I would imagine/hope that pretty soon Kirin J Callinan won’t need much in the way of formal introduction. He has already been the subject at the centre of long form think-pieces, botched festival appearance fallouts and intellectual property disputes. Fortunately, the release of his debut album Embracism, out now via Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear’s Terrible Records, should help to shift discussion from his reputation to his music. The album is a beguiling collection of songs that veer from abrasive, jerky industrialism and new wave to pensive, almost “pub rock”-y ballads, tied together by a Scott Walker-esque baritone and an uncompromising sense of experimentalism.
Callinan’s tendency to polarise audiences have lead to labels like “confrontational” and “controversial” dogging both him and his music. But, as you’ll read, Callinan himself is uncomfortable, even bemused at those associations. Maybe during “the most musically conservative time since the mid-80’s”, audiences and press alike are simply susceptible to being “confronted” by anyone who is even vaguely idiosyncratic. Kirin J Callinan is definitely idiosyncratic….
So you’re on tour of the US with Ariel Pink at the moment, how have his audiences been reacting to you?
It’s been great. I have the element of surprise on my side, so I can really give them a fright. I can really take advantage of that and, you know, scare the shit out of people. The audiences in most cases have no idea who I am or what I’m about to do.
Do you enjoy playing in America very much? I only ask because the song ‘Come On USA’ on your album could be construed as taking quite a dim view of American culture.
It could be construed like that, but that’s not the case. I love the States. It’s written from a place of being let down. I had such a romantic idea of America and still do. The reality not being exactly that, it’s still an exotic place to me. It’s exotic and yet I feel so at home as well. I really like it here and I like playing here.
I’ve read about some of your shows in Australia, and it sounds like they can take quite a hostile turn at times, but last time you were here in New Zealand a year or so ago I went to a few of your shows and didn’t notice much antipathy at all. Was it just the case that New Zealanders seemed to understand your “act”, or…?
I guessing you’re referring specifically to the Sugar Mountain show in Melbourne…
Is that the case?
Yeah, I also read a few comments on websites about other shows but Sugar Mountain was the main one. Was that not really representative of your shows at all?
I mean, it was. It was representative of those shows. But people’s comments are representative of themselves. The show does seem to polarise people and that’s a good thing, I guess. I’m not really interested in an attempt to play to some middle ground crowd. That would get very boring, very quickly. People hate my shows sometimes. People are going to hate it and that’s fine, but if you’re referring specifically to this one show, that was a different thing altogether.
Well, wasn’t there also a live album you tried to record that I read got canned because people were saying negative things all over the recording?
No, nothing like that at all! The reason I canned that recording is because it was too personal. It was incredibly raw and didn’t represent the songs. It’s a document of the moment, rather than of the songs at their best. It will come out. It was good, I liked it! But it just wasn’t the right thing to put out first. What happened was I had microphones on tables and out the front on the street and in the bathrooms and behind the bar, all throughout the venue and I got a lot of… conversations. And that was fascinating, that was fun. People were discussing the show and other things entirely. That was very funny and interesting and I want to include all that stuff in the document. But no, certainly no issues like that. I don’t mind if people don’t like the show!
So you aren’t intentionally trying to provoke people?
I’m intentionally trying to be provocative, but that’s a different thing to intentionally trying to be “confrontational” or “controversial”. I’m not trying to upset anybody.
So you’re just trying to get a reaction as opposed to intentionally offending someone?
I just want them to feel something, and to think! The only thing I’m trying to “provoke” is thought and reflection. Not that I want them to think what I’m thinking about. I love it most when people take something from my music that was totally unintended. So in that sense, I suppose I’m trying to be provocative. What I’m trying to provoke, l’m not sure. Like I said, I prefer it if people come up with their own way to react. But not in any sort of negative sense. I would hope that part of that reaction is enjoyment and fun. I hope people enjoy the shows and find them fun, as I certainly find them fun.
The title track of Embracism seems to sort of break down and examine the different ways we use our bodies to express ourselves….
That’s part of it. It’s kind of just a love song as well and also like, a break up song. I was trying to work out what exactly I believed, what my spiritual beliefs are, what my moral and ethical belief system was and I thought a good place to start was with what was right here in front of me, what I could see and feel hear and touch – my own body rather than any esoteric ideas of spirituality or love. Which I kind of associated as a kind of feminine thing, at least at the time.
Ideas of spirituality and love as a feminine thing?
Yeah. Not that they are necessarily, but for me they were at the time because of the relationship I had just come out of. It was a reclaiming of my physical self and my belief system. And then of course, there’s themes of masculinity as well.
Right, because it definitely sounds like you’re giving a take on masculinity. But you’re talking about both masculinity and femininity in that song?
Yeah, definitely. But I’m coming from my own perspective as a male. It was also inspired by this homo-erotic photography I was looking at at the time. I was actually on a flight from New York to L.A. when I wrote that. I had this book that was in front of me that was all this homo-erotic photography from Switzerland in the 60s by a photographer called Karlheinz Weinberger. That kind of started it off. And it was a reflection on my own childhood as well, it was a number of memories that had come flooding back and a number of feelings kind of all thrown into this blender. Like I said, I had just come out of this intense relationship and it was a kind of existential breakdown. It was very real memories of my childhood projected… ideas kind of inspired by this very erotic, male, masculine thing… yeah, there was a whole heap of things that went into it and I didn’t even really understand it at the time. You know, you just sit there and you write the thing and then you go into the studio and perform it and it kind of builds itself over time.
With those issues of gender, is there a connection there to how you sometimes perform in drag or with your shirt off, or is that a bit tenuous?
Definitely! I guess that’s a physical extension of these same ideas. I’m glad someone noticed, actually, because people like to have a bit of a go at it sometimes.
Kirin J Callinan plays four NZ shows this week – here’s the dates:
Wednesday July 10 – Darkroom, Christchurch
Thursday July 11 – Queens, Dunedin
Friday July 12 – Whammy Bar, Auckland
Saturday July 13 – Puppies, Wellington