Interview: Mike Kinsella
We speak with the renowned American Football frontman about his latest album as Owen and his confessional approach to writing
The news that legendary emo band American Football are releasing a new album (only their second) was met with huge excitement at Songwriting HQ. If the success of their comeback gigs are anything to go by, then fans are in for a treat. As a founding member and driving force behind the band, Mike Kinsella was responsible for creating the genre’s foundations.
Kinsella has also played a key role for many other Illinois-based bands such as Cap’n Jazz, Joan Of Arc, The One Up Downstairs and his own project Owen, perhaps the purest example of Kinsella’s confessional songwriting. This year’s The King Of Whys is the eighth release under the moniker and unusually features an array of different musicians, under the supervision of producer S.Carey (Bon Iver). Even with this expanded palette the rawness of Kinsella’s writing is still prominent on an album that only adds to his incredible body of work.
We caught up with Mike, before the big American Football news broke, to talk about the latest Owen album and how his approach differs from project to project…
How do you feel about The King Of Whys now that it’s out and you’ve had some space from it?
“Obviously there are things I’d still like to change or edit, part of my process is never being satisfied, but it’s cool to be away from it for a bit and come back and hear all the different textures that Sean and Zach and their crew were able to build. Usually I end up playing most of the instruments on a record myself, so I inherently know what everything will do, but because I had so many different players on this one I was able to be surprised, which is super fun.”
What was it like working with S.Carey? How much did he shape the sound of the album?
“Sean’s great! I knew going in that I’d like his ideas musically, but I didn’t know how easy he’d be to work with and just how talented and tasteful he is. He wrote a lot of the string, horn and piano arrangements and played drums on a few songs in a way that I can’t, so that definitely helped define those songs in particular. Also, he slow cooks meat like a motherfucker!”
Did having so many musicians to work with change your approach at all?
“Yeah, at first I was a little intimidated and nervous about giving up some control to other people, but after hearing their ideas and seeing how well they play it became a lot easier to trust them. It ended up being great having so many people to lean on to flesh out the songs, instead of just me and my limited musical abilities.”
Were they presented with completed songs or was it a collaborative effort?
“I think they heard demos ahead of time, and a lot of them had at least ideas, if not parts, written for specific songs, but there was a lot of writing collaboratively on the spot as well. Like one guy tracking and five guys in the control room chiming in with ideas. It was really cool to see other people get creatively invested in my songs. I totally can’t stress enough how much I appreciate those guys and their contributions.”
There’s always seems to be a blend of deep emotion and humour in your writing – how much of that is intentional?
“I’m aware that my writing can be a little, uh…dramatic? Heavy? So I like to lighten it up with some wry observations or self-deprecating humour.”
A Burning Soul is another great example of your confessional approach to songwriting, do you find the creation of such songs a cathartic process?
“Yeah, I guess. I just sort of write lines or observations down in passing and usually fill in the rest of the story later. So it’s not like I have these giant, cathartic moments and entire songs flood out of me. It’s more of a slow, steady release of pressure.”
Are there any other songs from the album with particularly interesting origins?
“A lot of the songs on this record are either loosely or directly influenced by me meeting and courting my wife many years ago. There are a lot of lines throughout the album that are tied to that time, which was so long ago that in a way it almost feels more like fiction than autobiographical. But it was a fun exercise to revisit the past and make it relevant to us now.”
Did the American Football reunion inspire you to write in a different way for Owen?
“I’m not sure it inspired me to write a different way, but it did make me appreciate being able to write on my own and call my own creative shots. I feel really lucky to have two very different outlets, each scratching different creative itches.”
Were you surprised by the incredible reaction of those live shows?
“Completely and totally. Still am, every time we meet up to play somewhere.”
Have you ever suffered from writers block? If so, how did you react to it?
“Oh yeah, pretty much all the time. I react to it by ordering one more beer or shot and seeing what comes out after it.”
How important has Chicago been for your career and your writing?
“Chicago and the scene(s) I grew up watching have been a huge influence on me. There has always been so many inspiring people making, often challenging, music or art just because they wanted to, with no intention to get more popular or make more money. Chicago has been a great role model for me in a way that I don’t think New York, or Los Angeles, or any other big city could’ve been.”
Do you think technique is as important as emotion when it comes to creating music?
“I don’t think so? But I also find myself listening to Queensrÿche like once a month, so I guess maybe. Ideally there’s some confluence of both, right?”
Is there a song of yours that you’re proudest of?
“I can listen to Love Is Not Enough without cringing.”
Have your influences (other music and outside factors) changed over time? Is there one band/artist that has inspired you more than others?
“Most of my influences musically have been pretty constant since I began writing songs – Depeche Mode, Dinosaur Jr, The Sundays, The Smiths, My Bloody Valentine – while most of the ‘outside factors’ have changed dramatically: I’ve gotten married, had kids, bought a house, lost some hair, travelled a lot less and eaten a lot more.”
What do you think makes up your essence as a songwriter?
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For all things Owen, check out the website http://owenmusic.com/