In 1996, I bought a record by an Austin band called The American Analog Set. I was intrigued by the album cover’s clean, clinical looking imagery, and once I got home I realized they were a keeper. With long, mellow passages and chilled-out groove, any time a record appeared with their name on it, I bought it. The change of the millennium also marked a major change for the band, which would lend itself to greater changes. Organist Lisa Roschmann‘s leaving was a major blow, especially as she provided the band’s signature sound, the Farfisa. The members who joined the band, Tom Hoff and Sean Ripple, would bring a new dynamic to the band, one that was instantly recognized after listening to Know By Heart. Gone were the long hazy jams; in their place, short compact songs and a focus on Andrew Kenny‘s singing and songwriting. It was a transition, and while it lacked some of the elements I fell in love with, it was and is still a strong, gorgeous record.
Barsuk Records is slated to release a deluxe vinyl edition of the album tomorrow, and so we sat down with Mr. Kenny to talk about the making of this classic record.
I loved Know By Heart, but I’ve always sort of felt it was a transitional record, that you were changing things up with your sound.
It was a transitional time, yes; we lost Lisa and gained Tom and Sean. As I think about it, it felt more like a first record than a transitional record because we were a different band because Tom and Sean helped to that make the album colorful and different from previous albums. We were together for about a year and a half, we all lived in the same town and made Know By Heart. After that we were making mail and in brief spurts. To me, it felt like the first album over again.
Considering the major changes in the band, the way it all felt different, and the way the song structures were changing, what made you decide to continue on as American Analog Set?
You know, I remember a particular meeting. We all got together at lunch, and I just sort of said, “You know, guys, this really feels like a different band. It’s a new millennium, we had a good run, maybe we should just change the name. This feels new, so why not?” At the same time, Tom wasn’t a professional keyboardist, he was a guitar player, and he learned how to play keyboards by listening to American Analog Set records. (Laughs) So in a weird way, he was influenced by our earlier records, and so those songs weren’t new to him at all.
Also, there was a very practical aspect to us keeping the name. We also wanted to play shows, and we really didn’t want to go out and play with only eight songs in our set. We had a great back catalog, and had built up our audience based on that back catalog, so we just realized it would make more sense. While what we were doing was fresh and new, and it felt like a new band, we didn’t want to go through a lot of the hassles of being a new band, like, putting together a demo tape, dealing with promoters, having to be the opening act to disinterested folk, or even having people come up at shows and asking what American Analog Set songs we would be playing or why we didn’t play any of our old songs (laughs). After some discussion and thinking, we just sort of realized that keeping the name was the best thing to do.
Know By Heart feels a lot more contemporary; the other records had this stoned, psychedelic tinge to them, while Know By Heart is more structured and song-based. Not that the others weren’t, but the arrangements feel a bit more traditional.
One thing I like about it is that unlike our previous work, there was very little organ on it at all. When Tom joined the band, he really liked playing the Rhodes more than he did the Farfisa or any organ, so we just leaned on that direction. At the eleventh hour, once we finished the record, we just sort of noticed that hey, we didn’t have any organ—which a lot of people considered our key instrument. We realized that the changes in our sound might be harder to take if we didn’t have at least one song with a nod to our past. So it was the last song we recorded, a good ole’ organ jam that was fun to record.
Unlike your previous records, which all had extended numbers that would go on for several minutes, Know By Heart is much more succinct; there’s only one song that breaks the five minute mark.
It’s interesting, because I don’t think we really realized that until the album was made. When we played live, many of those songs would be longer than they were on the album. We just wrote so many songs, and because it was feeling like a new experience, songs were flowing out. Since we had so many songs, we decided we wanted more than eight or nine songs on an album, and I think subconsciously we were cleaning them up and making them tighter, simply because we wanted them to be heard. Even though compact discs were the dominating form of medium, we also wanted to make sure that the album was translatable to vinyl, so we made it where it has an A-side and a B-side, and that it was tolerant of the constraints of the format of a record.
It was also your first record off of Emperor Jones. Had the label folded, or had you simply decided to move on?
By that time, Emperor Jones had become less of a full-time concern for Craig (Stewart). It had always been kind of a vanity label, it was done for fun, and he was full time at SXSW, and it was becoming what it is now, so he was busy. We talked to him and told him that we love the label, and we love this record, but we were going to tour a ton and we were going to hire a publicist, and we wanted to push the band and the record in a way we hadn’t done before. We made a commitment to the band, and we simply told Craig that this was something we were doing full time, and we knew that he couldn’t commit full time, and even though it was kind of hard, we told him we were shopping the album around, looking for other labels. We were nervous about telling him that, but he was encouraging, saying we should go for it, that there were no hard feelings. Because he loved the band, he gladly gave us his blessing.
When it came to shopping the record, I left that up to Mark, Tom, and Lee, because they were a bit more savvy about such matters, and they struck up a relationship with Tiger Style. He wasn’t the only one to strike up a relationship at the label, though! (Laughs)
Did you talk to any other labels, or was Tiger Style the first one?
We talked to Barsuk. It was the other label. Well, there were others. Months later, after we had signed, we got a letter from Merge Records, and it said, “Hey, dummies, we know who you are, you didn’t have to send us your album to our demo department. You should have called us up, we would have talked turkey!” (Laughs) We didn’t know much about such business matters. We didn’t realize that hey, we’re an established band, we could just call them up. Our rule of thumb was, if we didn’t know anybody at the label, we would just go through the proper channels. We’d known Barsuk for years, and were friendly with them, but that was around the same time that Death Cab For Cutie was starting to break big, and we wanted to be on a label that could put a lot of time into us. That’s not a knock on the label, it’s just that we wanted to be a priority. Mark and Lee really liked Tiger Style, and we sat down and talked about our options, and I said, if you’re happy, I’m happy.
Interesting that you mention Death Cab For Cutie, because you guys were good friends and you released a split EP with Ben Gibbard. In thinking about it now, Know By Heart, it kind of has a Death Cab feel to it. Do you think that the “new” sound of American Analog Set was inspired by them, at least in part?
It definitely wasn’t conscious at the time. I loved their records, and yet I found their catalog changing. It might have gotten in there, and, you know, I’d like to think vice versa. I know that’s presumptuous to say, and I have no evidence to back that up, but yeah, it could be! We certainly spent a lot of time with those guys. When they’d come to town, they’d stay with us and we’d hang out and jam, and when we were in Seattle, they’d return the hospitality. Ben and I would play each other things we were working on, and would share ideas and thoughts. And as I think of it, like you said, our songs started to become shorter and more succinct, while they started to get more atmospheric and drawn out in their music, sort of like us. But who knows? (laughs) There is definitely a mutual admiration between us, he’s a good friend, and I certainly wouldn’t disagree that there might be a Death Cab-like element to Know By Heart. I love that guy. He’s always been supportive, encouraging, and is just one really decent gentleman.
Looking back on Know By Heart, where do you place it in terms of everything else the band did?
You’re always nit-picky when you listen to your work, and you’re always critical about things nobody else but you care about, but probably on the whole, it’s my favorite American Analog Set record. Personally, it was a really great time in my life. We’d put together this new version of the band, we had a completely different dynamic, and getting to know the guys and doing different things was very exciting. The record came out and it was really well-received; we started to build a bigger audience, and I started to explore new sounds and genres of music, getting really interested in more electronic styles, and remixes and things like that. We had a new label and a new lease on life, and I’d just fallen in love with a great woman who would become my wife. That era of my life, and that album, will always be one of the favorite times in my life.