Interview: Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc - Photo courtesy of Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc – Photo courtesy of Joan of Arc

Tim Kinsella has been active in the Midwest music scene for more than two decades now, but of the half-a-dozen-plus projects he’s played in, Joan of Arc is undoubtedly the most prolific–though Kinsella doesn’t necessarily want to be described by that adjective, having said, “I don’t do well around people that talk a lot, so I’d hate to be thought of as the band-equivalent of that”–boasting a tenure of close to 20 years and nearly two dozen albums.

The most recent of these albums was this year’s “Testimonium Songs,” a collection of songs compiled from found poetry written based off court transcripts. If you’re thinking that it sounds a bit meta, you’re right. It began back in 1933 when Objectivist poet Charles Reznikoff rewrote courtroom transcripts into the form of a 500-page found poem. That was then reinterpreted some 80 years later.

“The record was made as a collaboration with the performance group Every house has a door,” explained Kinsella. “They invited us, and we were immediately thrilled, as we were all fans of their work and knew them to different degrees. The Reznikoff / Testimony idea was their idea for a starting point and the entire record developed collaboratively with them.”

But the record stands as only one part of the project. The other is a live performance which took place over four evenings in October of this year. The members of Every house has a door combined text recitation and movement, while Joan of Arc performed a six-song cycle.

“That was a thrilling experience, though between touring and those shows we have had only about four days off at home since Aug. 4,” Kinsella shared. “The Testimonium performance is 100 minutes long, and involves two actors: one speaking and the other moving. The music is only one-third of it. It’s a pretty irreducible thing. Many of my friends that saw the shows were like, ‘oh, that’s why you couldn’t explain what you were working on for two years.'”

For the Testimonium performance, Joan of Arc consisted of Kinsella, along with Bobby Burg and Theo Katsaounis. But if anything is consistent in the band, it’s the fact that things are always changing, the lineup included. Case in point: the current touring group officially consists of the aforementioned three along with Melina Ausikaitis.

“The lineup is…very much a solid unit in a way that it maybe never has been before,” he said. “We’ve played a zillion shows between August and now; Berlin is the third to last. It’s the first time that there hasn’t been two guitars, and I love it. There’s so much more space in the music. We’ve often been a mess of layers and contradictions. It feels very good to be a unified unit making clear statements.”

Of course, with a comfortable lineup established, along with 2014 drawing near, now is when there are thoughts of the next Joan of Arc release, the prospect of which Kinsella is positive about, though it may take longer than usual this time around.

“We are excited to write a record as this foursome that had been touring so much. We now have a better idea of our strengths and limitations and are excited about sounding like we do–this sort of live collage of the elements of a rock band–and writing with no other conceptual restraints,” he said. “And we are excited to take our time. We are excited to get back to our home lives and jobs and relationships and let the writing process develop organically.”

Organic is, of course, an operative word here; Kinsella has never been secretive about his songwriting processes, which often involves getting high and simply writing. However, throwing others into the mix means that it’s always changing the art of songwriting, perhaps more than normal.

“It’s a kind of Chinese finger-trap thing, this constant paradox. It’s the simplest thing in the world to a certain degree, and then refining details can get impossibly convoluted and overly complex. I couldn’t generalize. There’s a trick to pretending every time that it’s the first song you’ve ever written while also recognizing the mistakes and pitfalls of all the other songs and sidestepping them,” he explained, shedding light on his own process. “And I couldn’t generalize about collaborators. Everyone’s different. Some people…learn to work better together over the years and sometimes people grow apart. [With] some people there’s an instantaneous recognition and some people you can play with for 25 years and still never understand a single choice in their process. Some people Play music and some people Work on music. I can deal with either, but a certain joy in the process makes a big difference. Some people take trite ideas very seriously and others make it fun to try to sort out giant metaphysical mysteries.”

However, the songwriting is just part of it. The practical application of going on the road can also be cumbersome to navigate, though Kinsella admitted that the current roster has figured it out relatively well.

“It’s funny, but after this many years we’ve finally gotten pretty good at the day-to-day of touring. We can all take care of ourselves and [are] sensitive to each other’s needs. It’s not simple living around the same people 24 hours a day, every day, for months on end, no matter how close you all are. And every day is a surprise. We very often don’t know what the club is like, what the accommodations are like. We don’t know what will be given to us for dinner,” he said. “Learning to sacrifice this sort of control that most adults take for granted is a very tough discipline. I can’t say exactly how it changes you, but it does. We’ve been out long enough now that I’m a little worried about finally going home in a week. I dunno what’s there [or] what it’ll be like. I imagine everything is right where I left it, but I don’t know what the sum of that everything is.”

Home is, by the way, in Chicago, a place that Kinsella championed as being a good place to balance work and play. This kind of balance might be why, in his mind, it’s a lot less cutthroat than bigger cities.

“It’s cheap enough that you don’t have to work constantly just to make rent, so people have time and energy left over to pursue their passions,” he explained. “And there’s a certain humility imposed there. Everyone kinda picks on the people that posture in the ways that bands in NY or LA might just take for granted as part of being a band. This humility also cultivates a lot of cross-genre and cross-discipline collaboration, so the painters and the free jazz drummers and the DJs and the video artists are all pretty likely to know each other and inform each other.”

Of course, Kinsella himself is the perfect example of this, working some of the time as a bartender and the rest of the time on creative projects–both his own and those of others. And he’s happy doing just that, with no grand ambitions beyond doing what he’s been doing all along.

“I don’t think about it really. I just wake up every morning and do my job. I don’t really have any big goals or anything. I get absorbed in the process of crafting things–that makes me happy,” Kinsella said. “But if I woke up tomorrow and something else made me happy and I had no ideas for songs, I wouldn’t feel bad to be done with it.”

Joan of Arc plays tonight at Schokoladen in Berlin. The show begins at 20.00.