An interview with Joan of Arc

Recently I had the honour of interviewing one of my absolute favourite bands of all time, Joan of Arc, before their gig at the Bodega Nottingham, during their UK tour with Hot Club de Paris. This was the first time I’ve ever interviewed any artist, so it was a pretty big place to start! I was too nervous to really feel like I made the best use of their time, but at least I didn’t get all hyperactive fanboy on them. Afterwards I realised there was loads of other stuff I should’ve asked them but the little I did find out was enlightening. This should be published in my university’s music magazine, The Mic, in a couple of weeks.

I’ve never heard anyone adequately describe the type of band Joan of Arc are, or what they do to me. This is rare in the internet age, where music cataloguing and journalism are so abundant, but such is the power of Tim Kinsella’s ability to elude description. Although their music sounds nothing alike, you could think of Joan of Arc as an experimental indie rock version of The Fall. John Peel’s famous maxim “always different, always the same” applies to both bands, and Kinsella (the band’s one permanent member) is even more inscrutable than Mark E. Smith – but for some reason critical acclaim hasn’t fallen so kindly on the Chicago-based band, now in their 17th year of existence and having just released their 13th studio album proper, Life Like.

When I ask Kinsella about their lack of recognition, he tells me “I would love it if we sold more records and more people liked us, because then I would make more money and we’d be able to do this more easily.” It seems strange coming from someone so unremittingly unconventional in his approach that recognition would be welcomed. “I would hate being in a band where it was pretty much like a job, where you had to write 30 songs, throw 20 of them a year, and play the other 10 every night for three years, I couldn’t do that […] we make music to make music; we don’t make music to make money. If we could operate in the same way and make more money that would be good!” It’s a line that you’ve probably heard a million times before, but you can tell from the music that Kinsella is sincere.

Joan of Arc’s unpredictable mood swings make it difficult to keep track of them; I ask Tim if the recent reunion of Cap’n Jazz, the posthumously successful math-emo band Kinsella and current JoA guitarist Victor Villareal were in when they were 19, has affected the band: “We always sort of change approaches significantly pretty much every record, or maybe every couple records in a row. The last time we were in England, a couple of years ago, I was really obsessed with Neil Young, to the point where I was even playing Neil Young covers solo sometimes. We were more like a bar rock version of Joan of Arc.”

It’s weird to see such a wildly inaccessible musician emulate someone as acclaimed as Young! But JoA’s newest work has been some of the most traditional, guitar-rock oriented of their career. It’s the first Joan of Arc record to be produced by legend Steve Albini, and sounds more like Kinsella and Villareal’s math-rock work with Owls ten years ago (one of the most beloved Kinsella projects – the Bodega crowd were overjoyed to hear a surprise encore of Owls songs). But why a reversion from the electronic textures of previous record Flowers? “It’s really just a matter of practical reasons. It got tough for us – there was a period of Joan of Arc where there were seven of us; and we had two drum sets, and a third small percussion setup, and a vibraphone, and a Rhodes piano, and a Wurlitzer, and a vox organ, and a cello, and an accordion, and a synthesiser, and three guitars, and it was just too much! So it’s much simpler to travel this way.”

It leads to some interesting new takes on older songs in their set, my highlight being the segue between the sparse freeform meditations ‘Let’s Wrestle’ and ‘As Black Pants Make Cat Hairs Appear’ (those titles!) – virtuoso guitarist Victor Villareal told me “We’re approaching it with a different set of artillery. I love playing the older ones, it’s a different feel.” His presence gives the old songs a different slant, and it sounds as great as ever.

But don’t worry that Kinsella is getting more conservative at this stage. After a more experimental work, their unreleased score to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, he says, “I personally wouldn’t be too interested in doing too much of this very ‘rock’ thing beyond this… I think it’s about to get weirder again!”

I’ve always been fascinated as to Kinsella’s creative process; he’s had open roll calls of Chicago musicians on Boo Human, employed mind-boggling multitracking on The Gap, and wrote “90%” of the lyrics of Cap’n Jazz’s only album on his first mushroom trip. Kinsella’s sense of humour is so dry it’s difficult to tell if he’s being tongue-in-cheek, but here’s what he had to say.

“Well you know, I used to smoke so much pot… and I used to write so many songs… and once smoking so much pot didn’t become a realistic way of living any more, I still wanted to write all the time. It’s weird, I’m not really interested in playing music when I’m just sitting round the house, it’s the last thing in the world I feel like doing, and then as soon as I smoke pot there’s like a one-to-one ratio, where if I smoke weed, a song gets written. So there’s now 25 new Joan of Arc songs that I haven’t shown these guys yet, since the last record. Which guarantees that I smoked pot probably… eighteen times.”

So does he never get writers’ block? “Nah, I don’t get writers’ block. I mean it’s not always easy, but you can only get writers’ block if you’re trying to do a particular thing, and I’m never trying to do a particular thing, I’m more like, ‘Oh… what is there?’ I’m always asking questions instead of making statements; one never runs out of questions to ask.”

It makes sense; I’ve always thought my version of ‘stoner rock’ would sound more intellectual and challenging than the mind-numbingness of Kyuss or Sleep. The connections and possibilities explored in Kinsella’s lyrics and, indeed, in the experimentations and non-sequiturs of the music, are familiar to the cerebral stoner, the stoner who gets high and finds beauty in everything rather than the stoner who sits in one spot for five hours playing videogames and eating Doritos.

This band is long overdue a critical re-appreciation, so to attempt that difficult task of describing what Joan of Arc do: they make me feel sad and strange, but at the same time normal – I get brief glimpses of identification with what they’re saying, then lose track, then find something subjectively profound in the next song. It’s absolutely fascinating to listen to something so unstable, so laden with possible meanings. What their albums are “about” is pretty much always open to interpretation, but one of my favourites, Eventually All At Once, is more obviously about the absurdity of existence. The record’s standout point is the strings-laden refrain to ‘Many Times I’ve Mistaken’, with the lyric “And off-white is now the new white, everything, whoa-oa-oa!” It’s about being overwhelmed, about your perceptions being prone to mistakes; to sum up Joan of Arc in one song, even though this might be JoA at their most conventional, I’d pick this one. Maybe it won’t ring true for many people, but those who “get” Joan of Arc really get obsessed. They’re a cult band in the truest sense – give them time, because for the initiated, they’re life-affirming.

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About decemberembers

I've noticed that all of my music-obsessed friends have completely different approaches to music in the digital age, and I'm writing this blog as an attempt to raise questions about what you experience when listening to music. It's also partly a response to a majority of music journalism which, stylistically and ethically, I find problematic. I'm trying to avoid being prescriptive and will encourage open-mindedness. :)
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