American Analog Set's Andrew Kenny on romance, science, football, melodicas, and more.
There I was minding my own business, carefree and surfing the 'net while pretending to do work at my dead-end computer job, when I saw the headline: "American Analog Set to Break Up After Tour."
How could this be?! I'd just interviewed AmAnSet frontman Andrew Kenny a few weeks ago and we'd gotten along swimmingly. The guy was a veritable Chatty Cathy and was up front about everything, from his questionable football allegiances and science vs. romance to an obsession with the hottest Asian character in the Harry Potter series. There was no mention, not even a hint, of his band's apparent demise. Why, Ken, why?!
Fortunately, it turned out that the news-breaking scribes were human after all, as they put it in their retraction. The Analog Set is just taking some time off, but not before one last jaunt around the country in support of their outstanding new album Set Free. Given that it's Kenny's proudest achievement with the band, it's not hard to be happy for him even as we say goodbye for now. As the man is fond of saying, it is what it is.
PopMatters: Hey, thanks for letting me reschedule -- something came up.
Andrew Kenny: Definitely, no problem. Whenever you suggested it I was like, yes, because I was looking forward to an uninterrupted football afternoon, so that was supercool actually.
PM: Oh good, it worked out then.
AK: Yeah, definitely.
PM: Who were you rooting for?
AK: Well, I live in Texas, so of course I'm a Cowboys fan. The Cowboys were the afternoon game yesterday, but in the first game I was rooting for the Jets. We lost, but it was a really tight game. I don't know if you follow the ball at all but I just grew up in a football family, so it's in there more than I want it to be probably.
PM: No, it's cool. I'm a big Eagles fan, so I hate the Cowboys actually.
AK: Ohhhh and vice versa! You know what, damn, that Eagles game was pretty good yesterday.
PM: Oh it was tight, we were a little worried there.
AK: I thought they looked pretty good, I really did. I enjoyed catching all the highlights and stuff, it was a pretty tight game the entire time. I was down for the fuckin', you know, Randy Moss/T.O. matchup yesterday, it was tough.
PM: Yeah, I kind of thought Moss would do a little more but he really didn't do much at all.
AK: Yeah, he just shut down, pretty much the whole game. It was not very impressive. But T.O. came through, dude. I mean after that shit in fuckin' Texas Stadium I am still not a T.O. fan at all. But he came through. And it wasn't the big plays -- it was like the have-to-convert-third-down type plays that he came through.
PM: Well that's why we pay him a billion dollars.
AK: My god! How much does he make a year?
PM: I don't know off the top of my head but it's ridiculous.
AK: I'm sure.
PM: We were saying they must be a team of destiny if Akers could make that last field goal, and it turned out to come through.
AK: [laughs] So you're a team of destiny now?
PM: That's right, destiny awaits.
AK: [laughs] Right on, man.
PM: So you go by Ken, right?
AK: Yeah, most everybody calls me Ken or Kenny, but you'd rather call me Andrew you can --
PM: Oh no, just when I got your voicemail it said Ken and I was thrown off, and for one horrible moment I thought I had called the wrong number, but then I was like, "Well it must be him," and then I still called you Andrew, so sorry about that [laughs].
AK: Well, I called the wrong person but he also rescheduled the interview [laughs].
PM: As long as I had an interview with somebody.
AK: A lot of people up at school call me Andy or Andrew but, I mean, anybody that I've known for longer calls me Ken or Kenny, it's just like a nickname.
PM: Well, Ken it is then.
AK: You got it.
PM: On a serious note, I know Austin is pretty land-locked but the members of the band who are still in Texas, have they been affected at all by the hurricanes this season?
AK: Actually no, I mean not any more than just like the whole country has been affected, but when Rita hit it swelled north and maybe 48 hours before it hit they were talking about canceling [the Austin City Limits festival], which would have been a huge investment by the city, it would have been a huge debacle because it was gonna be the best year of the festival. If they would've had to cancel it, it would have been horrible. I mean not in comparison to loss of life, of course, but honestly I don't think Austin got a single drop of rain that day, which is amazing because not a couple hundred miles away it was flooding. I think it got overcast for a little but that's about it.
PM: That's good.
AK: Well, that's what I heard. I haven't talked to the guys since it hit. We were in a van together for the last two and a half weeks in Europe, so we have been taking a brief break from conversation with one another [laughs]. I mean not mandated, not intentional, but I just haven't had a talk with those guys since last Friday.
PM: So you guys didn't play ACL then?
AK: No, but our bass player Lee [Gillespie], his girlfriend has a clothing store in Austin and this was gonna be like a huge weekend for them because they rented out a big booth space and they had lots of consignment stuff from a local designer's consignment store, and everybody was working around the clock for weeks trying to get this really huge nice booth ready to go, and it almost got rained out. I know Mark [Smith] was working in the booth and Lee was working in the booth and they were just trying to be up there so they could see ... I know Lee is a big Doves fan and Mark is, too, and I'm sure they wanted to see Death Cab as well, and Oasis, of course. I can't believe Oasis played.
AK: So it was a huge weekend. We played last year but we didn't this year. We just don't do really well at festivals. I always have a good time when we're not playing and I can just run around and talk to people. I don't know, we're just not a festival band, we're more of a small club kinda band. I think what we do works only at night, and not every time at night either [laughs]. Certainly only at night. I've learned my lesson, certainly.
PM: Yeah, I read that tour diary on your website and you said you were playing the earliest you'd ever played; it was like noon when you went on. You were like, "I thought people only yawned at our shows because it was nighttime."
AK: [laughs] But oh no.
PM: I'm sure it gets lost being outside.
AK: Oh, yeah. We're just not engineered for outdoor performances.
PM: You're up in Brooklyn now, right?
AK: Yeah, that's right.
PM: I read something else where you were talking about your experience in New York and you said you've never been so sure you're in the least relevant band in the world.
PM: I thought, what an amazing quote. Is the hipster scene up there too much?
AK: That's what music is in New York. It was kind of good going to Europe and the last couple weeks playing shows that are maybe a little bit smaller but kind of on par with what we play in the States, but people were really excited to see us. It's like, we know we don't have a huge following, but we're an important band to a small group of people and it's cool to connect with people like that, and just because you're not the Arcade Fire at the Bowery -- like oh my God, what happened, I couldn't get into the show, it's a huge fiasco! What, you're not on the guest list? You know, it's not always like that. Sometimes we can be not cool and still appeal to people. I guess it's an important thing to remember that it's really hard living in New York. I'm sure you can appreciate this as well.
PM: Well, I live near but not in Philadelphia, but when I go up to visit New York I can understand how you feel, I'm probably one of the least relevant people in the city, at least to everyone running around up there.
AK: It's not to say that I don't like living up here, and it's not to say that I don't have a good group of friends I hang out with. I like my neighborhood, I like the bars in my neighborhood, I have fun up here. But I definitely couldn't ever imagine starting a band in New York. I just don't know how people do it unless they are...
PM: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.
AK: Yeah [laughs], exactly. Unless you've got something that's music and more. I'm not saying all you need is a gimmick, you need to be able to write songs, too. But a band like us just would have never, ever, ever made it in New York City.
PM: Did you go to CMJ at all?
AK: I didn't. That was the last weekend we were in Europe. We got back last Wednesday, I guess, so right after CMJ was over. We played last year, I think, and the year before. CMJ is, I think, even crazier and less organized than South By Southwest. I kind of prefer that. But then again I'm from Austin...
PM: You're up there in school now, and I love how you said you had the whole Harry Potter fantasy about it. I totally know what you mean, it would be amazing to go to that place in that world. Have you seen the trailer for Goblet of Fire?
AK: Dude, I haven't.
PM: Oh, it's sick.
AK: Is Cho Chang gonna finally be in this one?
PM: Actually they did show a glimpse of her.
AK: Good, I'm a big Cho Chang fan, I can't believe they left her out of the last movie.
PM: Was she supposed to be in it?
AK: She's in the Azkaban book but it's just like her and Harry exchange glances. I mean they didn't have to introduce her but you can't get a Goblet of Fire without some Cho Chang.
PM: [laughing] No, she's definitely in this one.
AK: All right, radical. Yeah, I did have that fantasy. I didn't even start reading those books until the first movie came out, which was probably right around when Azkaban was out. When the first movie came out they were already on the third book. When Goblet of Fire came out I was totally ready for it, that was right during the summer I was moving up here for school. I totally had the Harry Potter fantasy. It was kinda cool, I'd never had a stipend before and living in the city ... I've visited before but in a much different capacity because I've been there as kind of a music person and now I'm going there as a scientist. It was very cool. Of course, you know, I stayed in school for a year and then left to make this record, so [sigh] fantasy over.
PM: Do you consider school and music complimentary?
AK: The things I like about science and the things I like about music overlap a lot. But you can't do both at the same time because ... [sigh] you just can't. Like science, especially at this level where you're working for a PhD, I noticed the people that were being really successful in this program where there, you know, they'd get there around 9:00 but they wouldn't leave until 9 or 10 at night and it was just an all day thing. That's what I did too. And you usually work one weekend day too. It's just a fierce, fierce schedule. I wanted to make another record and there's no way I could have written and recorded and flown all over and done that shit while I was in school.
PM: They just both require a full commitment, huh?
AK: Yeah, it really does. And I was doing ok. My grades were fine, and I got accepted to the lab that I tried out for. I was doing fine and I was really enjoying it but it was like, you know, I kind of feel like I have one cheek in this and one cheek out. It's not fair to the science, because the reason I liked this laboratory I was joining is because they were doing some really cool science, like it was fun ... [sigh] I don't know, it was a cool laboratory and I fit in in a cool way. So it's not that I didn't like it, it's just that Promise of Love was coming out and we had a new label overseas, and that didn't work out but that doesn't mean I didn't have to quit to find that out, you know?
PM: Do you know the Rilo Kiley song "Science vs. Romance"?
AK: [laughs] No, I haven't heard it.
PM: Where do you stand? Would you say you chose romance?
AK: I guess I chose romance. I guess I would definitely fall on that edge of the blade. But that was always how I went at science also. It was never about having to discover something or wanting to educate myself, it was just all about the fun I had using really kickass equipment and keeping my lab notebook all set up like some Joseph Cornell project, extremely organized graphs and notes. It was all about the process and not about the product. It makes me really, really good at being a lab technician but not necessarily great at being a PhD professor or something like that. I would be a much better fifth grade biology teacher than I would be an Intro to Genetics college professor or something.
PM: Do you think you want to continue with that after--
AK: Yeah. I really ... I'm not crazy about the industry, I'm not crazy about the politics involved. Like financing a laboratory, it's kinda dirty, but it's no dirtier than big business.
PM: Or the music business.
AK: Yeah. So, yeah, I'll definitely go back. I'll have to start over a little bit, like I'll have to work as a lab technician to kind of get my skills back before I want to go back to school. But my grades in college were fine, like I'll get accepted to a school. It probably won't be an Ivy League school with a stipend -- it won't be the Harry Potter package -- but I will get some good education somewhere.
PM: Maybe you'll still find a Cho Chang then.
AK: Exactly, maybe Cho Chang will be involved.
PM: So you dropped out completely?
AK: Well, I'll call a spade a spade. I have to say that I dropped out. Even though when I left it was on completely good terms and my professor said, "I can't believe you're leaving, no one has ever left this program without getting kicked out of this program." I had a really good relationship with my advisor. It was like, "Andy, we want you to be here but if you have to go do music we understand." But this program, there's no leave of absence. So to say that I dropped out ... it hurts me to say that because I'm not a quitter [laughs] but I am a putter-offer. So I kind of put if off just for later in life just because I really enjoy making music and I kind of felt like I wanted to make one more record, so that's what it is. But now I've gotta figure out what the fuck to do when I get back off the tour.
PM: Well you've stayed in New York in the meantime; did that make it more difficult for the band? Why did you decide to do that?
AK: I stayed in New York for the only reason that would have ever kept me in New York which is I met a girl, of course. I was just really excited about her and I'm glad I stayed. We're getting married in the spring.
PM: Oh, congratulations!
AK: Thanks, man. It's definitely ... just as much as I wanted to make this record, I wanted to find out if this was the real deal, and of course I'm glad I stayed. I could have found a less expensive place to be a musician and not have a job probably, and I could have gone back to Austin. It would have made writing and recording this record a more collaborative process probably. It is what it is. Regardless of how we did it, I worked on it long enough that this is my favorite thing that we've done, and that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to keep working on it until it was, you know, "That's it." So I'm totally happy with it. But yeah, it made recording and writing the record a bit of a nightmare, but ... one thing that is kind of good about it is all the songs that were full-band songs we kind of wrote and then we would do a short tour and the songs always get better on tour. You make some changes and [laughs] I feel like such a fuckin' hag to say, "We worked it out on the road!" But it's true, things kind of tighten up, they get subtly better. So when it came time to record that, everything had a little bit of perspective on it, so that definitely helped the record a lot too. There are upsides to all the downsides, let's put it that way.
PM: Well, sort of going back to the science vs. romance thing, I was reading that you were seriously considering quitting after Promise of Love to just focus on science. Was it reviews of Promise of Love -- did they bother you?
AK: Um, no .. I don't know. Know By Heart was the record I stopped reading reviews. I'll read interviews because I try to make notes for myself how not to sound like an asshole for next time. But, I don't know, I really got my hopes up with Know By Heart because I worked so hard on it and then...
PM: That was reviewed pretty well.
AK: That was reviewed fine, but like every little thing just tore me down and it really hurt. When a review is bad it's horrible, and when a review is good I'll find something that's bad about it. It's like, "Oh, this is very flattering. Then why is it a 7?" It really makes you crazy. And so with Promise I don't think I read a single review. I mean I got to hear feedback from Mark and Lee because they read everything. Promise was what it was. I was really proud of it at the time, and I still am for kind of what it ends up being, which is like the difficult middle chapter in a three-part story. The record sounds a lot more angular than either of the bookends in this series, and the songs were about trouble and just a little more troubled lyrically. I don't know, it ended up being a really telling chapter about what the band was doing. The songs on the record I stand by. I like our band, I think that they're good songs, but I knew it wasn't going to be like Know By Heart, like this is gonna go out and find new people for us. I don't know, if Promise of Love had been like the biggest thing we'd ever done and just been leaps and bounds beyond Know By Heart in sales and feedback, maybe it would've been a little easier to say, "OK, that's enough." I feel like I didn't work on it as hard as I wanted to. I kind of finished it up over winter break instead of going balls-out crazy, which is how I worked on Know By Heart. It didn't feel right, I needed to do something that was better, just for myself.
PM: Is that a melodica on "(Theme From) Everything Ends"?
AK: Kind of. It's like a baritone melodica or something. I didn't record it as well as I could have. I didn't like the way the organ sounded, so I tracked down a melodica and recorded that, and I realized the melodica was exactly what I didn't like about the organ. This is just like the distilled version of what is bad about this! So I used a frequency analyzer and looked to see where it was really strong and turned bands down on the EQ to figure out where the sounds were that I didn't like. It's one of the most heavily EQ'd things on the record 'cause I'm not a big believer in a lot of equalization. I EQ'd the F out of that to make it sound not like a melodica. It ended up being a little ghosty but it's not quite as brassy as when I started out because it was making me nuts.
PM: Have you ever heard anything by Augustus Pablo?
AK: No, what's that all about?
PM: Do you listen to dub at all?
AK: That's more Mark's alley, I don't think I own a single record. Yeah, I can do some dub stuff but I'm not a super big fan.
PM: What made me think of it was Augustus Pablo, he was a melodica player in Jamaica and put out a few albums with this really famous producer King Tubby. They were sort of a pair in the '70s. But that melodica is just like Pablo's signature sound, and the albums that the two of them made have that ghostly feel with the melodica coming in and out, and they're playing with the bass and reverb too, so it has this really hypnotic effect. And your music works the same way, so to hear the melodica tossed in there was a cool touch, I thought.
AK: That song is a little bit weird because it's about ten years old, and we tried to put in on the first record but I didn't like the recording, and we tried to record it for the third record but again ... I really like that song, and I like it better as a song instead of an instrumental, which wouldn't fit on the record, but the original version is going to be on the website. That was one of the first things Mark and I ever did together was record that song. I can really hear, like Mark said a long time ago, this is our best song, even though we ended up not sounding like that at all. If you care to listen, the demo of it definitely has more of a mini-box drum machine and the bass line is a little bit more mid-rangey, so that was my first accidentally going in with Mark recording a quasi-dub song.
PM: You did that split EP with Ben Gibbard from Death Cab last year, and there definitely seems to be a musical kinship there as well. How did you guys first meet?
AK: I think right when their first record came out they played South By Southwest, I guess in '99. They played the Insound.com party. They played the party and I was just like, fuck, and I just instantly bought the record. I ran up on him after the show and said, "Hey, my name's Kenny, I really liked that show. What was the last song, what was the first song?" I just became a fan, pretty much instantly. We had just finished recording The Golden Band, we had just turned it in that week to Emperor Jones. I had a cassette of it in my back pocket, and I said we were in this band the Analog Set, and he was like, "Oh no way, we saw you last year! We were listening to Living Room on the way down here!" So I was like, "Oh man, let me hit you with this new tape." So we just traded music on the spot and that was kind of the beginning of a friendship.
Every time they came to Austin they either played with us or stayed with us or both, for a couple years. We would run into them on tour kind of intentionally and overlap for a couple shows. It was kinda cool, to watch a band that you used to help get shows and then it'd be like understood that they would open for us, and then we're opening for them and then, "Oh wait, now we're too small to even open for them anymore." [laughs] It was kind of weird, but, also, it's one of those things where I just love their band so much that it was impossible to be too jaded about it. I just really am a believer -- I think they're a cool band. And I think Ben is a great singer and a great songwriter. He's a good dude, too. He has no reason to be cool to me, he's just always been really cool to me. I'm a fan of him musically and personally.
PM: Fifteen seconds of tape left. That Dr. Pepper jingle you did a while back that was rejected by the company; any plans to revisit that with the same labor-of-love attention you gave Set Free?
AK: [laughs] I wish. I think now that we actually know people in the business I'd better know how to channel that to the people at Dr. Pepper. It could've been our golden moment but ... oh, well.