Joan of Arc’s frontman discusses his band’s newest album, growing up with musicians and poetry as a lifestyle.
Tim Kinsella is not a well-known name, but to a certain few, he’s a cult hero.
Across his work in Cap’n Jazz, Owls, and Make Believe, not to mention other, more obscure acts he’s run over the past three decades, Kinsella has stretched indie and punk rock to absurd, hyper-active limits.
Joan of Arc, Kinsella’s longest-running project, celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year with a series of live shows and the release of its latest record, “He’s Got the Whole This Land Is Your Land in His Hands,” out now courtesy of Joyful Noise Recordings.
Before Joan of Arc’s performance Tuesday night in the Hi-Fi in Indianapolis, in the midst of a perilous drive, Kinsella was kind enough to grant me a phone interview to discuss Joan of Arc’s newest album, growing up with his band, and poetry as a lifestyle.
Joan of Arc will play the Hi-Fi on Tuesday night. What’s it like making a setlist from 20 years of material?
Well, you know, we obviously sort of are more excited about the newer songs just because they feel fresher, but we think back and play different old songs all the time depending on who’s in the band and how we’re sounding at the time and what kind of instruments we’re bringing around. So sometimes a particular song from the first record might sound good to us one year, and a different song from the same record might sound good to us a year later just because we’re playing differently. It’s really a matter of sounding like ourselves in the present, taking what’s interesting to us in the present from the past. We don’t feel an obligation to say, “Oh, let’s play this greatest hit or something.”
So what older songs fit in well with the newer stuff?
Just the hits. I don’t know. It’s hard to say. I mean, do you want song titles? We’ve learned 25 songs for the tour, but we maybe play 11 or 12 each night. So I don’t want to say, “Oh, we’re playing this song these days” because people will be like, “What the fuck, bro? Play that song.”
Is there a general creative arc with how Joan of Arc makes its music, or is it more based off what you guys are feeling in the moment?
There’s no long-range plan. It’s not, “Hey, let’s get into drones for a year or two. Then we’ll write some songs.” It’s more just what’s interesting to us at the time. We do a lot of conceptualizing on how we want to make things, but not exactly what we want to make. We get interested in the process and set up these different ways of making the albums. That obviously determines what comes out, but we don’t have expectations about what the results might be. We think about what’s an interesting process.
What was that process like for your latest record?
We tried writing songs and they were just not sounding interesting to us. What was really sounding interesting to us was just playing really long jams, sometimes three or four hours at a time and switching instruments a lot. We knew we needed to do that to make the record, but we don’t have the money to get a recording studio for long enough to keep doing that, so we figured out, “How can we play that way and make it financially possible?” So we ended up going into weird spaces that we had access to with a mobile recording unit, setting up for four days at a time and recording hours and hours and then listening and editing.
So the lineup’s stabilizing a little bit, but over the last 20 years it’s been kind of volatile —
No! God, no! It’s definitely unstable, but in the most positive way. We played in a record release show last night, and our 28 people on the guest list were people who are in and out of the band all the time and the people who are helping us do this. There’s no hard feelings at all between anyone who’s ever been in Joan of Arc and then isn’t. It’s very much designed to just be, like, come-as-you-please. Sort of like a potluck. It’s like, “Here’s this thing. Whenever you want in, it’s here for you.”
Is it that unstable nature what’s kept Joan of Arc so interesting to you these last 20 years?
I wouldn’t say it’s been exciting to me for 20 years. There’s definitely a year at a time where I’m working on Owls and not thinking of Joan of Arc, or there’s bigger solo projects and books. It’s weird to think we’re 40-year-old people. None of us have spouses or kids or families in that way a lot of people our age have families. The stable unit in our lives is each other. That’s a really intense friendship between people, and that’s not just the current membership. It’s the whole constellation of people who are coming and going. It stays interesting because we remain interesting to each other. We remain in each other’s lives, and we’re all creative people who are invested in asking questions, and we find each other’s questions interesting.
Was there a certain question tied to the new record?
I don’t know. There was a lot of songs we threw away. I wouldn’t want to give it away. I think that largely once records are done, they’re much less interesting to us, the people who make them, than when they’re being made. It’s such an incredible privilege and blessing to be able to make records. It really is just these certain abstract issues or questions that we’re trying to resolve, and in the process of making the record we answer those questions. Necessarily, those questions become less interesting to us. I don’t really want to tell you what those impulses were. If anyone wrote about that, it could impede the listener’s idea of what’s happening on the record. I want people to have their imaginations.
When you wrote about the latest Refused record for the Talkhouse, you said, “The most important part of being in a band is appearing cool.AH” Does Joan of Arc appear cool?
No. Maybe like the zit remedy on Degrassi Jr. High or something. No, but I’m very aware that we don’t. We’ve been a band for so long. We’ve all been in our same neighborhood so long, worked in the same bar for so long and had the same friends for so long. Most of my friends are people I’ve known 20 years or more, so everyone has a band. We definitely are the band that everyone’s friends with, everyone loves us as their friends, but no one gets cool points for name dropping us. We don’t look like the Ramones or a ska band.
I’ve been doing it wrong, then, namedropping Joan of Arc.
Yeah, I don’t know, man. Poetry is really interesting to me. I don’t mean just words on a page with unique line breaks and intentional cadences and spells being cast. I mean poetic sensibility about the world. I understand the world as poetry. Can you hold on a sec? I gotta parallel park.
Sorry about that. Too much traffic to have tried that one-handed. Poetry is a sensibility, or a cultivated way of seeing and understanding the measured balance between circumstances and intention, and poetic beauty and the every day. This would be a way of being in the world that I feel we have in common as a band, and that’s never gonna be cool. I mean, we’re very cool guys and girls. We hang out at the bars a lot and we skateboard. We DJ. We’re among the people that can tell you where the best party will be any day of the week or the best art opening. We’re cool in that way, but what we actually do is never gonna win over a tribe of teenagers. It’s not meant to be, because we’re not teenagers and we’re not looking to start a gang.
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