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August 2020

Owen: "There's something freeing about being laidback on every level"

Cult fave Mike Kinsella dishes the dirt on his new album, 'The Avalanche'.
Published: 9:53 pm, June 15, 2020Words: Jack Press. Photos: Chris Strong.
Owen: "There's something freeing about being laidback on every level"

In an industry built on streaming singles, setting up TikTok trends and selling superstardom, it's difficult to believe there are still musicians roaming the streets of songwriter city brandishing authenticity and honesty like they're wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Then again, few musicians have been involved in not one, not two, but three different bands all responsible for influencing and pioneering America's indie-emo revolution and revival. It's unlikely Owen – aka Mike Kinsella – realised the cult following his high-school boredom-buster Cap'n Jazz and its subsequent projects Joan Of Arc and American Football would have on an entire genre when he got his first drumkit or when he learnt his first chord on the guitar in the suburbs of Chicago. 25 years on from his first project, as the de facto poster-boy for indie-emo everywhere enters double-digits with his solo project's tenth album 'The Avalanche,' Upset finds out how life under the industry's radar has been treating Mike Kinsella.

"My whole existence, for now, has just been a bunch of transitions, like being a part-time musician and a full-time dad, there are constant transitions back and forth. Some of it I'm getting used to and sometimes I just have to accept it's going to be a transition day, like the first and last day of tour and the first and last day of being at home."

Transitioning between identities like Miley Cyrus in a certain children's TV show and navigating the sea that is being a father of both a family and a scene and dedicating time to both sits at the heart of Avalanches. Across nine songs and 45 minutes, Mike paints the picture of an otherworldly soundscape with gentle indie-folk brushstrokes illuminating his rainy-day melancholy emo in little glimmers of sun shining in on your bedroom.

Having spent four years working solely on the creative output of American Football off of the back of their long-awaited 2014 reunion, Mike was more than ready to shed the skin of being in a band and working with a far smaller team, a team he already had in mine. Enter producer Sean Carey (of Bon Iver fame) and engineer Zach Hanson (Waxahatchee), who worked on his last Owen album in 2016, 'The King Of Whys'.

"'King Of Whys' was the first time working with Zach and Sean, and so that was a little like dancing, where you figure out who's good at what and who's bringing what to the table, so going back this time I was able to plan for that a lot more.

"Usually I'm coming into the studio and banging on things and doing everything myself. I just keep throwing stuff at it, and maybe I'm not quite realising what I'm hearing in my head because I don't play string instruments and Zach and Sean have different approaches, like both of their roles in the bands they've been in are as ambient space makers, and that's something I don't have. I'm just like 'here's the front guitar and the front drums and the front melodies.' When I started The Avalanche, a lot of the songs were literally just repetitive guitar parts, and I knew that Sean could put different drums then I would on it, which is where the songs take off in different directions."

And in different directions do the songs go. 'The Contours' glimmers and glows with subtle string arrangements and swishes of piano patter whilst 'Wanting & Willing' is an alluring amalgamation of haunting harmonies and earthy folk explosions. Every track is a living, breathing work of art that brings Mike's experiences of the real world to life. Affording his music with space was a direct consequence of stepping away from the songwriting machine of American Football, which was a freeing experience.

"It's not weird or difficult, I appreciate being able to do both American Football and Owen. It's very different, the idea of me going into a studio to record an American Football song with just one simple guitar part, it just wouldn't happen, there are too many other people involved.

"There's something mentally freeing about being laidback on every level. I've been doing this for so long and not a lot of people care or listen, in a good way, as I'm able to say things how I want, I'm able to express them how I want and record things how I want which is laidback and on the fly."

"That's my biggest fuck up in my life – none of the music I've ever made is really fun" 
Mike Kinsella

Expression is intrinsic to the artistic integrity of Owen as a project and of Mike as a songwriter. Having spent years honing his craft and pioneering genres in a number of projects, he's become accustomed to dedicating his spare time to obsessing over intricate parts of songs, which ultimately, is an expression of his thoughts and feelings.

"The thing that's keeping me up at night, for my whole life, is trying to figure out some dumb math-rock part of a song that I don't even like or listen to, but I just want to figure it out before I can fall asleep."

Figuring out, it seems, is key to unlocking the static stirring around in Mike's brain as he tries to sleep at night. While to many musicians this quality would be music to their ears, to Mike, it's a little like Tinnitus – it's not something he necessarily enjoys, it's simply a part of him he can't shake, which seeps into his melancholy music.

"I don't necessarily enjoy it; I don't think I could call any of it fun. It's more like I can't fall asleep at night until I've finished this one little part in my head or until I can connect them, like I'll have a guitar sat around the house. I won't even know what tuning it's in, but I'll have two parts, one's going to be a verse, and one's going to be a chorus, and I'll spend forever figuring out how they work together and how I can connect them. I'd say it's more of a creative impulse than it is something I find fun."

At its core, 'The Avalanche' is at times a difficult and discomforting album, broaching subjects such as alcohol dependency, death and the destruction heartbreak deliver's with Mike's trademark wit and gutter-punch honesty. It's something that works in his favour yet haunts his thoughts on reflection.

"That's my biggest fuck up in my life – none of the music I've ever made is really fun. Cap'n Jazz when I was in high school was such a release, but still, for whatever reason, me and whoever I'm always drawing myself with, we're never satisfied with the four-chord power-pop music, which would be a lot more fun, I could get a lot more drunk, and I could think a lot less."

The concept of listening to an album and thinking about its makeup is an experience awarded to repeat listeners of The Avalanche. Inspired somewhat by his favourite songs, its lyrics were written differently than in the past. While the dry wit and trademark humour still haunts his songs line-by-line, Mike places his faith in the details, delivering a layer of honesty and openness not seen before in his music.

"I've changed the way I write a little bit; I used to write very specifically. Like, for me, in my mind, my favourite lines in my favourite songs are these little details that there so specific that it almost takes you out of the song. You're wondering what is that detail? What is it referencing? I'm shifting now to where I like to keep things a little vague and a little more universal.

"I'm saying my favourite songs, but I'm dismissing the fact that my actual favourite songs are like Taylor Swift songs, where it's boy meets girl. I'm more and more influenced by not having to paint the whole picture, it's almost more like poetry."

"I'd rather not convince someone to care about what I'm doing"
Mike Kinsella

While 'The Avalanche' is riddled with moments of poetic bliss, it's also not afraid to throw you off guard. Through his writing, it's not just his fans but the creatives he works with to weave it all together that he's keeping on their toes, which was evident during the recording of 'The Avalanche'.

"There are lines that have been kicking around for a while. There's a line that would not make it onto an American Football album, for instance, like on 'I Should've Known'. The funniest part about that song was that we had a college string quartet come in to track string arrangements, and they were kind of nervous. Maybe it was their first time in a studio with the headphones on, playing somebody else's music. They hadn't heard the song, they came in cold, and we're just playing back. There's a scratch track of vocals, and the first line is 'I can't have my cake and fuck it too' – which I think is a nice first line – and they didn't say a word about it, none of them even laughed. They were so robotic and so focused on doing a good job on these strings that they wouldn't let themselves chuckle at that. I said to Sean, 'What the heck, no reaction?'

"On the flip side, I think that is the loveliest song I've ever written, so I thought it would be a good juxtaposition, you know if it's a lovely song and all you sing are lovely things, I think that's kind of boring so I like to put a little spice on it."

A consequence of growing up and graduating from high-school Rockstar to doting dad is that you constantly have to reinvent ways of stoking the fire and spicing it up without compromising the authenticity of your work.

"There are people I know in each city where it's like, 'Hey how you've been? I haven't seen you in three years', and I don't really know them, I just see them at shows and stuff, but they hold me accountable to being honest. Like if I was all of a sudden singing about partying and all this stuff, they'd be like, 'I know this guy is just an old dad, I've been to all of his shows for fifteen years'. It keeps me honest."

Authenticity and the honesty that comes with it is central to the way in which Mike presents himself, more so than ever on Owen. It's also what he believes is his Achilles heel and commercial undoing in an industry obsessed with glamorising unachievable lifestyles and sacrificing authenticity for likes on social media.

"Pop music doesn't care about authenticity, it's the antithesis to that. It's about what's most current, there's no correlation between whether that star is authentic in any way. I was raised on punk rock and DIY shit, and I respected the musicians I liked, I respected them as humans and for whatever reason, and I know it's stupid commercially, it's something I think is still important.

"You probably have twenty friends that like my band, but there are forty million people who follow Drake, and that guy's not real, I used to watch Degrassi, so I know the real Drake. But that's the difference, you know?"

Whereas Drake and his horde of followers bathe in the beauty of being listened to and adored, for Mike, it's not something at the forefront of his mind. As with his songwriting, sending his music out into the world is something he has to do, not something he does for fame or fortune.

"I'll put the record out, and people can listen to it, and people who like what I do are going to really like it, and hopefully people who don't know what I do will listen to it and like it, but I have no interest in selling it to people. It is what it is, if they can relate that's cool. I'd rather not convince someone to care about what I'm doing, because they're doing stuff too, and I don't really care about what they're doing, so it's hypocritical for me to ask people to care about what I'm doing."

In 'The Avalanches,' Mike Kinsella has an album and a project that goes against the very grain of an industry he's obsessed with following but not with imitating. There's a magic to his music that comes from its authenticity and its honesty, from its ability to be an open book. As long as he sticks to his guns, he'll continue to be the long-lost king of emo.

Taken from the June issue of Upset. Owen's album 'The Avalanche' is out 19th June.

June 2020
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