Interview with Tim Kinsella
This interview with Tim Kinsella was conducted in the Spring of 2023 by Jet Fuel Review's Poetry, Prose, & Blog Editor Samuel McFerron. This interview can also be accessed via the Jet Fuel Review Blog
Any time in which the various Chicago Music and Art scenes are brought into conversation, a few great artists are mentioned, and among these greats, is Tim Kinsella. As front-man for the bands Cap’n Jazz, Joan of Arc, OWLS, and a multitude of other projects, Kinsella continues to forge entirely new understandings of the limitless possibilities within music. Through raw power, dedication, and talent, Tim Kinsella creates spaces for art that bridge the gaps between our horizons of understanding and the inexhaustible experiences of life.
Tim’s most recent collaboration with his wife and fellow artist Jenny Pulse, Gimmie Altamont, further defies the very concepts of limitation. With my thanks to both Tim and Dr. Simone Muench, I was able to sit down and speak with Tim about his career, processes, and influences from Analphabetapolothology to 2022’s Gimmie Altamont.
With a career spanning over 20 years, Tim Kinsella has laid foundation after foundation for experimentation within art. Kinsella first gathered cult status among the Chicago music scene with his band Cap’n Jazz, in which he performed alongside his brother Mike Kinsella of American Football, Sam Zurick, Victor Villarreal, and Davey von Bohlen. After establishing their foothold in the underground scene, Tim, Mike, and Sam formed Joan of Arc alongside Eric Bocek and Jeremy Boyle. After the initial disbandment of Joan of Arc, the original members of Cap’n Jazz reformed as OWLS.
Tim Kinsella has also spearheaded a multitude of other projects, including the authorship of four novels and participation in two feature-length films and a short film. Other musical projects include a myriad of collaborations with Jenny Pulse, Angel Olsen, Marvin Tate, LeRoy Bach, and many others.
Tim Kinsella and Jenny Pulse’s most recent EP, Gimmie Altamont, was released in 2022 with the promise of a full-length album coming late summer of 2023. They were both recently featured on 7e.p.’s 20th-anniversary collection album COLORS.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
JFR: Jenny Pulse and yourself were recently featured on 7e.p’s 20th-anniversary album, Colors, alongside many other greats from the turn of the century including Phil Elverum, Julie Doiran, and Kyle Field. This album is sort of a dream come true for me, as bands like Cap’n Jazz, Mount Eerie, and Little Wings were my first introduction to an entirely different side of Punk. Are there any artists that first inspired you to experiment with your own concepts and understanding of music?
Tim Kinsella: Oh, yeah, for sure. I'm still pretty music obsessed. I'm only interested in other things, really, in terms of how they relate to music, that's just my model through which I see things. I was like, two years old when I told my mom I was going to be in a band when I grew up, and she was like, What are you talking about? How do you know what a band is? I just took in all the music I could, and I got Bauhaus’s The Sky’s Gone Out when I was like, 10, and I was way too young to hear that and understand that, but I just listened to side two of that album over and over and over. So that was very formative to me. CAN is the other band I think of that I heard too young; that kind of rewired me. I remember the moment I first heard CAN, it was the song “Butterfly” off Delay 1968. I was sitting on my friend Angel's driveway and it came on. My mom was dropping him off and I was sitting shotgun when it came on the college radio station we were listening to and we all stopped talking and just listened to that song. There’s a splice at the end, and I'd never heard anything like it. Still, I’ll hear that song and it's just like, the most insane power. So I would say CAN and Bauhaus were the early things that ripped everything open for me.
JFR: As a student of literature, I can’t help but ask; were there any early literary influences that have stuck with you over the years?
Tim Kinsella: Of course. Rilke was huge. I feel like that's the thing Simone and I might have had in common when we first met, and e.e. cummings had this book Six Nonlectures- I used to reread that over and over. Reading was always like work. Music was always my mission. Reading was always my way of relaxing and I kind of ruined it by professionalizing it for a decade of teaching, doing publishing company writing, and editing, I got really burned out. Over the last year and a half, it feels amazing to read again and enjoy it.
JFR: What's the difference between your approaches to music and literature? Did music ever become work like literature did for you?
Tim Kinsella: There was definitely a shift I was aware of at some point. It had been years later when I realized that we used to talk about playing music and then we were like, “we're working on music.” There are so many long cycles, you know, and I have a few things brewing right now and each thing is in a different part of the cycle. You create the wide fabrics you're going to work with, and then you cut them up and stitch them into something, you know. So for me and Jenny's new album that comes out this spring, we wrote 60 songs, only 19 of them ended up being completed and 11 are on the record. Most of that time is just making a bunch, you know, for a couple of months at a time before you have to start crafting them into something really exciting. For me, it's still play at that point. So now I'm finishing some things but I'm still in that playful and wide open space.
JFR: It seems your approach is to create spaces and let things come out of those spaces. How often are you surprised at the result of those creative processes?
Tim Kinsella: I wouldn't know how to actually sit down and write a song, you know? I'm much more into constructing weird systems. Knowing the context of whether I'm making beats for a couple of guys, I have a new band that has a pretty specific kind of feel, and there's me and Jenny’s stuff. With all of those, I sort of know the parameters going in. So it's really knowing the system to put in place, whether that's a technical system like the recording process itself or a collaborative system of how I will introduce something or how I respond to things other people introduce. There are cycles of creativity. But then also a lot of it is determined by cycles of the music business, which, as awesome and powerful as music is, it’s somehow just like, a micro millimeter more awesome than how much the music business sucks. Everything about it is so disheartening and annoying. I feel very, very lucky to have done everything I've done and to be able to do what I love, but it still determines a lot of the cycles.
JFR: I'm sure many points feel rather restrictive. Listening to your new album, I wouldn't have guessed that Gimmie Altamont came from the same mind as Analphabetapolothology. It seems that, right out of the gate, Cap’n Jazz, Joan Of Arc, and OWLS were coined “emo” or “Math Rock,” were you ever kind of bogged down by those labels?
Tim Kinsella: Oh, yeah, for sure. I remember, in 1994, people being like, “Oh, you guys are an emo band” and us being like, “well that’s stupid.” It's really like the opposite of soul music, right? Even though soul and emotions are tightly connected, soul music is evocative in some way that we all recognize, but maybe can't explain. Emo music is more like a desperate attempt to express what isn't there. I don't keep up with contemporary emo bands but sometimes, when we're asked to play a show or something, we check out a band and it's just like, pretty repulsive to me. I love such an expansive variety of music, but emo and Math Rock are two things that immediately turn me off and always have, this isn't me being revisionist, you know, we were just big fans of like, Rites of Spring and Versus, and certain Power Violence bands. There was this guy, actually, maybe eight years ago getting a Ph.D. in Musicology, I think at Washington University or somewhere in St. Louis. He used Joan of Arc as his thesis example. He went through all these Joan of Arc interviews and looked at things we name-dropped as our influences and then he compared them to how we sounded and used us as the case study for how different influences can become expressed. And that always struck me as really funny that he did that, because it was like, Well, I don't know; I think I know what we're listening to and thinking about, but there were a few years where, with everything we put out, we were kind of trying to outrun this emo tag. It was kind of inspiring us to push ourselves to get away from this, but then whatever we did, people just said, “Well, that's emo now.” So we were accidentally expanding the definition of this thing that we had no attachment to. I think that is obviously still the section of what I did that people know the best. So it's stuck. But that's fine.
JFR: Do you still strive to break away from categorization in your music? Are you creating different structures for different projects?
Tim Kinsella: Yeah, I mean, I wouldn't think of it in terms of categorization. The one real through-line, from my very biased perspective, from Cap’n Jazz through today, is that it's about trying to push through and break out of categorization. That's the entire potential power of music, right? Is that it ideally makes you realize and expand your ideas of what is possible. It creates new relationships between new harmonies, new rhythms, and new feelings. I love a lot of music, but I get so embarrassed for contemporary people who write songs where you can just recognize that they’re trying to make you feel sad, or they’re trying to make you feel this feeling or that feeling. It's about expressing the experience of being a cognizant, thinking, feeling person. And so there's always a layering of feelings. So there are no right reductive answers. So, um, I don't know, I would feel like I wasn't doing my job if I wasn't falling between every crack I could find. Jenny and I are looking for a new booking agent at the moment and there's this guy we reached out to, We'll call him agent A. And agent A was like, “Man, this is great and I got a lot of respect for everything you've done. I've been a big fan for a long time, but I don't know how to book experimental music like this, you should reach out to agent B or C.” I said, Okay, thank you for your time and I reached out to agent B. And he said, “This is great, but I don't know how to book electronic music like this. You should reach out to agent A or C.” I'd already reached out to agent A, so I reached out to agent C. And agent C was like, “Oh, this is great, but I only book experimental and Electronic music. I don't know how to book indie music like this.” And it was like, Damn, we have really succeeded at falling through the cracks in a way where all three of these guys don't know how to help us monetize it. They were perfectly triangulated. They all recommended the other and said, “I can only do this type of music.” So you know, it's not an easy path, but we aren't particularly aware of aspiring to any rewards beyond the ability to continue doing it. I would love for everyone to love it. But that can't be a motivation.
JFR: You mentioned earlier that, in your most recent project, you had nearly 60 tracks which became 11 on the record. What does that selection process look like? Do you often find yourself revisiting older projects and incorporating them into new ones?
Tim Kinsella: No, I never do that. Now, there's actually a new Joan of Arc reissue coming out next year of the first five albums we did and I hadn't heard any of them since they came out. But they needed me to write a little bit about each of them and I wasn’t really able to do it. They’d want me to write more and I put it off for a whole year until finally the owner of the label came to Chicago, rented an Airbnb, and sat me down for two days. He stood over me while he made me listen to the first five Joan of Arc records, and, you know, I was pretty pleasantly surprised. I think in my mind, they were just gonna be so awful and embarrassing and stupid. There were moments where I squirmed and there are a million things I would do differently now, but it wasn't as bad as I thought. So yeah, I don’t go backwards to pull in at all.
A funny thing that does happen, or has happened a couple of times, is that songs will end up seeming familiar. It happened once in a song from 2010 and a song from 2016. Another one was like a song from 2012 and a song from, I don't know, 2018 or something. They ended up having very similar lyrics, but I had actually forgotten about the first song and it wasn't until other people pointed it out, like, “oh, you reused that lyric, what's that about?” And I had no idea that I did that. I thought I wrote it new, but it must just be that that's why it seemed right to me because it was already familiar or I had already made it true. So it seemed right. We do live within the songs for a long time. By the time my and Jenny's album comes out in July, it’ll have been done for a year and we would have started it two years before that. So it's a two-year process and there's a lot of like, you know, getting these five songs up to a certain point then setting them aside for two months while I get these next five songs up to a certain point and I set those aside for a couple of months then I circle back and you know, get the next five songs a little further. At each step of that, things just kind of fall away. There comes a point where you realize; Well, I've taken this as far as I can go and it's not good enough. So it's not good and that’s fine. I don't get attached, there's no scarcity of music to be made.
JFR: In setting those structures to compose music, do lyrics come out of those same spaces? Or is that a different process?
Tim Kinsella: It's a parallel process, there are definitely generating piles of words every day, scatterings of words that get thrown into a pile. When it's time for vocals for a song, melodies emerge, and then there's just a lot of time listening to the song over and over, going through the piles of words. I think an important aspect of how me and Jenny approach it, which is pretty true to how I've done basically everything I've done, is the fracture between one line and the next. I've never been one to fill in a song according to what the meaning of the song, the literal meaning, might mean. It’s all about letting things emerge, you know? So, if I have a big pile of words, and there might be this kind of phrase, you know, this phrase attaches itself to the first verse and this phrase attaches itself to another section, but they might seem to have nothing in common in a literal sense. But in my mind, the fact that they've both attached themselves to the songs means they now have something in common. So a resonant, overtone meaning comes out of it and I feel like the meaning of the song is greater than any of the literal choices I would make. I surrender to the songs you know, I don't dominate them.
JFR: It seems the Illinois landscape and especially the Chicago landscape, be it the city, the suburbs, the weather, or the infrastructure, have all been inspirational to your craft. Does that remain true? Or am I completely off the mark there?
Tim Kinsella: Oh, I wouldn't say you're off the mark. But I don't think of that intentionally. It's just where I've always lived. So yeah, if the songs are going to be true to me, my home is going to make its way out, you know what I mean? I definitely feel a Chicago pride. We were just visiting my in-laws for a couple of days, we visit once a month or something for a few days. It's not uncommon, but just pulling back into town, we saw the skyline yesterday. We're both like, Ah, don't you just love Chicago? I used to be on tour so much for a long time, a third or half of the year in a different city every day. So it gets pretty disorienting. So it means a lot to me to be grounded somewhere where I know where everything is, or at least know who to ask if I don't know where something is. I feel that I'm playing the game.
JFR: Has innovation and invention in the realms of recording, mastering, and mixing been a benefit or detriment to you at all? What does that process of working with, say, four-track recorders to working with Ableton, Audacity, and all of these other programs look like?
Tim Kinsella: There are people I'm sure who see it as a benefit, and people who see it as a detriment. For me, personally, I just don't feel I have much choice in the evolution of technology so I'm happy to. Yeah, I love new tools. You know, until Joan of Arc broke up, I had, like, one amp, one overdrive pedal, one guitar, and one synthesizer. And that was the entirety of my musical gear. I did get Pro Tools pretty young. I was the first person I knew to have my own Pro Tool setup in my room. A friend through his job got it and gave it to me in like, ‘99. Recording myself has always been part of the process. But Jenny has a very different experience. She came from making dance music so she had a ton of different synthesizers and drum machines. And that really sort of blew open my world of like, oh, I can improve pretty much every song we make, has gone through various permutations. Everything exists in Ableton, in Reason, In Pro Tools, in hardware, and in our hands at various points. By the time a song is done, there might be a guitar line that was originally written on a synthesizer, or a, you know, MIDI line that was originally written on guitar. Part of the process for me is shifting which hardware exists in software.
JFR: There is one question that has plagued me for a while, and I ask this because this band and your projects seem to have this same spirit of innovation and invention. Was the name, Cap’n Jazz, at all inspired by Captain Beefheart?
Tim Kinsella: You know, he is the only musician that I have a tattoo of his face on me. But no, it actually came from when We, me and Sam Zurick, all of us were in a band together before Cap’n Jazz, and me and Sam went to a jazz fest to see Elvin Jones when we were like 16. This just came up the other day because my friend put on this Elvin Jones record and I was like, yeah, man I saw him when I was 16. And we were like, Isn't that crazy? Like what a 16-year-old is like, I don't know, “Let's go see Elvin Jones.” Anyways, we went to see The Elvin Jones Jazz Machine and we were looking for a band name. So then we said, Let's be “Spazz Machine.” We had maybe the first eight Cap’n Jazz songs written and it seemed like the name fit. And then Sam made a comic book, which was a thing he was doing at the time, you know, we were sophomores in high school. So he made a comic book about a superhero named Captain Jazz, who found sort of square things and his power was imbuing them with the qualities of jazz. So we saw the band name come up, you know, originally the band was gonna be the score to these comic books he was drawing and this superhero. I wasn't aware of Captain Beefheart at the time, although I do remember seeing them play “Hot Head” from Doc at the Radar Station on Saturday Night Live when I was like 10 or something and being fixated on like, “what is this music?” And then the first Primus album came out. Because you know, at that point, you couldn't find music like you can today, you needed to buy the record or someone had to play the record. There was no internet or anything, so certainly no streaming platforms. So yeah, I remember the first Primus record coming out and being so excited because it was the first music I'd ever heard that reminded me of seeing “Hot Head” on SNL as a kid.
Tim Kinsella's next project is a full album follow-up to 2022's Gimmie Altamont EP. You can find Tim's work on Bandcamp, Spotify, or via Tim and Jenny's website. You can also catch Tim's performance at The Hideout in Chicago on March 17th and The Salt Shed in Chicago on May 12th.
Many thanks to Tim Kinsella for participating in this interview. I'd also like to thank Dr. Simone Muench for making this possible.
--Samuel McFerron, Prose, Poetry, and Blog Editor.