Kirin J Callinan: “I’ve never been deliberately confrontational”

Professional enigma? Enfant terrible? Provocateur? Kirin J Callinan is ready to let his music speak for itself, writes EDWARD SHARP-PAUL.

Given his obvious abilities, it sometimes feels like a shame that the whole Kirin J Callinan “enfant terrible” thing overshadows the man’s recorded output. And then you remember that his recorded output amounts to one EP and a single. It seems like he’s been around forever, and yet Callinan’s new album Embracism is his first full release, on the third attempt (a live album was recorded and remains unreleased, and an entire studio album was completed and scrapped). The album is good enough to justify the sense of expectation that has stalked Callinan for a while now, and the sense is that he’s on the verge of something significant, both locally and internationally.

Callinan is a polarising figure: from his initial emergence as resident guitar noise-terrorist in the otherwise placid Mercy Arms, he’s pissed off as many people as he has captivated. He is a magnetic performer with a fondness for pushing the audience and his luck. At the Sugar Mountain festival in January, Callinan and collaborator Kris Moyes caused a public outcry after an attempt to trigger an epileptic fit live on stage. (When organisers got wind of their plans, they wisely pulled the plug.) His Kris Moyes-directed film clips are similarly arresting, with the same tendency to test the limits of good taste. Callinan’s public persona makes it easy to forget that underneath it all, there’s just a dude making music. But that’s the point: it’s never that simple with Callinan.

Over the course a 40-minute call while “on a bus, on a road, somewhere in the US”, Callinan revealed himself to be a thoughtful interlocutor, possessed of the sort of uncluttered mind that you’d want in a musician, self-aware and endlessly curious.

It seems like you’ve generated a bit of interest in America already. This is obviously something you’re looking to capitalise on?

Yeah, I’d love to able to keep playing here and make it work. I’m certainly not gonna be able to sustain a life making music if I were to stay in Australia. I want to take it worldwide – always have – and for the first time, a record that I’ve made is getting an international release – here, Europe, the UK, Japan and the rest of Asia and beyond. I’d love to be able to keep touring and making records and have it become a worldwide endeavour. I mean, I’m not setting the world on fire, but it’s been nice how much interest there’s been already.

Am I right in thinking Chris Taylor [Grizzly Bear, co-founder of Terrible Records] has had a large hand in establishing you over there?

Well, his label’s releasing my music, and they’ve been great, but he runs it with another guy, who’s taken care of a lot of it – Chris is very busy as a musician, producer, mixer. So in terms of the record he hasn’t had much of a hand in that – although he mixed the record with me. But he has been a big support personally. I’ve supported his band on a number of occasions, in Australia, New Zealand, France. But it’s early days: None of it really means anything until your music connects with people emotionally, or at least on some level, so we’ll see how we go.

“I’m certainly not gonna be able to sustain a life making music if I stay in Australia”

It’s probably fair to say Embracism has been a little while coming. What was the timeline like on making the thing?

This record only took about six months to record, and a month to mix. I only started working on it half-way through last year. However, I made an album in the first half of last year, which I kind of canned and started again. I also did a live record a few years ago, which I never released. And I’ve made home recordings and done albums that I’ve just burned to CD, or released online, or on cassettes or 7”. Those have been very limited in their, uh, reach, though. Some of the songs [on Embracism are very old, years and years old, but then some were written as they were recorded. It’s a bit of a cliche, but you could say I’ve been working on this stuff my whole life. But as far as the actual hours spent, [producer] Kim [Moyes, The Presets] and I did it pretty quickly.

You’ve been around for quite a while, either as a sideman, or in bands. Was there a sense that when it came to doing a solo record, you wanted to get it exactly right

I don’t want to put something out just for the hell of it. If I didn’t like it, or at least find it interesting, I wouldn’t want to inflict on anyone else. I mean, it’s not like it’ll be paying the bills or anything. There’s no other motive to it, so if I didn’t think it was worth seeing through, then I wouldn’t do it. The other thing is that I’ve played in a heap of different bands, collaborating with different people and making records with them. The solo thing’s always been a side venture that I could do for the hell of it, whether it was playing shows here and there or doing recordings. It was largely for my own, uh gratification.

This time, the opportunity was there. Being in bands where I wasn’t the main songwriter, I’ve built up a lot of songs, and this was a chance to home in on them, work them out, finish them, and put ‘em out. In that sense it’s been a long time coming. But I’ve never had any great expectation or pressure on myself, really. While making something, of course you put pressure on yourself, but there wasn’t any great ambition beyond making the songs the best they could be.

With your work as a sideman, do you find it liberating to interpret other peoples’ songs? Or is it just that people ask, and you’re available?

Yeah, it’s both. With Tim [Jack Ladder] I was asked to join the band, and it was an expressive outlet, to be in band with such strong songs. I could paint a sonic mess over the top. Dancing in and out of the more solid aspects of the song, doing something more abstract and undefined. And I guess it was similar in Mercy Arms, though probably with a bit more invested. Despite not being the main songwriter, I was kind of the band-leader – I took control, and was very bossy.

I like playing other people’s bands: playing with Jarrod [Quarrel] in Lost Animal was incredible, because I had no involvement in the record, and I could just dive in and enjoy it. Having lots of different collaborators is great for a whole host of reasons, and it’s all come about because I’ve said yes to things. I’ve had to reign the solo thing in and give it some shape and focus to get it over the line, but it’s equally enjoyable for different reasons.

Kirin (left) with Tim Rogers aka Jack Ladder

With Mercy Arms, you said that there was a bit at stake. You guys were really hotly tipped for a while, was that a burden that you found difficult to bear?

Nup, not at all. I would only expect the best of myself anyway, so there was no weight of extra pressure. To form a band, and to be flown around the world to sign a massive record deal within a year – even if it didn’t work out, it was validating as an artist.

You made your name as a guitarist and you’ve gone and put out a quasi-industrial album, with this distinctive voice and lyrical tone. Maybe it’s rude to interpret your music…

No, that’s the whole idea!

Well, you seem to be talking about the performativity of humans as social creatures, and issues of masculinity and sex. Am I reading this correctly?

Well, for a long time with my solo stuff, I was exploring my femininity, I was cross-dressing, and lyrically I was often speaking from the perspective of a female. Indirectly, [the lyrics on Embracism related to being in Australia and, the values and the culture, and feeling my own masculinity more and more. More directly, it’s related to becoming a single male. I made the record directly after a pretty intense breakup. I’d been in a monogamous relationship for my whole life as an adult, so to find myself as a single man at age 26 for the first time – that definitely informed my lyrics. And performing nude or semi-nude onstage or in film clips, it’s all an extension of this investigation of masculinity, for want of a less pretentious term.

You’ve developed a reputation – through your blunt-force aspect of your lyrics, you performance style and your film clips with Kris [Moyes] – as a confrontational artist. Is confrontation and provocation something you feel is an important aspect of art, and of your art in particular?

As a performer, I just gravitate towards that stuff. Confrontational is not a great word, I can’t say I’ve ever been deliberately confrontational. Provocative might be a nicer word. I mean, the title of the record is ‘Embracism’, and one of the dictionary definitions of embracism is “the opposite of escapism”. I try to ask questions of the audience, and of myself: things are more interesting when there’s an element of the unknown.

More than anything, that’s why I make the decisions I make, not just with the live shows and the film clips, but with the songs themselves. Not because of some cerebral master plan, I’m not that focused. I don’t even necessarily understand my songs, or even why I do this, but that’s what’s exciting. As soon as I think I know what it is that I’m doing, that’s when it starts to go wrong.

Now, would you like to talk about [US singer] Scott Walker or Sugar Mountain Festival?

Um, I’d prefer to talk about Scott Walker…

I thought so…

Well, just quickly on the Sugar Mountain thing. It was a thing that happened and left a lot of questions unanswered, and it raised a lot of questions that we didn’t intend to raise. More than anything, it was deliberate chaos. To talk about it now and to say what was planned and what wasn’t, and what really happened, that would defeat the whole purpose and take away from it. I think it’s more interesting left unsaid.

What I will say, though, is that the whole thing was a success. Kris and I walked offstage and gave each other a big hug. We couldn’t have been happier. But the ramifications of it went way beyond what we could have planned, for it to go to talkback radio the next day – the amount of fan mail and hate mail I got after that was mind-blowing.


Fair point. However, if you draw a distinction between “provocative” and “confrontational” I would say that Sugar Mountain was the one time that you crossed that.

Were you at the show?


OK, well that wasn’t our intention. It was kind of funny; it seemed like a big joke. To do some sort of audio-visual collision would have been boring and obvious, and against the grain of what we’ve done together thus far. The festival probably wanted that, but we wanted to push things into uncharted waters, but with a sense of humour. That was the most amazing thing, how many people were emotionally affected, and upset, and aggressive. That was surreal.

I guess there’s a point where the atmosphere of a room can get beyond the performer’s control.

Yeah, it did get out control. It was cool.

Now, Scott Walker. I heard that The Drift was a pivotal album for you…

I heard it before it came out. Mercy Arms was courted by a number of labels, including Atlantic, and we were given a promo copy of The Drift among a whole lot of others while we were in London. I’d never heard of him before, I didn’t know he’d been around since the ‘60s. Hearing that record, I was not only blown away, but validated – it sounded like the music I was attempting to make at home, with the almost atonal guitar and the big baritone croon. At the time, I’d never played live solo. I was very self-conscious about my voice – even attempting to do backing vocals in Mercy Arms. I’d been made to feel, y’know, shit about my voice by the singer, Thom, who had a very pretty voice but who was also a total arsehole.

I didn’t feel confident with my own voice, basically, and here’s Scott Walker with this over-the-top, theatrical, warped-sounding baritone. It felt very familiar, and it was part of the reason I had the confidence to eventually play live. But I have all sorts of other musical inspirations, and I would hate be seen as some sort of imitation, because what I do comes from a very personal place. People have said that before, and I don’t really give a shit, but I don’t like being misrepresented.

Will the Dreamlanders [Jack Ladder’s band] ride again sometime soon?

Yeah. Tim’s got a whole bunch of new songs. If he hasn’t already, he’ll be going into the studio soon with Kim, who I did my record with. I’ll go in and play guitar when I get back, and I’ve got the time. But it’s largely going to be Tim taking control of the record, which is what he needs, I think. With the last record, it’s bizarre how much shit he got, and how much praise me and the rest of the band got – despite the fact that they were his songs. It was a weird and disappointing thing to see. But he’s great, he my favourite songwriter in the country at the moment, and I look forward to his new songs, they’re the best yet.

Kirin J. Callinan’s Embracism is out on June 28 though Siberia Records, Terrible Records & XL Recordings.

Kirin J Callinan tour:

Wednesday, June 26 – Yours & Owls, Wollongong

Thursday, June 27 – Terrace Bar, Newcastle

Friday, June 28 – The Standard, Sydney

Saturday, June 29 – The Zoo, Brisbane

Thursday, July 4 – Northcote Social Club, Melbourne

Friday, July 5 – Jive, Adelaide

Friday, July 19 – The Bakery, Perth

Saturday, July 20 – Mojos, Fremantle