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Mike Kinsella's Personal Best

24 April 2024, 17:50

Ahead of American Football’s LP1 25th anniversary shows, Mike Kinsella walks Hayden Merrick through five ride-or-die Owen tracks, charting his long-running solo project from its humble beginnings in his mom’s house through its latest sweeping masterpiece, The Falls of Sioux.

Mike Kinsella’s past is forever hot on his heels.

Sure, there’s the album he and some college pals made in their late teens – the lovesick warbles and glistening arpeggios tracked off the cuff before slowly crystallising into the stuff of legend. But before he was Mr American Football, midwest emo progenitor, Mike Kinsella and his brother Tim carried out yet more genre legwork with their flash-in-the-pan project Cap’n Jazz and its one cantankerous, enigmatic studio album, whose title would blow the word count for this article.

After the group prematurely dissolved, its members went on to form not only American Football, but also The Promise Ring, Joan of Arc, Owls, and a bunch of other influential acts. Recently, Kinsella has been ruminating on this era. His long-running project Owen, which swaps American Football’s electric guitars and sorrowful trumpeteering for resonant acoustics and burbling synth tones, has a new album called The Falls of Sioux, a title that calls back to Cap’n Jazz’s fear-and-loathing days on the road. (Check out this documentary to learn more of the band’s tumultuous, short-lived existence.)

“I was in this band Cap’n Jazz in high school – so young – and that’s the furthest away we ever played,” Kinsella, a Chicago native, says of the titular city of Sioux Falls in South Dakota. “It’s a small town. We just played in this guy Nate’s basement, but at that time in my life, that was the edge of the world – that was as far west as I got.”

More than a geographical milestone, Sioux Falls has come to represent “the last of this youthful naivety, or energy, or passion,” as Kinsella reflects. “Meeting new people was so fun, going new places was so fun, and being alive was so fun, and then more and more, as you get older…” He trails off. “It’s a reference to this other life, maybe.”


This idea of looking backwards in order to understand the present – or feel a sense of harmony with it – forms the conceit of The Falls of Sioux. As Kinsella chases the question, “Why is that city at that time still speaking to me?,” he winds up with a record that works in brighter shades than his previous one. Sioux provides golden rays to melt The Avalanche – the spring to its winter.

A Sioux track such as “Mount Cleverest” is big, bold, and playful – not only in its punny title, but also its scorching guitar solo, uplifting major-key harmony, and layers of polyrhythmic percussion. It sounds akin to a newer Death Cab For Cutie cut, boasting a “Gold Rush” kind of swagger. “It’s further away from recording in a bedroom and whatever limitations I used to have when I started the project 25 or 30 years ago,” Kinsella explains of the record’s expansive qualities. “And the further away I get, the more I feel like I can accomplish: ‘Oh this song should rock a little bit, or this song should get huge, or this song should get dark, or this song should have tubular bells that sound like we’re in the wild west; okay, cool, we can do this stuff now.’”

Armed with the relevant tools and know-how, Kinsella continues to push out of his comfort zone and try new things. “Virtue Misspent,” another highlight, ends with a butterflies-inducing, spoken-word passage recited by his partner. It was originally going to be lifted from a poem by the late Richard Brautigan. But after the poet’s representatives denied permission – despite an eloquent written plea – Kinsella decided to write his own poetry in Brautigan’s style. “It kinda pushed me to, ‘Use your brain, dude,’ instead of using somebody else’s brain,” he says.

Even after three prolific, influential decades of music-making, Kinsella remains an innovator at a creative peak. American Football’s appeal continues to crest. He continues to form even more projects, including LIES, a duo with his cousin/American Football bassist Nate, which released an album last year. Now more than ever it’s beneficial just to spend some time with his primary hustle: the project he’s been with the longest. This is Owen’s personal best.

“Cursed Id” (2024)

MIKE KINSELLA: This song existed for a while in my brain as the “Paul Simon” song. I went a different direction in the studio - is it my “Jackson Browne” song now? - but I like how charmingly clumsy it came out.

The B string is actually tuned below the G string, which is somewhat of a mindfuck while playing, so I really need to rely on muscle memory to fingerpick my way through it, because my brain can’t process that. It also has a killer suicide pun! - “I’m good-bye curious.”

BEST FIT: Love that tuning detail! It made me laugh when you’re on the Talkhouse Podcast with Andy Hull from Manchester Orchestra and he plays an off-the-cuff rendition of the Owen song “Breaking Away” but in standard tuning and you’re just like, “What the fuck, man?” How many different tunings are you using on this new record?

Every song’s in a different tuning. This “Cursed Id” one, it’s the first time I’ve used this specific tuning. I don’t think I have any other songs where went backwards on the guitar. I kind of drink too much and I do this alone, so every time I’m in [a new] tuning I’m like, “This is exciting!” It’s like I’m learning a different instrument. Because my brain’s so used to going one way, I've got to go the other.

There’s a new American Football song and the high E and the high B are both C. I’ve done tunings where two strings next to each other are the same, but something about them being the high ones, and then they’re tuned down, it’s fun.

Also, that string that low [in “Cursed Id”] resonates different. It’s cool. It’s my favourite song currently to play too, but it’s not really translating yet with just me and a guitar. [On tour] I play one acoustic and I use some self-effacing banter and I offer the floor up: “Does anyone have any questions? We can fill this tuning space with conversation instead of just watching me tune.”

Did any other new-album tracks come close to making your top 5? I like “Mount Cleverest” – another one of your killer puns – and “Penny” as well.

“Penny” is like, no one is ever going mention or listen to that song. “Cursed Id” and “Penny” are my sleeper songs. I think they’re pretty cool. They’re kind of my favourites. Maybe with some of the other ones, I was pretty ambitious sonically, and with these, I think I got to where I heard them in my brain. I’m like, “This is what I want to achieve,” and those two came pretty close. Although, vocally, “Penny,” the chorus bugs me every time I hear it, so I was like, “I can’t tell people to listen to that one.” They’ll find it, but I’m not gonna tell them to listen to it.


“A New Muse” (2020)

MIKE KINSELLA: My favourite guitar part to play of all time! Yes, even more fun than “Crazy Train.” I went into this album session with Hornsby on the brain but this one turned out more like Peter Gabriel trying to write a My Bloody Valentine song.

BEST FIT: I’m so glad you picked this, it’s one of my favourite Owen songs – the ultimate happy-sad sweet spot. Do you remember writing this guitar part? How long had it been kicking around before it became “A New Muse”?

The guitar part existed in a house I was in when I was married, then by the time it became a song, I was divorced and didn’t live in the house anymore, so it’d been a while.

At some point it sounded to me like Pearl Jam’s “Daughter,” so it existed in my head as the ballad on a grunge record, and then I was like, “I can push this into Peter Gabriel world with synth instead of…” I don’t know. All my songs, I feel like it’s My Bloody Valentine, it’s repetitive, it’s a groove.

It’s got a distinct A and B section too, as though sliced down the middle. How did you land on that structure?

The song is such a drone, intentionally – it's sort of relentless up until that [bridge] point. Songwriting-wise, I’m like, “Okay, now is a good time for a little breather, have everything fall, it’s been relentless strumming.” You’re lulled into this zone and then boom.

Writing a song, you have to figure out where a movement is gonna have the most impact. Sometimes I put the bridge before the second chorus, so then when you get to the second chorus, it’s like a relief and that has the most impact. But [with this song] I’m like, “It feels good; just keep going into another chorus; it still feels good.” And then the rug comes out.


“Dead For Days” (2020)

MIKE KINSELLA: Every album has at least one song that makes me cry, and this is one of them. I like that it sounds very familiar – almost like a children’s song melodically, but then the lyrics are super heavy.

There’s an ambiguous combination of beauty and grit that I’m always chasing. That juxtaposition is something I’m always striving for, and I think I got pretty close to succeeding with this one.

BEST FIT: It’s such a beautiful, devastating song that exists in a very specific place, in the midst of your divorce. Is it tough now to revisit such an intense and honed-in time period?

It’s not today. I’m just waiting on a sick kid and it’s not, like, “tough.” I can talk about it. There’s been a couple shows where either I had too much bourbon or whatever and I get lost and I’m like, “Oh shit, am I going make it through this?” That whole album is sort of from the same time.

The first line is about my dad’s passing, and I’d been sitting on that. Again, it’s like a children’s melody – “This is where the cop said…” – it’s so sweet, but it’s about my dad bleeding out on the floor and my brother discovering it, and I was out of town. It’s this heavy, heavy thing presented so sweetly. If you sing the heavy thing but you make it real heavy, I think that’s just too on the nose. It’s almost like a playful melody; it sounds like it’d be a toy, like a jack in the box – 'plink plonk.'

You’ve chosen two songs from The Avalanche and none from New Leaves or At Home with Owen

The older it gets, it gets into production and all that stuff, or I wasn’t as comfortable with my voice; I didn’t know what to do with my voice – I still don’t really – but I feel like it’s becoming more of my voice as the albums go on, so it gets harder and harder to go back and listen to songs.

I guess that means we can call The Avalanche the best Owen album, at least until The Falls of Sioux comes out…

I don’t know... yes. Hopefully they keep getting better.


“Lost” (2016)

MIKE KINSELLA: Sean Carey and Zach Hanson really built something magical around what is a very simple, repetitive main guitar line and vocals. Sometimes I overthink one or many aspects of a song – either the arrangement, or how technical the guitar part is, or the vocal melodies or something – but I allowed this one to just exist simply, and I’m so glad I did.

And it only took me 20 years to finally squeeze an homage to my favourite Superchunk song, “Driveway to Driveway,” into a song.

BEST FIT: Barring the “Driveway” line, the other standout lyric for me is, “Carry scissors with your teeth / Bury your burdens underneath your lover’s skin.”

This album was the first time I worked with Sean and Zach, up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. I was nervous. I’m a fan of all of their bands and the work they’ve done. And it’s the first time I went somewhere and wrote the album with other people. You’ve got to be vulnerable in ways that I wasn’t willing to be before.

Anyway, I’m like, “This is my little song.” And I’m working my way through it with them, seeing what they did to it, how lush it is. Small moments have a big impact if you place them correctly and the lines and string hits land correctly. We kinda got this one in a way that, on that album, some of them we didn’t quite get.

So this song was written with those guys in the studio – did you have the bulk of it beforehand?

It’s the simplest Owen song maybe ever written. It’s kind of an A and B part. I don’t think the song has a bridge. So it’s just about what flourishes come in where. It’s strummy and it’s real simple, long chords. I had that and I had maybe half the lines before going to the studio, so they knew the vibe.

At the time, I had young kids and I was away for maybe nine days finishing the album. Eau Claire is very snowy. It was almost like a cabin, except it was a giant, nice house. But I was alone in a cabin essentially, for a week, just me and my thoughts and bourbon. So I plugged in all the holes in the lyrics.

What a place to write, and not just end up with “No TV and no beer make Homer something something” on the typewriter.

It was perfect, yeah. I’ve done essentially this same process for the last two albums, or it’s been three now.

Owen the king of whys

“The Ghost of What Should’ve Been” (2002)

MIKE KINSELLA: I think I nailed the arrangement on this one, and successfully combined a handful of my biggest influences seamlessly: imagine Dinosaur Jr. playing a Sundays song with Mick Fleetwood on drums. I was still recording in my childhood bedroom down the hall from my mom’s room, so the vocals are embarrassingly, apologetically hushed. Would you want to sing about fucking your ex-girlfriend in front of your mom?!

BEST FIT: This is your Dickens/Christmas Carol homage. The electric guitar leads are gnarly. I’m wondering what guitar we’re hearing here, if it was the one from the fabled first American Football LP, but ostensibly with the amp turned to 11?

It’s a great question. I’m going to say no. In American Football, I don’t think I owned a guitar. My recollection is I was just borrowing all my friends’ guitars in college. And then when I got out of college the first real guitar I bought was a Fender Tele-Sonic. It’s like a Telecaster but it has these two pickups that are different. Maybe I spent $1,000 at the time, and it was a big deal, to not just buy the cheapest Mexican knock-off.

It was sort of my baby, and I imagine that’s what all the leads were done on. That’s the only electric guitar I had until American Football reformed, which would’ve been 2014.

This is the oldest song you’ve picked, and the only one from the early Owen days. Was it an easy choice? You end live sets sometimes with this one, so it must be fairly special.

When I play it live, I end on “reminds me of fucking you,” so it’s a nice way to exit the stage. If I’m going to call from different eras, this is from the second album. The first album was literally me learning how to use Pro Tools. They’re not even songs – they’re more like soundscapes that I was trying different effects and learning how to add tracks or whatever.

I would say I kind of failed. I think the songs are lovely. I’m so happy Polyvinyl was willing to collect these and put them out. But this second album is more a reaction that: 'I’m going to write songs'. And this song is the first time I think the arrangement is actually pretty good and clever. I went back and listened to it this week and it’s pretty good for, you know, a youngish guy.

The tones are cool. This is all done in my bedroom in my mom’s house, so maybe I’m learning to set up mics better. It seems like a stepping stone. Again, the vocals are impossible to listen to – I’m not going to lose my shit with my mom down the hall – but the beginning of the project Owen was getting the gear and learning how to use it, and this was a significant step.

This is where the project can go, this is how you write a song, you can put a bunch of layers on it. They don’t all need J Mascis screeching guitar solos, but I’m into that solo, so…

No Good For No One Now

The Falls of Sioux is out 26 April on Big Scary Monsters. Find Owen on Instagram.

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