From land to land with Kirin J Callinan

Dayna Evans

Kirin J

Photo by Eric Phipps

I was unabashed in my admiration for Kirin J Callinan's debut solo record, Embracism, when it released earlier this year. Naive as I may be, I hadn't heard something so sonically craggy or earth-like in my history of listening to music, and though Callinan is often slated as a virtuoso guitarist, his voice and experimentation with drum machines and alternate instrumentation felt even more borne from soil and sand, making Embracism not just a physical record, as many describe it, but an organic, complicated release of twisted agriculture.

The Sydney musician and I had been having trouble finding time to talk—with visa issues preventing him from his last trip to the States, and a multitude of CMJ shows that ran back to back, the time only presented itself in the middle of the day on a Thursday evening in October, before his appearance at Bowery Electric that afternoon. We sat at a tapas restaurant in the East Village, talking over crispy plantains and—infamously—chorizo, and Callinan gave me some thoughts on what it was like to make a record so rooted in tactility, dexterity, and loam, as he mentally prepared himself for his trying show. Known to strip down to his skivvies through layers of eclectic clothing, Callinan's live performances can take a toll, both on him and the audience. After CMJ, Callinan was headed on a short solo tour with a similarly physical artist, Jenny Hval from Sweden, and the result of watching that show was like being shaken from your earth-buried slumber.

How’s New York treating you?

Great. I love it, its funny. I just did a tour around Europe—I went to Hamburg, Hamburg was great. I met some really cool people and the show was good. I said I could live in Hamburg. But Everywhere I go I’m looking for prospective homes, I’ve just been floating for so long. I’ve been living in the country for so long, and when my partner and I broke up, I went to Japan and I came back home and made the record. That whole process of sleeping on coaches and floating around.

Do you think if you left you would get homesick for Australia?

I’m actually looking to have a home. Everywhere I go, I’m kinda looking to see, “Could I live here?” As much as I love Sydney, I’d love to try something else out. Does it make sense, as well, from a musical point of view—trying to make it work worldwide rather than sitting at home.

It has to be hard for artists from Australia because when you leave, you have to leave for so long.

Right, it's not so easy to pop back home for a weekend or the week, but I’m all right with that. So I was in Hamburg and thought it was great, and hey, I could live here, and then I went to Berlin, and I made some really good friends in Berlin. So it was great, and I was like “Fuck Hamburg.” [We are ID'ed for our drinks and Kirin looks reminded of something.] It’s funny, my younger brother can’t get into the bar; he just turned nineteen. So I brought him an ID of a friend of mine, a 35-year-old Costa Rica man. Doesn’t look anything like him. It was like, Jorge, you have to be Jorge. We tried to get in, and we said he didn’t have ID, it was his twenty-second birthday, and you know, we’re from Australia; he said, “I’m sorry, man, you’re gonna have to show some ID. So we walk around the corner, we grab Jorge’s ID.

We come back, and the doorman’s like, “I thought you said it was your twenty-second birthday.”

We’re like “Uh, no, it's not his twenty-second birthday.”

He asks, “Where are you from?”

He goes, [In a thick accent] “Costa Rica.”

“How old are you?”

“Uh, 35.” It worked. [Laughs]

Anyway, I get to France—what was I thinking with Germany? I could live here and learn French. Then we get to London, then I’m like, Paris—what was I thinking? Paris is a joke! London is happening. Then we go up to Manchester and wow, Manchester, it’s so much cooler, it feels so much more real. Then of course I come to New York and I think I was crazy the whole time. New York is the one. I have a visa now that claims I am an alien of extraordinary ability. [Laughs]

What did you have to give the authorities to prove that?

Press clippings. I’ve had a lot of great press in the States. New York Times articles, they did a couple articles on us. Even though they might have been backhanded articles. But I love the articles, one was a live review of sorts. It was kind of in the second person directed to me. The first sentence was, “You are Kirin, you did this, you did that, you probably like this.” It was funny it was kind of aggressively directed at me, which was perfect because that’s kind of what my show is like, so what he was trying to do was try to write an article in the style of my performance.

How did it feel backhanded?

There were a couple of cheapshots but, like I said, I loved it. It just seemed kind of fun. it was more fun than your standard live review. There was an album review in a similar vein. It championed and tore down the record at the same time. I’ve been actually surprised that the general response in the States hasn’t been more polarizing, like these articles were. Back home that’s the way it is but here it’s been really supportive.

I feel like the reason for that is that people either want to write about your record because they love it or because they want to write about you because they’re interested in you or they just don’t get it at all so they don’t touch it. Do you agree with some of these criticisms?

Often journalists are uninformed or totally miss the point. But at the same time, they enlighten me about what I’m even doing because it can be a mystery to me sometimes and that’s why I do it. It's kind of exciting. I guess I am trying to explore some sort of a region that’s foreign to me. The whole process has been a bit exploratory, kind of exploring outside of myself and own understanding of music and performance. I don’t often know what I’m going to do—it just feels right—or if it feels wrong, I’ll change something up. Reading back on it, I get this new perspective on it all, and kind of understand some sort of subdata that is in the performance or music that I never picked up on.

I like that about art, you give yourself to the people to pick apart and analyze.

Often what I find myself doing, (I haven’t particularly intellectualized it or calculated this thing beforehand) it just feels right or instinctual or intuitive or emotionally charged, rather than being planned. I feel like the best lyrics are just kind of right. The lyrics that I still like that I’ve written have been the ones that just unfolded very quickly and I didn’t have time to think about it. I come to understand myself later knowing they kind of come from somewhere that is a mystery to me. Tom Waits talks about that, not that I’m trying to compare myself to him, but as a way to cite authorities on the subject.

If it's coming from you in an organic way, when people connect to it, how does that feel?

It's flattering, because for a long time, I didn’t think it was worth much, you know. I recorded little stuff, I was in band, but I didn’t consider myself a songwriter. It was just these ideas at home, or in a band, I was just a guitarist. So for people to connect with the songs or to think they’re okay songs is a big thing in itself. And especially when they're a bunch of songs on the album that are quite traditional and others that are less so, that are more of an experiment with dynamics and structure. When people connect with those songs, it is very cool.

The record is challenging but in a way that I can relate to it.

With the record, I legitimately thought it was smooth, almost easy listening when I was creating it, but I don’t think it is that, it is probably more abrasive than that, but that’s how I felt when I was making.

What is the goal in your live show? When you go on stage, your music already is so interesting, why have the added performance aspect?

Well it's theater, it's live performance. Every good band knows it's show business. Some bands admit it, that it's this big theatrical production, and others (probably the best ones,) don’t admit it but they totally that’s why it's so good. The Rolling Stones are total show business, but they passed it off—even to this day—as old men, as four guys just doing their thing. But it’s show business. I want my shows to be dynamic, and not just audibly. From complete stillness and silence to violent and uncomfortable, I want it to be sexual. You know the band I have is with my two brothers, and the idea with them is to strip away their characters. They’ll wear baseball caps or have their faces skewed in some way or they’ll be dressed in the same thing, in uniform, be expressionless to contrast my own style of performance. I’ll have multiple costumes and a wide range of emotions. It just seems fun to me.

“Fun” is an interesting word to use in contrast with “challenging.” Who are you challenging—yourself or the audience? Challenging doesn’t always mean fun.

I’m not really trying to challenge people. I mean they are challenged and that’s great, but I can’t force that. And so far, it's been going all right, and I've been getting a lot of feedback, people saying they love the show, but it’s the next day that they’re really thinking about it, which is a really high compliment and that’s great. But as soon as I try to do that, to challenge people, it’ll probably all go wrong, it’ll stink. At the moment it just feels like it's working and it's growing still. It keeps evolving and keeps changing.

Do you try to change your show each time?

No, that’s the thing. On some levels, I mean I change the setlist. But there is something bigger that changes naturally over the course of shows that you can’t really control. Even the look of the band has changed so much naturally. when we first went on tour, I had the band all in sportswear like a swim team in track suits. But then they started looking like these German sex maniacs, then you know, the sleeves started coming off with caps pulled over their faces, as it got cold they started looking more and more like British police with white turtlenecks with vests over top. Then they got really flamboyant again. It sounds absurd but it could happen naturally, the clothes just seemed to present themselves, people would give stuff to us or we’d walk by a shop and see something, like three tight purple skivvies. All of a sudden it becomes very fruity and that affects the overall spirit and idea of the show and the audience's perceptions and reactions change and all of a sudden it’s a different thing. As silly as that sounds.

If you see a band who just wears jeans and sweatshirts, you feel that they're not ready to be there. I like that there's a spectacle involved.

That’s the thing—there is a performance element to wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, they invoke all these references of grunge and and you can buy into that easily as an audience, that they're just four guys or a gang of outsiders or that they're cool hip dudes. There can be so much subtext in the simplest thing, even they haven’t thought of it, there is all this stuff. We don’t think about it either. It just feels right.

It's you and your two brothers, but your manager on drums right now.

It's usually the middle brother who is the drummer, but he's in London. His visa didn’t come through, which is ironic because he’s probably the most qualified musician of all of us. Back home he's the X Factor in-house drummer, he plays guitar, drums, and bass; he plays on the Sunrise Morning Show. He plays with touring acts. He's the drummer for I guess who you'd call the Justin Bieber of Australia, Reece Mastin. He’s never been to the States before, so I guess some alarms went off. “This guy's never been there even on holiday, but now he wants a working living visa?” They’re processing it, I would love it if he got here before the end of CMJ.

Have you done a big tour of the States before?

Once before, solo, opening for Ariel Pink. It was pretty easy, I traveled on their bus, their tour manager sorted me out. This tour I just need to be back at the bus at the same time, 5am. Sometimes four, sometimes seven. That's it.

Is this tour a headlining one?

Most of the shows are, yes, but then we're doing a bunch of support, also, touring with some Australian friends of mine in the band Cut Copy. Stylistically, we're very different but we’re all friends. My old band, Mercy Arms, toured with them a couple of times.

Do you think your next endeavor will be vastly different to what you're doing now?

This is maybe the one thing that is a conscious decision: I want my music—no matter what is—to keep raising questions of myself and not be locked down to anyone’s style. I don’t want to be making my fifth record feeling like it has to be something. With this solo record, I want it to encompass a wide range of things I’m interested in and not be tied down stylistically. I like so much music so it would be nice if my thing is that I can be a chameleon that moves around these different styles and that my character is the consistent thing. It will be thematically linked, not necessarily stylistically or sonically linked. I’m doing stuff that is already more diverse, it's like sentimental R&B ballads, as opposed to hard abrasive electronic music or electropop. And I hope there are thematic things, a character that ties it all together. I feel like in the modern world it’s a really dumb idea to feel like you're this one band and you make one type of music. I think there is far greater potential. But at the same time, I think it's going to naturally evolve. I’m not going to forcefully be different for the sake of it. Everything is easier and stress-free if you just let it happen. It’s funny that music journalists are thinking that it should be deliberate or that it is deliberate. The thing with reviews is that they say he’s obviously commenting on this or talking about that or there’s this overarching grand vision. I can be really frank and say, because I don’t care, I’m honestly just making it up as I go along.

I really do feel like if something is interesting, then that’s how it happened. In classical music, there is a lot more thought that goes into it, but then again, even great composers talk about that flushing inspiration. But they have the knowledge and tools to be able to then craft it on a scientific level. but anytime the whole thing is calculated, you can smell it, and it doesn’t feel good to listen to.

Your music feels organically inspired because it's so physical, so tactile.

The appeal with a lot of bands is the sunglasses on, back against the wall, not giving a fuck. It doesn’t appeal to me. Often I do think not having a home, being broke, fuck wouldn't it be nice to go back to Australia, meet a nice girl, have a home, have my weekends, then work from nine to five, but I don’t think I could. Well I’d be a retard at it and I'd be completely miserable at the same time.

Have you had the day job experience?

From installing insulation in ceilings wearing fullbody suits, or being a maître d at a restaurant, to working at a bowling club. I've worked in warehouses, as a driver, a football coach. I gave youth football lessons.

Were you any good at football?

I was all right. I would have loved to do that but I wasn’t quite good enough.

Did you get along with children?

I was coaching fifteen-year-olds. I was twenty-five and the youngest coach, by far. It was Division One, high level kids. It was great. Obviously I was there to teach them, but I learned just as much. I reconnected with myself as a fifteen-year-old. I was very serious about football back then. When I was eighteen, I started going out to see bands play. Then after forming the band, it moved very quickly. In a year, we signed a record deal, had the world promised to us, but it didn’t come through and it went to shit. But from there on out, that’s what I did, but obviously I had plenty of other jobs, playing guitar, doing session stuff. I tried to get a job at a sex shops.

What qualifications would you even need for a job at a sex shop?

I had retail experience, I didn’t feel threatened at four in the morning by some creep. I also worked in a guitar store for sometime.

Do you feel like you continue to get better on guitar?

I'm getting worse.

That can’t be true.

Well I work so many shows the last thing I want to do is play guitar.

You play so many shows though.

But I play the same songs. I don’t write on guitar so much. I write on paper, lyrics. Once I have the lyrics I’ll find some chords to pitch them to. Or in the studio, I’ll start with guitar or synth or drum machine, but it wont be something written at home, just kind of something made up and it’ll evolve into something. The more traditional stuff, I write it lyrics first, chords later.

Do you like writing lyrics?

It’s a challenge—you can’t force it, you try to force it and its terrible. You kind of have to wait for them. It sounds really pretentious. On airplanes it's really good. Sitting there by yourself at a high altitude, feeling a bit fragile and emotional and reflective. I wrote Embracism and scraps of it on this one flight from NYC to LA and on the flight back to Sydney from LA. On that same trip, before takeoff, I sat there with a pen and paper on my lap not writing anything, then once it started it just happened within five or ten minutes.

I wonder if that goes back to what your were saying it just pours out of you.

It doesn’t feel like it's inside of me, it feels like it's outside of me and you just connect to it like it's always exsisted, the song always existed. It just needed someone to write it.

Is it that you are grabbing at feelings that are outside of your perception?

Yes, it comes through your own voice or perception, so your personal experiences must get wound up in there. I often don’t know what they’re about, but then I’ll later realize there’s a personal experience in there or a commentary on something I didn’t know I had an opinion on.

Kirin J Callinan's Embracism is out now on Terrible Records/XL Recordings.

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