Oh, messy life.
The name of Tim Kinsella might not be instantly recognisable to a lot of people, but the bands he has been associated with since the late 1980s surely are. From Cap’n Jazz to Joan Of Arc, Owls, Make Believe and his work as a solo artist and author – Kinsella, along with brother Mike and ever-present sidemen Sam Zurick (bass) and Victor Villarreal (guitar), are four men who you could argue are the most vital players in the creation of both the “emo” scene and Chicago’s math rock hotbed.
Kinsella is basically a legend…well, to me at least. Cap’n Jazz have an almost mythological status in the world of music. Formed in 1989 by the Kinsella brothers and high school friends Zurick and Villarreal they managed just one proper album (the utterly glorious 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, the blueprint for all the emo you hear today, be it Fall Out Boy, We Are Scientists, whoever) before splitting in 1995 only a year after its release.
Almost immediately Tim Kinsella formed Joan Of Arc (at one time or another the band has featured all the members of Cap’n Jazz) and that band has been creating noisy, messy, awkward music, with Kinsella’s trademark obtuse lyrics, for the eighteen years since. In 2000 Tim reconvened the members of Cap’n Jazz for another record, this time under the name of Owls. Less urgent than Cap’n Jazz, the band released one – again! – album, the brilliant Owls, before collapsing under the weight of madness, personal problems and Villarreal’s drug habit. Perhaps learning his lesson, it wasn’t until 2010 that Kinsella once again got his long-time friends back together for Cap’n Jazz reunion shows, and although that truly is the last we’re likely to hear of that project and despite the four year gap since those shows, that reunion turned out to be the catalyst for perhaps the most surprising news of 2013….that we’d be getting a new Owls record, creatively titled Two, in the early months of 2014. Could lead single “I’m Surprised” be any more appropriate a title? After picking my jaw up off the floor and listening to Two, the sound of four guys who sound….mature would be pushing it, but grown up and less urgent, though still making a record that’s no less hooky, aggressive and indulgent – but with more of a groove than a lot of math rock related albums, and than any other Kinsella/Kinsella/Villarreal/Zurick output. I called Tim at his home in snow-bound Chicago to find out why after all these years we’ve got another Owls record. A shock, never mind surprise, surely?
“I mean, it took us by surprise too!” explains the older Kinsella brother. “We did those Cap’n Jazz reunion shows in 2010…but we are not four men with simple lives.” So it wasn’t any easy task then? “There’s been a lot of…” a hesitant Tim pauses. “I don’t wanna say drama, as that seems dismissive, but there’s been a lot of bad stuff. We first became friends and started playing music together in 1989, and we all have very specific and unique relationships with each other and truthfully, we’ve made as many records together as we can. We’ve always been trying but there’s always life circumstances…and this is the best we could do. We’ve been trying a lot!” Without wanting the conversation to veer off into a celebrity expose, I bring up the issue of drugs and particularly those of Villarreal, who it must be said is one of the great guitarists of his generation. Was that a major factor in not being able to pull it together? “Yeah, yeah. I mean, it’s not just drugs,” begins Kinsella, “it’s like drugs, family circumstances, life circumstances like I said, and now everyone is getting their shit together to a degree, and now we’re all back in Chicago.”
The source of the second Owls record can be traced back to those reunion shows of 2010. There are some great video clips of one of the Cap’n Jazz shows at Chicago’s legendary Empty Bottle venue, and when you play it immediately after footage of Kinsella and co back in the early 90s you can hardly hear any difference. It’s four guys who still clearly have “it”, whatever that may be. Kinsella reveals that’s really what kick started new recordings: “It was out of the Cap’n Jazz shows; we really enjoyed playing together,” he states, before revealing quite the golden nugget of information. “I really wanted to name this a Cap’n Jazz record….” Wait, what? So why didn’t you? “Well, I never expected to be a 39-year-old man saying the words ‘CAPTAIN JAZZ’”. There’s a note of regret in Kinsella’s voice here, cursing the steps that led him to give his band that moniker back in 1989: “Y’know, we were fifteen when we named it and it was part of Sam’s comic book about this superhero. We’d seen some free jazz for the first time and we were like ‘these guys are superheroes!’”
It’s really not such a bad name when you think about it, and there is actually another reason why Kinsella didn’t want to use the Cap’n Jazz name, and that reason is former guitarist and founder of The Promise Ring, Davey von Bohlen. Always the outsider of the group, von Bohlen joined the band in 1994 just in time for the album release and will always be tied in as an important part of the making of the record….yet he’s really not part of the heart and soul of the group. Kinsella explains: “So that’s the period of Cap’n Jazz that anyone knows about – when we were a five piece – and while I don’t mean to diminish Davey’s contributions at all, he’s never lived in Chicago and we’ve never had as tight a friendship as the four of us.”
So, with drug problems out of the way and everyone that bit more matured, did that help when it came to writing new songs? “Yeah, everyone not being on drugs and crazy helps! It’s weird…we all have very different lives and we’re all sort of healthy positive people.” The sound of Two differs from the first Owls record in a number of ways: Kinsella has pulled back on the lyrics (all the song titles come from the first line of lyrics) and there’s more of a groove to Two, replacing the anxious sound of Owls with a slightly more considered turn. I ask Tim what brought on the redirection of sound: “I think this time there’s not the same urgency as there was back then,” he begins, “and the process is totally different too. With the first record we literally wrote it in five days, recorded demos, edited it a couple of months later and recorded the LP. So it was five intense days of writing, a couple months off, practice and then we had this little record. This time it was two years of writing once a week, taking a couple of months off…so it was very slow, deliberate process. We threw a whole record away, there were a lot of false starts.”
It seems that breaking free of the past was a major factor in Two coming together, as Kinsella explains that they didn’t rely on playing or listening to the proto-math rock of the band’s debut: “One thing that we did which really helped us make this record – and this is a weird thing – but not once during the practices did we play an old song,” says Tim. “Which seems weird for guys who’ve played together for so long…it would seem totally natural if we did. Even yesterday, we were shooting a video and Victor was like ‘oh my god look at this old tape I found!’ and he had this recording on his phone of us from 1992 but during recording no-one ever went ‘hey man, how did this part go?’” Never one to worry about public opinion, Kinsella once again made sure he and his lifelong friends stuck two fingers up to expectations. “We never thought about people’s expectations and whether it needed to sound like this record or that record. It just needed to sound contemporary to where the four of us are right now. Before we began – just to give you an idea of how open minded it could be – one idea that we started pursuing and we were all excited about was Mike playing bass and Sam playing drums; not just to fuck with people’s expectations, but Sam’s a great drummer, with a totally different style than Mike…and he’s a great bass player with a totally different style to Sam.”
But wouldn’t people find that kind of unsurprising for Owls? For better or worse, incorrectly or otherwise, people assume that the band are technically proficient players; not perhaps so much in Cap’n Jazz, due to how frenetic that sound was, but through Owls and Joan Of Arc, and their variety of time signatures and intricacy of style, most definitely. “It was just to….y’know, people associate Owls with great technique but we actually don’t care about that,” says Kinsella, disagreeing. “Technique refers to a whole toolbox of skills and it was never the case that we were fixated on technique but we got lumped in with the math rock bands. People would ask us what time signature a track was in and I’d be like ‘I dunno!’ Not only did we not care, we didn’t know, that wasn’t the point.”