Kirin J. Callinan: "It would be heaps cooler...just to break his legs."Kirin J. Callinan is underrated. He’s easily one of the two or three most distinctive guitarists in Australian contemporary music, and he’s spent much of the past few years lending his incandescent playing to other bands – most notably Jack Ladder, and more recently Lost Animal.
While many have heard records by those bands and seen them play live, comparatively few share the privilege of having born witness to the bristling, fragile chaos of a Callinan solo set.
This is all about to change, for a few reasons. The first is probably his recent signing with Terrible Records, a small American indie label run by one of the members of Grizzly Bear. Another is the consummately unsettling clip for single ‘Way To War’, which was released a few weeks back to considerable acclaim (watch below). Now, he’s about to set out on a host tour dates in support of the single, which will be the first shows to see him haul the chaotic glory of his solo set into the context of a band.
When I finally meet Callinan (after two days of the singer not showing up to our allotted park meeting to conduct the interview, I arrange for him to come to my house) he sits on a deep blue lounge chair that used to belong in a psychiatrist’s office, a ukelele perched precariouslybehind his head. He’s wearing bike gloves to keep Sydney’s winter chill from his fingers, and a sports jacket emblazoned with the logo of Roland Corp, the Japanese instrument manufacturer. This feels like a wry joke – besides his guitar, everything Callinan plays happens to be made by that company – and when I mention it, he smiles.
Oh, yeah. I work for Roland. I've got another one in the car that I've been wearing the last few days. I just put this one on now. The other one's this black one with a big Roland 'R' here.
I understand you’re recording a new album – how’s it going?
I've pretty much finished recording the album. I'm going to go and do some more vocals [after this].
The track ‘Way To War’ was released on Siberia Records some time ago – why did you seize on that one as the first single?
I put it out ages ago, the demo of it, which is what the clip is, as well. I went back to it, and went 'actually, this is kind of good, I might work with this,' so I finished the song using the demo.
I did that at my house, and then managed to convince [general manager, Mark] Gerber to give me [Sydney venue, Oxford] Art Factory during the day. So I was recording it there using their big desk and sound system and selection of mics. Then, a friend of mine, Chris Ross [ex-Wolfmother], has a great studio in Marrickville. It was available, so I've been there living at his house. I'm in the spare bedroom, and he's got three young boys, so I've become the weird uncle out the back working every day.
Much of your live repertoire is instrumental – shoe-gazey guitar, lo-fi pedal techno, and the like. Is this album heavily song-focused?
Yeah. I recorded 13 songs. Maybe eight will make the record. There were a lot of instrumental pieces, which are absolutely beautiful and mammoth pieces, but I think they have even more potential. They're largely improvised things, ideas that I perform live, kind of guitar feedback stuff, that, going into the studio, I've had to try to develop and capture. They've come a long way, but I think they'll come further playing live with a band. So I might hold out on those, and just make the record about the songs.
You’ve come to be known as something of a gun for hire because of your guitar work with Jack Ladder and Lost Animal. Is it good to see the ball finally rolling for your own work?
For a long time, my main priority has been other peoples' music. Lost Animal is only fairly recently, and I've just done it on and off. Jarrod and Shags are just friends, so I was happy to play with them. But I was very heavily invested with Jack Ladder. And I love being a guitarist in a band. It's a lot less pressure than trying to make your own music.
I'm so picky. I've made a number of albums worth [of material] that I've just totally shelved, because I don't want to just push shit into the world for the sake of it. If I'm not happy with it, especially when it's under my own name, I don't need to put that out, so it's kind of been terrifying approaching this now. But it sounds great. It sounds weird! My expectations for it – I don't really have any. It will be good to get it off my chest, and if it's going to go to America and people get it, fantastic. If they don't…like I said, it's pretty fucking weird. I'm certainly not pulling punches or anything.
I assumed this record would be the one you planned to make out of the recordings of your 2009 residency at The Russian Coachman in Surry Hills [Callinan played a three-night residency for the purpose of creating a live album.] What happened to those?
That's just too traumatic for me to listen to. We filled the venue with microphones. We had microphones under people's tables, mics behind the bar, mics in the bathroom. Mics out on the street, capturing the conversations people were having out the front, and cars going past and everything. It was a huge job to mix, but I pulled up to mix it, and it was just so… because it's so well captured, there's nothing to hide behind. It's so raw, and it's a live performance. I couldn't listen to it after very long. I just found it too traumatic and confronting.
Was it your performance that you found confronting to listen to, or was it what the crowd were saying about it? [At the show that I saw, people were clearly aware of the microphones and a few heckled Callinan pretty harshly. He was wearing a lace nightie and little else].
It was pretty heart-on-your-sleeve kind of stuff – belting things out that I wouldn't say to someone, in front of my friends and peers. Just listening back was awful. I really couldn't handle it. I had to put it to bed. So it's gone to bed for a while. Under the bed. Shoved deep under the bed.
Your solo shows have always felt kind of unhinged – they snap between moods and genres seemingly at a whim, often quite violently. Have you tried to maintain that spontaneity with the band for this tour?
They're another colour, you know? It's very free, still. They're just another layer, and I'll still be the bandleader. I can turn things on and off, start/stop… They're an accompaniment to the show. The show remains the same, and there's just this width, now, to the sound. Plus I was just getting fucking lonely, going through the motions every time by myself. Again, that's really traumatic sometimes.
You’re no stranger to the vicissitudes of being associated with major labels, given your experiences with Mercy Arms. Are you more comfortable about the relationships with labels you have at the moment – with Siberia and Terrible?
Siberia is something I've been involved with – I was the first signing after [Midnight] Juggernauts. It's their label. I've known those guys for ages. I used to play in bands with [Daniel] Stricker. We're building something here ourselves, and I get a big say in the label, which is great. Rather than buying into something, signing into some pre-existing family, we're building something with its own unique identity, from the ground up.
How did your signing to Terrible Records come about?
Chris [Taylor of Grizzly Bear and CANT], who co-runs the label, was in town for the Sydney Festival. We'd already met – when he came out, one of the guys in his band [John Kirby] plays in [French producer} Sebastien Tellier's band. Stricker from Midnight Juggernauts, who I had a place up in Katoomba with, played in Sebastien Tellier's band as well. So I met Kirby through him.
When [CANT] came out, they wanted a place that they could live and make music when they were in Australia for a week, rather than staying in a hotel. So we gave them our place up in Katoomba, because we have a music studio up there – that’s where I recorded ‘Way To War', funnily enough. I met them, gave them the key, showed them around, left them for the week. Then, by chance, he heard my music on repeat, because he was seeing this girl who was working on a short film, and using my music in it. He was with her, and asked “Who is this?”
He came into the studio for a bit at Oxford Art Factory, during the day, and just lay out on the couch for about three hours – didn't say a word – while we were tracking. Then he wanted to go out for a drink. Met up with him. He was really into it. Kept in touch.
That's kind of how it works, I think, these days, with small labels – you meet someone, and they're really into it, and they want to put it out.
I was surprised to hear you declaim your professional involvement with Sparkadia’s Alexander Burnett on stage recently. What’s the story with that?
Him and I did some writing together. Basically, I had this idea, long before I'd known Alex, for a band called China. I wanted to bring someone in that was a songsmith, and could craft a good song. I invited him to be part of China, and we worked on a bunch of songs.
Anyway, he went overseas then to do the Sparkadia stuff. He sends me this email saying 'Aw man, I'm really sorry. I just threw a bunch of our recordings into the demos that I played the label, and they were the ones they responded to, you know. I know you won't mind.' I wrote back saying 'Whatever, it's fine.'
Then, some time later, I hear this single on the radio – it's fucking [Sparkadia's single] 'China', using a chord progression that I wrote independent from him. That was one thing. And then Laurence Pike [drummer with PVT and Jack Ladder’s band] brought it to my attention again, with [Sparkadia's] 'Mary'. I hadn't heard it. I have a song that goes [sings] 'Maaary…' and he has a song that goes [higher] 'Maaary' and it just blew me away, because I brought these ideas to the table. And [I'd] decided, in the end, that I liked the ideas just as simple, pure ideas, not being exploited or given some big pop hook payoff, because I'm just not into that.
Anyway, I felt compromised. Then, when I heard the songs, I was very close to putting a freeze on his APRA payments. It was literally the 11th hour, and I was speaking to someone at APRA, and at the end I decided I didn’t want to go on with this, get involved in legal stuff. I don't really give a fuck. It would be heaps cooler, anyway, just to break his legs.
You toured Japan last year. How did Japanese audiences respond to your show?
It blew me away. There's this record store in Tokyo in Harajuku called Big Love. It used to be Escalator Records. I had never been there before. Never spent any time in Japan before. But they had bought the 20 last of my She 7”. So then it was sold out. I looked them up online, eventually, before I went, to see if they had them up on their website. They have their whole catalogue on their website, but I couldn't find my 7" anywhere. I found other stuff on Siberia they were selling. So I was a bit disappointed about this. They'd bought my last 20.
So when I was there, I went in, I was looking through C, I was looking through K. I can't see them anywhere. I turn around and the girl behind the counter sees me, and she recognises, grabs this pen, runs over to the far wall. [She] pulls the record down from the wall, which is the 7", and wants me to sign it. I asked her “Do you have the others, are they out the back?" and she says, "Oh no, sold out!"
Which blew me away – I don't think I've sold that many records here. So I organised to do an instore a week later. I turned up and the place is packed with kids with my record wanting me to sign it, with printed out pictures of myself that they wanted me to sign. They knew all the words. It was unbelievable. I played another show later that night, as well, at this bar down the road that had this Star Wars cantina vibe about it, and there was this old guy, 60 years old, right down the front. He was a film composer, and he said he just found my music online. Again, he knew all the words to everything that was online. It was unbelievable. They were all really into it. That's a cliché that everyone says, but you don't really understand it until you experience it.
KIRIN J. CALLINAN - 'W II W' ('Way To War') TOUR 2012
Friday 22 June - Goodgod Small Club, Sydney
Supported by DCM + Forces + Kangaroo Skull (late night techno set) + HTRK DJs + Forces DJs + Juggernaut DJs + more
Thursday 28 June - The Tote, Melbourne
Supported by DCM + Machine + Kangaroo Skull (late night techno set) + Forces DJs + Juggernauts DJs + more
Friday 29 June - The Exeter Beer Garden, Adelaide (solo show)
Supported by Lochie Wilson (Steering By Stars)
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