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A Polite Conversation with The Wooden Birds' Andrew Kenny

Photo Image: Alicia Vega
20 July 2011

If you were to ask me to define the phrase “polite gentleman,” I probably couldn’t pick a better example than Andrew Kenny, former leader of Texas-based pysch-pop band American Analog Set, and current leader of folk group The Wooden Birds. Chatting with him was a pleasure—almost the same pleasure that his music serves. With his former group he helped define “slowcore” with the band’s first few records, The Fun of Watching Fireworks and From Our Living Room To Yours. It was the bands third album, The Golden Band, that not only cemented that style, but defined the band for the rest of their run—mixing pop, psych-rock, and electronica. So when the band quietly dissipated after 2005’s Set You Free, many wondered what Kenny would do next. The answer came in 2009, with the release of Magnolia, which found him turning in a record noted as much for its stark performance as its songwriter’s return to music-making, which was then toured with in a large ensemble. This year’s follow-up Two Matchsticks, carries on the form, with a surprise at the end coming for fans of his previous band’s sound, as you will soon read about. Does this forebode something more? Kenny isn’t specific, but read on, and hold on to hope!

BT: I remember when Magnolia came out, it was touted as being you solo, but yet you had a band; with Two Matchsticks, you have a band, yet the record sounds like it’s solo! So, how was the process different for you this time around?

Andrew Kenny: The Wooden Birds began as a recording project for me, so in my mind. There really isn’t that much a difference between the two albums. All the songs were meant to be recorded on eight-track recorder, so there were only seven or eight tracks to do things, like bass, percussion, voice. I wrote these songs with that in mind, to keep it basic. Where the two differ, for me, is that now there is a band. Magnolia was written for an imaginary band, and now I have a real band. (Laughs) We went out and played a hundred or so shows, played the songs on Two Matchsticks, so when we came to record the album, we knew what the band was good at. There was input from Leslie, who sang all over the first record, but when it came time to record, she had already sung many of the songs many, many times before.

BT: What led you to pursuing making music as The Wooden Birds as opposed to releasing it under your name?

AK: It’s really a personal preference. I like the idea of being in a band, even if I have to invent one after the fact (laughs). I’ve done a few things under my own name before, and even though those records were meant to be solo things as part of a theme, it still felt a little weird for me. (Most notably a now sought-after split EP with friend Ben Gibbard, released in 2001.—ed) I mean, I can sit in the bedroom and write all the Andrew Kenny songs I want, but I’d want to take them out and show them off in public, and to do that I’d need a little help. Actually, a lot of help! (Laughter)

BT: So, you don’t want to be the lo-fi boy wonder genius bedroom recording star, then?

AK: Well…I’m a boy who likes lo-fi, but I don’t know about the “wonder” part or the “genius” part! (Laughs) I don’t really know why, though, when I think about it. I guess it’s because I always like to collaborate with others, I like to get that friendly interaction with a band mate, and like to feel I’m on a team. I never got to be on a team in high school, so I want to be in a band now. Music is something to be made with people, and is a pleasure to make with people. The more, the better! For Two Matchsticks, we’re definitely more a real band than we were before—or, at least we’re headed in that direction, in terms of it being a collaborative thing. This is the middle ground. If we get to remain a band, and all of our lives align to where we can do this all together and make a third album, I do foresee it being a much more collaborative effort involving everyone else. Right now it’s the middle ground, we’re not a real band yet, but we’re not imaginary anymore! Next time, Leslie (Sisson, vocalist and guitarist) might not only sing a song, she might be able to present her own material, Matt Pond (Matt Pond PA) might do a song, and Sean (Haskins) might actually get to have some drum parts on the record, as opposed to just being a live drummer!(Laughs)

BT: No drums—was this by design, or by necessity?

AK: That was by design. About half of the record was recorded with drums. We recorded 7 with drums about a year ago, and those were the ones we had played live. To me those are the standouts on the record, songs like “Baby Jeans,” “Criminals Win,” or “Two Matchsticks,” and “Long Time to Lose It.” So we had drums on them, but when we went back…it just didn’t feel that right. The songs had been written before, solo, by me and though things sounded okay, the dynamic was such that I felt it better to take it off.

BT: Why?

AK: You know, all of my songs have that basic, simple structure—bass, guitar, drums, voice. That’s not a dynamic that’s especially original or even interesting on its own. If you are a band, and you make a record that you really like and you are pleased with the sound of, you would want to go back and make your next few songs sound like that. Not necessarily repeating yourself, musically—but finding a middle ground wherein you can explore new ideas, while holding onto that previous identity and expanding on it. That’s why we changed it up. We saw what we could do with them, and we liked them—but yet we all liked that paired-down, quiet feel found on Magnolia. We haven’t shelved those “drum versions,” nor do we dislike them—we do, in fact, because they were borne out of the live experience and we enjoyed playing them that way. We’re going to find a way to put them out online, like a free EP, this summer, or whenever Barsuk feels ready. But, you know, Joseph, Two Matchsticks is a pretty record. It’s quiet, and it’s enjoyable for that. But I like that when you go to see us play, it’s like, “Wow, those songs have changed!” (Laughs) When I talked to our drummer Sean about why I was going to take them out of the songs—and almost taking him off of the record—I told him that when you perform live, you have a completely different element. Why not take advantage of that? In the recording process, you can do things that you can’t do—or wouldn’t want to do—on the stage. You can’t “make it quiet” when you play live—you have to “turn it up,” so to speak, even on the songs you think are “quiet.” So I said to him, why shouldn’t we have the best of both worlds? The live show doesn’t have to sound like the record, and the record doesn’t have to sound like us live, and as a band, before we recorded, we were happy with both. So why not continue with both? We love how it turned out.

BT: There is one song I wanted to mention, and I’ll be honest, I didn’t want to mention what I’m about to because I know this is your new project and your main focus, but the last song, “Long Time to Lose It,” it really sounds like an American Analog Set song; it’s the longest Wooden Birds song so far, and it really hearkens back to your earlier sound.

AK: I have to agree with that! The Analog Set guys, when we were finishing up the record, I shared some of the songs from it, and it’s amazing—they all said, “Wow, that sounds like a classic AmAnSet album closer!” (Laughs) You know, it definitely wasn’t intentional, and I think if we get to make another record, I’m only gonna take advantage of the colors on the palette. You’re not gonna find a bigger American Analog Set fan than me. I love that band! (Laugh) But I don’t necessarily want to go out of my way to recreate something that I had so much fun doing ten or twelve years ago with my friends. Having said that… (laughs) I am living in Austin again—which was one of the factors for the split in the first place, me not living here—and me and the fellows get together often, and we play around, but I have been thinking that it’s getting to the point where we should stop talking about it, and do some actual recording, if that’s what we wish to do. They’re both finishing up things that we split for, too. Their reaction to that song made me think about this, too—it did take me by surprise, after all! So who knows; if I want to make an American Analog Set-sounding song with American Analog Set, that would be great! There would be no need to make a Wooden Birds imitation of an American Analog Set record, especially when we have the ingredients here for the real thing!

BT: You reunited briefly for a series of shows. What was that experience like, and how did it bode for the future?

AK: It taught us that our next reunion show will NOT be during South by Southwest!! (Loud laughter) We were given an opportunity to do so, but to be honest we dropped the ball on the reunion. It was fun, but, really, it could have been better. We didn’t get a chance to rehearse the material enough, and it came at the exact same time I was debuting the Wooden Birds. It felt like a nice transition for me at the time, but at the same time, I know now that if we do something again, it will not be so scatter-shot and sloppy. We want to spend some time getting ready, and we want more people to be able to experience it. This year is the tenth anniversary of Know By Heart, and the guys have been talking about performing the album in its entirety during the fall, but we really want to do it right if we do it. In the fall or early winter—you’re a fan of our music, when the weather’s cooler, that would be a good time of year for that sort of music to be performed live, don’t you think?

 

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