While 2020 may not have panned out as quite the year of reckoning some of us had anticipated in March when all the local grocery stores were stripped of all pasta and paper products, a glance back at the past eleven months does reflect a shift that’s hard to ignore. In addition to the realities of the pandemic—which, yeah, has gotten to the point where it does feel like the apocalypse we’d foreseen at the beginning of the year, albeit a much slower infection rate than we’d anticipated, and one almost wholly avoidable in the hands of competent policy makers—there’s been a figurative mass execution of cultural idols as we continue to probe the personal lives of the frankly dogshit humans who’ve made some of our favorite art.
Two bright spots in the year, though, have arrived in the final weeks: Last month saw the release of the When a Man Loves an Omen EP, the first release from Chicago alt-folk trio Judson Claiborne in seven years, and this Friday will mark the release date for the final record from fellow Chicagoans Joan of Arc, Tim Melina Theo Bobby. With JoA’s Tim Kinsella safely back in the States after setting up camp in Italy prior to the pandemic with his Good Fuck partner Jenny Pulse, where he contracted the virus early on, Kinsella announced the Midwest emo institution would call it quits after one final LP back in September as Christopher Salveter was getting ready to roll out the next chapter in the JC story.
With plenty of catching up to do, the two Chicago songwriters sat down to discuss both of their new projects, as well as touching upon Salveter’s The Fruit Stare podcast, confronting the, uh, weird lyrics of their idols, and addressing The Two Big Things That Happened in 2020.
Christopher Salveter: Tim, I feel you’ve been a part of this COVID journey for me because I read your piece in Chicago Magazine about yours and Jenny’s harrowing Italy experience the day I was going to DJ an engagement party. I had the feeling you were sending out a signal that there wasn’t enough seriousness in the States about it.
Tim Kinsella: Yeah, it was a surreal last week before we got home because I was looking at Instagram and I had one friend who was doing this performance art thing that had twenty people crawling on top of each other, and then all these people are at The Makeup show at the [Empty] Bottle, just pressed against each other and sweating, but we’re locked in the house, you know. [Laughs] Both having been sick, we were both past the height of it, but it lingered forever. So yeah, it was pretty scary to look at pictures of home and realize how much people weren’t taking it seriously. Now it feels like a past life.
CS: That was in March, right? Yours and Jen’s band Good Fuck were doing a residency and a tour, and all kinds of stuff?
TK: Yeah, it was the first time since I was nineteen that I didn’t have a booking agent, label, or manager, so I was just kind of floundering, but we did have a booking agent in Italy. My cousin came to Chicago, so his house in Italy was empty. He was like, “You can just stay here.” We were working on various visa options, and were going to go to Croatia for a while when our visa ended, to draw it out. So we were thinking we were just staying indeterminately.
CS: And the plan was just to set up an Italian period of life for a while, where you just make work and tour?
TK: Yeah, because we had this free place to live. If we’d stayed home we would have needed to start hustling for bartending jobs or something, but if we went there we could just play music.
CS: At the beginning [of the pandemic] I thought about Soderbergh’s Contagion quite a bit, which details how this could potentially happen. Some person could get a thing and just get on a plane.
“I would be winded carrying a bag of groceries up a flight of stairs. And honestly, I feel like I probably aged ten years from it. My hair has thinned out, my metabolism’s changed, my energy is different, my stamina singing is really different, so it’s fucked up.” —Tim Kinsella
TK: My anxiety pretty much from the beginning was Trump’s handling of it. When we got home we had to go stay with my in-laws for a couple months while our subletters were still here so they could find somewhere to go, and my in-laws are Fox News watchers. We set up a studio in the basement, and we had a bedroom upstairs, but then the whole middle ground was Fox News, really loud. So we would have to pass through it. Every time they would talk to us about the pandemic, I would just be like, “You don’t understand, this is a political problem,” but they honestly can’t understand it.
CS: Were they at all worried about getting the virus from you two?
TK: No, when we got there we did an Airbnb for two weeks. There was, like, 72 hours where it was totally disorienting psychosis pain…and that happened to both of us. Me and Jen both had very similar experiences with it—72 hours where you’re in so much pain you feel like you’re going crazy, then there’s ten days of, like, this is the worst flu of my life, what the fuck? It lasted for three months after that. I would be winded carrying a bag of groceries up a flight of stairs. And honestly, I feel like I probably aged ten years from it. My hair has thinned out, my metabolism’s changed, my energy is different, my stamina singing is really different, so it’s fucked up.
CS: Oh man, I’m really sorry. How’s Jen recovering?
“We’d been saying we didn’t break up so much as we went out of business… It’s not like young people that are coming out to shows are discovering Joan of Arc. It’s not a bunch of eighteen year olds like, ‘Oh, who’s this hip band of people in their forties?’” —Tim Kinsella
TK: I think at this point we’re all in pretty similar situations whether you had it and recovered or not…it’s like, the inability to make any plans is so weird, but it’s also just realizing that everyone is in the same position everywhere in the world. It just collapses your mind, so it’s hard to say. She hasn’t had lingering physical things as bad as me, but there’s also the, “Well I don’t know what’s changed me, the fact that I can’t leave the apartment for seven months or the virus.”
CS: I was wondering if deciding that this was the final Joan of Arc record was borne out of this whole pandemic reset button, or if the decision was made long before?
TK: Oh, long before. We always worked by recording a lot in short periods, and it was never that we wrote songs and then were like, “OK, we have enough songs, it’s time to record,” it was always, “We’re always writing songs, they’re piling up, and then it’s time to record when we think of an interesting process.” And then we would record a lot in a short period, and do ten times more material than we’ll end up using. I mean, I guess in this case we probably had 23 songs and it ended up being ten. But yeah, those 23 songs we recorded, after we finished recording the last record but before it came out [in 2017], at that point we were like, “OK, this is the last one. And that’s going to guide every decision, and how we put it together.”
So there weren’t any grand motives of “We’re [making] this decision because it’s the last record,” but it was part of every choice. That was the guiding principle. We’d been saying we didn’t break up so much as we went out of business. We were just getting squeezed out of that nook that we were existing in. You know, people get older and get jobs that they need to be up early [for], and have kids, and it’s not like young people that are coming out to shows are discovering Joan of Arc. It’s not a bunch of eighteen year olds like, “Oh, who’s this hip band of people in their forties?”
TK: So Judson Claiborne recorded When a Man Loves an Omen pre-pandemic?
CS: Yeah, it was around December 1 of last year.
TK: It’s interesting to me, there’s some real sensibilities we have in common. You’re critiquing—especially that first song with Elvis and Johnny Cash…
CS: And Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.
TK: Yeah, and you’re critiquing them, but from inside the same tradition, you know? Which is like the Frankfurt school, which was like…I’m going to get this wrong and be embarrassed that it’s in public, but the basics of it as I remember are that there was a split in Marxism when some people started applying the ideas of Marxism to Marxism itself, so it’s like Adorno and Benjamin, these guys. It’s very powerful. Good move. [Laughs]
CS: Thanks, man. I’ve read three out of the four autobiographies and biographies of those dudes, so that song has been in the crockpot for a long time.
TK: I remember seeing Jello Biafra speak when I was thirteen or fourteen, and him making this one snide aside about heavy metal fans, like “No gym teacher in the world could get anyone to wear a uniform as successfully as heavy metal fans.” The tribalism of rock and roll has been just embedded in my brain ever since. You know, the signifiers. Is there anything more conservative than the Ramones? Or like, rockabilly?
“It’s all connected to the universal patriarchy, the underlying mistrust of women that goes back centuries. We hear these things, and if you’re a man, you’re like, ‘Well, yeah, I get it, he’s gonna shoot his girlfriend, she cheated on him, man.’” —Christopher Salveter
CS: The thing that started me writing “20 Dollar Quartet,” after years of thinking and wanting to write it, I was in the car, and I pulled up to a parking space and the Elvis song “Let’s Play House” was on the radio, and the line “I’d rather see you dead little girl than with another man” played as I was turning the car off, and I said, “What?” That fucking line—and it’s something that most of us listening, myself included, say whatever, he’s jealous because he really loves her. It’s all connected to the universal patriarchy, the underlying mistrust of women that goes back centuries. We hear these things, and if you’re a man, you’re like, “Well, yeah, I get it, he’s gonna shoot his girlfriend, she cheated on him, man.”
TK: We watched the Fela documentary yesterday, and it gets to the part about his 27 wives, and we’re like “Hmm, I’m not sure about this.” And we’re going into this like yeah, we love Fela, so inspiring, heroic, and then there’s this archival interview footage with him where he’s like, “It doesn’t matter if you’re the leader of a nation, if you’re a woman, you’re equal to a man in all kinds of ways. You can be the leader of a nation. When you get home your husband can kick your ass.” And it’s like woah! What? But there’s the historical cultural limitations to what we can all see, and thank god those have sort of blown open here, hopefully to a new degree.
CS: Music is a really powerful thing, and songs can be really powerful, but how a person acts in their day-to-day life is also really most important. And I think that’s what we were talking about over email. The question of “Can you separate the art from the artist?” has come up a lot. I think the bigger Michael Jackson bombshell stuff has spurred that conversation on in a bigger way.
TK: Yeah, it must have killed dance floors at weddings.
CS: Where I’m at these days is “OK, this conversation is fucking complicated, but not so complicated that it should be put in the dark.”
“The anti-racism workshops I’ve been in over the years have mostly been led by women of color. Each time they say it’s important that white people are engaging with this stuff and showing that, ‘Hey, here’s a white dude that wants to engage with this and recognize the fact that he is racist and wants to work on it.’” —Christopher Salveter
TK: I think the awkwardness of the conversation is because it’s so important. I was teaching at City Colleges when Trayvon Martin was killed, and I had a class of 25 Black kids, probably a couple years older than him, and when that happened we couldn’t actually talk about media studies that I was teaching. We just had to deal with this, and it was very awkward as the older white man in the room, but I think that’s when I really understood. Being immersed in riot grrl as a kid, that’s when I realized it’s the willingness of white people to have awkward conversations that changes anything. Not some white savior thing—you’re going to bump around and make mistakes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it.
CS: Yeah, the anti-racism workshops I’ve been in over the years have mostly been led by women of color. Each time [they say] it’s important that white people are engaging with this stuff and engaging their communities and showing that, “Hey, here’s a white dude that wants to engage with this and recognize the fact that he is racist and wants to work on it.”
TK: Right, and you said it too: wanna know who’s the most racist motherfucker I know? Me, because I know all my thoughts. I hate it and want to work every day to root it out. It’s like, you can’t live in this society as a white person and not have taken in the hidden Elvis line, you know? So many of those. Your podcast is very interesting in that way.
CS: Yeah, I guess that’s been my central question with making the Fruit Stare podcast: Can a group of white people who have an intention to make art that’s anti-racist truly make a work that’s anti-racist? We did a listening event at ESS [Experimental Sound Studio in Chicago]. We got a question that was like “Why are two white guys talking about race, you don’t need to talk about race.” But the project as a whole was just a way for me to wade into making art about race with other people even though it’s not a diverse cast.
TK: But I think the central question is not a thing you can answer, like, “Well, we’re done with that, we’ve figured it out.” The act of asking the questions is the important part.
CS: I was just thinking about Sasha Baron Cohen and how he has such a strong belief that the work that he does with Borat is anti-racist, and I imagine you have to have that much clarity around it if you’re taking the kind of risks that he’s taking as a performer. But for me, sure, I’m making work about race, but I’m so not sure that what I’m doing is anti-racist, that I’m contributing to society in a positive way.
TK: Race is a central theme, but there’s also other central themes—the fact that it’s so collaged adds these cracks in the narrative, and they leave a space for the listener to question it. It’s certainly not a manifesto. Not that Borat is a manifesto, but you know what I mean. Different kind of confidence. FL