Feasting on change: Chicago’s Joan of Arc continues to surprise

By Mark Guarino

Alienating your fanbase is not uncommon — alienating your label is. When Chicago’s Joan of Arc turned in their album “The Gap,” to Jade Tree, the Delaware label that came to signify emo with bands like the Promise Ring and Pedro the Lion, the label was “certainly not psyched about it,” remembers Tim Kinsella.
Up to that point, in 2000, Joan of Arc was more naturally connected to its emo roots. Kinsella, with his younger brother Mike, had emigrated from Cap’n Jazz, a punk band they formed in high school that included Davey von Bohlen, who later formed the Promise Ring. Joan of Arc was not as accessible, and broke down song structures using loops and electronic effects. “The Gap” went the furthest in that direction, destroying all pre-conceived aesthetics to create an album fully integrating the studio. Fans and critics split divisively on whether to love or hate it.
Kinsella said he “was pretty pleased with the reaction.” “I knew what I had to do. It still is the record that every day someone will walk up to me and say ‘what the (expletive) — that was the greatest album or the worst’.”
Afterwards, Kinsella delivered one more album to Jade Tree (the more accessible “So Much Staying Alive and Lovelessness”) and considered Joan of Arc finished. His time was spent on his side projects Owls and Make Believe. When he felt it was time to record a new Joan of Arc album, he left his eight-year tenure with Jade Tree behind and moved to Polyvinyl, in Champaign.
“I think with Jade Tree, we were working with them for such a long time, they started to know what to expect. It got to the point with the last record that they wanted to hear demos before that record was ready to be recorded,” Kinsella said. “Neither of us were super enthusiastic anymore. Polyvinyl were into doing it.”
Kinsella, 29, is blessed and cursed with a restless motivation for change, making whatever project he works not a necessarily crowd pleaser, but some of the most unpredictable and engaging music to come out of Chicago in years. His productivity — seven Joan of Arc albums, one Cap’n Jazz album, with numerous singles, EPs, compilations and side projects — is not an easy lineage to connect the dots to. Kinsella said he considers that a compliment because, since day one, the “priority is to keep interested.”
“We were very conscious we could fall into routines or habits. Whereas Cap’n Jazz did sound very new and fresh to us when it was happening, we decided to push that aspect of it to make it more new,” he said. “It’s easier to do now because we’re older and have more experience.”
The Kinsella brothers grew up in Wheeling and formed Cap’n Jazz while at Wheeling High School, a time they were immersed in underground punk culture nurtured by hanging out at Hip Cat, an indie record store in town, and by going to all ages shows in the city and at McGregor’s in Villa Park. Forming their own band was a natural next step although they made a distinction most bands their age don’t. “In our minds, we weren’t a high school band. We were a band,” he said. Cap’n Jazz developed a following that inevitably grew in their wake once Jade Tree released a two-disc retrospective in 1998.
Once those days were over, the brothers turned to the post rock and free jazz scene that was beginning to bubble in Chicago with bands like Labradford and Gastr del Sol. “In my mind, I never made a distinction between the free jazz shows or noise shows or the rock bands,” he said. It was all one thing in my mind.” Even though they found a home on a label that was ground zero for the emo uprising, they consciously didn’t feel comfortable following in its path.
“It always seemed like cheating to me to be a genre band,” Kinsella said.
Joan of Arc’s new album, “Joan of Arc, Dick Cheney, Mark Twain…” (Polyvinyl), is an absorbing listen from start to finish. Minimal guitar and piano songs move alongside spoken word collages, accessible guitar and electro pop that recalls mid-career Talking Heads where African rhythms were first married to electronic noise. Kinsella’s clever wordplay is abundant throughout. “80’s dance Parties Most of All” could be their version of the Heads’ “I Zimbra,” with a list of phrases (“alternative,” “global warming”) receiving the charge of “conspiracy” in return. All while squiggly computer noise lights up an infectious dance groove.
Kinsella said the album was created, like most of what he does, by the process itself. The large cast of collaborators was not difficult to put together. Recorded at a loft space he shared with seven other artists and musicians, the album emerged by “sitting around the house recording, piling (layers) on without playing it live.” “There was always a house full of people living there, so it was very natural.”
Everyone who played on the album will be on hand during the band’s three-day CD release party next week. “We’ll be playing covers of our own songs and using them as a starting point,” Kinsella said.
The album’s political edge is there, but Kinsella makes the album a two-sided conversation with the listener by avoiding extreme clarity. The album works as a kind of collage of the past year, with references to the past year’s headlines plus a disjointed jumble of slogans and emotional tension.
“This is the world we exist in. It would take a conscious effort to keep all that out,” Kinsella said. “I certainly feel a little alienated by the dominant culture, but having said that, I feel very blessed and very happy. It’s just that sometimes walking around, I feel like the only living person in a zombie world. Sometimes you have to acknowledge the zombies a bit.”

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