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An Interview with: Mike Kinsella

September 17, 2009

OwenMike Kinsella may be better known by the pseudonym he performs under, Owen, but alone he has quite the list of accomplishments in the musical world. His history spans multiple bands and albums that have drawn almost cult-like followers to his shows.

Chris Davies had the chance to chat with him about the upcoming Pygmalion Music Festival in Champaign-Urbana, his new album New Leaves and even working at mom’s house.

Kinsella displayed a good sense of humor and humility about his own work as well as offering some insight in to how he he writes his music.

He sat down for a phone call right after a show in Boston and obliged some questions.

CD: How many times have you played Pygmalion?

MK: Forty-two. No, that’s not true. This is year five in a row and I think I have probably played every one. Two years ago I said ‘I’m not going to play it’ because even more than my birthday Pygmalion Fest reminds me of another year passing. I was like ‘I’m not playing! I’m not playing!’ but I like Seth [Fein, organizer of Pygmalion] a lot and he sort of talked me in to it. And it’s fun.

CD: What do you like most about this festival?

MK: I guess just short of being there, since I went to school [at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign], it’s fun to see people once a year. It’s good to see what’s changed, what stayed the same and see some old friends and such.

CD: With your prior experience in town and your record label based in C-U does it feel like a homecoming at all?

MK: I don’t know, I don’t think I know that many people around there. I wouldn’t call it a homecoming, it’s not like there’s a parade every time I show up. And there’s usually not that many people at the shows. But it personally is fun and it makes me feel, like I said, old and it’s sort of part of my roots, so it’s good to go back.

CD: What is your best memory from your experiences at the festival?

MK: I usually just get pretty drunk. Seth usually is like ‘Here’s some extra beers’ so I make sure I have a good time. I usually just associate it with seeing a couple old, good friends and having some drinks. They’re all kind of good times.

CD: You will be playing with a full band on this tour, opposed to your usual solo acoustic shows. How do you like playing with others on stage?

MK: [It’s] almost a full band, it’s like a full, quiet band. I don’t really know what it’s like yet because I’ve only had a couple practices with the full band. The whole time I’m sort of just thinking about what everybody’s playing, so I don’t think I’ve experienced it yet. It’s just sort of like, you know, playing it and being in the moment. I’m just as excited as anybody else to see we’re playing.

CD: Bob Nanna is included in your backing band. Like you he has an extensive history in music and a strong background with popular indie music. Is working with him something that you are excited about?

MK: We’ve played a bunch of shows together [in the past]. To ask somebody to sit and take time learning my songs is almost like a burden, but I know that Bob sort of enjoys the challenge of learning cover songs and performing other people’s songs. I thought he would be a good fit and he’s doing an awesome job and he’s definitely doing a great job with the songs.

CD: You recorded this album over two years, is that out of the ordinary for you to do?

MK: No, they usually end up taking about that long. [Laughs] It’s hard to get on a schedule when it’s a one-man-band kind of thing. If I’m not motivated to get anything done then nothing gets done, whereas, in a band maybe somebody can take over or something. I started [New Leaves] probably two and a half years ago and it sat on the basic guitar tracks for six months and then maybe I went in and maybe recorded drums and sat on those for another six months. It’s sort of a slow process with me.

CD: Does taking that much time significantly affect the final product?

MK: Yeah, I think there’s good and bad points to it. It gives me time. There’s definitely parts where a song I’ve been sitting for two years and then one night two years later I come up with like the little accent guitar part that I think really helps the song. If I just called the song done two years earlier that part wouldn’t have existed, you know? At the same time, it is kind of ridiculous to take that long to get anything done. It would be nice if I could focus and get everything done quickly, but it just doesn’t happen that way.

CD: Once again recorded parts of your album at your mom’s house, something you have done on several records like your solo debut. What is so special about that location that you keep going back there?

MK: It’s just that I’ve got enough stuff there that it enables me to try new things. When I have time to sit I’ll know in my head that I want another guitar part or piano part or something, but I don’t necessarily know what that part is. So to have my mom’s house available to record at means I’m not paying an engineer to sit around and wait for me to come up with the right part I can just keep trying it. It’s just convenient I guess.

CD: Your mom is okay with that?

MK: Oh yeah, [laughs] she loves having me over. She loves me, so she likes having me over.

CD: The layers of instrumentation sound richer on this album than in previous albums. Was that a conscious decision you made while recording?

MK: I had another interview recently where somebody said the same thing. He said ‘It seems like you’re adding more and more layers and there is more going on’ but I think it’s the opposite actually. I think there is less stuff going on but I think having a professional engineer record it makes each thing that is going on sort of richer and they all stand on their own instead of having the double guitar tracks or come up with something else to fill the space. I think it’s recorded better but I’m not sure there is that much more going on.

CD: You reference age several times, especially during “Never Been Born.” Was growing older on your mind while you were writing this?

MK: Yeah, I think having a kid recently I’m definitely much more aware of getting older as my life sort of revolves around that kid now. College is one thing and my lifestyle changed, but it was sort-of the same for a while. But having this kid I think I’ve taken another step. I’ve been aware of that throughout the process of making this record. It’s also a thing with playing shows. That song in particular, a lot of that came about at a show for those sort of kids that have disposable income and they’re excited to be seeing bands, and I remember being like that. But I’m not like that anymore, it’s [about] just situations when I become hyper-aware of all the ways that I’ve changed and gotten older.

CD: Is most of your writing based on experiences that you have had personally?

MK: Yeah, it’s all based on what’s going on with me or people that I’m close to or see often. Even within the same song. Tonight I happen to be out of town playing a show and that is sort of when I get most inspired to write. So I’ll write about what I’m experiencing but it might be through the eyes maybe of a stranger I’m looking at or something like that. It sort of all references me but it’s not all about me necessarily.

CD: Your back catalog spans many bands and countless albums, what has been the most gratifying part of your musical career?

MK: I think I definitely had the most fun with Cap’n Jazz. I think that was sort of when everything was new and that was the first time we packed up the van and went to a different town and played for strangers then slept on their floors. All of that was so exciting and it’s just amazing to do that at a young age. Then you get a little more jaded and stuff as you get older. Maybe the most musically satisfying is, I guess, Owen because it’s all me. More often, hopefully, than not what comes out is what I want to come out. Whereas in other bands you’re making compromises and other people’s opinions are involved. I like that American Football record for what it is and what we did at the time. But as far as the intimate expressive art, I don’t have those feelings anymore, you know? In my mind it’s somewhat faded because I’m not necessarily pining over girls. [Laughs] People at shows will ask me to play that or they’ll say ‘Do you know this old Cap’n Jazz song?’ And for me it’s like, ‘Well, that was more than half my life ago and I was playing drums so no I don’t really know that anymore.’

CD: A lot people are still enamored with your previous work, namely American Football. On your artist Myspace page you posted an email between such a fan and yourself, could you explain that a little more?

MK: [Laughs] A girl got real mad at me. She thought I was doing a cover of an American Football song, which I guess did, but at the same I sort of wrote all the parts I was playing originally. I thought she was joking, it was so ridiculous for her to be mad at me about it. So, I kind of made a snide remark to her and then she wrote back really upset saying that I plagiarized American Football and there’s laws about that. Then I was laughing even harder because it was even more ridiculous now that she was really, really upset about it. When I wrote a response trying to explain everything to her I tried to send it to her and she had blocked me as a friend. So that’s where we’re at now, I think she still hates me.

CD: Does a fan like that annoy you at all?

MK: There’s nothing annoying about it. I enjoy it because it’s hilarious, I think it’s funny. Especially these days with the Internet and information so readily available, more than anything I think I’m shocked this girl would sort of threaten me before doing any sort of research. I think it’s all funny.

CD: Tell me about why you chose the name “Owen” to perform under rather than just Mike Kinsella?

MK: I just liked it more than Mike. I didn’t want to just have a band with just my name so I thought it would be better to have another name.

CD: Besides touring, what does the future hold for Owen?

MK: I’ve got a ton of songs started already, but it’s not necessarily a priority to get them done really fast. I’m really enjoying this, I think because I sat on this last record so long, I’m really enjoying the process of getting it out there and having people hear it. So that’s sort of motivating me to get something done quicker. Like, ‘you can have this feeling again if you actually finish something.’ Maybe, hopefully, I’ll finish a record in the next year and get it out again. I don’t know how much touring or shows I’ll be playing but we’ll see.

CD: Is there anything new going on or being planned musically for you? The Wikipedia entry for you says something about a possible side project with your wife, is there any truth to that?

MK: It’s true but it’s sort of like an ongoing joke now because she never wants to have band practice or learn any songs. We have maybe three songs that we wrote, maybe three summers ago and that’s about as far as we got so I don’t know if that will actually ever come out or anything.

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