Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Live music wrap-up: Sydney March/April

Deap Vally - Oxford Arts Factory, Friday April 5

The two Californian rockers lived up to their name - sauntering on stage (on time, they're new) in embellished rocker jackets, ripped fishnets and wild hair - they were serious about their music but playful in between. There were dedications to the ibis, to the enthusiastic woman in the front row, to the "awesome Australians" they'd met. Between Lindsay's raw vocals and Julie's frantic drumming - it was quite an overwhelming performance for such a small venue. It will be great to see what these two can conjure up for a larger show.

Ben Howard - Metro Theatre, Tuesday April 2

The loud, improvisational nature of Ben Howard's live set was a surprise given the mellow, sentimental nature of his music. Howard was quite the character on stage- cracking jokes, humbly receiving shouts of applause and disseminating the boundary between audience and the star artist. Cruising through his last album Every Kingdom, he smoothly navigated between different dynamics, acting as a true storyteller, and with a no-fuss attitude showcased his impressive guitar work. It felt simultaneously like the show of an international pop star but also an appreciated musician with his own niche.

James Blake - Verbrugghen Hall, Friday March 22

In an explosion of colour and sound, James Blake took to the stage with a set that verged into performance art. He demands great attention with stretches of instrumental abstraction and dazzling lights show behind the musicians. The intimate venue fostered the atmosphere of a home-viewing, a taste of what is to come for the James Blake concert experience. Although much of his carefully constructed lyrics were lost in the hall, the sonic quality was unmatched and was truly something to get lost in.

Birds of Tokyo - Enmore Theatre, Sunday March 17

Perhaps it was the timing, a Sunday night, but for a band which has reached anthem-status in Australia over the past half-decade, their concert was tame. This is to say that the audience was patient and quiet - although it did come across as non-responsive. The band has recently released an album moving away from their pop/rock aesthetic into something more alternative, and it works on stage. They know how to  order a show and maintain energy right until the final song.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Interview with Birds of Tokyo

Ahead of their first national headline tour in 18 months, drummer Adam Weston tells Antigone Anagnostellis why being in a rock band is a full-time job. 

These days, a debaucherous rock‘n’roll lifestyle isn’t the norm for most musicians. Adam Weston is up at 6am, well caffeinated and “wide awake to the world”. After a year-long hiatus from the live circuit, in which they wrote and recorded their fourth album, March Fires, Birds of Tokyo are back and putting in 15-hour das  to rehearse for an upcoming national tour.

“It was vitally important that we change things up a bit,” says Weston. “We could have pumped out another record really quickly, you know, some more of the same. We just would have fucking hated that!”

It’s an attitude that reflects the string of successes for the band. Since winning the 2010 ARIA award for Best Rock Album, Birds of Tokyo have topped the charts on both alternative and commercial music stations.

 “It’s a very communal sort of record. The aim with this music is to try and connect. I think we made a conscious decision to avoid any sort of relationship material or make anything too ‘you and I’, it was more about ‘we’,” says Weston. “But look, at the end of the day, everyone will get their own interpretation, which is great and that’s one of the amazing things about music.”

The creation of their fourth album led Birds of Tokyo to work all around the world, writing and recording not only in their Sydney studio but also during sessions in California and the south of France.  “Spending four months in LA with David Cooley, who was on board as a producer [Silversun Pickups and Mickey Avalon] was probably one of the most intensive parts of the process. You’ve got to be careful with a town like LA because that place can eat you alive if you let it.”

Suprisingly, most of the tracks on March Fires began as textural, instrumental soundscapes  before evolving into band-orientated songs for the stage. “I think this is really one to sit down and put your headphones on – kind of lie back and really let the record swirl you up and take you somewhere,” says Weston. Lead single ‘This Fire’, found a home in Triple J’s Hottest 100 this year at #51 while current single, ‘Lanterns’, has a deeper meaning under the soothing vocals and catchy chorus.

“We look at it as a journey song because it’s got that timeless momentum feel to it. But there are some six or seven minute tracks on there that can really take you places.”

As one of the great talents of contemporary Australian music, Birds of Tokyo have achieved hit singles and ARIA fame without needing to resort to the lowest common denominator. They are skilled musicians, sentimental songwriters and energetic performers. In spite of their level of success, the boys remain down-to-earth, cheerful, and have an honest outlook on the music industry.

 “When a lot of bands start out, they kind of write and rehearse for the stage. A lot of that, when all you’re doing is playing live gigs and trying to win people, is all about trying to be quite ferocious and in your face. This time around it was probably more about dialling that back,” says Weston. “Without having all those distractions of your home life or the day-in-day-out sort of process, it enabled us to really get cracking on things and go a hell of a lot deeper this time around.”

The “communal” feel that Weston refers to articulates itself in their latest album, with a gentler, complex sound that stands out from a regular pop or rock release.

“With the new record, while things have been predominantly quite traditional and rock in the past, we’ve made things a hell of a lot more hazy and textural. The keyboards are a lot more present but it’s also changing a lot of the guitar sounds and not being so hard-driven or angular or in your face. Everything’s sounding quite wide and atmospheric.”

Their professional success has also made an impact on their personal lives, with all band members making the move from the west to the east coast of Australia. Originally from Perth, Birds of Tokyo are now spread out between Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

“Flying back and forth from Perth can get a little tiring when you’ve got everything from promo to jams to writing to pre-production to photo shoots. I think people tend to forget what a full-time job and career it actually is when you’re not on stage,” says Weston.

But in a media-fuelled environment with plenty of PR, media releases and album spin, Birds of Tokyo still like to get involved in their own marketing. Recently, the group launched a t-shirt competition where fans could submit entries for new merchandise designs – ranging from hand-drawn illustrations to digital graphics.

 “We go to great lengths to accompany a lot of the visual elements to our music,” says Weston, “this certainly wasn’t a cheap grab to get people to design. The amazing thing wasn’t just the amount of submissions but the quality of the submissions, [which] really blew us away…It was really cool to find what people hold quite symbolic.”

Over the years, Australians have got to know Birds of Tokyo through their appearances at music festivals like Groovin The Moo, Homebake and the illustrious Big Day Out – but it’s their headline shows where the group really gets stuck into stage production and song dynamics.  

“We love our own shows immensely and all the work that we put into it but there’s nothing to complain about when you’re playing to 50,000 people at a Big Day Out and it’s definitely quite a sight to see from where we’re standing.”

Drummer Adam Weston
As for these 15-hour working days, Weston says that he’s lucky to not encounter any drumming-induced injuries. “These days I’m trying my hardest to treat these long rehearsals like actual physical workouts and I know now at the end of the day when I’m hurting that it’s actually doing me good.

With extensive city and small-town tours on the near horizon for the group, Weston says the band are looking forward to getting back into familiar territory, when they kickoff their March Fires tour. “For a band like us to be able to go out and do a run of these club or theatre shows and continue to get the support we do is amazing. We’re lucky that we feel we can make a difference and have an impact on commercial radio but at the same time I think that those stations could be doing a lot more to unearth more Aussie talent.”

Published in Vertigo Magazine.