It’s a savagely bright afternoon in early November and I am hungover, but not as hungover as Tim Kinsella. The Chicago native played the last-but-one of his UK tour dates with seminal Midwestern emo outfit Cap’n Jazz the night before, which—in traditional fashion—entailed a lot of Tim falling about topless, playing an endless game of fetch with the audience and his tambourine, and screaming until he threw up. The shows were among the first Cap’n Jazz played since their brief reunion in 2010, which, in turn, were the band’s first shows since they broke up in 1995. We’re not here, drying out in a Hackney pub in the middle of the day, to talk about Cap’n Jazz. But their influence can’t be overstated. They are smart without being pretentious, earnest without being histrionic—often undercutting their own significance by rarely taking themselves very seriously (they were all in their mid-teens when the band formed, after all). And, at the center of all this playful chaos, is Tim Kinsella, who we are here to talk about.
As Jessica Hopper noted for Spin, the legendary and short-lived nature of the band “created a kind of mythology around Kinsella as a true artist, especially seeing as his peers and acolytes went on to mainstream and even top 40 success, while he remained—and remains—underground.” Beyond Cap’n Jazz, Tim has been involved in more projects than he has fingers to count them on. Like his brother Mike Kinsella (Owen, Owls, American Football) and cousin Nate (Birthmark, American Football, Joan of Arc), Tim is a restless creative polymath whose narrative voice threads everything he touches together. From Joan of Arc to Owls to Make Believe to releases under his own name and collaborations with artists like Angel Olsen, Tim’s writing is a unique articulation of the particular inner struggles of existence. Sad, sweet, literary, and often all three.
Tim Kinsella is extremely good at what he does, which happens to be an intimidating amount of music, helping to run a publishing house called Featherproof, writing novels and teaching creative writing to college students. The only way I would realistically end up sat across a candle-lit table from someone this impressive, asking them questions about their childhood, is if it was staged in the name of journalism. So here we are. In the pub. Tim orders a diet coke, and I order a pint because I’m a legend. And we had a nice long conversation about everything from relationships to his second novel Let Go On And On And On—which takes inspiration from the life of actor Laurie Bird, who appeared in three films in the 70s and then died of an overdose aged 26—to therapy to his, uh, penis.
Noisey: Hi Tim, you look fragile.
Tim Kinsella: Man, I drank way too much last night.
Oh dear. Have the shows been good though?
Yeah, they were great. Glad to be done with them… But they were definitely fun. So this is like a blind date? I guess every interview is like a blind date, sort of. Not to give you the impression that if I ever went on a blind date I would just talk about my bands.
Yeah, we basically started with the concept of an interview and worked backwards to its fundamental principle of getting to know someone.
That sounds nice. How can I really fuck this up that you would be like ‘Oh, this asshole! This is horrible!’ Am I going to be mocked? Is that a thing? Publicly ridiculed?
Nah we’re here because I already think you’re cool, so it’s very much unlike a date in that respect. But let’s start here: do you remember the first date you ever went on?
I went to Catholic grade school and we had these roller skating parties, like dances, that started in 7th or 8th grade, which is around the same time boys started getting erections so it was sort of awkwardly…
…Everyone roller skating with a boner?
All I remember is you would ask someone to go to the roller skating party with you, and you would hold hands while you roller skated in a circle, and your hands would get so sweaty.
That doesn’t sound so bad. If you were going to take someone on a date now, what would you do if you were trying to impress them?
Everyone likes sushi, right? Last weekend was the ten-year anniversary of my divorce, talk about a way to start feeling old, so I’m not super interested in going on dates. The woman I’m dating now, I really like her band a lot. There used to be a little studio room in my house and it just sort of expanded to take over the whole living room, so we just stay at home and DJ for each other and play music together.
Well, that sounds adorable. What’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for you?
I have a really charmed life. I feel like I’ve got people doing nice things for me every day. I had a friend loan me some money so I could invest in this small business, this publishing company that I run. That was incredibly nice of him.
What’s the nicest thing you’ve ever done for someone else?
There was this homeless guy whose birth certificate I tracked down once. He used to hang out outside this bar [in Chicago] that I’d worked at forever. I’d talk to him everyday and somehow we figured out that he was born the same day as my mum. Not just the same date, but the same year. He was a really nice guy. So I tracked down the hospital in Mississippi that he was born in and got them to send me his birth certificate so he could get an ID so he could get a job. That felt like a kind of nice thing? But I don’t think anything ever came of it. I don’t think it made a difference. That was the nicest thing I ever attempted to do, anyway.
Do you live around there still?
Yeah, I’ve lived in the same neighborhood for about 22 years now.
What do you like about it?
I know where everything is.
Can’t argue with that. Speaking of arguing, though—what was your relationship with Mike like growing up?
We fought a lot as kids. It wasn’t like we discovered playing music together, either. I was playing with Sam and Vic, and then I was running late one day to practice and I got home and they were playing with Mike. And I was like “no way!” and they were like “yeah, he’s in.” And then we fought even more. When Cap’n Jazz really existed as a band, a couple of us had real drug problems, which made it impossible. But then also me and Mike—who didn’t have drug problems—just fought non-stop. So it’s crazy that anything ever got done. I’ve never really thought about that, but yeah. We fought a lot, basically until we stopped playing music together, and then we got along really well for a few years. Then we made a second Owls record and immediately started fighting all the time again.
Over creative control?
Yeah, we’re very different. I just really enjoy playing music with people, it’s one of my favourite things to do, and Mike really hates playing music with people. It’s little stuff, like we’ll say, “let’s try that again and see what it sounds like slower” and Mike will be like, “no, I already know I don’t like it.” Whereas any other band context I’ve ever been in would be like “yeah, let’s play it slower, let’s play it EVEN slower, let’s play it again faster, let’s play it again in three, let’s try this let’s try that” and Mike just sighs, like, “no, I wanna go.” I think maybe there’s a little competitiveness, but now that American Football is way more successful than any of my bands ever will be, that competitiveness isn’t an issue anymore. We get along better than ever now that there’s just a clear winner, and it’s not me.
In a Noisey documentary about Joan of Arc you say you think “music is supposed to be scary”, which reminded me of trying to explain Butthole Surfers to my family and friends when I was super young. I think that’s the sentiment I was looking for but couldn’t find at the time.
Yeah! You know, they cut off the second part of that quote in the documentary. I remember tracing the line from KISS when I was two or four years old, and then Bauhaus when I was ten/12, and then Lungfish when I was 17. There’s not many lines that people can draw from KISS to Bauhaus to Lungfish, but that’s the line I was able to draw. They were things that scared me at certain times that really drew me to them.
What was it about them that scared you?
Probably the same thing for all three bands, which was: I can’t imagine these people’s lives.
They all have an element of performance about them, I suppose.
It was like an evolution of my own ability to see and read what they were doing. They all seemed real to me. When I was two, KISS seemed like real superheroes; when I was ten, Bauhaus seemed like real vampires; and when I was 17, Lungfish were like real mystic holy men seashore guys.
I started reading your novel Let Go On And On And On recently. The concept of writing in the gaps of the life of someone like Laurie Bird—who we know very little about beyond her roles—is really interesting. What do you think it is about the tragic women that people find so fascinating?
Well, it’s probably an inherently sexist premise in an inherently sexist culture. It’s very flattering to the male audience to be like “oh, only I can save her!” At least that’s what all the dickhead men in my book had in common. They all thought they could save her.
It’s bit like what you were saying about not being able to picture what those musicians’ lives were like—the mystery that comes between what you see and what they are.
Yeah! That’s the basic premise of Let Go On And On And On. It’s one of the most creative things I’ve ever done in that I remember the moment of the genesis of the idea—which directly contradicts what I tell my students all the time. I teach creative writing classes every third semester or so. We’ll read something and they’ll ask “how’d they think of that?” and I’m like “no, no – that’s layers and layers and years of looking at it again and again”. But Let Go On And On And On really was one moment, one joke.
Talk me through it.
I used to work at an underground film video rental store and we were watching Two-Lane Blacktop for the hundredth time, and my friend was like “man, whatever happened to Laurie Bird?” And I said, “you know, she ends up marrying Warren Oates and he loses her to Harry Dean Stanton in a cock fight”—just making a joke that that her roles were her real life. Then I Googled her and her Wikipedia page was like three sentences. She was in these three movies, she dated Art Garfunkel, she killed herself. I was like, 'OK, I guess I’ll write the biography from everything that’s known about her,' which is just her roles. It was very much that idea: collapsing the actress from the person.
If all you know about somebody is their films, or their art, that leaves a lot of space to project yourself onto them. Because you express yourself in such a specific way, do you get people projecting onto you a lot?
People definitely think they know me from stuff I make. And, to a degree, they do. I used to be very protective of that idea of “you can’t think you know me from what I say in this one song”, but the body of work as a whole definitely creates a constellation—and there is a thing in the middle of it, which is me.
And how are you doing?
I started running a few years ago. I started seeing a therapist. I don’t know which is which in terms of how much more at ease I feel in the world, but I’m a very different man than I was three or four years ago.
Therapy is weird. I started going earlier this year and it does change you very slowly over time in ways you don’t notice until you have to deal with certain situations.
This is maybe like the ninth therapist of my life. I first started seeing a therapist when I was 13, but none of them ever stuck. I’d always make it four months with someone and be like “ah, this is stupid.” But I’ve been seeing this guy for four or five years, and now I think anybody who doesn’t see a therapist is insane. I also think anyone who doesn’t run every morning is insane. It’s like, because of these two things, now I know myself, and I understand how my actions affect other people. Instead of just being stoned and confused all the time. Now I’m stoned and confused and I know myself.
The author page of Let Go On And On And On says “Tim / Chicago / Libra / Joan of Arc. Is that a joke or are you bang into astrology?
I forgot that’s my author bio. Sure—I go through phases of living according to it or not.
Normally men are quite resistant to it even being a thing.
Astrology would be as pedestrian as my esoteric and occult interests go. My life is guided by intense meditation rituals and mantras. Every day, half a dozen times. I have rituals that couldn’t really be traced back to the tangible material world in their effectiveness.
Have you read that book David Lynch wrote about transcendental meditation?
Oh yeah! That’s a good one. Me and my brother went to a David Lynch weekend at the Maharishi Institute ten or 12 years ago, it was cool.
He does that thing, actually, where he’ll think of a color or an image and create around that. Apparently when he directs people he’ll say like, “do it again but make it more blue”.
Yeah. Collaborating with me isn’t for everyone, you know? And it shouldn’t be. But the Joan of Arc people, we have our own secret language between us.
Do you have a secret language with everyone you collaborate with?
Nope [laughs], but with Joan of Arc I sure do. It would be very easy for us to say to each other “do it again but make it more blue.” That wouldn’t be the way we’d say it, but we definitely know what we mean when we tell each other “let’s try that and stripe it.” Which goes back to when you asked about me and Mike getting along—he’d never in a million years have any patience for that. He’d be like “OK, are we playing it in 7? Are we playing it at this tempo? Is this the harmony?” He wants clear-cut answers. Whereas Joan of Arc is like "Let’s stripe it and try the second stripe backwards,” and we all know what that means, but even if we don’t the margin of error in which we each understand it creates a new thing.
So you teach creative writing, you write books, your lyrics often read like prose: what are some of the writers that have stuck with you the longest?
When I was a kid I would read Huck Finn over and over and over. Like I would get to the last page and not even stand up and stretch. I’d get to the last page and flip back to the beginning and keep reading it on a loop.
Is that because you liked the way it was written rather than wanting to read the same story?
It must have been, right? Because I knew the story. Obviously time passed a lot different in the 70s and early 80s than it does now, so reading was a very pleasurable thing for me. I first read it nine or ten years ago but Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives was the first book I ever read in that way since Huck Finn. It was amazing. It really just felt like no other book had ever tuned me back into that eight-year-old who read Huck Finn on a loop.
Before we go, I’d like to talk about the video for “Issues,” and how you are very naked in it.
The funny thing about that video is 36 hours before it came out there was not the little box covering my genitalia.
Did someone politely ask you to censor it?
MY MOM. I had to call her and be like, “alright, so, you should know there’s this video coming out in a couple of days and I’m dancing naked in it.” And she was like “oohhhh-kayyyy…. please don’t do this.” So we added an image covering my genitalia, but the original idea was just me dancing completely naked. It was a very direct statement aimed at a very specific person, probably more than anything I’ve ever made.
What happened to the original cut?
The people at the record label have the version without the square. There’s a couple of young women who work at the label who, during the once or twice a year I see them, love to throw it out as a little threat. Every time there’s the slightest thing that I disagree with they’re like “you know, we can leak that at any time!” The video was shot with the guy that I’ve worked with constantly for 20 years. I was comfortable enough dancing naked in front of him, but one of his assistants came in while we were editing and he was like, “huh, you never really see a… normal sized dick.” He really had to concentrate on it, like, “what’s the police word? Normal” [laughs]. Thanks pal!
Word. Shoutout normal dicks!
Follow Emma on Twitter.