Rank Your Records: Mike Kinsella Rates His Owen Albums
The accidental indie pioneer reflects on his post-American Football catalog.
Photo: Shervin Lainez
In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Mike Kinsella’s life is virtually unrecognizable from the one he led 15 years ago when he started his solo project Owen. Upon the release of Owen’s first album in 2001, he was a fresh out-of-college introvert whose work only a select few people might, maybe, possibly be familiar with, only if they followed underground indie rock closely enough to remember his past work in American Football and Cap’n Jazz. Nine albums and 15 years later, Kinsella is married, has two kids, and somewhere along the way, came to be hailed as an unlikely emo pioneer.
While Owen’s earlier work saw Kinsella selfishly reflecting on the trials and tribulations of being a single guy, he has matured over the years as he’s gotten married and become a father twice over, and has begun writing more deeply about life.
“The old stuff, it seems like somebody else wrote it,” Kinsella says about his early material. He recognizes himself a lot more in his new album, The King of Whys, in which his worldview continues to deepen and evolve. Following the album's release this month on Polyvinyl Records, and American Football's announcment that they are soon to release their first album in nearly two decades, we asked him to reflect on his Owen catalog and put his releases in order. While this is the preferred order he settled on, he said that he tried ranking the albums three different times, rendering three different results.
8. S/T (2001)
Noisey: Who were you when you were making this record?
Mike Kinsella: I was a totally, completely different kind of person. I can’t relate to it anymore. That album was written basically while I was trying to learn Pro Tools. The songs weren’t even written as songs, it was just layers of stuff to see how to put them on top of each other. It was never supposed to be an album. It just turned out that way. Sonically, it was the least advanced… or it sounds the worst, is another way to say it. [Laughs]
What was your life like at that time?
I’d just finished college and I didn’t really plan on being a singer in a band. I sang on the American Football stuff but we broke up and I didn’t sing often or well. And I was dating a girl for a few years already, through college and then out of college. I was sober. I never drank. I didn’t start drinking until after that album. So, in a relationship, sober, shy, and I think musically, it sounds pretty shy.
You’ve made a name for yourself over the last 15 years, but at the time, you were largely known as the American Football guy. Was that a hard shift to go solo?
At that moment, though, I was the American Football guy who was only known as the guy from Cap’n Jazz, and it was only known in that scene. Perspective-wise, there wasn’t the audience there is today for this kind of music. You sought out these bands if you went to basement shows in your town, then you might know who Cap’n Jazz was and then you might know that the drummer is now in a band that sounds way weaker and different called American Football, and now, if you follow that, you might know that that guy has a solo record.
7. Other People's Songs (2014)
Why a cover album?
Because American Football had just picked up some momentum and started playing shows again. I was busy that year. American Football is weird in that we’ll get together and play these weekends of shows and then not play together for a couple of months, but then we’ll have to get together and practice again. Whatever the opposite of a well oiled machine is, that was us for a while. I was just kind of busy doing that, so I think Polyvinyl had the idea--that even if it’s a cover album, do something to keep some sort of momentum. Live, I used to play a bunch of covers. I do less and less now that I have more of a catalog.
Was it an external pressure then?
Oh no, [Polyvinyl] learned a long time ago not to bother pressuring me. [Laughs] It was more of a recommendation: “Hey, would you want to do this? We’ll put it out and give you a budget.” That’s cool. I enjoy going to the studio so much that if someone’s paying for me to be there, I’ll usually accept, and they had no criteria. “Whatever songs you want.”
So how’d you choose those songs?
I tried to pick influential bands. There was a Lungfish song, which was a huge influence on me. And just picking bands that people who like music maybe wouldn’t have heard of or know. And then a current poppier hits, reimagined, as you’d say.
6. Ghost Town (2011)
So this was the first material you released after becoming a father, yeah?
Yeah, that sounds about right. 2011? My daughter was born in 2009. So yeah, that would be the first full-on tired dad mode album. I kind of could have put that one toward being one of my favorite albums. I think the songs are strong. I think one of the criteria I judge on is the songs’ potential--how I thought they were gonna be, and then how they came out. I think there are a couple misses on this one, where I say, “Ah, I still like that song. I wish I had another chance to do it.”
What was the vision you had on this that you were trying for?
I don’t know, maybe just the parts that were supposed to get bigger didn’t get bigger, and the parts that were supposed to get smaller didn’t get small enough. I was also sort of writing about relationships for a few albums in a row. And then the kid thing was a whole new thing where I’m writing about these frustrations of being a parent, and maybe I didn’t go through a growth yet, maybe they were not quite as confident because it was a new thing for me.
Is it weird to think about Owen’s catalog in the context of your personal life? In that, you started singing shy songs and a decade later you’re writing about having kids?
Yeah, I don’t play a ton of shows, but sometimes I have to try to revisit old songs, and maybe it’s 12 years old or something, and there are some lines I cringe at, there are some lines where I’m like, “Oh that’s a good line!” It’s almost like they’re cover songs if you go back that far. And you know, my wife has never liked my band because she started dating me and ended up in songs and there was a crossover time when I had lines hanging over from other relationships still.
For someone like you who writes so personally about people in your life and relationships, does that ever come back to bite you?
Yeah. [Laughs] Now that I’ve pared down most of my relationships to being with one woman, she doesn’t look forward to, or really listen to, Owen albums anymore. Ghost Town and New Leaves were maybe sort of like “husband albums” more than “father albums” so learning how to be a husband, the frustrations of being in a lifelong commitment. It’s a lot to take in and think about, so I think it’s a worthwhile topic, but it’s not something my wife would want to hear.
5. No Good for No One Now (2002)
So, you like your second album considerably better than your first. What changed?
Like I said, that first album, there were no plans. So I released that first album, and was like, cool, I’ll go play these songs live, mostly as an excuse to go see friends in other cities. And then I realized at those shows that the songs didn’t translate live. They were like, six minutes long and had like, seven guitar parts on them that faded in and out. So I was like, “Well, what am I gonna do with just one guitar and a voice?” So those shows were pretty awkward to say the least. I was playing cool shows with bands I liked, and was just sort of embarrassed. So I was like, man, I need to just write some songs I can play live--maybe some acoustic guitar, folkier, strummier. So instead of meandering clever arrangements, I made regular songs--verse, chorus, verse, chorus.
So you were writing with the tools you had at your disposal?
Yeah, I figured out songs I could get on stage and play, and they begin and they end. [Laughs] I was trying to play them live and represent the song while doing it.
And you recorded this in your bedroom at mom’s house?
Yeah, I had a couple bedrooms there and one that just had instruments, I had a live room, and an editing room. I still didn’t really know how to use plugins. So I didn’t know how to do reverb, I didn’t know how to do a grid. So I’d copy and paste a bunch of tracks and realize they were getting out of loop with each other.
It had that one song, “I’m Not Going Anywhere Tonight,” which was the misanthrope’s anthem. What do you think of that one in retrospect? Especially that line: “It’s my right to be a fucking baby sometimes.”
Yeah, it’s a good line! [Laughs] See, that song in particular is really straightforward, relative to the first album. But I like that line, it’s a good line. I think I’ve always strived to say things pretty straightforward and plain and I think that line works.
4. I Do Perceive (2004)
Where were you at in life on this one?
I think these were just some leftovers of being a single dude, travelling around, being in my 20s. If the second album was a reaction to the first, then this would be a reaction to the second one. I was kind of like, man, I miss doing the layers. That’s the fun part of recording. This was the first one I had my cousin Nate come in and help me, because he went to school for engineering. So I think Nate mixed this album, and I gave him a bunch of garbage files and he made it sound better than it would have. And then that was the first time I realized, oh man, I don’t really need to do this all myself.
3. New Leaves (2009)
“Curtain Call” was a song about not enjoying playing shows. Was that a time when you turned on the live experience?
Yeah, I think that album was when I was just getting married. I was playing less and less. And that song specifically was like, I don’t really need this. I never thought I would have gotten famous, you know? So it was like, I’m not enjoying this, why am I doing it at this point? I used to be single and had nothing to be home for. I could get all the free beer I wanted and stuff. But then it was more like, oh I have somebody at home I’d rather hang out with.
And sometimes when you have something at home, it makes you realize how annoying things are on the road. Like, you get a flat tire which would normally be a small problem, but when you’d rather be at home, you think, well fuck this!
Totally, or even if everything goes as planned and you’re playing to 40 people in a shitty town. You’re like, I don’t need this. I’m becoming a grown man. Again, I’m not trying to become famous, so it’s not like this is a stepping stone. It’s not like I have to pay my dues and then it’ll pay off. It was like, nah, I’m cool, my wife teaches. She makes the money. I don’t know what I’m doing.
Well, now you have two kids. Does it ever swing the other way, when you think it’d be nice to get out of the house for a week?
Exactly, completely. So that was a couple albums, but now I totally appreciate it. I used to play 120 shows. Now, I don’t want to play more than 30 shows a year, but it’s totally fun. Once a month, I get to head out for a weekend. I look forward to it all month, and then I go do it, and I get a ton of free beer and see friends I don’t see often, and then I’m happy to come home. I really like where it’s at now.
Have you ever taken your kids to your shows?
They’ve seen some festivals. Or we’ve done some road trips/tours, where we’ll eat together and then they’ll go back to the hotel. They sort of know what I do but they don’t stay for the whole thing and watch.
What do they make of it?
I don’t know, I think they just think it’s normal. It’s a weird thing to think about--that I get in front of people and play these very personal songs. I was listening to a test pressing of an album the other night and they were just sitting on my lap listening. And they know it’s my music, but they don’t, like... process it. I don’t know.
2. L'Ami du Peuple (2013)
This was the record that I think sees you growing up the most from the guy who just wanted to be a fucking baby.
Yeah, I still really like this album. Again, there are a couple songs that I don’t think realized their potential, but the song I definitely still relate to.
1. At Home With Owen (2006)
Why’s this one get top billing?
I think people like that one. I remember writing those songs, and it was after I met the woman who is my current wife. So I was still a meandering guy but I met someone I really liked and was inspired. There was a crossover of both worlds, before I got too crabby. A little romantic, a little crabby. I still like the tone of that one.
You were about to turn 30, also. Did you get hit hard by the Phase Three crossover?
I don’t remember 30 being bad. I remember 28 and 29 feeling worse than 30. And I remember 37 feeling worse than 35.
So it’s all downhill from here?
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s all been sucking for ten years. No, it feels okay getting old until I realize my hair’s falling out. Then I’m like, this sucks.
Dan Ozzi has been told he vaguely resembles a less attractive, less successful version of Mike Kinsella. Follow him on Twitter - @danozzi