Smile Politely

Birthmark: Toying with expectations

The Kinsella family members are no stranger to Champaign-Urbana. Their bands are commonly featured at Pygmalion, many are signed to Polyvinyl, and a lot of them spent years in one city or the other (or both). Even those with an average amount of knowledge about these guys probably know about the influential crew Cap’n Jazz, which features Mike & Tim Kinsella, as well as their side projects in Owen, Joan of Arc, American Football, and many more. The one who might not be as well known around town is this guy, Nate Kinsella.

At one point, this interview was a near-botched job on my part and almost didn’t happen. There are plenty of details that are vital when trying to get in touch with a touring musician, one most importantly is knowing what time zone they are playing in that night. Luckily, I eventually realized that 10 p.m. in Ohio is not 10 p.m. in Illinois. A few minutes before the actual time I was supposed to speak with him, I straightened myself out and came to the realization that Nate Kinsella has been on tour on the east coast and was playing in Cincinnati in EST. It all works out in the end, I suppose. 

Kinsella, creator and composer of the entire outfit of Birthmark, is paying a visit to Mike ‘N Molly’s tonight with Evil Tents and Easter. I was lucky enough to get a chance to talk to him for a few minutes before he took the stage in Cincinnati about playing on tour, swimming in natural lakes and bathing in waterfalls, his new record Antibodies, and more.

Kinsella and the band have been touring fora few weeks now, covering parts of the Midwest (including Chicago a few weeks ago at The Empty Bottle). Columbus, Philadephia, Washington, D.C., Manhattan, Brooklyn, Boston — the works. Pittsburgh was also in the mix a few days ago, and then Cincinnati when we spoke. Touring can get pretty rugged at times, but he seemed fairly optimistic and upbeat about everything that was going on.

I nudged, asking what had been interesting about a bunch of cities he’s already been to. “On our day off [between Boston and Pittsburgh], we went to this place called the Delaware Water Gap. It’s a big national forest preserve that’s in Pennsylvania and we went swimming in this huge waterfall. It was really, really amazing.”

Those sort of things seemed to me like they would get completely overlooked when you’re going from city to city playing on tour. It’s not something that would be the first thing to think of doing on a day off. “It was just an impromptu outdoor activity. Those are typically so much fun. I kind of forgot how fun things like that can be at times,” Kinsella said. Of course bands on tour probably need a shower once in a while, and what better place to do it than at a national forest preserve.

I seemed to be getting off topic with conversation competely unrelated to music. For some reason with me, it tends to happen if I have something planned out right in front of me to talk about. Getting sidetracked is the norm.

Kinsella is playing a show after all, so I asked about audience reception to the new material, expecting to hear something about shows he has played around the States in past years of playing Birthmark material. He went on to tell me he’s never played Birthmark material in the United States: “This is actually the first tour I’ve done in the U.S. with Birthmark. This is the first time I’ve done any U.S. cities, so it’s the first time anyone over here is hearing the songs live.”

Wait, what?

“I’ve done two European tours in the past, but this is the first one in the U.S.” This was definitely an interesting way of doing things — almost backwards when I thought about it some more. Kinsella explained:

It depends on how you look at it. Going to Europe is interesting, because they have these youth centers and have a lot of funding for art, and we go there and tour for three weeks and break even financially. It’s just set up so much differently over there. The reason I haven’t done it in the U.S. is because it’s so expensive to do it. For a band like Birthmark, one that not many people know about, it’s kind of difficult. I wanted to do it, so I saved up some money and then decided to go do it for fun and that’s about it.

Kinsella has quite the crew out on tour with him at the moment. A full set of strings plus some other rhythm section members that could be familiar to people in C-U. Luke Bergkoetter, a guy you might have seen in other local bands Take Care and Anna Karina/Anna Karina, is playing drums for Kinsella across this tour. “All of these people are friends of mine — it’s a good group.”

Sometimes there are ties to the community that aren’t always expected. Kinsella lived in Champaign for about five years, and got familiar with a bunch of people in the music scene while he was here. It’s been almost a year since he moved away from C-U, when he and his wife moved to Brooklyn. 

Obviously, Kinsella is no stranger to the area and has been releasing music off of Polyvinyl for a considerable amount of time:

They’ve put out some Joan of Arc albums I’ve played on, and they put out some vinyl releases for this other band I used to play in called Make Believe, so I’ve known all those guys for years. I occasionally check back in with them to see if they are interested in releasing anything I’ve made with Birthmark. It just happened to work out, so they helped me release it.

Birthmark’s new record is pretty interesting and puts a new spin on some of the older ideas Kinsella has had in previous records under this name. It feels to me that Antibodies is much more of an arrangment than it should be — tons of strings and wind instruments, xylophones, and other bits and pieces of things here and there:

It was a fun challenge recording this one. I really liked the sound of the wind instruments and strings. I don’t really play any [laughs], and they sound great. I was actually playing in an ensemble at Parkland for a while and it sounded amazing hearing those parts, so I wanted to incorporate some of that into the album.

The sound is much smoother than previous albums, which sometimes can be produced with some haste. However, overproduction isn’t an issue with the new record. It reminds me of bits and pieces of the St. Vincent record from a few years back, Actor (especially these tracks), or even something Owen Pallett or Beirut might put to tape. Kinsella referenced a few My Brightest Diamond albums, especially the understanding of how Shara Worden scores all of the compositions herself, with a small ensemble of non-typical instrumentation. “It’s refreshing to hear something new that doesn’t sound like any other record. That’s what I was trying to do.”

“In the context of not writing orchestral pieces, and even the fact that it’s on an indie label like Polyvinyl draws some certain connotations to [the new album]. I was challenging myself and just toying with expectations a bit, and messing with how music ‘should be’.”

When discussing how the new material was holding up, Kinsealla believed people were paying attention. “People seem to enjoy the music for the most part. People are attentive and don’t get up and leave in the middle of everything.” Typically that means you’re doing something right. 

As for expectations at tonight’s show at Mike ‘N Molly’s, Kinsella said, “Just expect a lot of people playing instruments.” The more, the merrier.

You can catch Birthmark tonight with locals Evil Tents and Easter over at Mike ‘N Molly’s. Doors open at 8:00 p.m.; showtime is 8:3011:00 p.m. $5 cover to get in.

Top photo by Chris Strong. 

Related Articles