By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
By New Times
After a detailed analysis of available documents and studies, New Times has arrived at the startling conclusion that in contemporary music, the intersection of rock 'n' roll and genetic research appears to be statistically marginal. There just ain't a lot of guitar-slinging Petri dish mavens out there. This is all the odder when you consider that rock has long been a source of mutations (satisfying, horrific or otherwise), not to mention a safe breeding ground for clones of all stripes. Andrew Kenny, then, is a rarity: The guitarist, singer and principal songwriter for Austin's much-loved American Analog Set is also a man of the lab, holding a degree in molecular biology. And his twin career dispositions seem oddly synched toward convergence, not divergence.
"I've thought about that," muses Kenny. "On [the University of Texas] campus I'm a technician in a pretty straight-up genetics lab, the drosophilafruit fly. I do a lot of crosses, screens, score a lot of flies. And I guess what I like about recording, analog-style, and what I like about working in a bio lab, is that they're almost identical. I spend the day thinking about DNA, which is a completely linear molecule; the only thing that changes is the sequencing. I think about how it must be packaged, ways to mutate it, splicing these bits out and these bits in. It's all the same molecule in every living thing. It's just a matter of sequence. And it's the same way with tapes. You can splice this part of a song into this part of a song; it's the exact same materials, the only thing that's different is the sequence you put them in."
Genetics as the organic equivalent of remixing, perhaps?
"Yeah, exactly," he says, laughing. "It completely is!"
Prior to donning his white coat and goggles, though, Kenny was just another aspiring guitarist living in Ft. Worth. Caught up in a mid-'90s groundswell of Dallas/Ft. Worth/Denton band activity, he and some friends formed The Electric Company in 1995, changing the name a year later to the American Analog Set when another Electric Company showed up on national radar. By then Kenny had grown disenchanted with a cliquish local scene fast gaining notoriety for its freeform psychedelia and "space rock" leanings, something the AmAnSet steadfastly avoided, preferring instead a clinically precise, frugally low-key -- but emotionally rich -- pop sound. (Kenny: "When I think of space rock, I think of effects -- I think of Hawkwind. I guess our recordings have a little reverb on them, but there was nothing between the instruments and the amplifiers at all. Just a cable, no knob twirling or tweaking.")
Left to its own devices, the Set recorded an album, snagged a deal with the Emperor Jones label, and around the same time The Fun of Watching Fireworks was released, relocated to Austin. Born equally out of necessity (organist Lisa Roschman and drummer Mark Smith had begun attending college there -- the other founding member is bassist Lee Gillespie) and opportunity (the band's record label was located in Austin, and the city's thriving club scene was nothing if not encouraging), the move turned out to be fortuitous. There, the AmAnSet consolidated a strong following, in turn mounting a series of national tours in support of 1997's From Our Living Room to Yours and 1999's The Golden Band. Critics loved the group's sweetly narcotic "placid rock" sound, favorably comparing it to Galaxy 500, Low, Stereolab, Spiritualized and even Brian Eno. Audiences, likewise, sat (or sprawled) enthralled (or hypnotized) at the band's concerts, basking in the droning, luminous AmAnSet ambiance.
A year and a half ago, however, momentum ground to a halt when keyboardist Roschman graduated from school and opted to join the work force. Second guitarist Shawn O'Keefe, who'd signed on to help bolster the band's live shows, bowed out (amicably) as well. Kenny, who by now was in school himself, almost considered laying the band to rest. But the decision was made with Smith and Gillespie to recruit Tom Hoff (keyboards) and Sean Ripple (guitar, percussion, vibes) and exploit the breaking-in period as a chance for a fresh start.
Kenny describes the process along the lines of, "'Okay, we're one less person and two new people, so let's make a completely different sounding record on a completely different label.' We thought about starting over from scratch with a new name, but we decided we didn't want half our set to be a 'covers' set. We kept the name; the rest of it was a completely new spirit."
Know by Heart sees release on September 18 by respected New York indie Tiger Style, home of Tristeza, The Album Leaf and Ida. (Technically, it counts as the fifth AmAnSet full-length; in May, Emperor Jones issued an anthology of singles and previously unreleased live material compiled by Kenny titled Through the '90s.)
True to Kenny's prediction, Know by Heart does mark a shift in musical priorities for the band. Unlike previous records, most of it was written beforehand by Kenny, who then presented the songs to the band for fleshing out -- as opposed to jamming on ideas to see what might emerge during the recording process. It's still AmAnSet-esque, of course; Kenny's breathless, singsongy vocals and clean, chiming guitar melodies remain signatures. But where long, drifting tracks once routinely nudged the 10-minute mark, every song on Know by Heart, save the lush, gospelly instrumental ("We're Computerizing and We Just Don't Need You Anymore") that closes the album, clocks in at four minutes or less. No longer relying so heavily on droney organ motifs, the band is now exploring a tauter, jazzier -- if no less melodic and dreamy -- sound marked by electric piano and vibraphone (in fact, the song "Gone to Earth," from the first AmAnSet album, was remade in exactly that fashion for Know by Heart as a sort of then-and-now summary statement for the new lineup). And while there are ballads on the album, a number of tunes decisively stomp the pedal to the floor, such as fuzzed-out groove-anthem "Million Young" and the pulsing, Neu!-ish "Like Foxes."