Interview: Ian Kenny of Birds of Tokyo (AUS) on their new album Human Design, isolating and healing his heart.

Birds of Tokyo

Birds of Tokyo have been a staple rock band in the Australian music landscape since their formation in 2004. In fact, they’re one of Triple J‘s three most played artists of the millennium, with over 70 of their songs featuring on the station’s rotation.

It’s safe to say, our country loves anything this Perth outfit puts out – and by the looks of it, are more than happy to be dribbled releases for close to two years in anticipation of their next full body release. That’s right, the singles from their upcoming sixth album, Human Design, have been peppered onto our airwaves over the last few years, with the single “Good Lord” going double platinum.

Now the wait is nearly over, with the album is set for release on April 24th. We chatted to frontman Ian Kenny about the summation of his past three years in this work, from devastating heartbreak and divorce to coming out of it on the other end, basking in a new love. All of which you can track in time as the album progresses.

How are you, Kenny? Where are you right now?

I’m really well. I am down in the southwest corner of WA. It’s beautiful down here. If you’ve heard of the Margaret River region, I’m not far from there.

What a good spot to be during isolation. What have you been up to?

Surfing pretty much, just staying indoors. When I do go out, it’s pretty much just to go for a surf. It’s pretty funny actually. The whole region down here is doing the iso thing pretty serious. The town’s really quiet and people are staying indoors, not much happening.

They’re all about social distancing down here – it’s a pretty tight little community. Even so, when you go to the local shops, people are leaving one space in between the cars at the car park. It’s also good because from what I read, I think we’re one of the first states that’s actually… We might come out of this bit sooner than the rest, so who knows?

Oh, amazing. I heard it likened to the other day. It’s almost as though you’re in school and there’s that one kid who has to finish the work before you can all go to lunch and everyone’s like, “Come on Timmy, just do the work. So we can all go to lunch.” And it’s like, all right guys, let’s just wait for Timmy to do the work. If we all just put in the work, we can all go to lunch.

Yeah, I’m all down for a bit of community. I mean, no one wants to be here, so if we all just chip in, we get out of this thing quicker, you know?

Exactly. Hey, congrats on Human Design out April 24th. This is Birds of Tokyo’s first studio album since 2016. How does it feel to be releasing a full body of work?

It feels great. It’s always good for music to come to some sort of conclusion in a record. It’s been interesting this one because we sort of started releasing singles before we had the real record now down, let alone the material. So we started putting out music in the form of singles. I think we’re up to our fourth single, we’ll probably put out another one just on release, that’ll make it five and then there comes the record. So, it’s been interesting. It’s been different. Normally you bang out two singles and then you drop the record, but we sort of did it a bit different this way, and it’s worked. It’s worked really well, too good.

I feel like you’ve been drip feeding your fans for almost years. But from what I’ve heard, it’s so much more of a journalistic album. Where would you put it on your scale of revealing releases?

Oh, I would say this one is on the top of the heap, to be honest. I mean it’s an overarching theme to the record of sort of life, love and heart and loss and all the rest. And then there’s part of the record too, kind of the back end of the record is coming out of that, getting through it and finding something truly beautiful on the other side. So it’s a summation of three years of life and work, but very, quite revealing.

Lyrically I don’t think I held back at all on this record. I don’t think I could anyway, so. That in itself is going to be quite different on this record. I’m never really that comfortable with how much I expose myself. I’ve always played my cards really close to my chest. As a storyteller when it comes to talking about me, I’m quite happily, quite able to talk and create stories about other people. In fact, I adore that. I love singing and writing about other people’s lives. But mine this time round, I’ve got something to put on the table. It was very difficult, but ultimately it had to be what it had to be.

As a listener who’s listened to the whole album, it’s really cathartic just to hear you be so blatant with your lyrics and just tell it as it is. It’s just very easy to relate to.

I have a question about your most recent single, “Two of Us”, which is more of your anthemic… I want to say it’s like a ‘moving on’ song. Have you found new love or is it kind of more coming to peace with the closing of this chapter? What’s that one to you?

It’s both. Yeah, it’s both. I’ve found new love and that has been such a sweet gift. It has really changed things. And at that time, it’s funny you mentioned that, I like how you said that. At that time… there was acceptance of the terms that you get dealt and with that comes peace, and being able to move forward. And you’re not really ready for anyone or anything until you get to that point. They sort of came hand in hand. So yeah, lucky me.

And it’s beautiful that throughout the album you can see your whole evolution of that experience and it’s good that it’s taken this amount of time so we can live each moment in that rather than it be a reflection.

Is there a song that you haven’t released yet that you’re most excited for your fans to listen to?

Yeah, there’s a few moments on there. There’s a song called “Designed”, which is going to be on the record and it’s kind of got this kind of smoky feel to it. It’s basically just some strings, a nylon acoustic guitar and me just singing. It’s like a three piece, really stripped back, kind of folk tune that I just think it’s got a really good story to it. I like the string work in it.

And then the scope of this record just jumps around so much. The closing track, “Never Going Back”, I also really like that too because it probably one of the… it is the biggest piece on the record. And it was funny, we don’t always get these right, but when we wrote that song, the record was nowhere near completed, but it was obvious of like, “Aw man, this song has to finish the record.” So you know, things like that. Bit of a win.

Do you typically know which song’s going to be a starter and closer? Or is that very much a last minute process of figuring out the running track?

Usually comes on the midway for us or in the last pieces. We don’t very often know when we start writing for records, what’s going to be the first track and what’s going to be the last. But as you figure out the material and you get the kind of feel for the record, you know where to place things and ‘Never Going Back’ was just an obvious one to to finish the record.

And obviously it’d be a particularly interesting process as you’re releasing while writing. So you don’t exactly know what the full record would sound like, but you’ve got work out in the atmosphere.

Totally. And see that’s the thing about why this record has such a kind of long form story to it. It was three years of writing, three years of life, and literally as things were happening to the band or things or I was going through, either coming into or coming out of these situations.

Because we’re literally writing just going like, “Okay cool. Here’s the next song. This is what’s happening. And this is shit that’s actually happening.” And then therefore it’s now all just put together in a record, finally.

It’s your diary really.

You were talking about the strings before. You were going to release this album coinciding with some select symphonic performances and I imagine they’re not going ahead anymore, right?

Yeah. So we had a whole tour sort of planned out using orchestras from around the country. We had a whole bunch of dates in the pipe. We had locked in that it’s basically going to be this symphonic tour and it killed us a bit because we put months and months of work into it.

But look, it’s not cancelled. It just means we have to reschedule. And by this point, it’s either going to be end of the year or first thing next year. But it’s a shame COVID, old, has come and just crushed it for everyone. So we wait as everyone does and we’ll reschedule this thing when it makes sense.

Exactly, it also gives you the space to try some other things. Are you going to surprise fans with any online goodies or anything like that?

We will, as much as we can. We’re talking about that at the moment actually. So if we can get something together with one of the orchestras to put out an online piece, we’re trying to do that at the moment.

As you can gather, getting a 45 – 50 piece orchestra to sort of do some sort of collab online can be tricky, so we’re just working that out at the moment.

Yeah. Particularly if there was some sort of internet lag between the two and you’re just a little bit out of sync, that would be chaotic but a lot of fun.

It would be the worst. It would be the worst thing. It could be the worst or the best thing ever, I don’t know.

Hey, you never know. Out of chaos comes beauty, you know?

Are you nervous about releasing music in this climate or do you reckon it’s going to work in your favour? Because I mean, you’ve got a captive audience just at home waiting.

I think that’s the plus here. I mean, it’s very uncharted territory for a lot of artists releasing new music. So we don’t feel any real reason to hold back. We’ve been sitting on this thing, it’s done now.

There’s a lot of people sitting at home with time on their hands. They want things to do. There’s going to be active listeners out there so, no real reason to not put it out.

The world’s quite emotionally fragile right now. And personally speaking, this album would soundtrack a lot of my ice cream and rom-com nights I’ve been having at home. So I think it’s a perfect time.

Did you say ice cream and rum cognac?

I said rom-com. But rum cognac would also be a vibe.

Oh, ice cream and rom-com. I thought you said ice cream, rum, and cognac. I was like, that sounds crazy.

Yeah, that is baller, I will invite you to the next one of those for sure.

That sounds terrific, yeah!

Kenny, thank you so much for your time and I can’t wait to see the album’s reception on April 24. But from the whole thing that I’ve heard, it’s phenomenal. Congratulations.

Birds of Tokyo‘s new album Human Design is released this Friday, April 24th. Pre-order it HERE.

Tait McGregor