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Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today we revisit a touchstone of Midwestern emo, the 1995 debut from Cap’n Jazz.
Growing up in the suburbs, you make formative bonds with people you might have almost nothing in common with. Most connections forged in high school—friendships, romances, career paths—don’t survive graduation. This includes Cap’n Jazz, a band that was created by two teenage brothers in Buffalo Grove, Illinois.
Upon the release of their debut LP, they exploded and then imploded within the span of a few months. They had no obvious chemistry, no organizing artistic principles, nothing to suggest they took more than a minute to consider anything besides the songs they were making. These songs defined the shape of punk to come by not giving it any shape at all, by going in at least three different directions at once, and living out the main psychosomatic driver of Midwestern emo: brain and heart locked in a war for every last drop of warm blood in your body. The run-on title of their one and only album begs you to experience the music the way it was made: shout first, process later.
The original version of Cap’n Jazz featured the local high school’s star running back as the drummer. He quit to focus on football and a 12-year-old Mike Kinsella learned how to play a 16-piece drum set on the fly. “I was garbage, but it was hilarious,” he once joked. His older brother by three years, Tim, was a natural leader—in a 2017 documentary, his mother remembers him as a precocious elementary schooler, retelling the Immaculate Conception in journalistic language so crisp and charismatic that his teachers imagined a future where he’d become President of the United States. Though an acclaimed and prolific author, teacher, and musician, he’s also spent the past 20 years making almost entirely unintelligible records with Joan of Arc, one of the most consistently loathed bands in indie rock.
Buffalo Grove is an overwhelmingly white Chicago suburb—which would have made Latino guitarist Victor Villarreal an outcast by default, even putting aside his predilections for metal and dropping acid. He skipped the first practice but eventually showed up playing metal legend Randy Rhoads’ “Dee” for a band who’d written a number of songs with only two chords. The definitive lineup of Cap’n Jazz was rounded out by affable bassist Sam Zurick, and guitarist Davey Von Bohlen, who later achieved great success with the Promise Ring and Maritime and now spends most of his time focusing on his Milwaukee accounting practice.
“When Cap’n Jazz was, like, happening, we didn’t ever thought of ourselves as an emo band. Maybe they all called us an emo band, we were just like weirdo punk band,” Tim protests. His story checks out: Prior to making their first full-length, Cap’n Jazz released a handful of singles on compilations with extremely ’90s Midwestern punk names like How the Midwest Was Won, It’s a Punk Thing, You Wouldn’t Understand, and A Very Punk Christmas; the Kinsellas covered “Winter Wonderland” with their mother, and it inspired Chicago’s Screeching Weasel to call them the “crudiest [sic] and most pretentious band in Chicago.” The shorthand for Cap’n Jazz’s only album—Shmap’n Shmazz—is scrawled across the original CD version released by Man With Gun, a label that put out a total of three titles and might as well have been a private press.
Even today, Shmap’n Shmazz’s take on punk rock feels rootless, so imagine how it must’ve sounded in 1995. Up until that point, “emo” was in no danger of being a New York Times crossword clue—whether it referred to the literal “emotional hardcore” of Revolution Summer in 1985 Washington, D.C. to Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary, which was released the previous year, emo aspired to a monastic degree of purity and intensity. “I said I bled in the arms of a girl I barely met,” or “My heart revealed my cause/I’m lying naked at your feet,” or “I dream to heal your wounds/But I bleed myself” are illustrative lyrics, where a wicked crush can only be consummated by supreme sacrifice to a higher power—no wonder this stuff played so well in church basements. Conversely, the first line in the opening track “Little League”—“Hey coffee eyes/You got me coughin’ up my cookie heart”—sorta expresses the same idea as Rites of Spring, Jawbreaker, and Sunny Day Real Estate but the unabashed goofy and tactile infatuation behind it was sacrilege.
Why “Little League” begins Shmap’n Shmazz by fading into a full sprint remains a mystery— maybe they thought it was one of the few cool production tricks they could afford or maybe they wanted to replicate what it must’ve felt like to anyone outside of the greater Chicagoland area in 1995: If you weren’t following them every step of the way, you’re already breathlessly trying to catch up. They did not take the baton from any identifiable predecessors and were only influenced by bands in their immediate vicinity. On “Yes, I Am Talking To You,” the line, “I’m dying to tell you I’m dying,” is attributed to Bob Nanna, Tim’s bandmate in the short-lived the Sky Corvair, who would later become the frontman of Braid.
According to Braid’s Chris Broach, he and Kinsella were in school competing for the same women while exchanging ideas that would define “Midwestern emo” in perpetuity: incomprehensible guitar interplay, bursts of surrealist and hyper-diaristic lyricism, unabashed about its girl-crazy impulses, and casting a critical eye to the heteronormativity that always crops up in any scene that values aggressive music. The most confrontational moment on Shmap’n Shmazz occurs on its most un-punk song; over fumbling flamenco picking, Tim intones “boys kissing boys,” without elaborating. “Oh Messy Life” struggles with awe and admonishment while considering the brazenness of men, whether telling of a “boldly bald” uncle who wore a hat when swimming (“I know there’s a lesson in there somewhere”), or “boys who smell like salami and boys who’ve never apologized”—if juvenile toxic masculinity had a smell, it would be salami.
Cap’n Jazz loved a great melody but they wouldn’t let that get in the way of their next batshit idea. While Villareal’s chops would fully flower in his later work, on Shmap’n Shmazz, it almost sounds like he’s bullying the Guitar World- side of himself; the classical flourishes of “Bluegrassish” are antagonistic when applied to a gainless electric guitar, while “Flashpoint: Catheter” creates a paralyzing unease with guitar strings getting tickle-tortured. Amick and Mike always come off like the guys who just wanted to be there for the party, but in the rare, brilliant moments where everyone sounds like they’re playing on the same beat—the stutter-steps of “Puddle Splashers” and “In the Clear”’s dive-bombing drop—Cap’n Jazz create a blueprint for any emo band that claimed math-rock and vice versa. And then there’s the moments where Tim realizes the smartest guy in the room is the class clown: stopping “In the Clear” midway to recite half of the alphabet. Or throwing a French horn solo into “Basil’s Kite” to bestow punk spirit on the least punk instrument.
Of course, the class clown is usually using humor to deflect something that can’t be shared without judgment. Both Tim and Villareal have said that Cap’n Jazz served as a release valve for their anxieties; the former called Cap’n Jazz “therapeutic” during a time when he was already in the grips of substance addiction. Tim has also spoken about traumatic moments in both his childhood home and church that festered unattended until he started going to therapy as an adult. The Kinsellas were raised by a doting mother and a father whose behavior wasn’t seen as alcoholic or abusive at the time, but it would take decades for his issues to be explored in non-illusory terms.
Given the way Cap’n Jazz dealt with their demons, maybe “emo” or “weirdo punk” isn’t as proper of a classification for Shmap’n Shmazz as “psychedelic rock.” Amick and Villareal were going to school on acid, and Tim supposedly wrote the album’s lyrics in one night while high on mushrooms. The music of Shmap’n Shmazz is pure release, and the experience felt more like a purge in every sense for Tim, projectiles of partially digested and transformed memories coming violently to the surface. Much of the record goes beyond the cleansing ritual of confession and catharsis, searching for something closer to transcendence.
On first exposure, Tim may as well be speaking in tongues. Sometimes it’s all too clear what he means, others, he stacks syllables for sheer sound. He sings of a “Ringwald haze,” evoking the era’s avatar for romantic aspiration, tangible but always just out of reach. But then, “We’re using judo like Bruce Lee,” which...your guess is as good as mine. But make no mistake, this is poetry, some of the most vivid and visceral to be documented anywhere in 1995, let alone shouted, spittled, and spewed on a punk rock record. (Freak-folk singer Devendra Banhart described Tim’s early work as comparable to Rimbaud or “going to the zoo on quaaludes, but all the other animals are on speed.”)
In retrospect, Tim unintentionally set the course for freaky folk artists from Jeff Mangum to Hop Along’s Frances Quinlan to Banhart himself, collapsing the time-space continuum, bundling sexual awakening and awkwardness, birth and death, intense pain and fleeting, incapacitating joy into a collage suspended in animation that one can point at and say—ah, youth.
On “Yes, I Am Talking to You,” a piggy bank serves as an indoctrination to merciless capitalism, an innocent’s first experience with money turning into a future where “hammy fat fingers pinch clammy cold coins.” But there’s also the sweetness of a butter cookie ring on the finger nibbled down to the knuckle, “peanuts and kiddie Molotov cocktails on a starved stomach on Sunday afternoons,” chasing kites, splashing puddles, and the awestruck feeling of getting out of Buffalo Grove, being engulfed by Chicago, itself dwarfed by a “Van Gogh sky.” On “Planet Shhh,” he responds to this paralyzing insignificance by throwing it back at its creator: “Hey God, I’ll pull you outta the sky and make you 14 again.”
When kids are still in the process of growing into their bodies, “a size-and-a-half ago shoe” rules the concept of time. Cap’n Jazz may have actually lasted about that long, but longevity doesn’t make for good punk rock legend. Better to be too beautiful, too doomed—suicide, drug addiction, irreconcilable “creative differences,” buckling under commercial pressure you never asked for. These are the things we use to convince us that certain forms of genius are divine, that they can be too much for a human to actually bear. From a certain angle, Cap’n Jazz fits that narrative.
As the band slept in their van after a show at Little Rock, Arkansas’ Das Yutes a Go-Go, Villareal was in the midst of an overdose, peeing all over himself. Tim woke up screaming and in a panic. They took Villareal to a nearby hospital and had a vote about whether to keep going. Like most high-school bands, the quintet gave this whole thing a shot because it seemed like fun. And like most high-school bands, Cap’n Jazz ended because the fun wasn’t enough to justify the hassle.
For all of its impact on post-hardcore, math-rock, and virtually every band that’s ever been called “Midwestern emo,” it’s fair to say that the one thing Cap’n Jazz did that went the furthest towards cementing their legacy is breaking up months after the release of Shmap’n Shmazz. Every project that has flowed from Cap’n Jazz ever since is part of a symbiotic feedback loop that amplifies the legend of Cap’n Jazz.
Tim Kinsella kept the most active, creating new permutations of the Cap’n Jazz lineup, collaborating with Angel Olsen, recored under the name Tim Kinsellas, and inspiring some of the most caustic album reviews of the early 21st-century with Joan of Arc’s astronomical pretensions. Mike never seemed to identify with punk rock to the same degree as Tim, and when he eventually went downstate to the University of Illinois, he stripped emo of its hardcore lineage and replaced it with post-rock and minimalist jazz on American Football, which eventually restoked the sibling rivalry by replacing Shmap’n Shmazz as the most influential album of the past decade’s “emo revival.” Cap’n Jazz have been called the “Emo Velvet Underground,” but that doesn’t quite work—I don’t know what became of the lucky few people who saw these guys live, but each of their members started like 50 other bands, all of whom created a new galaxy where Cap’n Jazz is the centrifugal Big Bang.
In the time since their break up in 1995, Cap’n Jazz reunited twice—the original lineup played a run of shows in 2010 and in 2017, when they were able to capitalize on their massive influence. This once seemed like an impossibility given Tim’s aversion to nostalgia and sentimentality; but according to Von Bohlen, the one thing that brought them together was the fear of losing “that emotional attachment where we feel like we could be defined for the rest of our musical lives by this one thing that happened in our teenage years.”
The truly breathtaking commitment of these shows indicated otherwise. At FYF last year, a 42-year old Tim whipped tambourines into the crowd, took his shirt off and unbuckled his belt, dove into the crowd, gave out his phone number, and let Devendra Banhart join them on stage to expand the “kitty cat” part of “Little League” for about three minutes. Compared to the hipper, more tasteful artists who would occupy that same stage for most of the weekend, it was Cap’n Jazz who seemed like the ones who tapped into an endlessly renewable spirit that exists outside themselves; you don’t have to live in your teenage emotions to get something out of them, and when one wave of fans feels like they’ve aged out, there’s another that needs more.