In the early 2000s, serendipitous road trips to venues in church basements and abandoned warehouses were still considered priceless and precious moments. Kids with their ears tuned to the underground traveled far and wide off the beaten trail, and Chicago-based Joan of Arc reigned as a prolific genre defining staple, alongside related acts like Cap’n Jazz, American Football, Owls, and Owen, all tied together by one common thread: brothers Mike and Tim Kinsella, and their cousin Nate.
I’d been sneaking out on school nights to unmapped venues since the age of twelve to see the Kinsellas play in various formations, and distinctly remember an Owen show at Poughkeepsie’s Club Crannel in which a group of teenagers from the crowd began heckling Mike. “What ever happened to Cap n’ Jazz?” they shouted, followed by a repetitive and aggressive mantra: “We want Joan of Arc!” The lines have always blurred between these projects – but Joan of Arc stood out as the seminal art band of the bunch.
On December 4, Joan of Arc released their final album, Tim Melina Theo Bobby, via Joyful Noise Recordings. Over the past two decades the band has had a revolving cast of members, but the simplicity of the record’s title gets to the point: here are four friends, closing the final chapter on a prolific catalogue that spans more than twenty releases.
The album was collaboratively written and recorded by Melina Ausikaitis, Bobby Burg, Theo Katsaounis, and Tim Kinsella, with the support of frequent collaborators Jeremy Boyle, Jenny Pulse, Nate Kinsella, and Todd Mattei. The process of making the record started as a series of epic jam sessions that would eventually be pared down to create individual tracks. These jams were a hybrid mix of electronics and classic composition that marries analog synth with noise, weaving together sonic motifs within an indie rock framework.
“We basically had everything being recorded through one analog mixer, and had only two tracks going at the same time. It’s funny that we’re still a bit confused about who made what sound on the record,” Burg explains. “It was a process of chiseling out the parts. The sessions would range from 45 minutes to three hours. There are multiple songs on the album made out of the same jam.” The album’s spontaneity and experimentation across ten tracks makes it a more than fitting swan song.
Where there’s an end, there’s a beginning, and a fruitful and colorful history in between. Joan of Arc played their first live show in June 1996 at Autonomous Zone in Chicago, forming after the break-up of frontman Tim Kinsella’s high school punk band Cap’n Jazz in the summer of 1995. The band’s debut full-length, A Portable Model Of, was released on Jade Tree in June 1997. The record lives between art-rock, traditional folk, and math rock, ornamented with experimental sounds. Lyrically, tracks like “Anne Aviary” echo twisted nostalgia belted in an angst-ridden post rock yowl, juxtaposed with a reoccurring synthetic bird chirping flicker, held against a deep resonating lawn mower-like vibration. As a whole, the album established the Joan of Arc habit of using outside collaborators to support the core group’s songwriting – and launched an influential, if not polarizing, career.
With a fluctuating fanbase, the band went on to constantly reinvent themselves. Their anarchist approach resulted in albums that critics were unable to compartmentalize, predict, or even understand. The sound scape architecture, instrumentation, odd sounds, and sampling effects on the records created an improvisational template with an emphasis on the “studio as instrument.” The band would continually revisit this format on successive albums like 1998’s How Memory Works, Live in Chicago, 1999, 2001’s How Can Anything So Little Be Any More?, 2009’s Flowers, and so on.
Joan of Arc draws upon unique and unexpected influences; minimalist composers, early ’90s hip hop, and house music. You can hear it on “Feels Like the Very Second Time,” from 2015’s JOA99, its sparse analog beat gradually building within a formulaic house music framework. The beat moves off center towards the closing of the track, and bleeds into fuzz, descending into the ambient, mysterious “Hairspray for Babies.”
“When Tim got super into house, it definitely affected our live sound on a technical level,” Burg recalls. “Suddenly we thought it was critical to have actual subs in the club for our performances. Hip hop shows had a big impact on us, and how we wanted our music to sound at full volume and heavy frequency levels. You know – that heaviness you just feel in your chest.”
2018 brought the album 1984 and with it, the introduction of Melina Ausikaitis as lead vocalist. 1984 was almost entirely written by the newest member of the band, a visual artist who had played with the group for roughly five years. Aside from being a solo artist, Ausikaitis sang backup on the band’s previous LP, He’s Got The Whole Land This Land Is Your Land in His Hands. 1984 was characterized by her distinctive voice, while Kinsella, Katsaounis, Burg, and Jeremy Boyle accompanied the emotional soundscape with alternating melodies, drone hums, field recording samples, and empty space.
On Tim Melina Theo Bobby, Kinsella and Ausikaitis swap vocal duties track to track. The spacious and intimate songwriting feels conversational, with an effortless nonchalance. The record weaves and dips like the dynamic arc of a well scripted movie.
The fittingly-titled “Destiny Revision” opens with a soft, sentimental crooning accompanied by analog electronic instrumentation, leaning into the original sound Joan of Arc embodied in the mid-90s. But as the record progresses, it taps into the avant-garde, sample-driven experimental soundscapes that the band has embraced for the past decade. Ausikaitis’s earnest, lush vocal floats over a rough, vibrant almost synaesthetic jam on “Rising Horizon” – you can taste the tone, and visualize the brilliant color palette of the record. The moody tracks breathe life into the senses, and sonically soothes like an adult lullaby.
“Karma Repair Kit” feels like traveling back in time and re-experiencing the first album that got you through angst-ridden puberty (“I so envy/Your restraint/Scuttling up trees/And knee-high kicking across cold creeks/And your cheeks slashed with burnt cork war paint/We each agree our dreams define us”), then you snap out of it, realize you’re grown, and sink into the relief of adult autonomy.
“Destiny Revision” is essentially about winging it when your life fails to play out as you’d imagined, and the video features analog photos taken by Burg in various cities while on tour, prominently featuring the legendary Berghain in Berlin, where Joan of Arc played their last show. “I’ve been spending lockdown scanning and labeling negatives. I have it loosely organized starting around 2013, up until we flew home from Berlin,” he explains. “That last gig felt like the ultimate show. I remember the mirror ball on the side of the stage during our really fun sound check, and the fireplace next to the merch booth, and the crowd was just amazing.”
Ausikaitis adds, “We were so tight by then, playing together felt like nothing. That kind of effortless gel where you don’t have to concentrate so much, and you can actually look around at each other and feel present.”
Sung by Ausikaitis, “Something Kind” stands apart as a particularly provocative punk rock feminist anthem. It was written “at the height of the #metoo movement, when everything started coming out in the news, all of the inappropriate things gentlemen were doing to their female employees,” she explains.
Initially focused on a male friend who was being threatened with false accusations, at some point, the narrative shifted. “It became a song about just getting fucked by guys, and thinking about how men didn’t know what my experience had been like. I’m not sure exactly when it flipped from me being mad at this woman on a man’s behalf, or me being angry at the universal lack of empathy for the female experience,” she says. “I was really nervous to say the last line: ‘In the dawn of something kind/I’m the one taking you from behind/You get the tits and periods/And you’re the one who gets pregnant,’ because I’m a pretty modest person. I don’t generally write provocative lyrics, and Bobby didn’t know what was coming. It was actually hilarious because Bobby’s surprised reaction was in the recording, and we kept playing it on repeat.”
With regards to this being the final body of work from Joan of Arc, Ausikaitis says, “We were just recording. We didn’t go into it with the idea of it being our last. Since the songs weren’t made with that intention, I didn’t have to write my goodbye anthem. Now that it’s become this thing, it feels super sentimental. It has certain triumphant parts that are really kind of heartbreaking, and can definitely define itself as the final album.”
Burg responds, “Only the future can define that. You should think of every record as your last, because you never know if you’re going to make another one. For this to be the last record, we’d actually just have to wait, and not make another record.” He draws a parallel between the album and the movie Fargo, a film that led the audience to believe it was based on a true story due to a title card, but in reality was press tour spin. Joan of Arc have earned a reputation for being highly eccentric – is the band taking us for a spin? Like Burg implies, only time will tell.
As self-described “musicians with day jobs,” the lack of fiscal greed and societal pressures have allowed Joan of Arc to pursue music in its most organic expressive form. They create freely without the burden of people pleasing, and have dodged lucrative offers to do early-album-based nostalgia tours. We can look forward to hearing more of the band members’ exciting side projects: Ausikaitis and Burg’s brilliant, bizarre and intuitive pop jams as Aitis Band; and Good Fuck, Tim Kinsella and wife Jenny Pulse’s erotic exploration of experimental literary techniques and adventurous electronic beats. Tim Melina Theo Bobby signifies the end of an era, but it also carries on the legacy of a raw, provocative band that evolved (and sometimes intentionally devolved) a limitless sound – and nurtured a passionate underground music community in the process.
Visit Joan of Arc via their website for ongoing updates.