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Before Mike and Nate Kinsella had any LIES songs, they had code names – Robyn, Depeche Mode, The Cure, Peter Gabriel. But if Mike had his way, LIES might’ve gone all in on the gated snares and Aqua Net to tailor their arena synth-pop ambitions in the image of Def Leppard. No longer beholden to Owen or American Football’s expectations of modesty and melancholy, Mike put aside his trademark twinkles and dreamed of guitarmonies upon guitarmonies – the multi-tracked riffs you might associate with “Bringin’ On The Heartbreak,” but also, say, “The Boys Are Back In Town” or most Boston songs. While the Kinsellas were working on one of the sketches from their debut album Lies, Nate remembers “that [guitarmony] came in and I do remember sinking down on the couch.” Mike does not deny the Hysteria allegations – “you and [producer] Jason [Cupp] were so mad.”
But this was just about the only point of contention between the Kinsellas in the creation of Lies – the longest, most daring and sonically complex record the cousins have ever made together and also somehow the easiest. The latter was a necessity if LIES was going to be more than just another pandemic-inspired lark. Though this is the first time Nate and Mike have been exclusive creative partners, there are many, many branches on the Kinsella Family Tree – both played in Tim Kinsella’s long-running Joan of Arc, Nate joined the JOA offshoot Make Believe and contributed to several of Mike’s albums as Owen, while also starting his own band Birthmark. But the Kinsellas naturally want LIES to be seen as explicitly distinct from American Football, which Nate joined as a touring member upon their reunion and as a full-on contributor to their 2019 album. The comparisons are inevitable and also somewhat warranted. Though Mike sings in character throughout Lies, aching melodies are unmistakable as those of Mike Kinsella. “[Nate] wanted me to be a little more gentle but I only do ‘on or off,’ I don’t have a lot of nuance,” he jokes.
More pointedly, most of Lies evolved from sessions meant to create American Football LP4 – intended as a departure from their well-received reunion records, but an American Football album all the same. “I knew we wanted to go in a new direction,” Mike states, and initial sessions yielded about 20 sketches with quintessential, searching American Football guitar melodies on top. “Oh, these could work! You can see in the future where these could live in American Football world.”
A remote workflow wouldn’t necessarily preclude a successful American Football record – their 2016 self-titled was largely conceived through Dropbox files and knocked out quickly in Omaha between family and career obligations. But as those same concerns arose throughout 2020, Mike admits “the process of trying to write with four people took its toll,” as hourlong Zoom sessions between the band would yield ideas but little tangible results. “Yeah there will be a second guitar thing, it’ll be there…or Nate would be, yeah, “I’ll add the strings and it’ll sound real lush,’” he shrugs, tapping into the “hurry up and wait” frustration familiar to anyone whose job has become reliant on committee meetings on Zoom. “There will be a thing that exists later, then what are we doing now?”
Having streamlined to a duo, LIES bypassed those production bottlenecks and the committee thinking that might’ve ruled out some of their quirkier decisions – such as the broken-glass beats and Foley effects in “Broken” or the concussive kick-drum of lead single “Resurrection.” “I did worry about the new direction starting with synthesizers,” Nate reflects. “I could see some American Football purists like, ‘what are they doing, this is terrible, they’re jumping the shark.’ It was nice to shed that and not think about it at all.”
Nate, how close were you to Mike and Tim while you were growing up?
Nate Kinsella: When we were really little, we’d see each other quite a bit for holidays. I lived in Central Illinois, Bloomington-Normal area. When I was 10, I moved to Minneapolis and that’s when they started forming Cap’n Jazz, American Football, Owen – I caught up with them later when they started touring, they’d come through Minneapolis and then I’d just show up. I was following everything they were doing, literally going on the release date and waiting at the record store for their albums to show up.
Mike Kinsella: Eventually we showed up to Minneapolis and little cousin Nate would have his own math-rock emo band that was playing this show, like, oh – “Nate fucking shreds.” At some point, you brought your bass to Thanksgiving or Christmas or something and you were rocking Jane’s Addiction and Red Hot Chili Peppers…“hey, cousin Nate, we should drag him into this shitty indie world that we’re in.” Cheap labor at the time.
Nate: It wasn’t until years later, when I moved to Chicago in 2003 and that’s when I got to join up with Joan of Arc. Whatever was happening, I was more than happy to jump in.
Mike: You moved to Chicago because we had a Joan of Arc US and European tour and I didn’t want to play drums. So we recruited you to play drums so I could play bass and have more fun.
Mike, was there a point where you started to really see Nate as a musician rather than “cousin Nate”?
Mike: I remember on that long Joan of Arc tour, after a couple of weeks, we’d think, “oh, this would be so cool if it was like a drum jam with the two of us,” and we built this half kit around your kit. We had drum jams and rewrote songs for the live experience. I mean, we’re into the same shit, even if it’s not the same artists, we bob our heads at the same part of songs. We feel shit the same and that was evident early on when Tim was trying to deconstruct [Joan of Arc songs], we spoke the same language.
Nate: I remember helping you out on an Owen album you recorded at your mom’s place. You wanted some help mixing and recording, so I came out for a weekend or a couple of days – that was probably the first time it was just the two of us.
Mike: At the time, I was trying to home-engineer and you were absolutely into it and went to school for it and had actual talent. But we’re both really into that part of the process, whereas there are other dudes in other bands that I’m currently in still, they just don’t understand what we’re going for on this take in the studio. Like, we don’t need to nail every little thing.
Especially as the pandemic started, I’ve seen a lot more established artists dedicate themselves to making singles or one-off projects without the expectation of turning them into albums or tours. When did LIES start to emerge as something more viable long-term?
Mike: It’s been so long since the whole thing started, I feel like we were the old guys saying, “let’s just do a bunch of singles ad nauseum. Let’s release two songs at a time for the next 18 months so we don’t have to get in the studio.” But it was too hard to press six little tiny records, so we compiled enough songs [for an album]. A bigger question was when we figured out the album could exist cohesively. There was a plan to release two songs, all inspired in different ways and the artwork would correspond – the shoegaze songs, the goth songs, the pop songs, the dark songs. That became logistically impossible. But we had enough songs that we liked where we thought, “we should absolutely keep working on these.”
Nate: Everything was in pairs already, we had that in mind from the get-go. We tried to mix everything up with the album sequence, but we kept it with how it was.
So the sequencing of Lies is essentially chronological?
Nate: I think it totally is.
Mike: With [opener] “Blemishes,” we threw everything at it. It’s a bunch of things buzzing around all over from start to finish. The second session was a reaction [to the first] – they’re acoustic and pared down a little more. Lyrically, “No Shame” is not that many lines.
The maximalism does seem to peak halfway through with “Broken.” With things like the party–horn sound that comes in, do you have a backlog of samples where you think, “where can I throw this in?” or do you search after the fact?
Nate: It’s more searching, “oh, this calls for a party horn!” I have so many Splice credits, I don’t know what to do with them. We get the feel of what’s going to happen and then we can back away and sculpt from the outside. Even “Blemishes,” all the vocals, those were after the fact, fun things to throw in. Then I had a friend record vocals over that to add a more human element to it.
Were there other artistic projects that you dedicated yourselves to during the pandemic?
Mike: A bunch of things for me – I’m gonna parent a different way, etc. It all lasts a couple of weeks and then you’re like, “I want my real life back.”
Nate: We started a project like this once before that was way looser and had no parameters and it sorta fizzled out. These all started as American Football songs, that’s where they were gonna end up and that was a project that fizzled out too.
Mike: This was the impetus for LP4. We went to Jersey and stayed at one of [Nate’s] friend’s apartment for like 40 hours and just sifted through his little synth sketches. There’s something about being in a room and making music with people live and you’re amped up and there’s immediate satisfaction. And then we’d Zoom the whole band, an hour would go by and then it’s time to go.
Once you decided that LIES would be a duo, were the Zoom sessions scheduled in advance or was it more a matter of when inspiration struck?
Mike: If enough time went by, we would plan something. Like, in two weeks, let’s spend all Sunday [working]. We get a lot done on the Zooms. But you don’t need to sit here on Zoom and watch me noodle on guitar. That’s not productive. When we meet in two weeks, I’ll have the guitar thing or I’ll send you a file.
Nate: We tried to make it as efficient as possible, because the wi-fi’s shaky. We’d set aside an entire weekend and set a cable out into the shed, just to sit down and have something not work. We’d make checklists a lot of the time, we had to figure out what our limits were.
Using that method, how long does it take to complete a LIES song?
Mike: I don’t even know if we’ve had [the album] done for a year and a half or two years. I don’t even remember when we started this shit, because of the pandemic and whatever. “Rouge Vermouth,” that’s one of my favorites – it’s not technically hard to play, I had two lines and a melody that I liked. I knew what it was supposed to be and what it would be. “Echoes,” not so easy – fuck, how did this song end up over five minutes? When I’m on my own working on something, it’s so satisfying to think, “I’m not getting anywhere, I’m going to shelve this and open another file.” And my brain’s like, “this is so easy, this melody is so easy.” It seems way less arduous to have all these different parameters on each song, American Football is like…it does live within this little world. I can come back and think, “it’s still gonna be in 11/7, it’s still gonna be frustrating.”
Nate, were there songs or even moments that made you think, “I’ve never heard that from Mike before?”
Nate: Committing to the “Camera Chimera” vocals, that sounded really awesome. Or the drum line on “Broken,” that was Mike’s idea – “I hear a marching band, do you have a marching band?” I have one, right in the computer.
Mike: It would take me four seconds to have an idea and then Nate would have to spend a month on it. “Aw, this isn’t the right marching band, this isn’t the right one!”
I recall that you brought in a bunch of local kids to do the choral part with American Football’s “Heir Apparent,” did you do something similar in finding a marching band for “Broken”?
Nate: I found some marching band samples and we went to redo it, we mixed them together. We didn’t end up hiring one. We did work with a harpist I was a big fan of, that was fun. Angel Deradoorian sang on some stuff, so did my friend Arone Dyer who sings in Buke & Gase, we were roommates and we went to high school together. Also, Miya Folick…and, oh, my wife.
Mike: You can hear her laugh at the end of “Blemishes.”
Most of the placeholder code names you had for these songs are bigger names, were there any that were more obscure or personal?
Nate: They were all big picture.
Mike: I’ll think, “oh, that part sounds like Tsunami.” In my head, I’ll think this one little thing sounds like 1996 indie rock with a girl singing even if it doesn’t sound that way at all. There has to be moments where, Nate, you’re like, “I want to put a party horn here because that’s what NNAMDÏ would do.”
Nate: My favorite sound is the opening to Dinosaur Jr.’s “Feel the Pain,” where they pull the cork out of the bottle. That’s totally my thing. We dialed that back a bit actually.
When starting a side project, I know that many artists try to set ground rules so they don’t sound like their other ones. Was anything like that in place with LIES in relation to American Football?
Mike: It was way more, “what can we do?” We could put horns, strings, harp, all these things. It’s not like we can’t do that in American Football, but there always has to be a couple of guitar melodies. Here, the drum beat could be glass being broken, we don’t have to consider, “how do we do this on tour?” Well, now we do.
The beat of “Resurrection” reminds me of the time I saw American Football do a one-off opening for Chvrches, was there an impulse to push the songs here towards those bigger, more arena-rock type sounds?
Mike: Every time. When we were in New York, Nate puts [sings the intro synth riff] down and…that was it, that buh-buh-buh was the song at the time. Well, what the fuck was that? Then I put my guitar over it and, OK, cool, that could be American Football because of the noodle guitar. But “Camera Chimera,” [sings synth riff] – that’s the song.
I appreciate how that song taught me the proper pronunciation of “chimera,” I’d been getting it wrong this whole time.
Nate: After we finished it, I got home and I asked [my wife] Jamie…how do you pronounce this word? I want to make sure we did this right.
Mike: When I write in Owen, it’s always just a little story. But this, the music was like, “fuck, we can literally do whatever we want.” I had those two words together, I don’t know what they mean, I had to work backwards. But “camera chimera,” they work with this song.
In contrast to the more straightforward storytelling of Owen, how did your approach to lyrics and vocals change to match the instrumentation of LIES?
Mike: It was sort of like a cover band. After we figured out “this sounds like the Cure” and we have all the tones, cool – what’s the darkest Robert Smith kind of shit and I’m going to sing it that way. Nate, because he doesn’t want it to be just a cover band, says, “I’m gonna put growls underneath the vocals.” He’s still making it playful and fun. “Camera Chimera” is totally Depeche Mode, funneled through me. It’s dark and sexy and generic but you’re like…it’s relatable because it’s so vague. “No Shame,” that’s the Majical Cloudz one, it’s inspired by how I felt it was taking shape. I feel like I’m just telling stories and being in character. I can’t get away with that in Owen. Once I put myself sitting in flip flops on the first album cover…eh, i’m just that guy now. no one’s gonna believe i’m someone else. I can’t come out with a leather jacket on at an Owen show. I can, but it’s probably too late.
Lies is out 3/31 via Polyvinyl. Get it here.
Upcoming LIES Tour Dates:
04/23 – Chicago, IL @ Sleeping Village
04/24 – Pittsburgh, PA @ Club Cafe
04/28 – Brooklyn, NY @ Baby’s All Right
04/29 – Philadelphia, PA @ Ukie Club
04/30 – Washington, DC @ DC9