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BIRDS OF TOKYO The X-Press Interview


Despite not being able to fly anywhere literally due to the COVID-19 pandemic, local legends Birds of Tokyo are continuing to hit new heights in music on an international scale. Their sixth studio album Human Design, is out Friday, April 24, 2020 and promises an intimate insight into three years of very big feelings for frontman Ian Kenny and the creative development of the band. ANNIE MUNROE caught up with bassist Ian Berney to find out about how the album was born out of embracing honesty, the streaming age and “a flood of connection from fans.”

It’s exciting to have a new Birds album coming out soon! What can you tell us about Human Design?

Human Design was written and recorded over three years, and in separate studio recordings over that time. We were putting down the material as it was being written, because of extenuating circumstances where Ian Kenny was going through quite an interesting time of his life. When he was going through some bad things, he came to the band to sort of express those things, so we put down everything that we were working on to build around his experiences. He had some trouble in the relationship he was in, so it kind of baffled him for a while and he was using the songs as a way to help his mind through the plans, which in his mind were destroyed.

How did that experience correlate to the album?

What’s interesting about it is that you get the multiple phases of someone that’s recovering, and obviously you get the dishevelment, but then you get the ways you can talk yourself through bad experiences and reflect on them. You’ve got (tracks like) Good Lord, which is the story of what happened, followed up with a song like The Greatest Mistakes, which is reflecting on life, and how sometimes you make the wrong decisions, but it’s okay because it’s life.

So, you go with the ups and the downs. Then you’ve got a song like Unbreakable which is a song that Kenny wrote to himself. It was something that he wanted to form as his mantra. You’ve gotta remind yourself it’s not always going to be bad.

Some of the songs that we haven’t released yet show an even darker side of that process, but a lot of it is light. Our latest single, Two of Us, is actually a story of a recovery, and the rekindling of a past relationship and realising that was always the one for him. It’s kind of beautiful and romantic and it’s a very different tale than a destroyed relationship. So that’s what you get with this record, it’s three years of one man’s journey through this relationship.

I read that you approached building this album very differently, by responding to streaming culture with more emphasis on singles. What was that like in comparison to other albums?

Well, at that point, we were sort of looking for songs that would connect and stream well. It means that sometimes you write songs that are musically super inspiring and exciting for you as a musician, but if they don’t have that connectability factor then maybe they have to be put on the shelf, and stronger songs that would be more likely to connect to more people would be brought to the fore.

When we wrote Good Lord, we also wrote five other songs, but they just didn’t have the potency and the power of the lyrics in Good Lord. There was no point putting those out when this single would do all the work for us. It’s probably why the process was lengthened over three years, because we were constantly looking for exactly the right story for every part of Kenny’s recovery. Maybe it takes five songs to get to The Greatest Mistakes or it takes ten songs to get to Two of Us, but that’s just how the process has been for us. Very refined.

Which song took the longest to get right?

I should put a track listing in front of myself. I know we probably had 14 mixes of Good Lord. I think everyone knew we were kind of onto something pretty strong then. It was just getting down to the last 1% tweak here and there, and then it was going back and forth between producer and mixer. That was quite intense, but the song itself fell out. Literally out of nothing. I think Glenn was just sitting around a piano playing three chords and Kenny stood around him like a songbird. We were just grabbing iPhone of it, thinking, ‘holy shit.’ The process of refining those lyrics for Good Lord probably actually took a few more months to get right.

I can’t speak for Kenny, but I do know he will use music as a vehicle to address the emotions that he’s dealing with. I’ve never seen the guy sad when he’s writing music so that must be the antidote.

Birds Of Tokyo’s Human Design is out Friday, April 24.

Is there some symbolism in play with your cover art using crochet interpretations of instruments and body parts?

Oh, the idea there is that every single piece that you can see on that mechanical mobile is a nod to a certain lyric in each part of one of the songs. It’s kind of a bit of fun for the fans when they get the record or listen to it online. They can try and work out what that crochet bit was of which part of the song. A half-puzzle thing for them.

Like an Easter egg?

Yeah, that’s it. Except I haven’t quite figured out what the intestines are about. Maybe we just threw one in there on the fly, or maybe I missed something here.

In light of COVID-19’s impact on the music industry in Australia, and being experienced musicians, what role would you want the government to play to support the music industry during this?

It’s a pretty important question. I don’t think I’m an authority on this but obviously musicians are being absolutely capsized by this situation. Obviously performing live is a huge means to maintaining a career and if we can’t be gathering at all then that’s the end of that. If you’re asking me a political question, we obviously have been as musicians asking for some help from the government to get us through this time until we are able to gather again and earn.

From a producer perspective as well on my own stuff, I can’t record artists in the same room. I’m terrified to transfer what might be an idle symptom in a symptomatic circumstance where I might have it and give it to them, and I don’t want to receive it from them, especially if I have a pregnant wife. My blood supply in production work has been quite cut off, and our touring work as a band has been cut off, and it’s just a fascinating and incredible and dire time to be in the entertainment industry.

If the economy has to blow out completely, the first thing that has to go would be spending and unfortunately, I think people would see entertainment as one of those. It’s not all doom and gloom. If we can find the vaccine and again, I’m not an expert on any of this stuff but the light at the end of the tunnel is the world gets past this. Every day seems to close in us.

On a lighter note, creatively speaking, I’m a writer and I’ve found that I’ve been finally getting to all these projects I’ve put off, so isolation’s been pretty good for me.

That’s a totally good point. I’ve spent all my life since my teens wanting to sit in my room and just play an instrument. That was like my sanctuary. So, someone forcing me into isolation is not really much of an arm twist in my opinion. I’m just sitting here surrounded by a ukulele and a bunch of guitars. I’ve got my shit ready to go.

I must admit, I’m not complaining (in a creative sense). It is a great time to be creative. There is gonna be an absolute mountain of magic that is gonna come from this. As a group, we’re pretty sad we’re not going to be doing the strings tour any time soon, but it will be rescheduled.

What do you think it’s going to be like playing with a string ensemble? Are you excited for that?

I’m really excited for that. One of my mates called up and said, “oh yes, my flights have been cancelled so I’m going to be able to come to one of your Metallica shows.” I mean, that’s a bit of a dream come true to play with a 55-piece orchestra and the day that comes I’ll be grinning from ear to ear. Extremely excited for that.

Do you have an instrument you wish you could play from the string family?

The harp. That’d be mad. That’s a very, very technical instrument, I think. You’ve got to have some amazing finger dexterity, I think. People look really cool and angelic, and superhuman when they do it.

Given you guys are heritage listed in the music scene, and you’ve played with so many iconic bands, I wanted to step back and see if there were any upcoming bands that you have loved?

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my sister by law Lucy Peach!

There’s been some amazing responses come through from your audience resonating with tracks like Good Lord or Two of Us. Do you ever feel that there’s an element of danger releasing a song about topics like that?

Yeah, I mean, it was a really tough decision for Kenny to start being more personable with the lyrics. I think that was something we avoided pretty much in his entire career. He’d rather leave his personal life out of his art and that could be everyone else’s mystery. There was a long discussion about whether what we were doing lyrically was the right thing, and it’s very much up to Kenny as well to decide.

It did feel like the musical world was changing at the same time and I was starting to notice more and more super honest, personal songs coming out there. While I think he let his guard down, we’ve got a flood of connection from fans and people who don’t know the band because it came as an honest, earnest and really dark story. People gravitate towards the truth.

 

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