Interview | Kirin J Callinan

The last year has been a busy one for enigmatic musician Kirin J Callinan. Performing headline shows around Europe, touring with Mark Ronson’s band, releasing an album with Jack Ladder and the Dreamlanders, as well as performing with international stage show In Dreams – David Lynch RevisitedPreviously a member of Mercy Arms, Callinan stepped out on his own in 2010 and has since released a string of EPs and debut album Embracism (2013) and just recently gave us a taste of his forthcoming sophomore LP with first single, ‘The Teacher’ featuring friend Connan Mockasin. We had a chat with Kirin J Callinan to find out what he’s been up to post-Embracism and how his forthcoming album is coming together. 

You’ve been really busy for the last year or so, what have you been up to lately? Have things settled down at all?
No, not at all. It has been busy but it’s been good. It would feel weird to be left to my own devices. So it hasn’t really, I’m finishing up the recording side of my new album and looking at videos and that sort of thing and interesting ways to present the music and more. I’ve started shooting a TV show which is nice.

Can you say much about that yet?
I don’t know actually. No one’s given me the brief on what I can and can’t talk about but it’s going good.

You mentioned your new album – I know you were recording shortly after Embracism’s release, after this time working with other people on their projects, did it allow you to approach it again with fresh eyes once you were back? Where are you at with it now?
From about April 2015 to earlier this year, I didn’t work that much on it. It was mostly made in 2014/early 2015. In that time doing other things, I had lost the momentum and the heart and I didn’t want to force it. Nothing good was going to come out of that. It’s come into focus now bizarrely. I think I understand what it is and what it can be, and what I want it to be. It was a good thing. There’s a certain expectation of a timeline and how quickly you should turn something around and generally speaking, the quicker you can put out new music and keep it fresh and exciting, the more successful you’ll be but that’s not really how it works. I’m feeling good, I’m feeling excited and I’ve got the momentum again. The record is beautiful and absurd and ugly. Ugly and really goofy as well. I’m kind of goofy and have an ugliness and have an absurdity but they’re redeeming features, that’s humanity. I just need to back it and I do. I’m feeling good.

Am I right in thinking Mark Ronson helped you out a little while you were recording in London?
He gave me the keys to studio which was a pretty big help. He didn’t produce anything on it but Mark’s a mate and a supporter but he’s also incredibly in demand and incredibly expensive. I would have loved to do some stuff with Mark but at the same time who knows how it would have worked out. The music we make doesn’t have heaps in common so it could have been a real strain on the friendship. He gave us access to his studio and his engineer as well and we got in there and played his drums and his guitars and used his gear. That was actually really beneficial and really sweet too. So yeah, I could say Mark helped – he’ll get a mention in the thank you.

So your first single off the record The Teacher was maybe an unorthodox choice for a first single release, mostly because of its length – is it a strong indication of the rest of the album or is it going to throw people off?
From an aesthetic point of view – no, not at all. I think we’re of the age where all music is at our fingertips and I love so much music and I certainly don’t align myself with any aesthetic or style. I take inspiration from all over the place and quite earnestly love music of all types and get excited when I start to make something and it has some reference point or feels like this and try to see it through. That was a song that I’d written in a frenzy on an aeroplane. Do you know the band Took! Took! Took!?

I don’t, no.
They’re a New York band and I’m talking to them at the gate and we get on the same plane. And the six of them happen to be sitting across from me and across the aisle and I can feel the singer of the band watching me as I got this surge of inspiration and pulled out my pen and paper and this song is flowing out of me. I’m writing verse after verse and clicking my fingers and I hear the song in my head and I’m really excited about it. I could feel him watching me and he was very jealous of my pure creative output. I wrote this song in the space of twenty minutes maybe, and I turned over my left shoulder to see him sitting behind me watching me and the guy’s passed out in his seat with drool coming out of his mouth. He didn’t give a fuck, I think he passed out before the plane took off and the whole thing was in my head and it had been this big performance.

So, I wrote this song and was with my friend John Kirby, he’s a great piano player in New York, and we just kind of belted it out late one night and recorded it. I got very excited about its very jazzy weirdness that it had to it. Because it’s pretty weird. So it’s not really an indication stylistically, it was also a song that had momentum and I finished it and it was just sitting there. Then I got Connan (Mockasin) to sing on it. That line he sings, I sung previously just with my voice pitch shifted up an octave. When I got Connan to sing on it, it really came to life. I was in LA, Connan was in LA, we thought we should probably do a video so we shot that video in an afternoon and it came out. There are a bunch of other songs that are just sitting there ready to go, more or less. I just need that final surge of energy to make those videos. They’ll all start coming out as the time comes, it’s got to be fairly organic – it’s not a particularly calculated process for me. Well, I mean it is and it isn’t. For me there is a real bigger picture for the album. I don’t know if that remains to be seen, whether anyone else gets it or they find the whole thing to be an abomination. I’m sure someone will.

Can’t please everyone. Do the visual accompaniments follow pretty quickly when you’re writing songs or is it more an afterthought?
It’s not an afterthought, whether the immagery I had when writing the song becomes the video that’s not always the case. The video for ‘Landslide’ from the last record, where I’m hanging upside down – that was by Vinny (Vincenzi Vandella) from the Midnight Juggernauts – he had the idea and I was blown away by it because everything in it represented the lyrics quite literally. The dirt, the sea, everything had been turned on his head. He read into the lyrics and made this very literal interpretation but that certainly wasn’t imagery in my head when I was writing the song. However, others like the ‘Embracism’ clip kind of was related to the imagery in the song. Again on a plane, funnily enough.

Does that happen a lot for you?
Yeah, I do write on planes a lot. I think it’s due to two things. One – there’s the altitude which gives you an emotional vulnerability. Anyone that watches a soppy film on a film can attest to the tears streaming down their face, I’m sure. It’s a very emotional and vulnerable time up there. Also, I think it’s one of the few times I’m sitting in a chair without the internet or anything specific to do for a few hours at least. So I take the time to start writing shit down. You’ve got to force yourself into those situations, you know?

You also toured with ‘In Dreams – David Lynch Revisited’, how did you find the whole experience?
Incredible. We did a Sydney Opera House and two Melbourne shows at Recital Hall. The most amazing part was going to places I’d never been before. Going to Dublin, playing at The National Concert Hall there. The Philharmonie de Paris was incredibly emotional, it was just a week after the Paris attacks and we did two shows there. With this cast of performers who had been assembled from all around the world, so in that sense it was really fun. Really lots of fun. The calibre of people involved – David Coulter who was the director, he was in The Pogues and industrial band Test Department and he’s been musical director for people like Tom Waits and Yoko Ono. It was his spirit and wealth of knowledge that made him a great guy to chat to and hang out with and bounce ideas off. Some of the other performers were Stuart A Staples form Tindersticks, Jenny Beth from Savages, Sophia Brous, Cibo Matto.. Very stand alone artists. It was a dream come true.

What kind of stuff did you listen to growing up?
My old man was a musician and music was always around the house, that typical story. He was pushing music onto us but I will always hate anything you try to push on me, not always. I did rebel against it. He was trying to play David Bowie or Elvis Costello or Mock the Hooople, and I just really wasn’t into and rebelled by listening to NOFX and Metal. Lots of angry, aggressive, very male music as a teenager until discovering The Cure and The Church. The big for me was when dad gave me a cassette of The Smiths first album. That was a pivotal moment. That coincided with puberty and getting to know myself and my sexuality as well and feminine side which I hadn’t really even thought about listening to metal, despite the fact that I was wearing make up and I suppose quite an androgynous kid. It was very much masculine energy until discovering those bands.

What have you been listening to lately?
Right now I’ve got Calvin Harris in my head because that’s what I was listening to last night but that’s a really bad answer. I’ve been listening to lots of stuff, what it is I can’t recall… A lot of this year I’ve been listening to Dwight Yoakam which is an irrelevant person to be listening to but for some reason I’ve been really connected to Dwight Yoakam. Country music star from the eighties and nineties until present day. He’s got a really weird thing. I guess I value originality or carving out a singular place or some little twist or bend in the character. I like character driven music, I find. I wish I had a better answer for you. It’s hard when you’re making and listening to your own stuff.

Do you find that you listen to things that are really different from what you’re working on?
Yeah, but that said, I don’t know if there is anything like what I’m working on – without being too full of myself. I don’t know of anything that’s coming from the same place. My music doesn’t really have an aesthetic tying it together, it’s not really about that it’s more character driven, it’s using devices typically used for other purposes and twisting them.

What else is coming up that you’re excited about?
I’m excited about a lot of things. I’ve got this Blurst of Times festival that will be fun, a lot of good bands there. I love coming to Brisbane, I’ve got family in Brisbane and I’ve been coming up there since I was a little kid so it feels like going on a family holiday. Then I’ve got a tour coming up, not to Brisbane unfortunately, just Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. A bunch of things overseas and then this TV show which has just started shooting and will keep shooting until July. I’m the one member of the cast without experience in this field so it should be an interesting thing to do. I wanna make these videos… Videos sounds limiting, the visual representation of these songs. That’s exciting, this final push of getting this album done and across the line is lots of fun so lots to look forward to for me.

Catch Kirin J Callinan’s next show at Blurst of Times Festival.