Andrew Kenny has to be one of the most interesting figure in music today. Formerly of the American Analog Set, Kenny is currently on the road with his new band, The Wooden Birds. There’s quite a difference between the two bands, and there is a bit of reasoning behind that. Recently we sat down with Kenny to talk about the past, present and his very scientific future. This is one interview you don’t want to miss!
Modern Mystery: What made you decide to start The Wooden Birds after American Analog Set who were pretty successful?
Andrew Kenny: Well, they were kind of separate decisions first of all. American Analog Set didn’t want to tour any longer, and it’s not a very responsible thing to do to try put out your records or find somebody to put out your records and not follow through and support them. So that kind of was a door that was closing. In the meantime, I had been putting songs aside for slightly more up tempo, maybe a little more poppy, a lot more vocal project. I said since this can’t tour anymore we’ll have fun and record every once in a while, still record songs, stuff like that. But this is a really good time to start this other thing that was always going to take time away from American Analog Set, but not any longer. The timing is just right.
How did you get involved with the musicians you wanted to make up The Wooden Birds, like Matt Pond?
Well I had to stumble through making the record on my own. I wanted it to be very small and I had a good idea of what I wanted it to sound like so I just kind of did it. And then when it came time to put a band together, I found people. I played them the record and then I said, not even asking “What do you want to play?”, it’s more like “Do you like the record? Could you see yourself being something in this band?” and then I got those people together and said “Alright, somebody’s got to play the guitar, somebody’s got to play the bass.” And there’s no drums on the record, but you got to have drummers these days. Kids like the drummers. But seriously, unless you want to play in cafés and Barnes and Nobles, you got to have a drummer. So Sean plays drums, he was my drummer when I did solo shows in Austin. Leslie sang on the record and I asked her if she wanted to join up and have your pick of guitar, other guitar, bass, whatever you want…she picked guitar. Originally the guy who helped me produce the record, Chris Michaels, played steel guitar and he wasn’t able to come on this tour, and I was literally just like the day he told me, I was on the phone with Matt Pond and we were talking about he has a record coming out in the fall and I said “You got nothing to do, you should join the band!” and he said “I can’t believe I’m about to say ‘Yes’ to this but I am.” So yea, that’s Matt Pond. But really it was always made, the music is especially made for friends to play, right? It’s not a showcase of anyone’s musicianship, it’s more like, very short vocal heavy songs. I knew that putting a band together after the fact, I’m not going to get it right the first time, I’m not going to get it right the second time. I’d rather have people coming and going and having a good time, then I would be trying to find the exact lineup forever and forever and forever. Music is made to have fun with.
Do you find that a lot of American Analog Set fans are receptive of The Wooden Birds?
Well, yes, but in my experience, and my experience isn’t endless. I’m only so old and I’ve only been at this so long…in my experience people don’t usually come up to you and tell you how disappointed they were by a show. It’s usually them saying “I really enjoyed that” or “I’ve enjoyed your music for a long time, thanks for coming.” That don’t say “Really? What was that?” Something about your voice and an organ, nobody says that. So yes , people have said “Wow” I feel like I waited almost ten years to hear you play “Aaron & Maria” and now you’re not going to play it. This band is made to play “Aaron & Maria”. It’s always thumbs up in every way. Not so much on this tour because we’re supporting another band, but when we did the tour to support the record and we would play an Analog Set song it was obvious there was obviously a portion of the audience there to see what we are up to now. Speaking about the Analog Set as a really popular band, I mean we only played The Bowery opening for other bands. We were kind of a small band, we were just around for a long time.
How has your songwriting evolved over the years?
I’d like to think that it has a lot, but truthfully it really hasn’t that much at all. There’s a song on the record called “Hometown Fantasy” that sounds like The Wooden Birds, and it was the first song I wrote over twenty years ago. I found it on a demo tape I made, literally right after high school and I put it on the record and it fits perfectly. So really I guess I haven’t grown that much. I’d like to think that my lyrics are better than they were on the first Analog Set record but then again, I think by the time I hit maybe Know By Heart I think I was taking my lyrics a lot more seriously and doing a better job. So really I’m happy with every comment and everything on the record. Really songwriting wise, my songs are my songs. If I made them sound different it wouldn’t sound like me anymore.
How long did it take you to record Magnolia?
I guess when it finally came down to it, maybe a couple of months. Like maybe just under three months. You know on the record how there is the hammered out percussion on the guitar, the bass always sounds the same and fits in that little palm muted pocket, the rhythm guitar always sounds the same, so I recorded the songs many times over the previous year until I figured out okay, this is how the pieces fit together. And once I enjoyed how they were put together the rest of the dominos just fell, and like okay now, I think it took me about three months to get it right. When it probably came down to it, the reason that it took longer than it really even should have is because we recorded it all on a piece of tape. We pieced it together as a demo and then when it came down to it, let’s get all of these performances. We stripped everything down and built the songs up again, so all of Leslie’s performances are a vocal performance. So it took a little bit longer than normal, like a Frankstein job. But some bands take years to make a record.
Was having Leslie’s voice very prominent on the record something you had planned or did it just happen?
I wrote…. As I was writing these songs and picking the songs that I wanted on the record, I wanted every song to have a female and a male part. It’s not always call and response, although it does happen, but I wanted two voices to be there, and the backup vocal I wanted just as strong as the lead vocal. I didn’t want to double myself at all, I wanted it to be something I hadn’t done before, I wanted another human voice. I loved Leslie’s voice for a long, long time and I have recorded her over the years in her projects. I played the demos for her and got her involved really early, and she just kind of hung in there with me recording. The first half of the demos were written with her in mind, and she sang them so beautifully that the second half of the songs were written with her exact voice. I know where your range sounds good and I’m writing this part for you to sing. If she hadn’t it wouldn’t have come out the same way. She’s awesome.
What inspires you to write a song? Is it always personal or is it sometimes a story?
It’s a house card, I don’t want to think about it too much. I don’t know where it’s from, and I’m just glad that I get to write songs and I really have a lot of fun doing it. But some of the time I think that’s a good idea for a song, sometimes it’s a melody, sometimes it’s a guitar part, I have no repeatable method at all. The fact that they actually do come out so much specifically is always a huge surprise to me. But as far as lyrically they’re all heartbreak and heartache and lost love, love….this is my bread and butter.
You lived in Brooklyn for a while, what made you decide to move back to Austin?
Well, I love Brooklyn. The rest of the band still lives in Brooklyn, obviously I have roots here, as so many do as well. But it was a small apartment and my wife and I decided it would be nice to have a window and a dog, trees and a garden and stuff like that, it’s all stuff you can have here, but it takes a lot of work to pull it off and we’re closer to family down in Texas, so it wasn’t like “Brooklyn?!” it was more like “Brooklyn is awesome and we should come back and visit,” but we’re getting on in years, and we’re not going to be pushing a stroller down 7th Avenue and Park Slope.
Down Park Slope doesn’t sound like a good idea!
Maybe not down Park Slope, maybe just the sidewalk down 3rd Street (laughs).
What is your favorite thing about being in the recording studio, or recording in general?
My favorite thing about recording is, it’s making something from nothing. Like before you begin, there really is nothing, nothing exists, but when you’re done, a song exists, and it’s almost like magic. You’re like “I like this a lot” and a few minutes ago, the music didn’t exist and now it exists and I like it. It’s so valuable to me it should have a raw material, it should have a coal turned into a diamond. It costs time, that’s the raw material, but I just like the magic.
What’s your least favorite and favorite part about being on tour?
Wait my least favorite, or favorite?
I think my favorite part is getting to kind of experience the culture of music in a way that makes me feel comfortable. Like if I don’t have a reason to be in the club I am the most uncomfortable person there. I’m always against the wall or I’m too tall and I’m in somebody’s way and I want to leave. Unless I absolutely love a band, I will never go out and see one. I always feel that I’m in somebody’s way and I’m dealing with loud people and drunks. For some reason when I go on tour I get to see bands every night and for some reason being contractually obligated to be at the venue makes me comfortable to be there. You can all think I’m not cool enough to be here, and you’re right, but the fact is, on September 26th, or 27th, A.K. can be at this location and it’s going to be okay. That’s the way I think about it, is that I have a reason to be somewhere. My least favorite thing is that I miss my wife a lot and we’ve only been married for three years so I feel like I’m missing a lot, well what I think is a lot, like 3 or 4 months out of the year, I feel like I’m missing out.
Who are your influences, or artists that inspired you to play music yourself?
Probably the ones that you would think…
Like Black Sabbath? (laughs)
(Laughs) A little Sabbath, a lot of Angular Maps, no I think it’s not always music. I think Chris Leo, Ted Leo’s younger brother. He’s the first Leo brother that I met. I think Chris Leo is the most inspiring person I’ve ever met in my life. He’s basically a cartoon character of himself, he’s just so creative and so out there that everything he touches just turns beautiful, it’s great. He’s probably my number one inspiration even though I never played guitar with him, he’s number one.
Do you ever find it hard to bring what you did in the recording studio onto the stage?
Well, yes, but not anymore because when I made this record I thought how it was going to be on the record, but really when it comes time to I also knew what the guitar was going to be, what the bass was going to be. I kind of made these songs with a separate live version in mind. It’s just experience. I don’t really get on and go I put the kitchen sink into this record and now how am I going to do this with 3 people, 4 people. I chose songs that I thought I could bring out live. Back in the Analog Set we would just plow them out in the studio, and whatever we came up with was what the songs were and when it came time to play them live that was kind of a holy shit moment. So we could maybe play like 50% of the record, and the other 50%, sometimes my favorite 50% got canned. So this project was live and learn.
What was the first instrument that you learned how to play?
The first instrument that I played was violin and that was in grade school, and I was made to play it and I haven’t picked it up since grade school. I really didn’t enjoy it at all. I hated it. I remember I was in 5th grade, and you might be too young to remember, but there was this show called “Real People,” and there was a show called “That’s Incredible.” One was on ABC and one was on NBC. “Real People” was just like poor country reporters like “We’re going to go to Waco, Texas and meet a little lady that can sing like the dickens!” and they would find a girl who sings in a church choir. Then they’d meet a guy that was like turned license plates into bird houses, he’s a real person! You know the program I’m talking about. This was a nationwide program. My Dad loved it. He also watched “That’s Incredible” from time to time, but less often. So one night I was practicing in my room and he was like “Hey Andy get in here, get in here,” so I walked in there and he’s like “I’m just watching TV, I’m watching “Real People,” and there’s this little girl playing the violin. Now she’s 2 years younger than you, and she plays like she’s a songbird. Listen to this, she’s a virtuoso! And if you just practice a little harder, you can be on “Real People” you can be a real person if you just practice a little more.” Then it was like “We’ll be back with more musical savants on “That’s Incredible”” and it was like “Okay Dad, you want me to be on “Real People” but that was “That’s Incredible”, this incredible, gifted, savant child and all she could do was play violin and she couldn’t like use a fork and a knife. Then he never made me practice again. He realized the absurdity of his perspective and he was like “You can go and play soccer.” I also sucked at soccer by the way. I found it upsetting. But I played violin first and I didn’t even buy a guitar until I was out of High School.
What is the weirdest thing that has ever happened to you on tour?
I don’t know. Weird is sort of a broad thing. I get really weird around guns. I grew up around guns and a lot of my major Birthdays were “Gun Birthdays” like I got my first shotgun. But there was a long period of time when I never touched a gun, and at some point guns started to freak me out. If there’s a gun in the room, then I my eyes is always on it, do you know what I mean? So you can have a gun in the back of your pickup truck, you can have a license to have a gun in your house, you can have a license to carry a concealed weapon, you just have to let the powers to be know that it’s happening. You can do that, it’s not a crime. At some point I got weirded out by them, a couple of times if there’s been trouble at club with payment or parking, they’ll pull a gun as a sort of leverage, and that’s the weirdest thing that’s happened to me. Whenever guns are produced to make an argument more, I don’t know, I kind of turn into a person who wants to get the gun, because I’m not going to fire the gun. My reaction is to get the gun away from the person that might fire the gun, and not shoot it. That’s probably a weird feeling, I’m not myself.
At what point did you think that music was something you wanted to pursue as a career?
Well that never happened before, but the closest it ever came, was I moved to New York to go to graduate school for biochemistry, and even though I like making music, science is the only thing I’ve ever done in my entire life that I ever felt good at. Like I can do this, “I’m doing science!” I can run my bench, I can execute whatever calls, I can help my lab manager see a project through. From beginning to end I feel very accomplished, I’m a published author when it comes to science anyway. I feel good about it. I left my graduate program to make the last American Analog Set record, because I thought I really, really wanted to…I couldn’t see myself not making that record, so I think that was the moment when I put my boat in the dock and just sent it down the river. I don’t have any regrets exactly but that was probably a hard moment. I was 32 then, so it wasn’t like I was 16.
Do you ever think you’ll go back to finish graduate school?
I don’t know. If you’re invited into an Ivy League graduate program and then you bail to make a record, I don’t think they’re going to let you go back to them. I will go back to science definitely. What I gave up was a Ph.D. and a really good job, and what I got on the flipside was some time to make music and still work in a laboratory and be a good employee. I’ll probably never do my own science, and that’s fine, but I traded one for the other, but I’ll still do science one day, as long as people are catching cancer, they’ll be people like me to look after them.
What’s next for The Wooden Birds after the tour?
Well after the tour ends, I’ll just drive home, and I’ll be tracking our second. This is the first tour I’ve taken a guitar along in the van, and I’m just making sure I have all of my ducks in a row for the new songs I want to do. So when I get home I want to just start banging on the guitar again, working on songs and rhythms and start writing and recording. That’s definitely the next step unless we get offered another tour, I don’t know if we’ll play it, but they’ll be more recording.
Where do you see yourself musically in 10 years?
In 10 years I really don’t see myself making music in 10 years, and the reason being is I know people that do it at that age for that long and they’re way more talented than I am. I’m not saying I’ll be weeded out by that time but I think at some point I’ll need to…I’ll say okay “I’ll make songs, but I’ll just play them at home for my wife and that will be fine.” Right now I really enjoy this project and being in a band and I’ll see it through to a logical conclusion musically, maybe three more records or something, and then I think I’ll find something better for me. I can’t be in my forties without health insurance, it’s just not right. It’s not right for my wife. She deserves better than a gypsy husband, so in 10 years I will definitely not be making music continuously, but not in a bad way just because I’m looking at myself when I was 20 like “Would I trust a later 40 something writing songs about boys and girls being in love, who’s like 30 years removed?” I wouldn’t trust that person, I wouldn’t trust person that now! So once I run out of stories and songs that will be it.