May 11 2011 10:13 AM

Joan of Arc forgo experimentalism for rock arrangements

Tim Kinsella (left) has done odd jobs to pay the bills.
Photo by Chris Strong
Joan of Arc just released their 12th proper full-length album, Life Like. The band wanted to get producer Steve Albini on board, so it launched a campaign on, offering swag to fans who chipped in to meet their $8,500 fund-raising goal—money the band would use to help cover recording expenses.

“That was the label’s idea,” explains Tim Kinsella, Joan of Arc’s soft-spoken frontman and only permanent member, referring to Polyvinyl Record Co., which couldn’t cover all the production costs. “We told them we wanted to record with Albini and told them how much it was. They said that we don’t sell enough records to be able to afford that.”

No big surprise there. While the longstanding Chicago indie-rock band has devoted followers—165 of whom pledged up to $250 to help out—Joan of Arc’s about as mainstream as an atheist in the Bible Belt. But working with Albini, the man behind marquee alt-rockers like Nirvana and The Pixies, wasn’t an attempt to fit in.

“For a long time, we’ve been the kind of band that crafts records as ends to themselves,” Kinsella says. “Then we had to figure out how to translate that into something we could play live. We’d gotten excited about the way we sounded live, and knew we wanted to make a record of that sound. Steve seemed like the obvious choice.”

In the studio, Kinsella and his rotating cast of bandmates used to “sculpt out songs,” piling on keyboards and percussion. Live, Kinsella discovered “so much space.” Plus, he says, there were practical reasons to consider. “Touring got to be a drag,” he says. “Filling an entire trailer with an entire studio.”

Life Like reflects this shift, from its title to songs that bear only passing resemblance to the chaotic experimentation on earlier Joan of Arc albums—noodling guitars and knob-twisting emo-indie. Life Like has already been pegged the band’s poppiest and most accessible work to date, though Kinsella doesn’t necessarily agree.

“[Those] certainly aren’t standards of value we’re considering when putting together songs,” he says. “I mean, accessibility is hardly an interesting standard. Contemporary country has a lot of fans, or Justin Bieber.

“We really wanted to limit our sonic scope to traditional rock instruments,” Kinsella adds. “That may be what people are responding to.”

It’s this very lack of recognizability that has earned Joan of Arc, which formed in 1995 after the breakup of the influential Cap’n Jazz, a reputation of being “difficult” over the years. “We don’t try to be difficult any more than we try to be accessible,” Kinsella counters.

“We’re just trying to be musical,” he continues. “I love playing music, but I really like writing songs, and shaping a song so it hits the format so that it can be sold, or so it’s digestible, isn’t meaningful in terms of expression. We just mean to be honest.”

To that end, Kinsella has never attempted to make a real living as a musician. He’s been a bartender for more than 11 years, among other odd jobs. “If we had to think about doing this professionally—if dinner depended on it—it would certainly corrupt the process that way,” he says.

Even last year’s buzzed-about Cap’n Jazz reunion shows in Chicago were “really just for the money,” he admits. “I wanted to afford to not work for a while so I could make the new Joan of Arc record.”

He’s recently shelved all side projects—other bands and a fledgling movie-directing career—to wrap up his first novel, The Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self-Defense, due out in October. He’s also written a score to the 1928 silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc, which he hopes to play live more often.

If Kinsella’s wallet is perpetually empty, his creative coffers are always full.

“I imagine my life is probably exactly like what the 13-year-old me hoped I would be at 37,” he says, before pausing, then laughing gently. “Though I don’t think the 13-year-old me would’ve realized what a drag it is a lot of the time.”

Joan of Arc play with Airwaves and Street of Little Girls at The Casbah on Monday, May 16.