If you know about Nate Kinsella, it's probably because of his astounding contributions to local post-posthardcore band Make Believe, which started in 2003 as a touring version of Joan of Arc (led by his cousin Tim Kinsella) and went on hiatus in 2008. Not only did he drive the music with his complex, propulsive drumming, he also added electric piano, using his right hand on a keyboard set up across his kick drum while he played his kit.
The other big reason for his notoriety, such as it is, concerns a Make Believe show in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, in June 2005. He ended a sweltering set by stripping nude and wringing out his sweaty boxers on the front row—which upset much of the audience, who'd mostly come to see Christian bands Veda and MeWithoutYou, and landed him in legal trouble. After a drawn-out series of court dates Kinsella ended up paying a $1,000 fine and serving two months in jail on a misdemeanor charge of "outraging public decency," though it was purged from his record after an uneventful three years of probation.
These days Kinsella is working on building name recognition for a different part of his musical identity: the solo project Birthmark. Its moody, gently psychedelic indie rock might be the most intriguing thing he's done yet.
Birthmark arose in 2006, after Kinsella and his girlfriend Jamie Burns (now his wife) moved to Champaign-Urbana so she could attend the graduate program for comparative literature at the University of Illinois. "We rented this house because rent is so cheap down there," he says. "It has a basement area and a kitchen and a big living-room area, so I'm able to do a bunch of recording in the house, which is totally awesome. I started just compiling tracks." Kinsella has a fair amount of experience as a journeyman sound engineer, most visibly at the Empty Bottle. He recorded himself playing a heap of different instruments—guitar, bass, keyboards, cello, clarinet, mandolin—as well as drums, percussion, and vocals.
For a while Kinsella continued to work sound at the Bottle, but traveling between the two cities wore him out. He started looking for a way to make a living closer to home. "I got a steady job at a bakery, where I worked from midnight to seven in the morning pretty much full-time," he says. "I did that for almost a year, which kind of burned me out also. I don't really know many people down there and I'd only be awake in the middle of the night and I was working alone, so I had like zero social life for months on end. It was kind of crazy."
This left Kinsella a lot of time for music, though, and he released his debut as Birthmark, The Layer, in 2007. Unsurprisingly, it sounds hazy, lonely, and bummed out. It's also strong enough to overcome whatever prejudices you may have about solo albums from drummers (hello, Peter Criss). Since then he's doubled down on the project, sinking even more of his energy into it: formerly self-taught, he recently completed his first year in the music program of Parkland community college in Champaign. He took "the typical first-year music-student classes," learning things like music theory and sight singing, and he says it was "super fun," even though at age 30 he's about a decade older than most of his classmates. He took the fall semester off, but he'll be back in school this spring.
He's also continued to spend a ridiculous amount of time recording a ridiculous amount of music at home. He's finally worked that material into a new album, Shaking Hands, which came out December 14 on the Parasol-affiliated Champaign-Urbana label Hidden Agenda. "From beginning to end I think it was almost three years, which was kind of crazy," he says. "I think it happened because it was a solo endeavor and I didn't have anyone else's input, so I was second-guessing myself the whole time. I was having fun too. It was a big experiment."
In early June, after filling multiple hard drives with home recordings, Kinsella headed for Chicago and nine days in the B room at Semaphore Recording, which closed its doors at the end of 2010. A few friends joined him, including former U.S. Maple drummer Adam Vida and jazz percussionist Jason Adasiewicz—they both contributed to "Separation," a taut, ethereal ballad laced with vibraphone and marimba. "I didn't know what the outcome would be," Kinsella says. "I just gave myself a deadline and had to finish it, or otherwise I'd probably still be working on it."
Shaking Hands makes The Layer sound like a trial run. Though Kinsella's MO has changed only slightly—in his songwriting he favors twisting rhythms and inventive flourishes arranged around simple melodic cores—the results are dramatically improved, whether because of the classes he's taken or the extra practice he's had working alone. "Fossil Record," with layers of vocal harmonies and backward guitar and a memorable vocal hook that winds throughout the song, could be a textbook example of shimmering, unrushed psychedelic pop, once somebody decides to write a textbook that specific. "Pendulum" adorns a drifting bedroom-acoustic melody with echo-laden piano riffs, droning strings, and multitracked vocal loops and lands somewhere between indie singer-songwriter and modern classical.
It's hard to tell from how assured Shaking Hands sounds, but the solo approach is still difficult for Kinsella. "I guess as fun as working alone can be, I definitely am more insecure about it," he says. "In Make Believe we used to write each tune together. Just having four dedicated individuals working towards something, I felt like we were all backing each other up. Working on a solo recording project, I'm the only person holding the whole thing together. There are all of these battles of self-doubt and whether it sounds good at all, and not really bouncing it off of anyone else."
In order to make a three-week tour of Europe and the States, Kinsella recently expanded Birthmark into a live band that includes his wife and two friends from high school who live in Minneapolis; following his lead, everyone else plays multiple instruments too, and they switch roles from song to song. That trip wraps up with a show next Friday at the Hideout, and Kinsella is already mapping out a third Birthmark album. His plans are still very vague, but he does have one firm idea in mind. "I think that I want to have more friends play on it," he says.