Mike and Nate Kinsella – long-standing members of American Football et al – have teamed up for a new project: introducing LIES.
Cousins Nate and Mike Kinsella have been collaborating for more than 25 years across several projects, short-lived and long. As such, they joke about a “familial telepathy” between themselves, which has come to the fore previously, especially on the likes of the more recent American Football records.
But LIES – the new project for the duo that exists in the same world as American Football, Owen and Birthmark but which lives on a previously unexplored continent – is an entirely different beast to the brethren.
‘Lies’, the newly-formed duo’s debut album, is as much about Nate’s musicianship, arranging skills and innate musicality as it is about Mike’s lyrics and unmistakable vocals. It means each takes equal billing in a project designed to make the most out of the protagonists’ skills.
The result is an album as much indebted to pop music as it is emo or math-rock. Indeed, Mike will mention the influence of Depeche Mode, but it’s just as easy to see LIES living in the same space as Stars or the New Pornographers as it is Cap’n Jazz.
Throughout writing the songs, where tracks and ideas would be shared as digital files between each other during the pandemic lockdowns, it meant often going through dozens of different iterations, taking forward new ideas and walking back on old ones until every avenue had been exhausted. Unsurprisingly, there were disagreements along the way, with Nate and Mike seeing a different future for each track.
Even then, despite this “familial telepathy”, there’s only one way to settle such creative disputes. “Fisticuffs,” deadpans Mike, to laughter from Nate.
Of course, Mike is joking. There’s a love and craft that sits behind ‘Lies’, and that goes back to the notion of trying every conceivable idea to see what works and what doesn’t. These don’t sound like songs wrestled or bludgeoned into existence but coaxed out into the daylight by painstaking perseverance.
“It’s good when you get to the point where you start removing things,” continues Nate. “I think it’s super important to be able to try everything that you’re thinking of because if you don’t try it and hear it, you’re always going to be left with the idea that the song isn’t finished.”
“We’d have this long practice session on Sunday, like five hours over Zoom,” continues Mike. “And a lot of it would technically be a waste of time – I guess technically isn’t the right word, because technically, it wasn’t a waste of time – because we would literally walk ourselves back. We’d be like, ‘let’s try this, this, and this.’ And then we’d figure out we were way closer to what we wanted than we thought. But we’d do this with the verses, chorus, and bridge. So, if you do that every time, then you’ve pretty much got the song.”
This attention to detail manifests in countless ways throughout the record, but the most noteworthy is the use of a party horn on ‘Broken’. It barely lasts for a couple of beats but can only exist on a record that combines a musical fearlessness and an appreciation that tongue-in-cheek sarcasm can play a role in driving the lyrical message home. It’s the sort of accoutrement that would be jarring on an Owen or American Football record, but that fits with the off-kilter pop vibe the Kinsellas were going for.
“Nate said he heard this party horn thing in his head, as the lyric is ‘congratulations’ – but it’s not a happy ‘congratulations’, it’s a sarcastic ‘congratulations’. It’s a very deflated sound,” says Mike. “Nate said he had this idea, it made it into the track on something like mix 27, and by mix 31, it wasn’t there anymore. He was like, ‘I’m not sure, I’m not sure’, and I was like, ‘No! It needs the party thing’.
“It took a long time to finish these songs, but I wanna do it all again because it was so loose and easy.”
“It’s great for me to be able to work with Mike and to have him be open to all my fucking batshit ideas,” laughs Nate. “A lot of people would be like ‘…yeah, I don’t know, man….’ It’s a good fit.”
This process pays off handsomely throughout ‘Lies’, resulting in the ultimate headphone experience, where songs feature depths and layers sonically, offsetting Mike’s typically thoughtful and forthright lyrics. Nate talks about defining the song’s character, which in turn influenced – and was influenced by – Mike’s songwriting.
It means the songs themselves are something of an ouroboros, with each subsequent mix or iteration consuming the one that went before. Each new influence helped build the picture and rewrite the journey of the songs as they developed. An example would be the occasional R&B-style drum beats that creep in or the use of a woodblock. Here, LIES are drawing on all sorts of disparate cultural references and are committed to finding space for them within the songs where it feels appropriate.
Of course, it’s much easier to do that in a new act compared to one where there is an established dynamic and an established sound, like American Football, for example, so it’s easy to see why it’s crucial to see LIES as a band in their own right, rather than as a side-project that happened in the period where it was challenging to create an American Football record.
“We – as in Mike and I – are a band,” considers Nate carefully. “We made some recordings, but it’s like if you’re a painter. You go and see the painting when it’s hung on the wall. People don’t go and see the painter paint. The difference is we now need to figure out how we play all this live, and that’s the funny aspect of it.
“But in the studio, when you’re using production as a tool, it adds a whole other dimension to the sound, and there’s all the cultural stuff that comes alongside these production choices. So you hear a woodblock with reverb on it, and it might trigger so many associations and memories – like this is what things sounded like in the 90s – and it’s fun to play with that and see where you can take it. We can do that here.
“American Football has carved out its own cultural space, and it is hard to branch out from that when the established space is so strong and defined.”
Indeed, when Nate talks about building the character of the songs, American Football’s heritage and identity serve as a useful counterpoint. They’re defined by the guitar-drums-bass dynamic, with the occasional opportunity to embellish the sounds of the songs with horns or strings or vibraphone. But the magic formula ultimately remains the same.
For LIES – when removed from these constraints – the ambition becomes limitless. This means odd bedfellows live next to each other in the track-listing, scattered to challenge and entice. Take, for example, the glossy, glacial ‘Camera Chimera’, which is sandwiched between the atmospheric, percussive pop of ‘Broken’ and ‘Summer Somewhere’, which sounds like the Postal Service from an alternate universe.
“I love having two songs next to each other that aren’t part of the same world,” says Nate. “There’s this sound artist called Holly Herndon, and she works with a lot of AI stuff. I was reading an interview with her, and she was talking about using the album format as a Trojan Horse – like you can hide anything in there, it shows up, and the doors bust open, and you can do whatever you want.
“So, when the songs were coming together, I’d think about ‘well, what kind of outfit does this song need to wear? What colour clothes would it wear? Are they walking? Are they running? Where are they going?’ And then that would inform the instruments. It’s all smoke and mirrors. It sounds like a dozen people are playing at times.”
To this end, ‘Lies’ features 12 expertly sculpted characters as well drawn as anything you’d find in literature. They exist – and are confined to – the space available to them, but they’re so fully formed there’s not a moment where they lack character. This can be attributed to the meticulous love and detail each has been garnished with.
Even though LIES may have been born from another project, it’s to their credit that they’ve managed to break from those confines and deliver an album so expertly defined at the first attempt.■
Taken from the April 2023 edition of Upset. Order a copy below. LIES’ self-titled album is out 31st March.