Birds Of Tokyo is best known for its intersection of pop, rock and heartfelt ballads. Garnering a worldwide audience thanks to global hits, ‘Plans’ and ‘Lanterns’, the Australian-based group has seen a long and successful career – 11 tracks in Triple J’s Hottest 100 and countless ARIA chart toppers. Now returning after three years with Human Design, a painfully honest, musical representation of the last three years of emotional heartache and life struggles, it would be safe to say this is their most truthful album to date. From the five-man cohort, ICON spoke with lead guitarist Ian Kenny on confronting emotions, life lessons and the ever-changing music industry.
ICON: Was it confronting to be so truthful through your lyrics and then perform it live?
Ian Kenny: “Both parts of that are and have been confronting. Writing the lyrics for this record and getting it right was the hardest part of this record just because I had written them so many different ways, dancing around the actual topic, dancing around actually being truthful and just telling it like it is. I was super concerned about how much I was going to expose myself and I’m not really like that as a person. I play my personal shit close to my chest so it took me a long time to get to that place.
I knew it was the right thing to do but it was just fucking tough to say it how it is.
And I knew that what I had written previously wasn’t quite there. There is a lot of support from the band and taking time to get things right.”
Talk to me about the album artwork. It’s quite abstract the way it relates to the human body but at the same time it’s very child-like.
K: “We got an artist to commission a whole bunch of crochet pieces. Basically we wanted to have this life-sized mobile with all these objects, memories. It’s made up of things that have affected us in the writing of the album. It’s a bit of a mish-mash of parts of our world leading up to the record.”
You’ve been writing music for well over a decade. How has the band evolved in that time?
K: “These days we focus a lot more song-to-song rather than overarching record themes and what not. For us, the song has to come from a genuine place, it has to have a reason to exist. Back in the day, it was quite easy just to write from pure emotional or reactive places and put songs together and being okay with them out in the world. These days, we think a lot harder and longer about why our music is out there and what it is about.”
And what about the industry? How have you adapted to streaming and social media?
K: “With streaming we jumped on board like everybody else sort of had to when it came into play and we’ve tried to use that and work that as best we can. Streaming in the last few years has turned into a decent platform for artists depending on where you are at in your career. It’s a double-edged sword. It can gain you great access… is it great for an artist in the pocket? Not so much.
Is it great for an artist gaining access to the rest of planet? Fuck yeah, it is.
Social media – all about it. It’s been quite wonderful to have a relation with online music fans and especially fans of the band. It can be a time vampire, but hey, it is what it is and I’m all about it.”
In an Instagram post, the band revealed that many of you have experienced periods of despair. Did you every worry that the album wouldn’t come to fruition?
K: “Not really, because the album came to us as the last piece of the puzzle. We started writing when I was going through a pretty hard time and it was a great way to exercise a lot of emotional weight and get good and healthy again. We put our songs, one-by-one as they came. We didn’t know it was going to be a record but by the time we put the third single out and we knew we had a fourth one ready, we were like, ‘Man, you know what, I think we’re onto something.’ It was three years of life and living and as things changed for the band, we wrote about it. It’s a bit of a diary, almost.”
How did you curate the track list? The album starts quite light-hearted and then moves to more sombre melodies.
K: “It kind of just worked out that way. It’s always funny when you realise you have enough songs for a record, you have to try and play this balance game with the story versus the actual flow and emotional lines of the record. We try not mess with the story too much, not so intentional but just the overall design.”
What has been your biggest lesson from the past three years?
K: “Just to tell it like it is. No matter how comfortable that feels or how much you don’t feel safe. That’s a lot of what this has been about, just getting the story to the surface. The more you try and cover that in cotton wool and call it something else, the longer it lingers.”
What do you hope people take from your new album, particularly in the current state of society?
K: “There are a lot of moments on the record where there is some truly heartfelt, heart breaking moments, where it kicks you in the guts. And it will for a lot of people because I know there is people who have been through what I’ve been through. As the record comes through, there is a lot of light and a lot of love at the end of the tunnel. People are going to feel that. Hopefully it leaves them feeling good about where we’re at.
Human Design from Birds Of Tokyo releases on April 24. For more from the band, visit the website here.