Testimonium Songs: An Interview with Tim Kinsella

October 14, 2013 · Print This Article

Testimonium, Every house has a door, 2012; Photo by John Sission / Pictured right to left: Bryan Saner, Stephen Fiehn, Tim Kinsella, Theo Skatsaounis, Bobby Burg.

Testimonium, Every house has a door, 2012; Photo by John Sission / Pictured right to left: Bryan Saner, Stephen Fiehn, Tim Kinsella, Theo Skatsaounis, Bobby Burg.

Polyvinyl Records and Joyful Noise Records recently announced the release of Testimonium Songs, a studio album composed by the iconic Chicago band, Joan of Arc, and performed live in Every house has a door’s latest performative work — debuting this week in Chicago — Testimonium. Every house is iconic in its own right, tied directly as it is to Lin Hixson and Matthew Goulish’s prior collaborative project, Goat Island. While I was grateful for the opportunity to interview Hixson a little over a month ago, I wanted to dig a little deeper into the composition and collaboration present in the musical component of this project. What happens then when two organizations, drawing on two respective aesthetic discourses — rock and roll, and performance art in this case — meet to create something new? In this case, objectivist poet, Charles Reznikov stands at the center for both, creating a platform on which both musical composition and embodied choreography rely. In the following interview I asked Tim Kinsella — a member of Joan of Arc and author in his own right — to talk about his experience creating this record.

Caroline Picard: How did you start working with Every house has a door? Were you expecting to make a new album with them?

Tim Kinsella: Bobby and I used to play in another band together called Make Believe and that band toured non-stop for a few years. We acquired a pretty good collection in our van library – a cardboard box under the backseat. Matthew’s book, 39 Microlectures, somehow ended up in there and the nature of that book invites rereading. So by the time I went back to school for my MFA at SAIC he was the person in the program whose work I felt the greatest familiarity and kinship with. And we’re neighbors. So we ended up bumping into each other all the time and pretty quickly realized that not only did our sensibilities have some commonalities, but some practical eccentricities (is that a good way of saying ‘constant travel?’) also seemed compatible. The starting point for our collaboration was “falling between two chairs” and it’s the only way it could’ve been. Our band has always failed to be what anyone wants it to be and Every House, though maybe in a more sophisticated way, seemed invested in frustrating and confounding expectations. And the album is essentially a byproduct of the collaboration. I don’t know if I’m saying that exactly right, but what I mean is  — and this is true of the entire Joan of Arc discography — the process is determined and the limitations and indulgences agreed upon, etc.  The subsequent record just happens. At the risk of somehow sounding both overly analytical and hokey with earnestness, as far as I can tell, records exist only because the people making them somehow enjoy the process of making them together after agreeing on how to make them.

CP: What was your experience like composing new music for this particular project? Was it different from how Joan of Arc usually composes albums?

TK: It was the exact challenge that we were prepared for but didn’t know exactly how we would focus. We had been writing longer pieces — an 80-something minute score to Dreyer’s Joan of Arc that we had to pull of live; a series of records in which each piece was determined by how long one side of vinyl can be. One record was toured live before it was recorded and then recorded live in the studio with no overdubs and the one before that was made entirely in the studio, showing up the first day with no songs written and no instruments in hand, using only what we found at the studio. So writing in response to particular constraints was already our thing. A few years ago we had a giant and liberating break-through as a band — the realization that our own tastes had very little to do with what might be potentially expressive. Becoming comfortable writing against our own tastes simplified everything. I really just like Bad Brains and Lungfish. I guess I sometimes listen to Bauhaus and Can and Slayer. But I’m not interested in trying to sound like them. I guess people often write songs about their feelings or whatever, but I’m a grown man so I don’t really have a sense of what my feelings would be like and even if I could somehow locate them, they hardly seem like a relevant standard of value to me. So it’s good for us to have a standard by which we can determine success or
failure.

CP: On the one hand, the album feels like an autonomous project — something that one can sit down and listen to in a living room — however, in the live performance of Testimonium, the Joan of Arc portion is one piece of a longer performative event with Every house. How did that structure come together?

TK: Lin and Matthew are superlatively inspiring in many ways. The structural and formal balance that defines and sustains the tension of Testimonium is a demonstration that daringness and sensitivity are not contradictory impulses. It’s been such a privilege and joy to see how they operate and compose. They contradicted my every intuition and in doing so created this thing with some weird Life in it.

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CP: What are you aware of when you’re on stage with Testimonium? Does playing live music in a performance context feel different from playing at a music show?

TK: Oh yeah. All the rituals of live music performance are undermined and we love it. The whole catharsis-spectacle is frustrated and maybe we’re grizzled old cynics to find that liberating, but I promise that Testimonium will equally frustrate those expecting a rock show as it will irritate those expecting a performance piece. We’ve done 5 weeks of Joan of Arc regular rock club shows this fall. I just got home yesterday. And I am aware that I internalize certain shortcuts or tricks to keep count. Muscle memory is subconscious and essential — my weight is on my left foot for the 2 and 4 of this song and my hip knocks out on this accent. But the potential promise of a rock show is that everything can blow apart to smithereens at any second. It remains almost constantly on the verge of falling into chaos. Testimonium on the other hand is so controlled. The quiets so drawn out. The blocking so precise. It removes that essential sense of tension and by simply reframing how a band is set up on stage, the entire experience gets broken down to its core components. It’s thrilling and perverse while also so simple. And its greatest threat, it might bore you. Nothing in the fucking universe is more boring than watching the rituals of mediocre rock clichés constantly begging to be paid attention to. It’s embarrassing for the performers and the audience. But people not interested in seeing their live music stripped of those kind of cliches will find this difficult and maybe even painful. So of course we’re taking on a certain kind of associative baggage. But if that’s what it takes to draw attention to the usual baggage a rock band brings to performing, we’re fine with it. Thrilled in fact!

Every house has a door will premiere Testimonium in Chicago with seven shows as part of SpinOff beginning October 18. Seating is limited for this free event, so please RSVP to guarantee your place.

You can also visit this site to pick up your copy of the Every house/Joan of Arc record, Testimonium Songs, Magenta vinyl limited to 550 hand-numbered copies. “In a departure for the band, these highly structured compositions, developed over a two-year rehearsal period, emulate Reznikoff’s poetics by shaping themselves according to a mosaic method – rotating a fixed set of musical units in warping permutations. The lyrics re-invent the strategies of Objectivist poetry, by turns surreal, ordinary, testimonial, and explosive, releasing the undercurrent of emotion in the poems while (almost) never quoting them directly. Beyond collecting the Testimonium Songs, the record has a life of its own, with the contributions of stellar musicians David Grubbs, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Michael Zerang, and Jim Baker, additional vocals by Melina Ausikaitis, and musical material not included in the performance. The cover art was made by renowned Chicago artist Jason Lazurus.”

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