What’s in a name? For a band like Metallica or Five Finger Death Punch the answer may be obvious. Others are a little harder to peg. Take Australia’s Birds of Tokyo for instance. For a first time listener, it isn’t instantly clear what to expect when you hit the play button on Spotify. “I’m not sure we really know either,” admits BoT guitarist Adam Spark. Sound check is in full swing at Los Angeles’ Bootleg HiFi, so he and lead singer Ian Kenny are tucked in a back room with me. We take to an empty row of plush theater seats like patrons at private show. In some ways, I’m getting exactly that.
“When people think of Birds of Tokyo, they should picture a nice easy morning with foreign birds chirping in the background and the smell of muffins,” continues Kenny. He and Adam laugh a bit at this description, but they agree on the finer points. Having a name like Birds of Tokyo allows them to move where they want creatively and adopt whatever sound they think suits them at the time. “I mean, it doesn’t sound like a death metal band,” explains Kenny. “You know if you have a name like Carcass, you’re a heavy band. Birds of Tokyo though—I’m not sure what that really says.”
Whatever it says, BoT doesn’t have a hard time connecting with their listeners. If you were to fly to Australia, you probably couldn’t flip on the radio without hearing the haunting croon of Ian Kenny and Birds of Tokyo pouring through your speakers. The five-piece Aussie outfit has dominated the airwaves of their home continent since their Universes album lit up the charts in 2008, and their latest single “Lanterns,” which just hit our shores earlier this spring, was the most played song on Aussie radio in 2013. Yet beyond their borders, the world has yet to hear their evocative twist on alt rock, which is both moving and universally relatable in the same vein as early Coldplay.
Don’t expect them to stay Down Under. As of this year, Birds of Tokyo has moved their operation stateside to give us in the USA a taste of what we’ve been missing. Their 2013 blowout March Fires is due to drop on the US market sometime this year and we have their Lanterns EP and the eponymous single to whet our appetite in the meantime.
Sitting backstage at the Bootleg HiFi, I was fortunate to discuss quite a bit with Adam and Kenny including their approach to music, life in LA, and superhuman powers.
Anthony: So you guys are coming up on 10 years as a band.
Kenny: Ten long years of pain and suffering. Fuckin’ dealing with each other.
Anthony: Has it been all pain and suffering?
Kenny: No no, it’s been good.
Adam: It’s been really good.
Anthony: How did you guys come together? What’s the story behind Birds of Tokyo?
Kenny: Adam approached me with some songs that he had in mind—just to do some sort of a collab songwriting together. I don’t think it was ever intended to be a band, it was just more of a songwriting exercise, but once we had got through a few pieces we decided to take it to a studio and record it, put a band on it, and it just sort of snowballed from there quickly into us wanting to do this full time as a band with each other.
Anthony: How did you guys settle on the name Birds of Tokyo? It’s a bit unique.
Kenny: It came from a magazine.
Adam: Reader’s Digest. It was a story about there being no birds in Tokyo and we just talked about that over beers and whatnot.
Kenny: That’s where we heard it, but why we settled on it is that Birds of Tokyo for us is a fairly open trading banner as musicians and songwriters. We can sort of do what we want to do from record to record, allowing ourselves to form in different directions every time we commit to an album.
Anthony: You’ve said that your latest record March Fires was a journey of “exploration and transformation” for you guys. How would you say the writing process was different than with your previous albums?
Adam: The more we’ve been doing this, the more we sort of allow time to influence the writing rather than just write, write, write. It’s like allowing time to be the sixth member of the band, you know what I mean? So we gave ourselves that much this time around and it sort of gives you perspective when you sit down to write a song.
Instead of just finishing a song and recording it like we’ve done in the past, we would go through and write just a little bit of something that would end up being a chorus and then sixth months later we’d still be working on bits and pieces. Someone would point out and say “Oh, that’s the verse.” So we’re always just filling up these little glasses of milk, topping them off bit by bit. It’s a newer process that’s really been working for us.
Anthony: You guys recently made the transition stateside from your home in Australia. What made you decide to move Birds of Tokyo here to LA?
Kenny: We’ve been coming here for the past couple of years working around the last two records we put out, sort of feeling out the industry here, and it’s always seemed like it was in the cards. As a working musician, this is where you ideally want to be. For a band like us, with all the promotion, touring, having a song on the radio, and with a record that’s about to be released, you have to be available. While things are going very well in Australia, we don’t actually have to be there. This is where we’re needed.
Anthony: Is there anything that you can take from your success in Australia that you think helps as an emerging artist here?
Adam: I think we can spot bullshit from a lot further away. That’s one of the great perks you get from doing this for a while and enjoying a fair bit of success. In general, we’ve made a lot of mistakes. It’s just getting to know how things work and what to say yes or no to. We can be like, “Hey, remember that time we really fucked up?”
Anthony: Can you think of any time in your history where you just thought “Oh man, we should have known better?”
Kenny: I think we’ve made the same mistakes of any emerging band that’s trying to understand the whole process ahead of them. We’ve probably played some of the right gigs and some of the wrong gigs where they weren’t really effective as a band or doing gigs and not getting paid or getting ripped off, mismanaged…you name it. The worst part is that you tend to get comfortable and complacent in that situation – not taking guard of what’s happening to a degree. Stuff like that.
Adam: Yeah, sometimes you roll on stage at some massive venue that can host two or three thousand people and there are only a couple hundred there. And you think, “What the hell’s happened?” And you realize that people haven’t done their job properly and that you probably should have been paying attention to that sort of thing. Then you’re just like, “Alright, let’s never do that again.”
Anthony: Is there anything you’ve noticed since being in LA that is fundamentally different about the music scene here as opposed to back in Australia?
Adam: America’s such a bigger place, you know? Especially for a new little band like us trying to find where we fit into that. From what I’ve found (not to really speak for everyone else), Australia has this thing that permeates pretty much all of Australian culture. When things start doing well or something becomes successful, we love shooting arrows at it. It doesn’t matter if you just got a pay raise, got a new job or started to blow up as a band, we love to tear you down. It’s kind of a tall poppy thing. We love keeping everyone in their places. And everyone who enjoys success Australia – ourselves included – kind of falls prey to that. That’s perfectly fine; it’s our way of life and we love it there, but I notice that a lot less here in the US. So it’s kind of refreshing to not feel that pressure for a little while.
Anthony: Changing gears a little, what can we expect from you guys for the rest of this year?
Kenny: At the moment, we’re discussing a US release date for March Fires with our label, so that’s probably about a month away. We’ve also got a ton of shows here in LA and across the country from now until July. We’ll be playing both Summer Round-Up in Santa Barbara and BFD in the Bay Area, so if you’re around, come check those out. After that, we’re taking a small break and then we plan to tour from August onward, whether that’s headlining or support, we don’t know yet, but it’ll happen one way or another.
Adam: There’s a bunch of options on the table at the moment. It’s just a matter of minding the right one when the time comes.
Anthony: What do you think has been the most rewarding part of your career as a band?
Kenny: Getting to this point probably. It’s been a fairly interesting, committed and awesome road to get us here.
Adam: And we still get to do it every day.
Kenny: Yeah, we’re in such a good position as a band that we get to live the way we want to live, writing the music we want to write. Everything we do is done on the band’s terms and in the future I hope it stays that way. And it’s come out of fuckin’ hard work.
Adam: We just can’t seem to bloody get rid of each other. Plus we’re going on five odd years of not having jobs apart from the band. That in itself is awesome and a bit terrifying. If this ends tomorrow or next week or next year, we’re like “Shit! What are we going to do?”
Kenny: You mean we have to get real jobs?
Anthony: I’m kind of in the same boat. Besides writing for Writtalin, I’m also a freelancer. And if that doesn’t work out, what am I gonna do?
Adam: Well, it keeps it exciting, you know? And it keeps you fighting, especially artistically. You wanna do what you do like Kenny said. But you have to be aware of the right thing to do to connect with people at the same time.
Kenny: You can’t really make music in a bubble and expect to live off of it.
Anthony: If Birds of Tokyo was a cocktail, what would it be?
Kenny: It would probably have some sort of expensive, rare rum in it as the base.
Adam: We’d put some pineapple in there with some ginger beer as well.
Kenny: Just a dash of mint.
Adam: Just something fruity, spicy, and really strong that fucks you up.
Anthony: If you were to have one superpower, what would it be?
Kenny: The obvious one (because I keep getting asked this question)—the invisibility thing, probably to be a creep 30% of the time. The other 70% though I would just people watch. I’d love just checking out people without them knowing I was there and study why we do the fuckin’ shit we do.
Adam: I’d be a time traveler, man. Back and forth. I’d be Michael J. Foxing all over the place.
Anthony: I would stop time because that one’s overpowered. You could do anything with that.
Kenny: I haven’t thought of that. Can we change our answers to that one?
Keep your eyes open for Birds of Tokyo as they set out to conquer the US. And don’t forget to download their Lanterns EP on iTunes and Amazon.