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Different From The Get Go: Mike Kinsella Opts For Something New On Owen's 'The King Of Whys'

Thursday, 28 July 2016 Written by Jonathan Rimmer

They say that hearing a person’s voice is one of the most essential components of memory. Even a particular vocal tone can transport you back to past experiences, whether positive or negative. It makes sense, then, that couples feel happy when hearing ‘their song’ as music is the most vivid emotional trigger of all.

For many people, Mike Kinsella’s soft, boyish vocals will always be associated with a certain time and place. Personally, I can’t hear the self-titled record by his band, American Football, without being transported to my hometown, complete with teenage romances and the friends I grew up with.

That might sound sickeningly sentimental, but anyone who’s fallen for the album will know exactly what I mean. Listening back now, Kinsella’s wistful lyrics and aching guitar chords feel deliberately designed to evoke nostalgia. It was the album to grow up to.

American Football never made another record, but Kinsella’s voice barely seems to have aged since its release in 1999. The Illinois multi-instrumentalist has spent the intervening years releasing music with Owls, Joan of Arc and Their/They're/There, while always circling back to his solo alias, Owen.

Kinsella, now 39 and a father, is regarded as a key inspiration for Midwest emo, and its ‘revivalists’, but his own sound has matured with every passing album. His new record under the Owen banner, ‘The King of Whys’, was produced by Bon Iver drummer S. Carey and engineered by The Tallest Man on Earth sticksman Zach Hanson in Eau Claire, Wisconsin and is the first he’s recorded outside of his home city, Chicago. It’s a collection based on subtle wit, blunt observations and broad instrumentation.

“It was an entirely new environment for me,” he says. “And I think it worked. I enjoyed the process. I never approach any album with particular intentions; everything has always been natural. It’s weird to think about but I’ve literally done this one way of recording for about 15 years. It was time for a different setting. I’d say I’m pretty comfortable at this point so it was good to be kind of dropped in a new situation.”

Several of the tracks on the new record feature elements that will be less familiar to fans of Kinsella’s signature style. Early Owen projects tended to be minimalist and lo-fi, but the production on ‘The King of Whys’ is far more panoramic, lending a resonance to Kinsella’s otherwise gentle voice.

As ever, his vocals are firmly in the foreground, giving the record the sense of intimacy we’re used to, but we’re also treated to keys, brass and big sounding drums. Kinsella still sounds well and truly inside his comfort zone despite these changes, which is impressive given he decided to work with a new set of people.

“They [Carey and Hanson] brought in this whole team of musicians,” Kinsella says. “They were all talented and committed guys in the local area. I can’t lie, I went in kind of awkward. I had these sensitive, noodly acoustic melodies that I wanted them to do something with. I didn’t know if they cared or just wanted to get paid. Within days I realised how into it they were and how much they wanted to be involved.

“Like, I’d go in and say things like, ‘I want this to sound really heavy and dirgy like Codeine,’ and they’d figure it out. The process felt different from the get go, especially as I was away from my family for such an extended period, so it was great that their influence really shaped this album and gave it a different quality.”

It makes sense that Kinsella’s creative spark has been reignited. Due to massive demand from a new generation of fans, a deluxe edition of ‘American Football’ was released in 2014, entering the Billboard 200. The band was given a second wind and they decided to play a reunion show. Two years later, they’re still playing festivals and will pop up at ArcTanGent near Bristol next month.

“We agreed to one show,” Kinsella says. “That spiralled to six pretty quickly. They ended up being 1000% more fun than we expected them to be, and so we kept getting offers and we kept saying yes. When we were an actual band the idea of touring was a totally different thing. We weren’t popular back then.

“We’d take our van around the country and play to nobody. So, when we got these offers I just thought, ‘Oh, cool. We’ll just say yes so we can play in all these amazing cities and hang out with friends that we know in these places’. All these new kids just sort of found the scene. So, along with us, a lot of bands that were just doing this shit in basements for years suddenly got popular from people digging back.”

While Kinsella is a far more developed songwriter than he was 17 years ago, hearing him croon “stay poor and die trying” on ‘The King of Whys’ closer Lost somehow evokes the same warm, fuzzy emotions. He’s not lost his ability to create music that is cosy and inviting but also ultimately bittersweet.

He openly describes himself as a “grumpy old man” at this point in his career, but the only time that irritation seems to manifest itself is through the odd swear word in a track or a tongue-in-cheek tweet. When asked about the wave of younger bands fixated on emulating his earnest early material, he’s nothing but graceful.

“I’m at the point where I’m old enough to listen to the bands I liked back in high school rather than these younger guys,” Kinsella says. “Still, I respect that a lot of them, especially all these math-rock kind of bands, have taken this stuff to another level. It’s still surreal to me. Every so often I’ll play with a band and I’ll recognise, like, a tuning that I used to play with.

“Playing these American Football shows, I always thought it’d feel more embarrassing than it does, and maybe it would have closer to the time. I laugh at some lines now, like ‘all my teenage feelings’ on Honestly?, for example. But they don’t touch any old nerves. It was written by a young dude half a lifetime ago, but I guess you find different ways to relate to something. I feel lucky more than anything. It was the right time to do it.”

'The King of Whys' is out on July 29 via Wichita/Polyvinyl.

Owen Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Mon November 21 2016 - LONDON St Pancras Old Church
Wed November 23 2016 - LONDON Forge
Thu November 24 2016 - LONDON Forge
Fri November 25 2016 - LONDON St Pancras Old Church

Click here to compare & buy Owen Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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