Use a popular search engine to scan the web for info on the band "Owls" and you find plenty of sites dedicated to big-eyed bird freaks. A home page for Atlanta-based jazz combo "The Owls" pops up, too, but that's a different animal altogether. To find something about the Owls -- the Chicago-based indie-rock group that rolls into Orlando this week for a second showdown at The Social -- you have to dig deep. China deep. The fact is that there has been precious little written about this throwback quartet that explores the very essence of rock without the use of digitalia. And while they are a constant on college-radio playlists and command an audience wherever they go, few music fans outside of the Cult of Indie Rock know -- or care to know -- who they are. Hell, even lead singer Tim Kinsella's dad doesn't know.
"You want an Owls T-shirt, Dad?"
"I don't know, who's the Owls?"
The scenario was played out mere hours before my phone interview with Kinsella, a likable 27-year-old who prefers to live meagerly so he can spend all of his time making music. While the Owls is but one of many projects Kinsella has going at any given time, it is his most popular and accessible. Right now, anyway. The band's no-nonsense, less-is-more approach is the perfect antidote to the corporate rock poison that is killing radio. This is why the Owls are perched to soar higher and farther.
The current lack of recognition for the Chicago-based band is somewhat of a surprise given the nature of its existence: Owls were formed out of the ashes of underground heroes Cap'n Jazz and hail from the same pool of hometown friends that has birthed such profound noise units as Isotope 217, The Alkaline Trio, Tortoise, 5ive Style and Sea + Cake. And let's not forget Kinsella's other band, the spaced-out Joan of Arc that up until last year was a fixture on the touring circuit. Joan of Arc was somewhat of a darling in indie-rock circles -- that is, until they musically painted themselves into a corner. Each Joan of Arc record was weirder and more abstract than the last, but the band kept touring and the smallish crowds kept coming. The decidedly different Owls inherited Arc's crowd, but they also inherited the band's sonic stigma.
"Joan of Arc is pretty universally despised from the feedback that I do get," offers Kinsella. "It's just sort of assumed that that's a band that nobody wants to like, that there's no redeeming qualities in it." This coming from a guy who spent a year on the yet-to-be-released Joan of Arc record, "panning the room sounds and smoking too much weed with headphones on, touching up every little thing."
Where does his negative impression come from? His father came to see Joan of Arc play once. Dad's review: "It takes a lot of balls to go up on stage with hair like that." (On the other hand, he says his mom is "very supportive ... she couldn't be nicer about having a bum son.")
But none of that really matters to the seemingly care-free Kinsella who is happy with his place in the musical universe -- even if it is in a black hole.
"My life is pretty much the same since I was 14. I just buy a lot of records, listen to a lot of records and play music with my friends as often as I can."
He likes the musical freedom afforded to him with projects such as Owls, hard won after dropping what even he feels were a couple of disappointing efforts from Joan of Arc. "Now I can do whatever I want," he says, somehow released from the pressure of expectation. (Still, he later mentions that he's already at work on another Joan of Arc CD.)
The Owls' debut is certainly a case of no-expectations. The CD, released on Jade Tree in July 2001, is pure, unadulterated rock in the tradition of The Who, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Not in sound, mind you -- it is the farthest thing from classic metal -- but in dynamics. The simple, time-tested formula of guitar, bass, vocals and drums is put to work here with satisfying results. The music, which ultimately offers nothing new to the rock pantheon, grew out of Kinsella's desire to return to his roots after years of experimentation with that other band.
When it came time to hit the studio, the band felt that the only person who could capture its vision on tape was another Chicagoan, veteran producer Steve Albini. The lo-fi expert has helmed projects for the likes of Nirvana as well as smaller acts like Orlando's Bloodlet.
"If we are gonna do this, record to tape, record all live -- it needs to be Albini," recalls Kinsella. His ability to capture a band live in the studio and his geographical proximity -- he lives down the street -- made him the ideal candidate.
To mainstream-music listeners, the CD might be a great listen but ultimately too weird -- all disjointed and unpolished. Think Coldplay or Remy Zero interpreted by a disinterested emo band but with more of an edge. It takes an open mind to wrap around the wailing vocals of "Life in the Hair Salon-Themed Bar on the Island" or the literal breakdown of "Holy Fucking Ghost."
Although Kinsella seems to be steering the ship, the Owls -- Kinsella, guitarist Victor Villareal, bassist Sam Zurick and new drummer Ryan Rapsys -- is a collaboration. They arrange everything as a group, and have equal trust and respect for each others' ideas. But Kinsella admits that they don't pay much attention to the business side of things, those trivial matters that are "almost in direct opposition to the music itself and to the satisfaction of playing music." That might explain the group's pre-Christmas jaunt through Europe: The heatless van broke down, they missed six shows and lost a bunch of money in the process.
So instead of working on album No. 2, the band is out on the road bucking bankruptcy. But the mood is still upbeat.
"We're bringing our friends," says Kinsella. They always do. Joining the Owls at The Social are buds Need New Body and Chicago Underground Duo -- another Chicago-area wonder (although the pair recently moved out of town).
Kinsella keeps busy with his buds on "a bunch of shit." There's Friend Enemy, which includes Kinsella, some of his Joan of Arc buddies and one of the cats from Need New Body. Their debut is expected in May on Perishable Records. He also has another, yet-to-be-named project and an oddly named self-indulgent solo exercise dubbed "Tim Kinsellas" (yes, plural).
"They're all very different," says Kinsella. And yet they are the same ... person.
"Yeah, I'm lucky," says the multitasking Kinsella. "But that's sort of like the nature of the community that I'm around. Everyone's always working, so it's easy to be inspired to just always keep working."