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BIRDS OF TOKYO – Musing Over Meaning

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Fresh from the release of their  fifth studio album Brace, BEN PATTISON had a yarn with Birds of Tokyo about the turn in direction, the inspiration and the lead up to their national tour kicking off in Perth on November 17 at Metro City,  

It’s 37 degrees at 11am on an uneventful Monday in Perth’s northern commercial heartland of Osbourne Park. Holed-up in a prominent local studio, rehearsing for their national tour are some of Perth’s favourite sons, Birds of Tokyo. Purveyors of atmospheric space rock in the early days, morphing into chart smashing, Grand Final playing pop-rockers that your mum loves, the lads have gone back to the future to deliver their most dark, expansive and downright creative album in years.

As I knock on the door and interrupt a jog through their new set, it’s front-and-centre obvious the boys are pumped to get on the road to deliver blistering bouts of pounding drums, galactic riffs and Kenny’s messianic vocals to the Australian public. I sat down and had a chat with guitarist Adam Spark and keyboardist Glenn Sarangapany.

There’s been much talk of an overhaul of sound and scope for this record. Can you explain the vibe you were going for and why it might be considered different from previous releases? Even the album sleeve looks pretty menacing: threatening even…. It’s to my ears the opposite of ‘I’d Go With You Anywhere’ and the last EP…

GLENN:
We were very often thinking of the live show. This started going through the back of peoples minds, then we started playing riffs and everyone gets excited, starts coming to the forefront and by the end of it we’re going like “let just put together a bunch of songs that are going to sound awesome live that we really want to play”!

Get the crowd fired up!

ADAM: Yeah, we were just introducing our love of Metal and these kind of things into the Birds’ world. Him and I have a pretty deep love of old Sci-Fi and movie soundtracks so a lot of it was try to find a way to make it sound Sci-Fi. Yeah, a lot of it was getting the early 70s and 80s Sci-Fi soundtracks into the modern world of Rock or Metal-y kind of things, how it could sound in 2017.

The Riffage does sound pretty Galactic in places!

GLENN: We’ve taken cues from things like Dune and Blade Runner so you can build massive world when you’re at a show. So people are like “where are these going”? This sounds like outer space!

How did Producer David Bottrill contribute to the process? Were the songs fully formed when you went into the studio, did he help find that sound or was it more you all went in and created the songs there an then? Tell us about the process.

ADAM: The overarching vibe was kinda there. David and guys like him kinda come in and help you see things you’ve maybe lost along the way like “change this part” or “that bits too long” – this bit here could work better – help us refine lyrics and by and large just let us do out thing in terms of sounds. But kinda like a Mechanic: the car is running – the car being the record – running at 80% and you pull into the pits and they tune it that way. Not to say he isn’t absolutely integral, he absolutely is. But the stuff is all mostly written or in place.

So more the arrangement side of things?

ADAM: More kinda big picture stuff. What are people gonna feel, what’s it gonna sound like, as an over-arching executive big picture…

GLENN: Sometimes when you’re in a band you focus on the ones to zeros, whereas he’s the guy that goes “Hey remember that big thing you were talking about, the feeling of it? Lets get back to that”. He was able to produce that in our minds.

You’re pretty much at household name status in Australia – how important to you is chart placing nowadays? You’ve just debuted at #3 with this record – which isn’t a pop record in the traditional sense. Its been getting a bit of airplay but not as much as the last ones. In a time when music’s never been easier to get for free is the fact people fork out for your releases a testament to your talent and reputation?

ADAM: It’s remarkable this thing landed in the charts! We knew this going in that its’ not a radio sort of record, it’s not a sale/singles kind of record. We’re not really that fussed about that stuff anymore. I think, you know, its nice to have it but to put things into perspective we get sent through chart reports – I never read these things – but I did on this one and in WA for example, where we are right now, we sold the most CDs that week in the whole state out of everyone else… 700, that’s it! In all of WA for the debut week! So to put things into perspective that’s kinda where it’s at. Not that it’s not important, it certainly is. But that’s kind of all that’s really left now as a metric, y’know.

But then I suppose you’ve got downloads and streaming and hundreds of thousands of listens already on the new tunes.

ADAM: Totally, I mean that’s it and I’m certainly not complaining, it is what it is and where its gone but it isn’t funny that you can be at the top of the charts and then in inverted quotes sell 700 CDs! It’s insane.

You replicate your sound to the live setting pretty seamlessly, what can fans expect from the live experience? You’re playing Metro City this Thursday night – one of the city’s biggest venues – its gonna be massive….

ADAM: Its gonna be pretty epic man, we’ve been working on a new live show with vision and all this custom really sci-fi stuff. We wanted a show, where people walk away and feel absorbed in this dark, dystopian, sci-fi, digital world for like an hour and half or so.

So its escapism…

ADAM: Yeah it is; it’s using ideas from shit we think about every day but putting it in outer space or a parallel universe for an hour and a half. Its gonna be, for the vast majority, the new album.

GLENN: Big effort’s been getting the older songs in line with the new ones so that when you go in they’re still part of the same show, you’re still feeling the vibe and you’re on bat the entire way through.

ADAM: “Lanterns’ will be really heavy! Playing it dropped C!

You changed the Key?!

ADAM: Yeah I’ve playing an ESP metal guitar and its beautiful – its big and its doomy.

Is that the one word you would use to describe this new album, Doom?

ADAM: Somewhat, and I do, but everyone’s sort of got different take on it.

GLENN: Rebellion, I’d say. Doesn’t need to be ‘Doom’, we can fight back!

ADAM: I dunno sometimes I’m happy with Doom, (laughs) I’m good to go sometimes, Man.  I’ve had a good run, seen a lot of the planet, y’know. We’re good!

GLENN: Rogue One is about to come out though…

ADAM: That’s true… Yeah I’ll go after that!

Does touring with other massive bands like Muse rub off you consciously or subconsciously? The heaviness in this latest record hints at a bit of Muse grandeur or did you just kept to the same camps?

ADAM: The muse thing rubbed off on us in the way that… We built this record primarily because we wanted more banging, epic moments in the live show. We realised we’ve got a lot a of nice mid-tempo stuff but doing shows with dudes like that makes you go “Man, we gotta get some of that back in”. Not stylistically, but we always had this fear of getting old playing these same rock songs and then, y’know, now we just go “Fuck it.” We’re listening to so much more of the heavy shit like we used to, so… its almost like we’ve said “well, we’ve had a lot of success with radio and all the big commercial stuff, household names and all and we just don’t care any more”. We just want to rock: play big riffs. Its kinda childlike in that way.

GLENN: But you look at Bellamy (Matt Bellamy, Muse) on stage and the sound and how much fun he’s having. You can’t help but go – we could do that!

ADAM: Funnily enough one of the songs on the record, Crown, was our intro-music for the Muse arena tour. Its this big heavy march-y drum thing but it went on the back burner and when we were finishing off the record we thought “ahhh what about that thing we used in the Muse tour’ so that’s now made the record.

What advice do you have for young bands having a crack these days? There’s still a bit of snobbishness obviously around approaching the Majors – EMI seems like they’ve been a great for you, helped enable you to make a living – how would you advise local bands to go about getting their name out there and actually make a living off music?

ADAM: That’s a tough one.

GLENN: Best advice we’ve ever gotten is spend 90% of your effort writing good music your friends like.  And if you do that and create art people love, people will seek you out. That was from an early manager when I was 15.

ADAM: We had this funny thing, both he and I, before. Our manager John, who’s a very lovely man, I went and saw him at a conference in Sydney when I was at WAAPA, and I was like “what do I do to get noticed by people like you”? And he just said “keep on doing what your doing and if you’re really good at it we will notice”. Now that’s not the advice you want to hear! There’s got to be a trick or something I can do right? But no there’s not.  And he’s like, “if you’re really good I’ll hear about you”.  And I’m like, but I AM really good! And you realise over time you’re not… So there’s no trick, there’s no gimmick, you’ve just got to write really good compelling music I guess.

When we started in Perth here our whole focus and goal was not playing heaps of shows but just playing the odd show and putting every bit of effort we had into it. If we had $400 in the band kitty we’d spend it on two extra lights for the show at Amplifier Bar or stuff like that. And that started to become a thing for us, people were like, “whoa these guys put on a show”! Presenting to people in a live sense as entertainment as opposed to just turning up and playing songs… Other than that we’re always winging it still today! If anyone’s got any good advice for us we’d love to hear it!

Are you going to try take this album and tour global – are the Birds gonna try and break England or America anytime soon? Where else in the world d’you want to infiltrate?

ADAM: I don’t think we want to go back to America right now.

GLENN: We’ve been in the states for the past three or four years but I think we’ll stay away from there for a little bit.

Had Enough?

GLENN: Oh no, just their almighty leader is a terrifying man.

ADAM: We were talking about this the other day, our people are working on some stuff in Europe on this album as we’ve not done much there. Given the nature of this record and where it puts us we’re sort of taking it week by week which is highly unusual for us as our managers and people are very good, intelligent, experienced people. The approach with this one is just, lets just see where this falls and how it lands with people.

GLENN: As long as we can do Prince of Wales in Bunbury, I’m stoked!

ADAM: Yeah that’s gotta happen at some point! The only place we’ll always agree to make an effort to play even if they want us or not.

Is that your favourite venue in the country?

GLENN: Dude, its been everyone’s – I’d put it right up there, we’ve had the best times there ever.

ADAM: Mitch (POW Hotel Owner) was always the guy since we started here in Perth back in 2004 that would always give us a gig and support us!  No matter what we’d done, good or bad, up or down. We don’t speak to him often at all, but he’ll always treat us like we’re local band and doesn’t give a fuck, like the rider…

Just one carton!

ADAM: Yeah and a free pizza after the show!

What’s each of your favourite bands and records right now…

ADAM: Shit (Pauses for a very long time) I tend to listen to most of my music at the gym, I suppose its gotta be the last Architects record….

GLENN: I got a tradition every time we do a release.  On the day it comes out I listen to Weezer Blue Album three times in a row! That’s fresh in my mind.

There you have it. The Birds are back and they’re putting corporate glory on hold for a bit to get back to their outsider best. Just listen to the album, it’s doomy alright but its sounds like they’re having a ball. The geeks have won and they’re taking their chance to do whatever the fuck they want. Chances are it’ll only take them higher.

Catch Birds Of Tokyo at Metro City on Thursday, November 17, for the first date of the Brace national tour. Tickets are available from www.birdsoftokyo.com.

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