An Interview with Mike Kinsella (Toronto Sept 2012)

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Photo set from David Pike.

Mike Kinsella and I walked down the sidewalks of Queen St West trying to find a bar showing the football game. The first one we tried had dialogue blocks similar to old silent films on all of the televisions. We thought about asking them to switch it to the game but Mike noticed a band setting up and thought it would be difficult for me to record our interview. In the opposite direction we passed an incredibly seedy arcade filled with broken game machines, all screens blackened and an Indian man beckoning us in when we stuck our head through the doorway. We moved on promptly and Mike finally suggested sitting on a bench. There, we talked about the realities of expectation, growing up, settling down and the motivations that foster Owen and other newly announced projects and recordings.

Check out some videos and photos from the show at the bottom of the interview (credits included).

EN: So how was the trip up?

MK: It was good. I flew up just for this show and then I’m headed back.

EN: Ah that seems like a hefty haul for one night.

MK: Yeah. I’m tired (laughs as he holds up his Red Bull). It’s a bit easier to do a one night thing like this instead of three or four nights when I don’t have the family along.

EN: How’s that?

MK: I mean, when I get out for a few nights in a row it’s easy to catch up with friends that I’m playing with and just get back into that lifestyle. Having beers after the shows, just that vibe…then when I return home to my wife and kids…it’s like she’s been working so hard while I was gone and I’ve been having fun. It’s hard to separate that I guess.

EN: I know with Ghost Town there was a lot of talk regarding the theme of faith, or lack thereof, but I noticed that there’s another very prominent focus on settling down and the difficulties surrounding a time in your life when you have to grow up and start to pass on things. What are the difficulties you experienced that kind of led to you writing about that on Ghost Town?

MK: I got married six years ago and it was easy, it was like I’m married but life is still the same kind of. There was a little bit more responsibility but then I had a kid, and going in to that I was thinking ‘this is going to be exciting and this kid will be a part of my life and stay up late and sleep in’ and of course it is not like that, AT ALL (laughs) and I’m on her schedule now. Then with the second kid it’s exponentially more and I had no control at all. It’s an adjustment because you still have all the same urges. I go on instagram or twitter and see pictures of what all my friends are doing…

EN: And it’s a lot different from what you’re doing.

MK: Yeah exactly. At the same time at 6:30 in the morning when I’m up with those kids making breakfast it’s fun somehow.

EN: I guess you grow out of that kind of a life at some point right?


MK: Well I don’t think you do (laughing). Whenever I step right back into it whenever I play shows, right away I’m like, ‘yeah this is cool.’ So I don’t think the desire goes away, you just realize you can’t do it AND you’re fulfilled in another way. My whole life I never had a job and I’d sleep until eleven or noon and now my daughter gets me up at six or seven.

EN: And it is go time right away (laughs).

MK: It is like GO! But whatever she says, no matter what, makes me laugh. Whatever she does, it is just so awesome that it is worth it.

EN: Right. And do you think, especially with having your second child, that there was an expectation. I’ve found that if you don’t build something up and you don’t have an expectation of it going in you can approach something more honestly, but that is incredibly hard to do in life.

MK: It is hard. I like where you’re going with this.

EN: Thanks. It’s something I try to do in my life but I’m interested in how it plays into your life. Especially with Owen which is, lyrically, brutally honest. I don’t see a way that you could be that blunt and observant while having an expectation of people or events built up in your mind.

MK: That’s the hardest part of having a kid and living I think! It’s like ‘I thought it would be like this or why can’t this baby just sleep when I want to sleep.’ You quickly realize that if you give in to the experience things aren’t that bad. As far as the music thing, I think I gave up on expectations a while ago. The past two or three years I’ve really enjoyed playing shows and flying out for little tours way more than I did five or ten years ago. At some point I felt like a failed musician, where I kept doing it but I wasn’t getting popular or making money off it really.

EN: But every time you do a show you hear from your fans how influential you’ve been or how important your music is to them.

MK: Oh yeah, that’s cool and I appreciate that but I still feel like I wasn’t really getting anywhere. Right when I was getting married I was touring a lot and not getting anywhere. Then I got married and I let go of any expectations and now when people ask me to play a show and give me money to do it and people show up it’s so cool. I re-appreciated it whereas before I was getting pretty jaded on it.

EN: Right. And do you think your observations have changed? In Owen’s early albums a lot of the observations were of people and with New Leaves and Ghost Town it started to change more towards life in general. You observed faith and settling down like we just talked about. Obviously that probably came hand in hand with getting married and having kids.

MK: The faith thing…to be clear I don’t have any faith, but after having kids I definitely wish I had faith. I was raised Catholic but I just never actually believed any of it but with kids you want to believe something. It’s like ‘shit, when I die I don’t want this to end. I want to be able to look down and see what’s going on with their lives.”

EN: Do you find it hard not to believe? With all that you just mentioned about your kids it sounds like there’s a little bit of a struggle there not to believe.

MK: Um, I find it upsetting not to believe, but I think it is very easy not to believe (laughs). That’s just the story.

At this point a fan walking by looking for the venue comes up and says hi to Mike. He let’s Mike know that he’s going to the show and Mike lets him know he is walking the wrong way. It is a funny little exchange that exposes Mike’s casual humour that often permeates his live show.

EN: When you’re performing as Owen do you see it as a vent for you? (Mike thought I said “an event for you” which led to a pretty interesting outlook from him).

MK: Oh, that might be a big word (pauses). I’m actually afraid tonight that because it is a late show and I’m tired and there are a bunch of bands playing in front of me (four openers with Mike slotted to go on stage at midnight). I feel like it is stacked against me, you know? I think it is a lot to ask people to still be interested at twelve o’ clock with four openers. Maybe I’m sabotaging it.

EN: Actually I meant to say “a vent” as opposed to “an event” but thanks for sharing that view. I think a lot of people are surprised to hear from musicians or bands that still are worried about how a crowd might receive a performance, especially if said band or performer is so experienced.

MK: Oh ‘a vent’ that makes more sense (laughs). Yeah definitely, I often say it is a vent. My wife yells at me because all the songs are not happy songs and she’s like ‘why are you always bitching about stuff” but that is the only time I’m inspired to write. I think it is a good thing because it means the other times I’m not writing I’m caught up in being happy and content so this is my time to get that out.

EN: Going back a bit to what you mentioned about worrying about how a show will go off and about tonight, it seems like you’re mostly interested in the experience of things. I guess that goes hand-in-hand with trying not to build up expectations like we discussed earlier but do you think most people sometimes miss out on the experience because they’re so focused on having something tangible.

MK: I think I see where you’re going with this.

EN: For example let’s use tonight’s show and recent shows. You like to talk to the audience about current events and open up a chance for some spontaneity and interaction. Still, some people in the crowd will be so pumped on seeing you play that they’ll miss the entire experience of things because they are so focused on being able to tell people tomorrow that they saw Owen.

MK: Right and I think a lot of times people have that expectation built up and I worry if I’m going to meet that but at the same time I think people tend to open up a bit. Sometimes I might get too drunk and a song might not come across exactly the way it should but hopefully the experience is still enjoyable (laughs). There’s truth in being in the moment. And that ties back into what I was saying before about not having a good time with shows. I think now I’m much more about the vibe of a show. I don’t really have to answer to anyone. I’m a stay at home dad, my wife works really hard and that’s somehow opened me up to enjoying the experience of these smaller tours or single night shows.

EN: I also read earlier in the year that you find it hard to get motivated to write music or record music. Recently you announced that you’re doing demos for new Owen material, you’ve been playing a new song, you announced that OWLS has something new in the works and you’re also a part of Their/They’re/There. What’s changed since earlier in the year?

MK: I don’t know! (laughing). It goes back to being a dad now and having two kids. While I’m at home with them I’m still very much busy and working in a different way and it is hard at the end of the day not to just want to put on a football game and hang out.

EN: You know I didn’t really get the sports thing until I started working three jobs. Now when I drive I can’t listen to music, I put on sports radio and it’s such an escape. You learn stats and develop an interest in something that is so far removed from your life that it is relieving.

MK: Right, exactly! (laughing). Even tonight when I wanted to catch the game when we first met up. It just takes your mind off things. But as far as what’s changed with my motivation I’m not sure. As Owls we got together and tried some things a while back and it just didn’t work out. Maybe we tried to make something happen but then we left it alone. At some point we got in touch and we each had some things that really excited us so we gave it another shot and it worked out much better.

EN: So it was more organic. It happened naturally.

MK: Yeah and that’s how we knew we should go along with it because it felt more natural. As for Their/They’re/There that guy is a touring machine so we are just trying to work things out when he is around. With Owen it is something that frustrates me sometimes as I’ll have like, a part of a song worked out and then I stall. I’ll spend a long time trying to figure out where to go next, sometimes not even with a guitar, just in my head, then one night it will just happen.

EN: That’s really satisfying isn’t it?

MK: Oh yeah! I just know it when it clicks in my head like, that’s it. Sometime it seems really perfect and that is a satisfying feeling, knowing that I know exactly where the song should go next.

EN: And how do you balance that musical part with the lyrics? I know that you’ve mentioned not necessarily having goals for themes you want to dive in to on a song or record.

MK: I think lyrically I always try to be really plain spoken and concise. Of course it has to fit into the dimension of a song but my observations, like you said sometimes being blunt and honest, come from me trying to be very concise.

EN: How do fan expectations of new records and tours affect you?

MK: Oh that actually motivates me too. When people are asking about new music it lets me know people are into it and that encourages me.

EN: Alright then (laughing). When is the next Owen record coming out?

MK: I’d like to have it ready for the spring or early summer. That’s what I’m aiming for right now.

EN: Awesome. The last thing I want to talk about relates to your kids and how you are going to pass things on to them. Personally, your frank approach to the people and realities around you is something I’ve always loved about Owen. I think most fans would agree. How do you hope to pass that on to your kids in a world that likes to shy away from or sometimes sugar coat certain truths about people and interactions.

MK: Oh that’s hard but I think that with them growing up in an environment my wife and I will provide for them…it will happen naturally I hope. They’ll interact with other people that might not have the same outlook as me, who knows…one day they’ll grow up and hear my music and maybe they’ll hate it or resent it. I guess I just hope they’ll take the good out of being honest. It’s still so early in their lives I haven’t really thought about that. Hopefully I don’t have to just yet (laughs).

EN: Mike thanks a lot for this. It was a real pleasure.

MK: Thanks man. (As Mike gets up to cross the street and head back towards the venue he stops and turns). You’re coming to the show right? (Mike asks this openly, with a tone that speaks to his uncertainty that people are going to stick around for the show).

EN: Of course! I wouldn’t miss it.

MK: Ok good. Right on.

"Playing Possum for a Peek" from David McAndrew.