It’s not like asking him to show us what’s under his kilt, along the way provoking exactly the response hoped for - more of that moment later - it’s just a question about time.
(Though truly, if you hadn’t seen what Kirin J Callinan had under the sporran you’d not been paying attention as naked had often enough been his default setting, and was probably better known than his songs, which could be vamping electronica, verging-on-OTT rock ballad or florid pop. Callinan subtle? No. Surprising? No. Bloody idiot? Well …)
I tell Callinan about a Norwegian island, Sommaroy, which is so north in the Arctic Circle that it enjoys all-day sun from May until July (and virtually no light between November and January) and how there is a push from some of its residents to abolished time on the island during the summer.
That is, clocks will serve no useful purpose and you will not be restricted from any activities irrespective of time, so that if you want to mow the lawn at 4am for example, you can; if you want to eat your breakfast at 3pm and swim straight after, go for it.
There’s a spirit of rule breaking, of freedom, if not lawlessness, about it that I thought might appeal to Callinan. His kind of town? Free, to do what he wants, any old time?
“I’m very attracted to not ever being late,” he says. “Though I’m sure people will still be waiting on me somehow. But it sounds too cold in the Arctic Circle. Sydney could learn a thing or two about that.”
Sydney, the city that always sleeps, is one thing, but how comfortable would Callinan be in a place with few restrictions and rules? Both within his musical career and his parallel role as provocateur, tease and sometimes deliberate fool, it seems to me that part of what excites him is in fact the very presence of rules and restrictions against which he can rebel or provoke. If you can’t subvert and react, what is the point?
“Certainly in the past I have considered myself a bit of an anarchist, whatever that means,” says Callinan. “But the problem with being an anarchist is as soon as you say you are an anarchist I want to break the rules by setting some rules. Even with my drug and alcohol addictions, an intention to stay sober and starting to go to meetings, that’s when I get stuck into them again. I’m driving around in an uninsured, unregistered vehicle at the moment: it could be interpreted as dumb …”
Ya reckon? See above reference to bloody idiot.
“It’s hard to say,” he finally says. “I felt in the past that I was a rule breaker, but then you meet your match, someone who takes it further, and then you become the straight guy. In fact someone in particular comes to mind who is far wilder or unhinged, and unapologetic to. I don’t really see myself too much as an outlaw.”
Hmm. This may well be true, but does fly in the face somewhat of a persona and a publicity drive for some years that has emphasised his willingness to challenge sexual, social, legal and musical stereotypes. But is the problem with being considered a rule breaker or stirrer is that it’s expected of you each time?
Does a media and public expectation, a case of “what is Kirin going to do next?”, become the potential of “what can we make Kirin do next?”? And then, inevitably, to flinging up your kilt on the red carpet at the ARIAs and somehow in 2017 (not 1917 but remember this is wowser Sydney) ending up with a police charge?
“I think it’s more internal. I set myself some expectations and I find the idea that this is something that is unique to me quite pretentious or uncomfortable on some level. It exists within all of us, to varying degrees. But then again some people love rules and that’s the defining difference in us. I’m not looking to explain it but I guess it is wanting to keep it interesting and exciting for everyone concerned, none more so than myself.”
Ok then, to matters at hand with the release this year of Return To Center, a collection of covers which includes songs from Public Image Ltd, The Waterboys, Billy Field and Randy Newman, alongside more obscure but potent songs such as The Homosexual, by Momus (done in the manner of Serge Gainsboug) and the bombastic Life Is Life, by Austrian pomp-pop outfit, Opus.
Did he set out to make an album of covers as a rule break, or did it fall into place fortuitously?
“No, it started as a concept. I was in a café, flirting with the waiter, and in a moment of optimism and clarity I had the idea for Return To Center [the instrumental, improvised original track in the middle of the album]. And it started with the title. The album also started with being broke too: how do I make an album for free, or at least get my money back when I’m done? So this guerilla, or punk idea of taking advantage of this operation, in their hyper, capitalist, customer-first policy, to make the album got me going.
“I called Frank Tetaz [Australian producer/songwriter Francois Tetaz, who among other claims to fame worked with Gotye on Somebody That I Used To Know and co-wrote several songs with Kimbra and Bertie Blackman] right there in the café as I was making eyes at the cute waiter – and that’s another thing: I was contemplating my whole sexuality at that time too - and he loved it. Then it was just a matter of making it happen.”
The plan was to do it quickly and with a light touch, with 14 days maximum set aside, a chance to act more than react. Would that have you assume a man who, by his own description is having a very intense period of self-questioning – and coming out of a very intense period of public questioning – deciding to make an album of what ostensibly is the least personal thing he could do: an album of covers, in the middle of which is an instrumental?
“I think is completely appropriate,” Callinan says. “Our lives are defined by our music choices, the artist we are excited by. And in the way, these songs, my favourite songs, my favourite artists, feel more personal than my own work. In fact not ‘in a way’, but in every way. As a result for me this record felt more deeply honest and communicated a part of who I am and what I love, than any album of originals that would be loaded with all sorts of conflicting ideas or me not being unable to fully express what I intended to.
“These songs, some of which are the greatest songs ever written, resonate with me more than any of the mediocre songs I’ve written.”
While some of the track selections may have been spontaneous and instinctive, the choice of sampling news reports from his now infamous/legendary/embarrassing/ridiculous public decency incident in Public Image Ltd’s Rise is at the very least interesting, if not highly provocative. Why use them, and why use them there?
“I felt like I had to address it in some way. I’ve always felt like that and I was advised, probably quite wisely, to let the discourse play out, not stoke the flames too much, even though it might have been advantageous: provocative to some, stressful to me,” Callinan says. “I let the conversation happen and for the most part cop it on the chin. But still, lingering in the back there, was a need to acknowledge it. Not explain it or articulate my remorse or how I viewed the incident or the hypocrisy surrounding it or any moral outrage, inconsistencies, my stupidity, whatever, but I wanted to address it some way.”
Regrets expressed? Defiance displayed? That may be in the ear, and mind, of the listener.
“Generally speaking, ambiguity is always a good idea within your work, and by having the news snippets I’m addressing it by using other people addressing it for me. To not address it, to pretend it didn’t happen, was the one thing I was uncomfortable with.”
“When that song came up as a song to do, that was sort of a cherry on top.”
It would be reasonable to suspect that PiL’s John Lydon might appreciate the Australian’s provocative approach to art, music and public profiles, though as Callinan points out, even Lydon has mellowed in his dotage.
Maybe though Lydon realised that being an anarchist means submitting to some rules about there being no rules just so you can break the rules and demand there be no rules. And that’s getting ridiculous. Like a Norwegian island with no time.
Kirin J Callinan plays: Lion Arts Factory, Adelaide, August 8; Croxton Bandroom, Melbourne, August 9; Freo Social, Fremantle, August 10; The Zoo, Brisbane, August 16; Metro Theatre, Sydney, August 17.
Return To Center is out now.