As part of The 1975’s takeover of The Face, we’re releasing a series of podcasts featuring frontman Matty Healy in conversation with his musical heroes.
Mike Kinsella is a prolific, cult, cornerstone figure in emo. The Chicago native’s bands include Cap’n Jazz, Joan of Arc, Owls and American Football – bands have inspired the more tender side of Healy’s songwriting. The admiration goes both ways: Kinsella recently covered his favourite ’75 song, Me.
In this podcast, Kinsella and Healy discuss the pre-internet landscape of indie rock, the mutating definition of the term “emo”, and whether or not the American will make more music with his brother and bandmate Tim. Along the way, Kinsella shares a story about his mum baking a cake for Fugazi, while Healy hints at reprising Drive Like I Do, the heavier band that were the teenage precursor The 1975.
Want to hear more of these? We also have podcasts featuring Healy talking to Stevie Nicks, Brian Eno, Steve Reich, Kim Gordon, Conor Oberst and Bobby Gillespie.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to a series of conversations with various different people who I admire and look up to. So today, My guest is Mike Kinsella. Mike is a drummer and a singer and a songwriter, and was a member of the formative emo rock band Cap’n Jazz, and went on to form two of my favourite bands of all time: Joan of Arc and American Football. Hello Mike, how are you?
I’m so good, I’m so happy to be here, even though ‘here’ is just in a tiny garden apartment. But yeah, thanks for reaching out.
Thanks for coming on and talking to me man, like I said, I’m a huge fan of yours and I’m a big advocate for the scene that you kind of have propped up for your whole career. So I just really wanted to talk in depth – we’ve not met before, we’ve kind of tried to a couple of times…
We did, we did! We failed at meeting, that’s right.
You were going on tour, I was on tour and it was a whole thing, but it’s nice to be able to talk to you. I think that we can have a similar conversation to what we would do, because I just like geeking out about this kind of stuff to be honest with you. Let’s start in Chicago in 1989? Is that about when you guys started?
Yeah. I mean that would be… ‘89 would probably be right when… I have an older brother Tim. Joan of Arc is sort of Tim’s baby, or very much so Tim’s baby. He was in the basement playing with friends, he’s almost three years older than me, and yeah. That’s when I started, there started being instruments in the basement and in the house. I would try to play along with them. I would sit at the stop of the stairs and just sort of play guitar along with their band practice. And then I kind of got good enough to where they couldn’t not let me in the band. So that’s how I forced my way into my brother’s band.
At that time, what were you guys listening to? What were the bands that gave you the impetus, or even maybe gave Tim the impetus that kind of bled down to you?
I mean, there were obvious ones like The Cure and The Smiths, and I’m sure… I think I was probably in some sort of metal phase that he had already grown out of at that point, maybe. So I was probably into Suicidal Tendencies and Metallica and whatever. He was sort of getting more into like, punk and indie. He sort of found the DC hardcore scene.
So like Minor Threat and stuff like that?
Yeah, absolutely. Fugazi was just sort of starting, and already blew everybody’s faces off. Yeah. I mean, it happened quick – there was one independent record store that we were allowed to walk to from a young age, it was in the neighbourhood, and so yeah. I would tag along, and he was able to… He would just pick up… I’m trying to think of like, obviously it was different, it was before the internet. So everybody was into, like I said, Smiths, Cure…
It’s kind of like that college rock scene and that kind of indie rock scene that hadn’t quite crystallised yet, do you know what I mean?
Exactly, yeah. So the scenes were sort of blossoming – I guess DC was sort of like showing you, or showing us, impressionable kids, like you could just do this yourself. You don’t need to be in a band that is on the cover of a magazine, you could be in a band and tour and just set up the shows yourself, and have other friends in other cities just set up shows in their basements or their VFW halls. It was really eye-opening and exciting to just be like, “Holy cow, we can just do this!” We don’t need, you know, like a corporate structure in place, so that was great.
That was the punk rock ethos, wasn’t it? The DIY idea of punk, especially in the scenes that you’re talking about, the stuff that was coming out of DC. It’s funny that you mention Fugazi, I’d actually written down “Fugazi” as something to talk about with you. Were they a presence for you guys, were they an influence?
Oh Absolutely, I mean absolutely. Yeah, musically… as a drummer I always loved Brendan Canty, he seemed so ahead of the beat all the time and like, kind of funky in a cool, fun way. It wasn’t just like, it wasn’t tough guy rock. For as much sort of yelling as he did and stuff, it was very like… the music wasn’t just “chugga chugga”, yeah. It was very melodic. I saw him a few times back in the day, there’s a funny story – there was a show I couldn’t get into, I think I was underage. My mom brought me, I think Tim was probably of age at the time. She’d baked Fugazi a cake and at the show, worked our way backstage and literally handed them a sheet pan with a cake on it and told them, “Thank you for being such a positive influence on our kids,” and they laughed and were appreciative. I don’t know if they ever ate the cake or what happened.
That’s so nice.
I was nothing but embarrassed, but that was how formative they were. Even my mom could recognise like, these people are positive influences in every way.
That’s awesome. I always have this thought that if you look at Rites of Spring and Embrace, stuff they were doing, that melodic quality that started to come through in that scene that was very much the hardcore scene when it became “emo-core” or whatever word they hated it being called. I feel like REM… I know that The Smiths were around, I know that The Cure were around, but that kind of college rock REM time, they were a band that, you know, a lot of emo bands kind of, are slightly indebted to.
It was definitely the same thing, there was like an urgency to it. But the same thing, like it wasn’t hard, it wasn’t tough guy music. They brought sort of like a literary, creative writing style to the lyrics and everything, so that was kind of new and exciting. I’m not sure, I wouldn’t personally call them a big influence, but I understand how they’ve definitely influenced everybody I’m influenced by, you know?
Let’s move forward, and let’s talk about American Football. Let’s talk about the impetus for that first record, because it’s so interesting to me, that record, and the life that it’s kind of lived. It’s so funny, some things kind of seem to survive scenes, you know. Def Tones kind of survived nu metal because it didn’t have artwork that was like graffiti that looked like your mum did it, and were wearing backwards New Era caps all the time. They were also amazing and they had this kind of… I don’t know how to describe it, but I feel like things that get embraced in a broader mainstream culture normally have this kind of objective beauty to them, do you know what I mean? I think that with American Football, when I first heard those records, it was when Limewire was, because I would have been – so you made that first record, what, like ‘98 or something like that?
Yeah, we were writing in ’97/’98, I think it was recorded in ’99, probably?
I would’ve heard it in 2004 on Limewire. That’s where I heard it. And this is where, you know, what had happened with emo-pop or bands like Fall Out Boy and the whole Fueled by Ramen thing had happened, it was becoming quite a mainstream thing. So people going back and seeing where all these things came from, sometimes it was a bit of a tough listen for 14-year-old kids, because you go back and you find something like Indian Summer or I Hate Myself or something like that, and those are quite tough listens. But that American Football record still is this kind of really, really beautiful moment that stood outside of what was considered emo-rock and stood outside of math-rock. I could chat on about it for ages, but was there an idea behind the creation of that project? Why did it happen and where did it happen?
It was born out of boredom, I guess, to be honest. The two Steves in the band, they just started playing a couple nights a week, and I wasn’t in the band. I had sort of been in a band with the drummer Steve before, and I was roommates with guitarist Steve. Anyway, so he would bring these tapes and I’d be like, that’s kind of cool. It was us learning how to play our instruments or play them in a different way, you know. The stuff I was playing and writing in Cap’n Jazz – just very different. I kind of was into different stuff. In college you discover all kinds of new things, or you hear them differently at least maybe? You know, it’s one thing to listen to a thing a thousand times, listen to the same cassette a thousand times in your bedroom that you grew up in, and then if you go somewhere else, your first week away from home ever. You have it on in headphones and you’re just walking around, you don’t know anybody, you hear that very differently, you know? So that was college for me at least, sort of hearing things differently. We were just conscious of – we just wanted to try new things. We were getting into different bands, I was always into math-rock like Shudder to Think, Jawbox, again, that DC stuff. There was a local band from the Chicago area called Gauge that was fantastic at what they were doing, really way above everybody else.
I do not know them.
It’s like if Fugazi lived in Chicago. It’s sort of like Fugazi with some Chicago aesthetics or something. Anyways, they were great and also just great at their instruments. So they were a big inspiration early, and that said, we got to college and you know, we just wanted to do something different, we were into Sea and Cake and Tortoise, and sort of post-rock, prog-rock. Drummer Steve was into jazz, so he literally was just learning how to play drums even when that album was made. He taught himself how to play drums as a 20-year-old man, which is crazy. That’s how talented he is. So yeah, it was all of us trying… a lot of vocals, the songs weren’t really written until we recorded them. They were just sketches. I guess that’s the allure still, I guess I know specifically that we tried LP 2 and we kind of went in like, okay, cool, let’s write an American Football record. And it’s really hard, as a 40-year-old, to capture whatever it is people liked about American Football from a 20-year-old, you know? Most of it was naivety and ignorance – or not ignorance as much as… yeah, I guess ignorance. Again, before the internet and stuff, we didn’t think we were gonna be a band. We were planning on breaking up, we never had a manager to give us direction. It was just like, oh, this sounds nice, let’s play it for seven minutes.
So why, then? Let’s talk about the bigger question then, because I’ve had such a privileged series of conversations, this one included. One of them was with Brian Eno, and he really likes to ask the question of, why do we do that? Obviously it’s a practice that kind of takes us into our “doing” state, our primordial “doing” state. So I kind of understand the carnal desire to create as a distraction, but it’s funny isn’t it? Being, like you said, 20-years-old and not thinking about the commercial potential or the social or cultural potential of your expression. Just doing it. I think that those expressions, when they’re found retrospectively – you can always just see the truth in it. I think the thing with that record is that it’s really true. It’s a really captured moment in time and I think that there is a big emotion, people do have a big emotional relationship with that because you can feel it all the way across the record. I remember looking at photos from that recording session in that house when I was like, 20 myself. It’s so funny because there’s so much romance in there for me. The Midwest, as much as you will know it as a kind of boring shitty place, for me was like the most romantic character in any movie.
It’s just the unknown, though! You’re bringing your own… you’re projecting that. You know what I mean?
I want to talk about the house itself where you made that record. A lot of people will know that artwork now because it’s almost become like a meme.
Oh it absolutely became a meme, yeah. We didn’t record in that house, that was a friend of ours, that was their college house. It was just the right photo for the album cover. It definitely captures though, you’re totally right about the Midwest. We were down in Champaign, Illinois – it really is surrounded by farms and cornfields. Whatever you are bringing to that house though, that house is every house there, you know what I mean? There’s streets and streets and streets of them, of college kids not taking care of their property or their houses.
It’s exactly it, it’s nothingness, it’s like a celebration of the mundane. That’s really, really interesting. I wanted to ask you, before we get a bit deeper on stuff, what’s your most emo story? Not what’s the most emo thing that you’ve done, but I was doing an interview the other day and I ended up talking about an anecdote where someone was like, “That’s the emoest thing I’ve ever heard.” Me and Chris from Dashboard went down to the Jawbreaker documentary premiere, and I ended up trying to leave because I was having an argument with my girlfriend or something. Then I got told to sit down by the band, and shut up. It was very full circle.
Yeah, by Jawbreaker.
Oh my God, that’s a great story! I can’t match that,
It was a formative moment for me. And then I remember talking about like… It’s not so much those kinds of things, but these are the anecdotes that excite me. I can remember Chris was telling me about how one of the early Dashboard shows, somewhere in north Florida, they played a high school at like lunchtime with the lights on, and there were probably like 30 kids going wild. One of the kids at the front was Gerard Way. And for me, that visual image is so of that time, do you know what I mean?
I’m older, I’m old I should say, not even older. Before the internet, everything was fun. There was so much less irony, nobody wanted to tear people down, it was just like – I mean, I did the same thing of playing in my high school cafeteria at lunchtime. It was like, all the jocks came out and they totally loved it because it was fun and it was cool, it was a different thing. I don’t remember anybody from My Chemical Romance being at any of our shows, so I’m trying to think… The bands American Football and Cap’n Jazz would be sort of the most popular bands in my lineage, and those bands had originally broken up before anybody knew them or liked them. So I don’t have the… you know what I mean? And then I continued, Joan of Arc sprouted up and we played a million shows to nobody. There were so many weird shows, we toured Europe and played the weirdest places ever and had the best time doing it. But they definitely weren’t well attended, and then I continued to do the same thing solo, as Owen, I’ve been doing it straight for 20 years in the same way. I’m just playing tiny clubs, sometimes people show up, sometimes they don’t. I’m trying to think.
Tell me about the new Owen record.
It’s the exact same as all the other Owen records, isn’t it? That’s what I’m saying. Because I started doing it before there was WiFi, I’d just kinda do it the same way. Like obviously I have managers now and I have booking agents and all the comforts of being able to do it. But what I’m writing about is just the same thing, I don’t think I’ve gotten to any sort of level where I’m writing to a different audience, you know? I’m writing to like, the same exact audience I’ve been writing to for 25 years, or whatever. Can I ask you these questions?
You can do whatever you want.
Okay. So why don’t you answer every question you’ve asked me so far? Because I’ve been wondering the same thing! It blows my mind, you obviously grew up sort of, not in the Midwest, but maybe whatever the equivalent would be in England. So you came from the same place and then to actually attain whatever success you have – is that a mindfuck? Does that change how you write? I have the same questions for you, but it’s like, it’s all based around you getting to this level that’s like, woah, you can’t do things the same. Do you know what I mean?
That’s a good question. You know what, I feel quite lucky in the fact that every time I’ve made a record, I’ve really thought about what has really excited me. I have this real lack of attention span, so my records become these really quite widespread odd things. It feels like every time I’m my most specific or everytime I do something creatively where I think, “Oh, that’s quite impenetrable,” – that’s the shit that people really relate to. So I feel like if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. I suppose the bigger the band gets, I don’t know, I write in pop structure innately, so that’s probably why we’re popular. But with us, man, the past two records, you know, you do interviews – you know what it’s like, I’m interviewing you now. People ask you stuff like, or they’ll say stuff about our last two albums: “They’re striving to be bold.” They feel like that’s it, they’re striving to be bold. And we’ve been a band for like, 17 years, and when we make a record we’re in a room with each other every day for 18 months. It’s not about striving to be bold, it’s about avoiding being boring.
Right. You’re like, well I just did what I did.
We made the same music all the time, so I haven’t got a formula yet. I think that the problem is that when people get successful, they retrospectively look back and they try and create a formula for what just made them successful, and then they either try and ride that or replicate it. I think that the desire to do the opposite of that, is probably the reason that we manage to keep making records people want to…
You’re in this place now, your stuff is so varied that you can literally do whatever you want though. That’s the best place to be. That Steve Martin can come out and say like the most ridiculous shit, because that’s what he’s done his whole life. And it’s like, oh shit! And then also, conversely, I’m trying to think of a not-so-funny comedian who has one shtick. I would say, you might disagree because he’s a popular movie now – Adam Sandler, is just Adam Sandler, you know what I mean?
But yeah, I don’t know. So you guys, by just sort of following your own interests, you’ve…
That’s the thing. It’s like the musical Oklahoma, again, going back to the conversation I had with Brian Eno, he’s full of so many amazing quandaries. And one of the things he talks about is that he separates musicians into farmers and cowboys. He basically says that the farmer is kind of like the conservative idea; the farmer wants to look after his pasture, he wants to keep it the same, he wants to curate what he has. Whereas the cowboy just wants to go somewhere else, you know.
That’s amazing. That’s great.
… go to a different place, and I feel like, to be a cowboy is kind of like the attitude that you need to have, or at least that I kind of wanna have. Because I’m not really interested in staying in the same place creatively, and I think that if you try and do that because people have given you a positive reaction to your previous creation, then people are just gonna smell a rat when you’re trying to give them what they want. But it is interesting, The 1975. I think I’m gonna send you this record because there is, for me, quite a lot of overt references to Mineral and all those bands from back then. And it’s weird to do, because this record is probably not part of this kind of third wave of “emo” or whatever we call it, but it’s definitely at times an homage to that. Did you ever listen to Indian Summer?
Yeah, we played shows with Indian Summer. That’s how old I am. They were great, they’re like one of those bands that like… shows used to be, there’d be seven bands playing at a VFW hall in whatever suburb. It wasn’t even in the city, it was just in some suburb, and every band would play about 18 minutes before all their gear would break. And then they were done, and the next band got up and set up their drums and then one of their amps would break because the singer jumped into it or something. You know, it was like a social event for whatever 150 weirdos lived within 150 miles of that weird town. It wasn’t promoted. If you didn’t know how to find it, you wouldn’t find it. It was also the best time in my life, all of that was so exciting and so fun. And to travel like that, now I’m old and excited when I get my own room in a hotel, I’m like, “Fuck yes!” But back then it was like, oh cool, whoever’s house you’re staying at, they’re gonna take you to the place that they cliff dive. You know what I mean? Nobody can find this one place to cliff dive in town, but we know where it is, we’re gonna take you there and then we’ll make you some vegan stew after, or something. It was the best. It was so good.
Do you and your brother have any plans to make any more music together, in any kind of guise?
That’s a good question. We’ve never, I don’t think once ever talked about this, but we really get along better when we’re not making music together.
That’s no surprise.
Yeah, and we get along pretty good, so… I mean, in spite of the global pandemic, he’s excited and content to follow his vision, maybe probably more than ever. Like we were saying, regardless of whatever success or even attention, and I am too. Like you were saying with the farmer and cowboy thing – I was laughing because I’m like, well I just got done saying I’m doing the same thing I’ve always done, and yet I consider myself such a cowboy. I think it’s more of a cowboy to not… I’ll put it this way: if you do something and it becomes successful and then you keep doing it just because it’s successful, then you’re a farmer. I’m thinking about this out loud, because it’s the first time I heard that and I really like it. But if you do something and it’s not really successful but then you keep doing it – man, there’s nothing more cowboy than that, you know? Or nothing more stupid than that, I don’t know.
It’s an incredibly punk mindset, and I think that, you know, it also works for you, do you know what I mean? Because that’s kind of who you are, and your truth is a big part of who you are.
Sure. If I put out, I don’t know… I was gonna say a metal album, but that’s also kind of who I am, so maybe I should put out a metal album. You never got into metal at all?
Yeah, I’ve always been a big metal fan. I was never into Metallica, I liked Slayer and bands like that. Stuff that I was into was bands like Converge, Glassjaw, the more post-hardcore kind of stuff. I was super into Poison the Well and, I mean, Refused are probably my favourite heavy metal band of all time, that was a big deal for me. It was in the Despair collection, the AFI fan club, and all that kind of stuff.
You’ve had a busy musical…
But it’s been my life, man. I really hope that we get to make something together like we’ve always planned to do, you know. This situation pushes people apart, but it would be nice to think that maybe we can do something. Because I’m actually doing – Drive Like I Do was the band that we were before The 1975 and after The 1975 happened, people kind of discovered all of our demos. Then online, that band very much exists now as its own thing, so I’ve started making some new stuff almost as that band. Maybe that would be a fun thing to play around with, me and you.
I mean, half of my days are spent washing dishes from meals that my kids won’t eat, that I make. The other half of my day is waiting to find some sort of inspiration or reason to pick up a guitar.
Well, hopefully we’ll be through this soon enough and we can reconvene and we can hang out in person.
Let’s do it.
I really look forward to it. Okay, thank you so much, Mike Kinsella, thank you.
Thank you, man, thanks for the interest, really appreciate it.