After spending more than a decade fronting drone-pop wonders The American Analog Set, a band always just on the cusp of wider recognition, Andrew Kenny could be forgiven for leaving music behind in favor of a steadier paycheck. With enough scientific smarts to win a spot in Columbia’s biochemistry Ph.D program—which he left back in 2003 in order to keep on rockin'—Kenny’s got a lab coat waiting whenever he decides to give up the indie-rock ghost for good. For now he’s busying himself with The Wooden Birds, a project that strips away AmAnSet’s gauzy haze to reveal the pure folk-pop heart beating underneath. Kenny talked with The A.V. Club prior to the Wooden Birds’ Oct. 25 gig at the Cedar Cultural Center about the demise of his old band, his love for the scientific method, and the aesthetic of his new band's debut, Magnolia.
The A.V. Club: After the breakup of The American Analog Set you spent a few years playing in other people’s bands before forming The Wooden Birds. How did those experiences affect your new project?
Andrew Kenny: Playing music with other people is ultimately what led me back to my own thing again. I’m a big David Wingo fan, and it was comfortable jumping in [to his band Ola Podrida] and playing bass because I knew him really well personally. Then the following year Kevin Drew asked me to join Broken Social Scene for some touring. Being around both of those situations where I was supporting someone else’s songs was seriously inspiring. I also realized I wasn’t actually taking too happily to the idea of giving up making my own music.
AVC: Why did The American Analog Set end in the first place?
AK: The American Analog Set is still one of my favorite bands ever, and I don’t mean that from the perspective of bragging and saying, ‘We were the best.’ We just found a sound that we all really loved and enjoyed creating together. The band didn’t end because we stopped loving it. Other people in the group just got to points in their lives where they didn’t want to tour anymore. In this day and age with record labels being cut so close to the bone, it needs to be an all-in effort on everybody’s part. So we didn’t think it was responsible to continue if we weren’t going to do our share of the work and tour a lot to support anything a label helped us make. Now that I’m living in Austin again we still get together and play occasionally. We’ve recorded a few things here and there. I can tell you after hundreds of shows with that band that we’re not for everybody, but that’s okay. We still love each other as people, which is the most important thing.
AVC: How would you describe the difference between The Wooden Birds' material and American Analog Set?
AK: Half of The Wooden Birds' songs pre-dated the breakup of The American Analog Set; they were just songs that to me really didn’t belong on an AAS record. To me an AAS tune like “Aaron and Maria” is really a straight-up Wooden Birds song at heart: It's verse/chorus/verse, with a floor tom beat and pretty harmonies. It makes more sense in the context of this band than it ever did in AAS. By the time we were working on Promise Of Love and Set Free, it made more sense to put those songs aside and save them for another day and a different project. When it came time to put The Wooden Birds together, part of my thinking was I wanted a format to present shorter, more upbeat songs with a heavier focus on voice and lyrics.
AVC: How do your careers as a scientist and a musician inform one another?
AK: I wish there was a way for my work in science and music to directly interact because it would be a little space on the Venn diagram where I would never leave. I’ve tried doing both simultaneously before, and it never works. For now, I’ve decided to pursue music. That being said, science is the only thing I’ve ever done besides music that I’ve been good at and I’ll definitely go back to it.
AVC: Does the scientific method play a role in your creative process?
AK: I think about music and science in the same way and I pursue them for the same reason. I think about music in a very scientific way. If my goal is to make song X better, I’ll come up with different hypotheses and test them out—like what if I took out that long breakdown and put in a little bridge and see if I like it better? The nice thing is that unlike in real science I’m ultimately always the judge as to whether the experiment succeeded. [Laughs.] The bass sound on Magnolia is a perfect example of that. I kept testing out different approaches, and then once I found this palm-muted country-Motown hybrid sound I liked I decided to apply it to every song on the album.