Tim Kinsella doesn’t feel iconic, but he is. His Joan of Arc head out on a U.S. tour in support of their new album this summer, making two stops in New York, so expect many a die-hard fan supporting the underground guru and his entourage. “I just feel like part of the community,” Kinsella says. “That community has meant everything to me.” The community which Kinsella refers to is the fistful of close friends and family who have cultivated their own subsidiary genre of independent rock music. Commonly referred to now, simply, as “Kinsella bands,” the friends-cum-indie stalwarts have been touring and releasing records under various tags since the 1990s.
Currently Kinsella, a native of Chicago, is in two known and active bands, Make Believe and Joan of Arc. The latter started at the end of the 90s as the ricochet off Kinsella’s first popular band, Cap’n Jazz — the energetic post-punk outfit that garnered most of its fame posthumously, touted for a heavy influence on emo as it first began to surface. Although all of Kinsella’s bands have been musically discernable from one another (check out the Kinsella band family tree at joanfrc.com), his voice has always tied the various projects together — a whiny, off-key yelp that, in indie rock, is just as off limits to imitation as Thom Yorke of Radiohead’s nasal drone.
Make Believe’s sound is rough around the edges — a rock band at its core with a guitarist, a drummer, a bassist and a singer. Labyrinthine guitar riffs and grungy bass are noisy but surprisingly catchy and anthemic. Drumming is sparse but punchy and played with one hand while the other plays keys. The warped song craft functions to exhibit Kinsella’s slam-poetic vocals and his aberrant use of the English language.
“English has its own little rhythms, and Make Believe is dense music, so it’s just a puzzle to figure out what fits where and then connecting dots to make vague narratives,” says Kinsella as justification of this purposeful concoction of perplexity. “In Make Believe I am a spokesman for us four men.” The other three guys are Tim’s cousin, Nate Kinsella, Sam Zurick and Bobby Burg, all of whom play in Joan of Arc, as well as a number of other bands associated with the Kinsella armada.
Joan of Arc is Kinsella and company’s most commercially successful band, and they have released an oeuvre of music that leans toward the avant-garde. “In Joan of Arc I feel free to speak for myself,” says Kinsella. Unlike Make Believe, Joan of Arc songs range from cumbersome and directionless jams to minimalist ditties peppered with hints of catchy melodies that are often truncated before they ever establish any kind of solid groundwork. In the past the meaning behind Joan of Arc songs has been anyone’s guess. But on the heels of their latest long player, Boo Human, Kinsella offers his most accessible piece of music yet, and his most collaborative.
“Maybe it’s a matter of trusting myself, or just knowing how lucky I am to be surrounded by such wildly talented and creative people,” says Kinsella of the differences found on the new record. The tracks on Boo Human are less lofty and more tangible. Swirling guitars amid waning cellos and violas create a thick atmosphere for Kinsella’s sardonic vocals. The musical mastery sounds fresh compared to previous Joan of Arc efforts. On Boo Human, the command of the lyrics shines with the instrumentation — a feat accomplished by teaming up with old friends and family. “On a functional level, working together with one’s loved ones toward a common end remains the same process whether the end is a record, a movie, a soup or hanging a door. Things are only gonna get better from disagreeing on an approach and then needing to defend your position or see it in a new way,” Kinsella says. “So who better suited than family, I guess. It was never any kind of conscious idea, just a matter of working together with people you enjoy and trust.”
Upon listening, Boo Human sounds conceptual and gripping, as if Kinsella’s been sequestered and stirring away in his apartment throughout the record. Themes of heartbreak, jealousy, loneliness and rage pop up constantly, from the cover art, two images of the same Kinsella, one haggard and one clean-cut, struggling to cross a door’s threshold, to the liner notes that evenly showcase every word on the record next to line drawings of stacked boxes. The matter is, to say the least, bleak. And it’s no coincidence that 14 musicians, all part of that community Kinsella mentions so often, appear on this record. They are like a support system helping their friend through a hard time. The more upbeat tracks, not without their own cynical jabs, prove that Kinsella is able to subjectively delineate and unravel his emotions. “I guess I have a utopian bent,” he says. “I’m a lover and a pacifist, so I’m drawn toward ideologies that offer glimmers of insight within the small cracks.”
On stage, Joan of Arc is always a surprise, and it’s impossible to predict how they will perform Boo Human for a live audience. “Obviously live is more spontaneous and has a reciprocal energy involved to greater degrees,” says Kinsella. All 14 musicians could be present playing any number of instruments to transpose sprightly, energetic facsimiles of songs as they appear on record. It makes for a more ear-ringing and sweaty live set. On the other hand, Kinsella at times performs all by his lonesome, exhibiting his more laid-back side, strumming a guitar and making pithy banter between tunes. Either way, the presence of the community he represents is felt. It’s hard not to think of them all as one unit.
“The true joy with which my friends and I have found as a means of living, though not without its moments of true doubts and fear, might be pretty difficult to shake in favor of the intangible values culture seems bent on locking people in with,” he says. ”We’re like the old grumpy muppets chuckling in the balcony, and our entire culture is happening on the stage.”
Joan of Arc is performing at the Knitting Factory on July 21st and at The Yard in Brooklyn on July 22nd in support of Boo Human. Both dates are with Ponytail.