Recently I have been hooked on the sophomore release of Austin, Texas based indie/folk-rock band, The Wooden Birds called Two Matchsticks. Fronted by Andrew Kenny (The American Analog Set), the group has slowly gained a great deal of momentum, touring the nation in support of acts like Broken Social Scene, Other Lives and Dan Mangan. On this record, Kenny is joined by vocal counterpart Leslie Sisson, Matt Pond(Matt Pond PA) and Sean Haskins. Check the group out at http://www.facebook.com/thewoodenbirds?ref=ts&sk=app_176217385757369
How has this tour been thus far?
Kenny: This has been the best tour we have ever done. It’s just shocking how well this tour has gone. This is the first tour for a new album, so of course we haven’t been on our own for a while. We have packaged up with Other Lives, Broken Social Scene and Clientele. We have done these support package things, and haven’t done our own tour in a year and a half, or more. The shows have been really good. We have gone coast to coast, and it’s almost done, but we have only played 17 shows. Normally in six weeks, we would do 30 or 35 shows. We have just been playing big markets and places that we have done well at, in the past.
The response has been good?
Kenny: Yeah, I mean we are a small band so the crowds aren’t huge, but everyone who’s there seems to like it. A lot of singing along, lots of people requesting songs off of the new record and the last record. It’s been really cool. And we have a new touring member, playing guitar. His name is Chris Hansen and he just gets it done. It has been awesome. Being a five piece band again, it feels fuller and it is just fun to play.
Who are some people that you have looked up to in the past, in regards to stage presence or live performance?
Kenny: I would say that the best shows that I have been to recently (over the past couple of years) have been Broken Social Scene. I am a big fan and I did a short tour with them. I would say that Kevin Drew took me to “front man school” a little bit, for three or four months when I was doing that tour with them. It was unintentional, but I got watch what a real front man actually does at a show. I’m not a performer like he is. I feel like seeing a bunch of people that are competent musicians, which I feel like I have always been in bands with, but looking at each other and smiling and having a good time. Remembering that we like making music and we like playing together. I look up to them big time, even though at our fastest and loudest we are a mid-tempo, mellow band. They are this epic, “enjoy your lives” thing. We’re not that, but I do look up to them. I also saw Phoenix a while back and I was so pumped up for that show, that they could have just stood there and not done anything and I would have liked it. But, there was a lot of dancing around and I thought it was really cool. When I was younger, all that mattered was if the music was laid out well. Now that I’m older, I just like to see people having a good time also. I don’t want to hear the CD, I want to hear how a live band interprets there own CD to be. I think that’s what the Wooden Birds do. The album is percussion, acoustic instruments and delicately delivered vocals. We still have the same voices, of course, but its electric guitars instead of acoustic and drums instead of percussion. This is a rock show, you know?
The new album, “Two Matchsticks” is fantastic…
Kenny: I’m glad you like it. We had a lot of fun making it. We have only done two things, so I can say it’s the best thing we have done. The bar was set somewhat high with “Magnolia,” but I think on “Two Matchsticks” we figured out what we do well.
How did the writing pan out for this album?
Kenny: Way different from “Magnolia.” I had help on “Magnolia,” but the band didn’t exist. It was an imaginary band. We kind of thought what we would like the album to sound like. We said “let’s lock in the bass with this percussion, we’ll beat on the guitar a certain way and it will make it kind boxy and small sounding and dense.” We liked the way it sounded, but we never played any of the songs live. Then we put the band together and at that point we had Chris Michaels, Leslie of course and Shaun was involved at that point. Then we started touring for “Magnolia” and then we did what you are supposed to do if you are a band and you make a record. . You are supposed to write songs together, play them out and then record them together. We made “Magnolia” backwards and then we made “Two Matchsticks” like you are supposed to make a record. We wrote songs, took them on the road, saw how they did. We decided what parts need to come up, how we need to arrange things to make the choruses and verses balance out. And then we go back and put the record together. We did a couple of songs, went on tour with The Other Lives, did a couple more songs, and went on tour with Cliental. Came back, did a few more songs, then went on tour with Dan Mangan and Broken Social Scene. By the time that we did all of these tours with other bands, we were taking a couple new songs out every time and then we made the record. It was much more of a collaborative record. A lot more people got to put their two cents in and it makes for a better record. It’s a more colorful record, and it does what we do. We can play every song on this record (live), opposed to with “Magnolia” where we made a record and then figured “what can we actually do? Well, we can’t play that and we can’t play that” What we need is a couple more people, or we only need a couple more people for this or we only need two people for this or it doesn’t make sense live.” So, “two Matchsticks” is everyone playing at all times, more or less and it sounds more like a “band” to me. Even though its still percussion on the record and guitars, it sounds a lot more like a band.
I know that pick a song off your own album is like picking your favorite child, but what is a song that you were blown away by how it turned out?
Kenny: I really like “Baby Jeans,” because I thought it was a good story, we brought it in and I started working on it and then one day Leslie just shows up and says “hey let me have a swing at this one”. She starts singing it and it’s obvious that it worked much better from her perspective. I get to do a little back-up on that song, but it’s kind of cool. Maybe this began as my band, but now it’s our band. It was definitely a moment where it felt more like; this isn’t just a dude that has a band. This is a group of people, so “Baby Jeans” was important for that matter. I like “Long Time To Lose It” a lot, because it is kind of a dramatic song. “Criminals Win” is another favorite of mine.
With many great vocalists in the band, how are you able to decide who is going to take the lead? Is it just a trial and error process?
Kenny: If I had my druthers, Matt would be singing a lot more than he is. Leslie is with me in Austin a lot, so we work on stuff together and we just practice signing together. When the Wooden Birds are at their best, Leslie and I are both singing. So that’s what we kind of lean towards. But, songs like “Be No Lie” and “Warm to the Blade,” to me that sound like two guys singing together. That’s why Matt sang on “Be No Lie.” To me that sounded like a Matt Pond song anyway, because it’s kind of assertive and that’s all Matt. He started singing on that, and it just made a lot of sense!
You recorded the album in your house?
Kenny: Yeah, it’s a home studio. It’s not like you are in the kitchen with the refrigerator door reflecting. These days, it’s not so uncommon for people to have real project studios in their house. This is the same one that I have had rolling since The American Analog Set, so it is the same eight-track that we recorded those records on and a lot of the same pre-amps that we have bought along the way. I really haven’t accrued a lot of gear in the last six or seven years. This is a lot of the same stuff that we used to make Know By Heart, Promise Of Love and Set Free.
Do you enjoy the self-production aspect of recording yourself?
Kenny: Well, I call myself a “career home recordist” just because I just like the process so much. I like working when you want to work and being able to walk away when things aren’t happening. You can’t do that in a studio. You book time and if you don’t have your ducks in a row, then you are going to blow a lot of money and you aren’t going to get anything that you like. So, we worked on Two Matchsticks and Magnolia. Everything that The Analog Set did, we recorded a lot of it over a long period of time and if we didn’t like it, “Eh. Let’s just scrap it, we’ll try it again next month and we would, and it would get better or worse (if we would go back to the original thing (laughs). I think that helps. If you write as you record, then I think that it is nice to do it on your own. We mixed in the studio, with Louie Lino and Austin. That is where it really held. I brought a record to him, which sounded a lot like a “Magnolia.” He just kind of helped glue things together a little be more and made it a little denser. I only spent a week there. More happened in that week, than any other week because he is really good and has great ears. We recorded it at home, and then mixed it at a “real” studio. His (studio) is like the big brother version of my studio.
What were some off you influences behind this last record?
Kenny: You aren’t going to see this comparison, but I think that the biggest influence on me and what I wanted to do with the Wooden Birds record is Phoenix. It sounds nothing lie Phoenix, but if you listen to those last two records everything is very dense. They have a very big sound, but there’s not many things making that noise. There’s not a lush fabric of all of these parts that are intertwining, it’s got a loud bass part and a loud guitar part. If something is in (a song), you hear it. When it disappears, it creates this void that the vocals kind of jump into and fill up. If you hear some percussion come in, it’s not like “oh, wait that’s where it starts?” For example a weird snare sound will come in, or a tambourine will come in. Everything is very present and very modular. Its like “we’re not going to mix or EQ out a hole for the vocals to go into. We are going to remove an instrument, and the vocals will take its place and it’s going to fill a gap that just left. I don’t know how their records are made, to be truthful. That’s how it just sounds to me. There are a spare number of instruments (on Phoenix’s records), but they are all chosen well. Maybe they started out with many things doing stuff but said, “What can we really do this song with? We can do it with this guitar, this other guitar and we will both switch when the vocals come in.” That’s what I liked about those last two Phoenix records, so I wanted to do the same thing with just acoustic instruments and have it to where everything really matters a lot. There are never double guitars, or some random thing strumming in the background. There’s a rhythm guitar, a lead guitar, there are vocals that are really loud and the bass just is loud for a quiet band. Everything is just up in the mix, equally. It’s not a very homogenized sound. You have to really think about the economy of what you are going to use your eight tracks for. If I’m going to put something on track two, I can’t double it later and then come back and fade it in or fade it out. If it’s going to be the acoustic guitar part, then it’s in the entire song. If you play your bass on 1 and 3, you leave room to lean your guitar towards 2 and 4. You aren’t actually hearing bass and guitar at the same precise moment; you’re not playing the same thing. You are hearing a little bass, then a little guitar and it just goes back and forth, creating some emotion within the song.
Going back to your songwriting, I have read before that you pretty much only write about people. Can you tell me a little about the project that you are working on in regards to telling others’ stories?
Kenny: Yeah, that’s kind of where “Struck By Lightning” came from on the record. With that song, I read a few of the stories, and “Struck By lightning” didn’t come directly from those. Now that I am doing that project, and it’s slower than I thought it would be, but it’s coming along. I read some of those stories and thought “we are going to write a song about many people that kind of have similar horrible lives at a given moment. With it basically being there fault (laughs).” So that’s where that song kind of came from. “Struck By Lightning” is the prototype for what those songs may be like, “hey this person did this, and this happened to them.” I’m trying to not use the names, because people wrote me some very honest stories. The thing I’m working now is something that I thought would be cool, to solicit stories from people. I got a bunch of good ones. Now I am being careful to only do one at a time so that they don’t start overlapping. I start one, I go all the way through it, and then I send it to the person and say “I don’t know, what do you think?” So far only about half of them have written back. I am used to writing songs about myself, so that isn’t really embarrassing to me, but maybe once you hear something that happened in your life re-told in someone else’s words, it becomes a little bit embarrassing. I have and a few people write back and say “I love the song, but I don’t want to be on a compilation. I don’t want this aired. It is very obvious to me that I am the person in the story and I am telling you this story that I haven’t even told the other person. This just needs to stay between me and you.” It’s turned out to be a bit more involved than I thought it would be. I thought I would just write songs for people and they would be like “hey! It’s great! Yeah put it on a record!” Half have written back, and of those people half have declined. It has been a cool project so far?
How did you get the idea?
Kenny: I don’t know where the idea came from. I don’t know where ideas come from. I was probably talking to Leslie about it and decided that it would be a cool way to start some songs. She helped me write up a little invitation for people to solicit songs and we just put it up one day without notice. Then we decided to shut it down because we didn’t want to get eighty of these things. We would be writing for years. We shut it down, once we got three or four dozen. I think it will be cool if I can get a couple more people to agree. My fanatasy was, while we are doing all of this touring for “Two Matchsticks,” to find these people and sit down with them and put them in my little tour documentaries that I have been making. I would ask them things like “what do you think? Did I get it?” We could then play some of the song, or maybe they would read their story to me, even though some are pages long. Maybe I have made the songs to personal? Maybe I should stop sending them back to the people(laughs)? No, I will do what I said I was going to do. Hopefully by the end of the year I will have enough to start putting them on our site.
Last one. Perfect day, driving in your car with the windows down, what are you listening to?
Kenny: Right now I am on a Ronnie Milsap kick.