During two nine-day trips to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Chicago singer-songwriter Mike Kinsella left behind his hometown recording days and mostly-solo writing practices to track Owen’s eighth full-length record, The King of Whys. The 39-year-old Kinsella is best known for his collaborative efforts: legendary accidental vanguard of emo and math rock American Football, as well as Cap’n Jazz, Owls, and Their / They’re / There. But since American Football’s 2000 disintegration, Kinsella’s primary focus has been his solo project, Owen, whose last two albums, 2011’s Ghost Town and 2013’s L’Ami due Peuple , were polished with the help of friend and producer Neil Strauch. Since then, Owen has released a cover album, Other People’s Songs, and appeared on an EP with T/T/T bandmate Evan Weiss’ Into It. Over It., as well as on the fifth split of Kevin Devine’s Devinyl Splits series.
For The King of Whys, Kinsella hooked up with producer (and Bon Iver drummer) S. Carey — who opened for the first sold-out American Football reunion show in 2014 — along with a fresh-faced ensemble at Justin Vernon‘s April Base Studios. Carey and engineer Zach Hanson brought on Michael Noyce (viola), Ben Lester (pedal steel guitar, keyboard), Andy Hofer (horns), and Jeremy Botcher (bass). The result is an Americana-informed, lushly textured ten-track record, with few algebraic moments. Though the process was seemingly rushed, spanning only 18 days total, the record feels anything but: A slowed-down, soothing take on Owen’s acoustic sound guides meditative narratives on fatherhood, marriage, and melancholy.
Though writing Owen’s work by his lonesome affords Kinsella the comfort of control, he’s fondest of the songs that grew through the new collaborative style and bookend the work. While Kinsella’s kids were at Grandma’s, SPIN called him at home in Chicago to talk loosening the writing reins, what he’s been binge-watching, and who his dream collaborator is. You can read that conversation below — which has been edited and condensed for clarity — and listen to the lush King of Whys, ahead of its July 29 Polyvinyl release, here.
What made you decide to work with these new collaborators for the recording process of the King of Whys?
I met these guys playing shows and I’m a fan of the music they make. We shared some of our management [and] they were like, “Why don’t you try doing this?” If it were anybody else, I probably would have said no. I have no interest in just working with somebody else — I kind of like being in control — but the fact that I already knew what they do and I like what they do sweetened the deal.
How much of the album was written when you got to the studio?
A lot less than usual. I usually have ideas for what an album will sound like in my head. This time I just showed up like, “Here’s the main guitar part.” And then a few of the songs, I’m like, “I’m hearing these drums sounding like the Cure or Codeine,” or random references. And usually my references didn’t really mean anything to them. They have this sort of jazz musically-trained background and I just have an indie rock background. The result is us figuring out what that meant.
Does having other people contribute to your songs change the way you interact with them?
Oh yeah, it changes a lot. The first couple days I was just sort of shy and embarrassed. I was like, “Well, I have these songs. They’re just … the sentimental things I’ve written down. You guys wanna hear ‘em?” It’s kind of embarrassing. Then I realized they were invested in it, more than I thought they would be. They made trying things fun.
I kind of have done everything myself because I guess I can’t imagine why anybody else would put time or mental energy into my songs, you know? I’m like, “Oh, these are my songs. This is my problem.” [Laughs.]
Since you worked on two splits between this record and your last, were you especially eager to write and record a personal record for Owen?
Oh yeah. It was fun leading up to it. I was anxious and nervous in a way that I’m usually not. I stayed out there for maybe nine days, two different times, away from my family in a foreign place, sort of isolated. I didn’t leave the studio at all for nine of those days once, cause I slept upstairs in the studio.
That’s crazy, nine straight days in the studio?
Yeah, a lot of the nights, it was just me in the house. The guys were like, “Okay, see you tomorrow!” [Laughs.] It was in the middle of nowhere. It was super snowy, so if I looked outside, all I could see was my own reflection in my pajamas. And then I just started thinking, “Oh my god, there could be a murderer out there and I’d have no idea!” ‘Cause you couldn’t see; it was pitch black outside. It was great!
My favorite thing to do is to do anything that I have never done before, so I appreciated it. Especially being old and married and having done a lot of the same stuff over and over, it was cool to be able to do something different.
When you’re writing, do you cut yourself off from listening to new music or any music at all? Or was there music that inspired you?
I kind of cut myself off from listening to new music 12 years ago. [Laughs.] I recorded it in Justin [Vernon] of Bon Iver’s house and I didn’t want it to influence anything I was gonna do. I am aware of it, but at the same time, I’m not usually seeking out new music much anyway. I think everybody assumes I just listen to math rock all day, but I don’t that often.
So what do you listen to?
I listen to sports talk or Dinosaur Jr. All the bands I grew up loving are still my go-tos. Lyrically, you wouldn’t know it, but I’m always trying to make New Order kind of lyrics, which is super plainly stated, very conversational. I don’t know what the kids are singing about these days.
If you could do a totally new collaboration, whether it’s realistic or a fantasy, who would you want to do that with?
I have this fantasy that I’ve tried to make a reality. Every few records, I try to find somebody who knows how to reach David Gavurin. He plays guitar in the Sundays, he produced a bunch of their records, and he’s always been my favorite guitar player. So I wanted him to help me make a record but I’ve never tracked him down.
You tweet a lot about TV. What’s your favorite show right now? Would you want to write music for it?
It’s tough ‘cause part of why I like [each show is that they’re] already so connected to the music that I couldn’t imagine changing it. I just finished watching Stranger Things. Oh my god, it’s so good! I watched the whole thing in like two days ‘cause I couldn’t stop. But the music is so awesome. It’s sort of this ‘80s, chill synthwave. It’s soo good and it totally fits. If I was gonna write the music, I would do exactly what they did ‘cause they did a great job.
Owen tour dates:
August 1 — Toronto, ON @ The Great Hall
August 2 — Ferndale, MI @ The Loving Touch
August 19 & 20 — Compton Martin, UK @ ArcTanGent Festival
September 15 — Somerville, MA @ Arts At The Armory
September 16 — New York, NY @ Rough Trade NYC
September 17 — Philadelphia, PA @ PhilaMOCA
September 22 — Los Angeles, CA @ Troubadour
September 23 — San Francisco, CA @ Swedish American Hall
November 21 — London, U.K. @ St. Pancras
November 23 — London, U.K. @ The Forge
November 24 — London, U.K. @ The Forge
November 25 — London, U.K. @ St. Pancras