Meet Your New Favorite Band: Kirin J Callinan

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Meet Your New Favorite Band is a monthly feature in which Flavorwire profiles an emerging band or musician whose work we love. This month: Australian singer/ songwriter/ experimentalist Kirin J Callinan, whose fantastic debut solo album Embracism is out on July 2 via Terrible Records.

People don’t know quite what to make of Kirin J Callinan. His music is largely uncategorizable, falling somewhere between Scott Walker and The Birthday Party. He’s been a controversial figure in his native Australia, where he was recently in the news for trying to allegedly induce an epileptic fit in an audience member at one of his shows. And his debut solo album Embracism is one of the best, strangest, and most fascinating records you’ll hear all year. He met Flavorwire to speak about manhood, net art, and making the audience uncomfortable.

A man is physical

Kirin J Callinan used to play in a band called Mercy Arms, and back in the mid-’00s, the consensus in the Australian music industry was that Mercy Arms were going to be very, very big. The band had all the tools for success — great songs, a marketable “image,” and a singer who spelled his name “Thom.” They toured with The Strokes and Pixies, they recorded with Dave Sitek, and in 2006 they signed to Capitol for a lot of money after a bona fide major label bidding war — as Callinan recalls, “We got flown [from Sydney] to do showcases [in the US], we went to New York and London to meet up with Atlantic… we got wined and dined and signed a big deal.”

Everything seemed set for global stardom. Instead, Capitol merged with Virgin, Mercy Arms’ deal got canned, and their career ended up as a salutary example that nothing is certain in the music industry: “It all came,” Callinan says, “to zilch.” They released an EP in 2007 and an album the next year, both of which were well received without ever threatening the charts, and eventually differences between Callinan and the rest of the band led to them going their separate ways.

Mercy Arms, circa 2007

At the time, it wasn’t hard to see that Callinan and his band mates might have somewhat different perspectives on things. He stood out like Brian Eno used to do in Roxy Music — while the rest of Mercy Arms were pretty standard-looking black-clad indie dudes, their guitarist was given to wearing lots of makeup and getting around town in an assortment of rather fetching wedding dresses and sailor suits. “When I was younger, I started to explore my feminine side,” he explains. “I cross-dressed a bit. I’d play shows sometimes in Mercy Arms wearing a wedding dress, and I used to wear a lot of makeup all the time… since high school, I wore makeup every day.”

When the band split, he worked on a variety of projects, but the anticipated solo album took some four years to arrive. When it did, it arrived with a very different Kirin J Callinan. Gone were the dresses and the makeup. Instead, the compellingly creepy video for “Way II War,” the fist single from the album, found Callinan strutting about in a pair of what appeared to be leather underpants and wielding a barbell.

Today he sits across from me in a Williamsburg bar wearing several different varieties of tracksuit, along with a fairly spectacular pair of what look to be homemade trainers, giving him the appearance of a walking agglomeration of what it might mean to be sporty if you were approaching the whole thing as a performance art project. He has a habit of compulsively rolling up the sleeves of his T-shirt to reveal his biceps. There’s not a hint of makeup on his face.

There’s a theme of masculinity, of what it means to be a man, that runs through Embracism. It’s particularly evident in the title track, which is a fascinating and multi-layered ode to the corporeal that explores the ways in which men relate to themselves and to one another. As befits its status as the album’s title track, “Embracism” is a touchstone for many of the themes that run throughout the record as a whole, mixing satire and a distinctly Australian sense of humor with a curiously awkward earnest sincerity and a visceral sense of vulnerability.

The song starts as a loose narrative based around a playground fight (“Blood flows from one boy’s nose/ But the older boys want more”) and evolves into a discussion of manhood: “A man is physical,” Callinan sings over a pulsing, suggestive bassline and a guitar that sounds not unlike a dentist’s drill. “A man has to put his physical body to the test/ Against another man/ Do you measure up?/ Or do you still have work to do?” The video follows a naked Callinan as he showers, soaping up and admiring himself in the mirror.

Coming from someone less nuanced, a song like this would be be insufferably bro-ish. Instead, it’s an intriguing, complex, nuanced examination of manhood. There is definitely a homoerotic undertone, and it’s interesting to note that it the lyric was at least partly inspired by the work of gay Swiss photographer Karlheinz Weinberger: “I’d been looking through a book [of Weinberger’s work], and the first picture was these two boys — men, young men — rolling around in the dirt together, wrestling. ‘Embracism’ already existed as an instrumental, but there were no lyrics. I sat there in front of this book with a pen and paper and I just sat there for two hours and didn’t write a thing… [but] once I started writing, it came back as a flashback to a fight that I’d seen when I changed high schools. Having this picture of these two men wrestling and my pen and paper, I wrote the song in 20 minutes. The whole thing kind of flowed.”

There’s also some element of satire to the song, with Callinan’s hyper-exaggerated accent and gruff delivery making him sound at times like a sports commentator — not inappropriate, given how much homoeroticism there is inherent in sports culture. “It’s very much,” he says, “about my experience growing up in a testosterone-charged environment.”

But there’s also a definite sincerity to it all. When Callinan sings, “It’s hard to believe in love… But you can trust your body… And if you work that body, [you] don’t need to trust nobody,” it comes across as both heartfelt and genuinely sad. In this respect, it’s perhaps not surprising to find that the genesis of both the song and the album lies in a broken relationship: “It’s been a gradual thing, but it was kind of towards the end of my last relationship that exploring my masculinity became something that I needed to do… becoming more of a man than a young man or a boy. I guess literally with my breakup, I wanted to do away with these kind of more feminine ideals and ideas, especially things directly pertaining to my ex-girlfriend…. I wanted to believe in my own god and myself and things I could touch and feel, rather than these more intangible ideas of, like, love.”

He taps the table between us. “You’ve got the table right here and the chair here and my own physicality and strength, and that’s real to me. So that song was actually a breakup song, but is [also] on this trajectory of, in a broader sense, exploring my masculinity.”

Echoing this idea, there’s also a certain… physicality to Callinan’s performances these days. Recent shows in Australia have featured him getting naked and/or projecting images of his penis onto the stage (see here, for instance — the link is NSFW, obviously.) Even the way he attacks his guitar seems to involve a sort of physicality — his style has often been compared to that of another Australian, the late and great Rowland S. Howard, for its mixture of brutality and subtle dexterity.

“[Exploring physicality] has been a deliberate thing,” he agrees, “like taking my shirt off often. It’s been a physical extension of what I’m trying to express, sexualization of myself, but as a man and an ugliness involved in that. It’s not like I’m a particularly pretty or good-looking man. I’m kind of strange looking. I mean, I’d hope there’s a beauty there as well, but there’s a masculine ugliness. I don’t entirely know what [the concept] is, and it’s presenting itself more [as time passes]. I hope it keeps on evolving and growing and takes me to new, untraveled territory, but that’s what’s exciting as well.”

The sort of examination of the nature of masculinity that characterizes both “Embracism” the song and Embracism the album is surprisingly rare in music — there’s plenty of dick-waving and braggadocio, of course, but songs that take provide genuinely thoughtful perspectives on manhood are few and far between. “I like to explore [this subject],” Callinan agrees, “because it’s exciting to me and I’ve never come across — especially in music — anyone doing it so literally, directly. Hip hop does a bit, but it’s tied up in these capitalist ideals and ideals of objectifying women, whereas that’s not my thing. I’m more [into] objectifying myself, objectifying the idea of masculinity, or exploring it separately to how it relates to being a woman.”

Are you comfortable?

Earlier this year, Australian journalist and critic Adam Curley wrote a lengthy profile of Callinan for Melbourne-based music website Mess+Noise. The article was entitled “Are You Comfortable?: The Question Of Kirin J Callinan,” and as far as questions go, this is a pretty apposite one, because Kirin J Callinan seems to make people very uncomfortable indeed.

Back in May, he played a small industry showcase at the 13th Street Repertory Company, a curious little amateur theater in Manhattan. There were maybe 50 people in the room, and the show as billed as “an intimate evening with Kirin J Callinan.” Intimate it was, indeed, so much so that the whole experience was more than a little, yes, uncomfortable.

His stage persona is part avuncular raconteur, part nervous wreck. He paces, he twitches, he makes awkward conversation. He tries to sell towels. He seems to do things precisely because they make both him and everyone else uncomfortable. At the 13th Street Repertory show, for instance, he performed Embracism album track “Victoria M” — a strange piece about being in love with two girls at the same time — alone on piano for the simple reason that he’d never done so before. He’s funny, but at times, it’s the sort of humor that characterizes, say, Fawlty Towers or The Office — you want to cover your eyes, but you don’t, because what you’re watching is as compelling as it is squirm-inducing.

“[Discomfort] is part of the experience,” he says of his live show. “It’s a thing that I’m kind of exploring, and I’m part of it, and it can be quite painful. It can be painful for someone coming to one show… but I’m actually going through it every time. And of course, there’s a flip side to it as well — I may be the one that is going through it the most intensely, but at the same time, I also have the benefit of the spotlight and the focus. It’s finding the right balance between commanding that space, but [also] leaving a little bit open to vulnerability. It’s not like it was particularly deliberate. It’s been very organic and I’m just going with it rather than shying away from it — like, let’s explore this, you know? It seems interesting, at least, if not good.”

Generally, it’s both, although at times, Callinan goes to extremes — most notably during an already-notorious show at Melbourne’s Sugar Mountain festival earlier in the year, when he may or may not have tried to induce an epileptic fit in someone planted in the audience. (The incident is related in detail in the Mess+Noise piece linked above.) Callinan’s been somewhat slippery about exactly what happened, and even now, he remains somewhat ambivalent about the facts: “It’s obvious [to me] what was real and what wasn’t,” he says, “but I’m happy to leave it.”

Asked to elaborate further, though, he relates the idea behind the abortive performance in more detail: “It was a response to the [“Way II War”] video clip, [and people] saying [the clip] could be dangerous for epileptics. I mean, [I] didn’t attempt to induce an epileptic fit. For people to react the way they did, the joke’s on them. It was like also a joke on [collaborator Kris Moyes and I], that we could think we were important enough artists to have enough gravitas where we’d be validated in attempting to do that to someone. We didn’t do it, for obvious reasons, but that was kind of the joke: this deluded ego thing.”

The reaction was predictable enough, though: outrage from people who’d probably never heard of Kirin J Calllinan beforehand and forgot him shortly after their need for righteous anger had been satiated. “The next day I was on talk-back radio: ‘Artist uses epileptic fit as performance art, it’s just disgusting, call us and tell us what you think!’ Little old ladies were calling in, [saying things] like, ‘My grandson has epilepsy and this is just disgusting!’ Obviously, none of these people were at the show. They’d missed the point, the irony being that those shock jocks are actually the ones trying to provoke a reaction. They’re playing the same game in a way, if not more so. There’s no craft or art really involved into what they do, so they’re all about shock and being manipulative and exploiting, which is only a side part of what I’m doing.”

The stunt was a pretty spectacular piece of trolling, but it also got to the heart of another of the fundamental ideas that runs through Embracism. Tell the world that you tried to induce an epileptic seizure in an audience member, and the idea that you did becomes real enough to catalyze talk-show rage and actual physical violence. It becomes real, and the examination of what is and isn’t real is an idea that imbues both Callinan’s music and the man himself.

The body is real

“Embracism” the song pivots on the moment at the end of the monologue where Callinan lists the ways in which men can meet: “A man can meet another man in a bar,” he sings, “On the sport field, at his place of work/ Or in his own apartment.” He pauses, and then growls: “Or on the Internet RIGHT NOW.” As he sings the last line, a guitar that’d give Blixa Bargeld a headache starts jackhammering into your headphones, along with a breathless and frantic double-time drum beat.

The line is jarring both because of the sonic assault it precedes and also because it drags the song from the realm of reminiscence into something utterly contemporary — we move from fights in the playground, which have happened for as long as there have been schools, and in other settings before that, to a realm that is unmistakably and quintessentially of the 21st century. “That was the idea,” Callinan agrees, “for [the line] to jump out. It comes at a pivotal moment in the song for that reason.”

Plenty of Embracism is about the way that we construct ourselves — the ideas of manhood discussed earlier are the clearest manifestation of this, but there are other, more subtle, variations on the theme. “Stretch,” for instance, uses the language of the gym in a fascinating lyric that could just as easily be about the fluidity of personality as about working your muscles: “If I work and stretch myself out/ Really work and stretch myself and out/ Inside and out/ I stretch out my ego/ I stretch out my mind… my strengths and fears, from my toes to my ears.”

Much of this, of course, comes back to the idea of how the album’s creator presents himself to the world. Various interviewers and reviewers have discussed the idea of what Callinan does on stage as a persona, wondering how much of it is the artist himself and how much is artifice, and this record seems to find him trying on personalities like thrift store jackets, from Springsteen-lovin’ agit-propper (“Come On USA”) through experimental sonic explorer (“Halo”) to crooning Scott Walker-esque balladeer (the genuinely touching “Chardonnay Sean” and “Landslide”).

But really, pretty much every musician in history has had some sort of persona — the simple fact of stepping on stage transforms you, in the same way that it’s almost impossible not to adopt some sort of Radio Voice when speaking into a microphone. And in any case, adopting a persona in, well, person… that’s limited by any number of factors, from your physical body to the fact that the real you just keeps creeping through.

These days, of course, there’s a place where our solipsistic fantasies can run completely wild: the Internet. “It’s not like the Internet’s a new thing,” Callinan says, “but it hasn’t really been okay to sing about it. It seems like the subject matter of songs hasn’t changed all that much. People are still singing about love and old-fashioned poetic notion, or trying to, anyway, and using imagery in lyrics that is more classic and just ambiguous in nature. I’d like to be more specific and take you to a specific place, and people can hate it and that’s fine too.”

This exploration of online media has also been particularly notable in the videos for both the singles off “Embracism.” The first the world heard of Embracism was the video for “Way II War,” a strange and disconcerting piece of filmmaking that caused quite the stir in Australia — upon its release, your correspondent’s Facebook feed filled up with a whole string of messages with variations on the question, “What the fuck is this?!”

The film employed an aesthetic that’s characterized one of the more unlikely developments in online-based art: the resurgence of the animated GIF. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Mexican artist Nydia Lilian, who we featured on Flavorwire a while back, and you can certainly see how concerned parents might have worried that it could catalyze an epileptic fit — it’s full of jarring, flickering stop motion and strobe effects, not to mention singularly disconcerting imagery.

The thing is, though, it turns out that “Way II War” doesn’t just look like GIFs; it is GIFS — a whole lot of them strung together, one after the other. In fact, as Callinan explains, “We wanted to make the clip and display it not as a video in a video player, but as [a series of individual] GIFs — you had the individual scenes one after the other, displayed on a webpage, and you scroll down and the song is just playing on that webpage, so there’s no video player. We never did [do] that, [but] maybe that’s something for the future.”

New York-based artist Cara Stricker‘s video for the title track, meanwhile, deploys an even more fascinating concept. Stricker used some sort of hex editor to manipulated its binary code, replacing swathes of data with Callinan’s lyrics. The result, as she explained to Vice recently, is that “what you’re actually seeing in the introduction is a visual representation of his lyrics as pixels.” It’s a pretty fascinating concept, and the result is just as interesting — the video degrades over time, like a sort of visual equivalent to William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops.

Beyond the purely technical aspect of how they were put together, it’s notable that both videos use what you might call net art aesthetics to explore subject matter that isn’t about the Internet per se. As Flavorwire’s former art editor, ANIMAL New York’s Marina Galperina wrote for last year, “[Net art] is always on the edge of new technology, with its medium functioning as its own platform.”

The medium also often functions as its own subject matter, but in this case, it’s more about understanding that the Internet is a part of 21st-century life in the same way that TV was part of the 20th century, and exploring the ways in which it holds an imperfect mirror up to the way we live our lives away from the keyboard. This isn’t revolutionary, but it’s not commonplace, either, because a great deal of net art still examines the online experience.

Asked to elaborate on this, he explains something that does a pretty good job of summing up the entire Kirin J Callinan experience: “One thing that doesn’t interest me with music — with any practice, really — is being too referential or throwback or tribute. You’ve got to be exploring new territory, otherwise it doesn’t seem like there’s much of a point.”