Chicago’s Joan of Arc have existed, in some iteration, since 1996. In that time, they have released over twenty albums, and have had almost as many members. The band currently is comprised of five members: Tim Kinsella, Bobby Burg, Theo Katseonas, Melina Ausikaitis, and Jeremy Boyle. The sole constant member since inception has been front man Tim Kinsella, but Kinsella, in our interview, is clear that JoA has never been a solo project. It has always been a collaboration. The way he describes it, it sounds less like a “band,” and more like a “musical collective,” where members can stop in for a little while, jam, write, tour, and then move on when they are ready. Some members are on again, off again. While they call Chicago home, the band is signed to Champaign’s own Polyvinyl Records.
Joan of Arc takes the stage at The Accord this Saturday, September 24, at 9:30 P.M. What, exactly, you will hear, is difficult to anticipate. With an extensive repertoire of literally hundreds of tracks, you may hear lush, layered, indie; spartan, minimalist electronica; neo-psychodelia; or stripped down acoustic jams. It all depends on what the band is feeling, and what makes sense for the current lineup. Regardless, you can expect that it will feel and sound singular and authentic. There are no roles being played, there are nominal scènes à faire. There is only the undiluted expression of, to use Tim’s words,“pure joy.” He elaborates on these things below.
SP: Looking forward to catching your set at Pygmalion. With a back catalog as deep as Joan of Arc’s is, how do you pick a set list?
Tim Kinsella: We have a weird membership. People come and go a lot. So it kind of depends on what we feel like, and who’s around, and what that lineup sounds like. Then we pick songs according to like, “Oh, we only have one guitar - we could do these songs.” It’s fun to look backwards and be like, “Oh, this song never really worked live before but now it will sound cool with this lineup.”
SP: Who is in the current lineup?
Kinsella: There’s maybe like fifteen of us that all do it sometimes. Right now it’s me, Bobby Burg, and Theo Katseonas. The two of them have been the longest running people at one time ever. Bobby has been doing it with me since 2003 non-stop, and Theo has been doing it since 2007. Melina Ausikaitis has been playing with us for about three to four years, and Jeremy Boyle. He was in it for the first five years or so, and would dip in here and there, but now he’s back full time.
SP: With a fluctuating lineup, what does a typical writing session look like?
Kinsella: We always go through different phases of how we write and record. It takes us a long time to kind of conceptualize what feels right. More often than not, in the past, I would come in with a guitar pattern and a vocal melody, and we’d write for that. But the last few years, it’s been this way of setting up all the instruments that we have, and then just jamming for hours, recording it, and pulling little snippets out. At that point, when things get edited and shuffled around, we don’t even know who is playing what anymore, so it’s not like we can even attribute who is playing this synth part versus that synth part.
SP: That sounds incredible, how often are you able to do an extended jam like that?
Kinsella: We go through phases. We took the entire year of 2014 off. 2013 we were just on tour so much, and I made an Owls record, and Owls toured a bit. Joan of Arc was just kind of burned out. So we go through phases, you know. Like to release the new record, once a month we would block out four days in a row, where we would be immersed in the band for four days straight, and then we wouldn’t do anything for a month. Now that we’re playing stuff live and we’re figuring that out, it’s more like we get together once a week. Right now it’s kind of like learning covers of ourselves.
SP: What are you listening to right now? Where are you drawing inspiration from?
Kinsella: Honestly, we’ve never been a band inspired by other bands. I mean we all love Bad Brains. A thing we have in common is we are all huge fans of Black Flag, Minor Threat, and Bad Brains. But none of us have ever kept up with current rock bands. It sounds so horribly pretentious to say it, but we had a long phase, probably 2010 through ‘13 or ‘14 where we were all kind of obsessed with like contemporary, minimalist composers, and the sort of ideologies of what they were doing. The things that sonically they had in common with hip hop and club music, trying to sort of recreate that with rock band instruments. You know, we never wrote songs like Neil Young and Led Zeppelin. I mean we all love Led Zeppelin and the Smiths. Don’t get me wrong. We just never tried to. It’s funny, I think it sounds like we take ourselves really seriously, but I’ve never been able to tap into that feeling that allows someone to pretend that they are in Led Zeppelin or The Smiths. That sort of “strut” that’s inherent to rock bands. That’s just not our thing. We’re grown men, you know. We’re forty-something years old. We’re not going to pretend.
SP: So, you’re not going to put a bouquet in your back pocket and strut around like Morrissey?
Kinsella: I mean, I love Morrissey. Joan of Arc is named Joan of Arc because I wanted to write the song, “Now I know how Morrissey felt,” you know? More than Morrissey, the whole contemporary metal thing - I love Judas Priest and Slayer, those are bands I listen to a lot, but I’m not going to pretend I’m someone I’m not. I’m not going to put on a pre-fab identity.
SP: Looking at your catalog, and the fact that for many years you wrote an album a year - quite long albums - do you look back and see that there was a method to your productivity?
Kinsella: I mean this thing, it’s our lives. Obviously there’s a front, in that there’s a performative, public aspect to it, but none of us have careers that we’re interested in. None of us have kids. We don’t have anything else. So the method is like, “I wake up and this is what I’m thinking about, so this is what I’m working on.” I feel like the luckiest most blessed person ever born that I get to do this, and that my collaborators are my best friends. They're the most creatively inspiring and loving and kind people I’ve ever known, you know. We do it because we want to do it. That’s the method. Pure joy.
SP: Got it. I guess I’m asking, do you intentionally sit down to write, or do you just always have a guitar in your hand, or do you try to intentionally force yourself into a new situation? What process works for you?
Kinsella: I’m not someone who sits around playing guitar all the time at all. I honestly went three years without playing guitar. Sort of just in the last month have I really enjoyed playing it again, but I’m not interested in playing guitar. I think we have a vision of the band as a much more expansive thing. It’s really sort of like a gang, but it’s also sort of like a brand. Like we really enjoy DJ’ing together. Sometimes band practice is just like, we make bruschetta and listen to hip hop. Sometimes we go skate boarding. The act of the being in the band has very little in common with writing songs. The songs come out of it, and the band is necessary for the songs to emerge, but the band doesn’t exist just so the songs can emerge.
SP: Music is just one part of the relationship, it seems like.
Kinsella: Oh yeah. We’ve been a band a long time, you know? I mean, there was no internet when we started. So yeah. It’s not like this is our idea of like a job or something. It’s sort of this alternative safe space from our jobs.
SP: You, your brother Mike, and your cousin Nate are all active musicians. Is that a multi-generational thing in your family?
Kinsella: [laughing] No, no. Not at all. I don’t know anyone on my mom’s or dad’s side that was a musician. Me and Mike have one cousin on my mom’s side who plays in a cover band. It’s not like the family business or anything.
SP: So how’d you get into it? Do you remember how you first became interested in music?
Kinsella: I was two years old when I told my mom I was going to be in a band when I grew up, and I was four years old when I started my first band with my neighbors. Before I knew how to do anything, I was figuring out how to be in a band.
SP: What were your early inspirations? How did you get started?
Kinsella: When I was a kid, it was like the 70s, so like, I was the perfect age for KISS. I was like three when Lovegun came out. They were larger than life comic book heroes. They were like the Beatles plus a monster movie plus a cartoon. They were just the most amazing full package. So yeah. My first band, when I was four, was named KISS II. Until I was probably seven, my standard of valuation was just: how closely does this resemble KISS? You know, so, Kiss equals perfection, not Kiss equals bad.
And then, we had two complimentary big breaks when I was an adolescent. One was that we lived in this really boring suburb, with nothing around, but there was one punk rock record shop that was the only place within walking distance that you could go to. The guys that were the orderers there were just super tapped into Maximum RocknRoll, Dischord, underground stuff. It was literally the only place to go. Only later did I realize that other people that were interested in punk rock traveled great distances to get there.
SP: What was it called?
Kinsella: Rockin’ Records. And there was another one, Hip Cat, that was sort of the hippy store next to it. Hip Cat and Rockin Records. Rockin Records was like the punk place, and Hip Cat was the psych rock place.
But then we also had these neighbors who were really rich. They didn’t live in a mansion, but their parents would give them money, so they could buy records. Every time we would go out, their parents would be like, “Oh, here’s $10.” You know? And that wasn’t a thing that happened in my family at all. So we could go to the store, and our friends would just buy tons and tons of records, and we’d just hang out and listen to them. It was an amazing time of discovery. It was like being a baby, with a brain that’s a sponge, just absorbing language.
SP: How old were you at the time?
Kinsella: Like 11-15.
SP: Have you and Mike and Nate always played in bands together? When did you realize that was something you were all interested in?
Kinsella: Well, Nate was a lot younger, and he never lived in the same city. He was also born on a farm, and was just very, very quiet. I’m like six or seven years older than him. When you’re kids that’s a big difference. With Mike, I had started a band called Cap’n Jazz, and we would practice at my Mom’s house, and Mike would be around. Me and Mike didn’t really get along before that. We were around each other all the time, obviously, but we fought a lot. Circumstantially, we started that band in spite of ourselves. It’s not like we had this unified vision as brothers, “Let’s do this thing together!” You know? Every single part of every single song was a battle.
SP: That’s incredible. Do you plan to catch any other acts while you’re down here for Pygmalion? Anyone you’re looking forward to seeing?
Kinsella: I’m the co-owner of a small publishing company, called Featherproof, and we will have a table at Book Fort. So one of the partners will be down there working that. I’m always excited to get to see the Polyvinyl people. They’re really amazing and endlessly supportive and cool. ALOHA , our old friends, we haven’t seen in a long time, so that will be nice.
SP: Thanks for taking the time to talk to Smile Politely!
You can catch Joan of Arc at 9:30 PM on Saturday, September 24, at The Accord, right before DJ Ricky Wells. Also make sure to catch Featherproof Books at Book Fort, from 11:00 AM - 4:00 PM on Saturday, September 24, at The Accord. Book Fort is a FREE event.
For tickets and more information, visit the Pygmalion Festival website.