Nate Kinsella, perhaps best known as the MVP of Chicago’s Make Believe (he played keys and drums at the same time!), is preparing his third solo album, Antibodies, under the moniker Birthmark. Though he’s currently based in Brooklyn, NY, the album was recorded in his home state of Illinois, where the recording sessions were funded through Kickstarter.com (Antibodies impressively met its goal of $5,000 last June). Antibodies is lush with strings, marimba, horns and everything else, oscillating in tone between the fragile experimentalism of Arthur Russell and the epic, rhythmic pop of the first couple Peter Gabriel records. With some Steve Reich in there papering over the cracks. I met with Nate in Greenpoint’s McGolrick Park to talk about his approach to composition, how he got started playing drums and keys at the same time, and the persistent and pervading influence of Charles Ives on his music.
Gary Canino Has playing in other bands helped you realize exactly how you want to approach Birthmark, where it’s now 100% you?
Nate Kinsella It’s weird, it makes it easier because I know what the process is like: write an album, record it, release it, tour on it, etc… . but without a group of people behind you with their own motivations, you’re really relying on yourself for anything to move forward at all. I could decide tomorrow that I don’t feel like putting any more energy [into Birthmark], but in a band, that doesn’t really happen. Well, it could if I was really stubborn and decided I wanted to end a project! It’s gratifying in a different way when you’re by yourself. When you’re doing solo stuff, it’s just so much closer to you because you’re behind every decision, so if something seems like a bad idea, you have no one to blame but yourself.
GC How did you get started playing drums and keys at the same time in Make Believe?
NK I’m kind of a busy drummer, so I wanted to put a roadblock in there so I wouldn’t play over everything, especially in Make Believe. The guitar player, Sam [Zurich], is also a very busy player, so there was a lot of thinking like “what could I do it to make this more difficult so I won’t play it as much?” So, I put a keyboard there. And I also really like melodies, and there isn’t much melody to drums, tonally at least. Sam also played in an open tuning, so I would tune the drums to notes like F or C. I still wanted to be able to play melodies, and also have more of a part in that musical side of it, rather than just rhythm.
GC Were they open to you doing that?
NK Yeah, they were way into it. That band was all about letting any idea fly, for better or worse, and there were definitely some potentially bad ideas that came along. (laughter)
GC Are you classically trained?
NK Kind of, but it’s been a recent thing. When I hear someone is classically trained, I assume they’ve been going to band camp since they were six years old, and they’ve gone to a conservatory or something. I really recently learned how to read music and learn theory. So that’s a recent development within the last four years. I wouldn’t say I was trained that way though, it’s all new info.
GC How do you write? Do you hear it all in your head at once, or do you build it track by track?
NK Mostly track by track. I really envy people who can just hear something, and sometimes that happens with me, but when it does it’s really not that complex, maybe a melody with accompaniment or something. I grew up with a 4-track being part of the writing process, so I’d put something down, listen to it, and then play something on top of it. That’s how I learned to write, just a lot of layering and picking out what sounds good. As far as just being able to sit down and write something, that rarely happens. I try to push myself sometimes to try different approaches but it’s still a challenge.
GC There’s a lot of odd instrumentation on Antibodies. What has your experience been converting this to a live show?
NK Well, for this release show on May 9th at The Stone I found a string quartet to play with me, which is really awesome. I have everything written out from when we were recording the album, so they’ll just be reading that, but I do have some friends playing the show that don’t read music, so we just have to sit down together and go over it. I wrote out everything on tablature for them, so that’s really easy. They’re just like me, they learned to play by ear, so when they hear something, they can pick it up. It’s just a different way of learning. I prepare things for different people individually knowing where they’re coming from. If I just gave the recordings to the string quartet, I wouldn’t assume they would be able to pick it up, but the guitar player would probably pick it up just fine, so it really depends. It’s a lot of work to prepare for a live show; it’s been on my mind everyday since I booked that show. (laughter)
GC Is this your first time working with live strings?
NK No, we had a one-off show with a quartet at the Abbey in Chicago. That was a lot of work too. It’s so much work writing everything out, having a rehearsal, etc. It’s also tricky getting them to sound right at a venue, whether it’s having them go direct, or through amps. It’s tricky, you just kind of have to roll with it and have fun.
I’m booking a tour right now where there will be three string players, and we’ll have a marimba, vibraphone, drum kit, electronics, and other stuff. That’ll be an East Coast thing in August.
GC There’s a heavy amount of marimba and vibraphone on your new album. What first drew you to these instruments?
NK Steve Reich. That was kind of the initial idea of the band. “All right, I’m gonna do minimalism, crazy pitched percussion pop music.” But it didn’t really turn out like that. I still really like the sound of those instruments though. It’s easy for a marimba to sound corny, so that’s a challenge. It can sound like an NPR jingle or a ringtone really easily! But the vibraphone is amazing, I love the sound of it. It sounds almost electronic because it’s such a pure sound.
I got tired of how rock instruments sounded too. With electric guitar, it’s tough because it’s hard to get interesting sounds out of them. I’ve kind of hit a wall with guitar, bass, and drums. So I’ve been trying to play other instruments where I’m still discovering what to do on them.
GC You were born in Bloomington, but you’ve lived and made music in Urbana, Chicago, Los Angeles, and now New York. How much does your current location influence the music you’re making?
NK A lot. When I lived in Chicago, I was living in a loft with [Make Believe], so we would just wake up and start practicing, which we did everyday, and we got a ton of stuff done. Living in Urbana, we could afford to rent a house there, so I set up a home studio, and that’s where I made the last three Birthmark albums.
In LA, I didn’t really do anything because I was just kind of floundering, trying to live in a different city. I didn’t really make much out there. I interned at a studio and got some free time to record … where you’re living really has a huge impact on how much time and space you have to make something. I haven’t had much time or space in New York either!
GC I’ve heard you mention in previous interviews that you don’t expect to make any money off of the music you’re making. “Rock is the new Jazz.” Do you have a day job?
NK I do. Well, I need a music project for my mental health, so I think it would be great to be able to earn a modest living and have that be the same thing, but I just don’t think that that’s likely. I don’t want to plan on that happening.
Charles Ives was a composer who was also a successful insurance salesman. He was just a composer on the side. And because of that, his compositions were totally out there! He would write these off the wall compositions … and because he was successful doing insurance, it allowed him to take a lot of risks with his music. He said he wouldn’t have wanted to rely on music alone to support his family.
GC Gustave Flaubert said “Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
NK Yeah! I totally see that. It’s funny, when I do chat up people who have achieved some success with playing in bands, they always get tired of being on tour, and they’re not as into it. What a bummer to have your only exciting thing not be exciting anymore.
GC “Please Go Away” is probably the track on Antibodies that sounds most like Make Believe. How do you try to keep your projects separate, and how are they different?
NK They’re way different. In Birthmark, I try not to play drums super crazy. On the first Birthmark album, the songs that do have drums were really simple, and that’s because the drumming I was doing in Make Believe was crazy and all over the place at the time. It was kind of a joke to do the straightest thing possible, to frame it in a different way. Or do something “crazy” like play in 4/4! (laughter)
GC Your album was successfully funded via Kickstarter. Would you do it again?
NK I don’t think I would do it again, maybe because I feel like you can only publicly ask for money once! (laughter) Joan of Arc did it, so I was asking Tim [Kinsella] how it went, and he was like “Oh, it’s super weird … ”
It really just depends on whether you have enough friends and family members to support you. When I check out the music page on Kickstarter, I see all the bands that want to make an album. Well, everyone wants to do that! And if you can through Kickstarter, you’re very lucky. And I am, but I feel like you can’t keep doing it, and I wouldn’t do it again, or at least I don’t think I would do it for just art. It would have to be for something more useful, like a new invention. I do like to go on Kickstarter and check out all the technology stuff that people are doing, which is the most interesting to me.
GC Have you thought about scoring any films? I feel like your music would lend to cinema nicely.
NK I would love to do that. I have a friend who’s asked me to write some music for a film that he’s working on, so I guess I have an opportunity there. I haven’t done a lot of it, though. I did in college when I was going to school for recording. One of the projects was to strip all the audio from the movie and make up stuff for it, sound effects and all. We did a Wallace and Gromit scene, and then the battle scene in Army of Darkness, stuff like that.
GC Do you view your voice as just another instrument along the others on this album, or is it sitting on top of the music?
NK On this album, it’s definitely sitting on top. It functions as more of a lead vocal than an instrument, but I do like to have it play more of an instrument role occasionally. On “Big Man,” there’s a lot of floating vocals and falsetto stuff, but I guess I’d rather have other people sing those parts. I don’t feel like I’m a really strong singer.
GC Have you thought about making an entirely instrumental album?
NK Yeah, I have, I think an instrumental album would be really fun, and it would really help me think about music in a different way, just to have the songs pushing forward based on the music, and not the lead vocal. Plus, I don’t like singing live so it would be more fun to just play! It’s either that or an all-acoustic album. I shouldn’t even say anything or I’m just gonna jinx it!
Bird Sounds From the Lyre Bird – David Attenborough