Birds Of Tokyo Expand Their Palette And Play Birdsongs With Adelaide Symphony Orchestra

Birds Of Tokyo - Image © Kane Hibberd
Our eclectic team of writers from around Australia – and a couple beyond – with decades of combined experience and interest in all fields.

Iconic Australian rockers Birds Of Tokyo are known across Australia for their glittering discography of classic anthems.

Bursting on to the scene with their debut album in 2007, the band have captured hearts with tracks like 'Plans', 'Lanterns', 'Good Lord' and 'Anchor'. They've had three chart-topping albums, have won a bunch of awards, and played huge and iconic events like the AFL Grand Final.

In a brand-new live venture, Birds Of Tokyo have hit the road for a slew of gigs joined by symphony orchestras across the country, expanding the sounds of their hits with live arrangements that bring the music to dizzying new heights.

Soon, Birds Of Tokyo will be joined by Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (ASO) and Conductor Vanessa Scammell for two very special shows to wrap the tour up.

Here, ahead of the Adelaide dates, we sat down with Birds Of Tokyo's Glenn Sarangapany (Keyboard) and Adelaide Symphony Orchestra's Sami Butler (Associate Principal Percussion/Timpani) to get the low-down on just what audiences can expect when the words of rock and orchestra collide.

Glenn, tell us a bit about the idea of 'Birdsongs'.
'Birdsongs' is all about taking our usual rock tunes and reimagining them with the help of an orchestra. We’re stepping into uncharted territory on this tour and exploring a side of the band that's totally different from what most people have come to expect from Birds Of Tokyo.

Glenn, why did you want to present your music in this way?
The whole band loves cinematic music and that passion has been a driving force behind the project. Even in our simplest three chord pop songs, Birds has always attempted to create textures and interweaving parts that you wouldn’t expect to hear from a rock band. Working with an orchestra felt like a very exciting way to expand our musical palette and push the boundaries of our songs. What’s been amazing is that this tour has exceeded our expectations in that regard. These are songs that we’ve played a million times but when they’re played with the orchestra, it's like we’re hearing them for the first time.

Sami, what’s the most exciting thing about presenting Birds Of Tokyo’s music in this way?
I may be more than a little biased, but adding a symphony orchestra to songs is a winning formula. Then add in the energy you get from a large, passionate crowd, and it's going to be a fun gig for the ASO! As artists we come from totally different backgrounds, but for a project such as this we have an amazing opportunity to complement each other and for the orchestra to get a taste of the world of rock music. We know that the audience will be able to appreciate the musical diversity on show.

Glenn, how long did it take for you to prepare your music in orchestral form, and what was the biggest challenge in doing so?
It’s difficult to put a timeline on the prep because there were so many pauses on the 2021 tour while the world was COVID-ing about. But it’s been a huge journey regardless. Because we didn’t want the arrangements to simply be an orchestra playing over the top of our normal rock show, Adam and I spent about a month re-recording the songs as very sparse, bare bones demos. We sent these recordings to Nicholas Buc to create the orchestral arrangement after seeing how he brought Warren Ellis and Nick Cave’s film scores to life. Nicholas was amazing to work with and most of our feedback emails to him consisted of variations of “that’s siiiiiick” and “this is gonna rule so hard”. The biggest challenge actually came from learning how to play the songs and learning how to play with an orchestra. To be completely honest, that’s still something we’re getting our heads around which is giving these performances a very raw and vulnerable energy that we don’t ever experience in the rock show. There are moments in the set that feel like being on a rollercoaster.

Sami, how long has it taken for the orchestra to learn the tracks/prepare for the show?
The rehearsal process is very fast-paced, so the musicians are expected to show up incredibly prepared and knowing all the songs. The amazing Vanessa Scammell is conducting us for this project, and through the rehearsal process she will be in charge of bringing all the different elements together. The first rehearsal is just orchestra, drums and keyboards, where the ASO musicians will get their first opportunity to play the songs away from the practise room. Next, we have a rehearsal with the full band, which is where we will likely focus on aspects such as balancing dynamics between the orchestra and the band, making sure everyone is 'lining up' their entries with each other and having a few tries at any tricky spots. Lastly, we have our dress rehearsal, which is a full run of the show from start to end.

Glenn, what has been the highlight of the tour in general, so far?
Not just the highlight of this tour but my favourite Birds Of Tokyo show of all time was the first gig in Melbourne at Hamer Hall on 21 September. Just before we went on Adam said “Tonight, why don’t we see if we can push this too far?” I don’t think any of us really knew what he meant (including him) but we all walked out on stage with the intention of pushing “something” too far. And it was one of those perfect moments where the band and the crowd and the orchestra and the universe just synced up beautifully. There have arguably been better performances but that night was unforgettable.

What is your favourite track to perform in this set, and why?
Glenn: 'Brace' holds a special place in our hearts. It was the first arrangement that Nicholas sent us, and it was everything we wanted to achieve from this project. The start of the song has all these nuances that don’t exist in the recorded version and the back half just slams. It’s become a stand-out moment in the set for the audience too.
Sami: Each person in the orchestra will have their favourite songs to play, but we are incredibly fortunate that the orchestral arrangements have been done by Nicholas Buc. His arrangements are always fantastic, both in how they are written for us to play as well as the musical landscape he provides to the listener. Knowing that, it'll probably be hard to pick favourites once we're all in the studio rehearsing together!

What sorts of things do you think an orchestra brings to the music?
Glenn: An orchestra adds a whole new dimension, both musically and emotionally. From a musical perspective, there is a complexity that comes from having so many layers of instrumentation. For example, the violas weaving through Kenny’s vocals or the trombones adding James Bond-esque stabs. It all adds up to create a sound that five guys with amps simply can’t do on their own. On an emotional level, that complexity allows for a subtlety in storytelling that goes beyond simple emotions like 'happy' or 'sad.' It opens up a spectrum of feelings, like conveying 'sadness with a sense of hope' or 'happiness with a touch of resignation.' Another thing that blows me away is the dynamic range that an orchestra can achieve. We can go from a delicate, pin-drop verse to the most intense, harmonically dense riff in just two bars. Being part of that sound is overwhelming in the best possible way. Like I said before – rollercoaster.
Sami: First of all, Birds Of Tokyo have written some killer songs and nothing needs to be added to any of them as they are already so well loved. So why the need for an orchestra? Well, what an orchestra will provide is a completely new light for these songs to be seen in, and a brand-new interpretation of the music. The ASO will highlight the mood of the music, be it jubilation, hopefulness, melancholy, a sense of longing or any combination of emotions. At other times we will help to build a song towards that triumphant final chorus where together we will unleash a wall of sound. Or perhaps an instrument will add a new countermelody which wasn't in the original version of the song, which will completely change the impact the music has on the listener. The best part is that there are no rules about what people must feel when they listen to an orchestra, and everyone will hear the songs differently and have their own experience.

How are you hoping audiences respond to the music being presented like this?
Glenn: We want them to come on a journey with us. These songs take on a whole new life when performed in this orchestral setting and we’re excited to share a very different side of the band with everyone.
Sami: I hope the audience walks away excited and wanting more! I expect even the most die-hard Birds Of Tokyo fans will have discovered a new aspect of their music to appreciate, and I sure hope that everyone leaves with an appreciation of symphony orchestras and the work we do.

Birds Of Tokyo and Adelaide Symphony Orchestra play Festival Theatre 30 November-1 December.

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