Interview with Mike Kinsella

The Kinsella brothers may be considered the first family of indie rock. Their music in Cap’N Jazz, Joan of Arc, and other assorted projects has been a staple of edgy and innovative indie rock for at least a decade, and they’ve influenced countless other artists. But while Tim Kinsella has garnered the most headlines – with his unique singing style, more unique songwriting style, and his ever changing line-up in Joan of Arc and the Tim Kinsellas – Mike Kinsella has, of his own accord, kept his own music quieter.

Recording under the moniker Owen to spurn any preconceived notions of singer/songwriter material, Mike Kinsella has created two beautiful albums of quieter, more acoustic-based indie rock. On these works, his own unique voice and guitar talents shine as he performs all the instruments himself, including on his latest masterpiece, No Good For No One Now. Yet this latest album takes a new direction, putting aside the bare-bones acoustic guitar for a more fleshed-out, full-band sound, making it his most accessible album since working with the band American Football.

In the middle of recording with Tim on Joan of Arc and touring as Owen in support of his new album with Rainer Maria and others, Mike answered some questions via e-mail about his desire to let his music speak for itself, his relationship with his brother, Tim, and why No Good For No One Now takes Owen’s music in a new direction.

Delusions of Adequacy: Congratulations on creating a fantastic album! Tell me about No Good For No One Now. When did you record it, and did you play all the instruments?

Mike Kinsella: I recorded it from sometime in July to sometime in August of 2002 at my mom’s house. She sort of lets me take over the upstairs – putting my computer and stuff in one room with the drums, and another with my guitars and amps, and then I sleep in another. Yeah, I played everything on the album except for some background vocals by Caithlyn (De Marrais) from Rainer Maria.

DOA: This seems to be your rawest, most emotionally bare album, lyric-wise. Is that an intentional development in your music, or did this album come from a particularly emotional time?

MK: I suppose both. It’s sort of just what came out. The recording process for me is basically me taking a whole bunch of lyrics and guitar parts lying around and organizing them and putting them all together over the span of four or five weeks, so while there were a lot of lines already written, a lot of what ended up on the album just came about while recording the song.

DOA: The lyrics – and even song titles – seem centered around loneliness and longing. Is that the case, would you say, and why?

MK: Yeah, I guess there’s a bunch of that. But it’s definitely not all written in the first person (or sometimes if it is, it’s not written from my voice). Even within the same song, the subject can change from me to a friend of mine to someone I saw at a bar once who I’ve never met but looked like she was having a bad time.

DOA: There’s a lot of changes on No Good For No One Now, most noticeably the more filled-out sound with electric guitar, bass, drums, all things that haven’t been used as much on previous Owen releases. I think it’s a great change, but why did you put more focus on the instrumentation for this release?

MK: I think at the time I was trying to “fix” those things I thought were lacking on the self-titled release. Unfortunately, in the process of doing so I think I may have left out some of what I was happy with about the self-titled album. Ideally, I’ll be able to find a happy medium between the two. But who knows? I don’t have any plans on recording anything new until the summer, so who knows what I’ll be trying to do by then?

DOA: The songs are also longer, more in-depth. Is this spurning the traditional three-minute pop structure, or did the songs just require more in terms of length? Because none of them feel too long or like you were forcing them out.

MK: Oh, that’s great to hear. I feel like there’s this sort of intangible balance within each song, and I spend a lot of time trying to find that balance. But I’m afraid a lot of people don’t have the patience to get through an entire song to appreciate it, so it’s nice to hear that you do. Uh, and I guess there are still some of these ‘punk-rock / fuck-the-system’ type ideologies still in me somewhere, so in my own subtle way I was trying to make my pretty easily listening music less ‘radio friendly’.

DOA: I have to say, “I’m Not Going Anywhere Tonight” is probably my favorite song of the year. Tell me about this particular song. It feels more up-tempo, more of an indie-pop song, with more of a hook as well.

MK: That’s actually the first “Owen” song ever written. That’s the first song that came out when I first decided to play shows by myself. Yeah, it’s definitely more up-beat, and “more of a hook” is being polite. Let’s be frank – it’s downright Lemonheads-ish. But that’s cool. I always liked the Lemonheads.

DOA: Why take the moniker Owen instead of recording under your own name?

MK: I always have a preconceived notion of what a singer/songwriter sounds like, and I think other people do as well, so I wanted to avoid people assuming they’d know what the music was all about before they heard it. Does that make any sense?

DOA: Along the lines of that question, you didn’t even list your name in the packaging for your new album? Is it a desire to let the music speak for yourself, would you say, or in some way would you rather avoid attention?

MK: Hmmm. I guess I just don’t think it’s that important. People will either like the music or they won’t, no matter who’s making it, right?

DOA: What happened with American Football? And do you prefer doing your own thing to playing in a full band?

MK: American Football just kind of stopped playing together when two out of three of us moved back home after finishing school. We finished recording the full-length and were like “well, that was pretty cool,” and we haven’t played together since. As far as doing my own thing goes, yeah, I really like it. I like being able to practice whenever *I* want to practice, or play a show whenever *I* want to play a show, or tour whenever *I* want to tour. It’s all about me. Me me me.

DOA: You’ve recorded and toured quite a bit with Joan of Arc and the Owls. Have you pretty much stayed on drums with those projects, and do those projects help fulfill the full-band desire? Are they still full-time projects you’re involved in?

MK: Yeah, I’m mostly behind the drums, but I get to put in my two-cents while writing and arranging the songs. So in that sense, yeah, they fulfill my desire to play in a band. I’m not playing in Owls anymore at all, but I recorded some of Tim (Kinsella)’s songs with him for the new Joan of Arc album, and I’m going to play bass for the JOA tour.

DOA: The other bands you’ve been involved in, except for American Football (and possibly others I’m not aware of), have been with your brother. Do you and Tim have a close relationship?

MK: Yeah, we’re pretty close. We definitely don’t have the same tastes in music, but we do share a fondness for a number of musical characteristics.

DOA: Do your music tastes jibe, or do you think you’ve moved in different directions? Certainly your solo stuff is pretty different from Tim’s work.

MK: Again, the final product is different, but there are some similarities (which I suppose will happen after playing together so much for so long), such as fucked-up time signatures and song structures and what not.

DOA: In indie-rock circles, we often hear quite a bit about Tim’s music, from Joan of Arc and his various other projects, including the aptly named Tim Kinsellas, while you’ve gone the other way and kept your own name more quiet. Do you ever feel like you’re in Tim’s shadow, or do you guys just have different philosophies?

MK: I think we’ve got similar philosophies, but his stuff seems to stand out a little bit more.

DOA: You’ve been a busy songwriter, what with the split EP earlier this year and now your second full-length. How often do you write music, and are there even more Owen songs on the way?

MK: I play the guitar all the time. I usually just carry it around with me around my apartment all day. And some days I’ll come up with a handful of new things I’m excited about, and sometimes I’ll spend all day learning how to play a new order song or something. So it’s not all necessarily time well spent. But yeah, I’m playing all the time, and yeah, there’ll definitely be more Owen stuff.

DOA: Speaking of the split, how did that come about? Do you know Josh Hensley (The Rutabega), or was it something the label put together?

MK: Kurt Morris, who runs Backroad Records, called me up and proposed the idea, and he seemed super cool and super on top of things, so I was like “sure”. And it was actually his idea to redo an American Football song, too. The whole things worked out really good for everyone I think. I hope.

DOA: Are there any other artists you’re especially enjoying right now?

MK: The only thing I’ve had any desire to listen to for about a month or so now is Neon Golden by The Notwist. It’s absolutely beautiful.

DOA: And you’ve stayed very busy touring with bands and solo. Are there more tour plans in support of this album, and when?

MK: I’m playing some shows opening up for Rainer Maria in February, and then I leave for all of March thru June playing bass for Joan of Arc, but hopefully after that I’ll get to play some more Owen shows before I record again.