Jumping On A Trampoline With Your Eyes Closed
Interview With Nate Kinsella
Nate Kinsella does a lot of things. You can hear him on records by Joan of Arc and Make Believe, and, more recently, see him with American Football. As if this weren’t enough, Nate also makes music on his own under the moniker Birthmark. His latest record, How You Look When You’re Falling Down, is yet another bold and often rapturous venture for an artist who – though he may appear calm – can’t seem to sit still.
I talked with Nate about all this, his attraction to music, why it's so interesting to watch people fall, and a bit about daunting encounter with a possibly sinister fish:
NEU: How did you get into making music?
Nate Kinsella: I took some piano classes when I was really young, but it didn’t really stick. I started having my own interest in it when I was probably twelve or thirteen. My older sister, two years older than me, was a cool sister, you know? Into all these cool bands. So I would go into her bedroom and steal her cassettes. I would listen to Sonic Youth, Jane’s Addiction, The Pixies . . . Then I had a cousin who gave me an acoustic guitar. That’s kind of how I got into it. I had friends in junior high and I found out they played in bands and it just became more of like: ‘Let’s get together and try to write songs.’
NEU: Was the social aspect a pretty big part of it?
NK: Yeah, but I would do it on my own too. I worked at a movie theater and saved up enough money to buy a four track and a drum set, then a guitar and a bass so that I had all the ‘rock band’ instruments. It’s amazing that my parents let me have a drum set in my bedroom. I still can’t believe that. Especially since we lived in a townhouse and the neighbors were right on the other side of the wall. So I would hang out by myself and make songs by myself but it was also fun to play with friends. So I sort of had both sides of it. Playing with friends and on my own.
NEU: When you were younger did you try any creative outlets other than music?
NK: I was really into drawing when I was a kid, probably from when I was nine until twelve or thirteen. I couldn’t draw anything from my head, I had to look at something and try to copy it. But I sort of got out of that when I got into music. I wish I still had that. I try to draw once in a while. It’s still fun.
NEU: You’ve played in a lot of different bands. What’s it like adapting to different creative scenarios?
NK: Recently I’ve been playing with other people more, just within the past year or so, and before that for a handful of years it was really only Birthmark, so I’ve really been enjoying getting to play with people again. Being surprised by other people’s ideas is really invigorating – it’s exciting to be around. I feel like I was playing by myself for so long that I would never really surprise myself. I would try to do things quickly and forget about them so that I could listen to them a few days later and have no recollection of doing it, but still it’s coming from my own brain.
I saw a photo today, poking around online, of a person on a beach that had taken a photo of themselves in all these different places on the beach, but it was still the same person and it looked so weird because they were doing a variation of the same pose wherever they were standing – and I was like ‘oh that’s what making an album by yourself is like.’ You’re the same person, even though your just taking a picture of yourself doing all these different things it still looks super homogenized and really weird. That’s sort of what I’m trying to get away from, doing everything by myself, because it’s not reality. There’s a communication and a give and take to the experience of being a human being.
I thought that I was a loner type of person, but now I don’t think that I really am. I do this thing where I need to recharge if hang out with a bunch of people or go on tour, I need some time to get out, to be by myself. That’s how I recharge my own batteries. But I do have a tendency to feel real lonely when I’m not interacting with people. So playing with people has been fun, surprising, and exciting in ways that I hadn’t thought in so long could be exciting.
NEU: How did Birthmark start? How did you pick that name?
NK: I like that name because it sort of implies an imperfection, and those are always the kinds of things that I enjoy about people and my friends, so I had that on my mind. I don’t know if I would choose it now. I’m sort of stuck with it. It sounds like it could be a metal band, like ‘BIRTHMARK!’ Maybe I’ve just thought about it too much.
It started when I was living in Chicago, probably when Make Believe was pretty busy. It was pretty much the same group of people that would bounce back and forth between being in Joan of Arc and Make Believe. We would be like: ‘Okay what are you guys doing next week?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Okay, let’s make another Make Believe album.’ ‘Okay, cool.’ Then: ‘What are you doing after that?’ ‘I don’t know let’s make another Joan of Arc album.’ But it was all the same people just creating things together for a few years and I think I was sort of itching to do something on my own, to balance that. The whole Ying-Yang thing of needing to have a little bit of my own time to figure stuff out.
And then Make Believe was sort of dwindling and my now wife, we were just dating at the time, she got into graduate school in the Champagne-Urbana area in downstate Illinois, and I was like, ‘that’s perfect. We’ll find a house where I can set up my drums and do things by myself, make my own music for a while.’ That’s sort of how it happened. And then I put all of my energy into Birthmark, mostly into recording and writing, not so much into touring or trying to make it financially successful.
NEU: How did you come up with the title of your new record, “How You Look When You’re Falling Down?”
NK: It was a line in a song that stuck out to me as having a double meaning. The song that it comes from is, how I thought of it is like, you know when you see someone who is eating ice cream and it drips down their shirt? And your like, ‘oh that’s embarrassing, I wish I hadn’t seen that,’ and they don’t even know you saw them. Or those people who trip and don’t want anyone to notice and they try and recover and look away. That idea seemed to fit the best
NEU: There’s definitely something universal about everyday embarrassment.
NK: Yeah and feeling embarrassed for another person . . . But see maybe that’s not the best title for the record. That’s another issue with working alone is that you don’t really have anyone to throw their opinions in and help you out with these types of decisions.
I feel like on this album I was trying to imagine that no one was watching. Because that can be really stifling to the creative process when you think: ‘someone’s going to hear this someday, it better be good.’ So I was letting myself sort of do things off the cuff, trying not to second-guess myself on this line or that inflection, and maybe naming it that was sort of a defense of that process. Saying: ‘I’m not paying attention, I’m just falling over, I’m just letting myself flounder because that’s just how I feel like I want to enjoy the process of making this thing.’ I want it to feel like I’m jumping on a trampoline with my eyes closed. So how I went about making it has a sort of care-free aspect to it, maybe I’m just fumbling around and falling over but I think I needed to do that for this.
I’ve been a perfectionist in the past, trying to get every little thing right, and with this one I was letting that go and letting myself have a good time, because you know that’s sort of what I’m surrounded by here living in New York. Living in a city of strangers, with everybody really in their own world doing their own thing. It’s really fun to see people not give a shit at all, like they’ll be on a street corner dancing with headphones in and I think: ‘That’s rad, that’s awesome, good for you! You’ve found the secret to not giving a shit.” So I think that’s where I was drawing the idea from, a sort of care free feeling tothe execution.
NEU: At your recent record release show at Rough Trade you had a number of musicians on stage with you playing your music. What was that like to share your music with others?
NK: There are a couple different stages to that, whenever I try to put together a big show and I need help. Other than the logistics of whom do I want, I think: ‘how am I going to make it worth everyone’s time?’ There’s also the side of it where you’re wondering, ‘is everyone having a good time?’ I just want everyone to have a good time. I mean, I hope they think that the parts I wrote are cool, because I sure have a lot of people up here that have done a lot of cool shit. In the string rehearsal they were chatting about how they had just played with Bjork, in her orchestra when she came to New York. And I’m like, ‘What? You played with Bjork? Shit. Well this isn’t gonna be as cool as that.’ These people have played on stages with David Byrne, so I’m flattered that they would even want to play this stuff. So that’s one part of it, just wanting all the musicians to have a good time.
The other part of it is endless notation. I had to take like two weeks off of work just to write everything out and get the music out to everyone with enough time for them to look it over and get to the rehearsal. The day of the show was actually the first time that we had all played together as a full ensemble – I couldn’t fit everyone into the practice space, there were just too many people. So I did a rehearsal with the horns, then with the strings, then we did a bunch of stuff with the band. And the drummer literally flew in the day before and we practiced all day then played the show and that was it. It happened so fast and was so much work.
NEU: What’s next for you?
NK: Doing some more American Football shows. There aren’t any Birthmark shows planned, though I may do a short tour in June with some friends in the Midwest. I’ve just been doing sound a lot here at home and hoping to go on vacation.
NEU: Can you tell me about a time that you fell?
NK: Maybe I’m thinking of this because I’m looking into going on vacation, but I was thinking of the last one I went on. This would be not so much literally falling, but I was definitely knocked down a notch by nature, I realized how fragile my own life was.
I was snorkeling with my wife. We were out by this coral and there was this little black fish that was no more than four inches long, but it was swimming in a strange way, more like snake, and it started swimming toward me so I started backing away. It kept coming at me so I just turned around and started swimming for my life because it was black and had white spots on it, and it just looked so sinister. I was swimming into shore, then I look back and it’s going after my wife and now she’s swimming into shore, and we’re both freaking out and our gear gets knocked off and we’re gasping for air and I can see the fish under the water nipping at her legs. It was the most frightened I’d ever been in my adult life. Then we got into shore and everything was fine. But we were so freaked out we couldn’t get back in the water for days.
We were asking everyone what kind of fish that could have been, and it turns out that it was just a little suckerfish, a Remora, and it was just trying to latch on. It doesn’t draw blood or anything. But there was definitely a before and after period for me where I just like, ‘what the fuck are we doing? We’re just out in the middle of nowhere swimming in the ocean with all these animals out there. We don’t even have a clue, we’re so dumb, why are we doing that?’
So that was a definite fall for me. I learned my lesson.
Nicholas Otte, 2016