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The American Analog Set
an interview with Andrew Kenny by Matt Dornan / pictures by Laurent Orseau
After three albums of captivating, hypnotic lullabies; music that, in the words of writer Michael Clark, "hums along with a delicious patience that will slow your blood pressure, relax your tense shoulders and leave you wanting", Austin's American Analog Set gathered together their loose-ends on the 'Through The '90s' compilation before switching labels from home-town Emperor Jones to New York's hip Tiger Style. Album number five (six if you include their contribution to Darla's extended 'Bliss Out' series), 'Know By Heart', maintains the measured laziness of previous AmAnSet records but injects a little pop urgency, the expected lengthy instrumentals left behind in favour of concise, immaculate bursts of melodic perfection.
Did the singles and rarities compilation mark the end of an era and does 'Know By Heart' signal a new beginning, a rebirth for the band?
When we started putting 'Through the 90's' together it was really just a way out of making another batch of single covers. We figured that if all the singles were available in one place on a CD for cheap, we could keep them in print without all the fuss. Then we had the opportunity to put out the short version of On My Way (which I always loved). After that came the jingle we wrote for Dr. Pepper, then the Kitty remix and the 'little EP' just got out of hand. The 'rebirth' you're talking about happened a year earlier when Lisa left and we took Tom and Sean aboard. That was a huge change."
The shift in personnel seems to have coincided with an unashamedly 'pop vibe' on 'Know By Heart' - would it be correct to assume the two are related?
Oddly enough, Lisa was always the one working the pop angle so I don't know why things happened the way they did. I think The Wait and The Only Living Boy Around were just as pop as anything on the new record though but I know what you're talking about. But it should be noted that while the songs on 'Know By Heart' are shorter and a little quicker, most of them share more than is at first obvious with songs from 'The Golden Band' and earlier releases. Sure the vocals on the new record are totally dry, up front and often harmonized with, but that doesn't mean the songs aren't still about people on the outside dying on the inside, people fucking each other, people fucking each other up and over, sad crazy people in the worst kinds of love and so on. Look at The Postman. It's upbeat. It's C, F, and G. But it's the saddest, most hopeless song on the record. Wow, I'm way off the subject. Seriously, straightforward pop has never been our strong suit. Aaron & Maria is probably the most traditionally pop song we've released, but it's not something we can pull off live. Along with The Postman and a short list of others that we have to leave home.
You described your third album, 'The Golden Band', as being representative of the band's five-year marriage - was it a messy divorce?
Shit, we broke up ?
I mean, the departure of Lisa; did it affect the group dynamic and how long did it take to find her 'replacements'?
The divorce was a little messy. I should stop talking about it like it was no big deal. It's complicated. The bottom line is that the situation was fucked up and it was 100% my fault. Tom and Sean happened rather quickly though. Tom joined maybe the second day of 2000 I think. We played two shows with Tom as a four-piece. I met Sean just after SXSW 2000 and our first show with him was in April. They're good guys. We're all a little older now and have very separate lives outside the band so the time we spend together seems more special. Sean and Tom are also... guys. I can't speak for everyone else in the band, but making music has always been my substitute for having any kind of normal boyfriend-girlfriend relationship. It's easier for me to keep my feelings straight when the people I'm 'in bed' with are guys. I hope that analogy doesn't need explaining. The word on the street is that Lisa was married recently. Funny that. I guess my invitation was lost in the mail... I'm not lamenting her marriage so much. It's more a feeling that I missed a golden opportunity to be so drunk at her wedding. Slurring and stumbling through an uncomfortable toast. Being vaguely disrespectful, calling her father by his first name. Spilling cheap Merlot on the carpet at some country club I'll never be invited back to. Having her brother and a host of faceless groomsmen toss me out of the reception. Sitting at home after, letting the sharp yet harmless click of an empty revolver being dry-fired into my midsection over and over lull me into a deep, troubled sleep. These opportunities only come calling a scant few times in life. Carpe diem and all that.
Was New Equation written with the rest of 'Know By Heart' and, if so, was it left off the album because it didn't 'fit' or because you intended to keep up your tradition of releasing non-LP singles? [The track also appears in demo form on the compilation CD with US book/'zine 'Sound Collector' #7]
New Equation was one of the first songs we worked on with Tom so it's definitely part of the 'Know By Heart' era material. The 8-track version was part of a four-song, 8-track demo that we recorded in Autumn 2000. Mark just really liked that version so he selected it for Sound Collector. It wasn't on the full length because there just wasn't a lot of dense Farfisa based material on the record and it broke the feel. Million Young was the exception because there was an all out band coup when I removed it from the sequence. We're doing so many demos and remixes of stuff nowadays that I'm sure there will be another 'singles etc.' comp in a few years. Avoiding limited editions and collectables for any reason other than nostalgia was one of the rules we made for ourselves years ago when we started the Analog Set. Believe me, we've all dealt with the headaches and heartbreaks that come with looking for weird EPs and obscure singles from the bands we like - this was waaaaay back in the pre-eBay world, imagine that! We're into stuff being available and inexpensive. The thought of someone playing monopoly with our 7-inch singles? Paying double or triple price to complete some kind of series? Am I supposed to be OK with this? Here's what will happen, I promise. It will be just like with 'Though the '90s'. Someone will send me a link to the New Equation 7-inch on eBay for $12.50 plus shipping, I'll have a little freak-out, and the next singles and unreleased comp will be out within the year.
You've described lyric-writing as a chore. Track-length shortened on your third album, 'The Golden Band', taken several steps further with 'Know By Heart'. Was it always your intention to make the songs more immediate?
I've said that lyric writing is chore, but only because in the past the voice was always the last thing we'd put on a song. I'll never forget that nervous feeling I had recording 'The Golden Band', knowing I didn't have lyrics for half the songs. It was just how we did things. When Lisa left, I decided that if we did put the band back together I wanted to start writing songs a little differently. In the past, songs were introduced as sketches or ideas. Ideas would get stuck together, adapted, broken into two, recombined and so on. Every song on 'Know By Heart', save one, was recorded once on a 4-track complete with words, melody, structure, arrangement. They were by no means complete, mind you. There were no drums, no bass, and little if any piano or organ but they were already songs in their own right. By the time we began working on them, everyone had heard them before and so had a good idea which direction a song needed to go. And the vocals were there from the word 'go'. There was no fumbling around with a pen and scraps of napkin while I sang. The lyrics were what they were and I didn't mind singing them. Lame or not, that's what I meant and I was laying that shit down.
Do you expect your songwriting methods to evolve or alter now you've made the 'transition' to a more structured approach?
I've already begun to demo things for another record. But so far it's not as vocal as the 'Know By Heart' material. My voice is still the weakest thing about our little group. Although I like the way 'Know By Heart' sounds - it's my favourite - I'm not that great a singer. It's taken me years to realise it, and hearing a few real singers over that time has surely helped, but I'm only so good. So I'm dividing the new songs into two stacks. Over here are the songs with verses and choruses and bridges featuring my 'boyish' voice whining about heartbreak and the like... and over here are the Analog Set songs. Don't expect an album of instrumentals by any means, but don't expect Kindness of Strangers either. The guys let me make my 'singer-songwriter' record; now, I suppose, it's time to pay back the debt.
There was a fairly lukewarm review in the last issue of [US mag] Magnet... very much at odds with what I felt to be the general concensus.
The Magnet review broke my heart. They've always had a "we tolerate you but when are you going to break up?" kind of relationship with us. They've really hated the last few releases. I sent the writer an e-mail too. "Hey, thanks for nothing, fucker. A little FYI, you forgot to compare us to Stereolab this time. Maybe you should run your shit by Fred Mills before you turn it in. He always remembers." I usually don't read reviews. Especially for 'Know By Heart' because I worked so hard on it. But how can you not understand Punk As Fuck? It works on a couple of different levels.
You've said that you looked upon the first three albums 'as a series'. From artwork to release dates you achieved that goal. Do you see 'Know By Heart' as the beginning of another series?
Definitely not. I liked the way we wrote and recorded the new record, but I want to make the next thing we do a little different. Most of 'Know By Heart' was written before we had a complete line-up, so I couldn't take advantage of what it is the five of us do. I had never heard the five of us play together. 'Know By Heart' is my favourite thing we've done and the only record I could listen to and enjoy immediately after recording it. Even so, if we do anything else it'll have to be better. Much better.
How did the recent European trip pan out? Any horror stories and 'amusing anecdotes from the road' welcomed.
It was our first real European experience so everything was novel. We didn't have any good horror stories though. The usual. We had a show cancelled in Switzerland. We got bad information from a promoter and arrived a day late for one show, also in Switzerland. I got separated from the group and lost in Belgium, briefly. Our van overheated crossing some damn range in Austria. The Slovenian border patrol suspiciously required $500 in 'fees' for crossing their depressed wasteland of a country. This is just the bad stuff though. All in all we played really well and the response was better than I expected. I learned how to order drinks in a number of foreign languages. The cherry on top was coming home though. Upon arrival we were informed that our equipment had been pinched. We didn't have a single date left to play and nothing on the immediate horizon so we just shrugged it off and said "alright... who wants some new equipment?" After that awful plane ride I was just happy to be on the ground and right side up.
Has the trip and the, presumably now established, new line-up led to a desire to record any time soon?
We were really surprised at how well we got along this last Autumn. We did, after all, see each other all day every day for three months. We've had a good break now though and I think we're ready to get after it again. More than anything, I'm excited for us to play because we've spent the last few months replacing our instruments! We sounded alright in Europe with the reedy Vox Continental organ, but that soft electrical whirr of the Farfisa has always been the heart and soul of what we do, even if we don't use the organ as often as we once did. Monroe Mustang sold us their old Farfisa combo and that was the piece that put us over the hump. We're going to work first on an EP to release just before we hit the road again this summer. Then hopefully this spring we can work on another full length release for Tigerstyle.
CWAS #10 - Spring 2002