Kirin J Callinan may not be “big in America” but he’s definitely of a notable size there. Right now he’s on tour somewhere near El Paso, Texas (“Right near the Mexican border!”). His album, Embracism, is being released there via US label Terrible Records, co-founded by Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear, who mixed the record with him.
The album has a song called ‘Come On USA’ that sounds embittered and disdainful (beyond your typical Australian dislike of the country responsible for foisting the Black Eyed Peas upon us). But apparently it goes down quite well with the American audiences he’s been playing for.
“As much as anywhere else in the world, probably, there’s anti-American sentiment here in America,” says Callinan. “Especially among young people. I played in Austin last night and Houston the night before and Dallas the night before that and played ‘Come On USA’ at every one of those shows.”
The song contains an excellent refrain: “I cry when I listen to Springsteen.” It’s about being disappointed in what the USA is compared to the ideals it represents; what he calls “the myth of America.” A part of me is slightly worried that Callinan’s being sarcastic when he name-checks Springsteen, whose anthemic songwriting is a world away from his own dirges and experimentation, but it turns out he does “absolutely love Bruce Springsteen,” as well as the America he sings about, “filled with wonder and big characters.” So that’s all right, then.
If you’ve ever seen Callinan performing live you’ve probably seen him standing alone with a guitar and a small army of effects pedals, making his instrument howl and wail while building towering edifices of feedback around it. That’s not what you’ll get from Embracism, however. Working with Kim Moyes of The Presets as his producer, he’s made an album filled with plenty of synth and samples, almost industrial-sounding, but with guitar as its backbone.
“Every song, at the centre of it there’s a guitar part,” he says. “I think it’s still a guitar record, I’ve just taken it further.” Embracism opens with a noise that could almost be tap-dancing or fingernails scraping frantically at a wall, which does eventually resolve into a guitar. So yes, he’s taken the instrument pretty far.
Something else that’s surprising is how masculine it all sounds. The title track describes boys fighting in the playground, egged on by older students eager to see some blood and flesh and rolling around in the dirt. It only gets more homoerotic from there, with Callinan explaining that when a boy becomes a man, “a man is physical, and a man has to put his physical body to the test.” It would be an unusual song no matter who recorded it, but from someone who used to explore much more feminine subjects, as well as cross-dressing on stage, it’s unexpected.
“Being in a relationship made me comfortable exploring my feminine side to the point of cross-dressing and whatever else and still having a girl to go back to,” he says. “But being a male on the road, basically homeless, my self has been centred on my masculinity. I made the record in the second half of last year and that was where I was at.”
All that manliness and the brash energy of its sound makes Embracism seem like unlikely exercise music, like something that will never get played in a gym but probably should. He calls ‘Stretch It Out’ in particular his attempt to write something “sporty and athletic.” If you’ve seen the videos for the album’s two singles, ‘Way II War’ (which won a j award for Best Video last year) and ‘Embracism’ you’ll have seen that Callinan is a pretty fit guy who doesn’t mind being filmed without his clothes on.
When he discovered recently that his father’s family had all been nudists – a secret that popped out by accident during a story told at his uncle’s birthday party – that explained a lot. “[It] was absolutely hilarious. Yeah, and it did make sense. There’s a lot to it, it makes sense of a lot beyond the obvious for me, about what I do as an expression, but it also explains a lot of things to do with my relationship with my whole family.”
He does like to lay himself bare in his music, even when he’s keeping his kit on. Between the more unconventional songs he’s placed a couple of heart-on-sleeve ballads, and the album ends with ‘Love Delay’, which becomes a straight-up rock song worthy of Springsteen himself at its climax. Sitting where they do, the more traditional style of these songs makes them seem unpredictable and honest, and gives them a power they wouldn’t normally have.
“I like writing ballads,” Callinan admits. “It’s arguably the most natural way of writing for me. The ballads, I’ll write the lyrics, the vocal melodies, and put the music to it, whereas the more abstract, industrial – for want of a better word – songs I guess I’ll usually make them as an instrumental first and then find the words that fit. But yeah, you’re totally right, without the other side it would be half as interesting. It has more depth to it if I have a balance. However, that said, I don’t think the ballads are particularly conventional. They may be more like ‘singer-songwriter’ or something. The lyrical content, I’m coming from a unique place I hope.”
BY JODY MACGREGOR