Interview: Kirin J Callinan on Balancing Being an Artist and Human

Friday, June 21, 2019

Without a doubt, Kirin J Callinan is one of Australia's most prominent artists — though the past has seen him subject to controversy, it's his daring and unapologetic approach to creating music that makes him stand out. His new album Return To Center is his most ambitious release to date — serving up a series of moving covers featuring songs that you probably won't see on any 'best of' lists anytime soon. Despite performing a series of covers, Callinan makes them his own, delivering passionate renditions of songs by the likes of Opus/Laibach, Momus, Spectral Display, and John Lyndon & Bill Laswell. We spoke to Callinan about the album, making it in two weeks, selecting the songs, and why he chose to address his controversies.

What was the catalyst that made you want to do a covers album?

Honestly, the limitations was probably the big thing. My last record before this one, I worked on it for what felt like forever. It was about three years and it could've been another three years. It could've gone on forever, so I wanted to just set myself some limitations, which didn't necessarily mean covers. But by setting myself fourteen days to make it and doing already pre-existing songs, would limit the amount I could chop and change things.

And is it true that you tracked a song every day?

Yeah, we had fourteen days to make the record because of the return policies at the Guitar Center. So in order to do ten songs, we'd have to do nine songs and an instrumental. I still required time between buying the gear on the first day and setting it up and then having the remaining thirteen days, including a tap down day and a day to do overdubs. It meant just diving in and committing, which was terrifying.

So you actually returned all the gear that you used for the album?

Yes.

And did you get the money back for it?

Yeah. Got the money back. Making music these days is not what it used to be, even having a record label who are emotionally supportive and financially supportive to an extent is certainly not what it used to be in the heyday of the music industry. So that was as much a cool idea as anything, finding ingenious ways to make a record on a shoestring. Yeah, so we got the money back.

And sometimes with cover albums, they can be considered by some people as disingenuous, such as we always see them around Christmas, but with your album, it's clear listening to it that's it's passion-driven. What do the songs mean to you and how did you select them?

Well, the selection was spontaneous to an extent. I had a long list of songs I wanted to do. That said, there's a number of songs on the record that weren't on that list and there are also songs at the top of that list that I was sure I was going to do, that I didn't do for whatever reason. It was very much what I was feeling that morning and then when the other musicians came in, we sort of collectively dived into a song, sort of let it happen.

Both the songs, 'Rise' originally by Public Image Ltd, and 'Vienna' by Ultravox, they weren't priorities for me to do at all. In fact, 'Vienna' wasn't even on the list. I just woke up with it in my head one morning and was singing it as I strolled down the street, picking up myself a morning juice. And it just seemed natural to give it a go, and then once we'd started, we sort of had to finish it. But for all of them, it was important that the record had an arc to it and there were multiple songs that fit a same idea, whether it was an emotional place where that song came from — you know, a love song or song of heartache or a devotional song like 'The Whole Of The Moon'.

There was a number of songs that fit that spirit or whether it was a sort of tempo feel or aesthetic idea that I had in my head as well. There were a number of songs that fit that palette so I was trying to pick one from each and give the album a bit of an arc while also being spontaneous and let it sort of happen itself, which I think it did. You know, you can't really control it too much. You sort of have to go with the flow and I'm happy with how it turned out.

A personal favourite is the Opus cover that opens up the album. It's such a grand opening for the record. What is your attachment to that particular song?

Thank you. Well, I've always loved the Laibach version, which is a cover of the Opus version. I've always hated the Opus version and I actually listened to the Opus version the other day and I thought, 'well this is pretty good'. But for some reason, I've always loved the Laibach version. Couldn't stand the Opus original and I found that quite interesting, how a song can be loved or hated based on the aesthetic, which is really just the clothing for a song.

I kind of wanted to find a sweet spot between those two songs and the version I loved and the version I loathed, which, when you're making music always happens, one day you'll hate something and the other you'll love it. So yeah, that was the approach I took to make it my own, if I can make myself love and loathe it. Does that make sense?

Absolutely makes sense. And in the middle of the album, you have the distorted instrumental with laughing as the only vocal. Why did you decide to put something of your own in between the covers?

I guess that was a way to get away from it being exclusively a covers record. I wanted to see the concept, the idea of 'return to center', for there to be a personal journey and an arc across the album. The idea of having an instrumental core — you know, as a centrepiece — to the album, I wanted to represent a newer journey to the listener.

You have all these songs, cover all these things and these sort of heady ideas, but if we can have that less cerebral, just nerve piece in the middle, a place of the eye of the storm or the canonical center. That was the initial idea of an instrumental in the middle, the centrepiece. There was a bunch of ideas about how to conceptually tie in the theme of 'return to center' into the record, whether it be sort of bookended by the same theme that connected and went round again. Or whether the album started stereo and closed into mono and then that the stereo by the end was never ideal. But the idea of the instrumental core was the most direct and strongest idea, I thought. Of course, just having a narrative instrumental didn't feel like quite enough so this idea of hysteria, you know, mad laughing but ecstatic and also torturous, sort of not sure what it is, it's a bit of both.

On the album, you address the ARIA's controversy. Why did you choose to include the snippets and embrace it instead of avoiding it?

I felt like I had to. At the time, advised on all fronts just to let the discourse happen around it and not make some big statement or light the flames. But it's hard to be mute on it. For the most part, I didn't give any interviews and my opinions on it fluctuated but I had lots of thoughts, some of them conflicting. And there's a time of reflection and looking at my own ethics and morals and worldview and interpretation of what happened throughout it, but in the end, as an artist, I had to address it artistically in some way. Certainly far more interesting than some earnest statement or whatever else. I'm not sure how it came up, but it was Franc and I, who I worked on the record with, concocted that. I just felt that if I used the snippets from the news reporting to comment on it and I sing a song then it's certainly open to interpretation and there's ambiguity, and that's what's important to me, that things are open to interpretation and can start conversation and what I think doesn't really matter at all.

Are you unbothered by any of the negative chatter? Do you ever feel misunderstood?

You know, I'm human. I'm definitely bothered by negativity, and I try to be unbothered, but I can be saddened or angered by whenever people talk about me. And of course I'm misunderstood, but that's nothing special. Again, as an artist, it's my role to not to articulate clearly my viewpoint or my politics or anything like this, but to put work out and for it to be interpreted anyway it might be. I'm trying to work it out myself. If I'm misunderstood, I wonder if it means I'm doing my job poorly or if I'm actually doing it well?  We're all misunderstood, it's nothing special. I'm keeping on. I'll be fine.

What do you hope listeners get out of their listening experience of Return To Center?

I just hope they have a good time with it, whether it's fun or it's moving. I get so excited when I listen to music and enjoy it, and that hasn't changed since I was a kid. I hope people get excited or as moved as I do by my favourite records and songs.

Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me, Kirin. I really appreciate it.

My pleasure, Amy.  No, thank you. I really appreciate it too.

Written by Amy Smolcic (@amysmolcic)

Listen to Return To Center:


Tour dates:
August 8th – Lion Arts Factory Adelaide
August 9th – Croxton Bandroom, Melbourne
August 10th – Freo Social, Fremantle
August 16th – The Zoo, Brisbane
August 17th – Metro Theatre, Sydney

Thanks to EMI Australia, we'll be giving two LP vinyl record copies of Kirin J Callinan's new album Return To Center. Entries close Friday, June 28th and Australian entrants only.