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
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.
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!
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.”
GUEST POST BY RACHEL MASON
*Note: New York-based sculptor and performer Rachel Mason recently completed a guest-blogging stint at Art21 Blog. Her run there is over, but Rachel enjoyed the process of blogging so much that she asked us if she could contribute a few guest posts to Bad at Sports. We’re thrilled to be able to host Rachel’s writings for the next few weeks. First up: her interview with Chicago-based performer and Joan of Arc frontsman Tim Kinsella.
I met Tim Kinsella at an art show which was more like a festival organized by the brilliant photographer and artist Jason Lazarus. The show was called “Hang in There.” In addition to a huge show of artists, there were really great bands from Chicago on the bill and I was excited to be able to have a piece in the show and to play. I loved the idea of a motivational show… maybe in contrast to a motivational speech… but really to also just be a playful way to bring people together and do something celebratory in the midst of a pretty uncelebratory moment- I thought it was brilliant- and very much in line with Jason Lazarus’s expansive practice with collaborations. (One of the best things I’ve read about Jason and this project was actually, maybe not surprisingly written by Tim).
Joan of Arc is a band I listened to and loved for years, but hadn’t actually admittedly stayed very current with. So I was amazed to see them on the bill and happy that they were still playing shows and totally curious to see what they’d play at a show at Co-Prosperity Sphere. They have a solid track record of producing unexpected surprises, and Tim Kinsella is the cult hero frontman who also is also a poetic anti-hero- and whose lyrics reflect a cavalier silliness which is part of what makes them so relentlessly fun…. (A song on their recent album is called “I Saw the Messed Blinds of My Generation”).
The place was insanely packed and I really didn’t want to venture in but then I saw them get started and I tried to make my way… they were playing the classic intro riff of Queen’s Under Pressure. Cool! How random! Whats it going to lead into? But then the bars just continued, and continued, and continued… wow, a full minute… two minutes… three minutes… ten minutes…!! Fifteen… Twenty!! (dum dum dum da da dum dum…).
My experience went from excitement to nervousness to boredom to anxiety to excitement again. The song was actually creating pressure… I began studying the crowd because at that point, it was as much an action- in -space as it was a rock show… It was a performance piece.. it was Bruce Nauman leaning into the corner a thousand times… It was as much a let down as a feeling of blowing into a balloon with the air getting caught about halfway and just holding it there.. not deflating or inflating really… kind of seemed like a zen meditation.. but I realized also the musical athleticism of the repetition. Its not easy to play consistently the same notes for a half hour… and I ended up being highly aware of my self standing there… and then suddenly jerked back into the reality that I had to perform… I realized I didn’t know where my guitar was, and I also realized..oh great…. It’s my turn… and I’m going to be performing for Joan of Arc…eek… and they just did 30 minutes of a Queen riff… In a daze, suddenly they were done, and dismantled their gear and I started stressing out about my guitar… when someone suggested asking Joan of Arc, Tim in particular if we could use his… and before I knew it Tim Kinsella had lent me his guitar and I was getting it all plugged in- and then I played and he said something really nice about my set- and a few hours later I had the thought… it was a huge blur- but then wow… that was gracious of him to let me use his guitar- I would have been screwed if he didn’t… and it kind of weirdly matched the dress I was wearing… Well it was a beautiful guitar…but heavy. Mine is a lot lighter.
Where’s this whole intro going… ? Well, I went to see them play in New york a month after the show in Chicago and I noticed at the merch table along with all the records and CD’s, a pale yellow book. Wait, Tim wrote a book…? Oh, wow, he wrote a book. Fiction. He does performance, he writes books, he plays music in like a million projects. This human is my hero….
I saw him standing there and I wanted to get something and I said, what should I get? And he said, “get the book.” I didn’t have anymore cash…. but later I ordered it on Amazon and (as I’m a super dyslexically slow reader.. hoping to have it read by the time I write this… but no…) I’ve been falling fully into a strange world of the sad and irritable characters who I’m thoroughly enjoying getting to know in The Karaoke Singer’s Guide To Self Defense….
Now with that rambling introduction to Tim Kinsella, the generous rocker, the performance artist (he just did another piece at Andrew Rafacz Gallery) and the author I will lead into the questions he answered for me. Thank you Tim!
Rachel Mason: What was it like to write a book… like how is it different from writing a song..?
Tim Kinsella: The process is very similar for me at the moment – I’m just finishing a first draft of a second novel – in that it’s a compulsive urge in the same way that songwriting used to be for me. Presently, I’m so burned out on music, I couldn’t imagine what it would take for me to write a song. I’ve written and been a part of a few longer, conceptual pieces of music in the last year. But actually writing a song doesn’t interest me at all right now. I have some friends waiting on me and I just can not summon the will.
And so I never could’ve written the novel if I had never written songs. A lot of the skills one picks up from writing songs were applied – a sense of dynamics and flow, density and space. But obviously it’s a lot more to hold in your head all at once. So pacing is a lot trickier. But the ability, that balancing act, to proceed while also not squashing this fragile thing by getting all worked up layering it with your self-conscious intentions or hopes for what it will be – applying the force of routine or discipline while also holding back enough to let the thing emerge as it needs to – those are subtle necessities I learned from songwriting.
RM: Did you know that you were definitely going to write a full novel or did it just start off as a smaller work that then grew into it…?
TK: No, I was well into it, maybe 150 pages, before it sort of dawned on me what it was becoming. I just knew that I was enjoying writing. I knew that I not only enjoyed the process and getting swept up in momentum and looking back over it and finding surprises and sculpting it in strange ways – but it felt necessary as much as it felt enjoyable. It was almost like I couldn’t help it. I was irritable (as I generally remain) whenever I was forced to step away from writing. But I never thought about what it was or might become as a sum. I was simply invested in the process for a long while before I looked back over it and recognized the next step would be drawing some path through these scattered pieces to connect them. So at that point I began plotting and charting and building prepositional bridges. And that was fun puzzle-making. It’s funny how everything you try seems barely wrong until you end up at the solution that seems inevitable.
RM: Were there any actual events that inspired parts of the story?
TK: Eh, I have witnessed and been party to loss and shame and hurt and regret. The circumstances of my own life and those of the book have very little in common, probably no more- or less-so than any other adult has suffered. The book is about a lot of common problems and how they compound and amplify and how coping becomes a routine. I realize that’s vague, and maybe the book really is that much of a sprawling mess. But the events of the book occupy a very small ratio of even what I hope is present to propel a reader forward. There are few, if any, events. So yes, what is there is directly based on my experience of the world and it is splintered through many voices, each of which I feel tender towards and ashamed by their behavior at times. But there’s nothing about it that one would call “autobiography.”
RM: How was the recent tour? I saw the pictures- it looked super fun. Anything really strange or funny happen on the tour..?
TK: I think it’s fair to say that I am not dispositionally-suited for touring. However, it’s tough to state that and not feel like a jerk because in a lot of ways – especially to people that never have toured and long to travel – it appears to be some kind of freedom. And so I feel rude deflating anyone’s illusions. I like playing music very much. But for me, personally, touring is by no means The Dream Job. Priceline helps, but I would much rather never leave Chicago city limits if I didn’t have to. Mostly tour feels like 23 wasted hours a day to me. But whatever, I’m done with it for at least a year or so, and then we’ll see.
Rachel Mason’s work has been shown at the Detroit Museum of Contemporary Art; the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle; the James Gallery at CUNY; the University Art Museum in Buffalo; the Sculpture Center in New York; Andrew Rafacz Gallery; Marginal Utility Gallery; The Hessel Museum of Art at CCS Bard and at Occidental College. She has performed at venues that include the Kunsthalle Zurich; the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit; The New Museum; Park Avenue Armory; Club Tonic; Art in General; La Mama; Galapagos; Dixon Place; and Empac Center for Performance in Troy. She has written and recorded hundreds of original songs and performs large scale experimental plays involving dancers, musicians and other artists with her band and theater troupe Little Band of Sailors. Rachel has been featured in publications that include the New York Times; the Village Voice; the Los Angeles Times; Flash Art; Art in America; Art News; and Artforum.