You may not know Kirin J Callinan by name, but odds are you've seen his work. Years before it became 2019's hottest trend, Callinan was riding his own Yeehaw Moment with the massively viral country/EDM fusion of 2017's "Big Enough." The song's video was like a homoerotic Tim & Eric sketch with the coup-de-grace being Australian rock legend Jimmy Barnes passionately screaming above the mountains. It was a video rife with meme fodder, and the internet noticed.
But there is more to Kirin J Callinan that just a meme. His 2017 album, Bravado, was intentionally cheesy, designed to challenge Callinan to take the most garish sounds and corniest lyrics he could imagine and learn to love the absurdity of it. The result was a bizarre pop record that walked right up to the line of parody making it difficult to determine if Callinan was actually serious. But it begs the question, does it actually matter?
In the followup to Bravado, Callinan once again zigs just when we expect him to zag. For all intents and purposes, Return to Center is a cover album, featuring Callinan's own takes on bands like Laibach, Randy Newman, Spectral Display, Momus, and the Waterboys, but it is also so much more than that. Callinan is as flamboyant and cheesy as ever with his delivery, laying it on thick in a way that feels fitting for his exclusively 80s source material. Return to Center is comprised of songs that won't likely make any critic's "best of the 80s" list anytime soon, but truthfully it feels like a more honest representation of the decade than many such compilations.
What sets Return to Center apart from, say the cringey cash grab that is Weezer's TealAlbum, is a palpable love for these songs. While chatting with Callinan you can almost hear it gushing out of him, as he is more than happy to go into detail about Laibach's strange history and explain how the quazi-military march of "Life Is Life" was actually a cover of an Austrian disco outfit's chart-topper "Live is Life." Every song on the album has an equally, if not more, in depth backstory to it, but what's even more remarkable is the fact that the entire project was put together in just 14 days, so that by the end of it Callinan could still return all of the equipment the used to Guitar Center for a full refund.
Return to Center is a beguiling project that grows more intricate and profound with each layer you peel away from its campy exterior. PAPER sat down with Callinan to talk about Return to Center, feeling misunderstood, and what it was like to being a meme.
Why do a covers album?
There are multiple reasons why. I feel like this album is more personal and relevant to myself than my records or originals prior. It feels more true to myself. It is holistically a return to what I love, a 'Return to Center.' In the past with Bravado, I was intentionally trying to make an album gravitating towards the worst lyrics and the worst song titles. A "Song About Drugs" was literally the worst song title I could think of.
"I think a lot of people will think it's somehow artistically less relevant or somehow less interesting, but it represents me personally more than any originals record ever has."
"This Whole Town" was definitely a personal favorite off Bravado.
I appreciate that very much. It was trying to use these tropes of music that I knew nothing about and always found very garish and sort of shallow. Trying to use ugly ideas and ugly sounds and hopefully find some beauty in them, but also just explore the ugliness, get over my own cultural elitism, get over my own ideas of taste which otherwise were counterproductive in terms of my creativity. It was sort of a therapeutic thing maybe, but the end result wasn't particularly listenable for me.
Don't get me wrong, I did find some beauty and ugliness, some truth and some absurdity. I enjoy the record but it doesn't really represent me and I think it was misunderstood a lot. Maybe this will be misunderstood as well. I think a lot of people will think it's somehow artistically less relevant or somehow less interesting, but it represents me personally more than any originals record ever has. The songs resonate with me, how I first heard them or got into them. There's also the fact that I set myself the crazy deadline of the length of Guitar Center's return policy on audio gear. I had 14 days to make this album. Debating lyrics with myself would've taken up a lot of time, so I sort of had to do a song a day in order to get it done, finishing it off, packing down the gear and returning it to the Guitar Center.
Oh, I didn't know that.
Yes, so that's the concept. The initial and core concept of the process and how the album came about was the idea of Return to Center. I would go to the most corporate, generic music store in the world, spend the entire budget on the gear and then have the length of the return policy to try to make the album. Then getting all the money back, having thus found an ingenious way to make an album for free. It is on one hand sort of a guerrilla punk record that I'm taking advantage of this corporation, but on the other hand, I'm also celebrating this corporation and their return policy. I've been talking about it as if it's my corporate spiritual record. Both a personal return to center and a literal return to [Guitar] Center.
Going back to the formation of the album, what was your process behind choosing which songs you wanted to cover?
Yeah, it was a spontaneous one. I had a long, long list of songs. I've gone through so many different phases in terms of what I've been into and it's sort of interesting to me that nearly all the songs are from the 80s, which is the decade I was born. Maybe there is a sort of return because that's the music I grew up with, but it wasn't so intentional. The process of choosing those songs was so surprising. There's a bunch of songs that were on my list that I was sure we were going to do that we didn't end up tackling. There are also a couple of songs on the album that wasn't on the list, but once I put the money down, $8,888 was the budget, it became real. I was like "I only have 14 days to do this." All the plans went out the window. We set up, and it just became very spontaneous. If I woke up one morning with a song in my head, we'd give it a go. I was walking down to get a coffee singing "Vienna" to myself and that wasn't on the list but I came back and said: "let's give it a shot." There's also a bunch of songs that I was definitely going to do, "Life is Life," is an old, old favorite of mine, both "It Takes a Muscle to Fall in Love," and "The Homosexual," were songs that hit me really hard the first time I heard them.
When did you realize you wanted to inject original work into the project as well?
Well, the only true original on there is the title track "Return to Center," which is the improvised instrumental guitar piece in the middle. I felt like that was important. It's the centerpiece of the album, it's the title track. That was the final touch on the record. It was the last thing I did on the last day. But I knew it wasn't complete either. I knew this instrumental piece needed something else and the idea came when I was in Minneapolis playing First Avenue, Prince's old venue. I was on tour with the Growlers and [had them] after sound check and before doors opened, pin me down in the middle of the venue on the floor with the microphone positioned right above me and start tickling me. There's this maniacal, hysterical laughter that just comes in both pleasure and pain, hilarity and pure torture, which was sort of a good centerpiece for the album I thought. This crazy laughter that you couldn't tell was pleasure or pain, it was a bit of both, as the center. I haven't unpacked it fully but I liked it.
"Just because something is funny doesn't mean it's a joke."
What made you want to include the news clips about the ARIAs controversy at the beginning of "Rise?"
I felt like I needed to address that in some way on the album. To not address it would've been shying away from it. I wouldn't have been comfortable with it. When that happened, when I flashed some photographers and the subsequent media ensued I got hit up by just about every major and minor news publication in the country wanting to talk about it, and I said no to everybody. I wanted to talk about it, but I think the advice from everyone around me was to let it play out. I was hurt by the response –– what went from a fairly innocuous flashing of some photographers that had literally said to me, "Hey Kirin, give us a flash under your kilt," you know? For me it was playful.
Nudity is not something to be afraid of. It's my own way of being at ease with my body. I've done plenty of naked shoots. So when a photographer says "jump," I jumped. To have it taken out of context and made it a sexual thing, an aggressive thing, was difficult for me. All along, the best way to deal with this is to approach it artistically like I have anything else in my life. I didn't want to go on some big rant about it, defend myself, or even apologize, it was a spontaneous thing. I didn't really want to inflame that circus. I'm not sure, to be honest, it felt right. We couldn't actually use the original news clip in the end. We try to do everything by the book so I had people reread the parts and it gave that song another twist. Originally that song was written about something much heavier, apartheid, talks about Northern Ireland. Maybe some people would be offended that I take something so serious and twisted it to be about something so trivial that happened.
I think what interests me is the decision to embrace that part of your own personal history and not necessarily run from it or let it define you.
You put it more eloquently than I did.
Speaking of things that can define you, I wanted to talk about the virality of "Big Enough." What was life like before that and after that?
Well, I can't say that life has changed in any significant way. I do have a hit song I guess. That's the song I get recognized for the most. It wasn't a surprise either. I set out to make a mini-opera that was absolutely bombastic and absurd. I went in, Danny and I were planning the video, we set a target just verbally to each other, we wanted to get one million views. We've exceeded that by 40 odd million views now. When Alex and I wrote the song, it came together very quickly, but I knew for a long time that it needed something else. Having Jimmy Barnes scream as a national icon, rock n' roll Hall of Famer in Australia, 17 number one solo albums, two books in the number on the best-seller –– he's a legend. To even have him do that, to do his scream which what he's most renowned for, I just wanted this distilled version of him in the most absurd setting. We always knew that it would be a thing, I just didn't expect it'd be as big a thing as it was in places like Russia or South East Asia, South America where I've never been, don't have a following and Jimmy doesn't either. It's quite amazing to me. I'm not embarrassed, I'm very proud of it and I know Alex is too and I know Jimmy is. Bizarrely, that is what I was most worried about, have I somehow tainted his legacy? I had an interview with him the other day and he finds it hysterical. I think his wife Jane really loves it too which helps.
What was it like to see that become a meme?
The most flattering thing was that people thought I had started the meme, had been making these memes, which I thought was genius if I had done that. Most of them were quite dumb, but I enjoyed it. There were some really obscure ones as well that I found really funny, deeply funny. I embrace it completely, I wanted to create this mini-opera and it had a cultural moment around the world. It wasn't my intention to become a meme, and I don't think that's what's going to define me. I made a new record now, I'm working on lots of music with other people as well, but I'm glad it happened, it's amazing actually.
For people that discovered your music through "Big Enough," how do you describe your artistic point of view? It isn't necessarily parody or joke songs but it also isn't super serious, it's a little confusing but really interesting for that exact same reason.
It's hard to put in words and explain it to someone especially if they don't have a reference point, but you kind of nailed it when you said it was confusing. That was sort of the stated intent when making Bravado. I love discovering things when I don't understand it. I find it exciting, I find it inspiring, I didn't want it to be a joke, if anything I think it went too far in that direction. I've said this a number of times, just because something is funny doesn't mean it's a joke. I've always tried to imbue everything I do with a sense of humor. I think there's hilarity at every turn and I think if we can approach life like that, it makes it a more enjoyable experience. Honestly, I find it very difficult to stomach anything that doesn't have a sense of humor because it seems a little disingenuous to me.
Return to Center is out June 21st on Terrible Records.
Photo by Yana Yatsuk