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Thursday, 07 February 2013 12:00

'I want it to mean things to other people, not just to me' An interview with Justin Kinkel-Schuster of Water Liars

Justin Kinkel-Schuster of Water Liars Justin Kinkel-Schuster of Water Liars Nate Burrell
Written by Mariam Shahsavarani

When St. Louis' noisy-folk quartet Theodore ended, Justin Kinkel-Schuster went down to Mississippi to record some songs with his friend Andrew Bryant. This endeavor lead to what became the first batch of Water Liars songs.

The duo work well together, and now, a year after the two released their first album, Kinkel-Schuster has relocated from St. Louis to Oxford, Miss., and he and Bryant are gearing up to release some new material in March.

Water Liars will be taking the stage at Off Broadway on Thursday, February 7 playing louder, more rock 'n' roll versions of their songs. After a string of solo shows late last year, Kinkel-Schuster is excited to be playing shows again with Bryant, and even more excited to be sharing the stage with St. Louis-bred folk singer Angel Olsen.

Kinkel-Schuster took some time during his morning coffee for a chat with me over the phone about the band's upcoming release, "Wyoming."

Mariam Shahsavarani: With "Phantom Limb" there wasn't really a plan. How did you and Andrew Bryant decide it was time to make another record together?

Justin Kinkel-Schuster: It's sort of the way things go. I think for most writers or bands -- I can't speak for everyone else, but I'm always writing. Even before the first record had come out, we had more songs and we're always working. Basically, right after the last record came out we were already talking about getting ready to make the next one. We're always happiest with the next thing we make, so I think we're just excited to do better with the next one.

How have things changed since you first started working together?

I think we've just gradually started sort of sliding into a little bit more of a tighter understanding of what each of us does; whereas, when we started out we were just acting without thinking about it and just sort of letting whatever happened happen. I think now we sort of have a good bit of time to just think about how we work with each other in the context of this band. Now we have more time to work, also, whereas when we started we just had three or four days. But now it's a band. We definitely have a lot more time to take to think about things and try to figure out what we want to do.

Has moving to Mississippi changed your approach to music and the band?

It helps a lot. I mean, we tried for a little while to do a long-distance thing, and in my experience that just doesn't really ever work. And honestly, it coincided with a lot of different things in a sort of good timing. I needed to move along and try something different, and so it was really just the right time to try a new a place. It just so happened that there's a place and people that I love down here, so it was pretty fortunate for me to have that as an option.

Can you talk about the writing and recording process for "Wyoming"?

Well, these things are always less, I think, defined in reality than when people think about groups writing or making a record. Sometimes it's like really specific. The songs that are on "Wyoming," some of them I wrote pretty close to when I was writing the first record, but most of them came about between when the first record came out last year and probably the three or four months following that when we recorded the record. And there were a lot of things changing in my life and for the band. That had a lot of an effect on it.

Recording the record this time around was different because we actually had a good amount of time for the first time to really spend in a studio. We did everything on tape and used a lot of nice, good vintage gear, which, y'know, for people who don't usually have a lot of money to work with like us, that was a really exciting new thing.

So the recording experience was really like night and day with the first one. I mean, not entirely night and day, though, we did most of it the same way. We knew what we wanted to do and went and did it. As far as the technical aspect of things, we're in better circumstances on this last one. But for us, making a record is not really a thing where you sort of screw around. It's not an extravagant thing; it's really just a sort of working thing where you're moving fast and trying your best to get things right the first time.

"Wyoming" strikes me as having a more polished feel than "Phantom Limb."

Absolutely. That's definitely there. I think it's that we definitely had access to miles of infinitely better recording equipment this time around, which hopefully comes through in the record, and I'm glad that you heard it.

Also, like I said, we just had more time. When we made the first record we didn't even know that we were making a record. Basically, we just sort of slapped it together letting things fall where they would and happen as they did in just a couple of days. On this record we had a lot more time to think and prepare, know and have a good idea of what we wanted to feel and make it sound like before we even stepped into the studio to record the record. I think those are some of the biggest reasons that it hopefully sounds better than the first one.

Did you guys still do all of the recording and production on your own?

The majority of it, yeah. We had all the arrangements worked out before we went into the studio, but we had a couple of friends who live around here who also play on a couple of songs on the record. Our friend Matt Patton plays bass on one of the songs, and one of the recording engineers did some percussion stuff, but for the most part it was still really just the two of us playing our thing.

What inspired the song "Wyoming"?

Well, I don't know that I have a direct, clarifying answer for that. I think probably the best I can do is say, for me, most if not all of our songs and the things that I tend to write sort of come out of a kernel of truth or reality or real thing or person or direction or whatever. And then other things attach themselves to that small thing in the middle and it sort of grows from that. So I'd rather leave it to the listener to decide or interpret for themselves what comes from what and to figure out what is what for themselves -- if that's possible.

And I know when you're asking a question like that, I dodge it. I don't know about you, but I feel like when I'm listening to ... a song or reading a book -- when I'm engaging with any sort of work of art there's a part of me that wants to know how and why and wherefrom, but the bigger part of me sort of always prefers to keep some amount of mystery in my understanding of what the artist or whoever is trying to do. Does that make sense?

It is in a way completely irrelevant what I mean as far as, if someone's going to pick up the record and listen to it and enjoy it or whatever. Of course, the record and the songs mean things to me, but I'm not the one who's going to be listening to the record. Once it's a thing, it doesn't really matter what it means to me. It matters what it can mean or does mean to someone who's going to listen to it. To me, that's the point of making a record or making some kind of art. I want it to mean things to other people, not just to me.

"Phantom Limb" was released on Misra Records, and "Wyoming" is being released on Big Legal Mess/Fat Possum Records. What prompted this arrangement?

It was just a really good opportunity for us, and a really good fit. We just decided we needed to go for it. The guys that run Big Legal Mess and Fat Possum are just great dudes. They really care about the record, and they're willing to invest in it and take the time to help us try to grow what we're doing. That's an opportunity that's exciting to have, and we just really leapt at it. We're literally right down the street from them now, so it's just a really good fit in all kinds of way. We're really lucky and happy to be in the spot we're in.

You've played a string of Water Liars shows solo. How does your approach differ when you're playing those shows?

When it's the two of us our goal is to make the show and the set pretty dynamic. Our record and a lot of the stuff is a little bit quieter, but in our live sets it's a lot louder and more of a rock 'n' roll set. When I was doing solo shows, they were pretty laid-back affairs. And honestly, for me, they would get pretty boring. ... It wasn't as much fun for me, and it doesn't represent what we can do and do do together. But it definitely made me lonely for Andrew.

You have a string of dates in March and April following the release of "Wyoming." Are you excited for that tour?

We're so excited. The record comes out the beginning of March, and we have a bunch of shows coming up after that.

We're really excited for these shows next week that we're playing with Angel Olsen. She's so good. I don't know if you've heard her yet, but man, she's incredible. We're playing with her the 7th at Off Broadway. Oh man, she's so good. … I just think she's the best thing right now. Her voice is like nothing I've ever heard before.

Can we expect anything else from you in 2013?

Yeah, we'll just keep working. We have new songs to work on, and I'm sure we're planning on getting back and making another record before the end of this year. I think we'll be looking at having at least a 7" or some other smaller release, and then hopefully within a year we'll have another record ready to come out. Other than that we'll just be playing shows, trying to get the word out.

Water Liars and Angel Olsen perform at Off Broadway on Thursday, February 7, 2013.

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