The prolific realm of the Kinsella family is a widely ballyhooed institution. Chicago's frigid winters and bustling cultural crossbreeding have yielded more than just wind-swept apathy with regard to the brood, who collectively have been the catalyst for such wide-ranging seminal post-punk acts as Cap'n Jazz, American Football, and Joan of Arc. And while the brunt of the bustle may lie with the chameleonic poet Tim Kinsella, younger brother Mike Kinsella is nothing if not in equal stead with the rest of his talented family.
This shouldn't come as much of a shock. Kinsella was first noticed as the 12-year-old drummer in the cult favorite Cap'n Jazz back in 1989. After the demise of the band his multi-instrumental talents ushered stints in Joan of Arc, as well as the subdued, driving guitar rock of American Football. But since 2001, Kinsella's ambition to test the waters of the solo troubadour paved the way for his most active musical endeavor, Owen.
"I don't miss band practice," says Kinsella from his home in Chicago. "A month or two ago, I played in a Fugazi cover band in Chicago for one show. I was really excited about it; it was just playing other people's songs, obviously. But every time it came down to band practice, it was like an hour and a half of me and three friends drinking beer and playing Fugazi songs. I think playing solo is what I need to do to keep sane."
With four studio albums under his pseudonym-ed belt, Kinsella's meld of pensive lyricism and layered acoustic balladry has forged ahead in a much more independent fashion. While his label, Polyvinyl Records, is the sole distributor of his material, much of, if not everything else involving Kinsella's music is lorded over by himself, even touring. Yet even the fortified quilt of "do-it-yourself" art eventually experiences the proverbial threadbare.
"You can tour the country and play small punk shows and get by and sleep on people's floors," says Kinsella. "As I've gotten older, I've become more interested in not sleeping on people's floors. I enjoy getting hotels and having a little money when I come home. I definitely don't work any harder at it, but it's definitely more complicated."
Still, the tender sheen of his song craft remains at the center of his artistic orbit, regardless of the tenacity with which he approaches it. "I think in general, I'm getting lazier as a songwriter, so [my songs] might be a little more straightforward," says Kinsella.
Looping together live drums, guitar, bass, and keyboards provided the cornerstone to the earliest Owen compositions and live performances, but now Kinsella prefers the stripped-down ambiance of guitar and vocals. Lyrically, Kinsella's plaintive approach can be both humorous and melancholy, a derivative from which the source isn't instantly recognized.
"If I try to write abstract, or if I try to write anything too clever, I feel really stupid," explains Kinsella. "At the same time, if I write stuff that's pretty literal I also feel stupid."
Perhaps it's this kind of self-deprecation that draws people to Owen's music. If you tell people enough times you're not sure what you're doing, they'll believe you. But as long as it's good, does it really matter?