[MUSIC: Interview] Kirin J Callinan
Kirin J Callinan seems a born performer. Not the kind that holds your attention with witty banter and pitch-perfect performances, though. He’s an unsettling presence on stage – whippet-thin, ashen-faced, standing shirtless in a trenchcoat or bedecked in a lace nightie and suspenders.
Often, shows start with little more than him glowering through bright lights to silently meet the gaze of individuals in the crowd. Sometimes, he balances his guitar precariously on the tip of one of his boots, and strikes a stilted, one-sided conversation, voice booming from the safety of an expanse of guitar pedals that surround him like some crescent-shaped occult marking.
As an audience member, it’s tough to watch. His attention feels inviting and invasive at the same time. If it happens to settle on you, it makes you feel vulnerable, singled out, as though his disquieting tangents seek weird rapport not from the room, but from you, personally. This discomfort shatters when he starts playing. His performances are chaotic and the setlists improvised, careening from harrowing balladry through pummelling distorted pedal techno to elating, clear-eyed pop, replete with shimmering guitar delay and impassioned baritone. The vulnerability you felt at the outset becomes the rapport he seemed to be seeking – struck by the brutal beauty of the music, you begin to feel afraid for the precariousness of this wraith-like figure before you, who seems so in thrall to the demons issuing from his throat and amplifier.
“It is a character, live,” he reassures me. “Although that concerns me: when people see me [perform] and they think that that’s just me, they consider me, maybe, perverted. It’s confusing, especially when I get off stage and someone will want to have a chat straight away, and I’m still in that mode. Or I’ll start working with someone in the studio who will know me through my music, and my reaction, always, is to just be really down to earth. And then, all of a sudden, you’ve lost any myth, and they don’t seem to respect you as much.”
Callinan first came to prominence playing with Sydney quartet Mercy Arms in the mid 2000s. His bristling presence and pointillist guitar work posed a crucial counterpoint to that group’s fairly standard indie fare. Despite early promise – signing to Capitol in the US – the band disintegrated following label troubles and internal tension. Callinan wishes the breakup had happened sooner. “I think the band went a bit stale. When we were good, we were a great guitar band. We were pretty weird as well, and we took a lot of left turns,” he says. “The singer Thom [Moore] was the catalyst, really. We were on tour – doing the Big Day Out – and other bands kept coming up to us saying, ‘I heard these are your last shows. I’ll make sure I come to every show.’ Every time, we said, ‘That’s the first we’ve heard of it. We don’t know that.’ I think Thom had been going around saying it, but he hadn’t told us.”
On tour with Mercy Arms in the UK, Callinan was handed a pre-release promo copy of Scott Walker’s 2006 album The Drift. Walker’s rich, tremulous baritone and starkly disquieting songs cast new light on ideas he’d been having outside of the band. “I wasn’t really singing then, I wasn’t doing solo shows, but I was writing at home, and trying to write for Mercy Arms. But my voice was always so distinct – it stood out so much, compared to Thom’s,” he says. “Anyway, when I first heard The Drift it made me feel like it’s OK to sing like this. I was like, ‘This sounds like me!’ I didn’t realise it was this 60-year-old dude. It validated my home recordings. Not to say that my home recordings sounded anything like The Drift – they weren’t half as good – but it just validated the way I sang.”
In addition to a new focus on his solo work, the end of Mercy Arms meant Callinan was free to play in other bands. He has stood in as a member of Jarrod Quarrell’s Lost Animal, but his presence has been most notable in Jack Ladder’s band, the Dreamlanders. Hurtsville, Ladder’s most recent release, owes a significant part of its immersive retro character to Callinan’s icily fulgent licks. But following a fortuitous signing with Terrible Records, a small indie label run by Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear, it’s now finally time for a Kirin J Callinan solo record.
“For a long time, playing solo was just an outlet,” he says. “But I’ve built up all these songs that I can’t seem to move past now. I can’t seem to finish new ones until I let go of these old ones. It’s a therapeutic process. Finish these songs, get ‘em out, reflect upon them, and then forget about it, really.” The songs Callinan refers to are the 13 that he’s currently tracking with ex-Wolfmother keyboardist Chris Ross and The Presets’ Kim Moyes. Following the completion of these sessions, Callinan will set out on tour – his first with a full band – in support of the record’s first single ‘W II W’ (Way To War) and its striking, GIF-addled video, shot by Kris Moyes. “Yeah, it’s incredible… if I can say that. It sounds like nothing else,” he says excitedly, of the recordings. “That was the goal. It’s been really traumatic, because there are no reference points for a lot of it. It doesn’t sound like anything. So I don’t know what it’s meant to sound like, necessarily, other than just trust my own instinct and ear. I’ve made so much. I must have made the equivalent of four solo albums in the past however-many years.”
It’s disarming to hear Callinan talk about his new music, and refreshing to find such a frail and intimidating performer so invested in what he does. “I have nothing else. I love music. So much so that it’s really upsetting,” he says. “I find terrible music, of which there is plenty, really, really painful and traumatic on a fundamental, deep level. So I guess I try to stay really true, and make music that I like. That’s why I’ve put out so little, because I’ve recorded a lot. If it doesn’t tick all of the boxes for whatever reason, if it’s not honest… I don’t mind if there’s a mistake, or a part’s really embarrassing or something. If it’s honest, then I’d like to release that into the world.”
What: ‘W II W’ (Way To War) is out on Tuesday June 19 through Siberia Records and Terrible Records (USA)
With: DCM, Forces, Kangaroo Skull, HTRK DJs, Juggernaut DJs and more
Where: GoodGod Small Club
When: Friday June 22