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  • 6:05:07 pm
  • Monday
  • 24 June 2024

Mike Kinsella is Owen

Mike Kinsella, creator and brainchild of Polyvinyl-band Owen, talks about his creation, his influences and his lyrical focus on teeth.

TWEED: What was the original impetus to begin work on a solo project? Did the failures/disbanding of some of your earlier groups play into this? Or was it something you’d more or less always been interested in and finally found the opportunity to make a go of it?

MIKE: I’ve always hated band practice so being my own band was the best way to play music and not have to compromise ideas—sit in a crowded, smoky room playing the same few songs over and over again for hours. So I bought a Digi001 and tried to teach myself how to record with it and that turned into the first Owen record.

TWEED: As a songwriter, how much more autonomy do you have writing songs for a solo project as opposed to writing songs for a larger unit? In other words, is the editing process different, non-existent, the same? There are obvious advantages to being able to express—unedited—your ideas musically but do you see any drawbacks?

MIKE: Yeah, there are plenty of obvious advantages, the greatest being able to play what you want to play whenever you want to play it. But there are drawbacks as well. I definitely miss some sort of creative dialogue during the writing/recording process. As a result of not having that, I end up sitting on parts forever and not knowing what to do with them and then eventually throwing them away completely or forgetting I ever wrote them. Another drawback is not having other people to help me play the songs live. I get pretty bored playing the same songs every night on a tour and there are only so many variables I have to manipulate while playing all the songs with just a guitar (especially relative to playing live with Joan of Arc, which is not necessarily improvised but usually pretty unique each show).

TWEED: What has been the evolution of your song-writing career? Do you feel you’ve found a specific sound that you enjoy exploring, or are you constantly striving for a new and different idea/sound?

MIKE: I started writing songs in high school while I was playing drums in Cap’n Jazz and most of them ended up being used in Cap’n Jazz but I did also write some, well, blatant Dinosaur Jr. rip-off riffs and recorded them on my four-track. I taught some friends some of them and played one show at a VFW Hall as Penguin, but then, I didn’t really write a complete song until American Football in college. And, when that ended, I started Owen. It’s funny, but I feel like I keep striving for some different sound or idea or something but then, when it’s all said and done, it all sounds the same to me.

TWEED: Tell us about recording your first material as Owen. I read that you and Polyvinyl eschewed the usual “money for a studio” approach and, instead, you used it towards software for a home recording. What appealed to you specifically about that? How important was it to you, coming off stints in so many bands, to be in total control of the recording of that and subsequent records?

MIKE: Yeah, I just bought a Digi001 with the recording budget so I could teach myself how to record and take my time doing it. I always hated having to rush things in a studio. Like I dropped my drumstick once while Cap’n Jazz was recording but we finished the song and were like “eh, doesn’t sound that bad” and ended up using that take. Which is fine, and it didn’t sound that bad, but every time I heard that song, that’s all I’d think about and it put (still puts) a knot in my stomach—not that listening to Owen doesn’t put a knot in my stomach...

TWEED: Tell us about your approach to lyric writing. No Good for No One seems to have a more “narrative” feel than the previous records. Are you ever writing with an objective, lyrically, or is it something that is spontaneous entirely? Is there ever a theme you attempt to weave through a record?

MIKE: I don’t think I have a “theme” necessarily for an entire record but the songs are primarily written as they’re recorded so if they’re all recorded at about the same time, then the same themes are going to keep resurfacing. I was actually just complaining to my girlfriend about how all my songs are about girls, sleeping, or my teeth. I’m not sure why those three things keep coming up. I’m not a particularly ignorant guy and have a number of interests other than those three things—but you wouldn’t know it from my lyrics.

TWEED: How about lyrics political? That seems to be a very polarizing artistic choice—to politicize or not to politicize. Where do you stand? Does it have a place, explicitly stated, in rock lyrics, or is it too didactic? Have you ever worked to achieving an expressly political idea, be that as a political issue or the “personal-as-political” aesthetic?

MIKE: You know, I’ve tried to put my political slant into some songs but it always seems so forced. Like I said, they all come out (for better or for worse) as love songs so it’s hard to slip the word “impeach” into them. But I definitely wish I could. I’d sleep better at night thinking I made someone listening think critically about being misled into a war rather than some boy/girl that broke their heart in high school.

TWEED: To dig a little deeper—politically, what is your stance, interpretation, etc, on the homosexual culture in America? In other words—between gay marriage, the past election being something of a referendum on gay culture, the attempts to change the Constitution to ban gay marriage—how does that strike you? What was your ultimate response to Bush’s clear agenda on modern homosexuality in America?

MIKE: I think it’s pretty scary the way Bush and the Right feel it’s their right/duty to impose their moral code upon everyone, not only in our country but around the world.

TWEED: In 2004, I see you allowed for some collaboration resulting in (ep). Why didn’t you take the collaborators on the road? You also collaborated with your cousin Nate on I Do Perceive. Do you see that as the new direction of Owen—Mike Kinsella being the constant with new and exciting collaborators?

MIKE: I wish I could afford to take a “band” on the road with me. That would be ideal though—writing the songs myself and then making enough money to pay a band (i.e. group of friends) to go on tour with me.

TWEED: Are you looking to go back to recording any time soon? If so, are you working on some new songs you’re excited about? How often do songs come about that you earmark for Owen?

MIKE: I’ve got a million parts I’m sitting on but, like I said, I don’t know if they’ll turn into “songs” or not until I try recording them and putting more to them.

TWEED: How has the relationship with Polyvinyl Records been? What brought you there to begin with?

MIKE: Polyvinyl is great. I knew Matt and Darcy from way back in the day when they were pressing 500 copies of comps with local bands. They were at all the shows in Urbana, Illinois (where I went to school) and so was I—so when American Football started playing together, they offered to put the songs out. And it’s really been that laid back since. They tried to get me to sign a contract once but I just pretended I never got that email. Haha.

TWEED: Tell us how the touring has been. Any places you really like going especially?

MIKE: This last tour I did was great. I played with a few other pretty popular bands (mewithoutYou, The Snake The Cross The Crown, Despistado) and all around great guys, so the shows were crowded and fun. It’s generally not all that enjoyable for me to get up in front of people. Most nights, I’d rather be in the crowd drinking with a friend as opposed to on stage “performing”. But when the crowd’s into it and it sounds good and I play good, it’s actually pretty satisfying. I’ll be out with The Snake and Decibully this April.

TWEED: Who are some of your songwriting influences? Are you more interested in ignoring them in the effort of treading entirely new water?

MIKE: I can definitely pick out the different influences in my music. So much so that I can go through a song and pick out the Red House Painters riff with the Dinosaur Jr. solo followed by the Oasis tambourine and bass line, which leads into the direct Morrissey quote. I don’t really worry too much about trying to incorporate different things or not trying to incorporate different things. It’s like, you know how, if you go out with your friend, and you both meet some girl and then she walks away and your friend’s like “man, she was so cool!” and you were just thinking that she was totally lame? That’s how I think people hear music. People focus on different elements of music so what I think sounds exactly like My Bloody Valentine someone else thinks sounds like Codeine.

TWEED: Finally, what do you want Tweed readers to know about Owen, and more specifically, Mike Kinsella? What are the goals for the project going forward?

My long-term goal is to write an entire record I like.

* * * * * *

William T Wallace contributed to this interview. Photographs by Chris Strong.

Timothy Rogan
Friday, 04 February 2005

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