Mike Kinsella on Owen, American Football, and His Career as an Emo Legend

Mike Kinsella on Owen, American Football, and His Career as an Emo Legend
Photo of Mike Kinsella by Chris Strong

Mike Kinsella is a great example of an artist who’s been doing their thing for a while and has influenced multiple generations of emo and indie rock artists. As a teenager, the first and canonical American Football album was discussed amongst peers like a closely guarded secret, but the album itself only really opened up to my ears much later in life. Over the last two years, he’s released spellbinding albums both with that band (last year’s lush American Football, the third of the band’s three albums to bear that title if you weren’t already aware) as well as with his long-running solo project Owen, which released the typically confessional and endlessly warm The Avalanche just a few months ago. (You can watch the new video for “I Should’ve Known” below.)

Kinsella’s been on his grind since I was in short pants, occasionally teaming up with family members on various projects across his multi-decade career. As the sun rises on a new and utterly horrendous decade, I thought it would be a great opportunity to talk to him about his extensive career through selected albums in his intimidatingly large catalog of music he’s had a hand in making.

American Football, American Football (1999)

Given how much this album’s been celebrated in recent years, it’s funny that you and the band didn’t even realize that it was 15 years old in 2014 before Polyvinyl informed the band about it.

It’s funny, because this album is now my story. [Laughs] I’ve basically created this story about what it was due to hearing the other guys talk about it, and reading other people connect the dots about the music. But it really was nothing—just a couple of dudes in a basement and living room. We wrote these sketches, went into the studio, and tried to finish them. If you asked us at the time if we actually finished the songs, we would’ve said they were 70% done? But everyone we knew in bands was doing the same thing. 15 years later, we had no clue there was an anniversary, or that anyone cared.

But there was a level of mystique that surrounded this album, even when you started out with Owen. Were you aware of that in the 2000s?

Maybe. If I played an Owen show and 30 kids were there, 20 would ask me if there was going to be a new American Football album. So in my mind, if there was going to be an American Football tour, 30 people would be there. It still seemed like only a few people were talking about it.

I was looking at the Wikipedia page for this album. I haven’t seen many Wiki pages listing the guitar tunings for every song! That level of technical obsessiveness is usually reserved for prog bands, like Rush—not so much in emo or indie rock.

Ten years after that album, I was playing shows in Japan. Every band that opened for us, I’d be like, “Wow, they sound like American Football, only so much better than we were.” [Laughs] Everyone took those tunings and style and got really good at it. At the time, we were just bored and trying to mimic bands that we liked. It’s not like any one of us was doing anything complicated or technically proficient. We just thought it sounded nice.

Did you take any music lessons when you were younger?

Tim took guitar lessons, I took piano. We both made it six months and we both quit.

The reissue of this album was your highest-charting debut on the Billboard 200.

I don’t even know what that translates to now. Taylor Swift sells all the records, and everything after that is nothing. Obviously, the reunion shows were bigger than expected, and it turns out it’s fun to play bigger places. Whatever Taylor Swift leaves for us is appreciated. There hasn’t been a day since [folklore] came out that she hasn’t put new merch out—and I know, because my daughter’s on her mailing list. I think she puts out the bad merch on release day and puts the good merch out later so she can keep selling it.

Do your kids listen to your music?

No, no. Not at all.

Owls, Owls (2001)

I was the one who was like, “I’m not gonna do Cap’n Jazz anymore.” I’m not saying I’m the reason why they broke up, but I sort of triggered that, and it was a relief for everyone. Three or four years went by, and we just had an urge to play together again. These are the only people I grew up playing with, so that’s what I thought being in a band was. We were all like, “Let’s try it again.”

All I remember about that album is everyone having a different idea about what we wanted to do. We decided to record with Steve Albini, and he had his own ideas too—actually, his influence was that he didn’t have an opinion. He was like, “That’s not my job. I’ll just set up the mics.” In my mind, all those songs were Van Halen songs, but Tim was very clear that he didn’t want to be in a rock band—even though, when we played them live, they kind of rocked. It satisfied whatever part of me wanted to do math shit, or was interested in counting or something.

Albini can be a polarizing figure. What was your experience in the studio with him?

I was young and shy, and he was outspoken. I have nothing but respect for him. He has a vision about what music should be, and his studio is built to capture that. I disagreed with everything sonically that was happening, but that was our fault. We should’ve known going in about the way he does things, but I was already overwhelmed and enamored by his legacy at that point.

This was your third band with your brother Tim. What was it like to grow musically and personally alongside him?

My first experience playing music was tricking him into letting me join his band. He’s the guy who showed me the Cure, the Smiths, and D.R.I. There was always creative tension, and sometimes it worked. For Joan of Arc, it was clear that it was his band, so I didn’t have much say. And there were points where I didn’t just want to facilitate his vision. I had a different role in each band, too—Cap’n Jazz, I was writing a lot of guitar parts. For Joan of Arc, Tim would be like, “Play the drums, but like you’re playing big pieces of ham.” So I’d have to interpret what his vision was.

Owls was very satisfying because it was a lot less heavy lifting. I didn’t have to write bridges on guitar or anything. At some point, we realized we didn’t have to be in bands together. But we both enjoyed it. I thought he was the best frontman ever in Cap’n Jazz. Every show we played, I just loved watching him.

Owen, I Do Perceive (2004)

After we finished recording the first American Football album, I moved back in at my mom’s house—I think I was working at a daycare, which I only lasted nine months at. I convinced Polyvinyl that, instead of giving me an advance for a solo record, they just buy me ProTools. And they did—it was $1,800 or something. I didn’t know how to use it, so as I was trying to learn, [the self-titled Owen album from 2001] came together. It was hilarious—I’d love to see the session files for that first album, I didn’t know how to build tracks or use reverb or anything. But it was fun.

When I started playing live, I realized it was hard to recreate all the layers on those songs. So [No Good for No One Now from 2002] was more of a straightforward folk-y album, so that it could be easier to play those songs live. For I Do Perceive, I combined both approaches. I took the bones of what I could play live and fleshed them out more. I was living in Wicker Park at that point, and I was on a cycle where I’d tour with Joan of Arc, make enough money for three months’ rent, do an Owen tour, make three months’ more rent. Maybe I’d do some Owls stuff, or merch for bands.

Unlike other musicians, you’ve been doing music full-time for a good chunk of your career.

It’s kind of all I know how to do. [Laughs] Which has become a problem, with the pandemic and my divorce. I haven’t had another job in a long time. Some years, I don’t make money, some years I do. I was looking at bicycle delivery jobs, because I just like riding my bike around the city. But then I was like, “I won’t enjoy riding my bike anymore!” [Laughs] The fans in my kids’ classes think that if you make money as a musician, you’re rich and famous, and if you don’t you’re a struggling artist. But it’s just a job. I can plan two years out and make the same as a part-time job if I stick to the schedule and stay creative. That said, if I can’t play shows, that throws a wrench in everything.

When you were younger, were there any other professions you wanted to pursue?

I really wanted to work in a kitchen—I still do. I don’t consider myself a cook, but I really enjoy food prep. But I knew I wasn’t good enough at sports, and I didn’t care enough about money to do something with finance.

Owen, At Home With Owen (2006)

For I Do Perceive, I tracked everything at my mom’s house and reached out to my cousin Nate to mix it. I was like, “Hey, can you make this sound better?” And I think he did. For At Home With Owen, I went into Engine Studios with Brian Deck, who I was a fan of because of his work with Califone, and it sounds less amateurish as a result—even though I look at these songs and remember every mistake I made. But this one was a step up, songwriting-wise.

“The Sad Waltzes of Pietro Crespi” is a Gabriel García Márquez reference, but you also named your car Pietro Crespi.

It was a ‘97 Honda Civic hatchback with manual transmission, so I had to learn how to drive it. I wish I had that car now.

How long did you have it for?

I drove it in the ground. I paid $6,000 for it, and I remember collecting damage insurance because I backed into a pole and I claimed I got hit—so I ended up making money on that car. I racked up almost 200,000 miles on that car. I forgot the car had a name—it was a romantic name, too.

We just got a car and we named it too.

What did you name it?

Car Jar Binks.

Oh my God. Don’t tell anyone that.

Why did you name the car after that character in One Hundred Years of Solitude?

I was into the book—but I never finished it. I haven’t picked up a book in a while. I would read on tour. Everyone would bring a few books, and they’d pass them around. I’ve started a million books and never finished them because the tour ended or someone else took it. Everything was fun about touring back then.

You covered the Velvet Underground and Nico’s “Femme Fatale,” but you changed one of the lyrics to “Cock tease.” What was behind that decision?

Well, now that you bring it up, I kind of regret it. [Laughs] I guess it was for emphasis. I do the same things now, it’s so stupid.

Owen’s lyrics are pretty raw and specific in general. Have you regretted any other lyrics in the past?

My wife would get mad—she wouldn’t listen to the albums, and if she did she’d have questions and get mad. Sometimes you have to use the line that works best though, even if it’s not necessarily true. If you put the word “cock” in it, that might end up the best way to make it heavy.

Owen, Ghost Town (2011)

I had a baby, bought a house, legit settled down. I’m sure I was tired out of my mind when I made this album—trapped, maybe scared.

How did becoming a father change your perspective on life?

I can’t even explain how. Your whole life is not about you, and that’s the first time you ever have to think that, so you have to learn. I’m still learning. There’s still days where I’m like, “Oh my God! I’m in charge of these little guys.” It changes your perspective about what’s important. Up to that point, a friend would invite me on tour for three months to make $800, and I’d be like, “That’s great! I can travel.” Getting married, you lose a little bit of that freedom, and your reality after having the kid is, “If you leave, you have to come back with money.” You have to take your life more serious—and within a couple of years, the kids are your best friends, and you don’t want to leave.

You started writing Ghost Town during the Cap’n Jazz reunion tour.

That was the first reunion I did, and it was so much more fun than I thought. It was right before “reunions” were a thing—we were like, “Let’s play these songs again in front of people.” I was playing the songs, but I was also a spectator. I was 33 back then. We did it again a few years ago, and it was a lot more tiring.

Owen satisfies the role of, “This is the stuff I’m coming up with in my kitchen while I’m waiting for the pasta to boil.” I can write whatever I want. With Cap’n Jazz, I had to relearn the songs. Maybe I should’ve joined a gym to play drums again like that.

Their / They’re / There, Their / They’re / There / Analog Weekend EPs

My first memory of Evan Weiss was seeing a buddy play in the back of a restaurant, and Evan was headlining. I was like, “Who’s this guy playing in odd tunings and weird time signatures?”

You mentioned playing drums again on the Cap’n Jazz reunion tour, but this was the first new band that you had played drums with in a while.

That was the allure. It was like having a job but not having to take it home with me. The song existed as it was, so I just had to propel it. I didn’t even know Matt Frank until Evan was like, “I’m writing these songs with this guy Matt, can you play drums?” I trusted Evan because I knew he was good, but when we got in a room, I was like, “Holy shit, how am I gonna keep up?”

Bands like Into It. Over It. were clearly influenced by the work you and Tim did in the ‘90s. Being in a band with Evan was seemed a full-circle moment for you.

We were cut from the same cloth. Also, him and Matt were playing circles around me. They were getting the same sound from one guitar that me and Steve Lamos were getting from two in American Football. Being in that band was a fun release that I needed. My daughter was a couple of years old, and we were about to have another kid, and I was just looking forward to band practice and working up a sweat.

Evan said a few years ago that the band was on indefinite hiatus. Has that changed?

Maybe two years ago, they were writing a new album and they asked me to be a part of it. I just didn’t have the time. I’m not sure what they’re going to do with that. Nothing’s written in stone. I’m in a different place now all of the sudden, so I don’t know. Maybe I’d like to hear those songs.

Owls, Two (2014)

None of us had the urge to do the mental math that putting together the first Owls album required. The intention was more straightforward songs, but those songs might still be pretty crazy. Reuniting Owls was like being like, “That was fun dating that girl 15 years ago—why don’t I do it again?” Then you do, and eventually you remember why you didn’t. It’s satisfying, but times go on. It’s not like we’ve spent time in any of these bands coming up with new logos to sell people shit with. I mean, obviously American Football became a real band, just because we can. Owls, we can just keep being Owls. Maybe in ten years we’ll write another album, but it’s not dramatic. It’s just like, “Do you want to set up more shows?” “Nah.” “OK, cool.” Even with Owen, I’m like, “I’ll go play my guitar and maybe hang out with some friends.”

American Football, American Football (2019)

With the second American Football album, we were still confused that people were interested in the band. We had to learn how to write songs together again, and we had a new person in the band too. Steve hadn’t picked up a guitar for eleven years, so we were like, “What songs are gonna come out?” From the third album on, we approach it like an actual job now. And it’s all the things I imagine an actual job is like—but hopefully at the end you get something you’re proud of, which you don’t always get in an actual job. This album was so hard to make, and I’m so proud of it. We tried all these versions of these songs, picked the ones that fit together best, and they were as good as they can be.

“Uncomfortably Numb,” lyrically, sounds like an Owen song to me.

On the second American Football album, I tried to write American Football-y. On the third album, it was more about what was coming out of me. I was more into writing to the song than to which band it was for.

Owen, The Avalanche (2020)

This was the second time you worked with S. Carey on an Owen album.

Sean’s like a multi-tool. He can play everything really good, but he could also write these parts in his head. I’d send him a demo that’s acoustic guitar and vocals, and he’d say, “Cool, I have a french horn part.” With American Football, every note is planned. By the time we’re in the studio, it’s just about getting the right tones. With Owen, I show up with an acoustic guitar and play to a click-track. Sean didn’t even know what the vocals were going to be. I ended up recording the vocals by myself back in Chicago. They first heard the vocals in mixing.

This album was influenced by the divorce that you’re going through.

It reflects pretty openly on what was going on twelve months ago in my life. What’s changed is, the further I get from the album being recorded, the further I get from what started this whole transition in life. It’s my new normal now. The album might capture the most dramatic point of it all, where the sky was falling. Now, the sky was fallen and I’m brushing myself off saying, “I’m still alive. What do I do now?” With the pandemic, it’s not like I can pick myself up and ask, “What did I used to do?” Anything can happen now. Trump has certainly proven that.

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Jamie Larson