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Escape Velocity

Stockings And All: An Interview With Kirin J Callinan
Josh Hall , June 20th, 2013 06:39

Sexuality, masculinity, and childhood form an unholy thematic triumvirate in the work of Kirin J Callinan, who is about to release his debut album Embracism. Following a ferocious London show, he sat down with Josh Hall to discuss the split between his onstage and offstage personae

The bouncer didn't seem to believe him at first. "I'm playing tonight," said the man in the coral blue Adidas tracksuit, hauling a duffel bag over his shoulder. I caught his socks out of the corner of my eye; they looked knee length, gaudy and striped, part covered by sandals that appeared to be made out of the plastic bits that hold drinks cans together.

Tipsy Bar is not Kirin J Callinan's natural habitat. It's a basement venue that looks like a strip club, with a ceiling of barely head height and vaguely nefarious-looking owners. The doors swing like a saloon entrance, and the six channel mixer is held together with gaffa tape. Later I spot him in the toilets, perched on a ledge by the urinals, his head in his hands and his legs outstretched. He's studying a notebook. I think it best not to interrupt.

On stage, Callinan holds court. His default expression is that of the butcher: eyes wide, corners of the mouth upturned, brow furrowed into the shape of derangement. He leaps without warning from barre chord melancholy to instrument-abusing abrasion, wrenching unfamiliar gnashes from his battery of pedals. He jabs at the audience with repeated one-twos of terror and humour, stringing them out with tortuous jokes before pummelling them again with wretched noise. He wears a headset mic and no shirt like a deviant aerobics instructor, playing songs so relentlessly vicious that they cause irritable walkouts, both at Callinan's own show at Tipsy and during his set at Hoxton Bar & Grill the following night, in support of PVT.

The first thing most Brits heard of Callinan was his extraordinary second release on Terrible, the American label founded by Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor. 'Embracism' is perhaps the most arresting track of the year. Over a lilting, proto-EBM instrumental, in which a globular bass line, auto-panned to the point of disorientation, is pricked by buzzsaw, pitch-shifted guitars, Callinan delivers a furious sermon that vacillates between flush-of-youth bucolic imagery and sleazy-as-fuck eroticism.

"A circle forms around two lads
Circle of boys
There's gonna be a fight in the playground
Sleeves rolled up
Socks pulled down
Blood flows from one kid's nose
But the older boys want more
They want strips torn from uniforms
It's a test of strength
Two boys rolling around in the dust
In the dust

Callinan's guitar is serrated to the point of irrecognition, but it is his voice that really pierces: a martial rasp that comes with an integrated distortion of the sort producers spend a lifetime trying to perfect. When I meet him the morning after his second show, he tells me that his extraordinary vocals arrived "when my balls dropped, I guess. It was high school. I was playing football; I was a goalkeeper. And as a goalkeeper you've got to talk a lot. I always seemed to be made the captain of teams growing up - probably because I just talked a lot."

On a sofa in XL's West London offices, a mews building accurately described by the press person as "like a teenage boy's bedroom", there is little to be found of Callinan-the-borderline-psychotic. He is faultlessly polite, thanking staff members by name when they deliver coffee, and insisting that I help him finish the plate of pastries at which he constantly picks during our hour together. Even his face seems different - his features are somehow softened, his jawline less violent. This is another Kirin.

"It's not like I sat down and wrote a script," Callinan says, but he acknowledges that his stage persona is akin to a character piece. "Onstage it's certainly all an act, but I don't want to get it confused with being fake. In your life, society is built in a way, and you work out the way you're going to interact with it. Whereas on stage, I've worked out another way." So is the on-stage Callinan a more accurate representation of the way the off-stage version would like to behave? "No, I think maybe the opposite. I've been concerned with becoming that guy. This kind of sick, damaged pervert. These are words you'd maybe associate with the onstage character. I've been concerned that if I put that out there too much, and express that idea, and if that's what people understand me to be, maybe it's going to loop back and actually become me."

There are people who seem unable to separate the two personas. Following a performance at Melbourne's Sugar Mountain Festival, Callinan was "physically attacked. A guy grabbed me by the throat and put his hand in my mouth. It kind of shook me up." The Sugar Mountain show extrapolated the most abrasive elements of Callinan's character. Ahead of the performance he announced that he would, along with visual artist Kris Moyes, attempt to induce a fit in an epileptic audience member. "As if," Callinan says, "we were important enough artists that we had the right to do that under some banner of performance art. It's a horrific idea, that you could endanger someone's life. Of course we didn't do that. But just to say it seemed to really put people right out of joint."

According to a report in The Vine, the pair's slot began with an announcement that the organisers had forbidden them to carry out their planned performance, but that they would screen rehearsal footage instead. A video played, in which a middle-aged 'epileptic' (inverted commas Callinan's own) is shown fitting while a strobe is shone in his face. There were walkouts and hecklers, including a muscular man who lifted Callinan onto his shoulders, only to be thrown out by security.

Were the audience members plants? "It was a big production," Callinan demurs. "I don't wanna ruin the story. If anything, it was a joke on us. The whole idea of myself and Kris doing this collaborative audiovisual experiment… it just felt really obvious, actually. And it also felt very ego-driven, so maybe we turned it back on ourselves. Some people got it, and some people didn't. We presented an idea, and it blew up way out of proportion."

While Callinan's current solo show might not induce the same degree of outrage, the artist plainly revels in his ability to create teeth-grinding awkwardness. Callinan gets nervous, he says, and he can't help but make the audience feel nervous too. "When you're on stage with a microphone or two, or three as it sometimes is, you're elevated - one man in the room with a big boomy voice that's twenty times louder than anything else in the room, commanding attention. Everything that you're expressing, hopefully they're gonna feel that as well. So if I'm nervous and anxious, they're gonna feel it."

That anxiety is the signal quality of a Callinan show. In Hoxton he asked for the time in order to work out how many more songs he could play. Despite repeated attempts, not a single person would answer. "It was bizarre," he reflects. "Sometimes there's such a fear in the audience, where no one will say a word. You could hear a pin drop. You'll ask a very direct, simple, matter of fact question that you could ask a stranger in the street… but me asking for the time, no one, not even my manager or my label, or my friends there, were game to even say anything.

"And then other times it can be more rowdy, and my job becomes actually a lot easier. I did two shows in Sydney recently, in a crypt under a cathedral. The crowd for the second set had heard there was no alcohol and were just getting plastered before they came. There were mainly two culprits, but it grew and it became this really fun thing. I was having a bit of a buzz, an earthing issue with my guitar, that if you held the lead it would stop. So [I had] this guy come up and get down on his knees and hold my lead, which became very subservient and a sexual kind of thing. I appreciate that."

Sexuality, masculinity, and childhood form an unholy thematic triumvirate in Callinan's work. While 'Embracism' plays so grippingly on an adolescent homoeroticism, 2012's 'Thighs' is just as compulsive, thanks to its contrasing a nauseating, Vaseline-lensed tale of Nabakovian sexual abuse against a startlingly beautiful guitar track. It feels painful to listen - feels as if by doing so, by finding it so bewitching, you are somehow complicit in a story that seems so utterly repugnant.

Callinan's ideas about masculinity are similarly complex. "I'm a man, apparently," he says. "I like sports, and women, and other men in a different way. I'm Australian. But at the same time, I used to cross dress a lot. I'm wearing stockings right now, and little Chinese ladies' shoes." Does he consider himself to have experimented with transvestism? "It was more just kind of fun. With my girlfriend, I'd dress up in her clothes with her. We'd go out. My first ever solo show I was wearing a lot of makeup. I was also quite pretty when I was younger. I'm a little more haggard now.

"But it's becoming more and more masculine," he continues. "'Embracism' was a breakup song. I wanted to do away with these intangible, maybe feminine ideas of love or spirituality, or even quantum physics, and these intellectual ideas that my girlfriend was very much into. And once we broke up I was like, what I believe in is my physical body that I can touch, this table here in front of me, this hammer and nails. Very masculine things; the physical world."

His ex-girlfriend clearly remains a hugely important figure for Callinan, and his tone changes as we speak about her. The forthcoming album is, he says, "a breakup record. It's the girl in the 'Way To War' video clip, actually, and that's her son. We were together for a number of years, and living together, with her and her son, in the mountains, in the country. And it was after breaking up with her that I started making this record. It's interesting, having been a father figure for a number of years. Not that I was his dad obviously, and I wouldn't want to take that place. But living with a kid and being a role model for him was really inspiring."

His life in the mountains was, it seems, quite child-centred. As well as living with his girlfriend's son, Callinan coached an under-15s boys' football team. "That was amazing," he says, "because I hadn't had a connection with 15 years olds since I was 15." He'd enjoyed being 15 himself, "and then coaching kind of reconnected me to that."

Having left his girlfriend and her son, his mountain village and his football team behind, Callinan has reverted to the life of the itinerant musician. He no longer has a home. During the recording process he was sleeping "literally under a stairwell, or on a couch, or occasionally a spare bed. I've just been floating - but incredibly, the most productive I've ever been." Are the two things connected? "Absolutely. My relationship ended, and that went to shit, but the inverse happened with music. I could have done this years ago, but it took the right combination of things."

For Callinan, that combination is a tough one. He closes his first set with the lyric "Hell is here on earth," and I wonder whether this is an accurate reflection of his mood. "On this trip," he says, "I just haven't been excited. I used to get so excited about the smallest things about travelling - you know, how people's houses differ in different parts of the world, or how showers are different or something." Is that lack of excitement to do with the fact that he has achieved something that was previously a goal? "I've never really had goals; I've just kind of lived. But of course, I've been in a number of different bands, made a number of different albums or played on other people's albums, but this is the first one that's having a simultaneous international release. To have that with my first solo record is pretty strange. I'd kind of let go of that idea. But it doesn't mean anything until people actually like the record and come to the shows, and have an emotional connection with it. And I've been through it before with another band [Mercy Arms, a Sydney-based outfit distributed by MGM, who split up, Callinan says, shortly after playing at Marathon Kebabs in Camden] signed a massive international deal, and it never really eventuated and the band fell apart. So I'm not getting too carried away with it."

Tentative as he may be, Callinan is one of the world's most exciting new artists. His work is difficult, painful - profane, even. His is a world of violent gestures and even more violent emotions; a world in which perversion pervades, but in which puckish humour is never far away. He is conspicuous in his intricate conception of what it is to be male, and in his unblinking treatment of sex. Callinan is genuinely unique. He is a serious talent, stockings and all.

Kirin J. Callinan's Embracism album is released on July 1st via Siberia Records/Terrible Records, in partnership with XL