Kicking Out the Jams

“Outside of Chicago, no one really liked Cap’n Jazz when we existed,” says Tim Kinsella, who shredded his vocal cords in front of that pummeling emocore band for five years, starting at age 15. Now, at 24, he’s a rock vet of nine years, and Cap’n Jazz is finally getting its due: the band’s entire output was collected last year on a double CD called Analphabetapolothology (Jade Tree). But Kinsella’s no longer interested in emocore or Cap’n Jazz–he even feels compelled to tell me how much he’s always hated the name.

After Cap’n Jazz fell apart during a summer tour in 1995, its members regrouped in two bands: Kinsella’s current project, Joan of Arc, and the Promise Ring. The Promise Ring, based in Milwaukee, has grown increasingly popular by polishing up the pop facets of Cap’n Jazz’s hard-rocking sound. But Joan of Arc, which originally included Cap’n Jazz bassist Sam Zurick and still occasionally includes Kinsella’s brother Mike on drums, lit out almost immediately for the sometimes fascinating, sometimes maddening territory pioneered by elders like Tortoise and Gastr del Sol–the kind of stuff you might call pretentious if it weren’t your cup of tea. The 16-page CD booklet for Joan of Arc’s recently released third album, Live in Chicago, 1999 (Jade Tree), reconstructs Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 film Weekend as an elementary school pageant, and Kinsella applies his Dave Grubbs-esque warble to lines like “We all know monogamy’s just a function of capitalism / And love its consequential construct of culture.”

“I’m not moved by over-the-top stuff anymore,” Kinsella says in his defense. “Even though that kind of music still has lots of fans, I think everyone’s used to that kind of confrontation, so the challenge for me is to play music for which there are no fans.” Early on, he says, Joan of Arc met this challenge pretty easily, but now that audiences know what to expect, “we have to find new ways to disappoint them.” Joan of Arc’s first two albums, A Portable Model Of (1997) and How Memory Works (1998), each sold between 12,000 and 15,000 copies, and Live in Chicago has already “disappointed” about 10,000 people.

While the first two records foreshadowed the new one in their liberal use of abstract electronics, bleary ballads, unusual colors, and impenetrable wordplay, they were still dominated by rock songs. But Live in Chicago, produced by Casey Rice, pretty much throws the rock out the window. Although keyboardist and guitarist Jeremy Boyle, the combo’s only other original member, and guitarist Todd Mattei round out Joan of Arc’s core lineup, Kinsella admits he conceived and recorded most of the new album on his own: “I think I was able to see the end result quicker than Todd, since he had never recorded before, and Jeremy was really busy with school. I was the one who had time to work with it.”

It’s not a perfect album, heavy-handed in spots and still obviously derivative in others, but it’s undeniably a compelling one. Its accomplished, subtle mix of acoustic fingerpicked guitar and evocative electronic textures is matched to off-kilter rhythms (Euphone’s Ryan Rapsys plays on two tracks, but most of the drum parts were meticulously programmed by Rice and Kinsella) and corralled into half-pretty, half-discordant arrangements. Though Kinsella’s lyrics come in vaguely connected collegiate thickets, they’re sometimes clearly self-referential–on the title track he closes the book on Cap’n Jazz, singing, “I’m just so so / So sick of shouting / Monosyllabically”–and often examine the vagaries of love and commitment.

While there’s little left in Joan of Arc’s music that ties them to emo, this earnestness certainly does, and lines like “I would only wanna make a film if it was in French and I don’t speak French” or “I can’t read my own handwriting on some bar napkin back in the pocket of a jacket I haven’t worn in months” reveal Kinsella’s youth, if little else. But he knows it as well as anyone. “There’s people that come into the coffee shop I work at and I can tell that they’re chuckling at me,” he says, “and I think, ‘Oh, they must’ve been standing at the back of the Empty Bottle one night while we were playing.’ But I don’t care, I’m just trying to state something that’s real to me. I can’t see myself feeling the same way about anything else. It’s nice to wake up in the morning and have this thing to care about.”

Joan of Arc plays Friday at the Empty Bottle.


On Thursday, August 5, composer and saxophonist Ernest Dawkins will present the world premiere of Beltway to Bronzeville, a new large-scale work commissioned by the Jazz Institute of Chicago. The piece, intended to reflect the history of the south-side neighborhood where Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Ma Rainey, Muddy Waters, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, and other African-American artists and writers lived and worked in the first half of this century, will be performed by the South Shore Cultural Center Gallery 37 Youth Jazz Ensemble with guest soloists Ari Brown (tenor saxophone), Orbert Davis (trumpet), and Steve Berry (trombone). The concert takes place at 7 PM at Stateway Park, 3658 S. State, and admission is free. For more info call 312-747-1430.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nicole Radja.