Years in the making, 'Human Design' sees Birds of Tokyo triumphing through tragedy, and crafting an exceptional release that is arguably their most powerful to date.
When it comes to the release of a new album, there’s usually a great sense of immediacy. After all, it makes sense that an artist would want fans to hear their music as soon as possible, before it starts to go – for lack of a better word – stale.
For Birds of Tokyo though, their latest album has been a long time coming. In fact, fans got their first taste of Human Design back in late 2018, when “Unbreakable” was released as a single. Since then, it’s been something of a slow drip-feed of new tunes, with powerful, heartfelt tracks resonating with fans as time has gone by, allowing the overarching storyline of overcoming personal tragedy to slowly make itself clear.
Serving as their first studio album since 2016’s BRACE, Human Design is officially released today, and is arguably one of the strongest and most hopeful records of their career.
Though a planned symphonic tour had been axed (and since rescheduled), and with lockdown somewhat souring the circumstances of the record’s release, both frontman Ian Kenny and guitarist Adam “Sparky” Spark say they’re eager to finally allow their legions of fans to hear their work.
“We’ve been sitting on this thing for a lot longer than people might assume, as you do once you sort of finish writing this thing, record it, and have it sitting in the cans,” Kenny explains.
While Human Design shows a much more personal side of things for the group, one of its most defining moments arguably comes by way of “Good Lord”. First released in early 2019, it’s a visceral track that bluntly recounts the breakdown of Kenny’s marriage, with its film clip featuring jarring footage of the frontman becoming increasingly bloodied as it progresses.
“That song has connected with people on a much larger level than we thought,” Kenny begins. “I think there’s a lot of people out there who are living with that song, having been through the same thing that I went through.
“Look, it’s nothing new, but I think people who go through this shit and they hear that song, there’s a feeling or a lyric that you hear or connect to, I think it can make things make sense when you’re going through some heavy times.”
Indeed, the story that is presented is a a tough one to process, with the level of honesty and openness present on both “Good Lord” and the entirety of the album being somewhat unprecedented for the band as a whole.
“Lyrically, there was huge apprehension on my part,” Kenny notes. “I don’t normally expose myself to this level at all. As a person, as a dude I keep my cards pretty close to my chest.
“So, while writing this thing, the only really right way to make this record what it needs to be was to be as open and honest and exposed as much as the band could, and as I could be, at least in terms of lyrics.
“I think as an artist you have a responsibility to give other people confidence to share those ideas with other people.”
“It was difficult, but I think the band were some of the best support I had through all that time. While making the record they were just super awesome about it, and pushing me in the right direction. Not pushing, it was more just support, really, which is virtually what the whole thing was.”
“It gives you the confidence to say, ‘Hey, you’re now in a safe space, in a place where you can talk about these sort of things’,” adds Sparky. “But the band has never really been this lyrically exposed before, so I always sort of viewed “Good Lord” as the searchlight for that.
“If people are willing to engage on that level of honesty, which is all new to us, it helps frame the rest of the record and give confidence to do it for a whole lot of other works.”
In addition to providing Birds of Tokyo with a sense of confidence, this honesty and transparency has translated to the band’s fans as well, who have begun to use tracks such as “Good Lord” to initiate a conversation about mental health. In fact, a cursory look at the film clip’s YouTube comment section is unexpectedly positive, with many naming it one of the most important Australian songs in recent times.
“[Mental health is] such an important thing that people are so much more in tune with and aware of these days than in the past,” Sparky notes. “Especially the archetypal ‘Aussie man’, who doesn’t sit with the fellas and talk about this really sensitive sort of stuff.
“We do, and we certainly do more of it these days, but equally as important as mental health as a broad topic, it’s that we’re five Australian men, and it’s nice to stand there as five Aussie “blokes” – though we’re so not “blokes” – and to be able to talk about this sort of stuff very publicly.
“I think as an artist you have a responsibility to give other people confidence to share those ideas with other people, especially Aussie men who are the types who keep their cards close to their chest and want to keep very private about that sort of thing.”
Ultimately though, Human Design is destined to be a release which goes down in the band’s history as one of their most relatable releases, with universal themes that are recognised by their fans, and used as a point of solace and understanding for some time to come.
“I think what will be taken away from it is that there are a lot of people who have been through this,” Kenny explains. “Whether they’ve been through this specifically, or they’ve been through similar [situations] and been affected, there’s going to be so many moments that they can relate to and connect to, and hopefully find a bit of peace through.
“I don’t know. It’s strange where comfort comes from. I find comfort in music that relates to me, even on the most beautiful things in life to the toughest things I’ve been through.
“It’s strange where comfort comes from. I find comfort in music that relates to me, even on the most beautiful things in life to the toughest things I’ve been through.”
“Even so, it’s still the same thing, that there’s a bit of comfort in knowing you’re not the only one, and knowing that you can share this with someone, and that comes through listening to stories through songs and relating and connecting.”
However, while Human Design is set to be a unifying release for the group, it’s not the first time they’ve evoked emotions throughout their fanbase, with their followers frequently looking toward their music for a sense of peace.
“It’s something we have noticed through our career,” Kenny adds. “We seem to land with either these songs or these intentions or feelings that lead us to a communal sort of song that brings people together, speaks for people, or people feel they’re a part of.
“It’s funny, we don’t always get it right, and I don’t think we know how to do it effectively each time, nor do we try. But through the scope and the size of what the band can achieve, we definitely get there.”
In a press release that was sent out alongside the record’s announcement, Kenny claimed that the initial writing process for what would become Human Design was done as a means to “stop [himself from] going nuts”. Citing the record’s creation as a “form of free therapy”, he explains it’s been a long road, but ultimately a cathartic experience that has put him in a positive position he wouldn’t be in otherwise.
“The whole thing has been huge on the road to recovery,” Kenny begins. “I mean this has been two-and-a-half years, almost three, in the making to get the record ready for release.
“I don’t think I would be in the good position I am now without having an outlet, or without having to sort of dig deep and find a way to talk about this shit through the record, so it’s been massive.
“It’s been quite strange to look back on – now that we have the record together, this tangible overarching story in our hards, it’s three years of the band’s life with me as a bit of backbone to it all. It’s quite strange.”
“We didn’t really set out to make a record. So we were literally just kind of making songs as we felt they were relating to what was happening at the time.”
While the road to recovery has been a long process, so too has the album’s production. With songs being released over the last 18 months, the somewhat fragmented nature of the album managed to provide the group with a far greater freedom as they gradually worked on new tracks.
“It gave us all an opportunity to sort of go back and sort of retrofit some of the things we were still working on while the process was moving along,” Sparky explains. “Which is a nice luxury because usually you make a record and want to change things but can’t.
“So we just took our time, because – and I know Kenny would probably agree – we didn’t really set out to make a record. So we were literally just kind of making songs as we felt they were relating to what was happening at the time.
“In some ways it’s really hard because some songs don’t seem to have a certain direction, but then after a few of them you’re kind of like, ‘Okay, there is a direction here’, and all of a sudden there’s almost something of a backbone that forms, and all your ideas sort of fall into that, or they don’t and they get pushed aside. So that was kind of the nature of this one, really.”
Due to the nature of this process, it understandably impacted the way the group would write and record the rest of the songs on the album. With singles coming thick and fast, it gave them a chance to explore new ground in terms of topics, themes, and even musical direction.
“In that way, you’re invariably forced to think about each song and its potential as a single, so you kind of want each song to be its own little universe, without the support of anything else around it,” Sparky explains.
“So, I guess that created – with each song coming out – this feeling of it being an immediately accessible sort of thing, wrapping up all the emotions in something that is easy to deliver to people to sing along with and ‘bop’.
“You kind of want each song to be its own little universe, without the support of anything else around it.”
“But the flip-side of that is that we felt [that] we’ve got all these singles, now we need to balance that with some, let’s say, longer songs to cover some more ground so we don’t have this little quasi-greatest hits sort of thing.”
With the process undeniably bearing creative fruit for Birds of Tokyo, it’s possible that this will be a method they’ll employ for future records. However, Sparky jokes that they’ll most likely split their time between recording and surfing in order to continue crafting their music.
Though previous albums have seen Birds of Tokyo create music that has mixed emotions with euphoric choruses, and has seen the group perform their music in front of both club and stadium-sized crowds, Human Design is almost inherently suited for a far more intimate gathering. In fact, it was this desire for a sense of subtly that ensured the group kept it as “honest as possible” when they were in the studio.
“Normally we layer things up and put things together and they all sound big and wide and larger than life, but this one sort of felt like it warranted having the music soundtracking the scene of two people having a conversation in a coffee shop,” Sparky explains.
“We’ve got all these tools at our disposal, all this stuff behind us, so we decided to throw it all out and say ‘Let’s just use the bare minimum, and stay out of the way of the story’. That was the only real design as we started to realise what we were going to do.
“Musicians and writers can be quite insecure with our work. It’s so easy to just put icing and chocolate and lollies or whatever – what is that, a cake? I don’t know – all over it to cover things up. The hard thing to do is leave it exposed, because then you have to stand behind this one particular message, and that sounds quite terrifying.”
“Normally we layer things up and put things together and they all sound big and wide and larger than life.”
Despite any inherent difficulties in recording an album over such a long period of time, only a handful of tracks didn’t end up making the final cut, with the group revealing that one of these may pop up again somewhere down the line.
“We cut very little,” Sparky explains. “There was a couple. There was one called ‘Nervous’. They don’t really get off the ground, y’know? They get about 10% in before we think, ‘Eh, it’s not really going to work.'”
“We had a few different kind of writing blocks for this record, and we sort of wrote the record in parts over time,” adds Kenny. “There was a first session in 2017 in a house studio in Byron Bay where we wrote a bunch of things.
“I think maybe out of that we had the bare-bones for ‘Unbreakable’. There were only one or two ideas that were left on the table after that, which kind of got pushed to the side.”
“Once we kind of got the songs together, or saw what the record was going to be, we had some pretty established pieces by that point, and there was only a couple of songs that didn’t make it.”
“There’s one that we’ve looked at for a while called ‘Change’,” Sparky says of the tracks that might one day be revisited. “We’re talking about ‘what next’ and all that sort of thing. We joked about making a surf record. Pineapples and palm trees; we need a summer record [laughs].
“This song in particular has been kicking around since those Byron sessions and we still haven’t given up on it yet. We haven’t figured out how to deliver it, but each time we open up and have a look at it we sort of say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right…’.
“Funnily enough, the song’s called ‘Change’ and the lyric is something like ‘Everything’s going to change‘, and it’s funny because this thing has, and we’ll find a home for it one day.”
With Human Design now out in the world, the question remains what the future holds for Birds of Tokyo. While a national tour with Australian symphony orchestras was originally slated to kick off next week, the current COVID-19 pandemic has sadly seen these performances postponed.
“It’s taken about 14 months of working with the orchestras to get to this point,” explains Sparky. “They’re such big moving pieces of machinery, and we’re just five dudes, so we have it pretty easy. But these guys have so much consideration in terms of players, venues, insurance, and all sorts of crazy shit that’s above our heads.
“We’ve been wanting to do it for a long time, but it’s never really made sense,” Kenny adds. “The fact that we’ve finished this record that does have a bit of strings on it, coupled with the fact that we’re always trying to find a new way to deliver work and keep things fresh, it made sense to wrap it all up with this record.”
Thankfully, the album’s release earlier today brought with it the news that these shows have been rescheduled, with the “Symphonic Tour” now scheduled to take place in January and February of 2021.
“Hopefully, depending on how bad this gets, this [record] might be something to look forward to during all this shit that we’re all going through.”
Though the band are disappointed at being unable to bring their show to their eager fans for a while, they note that the main concern on their minds is that of the Australian music industry as a whole, and how their countless colleagues in the industry will be able to cope.
“I think it’s going to be very difficult for a lot of people in the Aussie music industry,” Kenny explains. “As soon as they put the public gatherings ban into place, that basically knocked out all the venues, operators, festivals, and touring artists. Anyone who had festivals or shows in the market, they have now been postponed to who knows when.
“If this goes on for weeks, some people are going to weather it better than other, but if this goes on for months, it’s going to cripple a lot of operators and a lot of artists moving forward.”
“I don’t think anyone knows where this is going,” Sparky adds. “We’re sort of fortunate that we’ve got things to do to keep us busy, but not everyone is in that situation, and it’s really difficult to imagine coming out the other side and only having half of an industry.
“Part of your brain says that’s just not possible, but the other part thinks realistically, there could be another world on the end of that. So hopefully the government and everyone can step up and help out as best they can. All you can really do, at least on an artist level, is just get really creative now.”
Releasing an album in such a climate would undoubtedly be a difficult undertaking, though the pair note that lockdowns aren’t putting a dampener on the record’s release, and may ultimately help their fans weather the storm in the long run.
“I think with people being at home, if you’re going to put out a record, they’re going to have access to it and be able to dive into it the day it comes out,” Kenny explains. “What else are people doing if we’re spending as much time at home unable to go to work? People are going to be looking to music, and film – even though the film industry is going to take a bit of a hammering.
“Hopefully, depending on how bad this gets, this might be something to look forward to during all this shit that we’re all going through.”
While COVID-19 has left many artists unable to tour or even get together to create new music, Birds of Tokyo have become one outfit to take their craft online. Sharing a handful of social distancing videos on YouTube recently, the group have been performing long-distance versions of their songs via the wonders of technology as a way to not only keep fans entertained, but to combat the drudgery of social isolation.
“They’ve been a hell of a lot of fun,” Kenny says of the videos. “We’ve all been enjoying the challenge of making these videos work. We live in different states, so it’s been a lot of fun.
“I kind of like from my end how the longer this social distancing thing goes on, the weirder things are getting in music videos.”
However, while these social distancing videos have provided Birds of Tokyo with a creative outlet during this difficult time, they note that they’re hoping to use this period of isolation as an opportunity to relax, allowing their new record to sit with fans before they look ahead to new music.
“You don’t want to get too far ahead,” Sparky explains. “We’ve still got a lot of stuff to do for this record once it comes out, so the danger is that we spend all the time working on new stuff, and we’ve already got a whole stack of new material.
“We already have a head start on a bunch of other material, but if we do it all now, it puts you in danger of finishing things too early and then you have to sit on it for a long time before you can do anything, and it sort of goes off, y’know?
“We’ve learnt that we sort of have to pace ourselves, spread things out, and equally allow ourselves the time to chill out. We’ve been working on this thing non-stop for a couple of years in pockets every month or two, so it’s almost like a chance to give ourselves a few months of taking a breather from it before we get back into it later on.”
Birds of Tokyo’s Human Design is out now via EMI.
Birds of Tokyo Symphonic Tour 2021
With the West Australian Symphony Orchestra
Thursday, January 14th
Perth Concert Hall, Perth, WA
Friday, January 15th
Perth Concert Hall, Perth, WA
Saturday, January 16th
Perth Concert Hall, Perth, WA
With the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Friday, January 22nd
Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne, VIC
Saturday, January 23rd
Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne, VIC
With the Sydney Symphony Orchestra
Thursday, February 4th
Sydney Town Hall, Sydney, NSW
Friday, February 5th
Sydney Town Hall, Sydney, NSW
Saturday, February 6th
Sydney Coliseum Theatre, West HQ, Sydney, NSW
With the Queensland Symphony Orchestra
Friday, February 12th
QPAC Concert Hall, Brisbane, QLD
Saturday, February 13th
QPAC Concert Hall, Brisbane, QLD
Brisbane fan sale via the band’s website from 10am (local time), Monday, April 27th
General public on sale from 10am (local time), Friday, May 1st