Interview: Birds of Tokyo on Michael Gudinski, Rottnest Island and Human Design.

Birds of Tokyo are back in swing of things with 2021 already seeing the band jet across the country in an opportunistic symphony orchestra tour, Fremantle prison shows, and an upcoming gig on Rottnest Island for Cooper’s Live, Loud & Local series.

Playing tracks from their latest album, Human Design, the Rottnest gig marks almost a year since the release of the iconic Aussie rock band’s most soul-bearing offering.

I caught up with keyboardist Glenn Sarangapany, to talk about the album’s reception, performing alongside orchestras, quokkas and the legacy of Michael Gudinski.

Hey Glenn, where are you right now?

I’m in Perth. I’m just looking at my rubbish bin… The rubbish bin has been cleared, but I forgot got to take out the recycling bin and I tried to trick the garbage men by putting it across the street. The recycling is going to live here another fortnight, but at least the rubbish bin got cleared. I was kind of worried I missed that one as well… I’ve been kind of keeping an eye on the window the whole time and then they literally just cleared it.

Look I think it’s the, the better of the two to have stick around, you know?

I’ve got an eight-month-old baby, so there are quite a few nappies in the rubbish.

Imagine that festering for another fortnight, it’d be a nightmare…

Last time I spoke to Birds of Tokyo would have been right before the release of Human Design. How’s the reception been to easily one of your most vulnerable albums?

Good, everyone’s been really responsive to it. I think [Ian] Kenny obviously in particular, because of the story you felt really exposed by… For all of our other tracks, we speak in metaphors, like, “Lantern means to do this, anchor means to do that.” But this is literally him just telling a story. I mean, it happened to him. Like I remember being in the room when he was tracking the vocals and we kind of went, “Whoa, that’s a lot, man.” But fans have been really responsive to it. Like a lot of fans have been like, “I’ve had a similar thing. This is how I feel. Thank you for sharing.” And yeah, it’s been really nice to just put our perspective in a very different kind of things like, you know, lyrics that connect to people. We’re really, really proud of that album.

You should be. Do you remember what was it like the first time you heard Kenny bring these lyrics to you guys? Was that one song in particular that stood out that had you a bit gobsmacked?

Yeah, it was “Good Lord” because, again, we had all known that story. We were all at the wedding that he’s describing at the start of it. And when he sang that… I can’t even talk about it right now, like I’m kind of getting… The hairs on my neck are standing up a bit. But it was like, “Whoa, this is a different level of things that we’ve heard from him. He’s just bleeding on to a piece of paper.” Kenny surprised us as much as anything else how it really changed the dynamic of how that album went from a once “Good Lord” was written. Like, let’s really dig into this stuff. If we’re going down this path, let’s get everything out and see how it goes.

I guess you guys were releasing while the album was still being written. So it would be odd to start down that path and be like, “You know what? It’s all cheery. We all happy out here!”

“We’re all sweet!” The last track on the album called “Never Going Back”, we’ve started playing it live a bit and no one really knows the song, but it’s been going down really well live. The reception has been as big as something like “Plans” or “Lantern”. And that’s kind of like the end of Kenny story of like “I’m back. I want to go and do more.”

Yeah, the album would have taken on a different life live, obviously. And you guys have had the chance to play gigs already this year. Is “Good Lord” and the likes tearing a new heart every time?

They really are. “Good Lord” has been amazing. We’ve just been playing it with the symphony orchestra tour that we did. And as you can imagine, it’s really a bit of a tear-jerker with nothing else. Once you start putting violins and big orchestral parts in it, it’s hard not to cry while you’re playing.

I know this orchestra tour had to be pushed back a couple of times. How was that finally, because it would have been a mammoth effort to orchestrate multiple orchestras?

Yeah, we played with WASO over here and we played with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in Queensland. So there’s one guy who does all of the arrangements for everything. His name’s Nick Buc, who’s amazing. And the conductor Vanessa Scammell comes around with us. But then each orchestra, we get two rehearsals with them and then we’re just kind of into it. And like, we’ve never played with an orchestra before. I used to play in concert band in high school and in uni, but this was very different. Like, no one’s ever done anything like this before, so it was overwhelming, but also the reward was just way better than virtually anything we’ve ever done.

How does it change your onstage persona?

I actually jumped on from a couple of things. I was jumping off the piano to fill in on guitar – there were a couple of like restriction things – which was really good fun for the first couple of shows. I was more chatty which is not very normal for me. It’s really weird with the orchestral arrangement, it was so piano and vocal driven, Kenny was kind of just singing directly at me the whole time, which he never does. And it just became this weird, like onstage bromance that, by the third night, I just had to bring it up to kill the tension.

What’d you say? And what did he say back?

He was like, “Yeah, I’ve been feeling the same thing. I’m glad someone mentioned it.” Pretty much in locking eyes and singing at each other. I was like [singing], “I will die for you.” At some point, someone had to bring it up before it became weird, but we let it become weird for one gig then brought it up.

Let’s be real, the album’s really about the two of you and his hidden love.

[Laughing] Yes, exactly! That’s pretty much it! Brokeback Birds of Tokyo…

Let’s talk the Live, Loud & Local concert series. You guys are playing at Hotel Rottnest on the 11th. Tell me about this live show experience, opposed to your orchestral one. What have we got planned?

The most exciting thing is while we were doing tours during pandemic time, I filled in on guitar for Adam [Spark] for a couple of rock shows. And to say thanks for that, he bought me a blue Fender Strat, and now we’re having a bit of a discussion of maybe we could still have two guitars for a couple of the songs, which I’m so excited about. It’s like Birds to Tokyo but louder!

That’d be epic! So imagine this is on Rottnest Island, which I’ve never been to… Are there quokkas around?

I don’t know if you guys know about Rotto… It was where I went to Leavers, which is what you guys call Schoolies, so in my mind, it’s like just the party island. It’s like Lord of the Flies over there. That’s my memory of it. And yeah, there are quokkas everywhere! They are adorable, but like they’re these dopey little things that have been drinking everyone’s spilled beer and like eating cigarette butts and stuff…

All right. So Leavers 2.0 is what we might be expecting. Maybe that’s the afterparty!

That’s kind of what I’m hoping for. I’m going to be disappointed if anything else, but also it’s the closest thing we’re doing to an overseas gig.

You’ll crossing waters to get there!

Exactly! For a little while we’ll be in international waters, I’m assuming

On a bit more of a serious note and speaking of live shows, obviously Frontier Touring and Mushroom Group have been a large part of your band’s touring and releasing life. The music world was rocked this week by the death of music titan, Michael Gudinski. Tell me about what this man has meant for your band’s career.

We would not exist in the format that we… Flat out, we wouldn’t be the same band without Michael. In particular, over the last period, when everything’s been so so dark, he has put up his hand and help out the music industry in ways that are just life changing. I would have had to go back to get a job. I’ve got a family and he’s done things like approving advances to get us through this time. It just meant that musicians could kick on being musicians. He’s always had like such love and such care for artists and he treats… The only way I can describe it is he treats everyone like they’re Jimmy Barnes, even if you’re not Jimmy Barnes. He’s just been a lovely, lovely guy and yet he will be very, very missed.

Do you remember the first time you met him?

It was really, really early on and we had a dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Mushroom, the band had just gotten signed. I think I was still like a session player with the band at the time. I wasn’t really part of Birds yet, but the guys took me to the dinner, and he came in like gave a quick little speech and then just left. He bought a round of drinks for everyone and just bailed. I was like, “This guy’s nuts!”

Busy man! He’s got such a lasting legacy and has created so many other lasting legacies like yourselves. So it’s huge to be a part of that story.

He’s one of the people who’ll be so, so missed. Just a really, really great guy.

Glenn, thank you so much for chatting with me. It’s been an absolute pleasure and best of luck with the gig.


March 11, 2021 – Client Liaison – The Tote – Melbourne, VIC
March 18, 2021 – Baker Boy – The Curtin – Melbourne, VIC
April 11, 2021 – Birds of Tokyo – Hotel Rottnest – Perth, WA

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Main image credit: Cybele Malinowski

Tait McGregor