Owen’s Mike Kinsella is one of the busiest men in indie rock. Juggling musical projects and now a baby, somehow he manages to create the most interesting sound out there. Owen just released New Leaves (Polyvinyl), the newest record yesterday and there is only one word for it: Brilliant. Our writer Elissa Suh talked to Mike over the phone on September 10th and got the inside scoop of everything Owen.
Elissa: So I heard you played a show last night in boston…
Mike Kinsella: Yeah I flew back today and just sort of got up from my nap, now I’ve got the baby in a stroller.
Congratulations! I heard you are now a husband. How old is the baby?
Thanks! She’s just over five months.
I know youve been doing a couple college shows. Do you prefer to play in smaller venues like that?
It’s funny because yesterday the show was on the quad. But yeah in general I prefer smaller venues. The thing with college shows is they pay really good money. They just have a huge budget, so they usually make it worth your while.
So it’s not that you hate playing large shows and large crowds?
No, it’s more that you’ve got to fight to be quiet, so I prefer smaller shows.
I think it’s fitting to your music and your style. I read some stuff from your Myspace page about supposed fans and haters. (www.myspace.com/mybandowen). Is that real?
Yeah, it’s really stupid, but it’s real. I think there are a couple of them that I think are genuine; people are mad at me or something, and then there’s a couple of people who just think it’s funny.
Well we have an idea of what the Owen hates are like. Obviously some of them are misinformed. What are the fans like?
Pretty polite. I would like to say kind of well-read… good looking, you know what I mean. You know, the cream of the crop; the best that society has to offer.
Haha. What’s the weirdest thing a fan has ever done?
It’s just weird now with the internet. People ask a lot of random things like recently somebody wrote “It’s my friend’s birthday, can you call up and say happy birthday? or leave a voicemail?” I didn’t even respond. I hate singing into the phone and I think it’s sort of weird. I can’t imagine when I was growing up, calling up… Morrissey and being like “HEY MORRISSEY sing to my friend!”
You have a lot of literary references. Are you well read?
Oh, no. I’m just faking it.
What’s the last book you’ve read?
I usually start books and get attached to one theme or part of the plot and then most of them I don’t finish but I’ll wonder what happened to that part, or that guy, and sort of write it myself, and sometimes the reference shows up in my song. But I get way too addicted to television and sports.
So you’re pretty well rounded then.
My wife’s a high school teacher, she reads all the time. So Id like to think she can teach me of the importance of reading and I can teach her the importance of…..
A touchdown! Scoring more points to beat your opponent.
New Leaves comes out in a few weeks (released yesterday 9/22). I’ve heard it’s a departure as the title says, both musically and thematically, but when I listened to the title track I was pleasantly surprised to find it still retained that sort of biting quality. At some point it says “You’ll spend your whole fucking life walking”. I thought it was kind of ironic given the title, and it seems that people are expecting more heartfelt lyrics.
I just did an interview where the kid was like,” I’ve heard you’ve totally changed in this record!” I don’t think it’s too different. I think New leaves is maybe the new perspective from which I’m writing from, which is a totally old dude, maybe. I still like to write about the same things. I think the same situations inspire me, but not the same perspective or the way I deal. I’m still sort of critical of people. I don’t think I got real nice all of a sudden. I’m not giving anybody free passes all of a sudden. Haha.
You said you are inspired by situations, by what’s going on with you and your emotions. I guess how relevant is what you write to what you’re feeling? How reflective are they?
Most of the songs start with one or two lines. I’ll write a line or two and it might be a month later or year later that the whole song is written around it. Maybe to finish it off I’ll embellish or I’ll think of a way to make it more narrative.
So it’s definitely a combination of how you’re feeling plus the editing process.
Yeah, it’s definitely not a stream of consciousness. I don’t fill pages and pages at one moment. It’s a song. And then there will be two lines from here and I’ll write a few more there. One will be third persona and one might be first person and I’ll fit them together somehow.
I understand that songwriting and making music in general can be really cathartic. Does it ever make you feel vulnerable? Or do you ever think “Hey, the person I’m writing this song about totally knows it?”
It’s funny because I’ve been asked that because my music is pretty expressive and I usually dismiss it. But recently I realized that it is like an outlet. Maybe I don’t feel like I need to get it off my chest because I’ve just been getting it off my chest, without even realizing it. But within the past week I just sort of noticed that. Every so often a song will be about something or somebody but it doesn’t happen that much anymore. I used to write songs about girls and maybe a few times it got a little awkward but now they’re more…I don’t know if it’s more general or more specific, but they’re about things that hopefully more people can relate to without having specific information.
Alternative Press “Chicago’s most unhappy troubadour”. How do you feel about that? Do you consider yourself a sad person?
No, I’m a very non-sad person. I think music is a way to express the parts I’ve been down about. I don’t think my songs are that sad. They’re mostly just critical. Maybe ten years ago I was pining over girls more but I think the situation, these are the reasons why, but it’s not sad. I think the music is sort of low-key and somber, but that’s because my favorite bands were always low-key and somber.
You seem very observant. like you said, you’re critical. You’re not pining, you’re just able to see what’s going on in a relationship or given situation.
Hopefully it’s just observational, and not about awkward or uncomfortable topics. I understand certain songs, like when I read about my dad dying like, who the hell wants to listen to that? So I try to write it in a way that’s a little joke, or ironic so its not just super super heavy.
Do you have a favorite song on the new album?
There are certain parts. Like a guitar part I’ll play a million times and I’m like “Oh that’s so cool!” Just little moments where I get excited about it. But I don’t know if I have a favorite song. Each song I try to have a moment where it comes in and changes the song somehow. But yeah it’s like choosing your favorite baby.
I see I see. Not that I have songs or babies..
Well what do you like?
It’s like picking your favorite movie.
What is your favorite movie?
Right, I can’t answer that!
What goes into choosing your set list? How far ahead of time do you decide?
It’s not spontaneous because there’s a lot of tuning involved. So I play songs relative. What’s relative to what’s before and after. But for these upcoming shows, I’m learning a couple off the new record that I haven’t played just because people who have seen me before don’t have to hear the same 12 songs every time.
Are you ever surprised at the requests?
Any sort of hint that anybody’s sort of listening to the song makes me uncomfortable. I never think about the fact that once the album comes out, people are listening to these songs. Any time there’s an allusion, I get sort of creeped out. But when they request a song, depending on where I am tuning wise, there’s probably a good chance I won’t be able to play it.
Any song you won’t play?
You’re probably talking about ‘Never Meant’ maybe?
Oh I wasn’t referring to anything specifically.
I think there are two or three songs my wife refuses me to play so I sort of forgot how to play those. I’m not really against learning some of them. Some of them are 6 or 7 minutes long on the album and it’s just me and guitar and it’s hard to keep that interesting so I think some songs are better for a live setting.
You recently got married and had a child, while writing the last album. Did that in anyway change its content? The people thinking you’ve turned into this happy man is attributed to the fact that you’re married and settled down.
It’s just part of the process. I definitely enjoy being married. There’s definitely a transition period like, “Oh i love this girl i’m totally married to her its awesome! I’m going to the bars and get drunk,” and she’s like “Why would you do that? we’re married,”and I’m just like, “Oh it’s what i do.” You have to figure out your new role, you know?
Yeah, I’ve been happy all the time. Some of these songs are written, maybe when I wasn’t happy. There are bands that write these songs and they’re real upbeat. Sometimes that is how i’m like… oh man I don’t feel like playing these sad songs. There was a band yesterday…this band was playing this pop punk or something and it was positive and you know what? They’re forcing it too. It’s really really hard, unless you’re playing watered down bland music like Jack Johnson, to each night be in that mood, to be totally flat, and I have no interest in playing really watered down music like Jack Johnson.
So what’s the best way to get over a breakup?
Um. [pause] alcohol and just being social. That would be my advice.
What new music have you been listening to?
I don’t listen to music too much. I listen to sports talk or NPR in the car. I’ve got these albums of popular bands done in a style that a baby would enjoy, like all bells and flutes. So I’ve got a Ramones album I’ve been listening to a lot, a Cure album and then the Radiohead album for babies. So I guess a lot of baby music.
Haha. That makes sense for now. What’s happens in the future now?
I think I’m in a good place. I’ve played enough and satisfied that urge, and traveled enough to have satisfied that urge. Honestly, just continue what I’m doing. Hopefully write more concise or better songs. So maybe in five years I will have written the best song ever written… No that probably won’t happen. I’ll be doing this in the next five years.
Check out Owen on MYSPACE