Rollo & Grady Interview / Andrew Kenny – Wooden Birds

Rollo & Grady Interview / Andrew Kenny   Wooden Birds

Texas native Andrew Kenny is a happy man. After spending the past six years in Brooklyn he recently moved back to his hometown of Austin to be with his friends and embark on a new endeavor. Kenny is best known as the singer/songwriter behind the indie group the American Analog Set. He’s also spent time recording and performing with Her Space Holiday, Ola Podrida and Broken Social Scene. In his new band, The Wooden Birds, Kenny is joined by Leslie Sisson, Lymbic System’s Michael Bell and Ola Podrida’s David Wingo. Their debut album Magnolia is a beautiful mellow alt-folk record. The arrangements on Magnolia are driven heavily by percussion and simple acoustic guitar play. The highlight for me is that Andrew is more vocal on this album than his previous work with American Analog Set.

When I spoke to Andrew last week, he had just returned home from touring Europe and could hardly contain his excitement for his new record. The Wooden Birds are playing tonight at Spaceland (more info).

Rollo & Grady Interview / Andrew Kenny   Wooden Birds

R&G: When you began working on The Wooden Birds project, how important was it for you to establish your own sound and move away from the American Analog Set sound?

Andrew: I don’t know if it was important to get away from something we had done before. It wasn’t a reaction in any way. I wanted to start with something that wasn’t just twelve singer-songwriter, acoustic guitar kind of songs. I wanted to put songs together and at the same time present them in ways that were consistent and interesting on their own. I guess I might own a few records that are in that singer-songwriter kind of category, but I didn’t necessarily want to make one. I started counting out beats on my guitar, working on demos, working with that as a basis for rhythm and then adding percussion and bass sounds. Once that sound started developing, I thought it was a good start for a rhythmic, vocal-heavy kind of folk-esque pop sound. The sound kind of developed because I wanted it to, and the songs were chosen because they fit well in that style. But I love the American Analog, and it’s one of my favorite bands ever. That’s why I did it for so long. We still get together and play here in Austin. I didn’t necessarily want to do anything that had to be way different from the Analog sound. To me, there’s a good deal of overlap. Songs like ”Aaron & Maria,” “The Postman,” “Kindness Of Strangers” and “Born on the Cusp,” these are all songs that could have been Wooden Bird songs but were very simple songs written by a guy named Kenny and performed by the Analog Set. They could have just as easily been performed by The Wooden Birds.

R&G: Conversely, “The Other One” could be an American Analog Set song.

Andrew: Absolutely. “The Other One” was kicking around whenever we were working on the last Analog Set record. Everyone just said, “You’ve already got one ‘Aaron & Maria’ on the Analog Set record, do you really need another?” The songs were so similar in vibe and structure that it just didn’t make sense to write it, but I included it on Set Free. I just really like that song, so it made perfect sense for The Wooden Birds set up where there can be many songs that are verse and vocal intensive and more traditional in their arrangement. I do like that song a lot, but yeah, that could have been an Analog Set song, if I had my way.

R&G: I read an interview where you said Magnolia was inspired by heartbreak and a mild obsession with death. You’re happily married and you’re alive and well. Can you explain why these themes are prevalent in your music?

Andrew: That’s an awesome question. I’m a happy person. I love my wife. I don’t feel the least bit heartbroken right now. So when it comes to writing songs about heartbreak, I’m not generating any new stories today. But I’ve probably got enough in the tank that I still feel like I’m writing them in earnest. We all made it through high school. Everybody has a bad time with love. It’s what I feel I can write about most earnestly, so that’s where I start. And I don’t know where death comes from, quite honestly. I don’t necessarily want to die all the time every day but I think about the end of life often, I hope as often as other people think about it.

R&G: I know you quit reading reviews years ago, so I’ll fill you in on recent reviews. The Wooden Birds music has been compared to Sam Beam of Iron & Wine and Lindsey Buckingham.

Andrew: I’m a fan of both. I think that’s great. I didn’t quit reading reviews because I was above them or anything like that. It seemed like no matter if they were good or bad I would find something bad about them and would somehow feel worse after reading them. It’s not that I think I’m unredeemable. Without people knowing that I try to be a decent person, one could easily think, “What, does this asshole think he can’t be reviewed?” It’s more like there’s nothing good for me in there. Towards the end of the Analog Set I would hear comparisons, so the reviews stopped bothering me. Again, it wasn’t because I was above them. It was because I like music. I would read reviews and sometimes it’s nice to have something described to you in the context of music you’re already familiar with. Being a young guy, oh, it drove me nuts. Spiritualized and Stereolab and then Belle and Sebastian a few years later. Locally, all we got was Bedhead, and that drove me bananas. Later on I was like, “We kind of fit in with those bands, so why not have them in our record reviews.” Buckingham? Iron & Wine? Those are great comparisons, and I think they’re totally accurate. If that’s who we’re being compared to, then I would stand up and agree.

R&G: Which American Analog songs are finding their way into The Wooden Bird shows?

Andrew: We constantly talk about it as a band, and so far “Aaron & Maria” is probably the most obvious one because it sounds like a Wooden Bird song. And it’s a song that people always requested but we never once played live. I think we own that song now. It’s kind of our song. There are a few others. “The Kindness Of Strangers ” I like a lot. I think “The Only One” fits within our style because it’s very percussive. We’ll talk about it in the band, try it in sound check, maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t, but they’re all simple enough. And we know our roles within the band where we could probably pull off some kind of quick version of just about anything that didn’t require a lot of vibraphone. We don’t have one. I think “Aaron & Maria” is the one that I’m most proud of. As I was putting the songs together and putting the band together I thought, “I’m finally going to get a chance to play this song.” I wrote this song and we never played it. I knew it was going to be in there from the get-go, and we play it almost every night.

R&G: You’ve been vocal about labels making more money off your music than you were making. Why did you sign with a label this time instead of doing it yourself?

Andrew: The nature of the industry is that songwriters on my level and below just won’t see any money from their recordings. I’m not complaining. It’s just a fact of life. I do feel like I’m an enriched person getting to share music with other people, and a label makes that happen in a way that I can’t on my own. Obviously, this being my seventh full-length project, I know what I’m getting into, and any complaining I would only do to myself. I like Barsuk [Records]. They seem really honest. I’ve known them for years. They were one of the first labels that I went to, if not the first. I can’t say enough good things about them. They’ve been on my radar, and vice versa, for a decade and now’s the time.

R&G: You played with Kevin Drew and Broken Social Scene. How was your experience with those guys?

Andrew: They have a lot of super-fans. Maybe I’m not their biggest fan, but I’m probably in the top ten. They are the bee’s knees to me. I love Kevin. I love the whole crew. I love everything that they’ve done. I am a big fan and I have been since the very first time I saw them as KC Accidental back in 2001. This is the best band we’ve ever played in, and Kevin knows this. They decided they wanted a full-time keyboard player. Kevin asked me and it was kind of a drop everything, of course I’ll do it kind of deal. It was an awesome experience, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. It was great.

R&G: That was the Spirit If tour in 2007, correct?

Andrew: Yes, it was. We played a lot of songs – over half the record – but the set was two hours and 15 minutes long. It was a lot of Spirit If and then another hour-and-a-half of nothing but the classics. Being a Broken Social Scene aficionado, it was an awesome experience to get to say, “Hey, we’re going to play ‘Lover’s Spit.’ Do you have the piano part? Yes I do. I have played this about a million times in my room.” Or to jump up and say, “Does anybody know the guitar part on ‘Major Label Debut?’ Yes, I do, because I’ve played that in my room a million times.” Even though I love Spirit If, it was probably getting to play the wicked back catalog that I was most excited about.

R&G: Are you officially a biologist?

Andrew: No. I left my Ph.D. program to make Set Free, that last Analog Set record. My career in laboratory science didn’t necessarily end in 2003 when I left, but certainly I have a lot of catching up to do should I ever return. I feel like I will because there’s nothing in this world that I’ve ever found that I’m as good at as laboratory science. I love it. I’ll definitely return to it, given the opportunity. But right now my place is making music and I like doing it a lot, so I’m going to keep doing this for a little while longer.

MP3: The Wooden Birds – Sugar
MP3: The Wooden Birds – The Other One (Live on March 17, 2009)
MP3: American Analog Set – Aaron & Maria
MP3: Kevin Drew – Cocaine Skin
MP3: Ola Podrida – Cindy

The Wooden Birds – Magnolia (iTunes)
The American Analog Set – Set Free (iTunes)
Broken Social Scene & Kevin Drew – Spirit If…(iTunes)
Ola Podrida – Ola Podrida (iTunes)