess we sort of decided on working with him pretty early on in the process. The record started as they all do, just a pile of demos to sort through and conversations as a group about how we want to approach them. When we decided we wanted to put them together as a live band and limit overdubs etc, then we decided to take it to him and that then informed the next decisions, structural, melodic etc because we already had the limitations of the process in place – ie: limited overdubs, limited editing, limited tracks, etc.

SS: Can you speak to the influence of Chicago as a city, an idea, and a home for you?

TK: I don’t know. I do know that I resonate at its frequency – any time I step out of Chicago city limits I feel either hurried or bored and anxious. It’s like I remain kind of clenched until the moment that I step back in Chicago city limits. It must be some kind of magnetic charge of the land here that I’ve taken in and set some biorhythms to. I often wonder what people from elsewhere think of Chicago, because I’m too inside of it to see it clearly. It’s like when you’re really close to someone, like a lover whose life is totally entwined with your own and sometimes you’ll be out at a party or something and you glance at your lover from across the room talking to someone and it’s totally fascinating to imagine what their conversation might be like, because you’re so close to the person that you have a very specific language together and it’s thrilling to imagine how they might be with someone beyond that language. Maybe I just like feeling at home somewhere, knowing where everything is and who to ask different questions to. But there’s the sort of humble, earnest, hard-working Midwestern blah-blah here mixed in with dense urban speed – never knowing if culture or violence is around any corner, so you’re always alert. It seems crazy to me that Chicago exists and people know it exists and yet somehow everyone everywhere doesn’t decide to live here.

SS: You’ve also got a writer and director credit under your belt for Orchard Vale.  But I can’t find the film anywhere.  Care to tell me a bit about the film and when we might be able to get a look at it?  Were those types of artistry, screenwriting and directing, even the endeavour of learning a new medium, challenging to you? Natural to you?  Affecting in a new way?

TK: Yeah, there are bootlegs that float around the Internet with a little research. It’s on DVD in Japan, so if you have one of those DVD players that can play DVDs encoded for any region, then I guess it could probably be mail-ordered. The movie was a collaboration with my ex-wife. She’s a documentary filmmaker involved mostly with politically-oriented projects. So making a narrative movie was the middle-ground medium for us to meet on to collaborate. We were together a long time. So when our relationship spun out of control, the last thing either of us felt like doing was dealing with the movie. We were both dealing with how to make sense of each suddenly having a new-life to figure out. So we definitely dropped the ball on following through with the movie as we should have. And of course it was challenging, but it was a thrilling collaboration – everyone involved was totally immersed in it. Amy and Chris Strong and a small crew dealt with all of the technical aspects, so the challenge for me was just how to tell the story. But by that point, I’d been making records that I thought of as movies for years. So it was kinda natural to then make a movie as if it was a record.

SS: So sometime after the movie and amongst all the music, you’ve written a novel, The Kareoke Singer’s Guide to Self-Defense, releasing in October through Featherproof.  I’ve read the mini-book, and I’m interested to learn more about our protagonist Will with his penchant for pain.  Want to tell me a bit about the story?  Did this thing just come bursting out of your brain and heart or was it a protracted, studied project?  In what ways do you identify with Will, seeing as authors are often extended, at least a little, in all of the characters they pen?

TK: I spent two and a half years completely consumed by the book, so no, there was no romantic quality of it bursting forth from me in a fit of inspiration. I’m not really an “inspired” kind of guy. Today is a holiday in America and I woke up at my normal time anyways and took the bus downtown to this bookstore that had a going out of business sale and usually at that hour the streets are packed with people heading to work and today it was like a ghost town, just me and two other guys on the bus. And it’s brisk, the first day that I had to put on a coat. So I definitely felt a twinge of autumnal swoon. But that’s about as inspired as I ever get. I am disciplined and I get the sense that realizing any sort of creative ambition depends much more on that than some fleeting sense of beauty or wonder. As for the story – I’m not gonna get into giving a synopsis. There are twelve main characters and I don’t feel any more or less like Will than I do about any of the other characters – which is to say, sure I recognize elements of myself in each of them. Not necessarily the elements that I think of as my more favorable character-traits and not even necessarily things that I knew about myself until reading them back through the characters. All of the characters often surprised me while I wrote and that kept the momentum up.

SS: More on your writing style, how do you think the aesthetic of your lyrics has been informed by the history you have in DIY and punk scenes? How has it grown from the days of Cap’n Jazz to this new Joan of Arc record and your forthcoming novel?

TK: Well, I’m sure it’s changed, but I don’t think of it as getting any better or worse, which is what I feel “growing” may imply. I remain pretty fiercely engaged with language – spend most of each day either reading or writing and get bored / underwhelmed quickly when I catch myself repeating tricks or taking short-cuts because I know something has worked for me in the past. So when Captain Jazz was happening, I was invested in those songs and the attempts to express some subtle and intense ambivalences in the same way that I was invested in Life Like. I can’t say one is better or worse. They are each just the result of what seemed appropriate at the time. I have rarely set out, and even more rarely succeeded, with any ambitions regarding pre-conceived aesthetic or stylistic sensibilities. It is all just searching for me, continuous engagement and attempting to surprise myself. As for the influence of any punk scene on that sensibility, it probably freed me from the idea of success at any early age. I like the idea that value lies in the struggle itself, the process being its own reward.

SS: What comes first: the words or the music? Has it changed in correlation to the project you are working on?

TK: Oh they happen side by side. Both are always happening a little each day and then eventually they get squashed together. I imagine that’s a very common process. Of course this changes project-to-project depending on the specific needs. But it’s always ratios of these same parallel practices.

SS: What has fan reaction been like to your lyrics specifically? Do you find that people often misinterpret what you are saying, and what kind of a dialogue have you had with fans about the content of your songs?

TK: People don’t talk to me much about that. Sometimes people will compliment the lyrics in a vague sense, which is nice. But I don’t know if anyone has ever approached me and introduced themselves and offered me their interpretation of a song, which is probably as social etiquette would commonly dictate. And thank god! That sounds horribly awkward, doesn’t it? And of course people that don’t like the lyrics are even less likely to approach me and tell me so. So I have very little sense of what people actually get out of the lyrics, if anything, but I imagine that must be common. The difference I guess, would be that some of my songs are kind of slippery on purpose. There are very few moments of sloganeering that someone could give me a high-five and say “agree” or “disagree” about. That might give the impression that there are more-or-less correct interpretations. But you know, being a good 21st-century-man, I wouldn’t value my own reading as any more-or-less privileged or insightful than anyone else’s. I’m probably actually at a disadvantage a lot of the time.