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"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 drosophila fruit 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."
Instead of a kinder, gentler AmAnSet for the new Bush era, is the band shooting for leaner and meaner? Death to slow-core and placid rock? Will the band rock fans like the proverbial hurricane on its U.S. tour?
"Well . . ." Kenny considers the implications, then snickers conspiratorially. "I can't give too much away. I have to qualify this: For us, it will be the most 'rock' tour ever. Tom and Sean have both brought a lot of creativity influx to the band. As soon as they got involved, it seemed like the songs had gotten shorter, maybe a little more upbeat, and when it comes to playing them, now that we have four albums we've been choosing more of the upbeat songs and less of the 'anemic sounding' songs. It used to be that we'd play out and if we made it through six songs in 40 minutes we'd be doing good. Now we play a strong 10 or 12.
"But the last thing I want to do is overstate our importance in the musical community. We're just five guys that enjoy playing together, and I really think we're gonna have a lot of fun on this tour. The songs just have a new kind of energy to them. We were kinda out of the game for a little while. I went back to school and we only played two shows in Austin in two years. Then we put on a show at this new club, The Mercury, where we said it would be all or nothing, go as hard as we can, and the place just exploded! I've never had a response like that from a crowd before. For just a microsecond I felt like a real musician! It was brief, we cherished it, and then we moved on, broke down and went back to our day jobs. But it was awesome. And now I really can't wait to go out and turn some people on."
Regardless of whatever success the AmAnSet enjoys in the wake of its most expansive, mature and diverse-sounding album to date, Kenny still has plans to wave his fruit fly flag high.
"[Music and molecular biology] have been pretty musically exclusive up until this point. I just graduated from UT in May, and I told the gang I'd take a year off to push the record and make another one. But then I get to go to graduate school somewhere for molecular biology and biochemistry. I dunno; maybe they'll move with me. It took me a long time to find something I actually wanted a degree in, but I'm pretty happy with it and I like it a lot."
One small step for drosophila, one giant leap for mankind. And human cloning is set to be all the rage in the next few years . . .
"Surprisingly, I'll probably be right in the line of fire for that! That's precisely what my degree is in. So it's gonna be right up my alley," he says, laughing. "Hopefully, I'm not gonna be one of the ones making the decisions; I don't want someone like me deciding whether or not people should be cloned."