Saying Yes: A Conversation with Ben Kinsinger

"I think the greatest change that I’ve adopted and that I try to hold to is to always be inclusive in play. Humor in acute form, in easy form, is, you know, you can despair someone. The roasts are funny. It’s easy to make fun of someone else. But it’s more gratifying to include an idea outside yourself. So, that’s my sermon. That I’ll preach to people. You know, be funny. But be funny with people."

[e]: So, I have this recording thing on my phone so I can record you, but I don’t have to put everything on the record.


BK: Nice.


[e]: Just so I don’t forget anything - so I can properly transcribe your transgressions.


BK: Yeah, and you can use it for training later.


[e]: Yeah…Exactly.


BK: Yeah. No, I’ve been here before.


[e]: Oh. Good. What have you been up to lately? What’s new?


BK: Um, working at Bar Pastoral with Jerome [best friend, roommate], wine and cheese bar. Dudes are chill. It’s a good environment, that’s new. Doing music things. Yeah. I have my first KickStarter show on Saturday.


[e]: Ones people got from donating?


BK: Yeah.


[e]: How many of those do you have to do?


BK: Six.


[e]: Wow. That’s a lot.


BK: Yeah…It’s a lot of times to go down to Peoria. I mean, I didn’t really make that much on that. But I’ll get some more fans, probably.


[e]: Have you finished recording now? What’s the update on that?


BK: We haven’t really started yet. I mean the studio’s almost done, we’ve been building the studio.


[e]: Oh. You’re actually building the studio first before you record. This is like, super DIY, from the ground up.


BK: Exactly. Start from scratch-ish. So Adam [Weisz, producer, friend] can start tracking there. It’s really whenever I have free time. So we’ve been practicing for the show now and once that’s done we can start tracking stuff.


[e]: That’s exciting. Are you doing all older ones? Are there any new ones you’re going to put on it?


BK: It’s mostly older songs that you would’ve heard and then a couple new ones. 


[e]: What’s the date?


BK: I’m thinking September.


[e]: Oh, ok, that’s soon.


BK: I don’t think it’s gonna take that long to record. Then I’m gonna pick out album art things and get it mastered and whatever else. 


[e]: So Adam’s not gonna master it?


Bk: He knows a guy who worked with Liza Day [band Adam is in] and with their album. He does stuff for She and Him and some other people. So I think we might go through him. I’m not sure what it takes to master. How have you been?


[e]: Good. Just been putzing around in Long Beach. Trying to recruit some friends. You know, for my team. Hopefully just to go out drinking with. Ya know. It’s hard because I feel like in Chicago I had such a great group to just be creative with and play around with. But I’ve been spending a lot of time with my sisters is good, and they’re good at being that as well. I think doing this online series is helpful as well, for me. To still be connected to people and really just catching up with people and garnering different friends and people’s philosophies for their day to day creativity. And for me, for anyone really, it’s nice to be reminded of that when you’re not so surrounded by that really. I’m trying to work on some more music myself hopefully, so I’m trying to work less but I’m working five to seven days a week now so I’m trying to cut that down a bit.


BK: At the old people bar?


[e]: Yeah….Oh my word! This guy, yesterday, he’s like, the most, I feel so bad for him. He’s this old man. I think he doesn’t have very many people in his life, I think he has cancer and comes in at like, 10, every night and he tells the longest stories. But he does it very forcefully, like if I try to walk away or do something else while I’m listening to him he’s like, “NO! Don’t walk away from me! As soon and you break eye contact I stop”. And I’m like, “Don, you’re my friend, I’m going to listen to you. You have my ears, but I need to do my job.” And he’ll talk about how he’s going to die, so I feel so bad for him, but also I want to punch him in the face. And yesterday, he took my hand…I don’t even know what he was saying, but some other guy bought him a drink and he took my hand and I don’t remember what they were talking about, but he said “The best things are slow, like good sex”. I pulled, I jerked my hand away and pointed a strong finger in his face and was like, “NO. Don. You do NOT violate my hand like that and talk about sex while you’re holding my hand like that. NEVER AGAIN, Don.” He just started cracking up. He thought it was so funny. And I just thought in my head, you little bastard. Don’t you dare. So I get a lot of that.


BK: At least it’s not boring.


[e]: No. It’s not. It’s not entirely boring. I take kind of a removed stand point and view how absurd our lives are, especially people with a lot of money.  But I meet some cool people there too. So…I just want to ask you a couple questions to get down to it. Whatever “it” is. I liked your pages, especially your imagination of Gridley, and how it was maybe full of photographers who just take pictures of themselves. 


BK: Yeah, it’s really weird. So small. And yet, there are photographers. That’s a real thing. They’re not all photographers. But there’s at least one, so there must be more. 


[e]: A town that takes pictures of each other, but I guess we do that anyways. 


BK: Yeah. Instagrams.


[e]: How’s improv going?


BK: Good. Every Friday night in Wheaton [IL]. I usually make it to every other. Let’s see, you came to one show and we had that two person show from Chicago open up for us? Pistol and Stamen. 


[e]: Yeah, they were amazing. They’re two person show was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. 


BK: Yeah, well they joined our troupe and it’s awesome.


[e]: Oh, cool. How’s that dynamic?


BK: It’s awesome. They blend in really well.


[e]: Ok, so one of the main things I wanted to make sure I asked you is to touch on why I see you as a successful songwriter and performer, which is because of your philosophy on play. And I feel like I was able to learn a lot more about that from living with you and being friends with you. And I’m wondering where that came from and where that stemmed from and whether or not you knew it was “play” or “saying yes”. Were you aware of that before college or what?


BK: Yeah, I think that was there before college. A lot of it was because I was able to play longer than other people, because you know, I was homeschooled.


[e]: Ah…yes. I forget that.


BK: I think my play time was extended through middle school and I didn’t have to deal with any drama or anything like that. This is the first time I’ve thought of that, that might be a thing. In high school, I was really shy and I found most of my interactions were with soccer and I would be playing with ideas there. I don’t know, re-association has always been a part of my life. Like, my dad will say, this is how he justifies puns, that re-association is the highest form of intelligence. Somebody said that. I think they were famous. My dad quotes them. 


[e]: You can just say Mr. Kinsinger said it.


BK: He’s famous enough. I think it really sparked though, in high school I did speech class and that’s when I found out I was funny.


[e]: Was it just a moment, you say it in people’s eyes? Had this internal feeling?


BK: Yeah. It was the first time I was acknowledged as funny. Because I was super shy. And that was a means of breaking out of my shell. And I felt free to be funny and play with funny things. There was never a moment when play came about, it’s just always been there. I’ve always loved it.


[e]: So I know that you were in a creative and improv community in college and were around some people who approached the philosophy of play maybe in a more cerebral way, and I know because I’ve heard you use it before, that there was a learned language to it. Like, there’s a language you’ve adapted that makes sense with how you’ve always viscerally understood play. What is some of that vocabulary to you?


BK: I think the greatest change that I’ve adopted and that I try to hold to is to always be inclusive in play. Humor in acute form, in easy form, is, you know, you can despair someone. The roasts are funny. It’s easy to make fun of someone else. But it’s more gratifying to include an idea outside yourself. So, that’s my sermon. That I’ll preach to people. You know, be funny. But be funny with people.


[e]: Yeah, and just from my own interest in the philosophy of improv and play as it translates to life and creativity, if I take just looking at you and your troupe in college and how you all played and then watching you in your troupe in the city, I can see a definite difference in play. Your college group mostly all adapted that inclusive mentality, you especially. And that created an overall better narrative, better story, better experience. And I think that’s your strongest suit, and one that’s often subtle but such a unifying factor and often makes a show successful. But then when I watched your city troupe, it seemed like a conglomeration of people who were talented in their own rights, and witty people, but desired their own spotlight more than the success of the whole. 


BK: Definitely. 


[e]: So, since you’ve been out of that community where everyone around you is pretty much on the same page in regards to play and inclusivity, but you’ve stayed in improv things and different forms of play, but what is something for you that you realized after being out of that community? 


BK: I try to, it’s harder, I have to invite people to play now, and it’s harder. I’ve kind of adopted Jerome’s strategy of questions. I think that’s more him than me. Questions that invite people into weird ideas and see how they react. 


[e]: Like what?


BK: I don’t know. Like, here we go…what was one? Shit. Had it then….If you had to live one year of your life, without autonomy, you just have to be present in it, all the decisions are already made, you just have to relive it - what year would you relive?


[e]: Oh wow. Huh. That would be kind of painful and exhilarating, I guess.


BK: Yeah, it’s gonna be good and bad times. 


[e]: For sure. Ok, another question: Who are some of the people you look up to, creatively or just as a human being or, whatever?


BK: My dad. Is one. Because, he wouldn’t call himself an artist, but he is. He’s always dabbled in different mediums. Drawing and painting and things and music. He wrote songs. But he always wrote songs kind of as a gift. Which is something I like to think of. He wrote a song for each of us kids when we were born. He’d write songs for my mom. He never wrote songs about himself. It was always outside himself. He’s also not afraid to try new things. I think it was this last Christmas, I don’t think he’s ever painted, but he painted this picture of this outlook where he proposed to my mom. And so, he just takes, he doesn’t have that much free time but he’ll steal away and do these projects. It’s always for someone. He’s generous with his art. And I like that a lot.


[e]: That’s so cool. It’s your dad and you can list him as an inspiration, not everyone can do that.


BK: Yeah. Also probably Kanye West. Mostly because, well he’s got some things that I don’t. That I wish I had. 


[e]: Like Kim Kardashian?


BK: Yeah, that’s #1. And this idea that everything he makes is brilliant. Like, anything that he makes, he’s like, “I’m a genius. This is awesome”. Like, there’s no doubt in his mind about his work and is like, everyone should just be giving me money to make art. Duh. But I feel like I want more of that. That confidence in my craft. Where when I make something, I’m like, yeah. This is fucking brilliant. 


[e]: So, you’re balancing between your dad, who is not making art for himself at all and is pretty ego-less in his art to…Kanye West, who’s pretty convinced he’s God. 


BK: Yeah, somewhere in between those two.


[e]: A pretty good scale to balance on.


BK: I’m hoping so.


[e]: My last question to you is: What does a good day look like to you? At the end of the day, what makes you satisfied?


BK: I one thing is make something. That’s always a constant need I feel. It’s less satisfied than it needs to be. If there’s a day where I just play piano, get ideas out, hang out, see people I love and talk. Those are good days. Or if I step outside of myself and it’s rewarded in some way. Like if I do something risky.


[e]: Risky business.


BK: You know, start a brothel in my apartment. That’s always a good day.


[e]: Oh, that’s good. Ok, so I'm gonna get to work to listening to this conversation again, so I can publish it. We'll see if anyone reads it.


BK: If you can think of anything cooler I could've said, you can write that down, too. 


[e]: I'll definitely insert the cooler things you could've said*.


BK: Nice. 


*(I have changed all of Ben's responses in this interview in order to make him appear cooler than he actually is. There is much inflection so you can think of this as interview with what would be a better Ben Kinsinger. Former Ben Kinsinger, you are now obsolete. You may leave the planet now).