The Disappearing Designer: An Interview with Joan of Arc

Tim Kinsella wants you to know he’s not a douchebag. Whatever image you’ve concocted of him from his various incarnations, he seems to say, whatever you think you can glean from the capering aggression of his early punk band, Cap n’ Jazz, the freaked-out folk of Joan of Arc, the electro-primitivism of Make Believe, or the Existentialism-101-crossed-with-bathroom-graffitti cut-ups of his solo albums — well, you’re wrong.

“I think I tend to get labelled as the pretentious guy in interviews,” he says, after a question about artistic process peters off into confusion. “I’m doing my best here. I’m not trying to be obtuse or something.”

“I just use my rational mind skills less and less every day,” he adds. “I get more confused every day. But I simultaneously get more comfortable with how confused I am.”

And for what it’s worth, I believe him; since the lost and found thread of our conversation seem to have more in common with the pothead’s cuddly fuzziness than the dadaist’s stark convolutions.

But there’s something here I don’t quite get. There’s something just too convenient, too canny in his “no mind” explanations. Take the title of Joan of Arc’s recent “B-sides” compilation, The Intelligent Design of Joan of Arc. Intelligent design is the theory that proof of divine intelligence can be found in the inherent structure of natural phenomena — everything from tulips, to ecosystems, to the human eye. Pretty clear reference to the band’s knack of making meaningful, unified songs out of the way things fall together, right?

“The title is a joke,” Kinsella says quickly. “It was so obviously an evolution that we thought it would be funny to be like, ‘Yeah, ten years ago we had plans we were going to take this route’.”

Yet minutes later, explaining his desire to “surprise himself” when making music, he brings up the question of naturally-occurring structures.

“It’s like the golden ratio. It’s in sunflowers and seashells and DNA. Did you know they found a galaxy shaped like a DNA coil?”

“Intelligent design,” I offer.

“What? No, it’s shaped like a DNA.”

Then there’s the whole issue of emotion and detachment. Ten years after his post-hardcore outfit Cap n’ Jazz — later credited, along with bands like the Rites of Spring, Jawbreaker, and Sunny Day Real Estate, with establishing that amorphous, ubiquitous sound called emo — broke up, he still finds himself followed around by the indie media’s favourite three letter tag. So he’s understandably anxious to deflect attention from any heart-on-sleeve content in his work.

“I mean music is by nature emotionally ambiguous. It just gets shaded culturally — like ‘Oh, this is a sad sound when you put it next to this sound’.

“But you know, it’s a jumbled world. I’m always sort of let down when a band tries to insist that I feel a specific thing when I’m listening to it. I don’t feel like I wanna impose that, you know? I guess if things were left a little more ambiguous maybe everyone could be a little more at home with it.”

The problem is, Joan of Arc’s musical confusion doesn’t work by the minimalist principle of “leaving it open” what a song means, but by packing songs full of so many different and contradictory emotions that an audience doesn’t know where to look. If nothing else, Kinsella’s vocals are constantly courting strong, opposing reactions — the way he will just give ‘er on a chorus, croaking towards some good old-fashioned roots-rock climax, then send it over the top into shrill, slapstick babble. I can’t help but think he knows exactly what he’s doing here — not that he isn’t confused, not that it isn’t an expression of confusion, but that it is a deliberate and precise articulation of a certain kind of confusion, a particular set of intense, conflicting realities that he wants listeners to pay attention to.

At the other end of the spectrum, Kinsella’s claim to a passive role in his creation put his music’s sense of absurd humour in a somewhat odd position, lodged awkwardly between irony and complete insanity. His cover of the Promise Ring’s “A Picture Postcard” is a spot-on imitation of Davey von Bohlen’s vocals, getting all the lineaments right down to the lisp and the lilting whine, but it’s so straight-faced a parody it’s hard to tell what he’s thinking until, on the very last line (“and I’m convinced that you’re from Mars”), he tacks on his own little resolution (“and I’m … in Ka-la-ma-zooooo”). But he won’t say call it parody, instead choosing to focus on aspects of the cover that are sincere and heartfelt:

“I just thought that the song was simple enough, and moved enough to stand on its own,” he says. “I was interested in what it would look like stripped down to its skivvies.”

In fact, it is (apparently) sincere, and moved — and funny, and ironic, all at once. That’s true of most of Joan of Arc’s best efforts (and also, maybe, a few of its worst). One of Kinsella’s greatest assets is in identifying with whatever he happens to be mocking, and mocking whatever he happens to be identified with. It’s there in his ability to use a famously dry sense of humour to establish a sense of affectionate contact between audience and performer (for instance, his tendency to pause between songs to inquire: “Any questions? Comments?”), and to use spacey, diffident self-deprecation to dodge questions that would pin him down to a particular decision or aesthetic (asked why he chose this moment in Joan of Arc’s history to release such a sweeping retrospective as Intelligent Design, Kinsella tells an elaborate story about a two-month delay on another recent release, Eventually, All At Once, due to his having forgotten to send in the album art).

Hopefully that sense of affectionate-yet-acerbic humour will hold Kinsella in good stead as he drifts towards the kind of Zen enlightenment that has ruined nearly as many musical talents as heroin (think Leonard Cohen post-The Future). Eventually, All at Once features some of his most overt forays into philosophy (“All is One. All is None.” “Is understanding understanding? Is understanding not understanding?”), wrapped up in tribal drums and chanting, which, were they not offset by Kinsella’s arrhymic, screamy solos, might almost belong a meditation tape. Squint your ears, and you can hear the outline of the band’s creative afterlife emerging — perhaps a drone-rock orchestra made up of white-robed figures playing synthesizer and chanting koans?

But then again, I don’t think Kinsella really cares. Recently married, and trying his hand at other art forms (right now he’s at work on a film called These In-Betweens, which he describes variously as “Diary of Anne Frank set in the future” and “a paranoid zombie movie without the zombies”), he emphasizes that he’s far less interested in the music he makes than in the relationships that give rise to it.

“I don’t care if Joan of Arc breaks up later today. I don’t feel like I’m missing much trying to drop out and live my own life with my own friends. The music is just a by-product of trying to live in a way that feels right to us.”