An Interview with Art Rock Pioneer Tim Kinsella


In 1989, a bony fifteen year-old named Tim Kinsella and his Chicagoland high school friends began playing together in a band that became known as Cap’n Jazz. Combining expressive earnestness with the thrust of hardcore tempos and exasperation, they became an emblem of the post-punk milieu. In the more than ten years since the dissolution of Cap’n Jazz, Tim Kinsella has continued making provocative and genre-defying music through a panoply of bands such as Joan of Arc, Owls, Sky Corvair, Friends/Enemy, and most recently Make Believe. Both the avant-gardism of his songwriting and the confrontational aura and bodily contortions during performances have made him a notoriously loved or hated figure. Many of the more popular indie rock reviewers have been on the hater side, casting Kinsella as an excessively obscure and pretentious art rocker. Such condemnations have made his admirers all the more adamant that his music challenges conventions dear to parts of the indie rock community all too self-assured of their significant difference from corporate rock culture.

Tim Kinsella just announced that he will be leaving Make Believe, one of the most popular bands he has been a part of since Cap’n Jazz. This comes at time that coincides with the upcoming debut of his first feature length film, Orchard Vale. Make Believe’s last concert outside of Chicago with Tim Kinsella will take place in Minneapolis, MN, at the Cedar Cultural Center on June 30.

I had the chance to speak with Kinsella about his departure from Make Believe, his new film and his thoughts on the state of rock music today.

Tony: First, I just heard that you were leaving Make Believe. Do you know if the band is going to continue to record and perform without you?

Tim: That’s the plan, yeah.

Tony: Do you know if they will have vocals at all?

Tim: I don’t know if they know what they know exactly what they are going to do yet. I mean they’re at practice right now, and I’m at home, so . . . .I don’t know what the plan is. Now is a good time for me to quit because we have the new record mostly written, too much to throw away. But the songs still aren’t developed enough, so [Make Believe] can figure out a way, if they want them to be instrumental or bring in someone new or something.

Tony: And will your vocals appear on the new album?

Tim: No, no. That’s what I’m saying that they have time to re-write, minus that aspect.

Tony: Are you going to be coming to the show in Minneapolis?

Tim: Yeah, I’m going to play these last two shows.

Tony: You just finished producing a film?

Tim: Yeah, I wrote it and directed it, and my wife and I produced it. She edited it. Our friend Chris Strong shot it. We have a premier August 15 at this theater here [Chicago’s Chopin Theatre]. We’ve just been working on it all the time this last year. We shot it last August. So we’re very close now. We’re about 98% there now.

Tony: This is your first filmmaking experience?

Tim: Yeah, I’ve made a couple shorts before. And my wife works as an editor and has made a few documentaries and I’ve helped her with stuff. But this is the first feature.

Tony: Have you felt there is any similarity between filmmaking and musicmaking?

Tim: Oh, very much, yeah. I mean, the few people who have seen it are kinda shocked how much it has reminded them of a Joan of Arc record. I took that as a good sign. I’m not trying to make Joan of Arc records in a certain way, and I’m not trying to make this film in a certain way. I took it as a sign, I must have been able to express something true to myself clearly, if that same quality comes across.

Tony: Are there any particular filmmakers who have been influential to you in terms of filmmaking or general perception?

Tim: Yes, sure. I had a film minor in college. Not with Make Believe, but with other records I’ve been involved with in the last few years, I’ve felt like a lot of film theory was influencing the dynamics and pacing of how records were coming together, sorta the whole approach, having a lot of collaborators. . . . That’s been true a couple times in records.

I’ve really enjoyed that I’ve been totally immersed in this film for the last year except for when we go on tour. Other than that it’s all day, every day. It’s been a few years since making a record has felt like that for me. So it’s very exciting for me.

Tony: You are still planning on making music with Joan of Arc? According to a press release Joan of Arc has two albums in the works, is that correct?

Tim: Once, twice a week, I’ll be playing and something will sound good to me, and I’ll go in my little room and hit record. Then I forget about it, and I just have this pile of songs sitting around without any sort of ambition for when the record will get made. It’s just sort of a natural thing. This is how Joan of Arc records have come together for a while, I just get to point where I’m like – wow, there’s 60 songs here, let’s check them out. Without keeping count or anything, I just move some into a folder, some good, some throw away. And then there’s 25 songs that sound okay to me, and within that folder, it’s just weeding out.

Tony: Do you conceive of songs first more abstractly or mentally then move to a point where you can make it into something that’s made out of actual sound?

Tim: I think it’s more of a matter of trying to stay out of my own way. And trying to dig deep without any sort of editing or self-censorship, without – how should I say this? – any sort of logic. I don’t want my rational mind involved in it. My rational mind has enough preoccupations, with going to work, and trying to make rent, and remembering to pay car insurance bills and stuff like that. Ideally music will be this liberating force. I think the greatest potential for those moments is actually in performing when you can sorta tap into a shared mind, with the performers and the audience.

Tony: I know that Make Believe played for a while on an all Christian venue tour. I was wondering whose idea was that, what were the motivations behind that, how did you feel about it?

Tim: You know how Christian culture sorta appropriates things that they think might corrupt the youth, then defangs it , and makes a Christian version. We were vaguely aware of there being a Christian indie rock scene but didn’t really have any interaction with it. Then this band, Me Without You, asked us to go on tour with them. At first we were like – no way, we’re not going do some Christian tour. But then we talked about it for a couple days and we realized it would be an incredible opportunity to have access. . . I mean that’s sorta like the whole idea of punk rock, to be able to go into different contexts and drop some kind of bomb. In general at Make Believe shows, people show up knowing what they’re getting into and just having their expectations satisfied. We decided that we could do the tour and go out there sort of being confrontation towards people’s assumptions.

Tony: Yeah, I really wish I had been able to attend one of those shows, not impurify the rest of the audience. But it definitely reminded me, hearing about that, of the Sex Pistol’s tour of the South.

Tim: Yeah

Tony: That sort of clash being the performer and the audience.

Tim: Yeah. There was definitely a small group of people there for us every night who seemed more excited than more because of the strange context and the confrontational aspects of it. I should say Me Without You are some of the coolest guys ever, and they’re our friends now. There were certain days we hung out. I think they are frustrated with Christian culture and how it operates. They were frustrated enough with Christian culture to ask us to do the tour.

Tony: Right now, do you think the indie rock scene is part of countercultural movement? Do you think rock music is part of any sort of subversion or break with more commercial culture?

Tim: I think there will always be a countercultural scene. But I don’t think it’s very related to “indie rock” as a style. I think indie rock as an infrastructure or like a business model, might the way that bands like that exist. Like I said before, music is just a means of communication and it could be anything. There’s definitely a lot of bands that I’m very excited about, that seem very vital and engaged in the present, finding new connection between neurons. But I don’t think of indie rock is a social force, I think it’s more lifestyle music.

Tony: You’ve been involved in indie rock infrastructure for a long time. Have you felt many changes in the indie rock infrustructure since the early 90’s?

Tim: Many. There were incredible changes since the early nineties. There’s sorta like two camps. There’s the indie rock bands who are there because the ideas they are trying to express aren’t represented anywhere within the dominant culture and this is an infrastructure that will allow these more subversive ideas to be shared. And then there’s sort of the indie rock camp that are just like the farm league to the major labels. I mean potentially millions of teenagers could love it, and it would satisfy the same sort of nostalgia, or whatever popular music satisfies in someone. They could potentially satisfy the same requirement in anyone who hears it; it’s just people haven’t heard it yet. Like a band like Postal Service, I’ve never heard them, but I have a sense that they are not very subversive. That’s indie rock, right?

Tony: Yeah, I certainly think that’s what would go under what a lot of people would conceive of indie rock or what comes to mind first often with that phrase.

Tim: Yeah, I don’t feel a connection to that.

Tony: Do you read reviews or other sorts of music journalism about your own stuff or other stuff you listen to?

Tim: Yes. When Joan of Arc first started, in the early days of Internet music journalism, I was really totally stunned by the response. The totally vitriolic response. It had never really even occurred to me to read the reviews, it wasn’t something I thought about. But then I remember getting a press kit from Jade Tree (a Joan of Arc label), opening it, and just reading something on the front page about what a horrible person I was, all this stuff. I read the whole packet. It was like all this hateful stuff that seemed to have little to do with the music. I was really shocked. So I had to purposefully not read stuff for a while. But I occasionally read stuff now. I think I’m over letting it affect me. The me that I’m most in the habit of being every day feels very little connection to guy that I read about in most of the reviews. So it doesn’t really faze me.

Tony: I don’t know if you’ve thought much about this or if you really want to answer this. But I’m wondering if you’ve thought about what about some of your work did produce such a vitriolic response in certain parts of the indie rock community?

Tim: Well. When Joan of Arc started, there was a real self-consciousness about it, a self-conscious confrontational aspect. We didn’t know what we really wanted to sound like. But there were these sort of micro-scenes that I felt a part of, and detached, from all over Chicago. There were all these no-wave bands, free jazz bands, and all these emo bands, all these hardcore bands. I was really engaged in all of them, and I could see these communities that were specific to certain genre expectations. I think really our only goal as a band when we set out was to be sure we couldn’t really be embraced to any one of these little micro-scenes that we all sorta felt a connection to. Like, I feel a real connect to no-wave bands, but I don’t want to just be ghettoized to only being part of this or that. So I think we sorta frustrated people in that way, I guess. I don’t know.

In defense of the journalists, I was probable a bit cocky at 23. I’m not super hung up on it or regret it or anything. I don’t remember specific stories of – Oh god, was I an idiot! But I imagine that if I now met myself as a 23 year old, I would maybe be annoyed by that guy. I thought I had things figured out a lot more than I think I do now.

Tony: Do you feel your disposition as performer has changed that much, or is this more of outside of the stage that you’re talking about these changes happening?

Tim: I don’t know. I try not to think of my disposition as a performer. There was maybe more of a self-conscious confrontational aspect back then than there is now. And I think that confrontational aspect faded, then was rekindled at the first immediate thrust of Make Believe. At that point, this was before the 2004 election and before even John Kerry represented some sort of alternate voice. I was just really overwhelmed by this fascistic, single monotone voice of power everywhere. There was no voice of dissent anywhere in popular culture. I was very aware of wanting to be confrontational and trying to shake people out of some comfort zone. Whereas, now I don’t feel that being confrontational in public toward an ambiguous mass of people is the most effective means of protest for me these days.

Tony: I saw some of those early Make Believe shows, and I thought that sense of confrontation was what made it so memorable.

Tim: Thanks. It’s also something you’re bound to get tired of. And it’s not something I would want to fake. I’m kinda tired of it. I like the idea of being in a band and playing a lot. But it would need to be a band with wider parameters of what it could be. I couldn’t do it as just a singer, I’d need to play guitar too. (Unlike many of his other bands, in Make Believe shows, Kinsella would sing without playing an instrument).

Tony: One last question. You’ve been such a prolific songwriter for so long now. I’m wondering if you ever go through any sort of songwriter’s block, or if you go through any periods where you just don’t have anything you can materialize into sound? Or does it just keep on coming?

Tim: I don’t know. Like I said about how Joan of Arc records come together, I don’t really put any effort in to it. Not to say it’s an effortless thing that just comes to me, I just mean I don’t worry about it.

Tony: So you don’t really set aside certain times of the day and say, this is my song writing time – or anything like that?

Tim: I used to be far more disciplined in that way. I definitely feel that to-whom-much- is-given, much-is-expected kind of responsibility. I feel like I am really lucky. I mean, I work, I’m a bartender. I’m not really getting away of anything. But on a global scale, in a global context, I feel so lucky. I’ve been able to travel and do what I love. But I definitely feel a responsibility to work harder at it. But I don’t care if I’m not ever able to write another song. I don’t care, it doesn’t really matter. I guess that’s why I don’t get writers’ bloc, because I don’t care if I do.