Kirin J. Callinan on New Albums, His Upcoming Tour, Past Work, and More
Kirin J. Callinan's work caught our eyes and ears here at WMF some time ago. Bolstered by a string of remarkable collaborations with the likes of Connan Mockasin, Jorge Elbrecht, Weyes Blood, Neil Finn, and others, his stellar solo albums, and – of course – the "Big Enough" phenomenon (boasting 24,450,515 YouTube views as of this write-up), Kirin's track record is as formidable as it is fun and fascinating.
On the heels of a Kirin J. Callinan photo shoot with Miriam Marlene Waldner, we were thrilled to touch base with Kirin about his upcoming tour, new albums (yes - that's plural!), and more. Kirin had an unexpected house visit from a neighborhood dog just before our conversation, which slightly altered his schedule and another photo shoot, but he graciously engaged in a delightful and insightful one-on-one all the same.
Bobby Weirdo: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me before your photo shoot.
Kirin J. Callinan: No problem. But I canceled the shoot because of the dog. And it’s sort of convenient for me too. I can just sit here and learn some songs today – learn how to play guitar again.
BW: Are you learning parts for the Night Game tour?
KJC: No, I’m not doing that tour. This is my own tour, which hasn’t been announced yet.*
BW: OK, I won’t mention it in the write-up, then…
KJC: No, it’s fine – mention it.
BW: Is it going to be a U.S. tour?
KJC: It’s a U.S./Canada tour, supporting The Growlers. I don’t really know them or their music, but they had me play their festival [Beach Goth] and that was fun. My only knowledge of them was that years ago – 2009 or something – I was really into Tonetta. I love Tonetta – great stuff like 777. He’s a Toronto outsider guy who’s been recording at home since the 80s and he started uploading videos on YouTube in the 2000s.
In some of the Tonetta videos, he’d wear plain masks, and I think at one point The Growlers were playing Tonetta songs live all dressed as Tonetta. So that’s how I discovered them, and I’ll be touring with them come September.
BW: You’ve been wearing chainmail a lot lately…
KJC:I have been very dedicated to chainmail lately, wearing it every day. It’s making my skin go green. I was with Natalie Mering [Weyes Blood] when I bought it, and she bought one as well. She hasn’t been wearing hers so much, and I’m thinking that I might borrow hers, because mine is slowly making my face more and more green, and it didn’t used to do that.
BW: You mention Weyes Blood, and I wanted to ask you about the track you did with her, “Friend of Lindy Morrison”. Do Lindy Morrison or The Go-Betweens have a particular significance for you?
KJC: Absolutely. Lindy is a friend of mine; I love Lindy. That reference came about because it was my thirtieth birthday, and I spent it under the weather, coming down with something. I spent that afternoon with Lindy Morrison and Amanda Brown, who was also in The Go-Betweens, one of my all-time favorite bands. I had this very romantic idea when I was younger that I would put a Go-Betweens cover on every release I ever did. I did that on my first 7-inch with the cover of “Apology Accepted”, and then I’ve never covered another Go-Betweens song since.
But to spend my thirtieth birthday with two of my idols – and I was very much in love with these two women – felt to me like I’d made it. Even though it’s very obscure, and the band are no more than a cult success in Australia – let alone anywhere else – it’s one of my all-time favorite bands. They were fans of mine and we’d become friends, and that felt significant. So that’s how the song started. I also just love the name Lindy Morrison – it sounds very romantic and suburban, like someone you’d fall in love with in high school.
BW: Speaking of people you grew up listening to, you’ve collaborated and toured with Neil Finn from Crowded House and Split Enz. Was he also someone you grew up listening to?
KJC: Absolutely – that was big for me. I remember when Neil sent me the e-mail asking if I’d open two shows at Sydney Opera House for the twenty-year anniversary of Crowded House breaking up. I put on “Something So Strong” by Crowded House and just cried tears of joy. I love music, and those moments are not nothing.
The Go-Betweens were probably more significant for me forming my identity as an adult, but emotionally Crowded House is more something I grew up with as a kid and teenager. I was deeply into Crowded House around fifteen, sixteen. I think Crowded House formed not just me, but the whole nation. It’s not an overstatement to say that the music of Neil Finn has made Australia a more empathetic and open-hearted place.
BW: Wow! And do I have it wrong? I always thought he was from New Zealand…
KJC: He is, and the same could be said for New Zealand. However, Crowded House – in my mind at least – is an Australian band. Split Enz –the band he formed with his brother Tim – is a Kiwi band through and through. But Crowded House was based in Melbourne. The other two main members when Tim was involved –Nick Seymour and Paul Hester – are both Australian. And I think Crowded House is spiritually an Australian band.
BW: Crowded House is familiar to a lot of people outside of Australia, but I think Jimmy Barnes might be a name that is new to people outside the country. Like a lot of people, I’m fascinated by the idea of his scream on “Big Enough”. I know he sent you files of screams, and I’ve wondered if you re-tracked those screams, or if the screams heard on “Big Enough” are the original screams he sent you as sound files?
KJW: They’re the actual screams he sent, and those are the only screams we worked with –we didn’t re-track them.
BW: And you didn’t get any explanation – it was just files with no written message along with it, right?
KJW: Yeah, I’d e-mailed him saying I loved what he did…in particular his scream, which I think is the most iconic scream in rock and roll history – and that it would be my greatest honor to have him to scream on a track. [“Big Enough”] had been finished for ages. It came to me in a flash that [the screams] were what the track needed to be complete and to conceptually elevate it to another realm.
I e-mailed him that and never heard back. Six or nine months passed and it’s typical for me – like a lot of musicians – to sit on songs for a long time. I’ve been sitting on a bunch of new ones now that have been pretty much done since late last year, and it breaks my heart that they’re not out in the world. Bravado came out in 2017, but I made most of it in 2014 and 2015.
So anyway, it was months and months and months, and then Jimmy e-mailed -- no subject, no text, no anything except half a dozen or so attached screams. I don’t even know if he was screaming to the song, or if they were screams that he had on file, but either way I was in hysterics. I got to work that evening straight away in GarageBand, cutting them together and forming the melody, using the screams.
BW: That whole track and video is such a perfect maximalist storm with Molly Lewis’s whistling, Jimmy Barnes’s screaming, Alex Cameron, and obviously the video. Most memes start by someone pulling something out of one context and putting it in another with a new spin on it. And while “Big Enough” has led to a lot of memes, it seems like it was meme-ready, tailor-made for people to extract what they wanted out of it. Did you have that type of intent behind the track, or was it just a case of everything naturally coming together so perfectly?
KJC: There was definitely the intent with the video to get a million views. With the song, “maximalist” is the best word. We wanted an absurd, maximalist hit. We wanted it to be engaging from start to finish and ridiculous.
By the same token, it came together pretty organically. Alex e-mailed me the first verse, and I e-mailed him back the second. It flowed from there as a song, and when we met up in London, we had a vague idea that we should try to record that song. I went into an Off license and heard some lowbrow EDM track on the radio, and knew that’s what the song needed to sound like.
Aaron Cupples – who produced the record – worked it up. I had those very basic major chords that I was mucking around with on the piano. We put that down, and Aaron whipped up a track in a day. Alex had a show that night that I DJ’d, so I played the track and we sang it together.
It happened quickly, but that was 2014 or early 2015. We tweaked it slowly, adding production details. I wrote the outro with a great list of countries as an afterthought. And then it sat there like that for ages until we got Jimmy’s screams, which came together at the eleventh hour as I was mixing the rest of the album. That was maybe into November, the record was mixed in December, and then it came out in June [of 2017].
BW: Going back in the timeline to Am I a Woman, Yet?, what was the thought behind scrambling the track order from disc to disc on the CDs that you burned yourself?
KJC: Nothing more than that each one would be unique. I didn’t do it on every single one – just occasionals to create a bit of myth and argument so that when people were talking about it there would be disagreements or confusion on which song was which and what they were called. It was just sort of funny, I guess.
BW: I also wanted to ask about your use of and connection to Roland gear. That’s because of your dad’s connection to the company, right?
KJC: Yes and no. I use it because it’s the best, and I certainly don’t use it exclusively. But it’s true that I grew up messing around on BOSS pedals, and I used to work in the Roland warehouse when I was seventeen, eighteen, and then on and off for years if I needed a bit of work, building BOSS or Roland displays, or unloading pallets of gear.
My dad was a musician, but started out at Roland in the early 90s as a sales rep. He’s been with the company ever since. It’s funny, because when he was a shitkicker at Roland he could bring things home for me to mess round with, but as he got promoted and became the head of Roland Australia, it became harder and harder to bring things home. In fact, it’s not like I get free stuff from Roland now [because of him]. I get the standard artist price. As he got more responsibility and answered to big wigs in Japan, he got less leeway to take advantage of that. But yeah – I was messing with BOSS pedals long before I could even play guitar.
BW: There are two tracks I wanted to specifically talk about: “Telling Me This”, which is a collaboration with Jorge Elbrecht, and “The Teacher”, which you did with Connan Mockasin. You’ve mentioned before that you’ve written “pseudo spiritual ballads”, and I’m curious if those fall into that category. In either case, those two tracks in particular exude a real sense of emotion and sincerity both musically and lyrically.
KJC: They’re sincere in their subject matter, intent, and where the performance comes from – especially “The Teacher”. “The Teacher” was written about an ex-girlfriend of three years, and I also lost my virginity to her as a teenager. She is an exceptional human being, and I’ve been thinking about her a lot – maybe she’ll read this. She’s a completely singular, unique person. She taught me a lot, and specifically in a spiritual sense. Growing up in an otherwise atheist family in the suburbs of Sydney, she introduced me to a whole other world, spiritually. She was like a teacher to me.
When we broke up there was a lot of heartbreak and a lot of pain for both of us. The song in a little way is lashing out at that – me taking a stand for my independence. It was also written on an airplane, and that band !!! (Chk Chk Chk) were on the same flight. I was chatting with those guys, and I loved that first album when I was eighteen or nineteen. They were sitting behind me, and I sort of wrote [“The Teacher”] as a performance. I had the idea, and was writing, watching the singer watch me write this song. I could tell he was jealous of the pure inspiration that was flowing out of me. I was writing page after page, singing along and laughing to myself. Then when I was finished writing the song, I turned around to look at him, and he was passed out, completely asleep. The whole thing had been in my head; he wasn’t watching me at all.
But it was that feeling that he was watching me write this song that propelled it and made me do it. It probably [wouldn’t have happened] had he not been there.
“Telling Me This” was about someone else I was seeing that I really thought I was in love with. It was a long-distance relationship and when we finally got together, something was a bit off – I didn’t know what it was. She’s amazing as well.
I was very drunk when I was writing that as well. That time in New York with Jorge was also just playful – we were having a lot of fun.
“The Teacher” was meant to be on Bravado, and the reason it isn’t is because I loved the song so much that I just wanted it out. So I put it out, thinking the rest of the record would follow soon after, but it took another two years before the album proper came out, and that’s why I didn’t put it on there. Both of those songs were meant to be on the same record, and that whole period was when where I was rejecting the esoteric spirituality and mysticism that I’d been invested in for the years prior to that, 2010-2013. I put out Embracism, which I think is a more earnestly spiritual record, and I was now living a material life, traveling the world touring that record. Bravado is a less-centered, more obnoxious record in a way.
BW: Miriam Marlene Waldner took some great pictures of you with your car that are featured in this write-up. It’s a Cadillac that you got her in L.A., right?
KJC:Yes, it’s a 1994 Cadillac Eldorado that I got here.
BW: I saw some footage of you driving around in that car with Sebastian Tellier. Are you two working on something, or was that just a hangout?
KJC: He’s working on his record Mind Gamers with John Kirby and Daniel Stricker, and I’ve played some guitar on that record, but that was just a hangout. Daniel’s son is my godson, so I went down to Disneyland with my godson, his mother, their daughter, Sebastian and his wife, and their son. We had a family outing at Disneyland, and then we went back to their place in Laguna for the next couple nights, just hanging out there while they were making the record. I’ve already played some guitar on the record, and was up for playing some more. They’re still working on it – hopefully they got everything they needed that night. I’ve listened to a bit o it and it sounds good.
BW: So you’re touring your own material this fall – do you have an album coming out soon?
KJC: I’m trying to make two – or even three – albums this year. Hopefully one of them will come out before the year is done, and then the others will come out over the course of the next year. I’ve always been a bit slow and distracted because I collaborate mostl on a shoestring budget, so I’m always at the mercy of other people’s availability, as well as my own. Making good work consistently can be a bit of a challenge, but I’m trying to be a bit more prolific over the next eighteen months or so.
So I’d love to have three albums out over the next eighteen months, and they’re all fully formed conceptually. I’m actually going to set up my gear right now and start working.
*Since this conversation, Kirin has announced the following tour dates:
9/1 The Y Los Angeles CA*
9/5 Community Center Arcata CA
9/6 Roseland Theatre Portland OR
9/7 Neptune Theatre Seattle WA
9/8 Neptune Theatre Seattle WA
9/9 Commodore Ballroom Vancouver BC
10/4 Riviera Theatre Chicago IL
10/5 Majestic Theatre Detroit MI
10/6 First Avenue Minneapolis MN
10/10 Mystic Theatre Petaluma CA+
10/11 Fremont Theatre San Luis Obispo CA+
10/12 The Catalyst Santa Cruz CA+
10/13 The Catalyst Santa Cruz CA+
Supported by *Din & CMON
all other shows with The Growlers and/or Enjoy