Kirin J Callinan: The 13th Floor Interview

Kirin J Callinan’s new album, Bravado, is released today. For fans, of which we here at 13th Floor certainly are, Kirin has taken a bit of a musical detour, taking a wildly eclectic group of collaborators with him. Who else would have Jimmy Barnes and James Chance on the same record. Additionally, there are contributions from Neil and Liam Finn, Weyes Blood, Conan Mockasin and many others.

At the heart of it all is Kirin J Callinan. The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda spoke to Kirin just a couple of days ago, as he returned to Australia from Europe. The interview begins with Kirin unwinding from his travels…

Click here to listen to the interview with Kirin J Callinan:

Or, read a transcription of the interview here:

KJC: I just flew from London yesterday; so, I fell asleep in the afternoon, woke up at about midnight, and I’ve been up all night. Went back to sleep at about 5:00 p.m. so, I woke up a bit disoriented, but I’m good. I just had a coffee; ready to go.

MD: What were you getting up to in London?

KJC: I played a couple of shows over there. I played in Paris and Berlin as well. Before that, I’ve been in the States: did a big, comprehensive US tour. Yeah, just starting again.

MD: And you’re going to be coming to New Zealand as well; in July, I believe.

KJC: In July. I can’t wait.

MD: That’ll be exciting! I’ve seen you several times here in Auckland…. I’ve been listening to your new album: it’s a very different sound – or, at least, some of it is – than what you’ve been doing before; so, I’m curious how that’s going to translate to the live experience.

KJC: It’s all a bit of a mystery; it certainly was a bit of a mystery to me as well. When I was making it, I certainly wasn’t worrying about how I would do it live. If anything, it was trying to make it as difficult for me as possible, to recreate this live. But I definitely didn’t want to inhibit the creative process in the studio – making it as ambitious and as absurd as possible – and then we’d work the live part out when we come to it; which is exactly what we’ve been doing. I’ve got my two little brothers in the band. They’re linked, intrinsically through DNA, to the record… and it’s been fantastic so far. I’ve actually got a big day of press today, going through until about 4:00 p.m. and then after that, we’re in rehearsal. We’re going to try to add a few more new ones into the set. We’ve played the majority of the record – at some stage – live… it works!

MD: I would imagine a tune like Living Each Day is probably easier to translate than some of the more esoteric stuff. Of course, Living Each Day is the one with Conan Mockasin, who’s a Kiwi. Maybe you can just tell me a little bit about how you got in collaboration with Conan, and about the song.

Conan Mockasin

KJC: I met Conan a few years ago in Belgium, of all places. We shared a bill in Ghent, and I’d heard his music before that – you know I had a pessimistic view of it – and it took me seeing him to really understand it and believe it; and it blew me away, actually. He’s a magic fella. He’s an enigma. He’s strange and beautiful and original,  we just couldn’t seem to get rid of each other after that. We went to Paris together after that, and London and New York – we were pretty much inseparable in the States – and then we went on tour together around America. I was actually just chatting to him this morning – he’s in New York at the moment – and he was having a bath and gave me a ring.

MD: As you do!

KJC: Yeah! He can be an elusive guy – a hard guy to pin down – and that’s been the challenge with working together. We’ve done a couple of songs together, now – so far, they’ve been songs that I’ve written – and I’ve brought him in with a very specific part to sing, but he always brings that ‘other’ element; he kind of steals the show, actually – which pisses me off, obviously. No, no! He’s amazing! But we’ve done a couple of songs together, now we’ve just done our second video clip together, and – like I said – he’s an elusive guy; so, even to get him in the shoot, didn’t even know – in both cases, actually – whether he’d actually show up, but managed to get him in this one as well, riding a mechanical shark whilst in the clouds. Have you seen the video clip for Living Each Day yet?

MD: No, I haven’t seen that one.

KJC: It just came out two hours ago.

MD: Oh, okay. I probably looked about three hours ago; so, there you go! I will definitely get it up online as soon as I get off the horn then. You have a lot of folks working on this record and making appearances, but the name that really stood out for me… was James Chance of The Contortions. How did that come about?


James Chance

KJC: That’s a funny story – I’m a huge fan of James Chance and The Contortions, James White and The Blacks, Teenage Jesus and The Jerks with Lydia Lunch; I’ve been a big fan of New York post-punk and no wave since I was a teen, really; I think it was through Television and The Ramones that I started down that rabbit hole; and Nick Cave probably as well; finding my way to Lydia Lunch – I was in Sydney – I was at my parents’ place, about an hour north of Sydney – and I got  text from my mate, Dan Luscombe – who’s the guitarist in The Drones – saying he was playing a show that night, playing guitar for James Chance, and he’s put me on the tour, and the show was on in about an hour, and I thought, “Holy shit! Incredible!” so, I jumped in my car and… got there just as the show was starting. It was a half full room in New Town, but incredible! James is seventy years old, or so, and just blew me away; one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. He had a pick up band that he’d only just met – including Dan Luscombe…. It was just unbelievable! I was sober at the time, and the show was so good, it compelled me to get really drunk and have a huge night, and I ended up staying at his hotel. I met him very briefly on the night, just to say I loved the show – and he’s a bizarre guy: he averted his eyes, and he doesn’t really look at anyone directly; he lives in his own little world, it seems. I woke up, wretchedly hung over in ‘Lusky’s’ hotel room the next morning, and I went to find my car – and I was walking through the back streets of Red Fern – and I hear this voice go, “Hey!” and shout to me; and I turned to look in this cafe, and it’s James Chance sitting in there – he’s obviously recognised me, but doesn’t know, for sure, how he knows me, but he’s recognised my face – and I [thought, “Shit! It’s James Chance,” and I went in there and he offered me to join him for breakfast; so, I sat down and had a coffee, and we just got talking. He had a flight to Tokyo that night, but he was at a loose end as to what he was doing that day, and I had no plans; and being hung over, I offered to show him around – did he want to go to the opera house or the botanical gardens? Where do you take James Chance? – and all he wanted was to find true crime novels, about Australian true crime, and he wanted to find literature on communism in Australia. I took him around to a bunch of second hand book stores around West Sydney, and… hung out with him all day – went to a bar in the evening, had a drink before I had to take him to the airport – so, we got to know each other a little bit over the course of that day, and I was his guide to true crime and communism in Australia in Sydney. Then I had this song, Down 2 Hang, which I had Donny Benet and Laurence Pyke playing on the track, and I think it was Laurence that mentioned that it had a bit of a Contortions vibe, and I was like, “You’re right. I hadn’t really thought that, but you’re totally right,” and I hit up James, to see if he’d contribute, and he recorded some saxophone from New York, and sent it across, and I massaged it into the track. It was amazing to have someone of his calibre on the record.

MD: It’s pretty cool!

KJC: Yeah!

MD: How would you describe the song? It’s a pretty funky… almost… James Brown , in addition to a James Chance vibe… as well.

KJC: Yeah… for me, James Chance is the white, angular, aggressive James Brown. He’s – for me anyway – the closest any white guy has ever got to that level of free form, intuitive funk with bite…. very white, unlike James Brown, but with a similar spirit; and… the song, Down 2 Hang: it hadn’t occurred to me, but it had a bit of that to it as well; so, it was a natural fit.

MD: For fans of the earlier work – and when they come across the first track on Bravado – they’re going to get a surprise, probably. They’re going to hear something they’re probably not expecting, which is a more electronic, EDM thing. What moved you to move in that direction?

KJC: Exactly that: to surprise. To excite and confuse is the MO. It was definitely the mission of the overarching theme with all my music, from the first record and this record and the live shows, and, basically, everything I’ve been involved in. It’s been, for a long time now, to excite and confuse; which I remember how that came about: I was playing a show in Brisbane – of all places – and someone from the crowd – between songs – just shouted out, “Play more music that excites and confuses us!” It really stuck with me, and that just summed up everything, and that has stuck with me until this day. With this record, I want to deliver music that the people can enjoy; that is as much about them as it is me. For the listener: that’s the goal. Ultimately, I think, with any successful music… it transcends the artist and becomes all about the listener. I think with this record, I’m slowly getting better at that. I think the first record was very self absorbed, and this one – whilst it is very ridiculous and there’s no shortage of personality…

MD: Right! I mean, you’ve got a real man of the people there: Jimmy Barnes…

MD: Jimmy Barnes, exactly! Just to have these sorts of people involved, from James Chance to Jimmy Barnes, Alex Cameron and Weyes Blood – who are contemporaries who I really respect – and Conan, of course.

MD: Is Neil Finn on the record as well?

KJC: Neil Finn’s on the record. In fact, it’s Neil and Liam and Sharon – Neil’s wife – and Donnie – Liam’s wife – who were some of the few guests… that were definitely very deliberate; because I’d written this song, Family Home, which had been, in part, directly inspired by seeing Neil Finn play at Falls Festival a few years ago – with Liam on guitar, Elroy on drums and Sharon on Bass – and seeing them, as a family, bring his songs from Crowded House and Split Enz and solo work… to life; many of which, you’d have to imagine, are all about them: all about the family, or his internal conflict, or his infidelities, or whatever it might be; his own personal struggles. Seeing his family, in solidarity, bringing those songs to life together, and seeing that family dynamic played out for thousands of people, just moved me to tears – it was unbelievable; I was just sobbing – so, I had this song, The Family Home, to have the Finns record the backing vocals in The Family Home together, had a thematic through-line that I couldn’t resist.

MD: Are you planning on catching up with the Finns when you come over here?

KJC: Of course. If they’re around and available and would have me, of course, I couldn’t refuse.