Kirin J Callinan has launched his debut Embracism with a string of shows around Australia over the past couple of weeks, also visiting New Zealand and bound for Perth this Friday July 19th.
I spoke to him about Embracism a few weeks ago after being tapped by his management to preview the record. I listened for the first time early in the morning, riding the train to work along the mountains line, and was impressed. After only a few hours sleep, I was experiencing it with my guard down, and felt conscious that the setting was geographically appropriate, seeing as he lived in the mountains in his younger life. The record is well produced and the songs are diverse in his typical style; shifting between coarse, metallic industrial music with harshly delivered vocals to soft ballads overrun with grandiose pianos and spacious guitars drenched in reverb, tracked in the studio one string at a time. The lyrical content is autobiographical and covers a range of subjects, from fascination with raw physicality and masculinity, thinly veiled revelations of secret indiscretion in love, looking to the past and singing to his friends, thoughts on eternal life, reincarnation and the river of souls: “Life is a landslide, we are dirt, falling with the landslide.”
Any of these ten songs may jump out more than others in the moment, but this album will be one to enjoy over time, taking on new dimensions. It’s one hell of a debut record and one that should deservedly elevate his status as a musician and recording artist. After propagating a contentious reputation in some quarters through purposefully unsettling video clips and the controversial performance at Sugar Mountain Festival in January, it can be reasonably assumed that some people see him as some manner of pretentious attention seeker. Obviously I’m not one of those people. Our music scene is enhanced by interesting personalities, and frankly there aren’t too many. To me this record signifies the moment it became much more difficult to criticise Kirin J Callinan for his style of performance or public persona. You may do so, but one cannot so easily deride someone who’s made a record as good as this one.
Q: I was wondering who you produced the record with and what the process was like? Is it all multi-tracked?
A: Yeah it was all recorded in Pro Tools, I mean I did it with my buddy Kim (Moyes from The Presets) who … it was kind of bizarre how it came to be that I was doing it with Kim. But the cool thing about it was that he actually recorded the very first thing I ever did in the studio, it was the first time I ever went into a studio as a teenager. I was playing in, I don’t know if you remember The Valentinos? But, we did our first things with him. So to do the record with him had this poetry to it, a full circle kind of thing at least. But did it with Ken in his house, it was largely just there working on it, we got a bunch of other people in to track things, but yeah everything was multi-tracked. There’s not one live band performance on there. Everything’s overdubbed. It was built kind of starting with a drum beat or metronome and then playing the song on a guitar or on a piano and then building it up around that. It was a process, yep. It took a while. There’s not even full drum performances on there, it’s recorded each snare separately, each kick and each hi-hat and each cymbol.
I even did guitar performances on there one string at a time. Like full chordal sections just doing it one string at a time. Getting a very distinct sound, and in the mixing process it was cool, you have to really spread the placement and then to EQ individual drums or individual strings in a unique way. The idea with the record was to capture the songs in the best possible light, to hone in on them and focus and make definitive versions of all of them because they’ve all existed for so long in the live experience which is you know, a time and place only, to really hone in on the songs. That was the idea so we spared no amount of effort in order to achieve that.
Q: Over what period did you write these songs and did they take their shape in the recording process or did you have it reasonably sketched out in your mind?
A: Some of them were entirely new, like we built them from an instrumental in the studio and then I’d write lyrics at some point and come and perform them. Others were already written and had been demo-ed or even attempted to be performed before so they were much more kind of honed in already. It was just a matter of getting them right.
Some of them I’d written as a teenager and then others I wrote just in the past six months. So it’s a mix and I anticipate on future records as well I’ll draw upon both old songs, there’s a bank of them, you know, from playing in other bands where I wasn’t the main songwriter. I’ve got a build-up of songs that I haven’t released or finished and on records to come I’ll be drawing on old ideas, also writing new ones and doing stuff in the moment in the studio to have a combination.
Q: The lyrical content of the songs seems really autobiographical and there’s a sense that you’re singing from experience or a sense of reality. So are these all things that have happened in your life or are there some instances of poetic license and storytelling?
A: Yeah of course it’s all come from a personal place or through my own experience, but then there’s fiction and there’s storytelling and you know there’s words that rhyme with other words. Because they rhyme or they sound nice they paint a nice image. But regardless of all that it all comes from a personal place and I draw upon real experiences. Even if lyrically I’m singing about something that’s total fiction it still draws from an emotional place or an old memory or some sort of thing that you have to give.
And then of course there is really autobiographical ones. They’re veiled, or thinly veiled as something else that doesn’t immediately jump out. But having now done a few interviews about the songs and having people hearing the record that’s kind of being missed as well. Although when my mum heard it, she got it. Mum always knows.
Q: I was struck by the way that you’ve crafted the record and sequenced it, you’ll hit the listener with something that goes really hard and then ease it back with a soft song. Like Come On USA moving into Victoria M, which is like a sweet kind of love song.
A: I don’t know if I think of that as a love song, but I know what you mean.
Q: Of course. But at least to the ear it’s a soft or sweet kind of song. I was probably impressed the most in terms of that technique between Way II War and Landslide. It was total A and B. Polar, not extremes, but flip-sides of that dynamic.
A: Yeah that’s always kind of been part of what I’ve been doing. You know live I’ll go between ballads and really kind of violent, loud, aggressive music. I mean even the Way II War seven inch’s release was paired on the b-side with a ballad called Thighs, which was probably even more opposite to Way II War than Landslide. But you know I think it’s kind of what keeps it interesting for me as well, whereas if the record or what I did as a whole was one or the other, you know just ballads or just more industrial, I think it’s just the balance of the dichotomy between the two, it paints a bigger picture.
Q: For sure, I found Landslide very interesting. It comes across as quite a spiritual song, or spiritual in the content. Again is that sort of willfully painting poetically or something that you feel genuinely and therefore you’re singing about it?
A: No I mean it’s both. I mean there’s also a time and a place, I don’t really dwell over lyrics or necessarily believe them or really even understand them when I’m writing. You know often the process of writing lyrics might only take 10 minutes. You know you kind of sit there with a pen and paper for hours or days or years and write nothing, and then you can start with a line and you’ve written a song in like 15 minutes. You kind of just want to let it flow the way it flows more than anything else. But that one specifically I mean yeah there’s themes of reincarnation and eternal life, and there’s that conspiracy kind of vibe I was into when I was writing. When was that one? Maybe about three years ago. So even what I was feeling at the time of writing are vague memories. But more than anything I was just trying to paint nice pictures as well.
And you know there’s kind of a lot of dumb plays on words on there as well that seemed fine at the time, you know that made sense. Or mostly dumb plays on words like “bank,” double meaning of bank, “the banks closing in.” Or berthing at a dock, could be in a boat or born in a hospital to the doctor there. I mean there’s a bunch in there. It was as much about playing with language and multiples of meaning as it was about any real feeling. I guess I was getting inspired by spiritual notions of eternal life and multiple lives on Earth and what’s in between, and you know I’m not religious but I’m certainly exploring my spirituality and I think that’s a consistent theme across the whole record.
Even the stuff that’s more literally about physical things or literally about physicality or my body, it’s still … I’ve got to that point through a spiritual kind of journey; a way of being. There’s a bit of looking for beliefs and a belief in physicality or something. I guess the whole thing is … it sounds or feels pretentious, but less protection, hopefully posing deeper questions.
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The following clip for Victoria M was released this week. Kirin as many characters. Enjoy.
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