Interview by Alex Daniel.
To the fresh waves of students that arrive in Austin at the start of every semester – I’m sorry. Barring a rare (but not unheard of) reunion show, you’re too late to get wrapped up in the swirl of guitar waves, near-whispered vocal croons and rustling beats that is the American Analog Set’s live show. Fronted by Andrew Kenny, the band was truly one of Austin’s treasures, matching top-notch songwriting with enrapturing experimental ambience.
But luckily, since moving back to Austin by way of New York a few years ago, Kenny’s offered up something even better – The Wooden Birds. In some senses, the band’s spare and organic sound is almost the polar opposite of the American Analog Set. But Kenny’s keen musical sensibility is still at the foundation. Kenny took some time to talk to us last fall about where he’s been and where he’s headed.
You were in New York for a while before coming back to Austin and forming the Wooden Birds. Why did you move to New York?
Kenny: I moved for graduate school at Columbia that I didn’t finish because I left to make another Analog Set record and make music, basically.
So I read that you are a scientist or that’s what you studied. What was your specific field of study?
Kenny: Biochemistry. I guess ever since I’ve known about it, which has only been the last 15 years or so, I’ve been really fascinated about gene therapy. So I always chose classes and projects that would increase my knowledge of viral delivery vectors or how to bring a drug from the benchtop to a trial, and the politics of all that nonsense. But really, I just had a really good science professor. When I went to UT, I went for printmaking, and they just didn’t have printmaking classes available my first semester, so I just took a biology class for kicks. It was something I was always kind of into. And it was one of those… what’s the Robin Williams, “Captain, my Captain?” What was that movie?
Dead Poet’s Society.
Kenny: Yeah, it was kind of a Dead Poet’s Society kind of thing. I had a really good professor at UT for Intro Bio, and she was a great professor who, instead of doing all upper-level stuff, she liked scaring 18-year-olds out of being doctors. She felt that was her mission at UT.
So did you switch over from printmaking after that?
Kenny: I guess you can’t choose that as a major until you have a certain basis of art classes, and I went to school out of sync with those classes to start my art degree. Which is amazing to me now, because I’m so not artistic at all. I have no visual art skills at all. But I really do love printmaking. I used to make all the Analog Set posters, and I always had other artists that I work with design it and then I would figure out how to print it properly.
I was actually looking at the “Set Free” artwork recently, and I really like it.
Kenny: I had nothing to do with that. [Laughs] I have such little knowledge of art that it became distracting for me to be in the same room where art was talked about. So, starting with “Know by Heart,” which came out 10 years ago now, I don’t even see the artwork until I slice the top of the box, and open the CD crate up. Our bass player Lee and keyboard player Craig designed everything. And, by the way, it got much better after I stopped having anything to do with it.
While you were in New York, was it hard to maintain the Analog Set?
Kenny: Yeah, and that’s pretty much why we stopped doing stuff. It became discouraging because we didn’t have a very good practice ethic. So when we lived in the same town, it was great because if we didn’t want to play for a month, then we’d play every night for a week just for kicks. And then we wouldn’t play for three months. But we actually had to schedule practices and buy airplane tickets to do it. It just seemed like we would spend a lot of time on the road and have a really successful tour, but at the end of the day, American Airlines made more money than we did. It was just discouraging.
In your YouTube documentary for your spring 2010 tour, you mentioned some new songs and a new record. Do you guys have stuff coming out soon?
Kenny: It’s still going to be a while. I kind of picked this time for this tour because I thought now would be the time when I would be kind of wondering what I should be doing on this recording. Because, I don’t know about everybody else, but when I work on a record, I come to a certain point where I stop doing good stuff and I start doing bad stuff. And you just have to walk away. It’s the number one bonus to home recording besides economics – you can walk away when you’re not at your most creative. So I thought OK. If I work on this thing all summer, I’m gonna need a break. So I said, what if we do this tour at the end of the summer and we come back and all finish up making this record. So it’s way not done. We’ve got lots to do on it. But it’s rolling. And then I guess it won’t come out for a long time.
Will it still be out on Barsuk?
Kenny: I don’t know. My arrangement with them is really kind of a homie’s deal. It’s a very handshake-y kind of thing. I know they like our show, and they liked our last record. But like any smart label, they need to listen to it and say, “Yeah we like this too.” They wouldn’t want something that they’re just kind of begrudgingly taking, and I wouldn’t want them to have it. But I’m hoping they really like it. I think it’s better than Magnolia, so I’m hoping they think that, too.
Watch the official music video for the extended version of “Hometown Fantasy” from The Wooden Birds debut album Magnolia here:
Made in Austin is regular Red River Noise feature that showcases some of Austin’s best up-and-coming independent bands. Check back often to see what undiscovered talent we’ll interview next.