Legendary in his own respect as a pioneer of emo/post rock during its formative years, Mike Kinsella influenced an entire genre with Cap’n Jazz, Joan of Arc, American Football and now his solo project, Owen. He released his sixth studio album, Ghost Town, on Polyvinyl Records last November. The singer-songwriter combined lush multi-instrumental arrangements and lyrics that wrestle with questions of death and salvation. We caught up with Mike before his Los Angeles show for his thoughts on the latest album, life as a recent dad, and getting hit on by Rufus Wainwright.
What did you set out to accomplish with the latest album, Ghost Town?
It’s tough. I don’t think I go in with any sort of goal. That’s especially tough with this record because I started the record and then shelved it for eight months so coming back to it the only goal was to get it done. At that point it was like, I’m going to finish this damn thing.
Could you talk about the reoccurring themes in this album – faith in particular?
The faith thing sort of stemmed from being a recent dad. I was raised Catholic and then gave up on it years ago. Now when you have a kid everything that happens you’re like, “Is there meaning to this? This is insane.” And I keep coming back to, “No, there’s not really meaning.” I think I want to find something but like when she first starts asking questions you think, “This is awesome! I can’t believe her mind can conceptualize questions now!” I’m sort of regressing back to some sort of faith but I keep fighting it.
What’s the process of balancing family life with making music?
It’s hard to find motivation to make music. I’m home with our daughter all day and then at the end of the day my wife will come home and we’ll eat dinner and hang out a little bit. The last thing I feel like doing is any kind of work. I kind of feel like I’ve already worked all day. At that point writing music or playing music seems like work. It’s really like every two weeks or couple of months I’ll get a burst of inspiration and for the next few nights I’ll actually work on songs. The day to day of it, yeah, it’s pretty uninspired which kind of bums me out since it’s all I’ve ever done.
But family life has been inspiring because you said that having a daughter made you question faith.
I’m thinking about things in ways I’ve never thought about before. But to sit up and stay up an extra hour and organize a song or play my guitar or set up the gear and record anything — it seems really daunting after a whole day.
All my tours are pretty much like long weekends. In a couple of weeks I’m going to the UK for five or six days which is the longest I’ve been gone since I’ve had a kid. Then a month later I’m going to Japan for eight or nine days so I’m not sure how I’m going to handle that. I look forward and appreciate touring a lot more. I really appreciate day drinking. I used to be bummed if there wasn’t a lot of people at the show but now if anybody’s there I’m like, “This is cool you came to hear my songs. I got songs.” So I have a newfound appreciation for touring. But yeah, I can’t leave for too long without flipping out.
What’s going on with you and your wife’s band The Shirts and Skins?
You’ve gotta ask her. I don’t know.
People want to know.
I want to know! We never actually finished songs. We demoed one or two and I think I’m gonna put a couple of them on the next Owen record. They’re five years old already and just sitting there collecting dust and I like them. This was before kids and we were just married. We were like, “This is awesome. Let’s start a band!” She teaches high school so we were like, in the summer we’ll just tour. We had a big plan about how cool it would be to be in a band. I think I kicked her out of the band a couple of times and she kicked me out of the band a couple of times.
What are some bands you’re listening to now?
I should preface that I don’t listen to a lot of current music—I don’t keep up with what’s cool or anything. But I do like Nicki Minaj a lot.Do you dance along to the songs too?
I scream my head off in the car. She’s totally awesome. I listen to basically what’s on the radio in passing or if my wife is driving and plays something. I’ve been listening to The Gaslight Anthem.
Anything else besides Nicki Minaj and The Gaslight Anthem?
All the old stuff I keep going back to. All the bands I liked back in high school are still my favorite bands. Yeah, I really just listen to sports talk on the radio all day or children’s music.
If you weren’t a musician what other professions would you consider?
You mean realistically or in a dream world?
I had a baby book and there was a question in it that said, “When I grow up I want to be a _________.” I wrote in there “snowman.” I guess when I was three or four I wanted to be a snowman but that’s not realistic though. I think I want to be a chef.
Really? What kind of cuisine?
I never thought about that. I don’t know. Probably Italian or something. I like making pasta. I can see myself not minding spending many hours a day doing that.
So your dream job would be either to become a snowman or a chef?
Sure. Oh, you know what else that I always said was cooler than my job? My job is pretty awesome but those dudes that work at ski slopes—you know, the ticket dudes? They have the best lives ever. Three or four months a year they just do that and when their shift is done they just glide downhill all day. That would be so fun but I guess I’m too old for that. I don’t think my family can get by on that either.
What was your experience like on your last tour with Cap’n Jazz?
It was great. I was sort of dreading it. I felt like most of us had hesitations that reunions aren’t cool. Having done it though and loving it I totally am fine and cool with it but going into it you’re like, “Is it corny?” Then we started practicing and I realized I was out of shape and old. Physically it was hard but the shows were great. If we had any more of them I’d feel kind of stupid about them but I think we did it as classy as we could’ve done it. We played a handful of shows and when they’re done they’re done.
What’s your favorite song off the new record?
I like “Too Many Moons” –the first song. It’s hard. As soon as I’m done with the record, it’s hard to listen to them.
Last question. Tell me about that one time Rufus Wainwright hit on you.
Oh! Maybe I hit on him. I don’t remember. I was a little drunk. I’m pretty sure he hit on me but this was years ago in New York. It was at a bar and I was with some friends and I think we were getting ready to go and I saw him. At the time I was obsessed with a soundtrack for this movie called, The Myth of Fingerprints, and he has one or two songs on there and one of them sounds like an old fashioned French song. I think I said to him, “Hey you’re Rufus Wainwright! Man, the soundtrack is awesome. Can you translate what that song is about?” Which maybe that was hitting on him? Was it or wasn’t it? I didn’t wink or anything. I really wanted him to translate But then he was like, “Why don’t you sit down here and we’ll talk about it.” I was already out the door with some friends. I hadn’t thought about it in a while and then I saw him on Conan or whatever he was on—Jimmy Fallon—I DVR’d it. He looked old and it made me feel old and I was like, “Damn, that must’ve been like ten years ago or something.” I was probably skinnier and younger and he was skinnier and younger too.