“I Had To Drop My Guard And Be Honest”: Birds Of Tokyo’s Ian Kenny On Finding The Right Language For PainWritten by David James Young on April 1, 2019
Ian Kenny – better known by most simply by his surname – is one of Australian music’s great double agents. For the past 15 years, he’s been at the helm of two decidedly different bands: Karnivool and Birds of Tokyo. The former, of which Kenny was a co-founder in 1997, are an ARIA-winning prog-rock band that routinely sell out shows across the country despite routinely taking years between major releases. The latter, meanwhile, are established pop-rock superstars – four of their five studio albums have gone top five in Australia, with two of them additionally going platinum and the singles ‘Plans’ and ‘Lanterns’ hitting #1 on the Australian artists’ chart.
After a period of inactivity from both, Kenny has got his hands full in 2019 as each band awakes from its respective hibernation. Birds of Tokyo are first off the rank, with new single ‘Good Lord’ arriving just weeks ago. Meanwhile, the band affectionately known as the ‘Vool are back at work on album number four and gearing up to head out on tour this coming May and June. It felt as opportune as ever to get Kenny on the phone to discuss the various goings-on of his double life, as he reflects on everything from divorce to the tenth anniversary of Karnivool’s beloved Sound Awake.
Music Feeds: The sixth Birds of Tokyo album has been on the horizon for quite some time now. Are we able to get a status update on it?
Ian Kenny: Birds have been writing for the last few months. We put out ‘Unbreakable’ in December, which was the first of the new singles that are coming. ‘Good Lord’ just came out, and we’ve been very lucky with that. Because that single has already done so well, it will allow us a bit more time to work on the stuff we’ve been writing and get towards the next record. It’s cool to have the band writing again – there was about year there where I wasn’t in the best place to be a creative dude, in tune with music. It’s good to have that settled and behind me so we can get back to writing the music that we like. I’m thankful I have something like music in my life – it really exorcises the demons, if you know what I mean.
MF: Karnivool, meanwhile, made its return to play at Unify Gathering in January as well as a run of WA shows. How was that to return to after another period of hibernation?
IK: It was so much fun, dude. Again, we were pretty inactive for awhile because we were writing our fourth record. That got to a point, however, where none of us really had an idea of exactly where it was going. We couldn’t make sense of it, so it was the band’s decision to down tools and focus on other things. Now, we’re back in the studio and working on the new stuff again. The shows in January were great, and we’re going to take this new stuff out on the road in May. It’s all good with us right now.
MF: With both bands working on new stuff again, how do you reflect on your own creative process? Do you feel as though your role within either band has changed at all as each have adapted, evolved and moved in considerably different directions?
IK: I think it has – and I think it’s changed for the better. I’m more in tune with what I have to offer creatively, and what I have to offer as a musician in the role of songwriter. I try to play to the strength of the material, and the direction the band is going in. I’m always trying to get better at it, trying to pay more attention to what the band needs – whichever one that may be at the time. Music is a constantly-changing thing – it’s up to you, as a creative person, to change with it.
MF: There’s obviously been a lot of change as far as Birds of Tokyo are concerned, in particular. How have you found navigating the band’s shift from an alternative rock band to a pop band?
IK: For us, it came as a progression through our writing. We’ve always been interested in the songwriting of pop music – it’s something that we pay a lot of attention to, and we listen to it a lot. I’m fascinated by what goes into writing quality pop songs. It’s not easy, and when you get it right you get some spectacular results. We’re fans and we’re lovers of rock music, and that will always be where we started, but we’ve been so curious about the pop side of things that we just decided to put the effort in to really chase it.
MF: As far as ‘Good Lord’ is concerned, you’ve been pretty explicit about what the song is about – and even if you hadn’t, the lyrics lay everything out quite bare. Was there any degree of reticence or hesitation in showing this to your bandmates, and turning a very private matter into something to be shared publicly?
IK: Yeah. I had to think long and hard about where this song was gonna land. I remember being very cautious about showing anyone, let alone the band. I rewrote the lyrics a few times – the first couple of times, I was really hiding what I was trying to say. I was so concerned about exposing myself to a wider audience – it’s not something that I normally do at all, and I’m honestly not that comfortable with it. I found, though, that with what I’ve been going through the last year or two…[pauses] There was just no other fucking way, man. It was the only way through. I had to drop my guard and be honest. I really think that the song ended up a lot better because of it. The band were super cool with it – they’re always appreciative of anything honest, so I was really thankful that they were accepting. It was still fucking weird, though. [laughs]
MF: Do you feel as though this experience with ‘Good Lord’ will influence how you approach writing the rest of LP6?
IK: I think so. This is the first song to open the door, and there are many parts to the aftermath of that relationship coming apart. There are a hundred ways to describe how it felt, and I don’t think you can ever get something like that in one song. Music is great like that – it’s an avenue to really work through things piece by piece. It’s going to come out in other songs, and it has to. It might not all come out the same way as ‘Good Lord’ – it might take different forms lyrically or musically. Still, though, it’s a positive step forward – of course I want to keep taking those.
MF: What about Karnivool? Do you envision this impacting on the way you write with and for them, or do you perceive that as an entirely separate entity?
IK: Usually, the creative space is different between the two. At this stage, though, I don’t know. I feel like I’ve opened up enough of a space to say how I feel that it could go either way. Karnivool is interesting – it’s this really heavy band, this assertive vehicle of a thing. It expresses itself in a different way, so maybe because of that I’ll find a different way to write within it moving forward. It’s all very strange, here and now, when I’m talking about it. The shit I went through was two years ago, and I’m at a point now where I can honestly say I’m feeling really good. The only reason this is coming up now through something like ‘Good Lord’ is because it’s taken me that long to figure out the right language for it.
MF: The way your bands tend to operate, as well, means that we won’t hear from either for years at a time. No matter what, you’ll be processing emotions and ideas on a delay – by the time they’re released, it could be from quite some time prior.
IK: Yeah, that’s true. Usually, too, I try and get the best out of an idea in pieces. I can come back to a song after months, having gone off and done other things, and I’ll be able to build from it and add to it. It’s sort of the way that I’ve always worked. It can take months and months, but it’s all building towards an end result.
MF: This June will mark 10 years since Sound Awake was released. It marks a huge turning point in your career – it was the first time you had hit the top five of the albums chart, and within a year Birds had really hit the next level commercially as well. How do you reflect on the impact of that record with a decade removed from it?
IK: In my opinion, it’s the best record Karnivool has done. For any band in our field, it’s truly something you can hang your hat on. We’re so proud of it. When we play these songs, we thoroughly enjoy every single song. I’m very thankful we have a record like that, and that we created something like that. I’m grateful that it still means something to people. I don’t know if I’ll ever get sick of performing those songs – it’s still so much fun to us.
MF: After Sound Awake, Karnivool headed down even proggier, heavier territory on Asymmetry. Meanwhile, Birds marked their proper transition into a pop band with the self-titled LP in 2010. Karnivool and Birds went from having a significant overlap in the Venn diagram to creating real points of difference – to the point where people who are fans of one band often can’t make heads nor tails of the other.
IK: You know what, man? It’s funny… I think, deliberately, awhile back I made a conscious decision to push in those directions. I wanted them to be apart. I didn’t want to keep coming back to the well for the same old thing. I made that push, and I think that’s exactly what’s ended up happening with both bands. They occupy their own spaces, and I have a lot of respect for each of them because of that. I like the place they’ve found themselves – and I like my place within them.