Birds of Tokyo’s Ian Kenny Opens Up About Coming From Down Under + His Band’s Evolving Sound
Geographically, Australia's Birds of Tokyo are all over the map. But professionally, they've been on a steady upward path since coming together out of Perth in 2004.
Formed as what was supposed to be a one-off songwriting collaboration between singer Ian Kenny (who was already established with his popular progressive outfit Karnivool) and guitarist Adam Spark, Birds of Tokyo became a full-time band and quickly ascended to the top of the rock ranks in Australia. Named for an article a member once read stating there's an absence of birds in Tokyo due to pollution and overcrowding (which they've since learned isn't actually true), Birds of Tokyo have released four albums -- 2007's 'Day One,' 2008's 'Universes,' 2010's self-titled album and 2013's 'March Fires' (which was finally released in the U.S. just this week) -- and while each has dominated the charts back home, the band has only started to scratch the surface stateside.
We caught up with Kenny just as the band prepared to embark on their fall tour with Irish outfit Kodaline and he told us a little about where Birds of Tokyo come from and a lot about where they're going.
What’s the music scene like in Perth? What was it like for you guys coming up?
Perth is an interesting city for music. The reason is because it's so isolated. It's actually the most isolated city on the planet geographically. But there’s some of everything there -- from punk to black metal and bits of trance, hip-hop and all sorts of stuff. It's pretty wild. Because it's so isolated, though, we grew up doing our own thing and making music the way we felt like we should and it was fairly untouched by most of the mainstream stuff for a while. That helped. It helped us concentrate and perform and figure out what the band is.
You were already playing in Karnivool when Birds of Tokyo formed. What brought you together?
We met in Perth at a bunch of shows. Adam [Weston], our drummer, was playing in a band. Adam [Spark], our guitarist, was playing in another band and approached me to do some songwriting with him. He had a bunch of songs that he had written that he needed some melodies and some vocals and stuff for. So when I sat down with him at the beginning, we discussed these songs and said, “Let’s write these and farm them out to a bunch of writers and see how they go.”
We worked on them, got them into shape and once the songs came together, we were like, “Hang on, some of this stuff is pretty good. So, how about, before we take it any further, we just get some guys together, hit a studio and see how they turn out?” We went up [and recorded] with the guys who are in the band now and we really enjoyed the results. It was like, “F---, it’s kind of happening now.” So from that point, we just started being a band. We starting touring and from there it snowballed into what it is.
Were you guys quickly embraced over there?
Yeah, I think so. In the circles that we grew up in, we were kind of known to a degree. So once we started the actual band and started touring, it didn’t take that long for things to kick off.
At what point did you set your sights on more of a global domination?
To be honest, being the artists and songwriters that we are, it’s always been there. The second record did very well in Australia and that kind of allowed us to get across [the Pacific Ocean] and get to record the next record in L.A. and we’ve been coming back to make records ever since. The third record did even better than the second and our last record has done the best of any of them, so it’s all going well. It’s all going in the right direction. Whatever we’re doing, we’re doing something right.
What's it like for you to more or less have to start over again in the states?
It’s a fairly welcome challenge. We don’t ever feel like we hit the ceiling in Australia. There's still so much work to do there. But when you come here, it really is like starting from the ground up again. Barely anyone knows you and there’s so much work ahead of you. There’s so much touring and so much ground to cover, but it’s fairly refreshing for us -- the scene change, as well. Everything changed: the way we live, the way we actually operate as a band. It’s been good. We’ve had a studio here now for the last 12 months and we’ve been actively writing in L.A. and coming close to having some new material together. We intend to demo that new stuff by the end of this year. I’m pretty sure being in L.A. had an influence on the writing and I think for the better because the new stuff is definitely sounding different and very removed from where we were when we were writing in Australia.
It’s a funny thing to say, but in Australia, we never really paid attention to the radio. There’s one pretty good station called Triple J, which I’ve listened to a bit. Over here, though, there are a few stations that we do listen to and I’m paying a bit more attention to it. I think, in some ways, that might have some influence. I think the landscape here also definitely does [influence us]. This place is gorgeous, man. The sun shines 24/7 all year as far as I can tell, and it’s f---ing gorgeous. I think that’s going to have an effect. We’ve also met a bunch of new artists and bands here and there’s an industry here that’s always fairly supportive as far as what we’re doing.
Do you guys ever get disheartened and think, “You know what? Let’s just go back to Australia and be huge rock stars there?”
No, not really. Being in a band, you get disheartened a dozen times a year. Things just come up. We’ve been a band for nearly 10 years, so we’ve been through all the s--t -- all the good things, all the glory and all the s---ty times that I think most bands have been through. We’re fairly thick-skinned when it comes to that kind of stuff. We’ve always had our eyes on the prize and that’s just continuing. We’re making the music we want to make and trying to reach people with that. That’s the whole goal.
Do you have any role models in bands from Australia, or anywhere else outside the U.S., who you think made the transition over here the right way?
Radiohead. I’m a fan, but I think what they’ve turned Radiohead into these days is a fascinating journey. From record to record, they’ve always made the correct left or right turns, sonically. Some of them have turned some people away, but it always leads somewhere else. It always feels like their decision-making comes with another three steps you don’t see. I consider that smart writing and now they’re in global demand. They’ve just conquered. They’ve done it their way and they’ve got to be proud of that. On that note, we also saw Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden a couple of weeks ago down in Orange County. Soundgarden were good, but Nine Inch Nails … they came out and, holy f---, they just schooled everyone there. It was unnerving. We walked away from there going, “Ah f---, we’ve got a lot of work to do.” I’m still on a little high from that.
Speaking of doing things on your own terms, you guys got a little bit of flack for the recent changes to your sound – especially with ‘March Fires.’ How would you describe the way the sound has changed?
I think we’re getting a lot wider with our sounds these days. We started out as a rock band who were fairly “mono.” It was all "down the line" sort of stuff. But these days, we’re definitely getting wider with our sounds, trying to make things more 3-D. We’re becoming a different band from record to record. We’re always chasing new sounds and even trying to reinvent, in our own way, rock ‘n’ roll guitar stuff. There’s always going to be guitar in this band -- it’s such a staple. But the way we’re redesigning the approach from that side of things, we’re chipping into it the further we go. For some fans, knowing where we come from, that change has been a challenge. But it’s going to keep happening. This band is on a bit of a journey. We don’t exactly know where it’s going to end up, but it’s going to be good.
Your music -- especially your earlier stuff -- seems to have an inherent positivity to it. Is that just the mindset you guys have or are you intentionally trying to get a positive message out there?
We were actually just speaking about this recently. It’s something that we don’t intend to do or haven’t intended to do and it just happens. But on our last two records, some of our songs have been pretty nice-sounding -- welcoming songs that sound big and bloody glorious at times -- but with lyrics that could be quite prickly, really. There’s a bit of an undertone there where it’s about loss and misdirection and some busted up moments. But positivity is something that everyone needs in their own way. As songwriters, we’re thinking maybe we’ll take a far stronger approach to the positive on this next bunch of songs. If we can make people feel f---ing great about what they're listening to and not so much about the band, that’s a sweet thing to achieve.
So you’re hoping to finish this next batch of songs this year?
Yeah, we’re writing at the moment. We’ve been in rehearsal mode and, we’re going to be off on tour with a band called Kodaline, and that takes us up to mid-November. ‘March Fires’ will be out in the U.S. while we’re touring, which is super-cool. After the tour finishes, we’re going to see where the new songs are and we’ll hit the studio to demo them. At that point, we’ll start the producer chats and figure out where and when to record. I'm very much looking forward to that.
What about Karnivool?
We did a European tour this summer, which was f---ing awesome. We smashed it and it was so much fun. I was actually just back in Australia doing some writing with Karnivool and we’ve got some new stuff happening that we’re hoping to get together for the end of the year. I’m not sure we’ll get that recorded by the end of the year, but I’m sure it’ll be by next year.
How difficult is it to have two fully functioning bands going?
It can be very difficult. At the start, it was because both bands were finding their feet and trying to work out how to be a band. But once the two groups became established and kind of started taking off in their own directions, now they're full time businesses. This is like, a full-time career. [Laughs] It can be hard. But the only thing that's hard, really, is scheduling. Trying to split me across two groups over a year can be a bit tricky, but I've got two different management groups these days. I'm well taken care of, you know?
Are you excited about the tour?
Yeah, man. It’s the most extensive tour we’ve done. I’m really looking forward to getting out and meeting people and having people at our shows. That whole thing -- the connection with an audience -- it’s the one reason we do what we do.
Get details on Birds of Tokyo's U.S. release of 'March Fires,' and their full tour itinerary, at their official website here.