Two’s Company: Owls' Tim Kinsella talks careers and comebacks

Thirteen years after their debut, Chicago experimentalists Owls return to the fray with a long-awaited follow-up. Tim Kinsella dissects the weight of expectation

Feature by Will Fitzpatrick | 07 Mar 2014

“I was talking to a friend of mine the other day,” says Owls frontman Tim Kinsella from his Chicago home. “She’s 23, a lot younger than me, and she feels she’s getting old and square ‘cause she doesn’t keep up with popular music like she used to. Her friends are like, ‘Are you kidding? That came out two weeks ago!’”

He chuckles, reflecting on the fast-paced, chew-‘em-up-and-swallow-‘em nature of music distribution in the year 2014; knowing that his recently-reunited band has conversely benefitted from incremental appreciation down the years. Adolescence saw him become something of a cult hero, thanks to the fragmented rush of his frenetic punk act Cap’n Jazz – a significant influence on the rise of emo during the late 1990s, despite the band’s misgivings regarding the scene and their part in it. When they split, his next project Joan of Arc scrambled listeners’ expectations with four albums of skeletal acoustics, electronic collage and rhythmic complexity, before collapsing at the turn of the century. The name would ultimately be resurrected in 2003, but in the meantime, Tim produced his finest work to date.

Owls were essentially a Cap’n Jazz reunion, tempered by a unanimous desire to create something new. Sure enough, the slower pace of their self-titled debut lent space for prodigious guitarist Victor Villareal to conjure sounds that glistened like spring showers, atop Mike Kinsella’s mind-boggling, heteromorphic drum patterns. Anchored by bassist Sam Zurick’s innate appreciation of space and texture, Tim was free to revel in melody and abstract poetry, drunk on bold invention and intense collaborative intimacy.

It felt utterly unique in 2001 – like The Velvet Underground before them, Owls didn’t sell a lot of records, but virtually everyone who bought one started a band. By the following year, Mike (the singer’s younger brother) had left to front his own project Owen, and everyone else moved on. Fans might well be surprised by the recent decision to reform, as The Skinny suggests to Tim’s amusement. “Honestly, from our perspective it doesn’t seem like there are a lot of fans to surprise. It’s not any kind of calculated career move.”

"The four of us are still deeply connected to creating and pushing ourselves – I can’t really connect to something that romanticises my first draft" – Tim Kinsella

But for a band who’ve always seemed dead set on looking forwards rather than backwards, it seems rather odd. “I wouldn’t say any of us have ever been compulsively moving forward or something – we’re just invested in living, you know? The process of remaining engaged in your own life is incredibly interesting for us – we’ve been writing songs together since 1989; it’s a good time to check in to see what we all agree on. It’s about finding our sense of place in the world, and largely that’s defined by the relationships with each other that we’ve been invested in for 25 years.”

In recent years, a Kinsella influence has become increasingly apparent in indie rock, from the math flavours of Foals to the so-called ‘emo revival’ that continues to gather pace. Villareal’s fleet-fingered idiosyncrasies provide a much-pilfered source of inspiration for bands like Dads or Hightide Hotel, suggesting that – regardless of Owls’ sincere intentions – this might not have been a bad time to return. Unsurprisingly, it’s of little import to Tim.

“It’d be one thing,” he sighs, “if I was part of a community 20 years ago, and then I had barbecues with those guys and we’d all just be like ‘Weren’t we awesome?’ But the four of us are still deeply connected to creating and pushing ourselves – I can’t really connect to something that romanticises my first draft, so it’s music that’s impossible for me to access, however much I might want to.”

The product of this reunion is the pragmatically-titled Two, which is a worthy sequel to that magnificent debut – sometimes brutally complex, but often toe-tappingly instant: the rollicking I’m Surprised… might even be his most thrilling pop song since Cap’n Jazz’s sole album. The titles all break enigmatically into ellipses – “to create a sort of distance from the ‘cleverness’ of the first record,” Tim explains helpfully – yet, curiously, the lyrical tone is more open and warmly self-deprecating than his usual impressionistic fare, whether admitting “my horoscope always trumps world news” or proclaiming “I walk away from shit that I don’t understand / And I don’t think that’s weird”.

“There’s certainly a sense of being less guarded against certain things. The thing about emo that’s just bad art to me is the same way that a romantic comedy feels cloying – like it’s telling you how to feel. I’ve never felt comfortable… not because it would be giving too much of myself, nothing so pure as that, but it’s just bad taste to me to be like [sings] ‘I feel like thiiis!’

“TS Eliot had this idea of the objective correlative, where you set two objects next to each other and their resonance will hopefully evoke the emotion, you know? That’s a more efficient way of doing my job, I think. So if this seems more emo in any way, it might just be that I’m not shy of using all the tools in the toolbox any more. There’s a place for all the tools when it’s the right time to use them.”

Are the band concerned that the same tensions which drove them apart thirteen years ago might resurface?

“Ah, there’s a lot of tension. You know, Sam’s my best friend since 1989 – we have tension every day and we have great affection every day. Victor is just like this Buddha, a total sweetheart. The tension is really all me and my brother. We have very different lives and very different expectations of the entire meaning of being in a band.”

That must make things tricky, and given that fifteen ‘proper’ albums have been produced by Joan of Arc’s rolling cast (various musicians drift in and out of the lineup, including the other members of Owls, with Tim as the sole constant), you’d be forgiven for thinking there’d be some operational consensus.

The singer pauses thoughtfully. “To me a band is a sense of community and unified vision. With Joan of Arc, it’s often assumed that I’m like the sheriff or the mayor or something, when really I’m like the janitor or the secretary. It’s always one hundred percent open, one hundred percent total democracy. So it’s really like this exercise in how to embody a utopian vision of collaboration. And there’s something about the rock band, in terms of the sonics of electric guitar, bass and drums, that has almost become invisible to our modern ears, so that’s why I’m interested in it: we’re using invisible tools.”

This, then, is very much where Tim Kinsella’s head is at right now.

“Everyone that’s interested in Owls has had thirteen years of living with this one record, so there’s no way that the second one can be equal. That was something we had to accept from the beginning – ‘OK, well if we know we’re gonna disappoint people by failing to live up to our old selves, we could just be ourselves right now!’

“As far as I can tell the difficulty in living is just continuing to live – it gets more difficult and lighter. So if that’s how the record comes across, it’s an accurate portrayal of my experience of the world, which is all I hope for any of these records to be.”

Two is released on 24 March via Polyvinyl Records