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Birds Of Tokyo On ‘Human Design’ & The Magic Of Getting Back To Playing Live Shows

Perh alt-rock gods Birds of Tokyo have wasted no time busting out of the COVID-19 shackles. Fresh off of a run of shows across the nation with Symphony Orchestras, Birds of Tokyo have now set their sights a little closer to home, with the band joining forces with Coopers to host a Live, Loud and Local gig on Rottnest Island in April. Their first show on Rotto, the April gig will be another first for a band who have spent a lot of the last twelve months discovering new ways to perform and connect with fans in support of their sixth album, Human Design.

Birds of Tokyo’s second ARIA number one album (following 2013’s March Fires) Human Design further affirmed Birds of Tokyo’s claims as one of Australia’s biggest and most consistent bands. Arguably the most personal and open of Birds of Tokyo’s albums, Human Design has sunk its teeth deep into the minds of fans, providing a sense of genuine human connection, one ingeniously crafted, pop-infused rock song at a time.

Despite being written long before the pandemic hit, Human Design has proven to be the perfect accompaniment to the unprecedented times it was released within. With fans having more time to fully absorb the songs. Now those same fans will finally get a chance to experience them live, we caught up with keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Glenn Sarangapany for a lively chat about the challenges of pandemic life, the band’s tour plans, writing and why the future might be a little bit heavier for Birds of Tokyo. We also found out a little secret about their frontman, vocal icon Ian Kenny.

MF: Hey Glenn, how’s existence treating you in WA today?

Glenn Sarangapany: I’m doing well man, how are you going Brenton?

MF: I’m not too bad mate, I’m just sitting here in Melbourne being astonished at the newfound freedoms I have!

GS: You can leave the house, it’s amazing! You guys have done it tough, I reckon anyone in Melbourne should be able to punch anyone from any other state who complains about COVID in the ear, and no one can say anything!

MF: Exactly, I don’t usually condone any form of non-consensual physical violence, but in this one instance, I could make an exception!

GS: We had this group chat when we had to go into the five-day lockdown, and everyone was whinging saying, “oh no, it’s going to be terrible”, and one of our Melbourne mates said, “I think you’ll be fine”.

MF: Five days? Come on guys, try like five months! It was worth it though. Now we’re on the other side of it, I’m feeling very proud of everyone’s efforts and community spirit, I must say. Obviously talking to any musician at the moment is always going to start out with some kind of discussion of the pandemic. Which leads me to ask what exactly have you Western Australian folk in Birds of Tokyo have been doing for the past year?

GS: Oh man, I moved back here from Sydney in December. So I coped with the lockdown in Sydney. So when I came back to WA, everything seemed so breezy here. There were a few restrictions on things but it wasn’t as harsh as over there. With our tour last year, we started calling ourselves the Teflon birds, because wherever we played we happened to just avoid the lockdown. We’d get our show in and then a week later, that state would go into lockdown. So if the routing for the tour had happened any other way, then none of those shows would have been able to happen.

MF: So what you’re trying to say is that COVID-19 was caused by Birds of Tokyo?

GS: Well, look, it’s hard to look at it any other way. So if scientists are looking for a cure, maybe they need to dissect our brains. That’s where the vaccine must be. It’s inside of Ian Kenny’s brain!

MF: Given you’ve been in WA, you have had the opportunity to perform some shows, but you were also able to do some other stuff as well, performing on shows like ABC’s The Sound, what did you find the experience was like, promoting a new record via these different means?

GS: As you’d imagine it wasn’t the ideal situation, but everyone did what they could to create something different, something exciting during that time. To be totally honest now, it’s really exciting to be back in the room with the guys being able to do stuff, and it is very exciting to have live music back on and back on its feet. But it was kind of cool to see that everyone did make an effort to continue producing content and make things happen that were engaging. It was really nice to see things like that happen.

MF: Absolutely. Situations like these seem to always bring out the innovation in people and in communities and this was no exception. Did you find that as a band, Birds of Tokyo were able to find new ways to maintain a level of connectivity with your fans?

GS: Yes, and for us in particular it was a very different type of connection. It was actually really nice because we were able to do a couple of things we’d never done before. We did a live stream where the five of us spoke about the album process, that’s something we’ve never done before. So it was good to be able to do and to have those moments with fans. I think Ian Kenny jumped on and answered a bunch of questions, so doing stuff that we’d never really considered doing, but we were forced to by the situation, it was really cool. It was nice to have the option and the opportunity to connect with people.

MF: Absolutely. I mean, coming off the back of another number one album on the ARIA charts, it probably added a bit of novelty factor to the rollout too?

GS: So that happened when I was still in Sydney, but the restrictions were eased a bit, so I was actually able to go over to Ian Berney’s house and share a beer with him and celebrate, which felt particularly nice at the time. I remember we were talking about how nice it was and how it made us realise how much we appreciate little moments like that.

MF: Now, Birds of Tokyo are one of Australia’s most successful modern alternative rock bands, with a ton of hits, and now thanks to Human Design, you’ve got even more hits to consider, which leads me to wonder when you do get back into touring the full circuit, how are you going to decide what to play?

GS: The setlists are really fun at the moment. We play the singles that we really like, then we play a few of the deeper cuts that we’re really vibing on. What’s been kind of cool and surprising is that at the shows we have been able to play, one of the last tracks on Human Design a song called ‘Never Going Back’ has been getting the same type of response as ‘Lanterns’ and ‘Plans’. Most people have never heard that song before, but it’s this big epic, stomper and people are really responding to it. So that’s been really fun to be able to throw a bunch of singles that people can sing along to, but then also be able to throw this new song in and still get that kind of response is really cool. I’m really enjoying that.

MF: I suppose being in the current situation where you can only really play in WA, is giving you the opportunity to explore those types of inclusions too, as it is your home ground, the fans there have heard all of the others songs before, so you can get away with it a bit more?

GS: Exactly, my mum can’t tell me to stop playing these album cuts!

MF: Speaking of shows in WA, I’ve got you on the line to talk about this upcoming Live, Loud and Local event over on Rottnest Island in June. Have you ever played Rotto before?

GS: No, I’ve never played on Rottnest Island. I don’t know how much you know about Rotto, but it’s where we go for ‘leavers’ which is what you folks call schoolies. So that’s my primary recollection of the place. I haven’t been there for ages, but I remember there were always gigs at the pub and it was freaking awesome. To me, it’s always been a party island. So I’m very excited to get over there to actually play a show. It’ll also be the closest thing to an overseas gig we’ve done in a while! I mean, it’s an island, you have to go over the water to get there, so I’m claiming it!

MF: As you should! It’s the same attitude we have to Tassie here in Victoria too! “Look, mum, we’re playing overseas!”

GS: Hahaha. Overseas trips, this is the best!

MF: For you personally, as a keyboardist/ multi-instrumentalist what is it like being in Birds of Tokyo at the moment, is there anything that’s really exciting you coming up?

GS: The most exciting thing for me is that Adam and I have been talking about getting me to play some more guitar on the live shows. I filled in for him on a couple of shows while he was stuck in Sydney, and he bought me a lovely Fender Strat to say thank you. So we’re currently talking about incorporating some extra guitar on a few of the tracks for the live show. So I’m very pumped about that!

MF: That sounds awesome man. You’ve got a really interesting role in the band, as a multi-instrumentalist. Which material do you find the easiest to put your imprint on and the most enjoyable to play live. Are you more into the earlier, heavier stuff, or the newer stuff that has your role a little more principally in mind?

GS: I started playing as a session muso for Birds in 2007, so the early stuff was really familiar to me as a keyboard player only. Then as the role grew to become more of a songwriter and member of the band, it became more personal. So it now feels like you’re asking me to pick a favourite between my kids and I can’t do it. To be completely honest though, you’re asking me at the wrong time, because at the moment playing anything at a show, is exciting, it all feels like the most fun. Even booking a Tarago for a tour right now feels exciting.

MF: That’s fair, perhaps you can answer me this then, has Ian Kenny ever missed a note?

GS: Hahaha, it is rare, but I’ll give a secret away here. If Ian Kenny ever misses a note, vocally or lyrically, he does this thing where he checks his in-ear monitor as if something has gone wrong. Now pretty much no one will ever realise, because it’s Ian Kenny missing a note, so it’s not going to be far off, it’s virtually perfect, but I notice because he checks his in-ear every time!

MF: That’s a good trick, I’m going to adopt that myself! I have to say though, he’s kind of giving away the game there, by drawing attention to it, that’s a rookie move from a veteran actually!

GS: Exactly, seriously, watch him, coz he does it every time!

MF: Now you’re in the rehearsal room at the moment, are you giving any consideration to writing?

GS: Yeah man, we’re really pumped on the writing at the moment. Sparky has been sending through a bunch of material he’s been working on. There’s a lot of guitar. We’ve been talking a lot about our album Universes, as a reference point for it. We’re excited to be in a jam room and jam with loud guitars and loud drums and not overthink it beyond what feels good and just make the record happen like that.

MF: That sounds amazing man, I think you’ve just made a LOT of old-school Birds of Tokyo fans happy!

GS: We kind of realised recently that we are old-school Birds of Tokyo fans!

We do love the craft of pop songwriting, but we also really like riffs and heavy guitars, so it might be nice to do that for a bit!

MF: It sounds like you might be headed down the Silverchair theatre tour vibe that they did, where they played all of the poppier, more experimental stuff then took an intermission and played nothing but rock bangers to close the night?

GS: That’s an awesome idea. I’m actually going to suggest that!

MF: So you play a bold, theatrical, pop set, for the first half. Then the second half just goes out and blows people’s heads off.

GS: That’s a fantastic idea, I wonder if anyone’s ever thought of that before…hehe.

MF: Now I do need to let you go, but before I do I wanted to give you the opportunity to give a shoutout to a fellow WA act or two who you feel are killing it at the moment. Who have you been into from WA of late?

GS: Methyl Ethel is one of my favourite bands at the moment. That song ‘Number 28’ is one of my favourite songs, so I’ve been doing a deep dive and a binge on all of their stuff. We actually used the ‘Number 28’ as a reference point for our video clip for ‘Two Of Us’. It came out very different from theirs but it was one of the talking points we had.

MF: Before I go I do have to say that there is one Birds of Tokyo song that I hope to never hear again, and that’s the West Coast Eagles theme song.

GS: It’s technically not a Birds of Tokyo song! I played the guitar on that for the fee of some drugs, and Ian Kenny sang vocals on it, but we don’t consider it a Birds of Tokyo song, really. As a West Coast fan myself, I have to say I still prefer the old song.

MF: That’s good to hear. As a Collingwood fan, it has damaged me enough, thank you!

GS: Our drummer Westie has a Collingwood tattoo and I was actually at his house for that grand final and it was just amazing, being around him to witness that.

MF: Well on that cruel note, I have to let you go man than you so much for talking to Music Feeds today, you’ve been the most upbeat and happiest muso I’ve spoken to in a while! I hope you enjoy this show on Rotto, and that Birds of Tokyo can come over this way soon!

GS: No worries mate, it’s been great talking to you and I’m sure we will as soon as we can.

Catch Birds Of Tokyo play as a part of the new gig series Live, Loud & Local this April 11th at Hotel Rottnest in Perth. Tickets here.

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