1. Manbird – The notion for Manbird came about in Madrid after seeing the film Lady Bird there. Lady Bird couldn’t wait to leave Sacramento, but saw it with great affection once she did, enough so to make a film about it. I was afraid to leave, but once I did, I didn’t much wish to return. Yet I’ve been pulled back again and again, enough times, apparently, to warrant a 27-song concept album about it! The tune came to me in Berlin as I walked home from a physiotherapy session. I spent a very concentrated morning at the Danish bakery on Maybachufer working out the lyrics. It’s rare I sit still that long for anything. Michael Urbano on drums here. He was the drummer in my first band, and along with Don Hawkins on guitar, helps make the recording of this song a “full-circle” career moment for me.
2. Across The Drama Pond – So, if the title track is about Our Hero plotting a return home, this song has me remembering why I left. Another Berlin song. The great big world, turns out, is a very small town no matter what, no matter where. The first part of the song speaks to my “big fish in a small nest” days as a local popstar. I really did have a moped, I really was nicknamed “Captain Midtown,” and I really was afraid to leave the Grid, poor, insecure artiste that I was. The bridge is sung in a “years-later” voice and the final verse pays tribute to the weary beards that have greeted my recent returns. P.S. Need wimpy synths on your record? Hire me!
3. Memory Tone – You won’t believe me, but this represents the first flush of ABBA influence on my music. I got WAY into them and Fleetwood Mac during the making of Manbird. Written entirely on the Farm in Auburn, California, this song sounds quite intimate to me, and even though it’s the least autobiographical track on the double album, it’s one I much relate to as my life grows longer and shorter at the same time. The track is groovy, no? It’s a thrill to be the bass player on an Urbano’d drum track – that’s my idea of a party! The whole song is a sort of tone poem, with layers of different pianos coming in and out.
4. Fear Of Flying – Maybe the third song written for the album, this one features a Fleetwood Mac- (“Brown Eyes,” to be exact) inspired drum track. And it marks the first time I’ve had Urbano and bassist Larry Tagg together on a song. Karla Kane is the “illuminating angel” speaking to the waylaid airport racer. As of this writing, my last round of flights was out of Berlin in March to Munich or Frankfurt — can’t recall, as flights were being re-jigged right and left as Covid did its thing — then maybe to Texas, or straight to SFO. I remember lots of running through empty airports to catch not very full flights. The crews and airport staff were lovely. This is the longest I’ve gone without being on a plane in a long, long time. I’ve done years of permanent jet lag and now suddenly I miss being cramped asleep in my window seat. Huh.
5. Savage Beak – As soon as the “Manbird” idea hit me, I knew it’d be a concept album, a bird/travel/music-themed affair. While the title track was gestating in my egghead, this song popped out first. I’d just returned to Berlin, very jet lagged as always, and went into my room to find that the pal who’d sublet it while I was away hadn’t taken down her Krishna-meets-Stevie Nicks stuff. I was surrounded by Ganesha posters and velvet lace curtains – plus she’d hung chandeliers up!! I was totally freaked out, despite my own experience with Krishna and Ganesha. Maybe it’s cos I hadn’t yet succumbed to Stevie Nick’s magical charms, but I sat on my bed with an electric guitar plugged in and cranked this song out as a kind of ill-tempered smudge stick. In 9/8, of course.
6. Chicken – The preceding tracks have all featured Urbano, some with Larry Tagg and some with me on bass. “Chicken” is the first Kenny track on the album. Kenny is my California band. I love the vibe on this one. Recorded by bassist Jeff in his music store. Allyson Seconds guests and Don Hawkins adds some wonderful Neil-ish guitar. That’s me doing the twang thing, too. If Manbird had been an LP, “Chicken” would mark the start of Side 2.
7. Featherweight – Not that this song is a cornerstone of the album, but it’s certainly the most startling track here, according to me, at least. In the song, I’m sort of creating an alter-Ant, the Ant who went punk as a teen. I loved punk – I went to a few shows, my high school pals and I listened to DK, MDC, Black Flag, Wasted Youth etc all the time. But if anything, I “identified” as “one of the new wave boys,” as a pair of songs put it. In “Featherweight,” suddenly I’m in a punk rock boxing ring, going toe to toe and not faring well! I’m pretty sure anybody who knows me and my music will be shocked to hear this track. I still am! All the more surprising is how quick and easy it was to nail it down. I pulled up a few punk classics on Youtube for “whoa whoa” reference and then cranked out “Featherweight.” I wrote it in Berlin, but it’s a very Sacramento song. My first punk show was Circle Jerks at Clunie Hall in McKinely park. Decades later, only 100 meters from that spot, I heard a pod of Krishna devotees singing near a tree. They *almost* had me!!
8. Cowboy John Meets Greensleeves – Is it odd that I’m living on a farm? This track was a blast to put together and it contains about three childhoods in one. “Greensleeves” was indeed the name of a beloved stuffed animal, a gorgeous, groovy grey lion-ish creature with a soft, furry mane. It was a wind-up toy that played the song “Greensleeves.” The rest is, sadly, history! Meanwhile, “Cowboy John” was my first attempt at “songwriting.” I mean, one line and what can barely even be called a melody, but it was MINE. I started it at friend Bill’s house across from where I lived with my dad. I’d plonk that tune on his piano for hours. My grandmother also had a piano at her house in Oakland, so same story… plonk, plonk for ages. There’s a bit in this recording where Julia VBH and I whittle and whistle our way through a pair of recorders, which is my reference to the Yamaha music lessons of my early childhood. The recording also features drummer Tom Monson on gunshot snare. It has no specific meaning to the song, but he brought it to the session and we wanted to use it for something, so there you go!
9. Beak – I have little recollection of the how or why with this song, but the “Manbird return” theme plays out across several tracks that didn’t make the final cut. Is it an invocation or a command, and a return to or from – a place or a person? Yeah! And who doesn’t want a sexy, quaint krautrock jam? I have a feeling I left some names off the list of singers on this one. If so, you can grab them from the other songs! I wanted a huge crowd chanting “beak,” just cos. It’s a great word, right? There are a number of people on the track, but it’s quite muted, really. Again, Tom on drums, with Morris Windsor adding some thuds and thumps.
10. Nest Of Feathers – This one’s pretty, right? I’m glad! I used to build models in my room as a kid — always “American” stuff, like Sherman tanks and Mustang P-51 fighters. I was always very careful about using Sniff Proof glue and I only painted with windows open. The song suggests otherwise, but it’s my album! And true story — Dad and I flew to Las Vegas and ran into Reggie Jackson and Bucky Dent. Reggie and the Yankees were the Beatles of baseball to me, so you can imagine I was so star struck that I didn’t even register Bucky Dent until they walked off. Reggie handed Bucky his bag to hold while he fussed with an autograph, signed with my dad’s orange felt pen! Great vibe on this track — Don on guitar, Larry and Urbano together here. That’s my Hofner bass doing the mid-range riff. Love that thing for lines like that.
11. Oh Dainty Beak – Well, what do I say? I wrote this on the Farm the day after Janet, my best friend of 31 years, died. It means the world to have Vince playing horn on this tune, as Vince knew Janet in the days she and I were together. She and I were shocked when he joined Cake, cos we only knew him as sort of “punk trumpet guy.” He got pretty good and I’m sure she’d love what he’s doing on this song.
12. And So Flies The Crow – One of those songs that just sorta showed up. Another Farm tune. Up until the pandemic, I was basically shuttling back and forth between Berlin and California, with whatever gigs tours fitted around the edges or in-between. There aren’t many songs on the album that were written across two countries, meaning each song is from either here or there. That suits my sense of the album overall – back and forth between one life and another, yet with the songs being more grounded than the songwriter. I’m quite proud of “the world-class parking meter,” if I may say so. I’ve watched my “are we there yet?” hometown turn into the valet parking kingdom of its dreams in the years I’ve been away.
1. Coming Home – The recording starts with the actual “4am blackbird” that sings to me when my taxi arrives to take me to the Tegel airport. The track ends with the sound of the mockingbird I sing about in the next song. I always try to source “real” samples, the sounds of my own life. And I like that this song works as the b-side to the title track which opens disk 1. “Coming Home” was written in Berlin, during a dark few days, me locked away in my music room with the apartment to myself. I’m often so reliant on feedback from my closest people, but prolific as I am, I’m sure there’s a degree of burnout that occurs. So, the advice was to go all the way inside with this one. Need feedback and praise? Nope, can’t have it. Be by yourself with your song. Tough love, but it was a powerful moment. I told my therapist I’m aiming Manbird at a new demographic — Jungian psychoanalysts. He laughed and I paid him for the session.
2. Don’t Knock The Mockingbird – So, yeah. This is for the mockingbird who sings every morning on the Farm. I dunno – 5am start time? He’s my jet lag alarm clock. Before the pandemic, jet lag always meant a trip to a nearby early-houred cafe or bakery. I’d spend an hour there, listening to recent rough mixes and working on lyrics. In Berlin, it was the Danish place by the canal, until they moved. In Auburn, where the Farm is, it was a nearby joint populated by a mix of locals, hillbilly villagers, and your purple-clad aging hippy types. Depending on my mood, and how deep into weeks of jet lag I am, I struggle being back in my homeland. My “delicate European sensibilities” are rubbed a bit raw on my native soil. This song pictures the mockingbird doing a daily recon flight from Auburn to Berlin, judging hair and fashion sense and keeping tabs on who’s screwing whom, in case this info might come in handy. I’d hoped to get Mike Kennealy to play a “mad 12-tone mockingbird solo,” or such, but he was off on tour when I was finishing the record, so I ended up having the mockingbird do the solo himself. And I managed my first twelve-tone row. It was hard!!
3. Flying On The Ground Is Alright – Barely a song, but don’t tell anyone. A VERY coffee-fueled number “written” on the way home from the Danish coffee joint. The demo I made is basically just me shouting at my phone, and the final vocal was recorded only minutes later. The song is about settling down, staying in one place. That’s not easy for me, I guess. The pandemic is making it happen, and is acting as a reminder that so much of everything ain’t up to us. A great time at Shonk in Oxford finishing this up with chorus vocals from dear friends.
4. My Other Life – Wait, which one is your “other” life, then? Exactly. I’ve always been somebody who likes a line drawn between things. Certainly I did this as a teen, when self-definition became a daily essential duty. The more time I spend being alive, though, the more I realise that line drawn (a) is blurry and (b) doesn’t exist. Tell that to my air miles, though. Nice bit of proggy flop to this song. It’s Kenny again here, Jeff on bass, Tom on drums. Steinway grand piano for them low notes, yep. Don on electric guitars.
5. Underneath The Mushroom Tree – I wrote this one on the Farm while Julia was outside making the Manbird nest. The coffee shop we go to had the old b/w checkerboard version of the Mother Goose book. Hence, thus. Somewhere in one of my notebooks I’ve scribbled “nursery rhymes” in purple ink.
6. Auslanderbeak – the Manbird album is meant to be a musical travelogue, a magpie’s nest with bits of string and gum wrappers from everywhere. Paris was the first European city I visited, and my first concert there, with Allyson Seconds, was nothing short of a freak-scene Happening, man. Living in the UK, and signed to a French record label, Paris became familiar to me. Lorna and I could zip over on the Eurostar in a few hours. It was, however, a gig in Istanbul, a city I knew nothing about, that kinda cracked my mind wide in terms of “seeing the world.” After that gig I was keen to play anywhere and everywhere. Germany was next, with gigs booked in Berlin and Hamburg. Those cities were good for me, but I never had great luck elsewhere in Germany, despite Berlin becoming home base. Spain, on the other hand, has been the best. I’ve done something like 15 tours there over ten years. My only gig in Prague was a “work” gig in a pizza joint, where I played my songs plus covers for 3 hours for €100 plus food and strawberry juice. Italy was great but it didn’t click like Spain. Amsterdam has a strange music scene, far as I could figure, but the variety of shows I played was cool — slick piano gig and interview in the central library one day (with my fingers still made of purple plastic), followed the next night by a gig in a squatted, derelict hotel. “Obama’s CIA, you know that, right??” All of these scenes coming back to me while I write this from California, my passport mailed off months ago for renewal and zero idea when it’ll be safe to return to Berlin. So, “Auslanderbeak” it is. For Barış Manço.
7. Dreamscape 4 – I had a series of dreams over the course of making this record, dreams very specifically guiding my work. One was of a song by an unknown female vocalist. It was so beautiful. Layered and looped. I woke and immediately tried to capture the general idea, but came nowhere close. It’s like I could SEE the music, but couldn’t HEAR it clearly enough to replicate it. This, as you’d guess, is attempt 4. Lara’s voice is one of my “secret weapons” and I’m always pleased to find something right for her to sing. This track is more an homage to my dream song rather than a further effort to nail it down.
8. Even The Swans Are Dirty – Julia was with me in Berlin and her perception of the city’s famous “free visual art” was more acute than my own. Her quote made it into my notebook, but the song didn’t get written and recorded until I was again in California. It was engineer Dana Gumbiner’s idea that the drums should go to halftime at the end. Nice one!
9. Beak Part 2 – The first half of “Beak” features a chorus of thousands, but this bit has Jonah Matranga doing all the singing. Jonah’s band Far were one of the big names in the little Sacramento scene and they went on to do very well in the real world. He and I have crossed paths many times, and touring with him in the UK back when was an incredible experience for me. That said, we’ve never done any sort of recording work together until now. Manbird has reconnected me with musicians I’ve known for ever, and has brought me into the orbit of others I’ve only met recently. Jonah singing “Beak” makes more sense than I can say.
10. Birds Of North America – With the images of flying spread across the album, the idea of groundedness has to have its place, too. This song has an “of the earth” quality not unlike the Americana twang of “Chicken.” Besides guitars and bass, I’m playing organ on this one. It’s a very grounded sound and it’s in contrast to the many Mellotrons on the album. If “My Other Life” is reaching its arms upwards to the cosmos, “Birds Of North America” and its organic organ track is digging its feet into the soil.
11. Back To The Egg – I wrote this in the “little house” on the Farm, which is usually where all the honey harvest is processed. We filmed a video for “Down Around The Radio” in there, a few years back. Regarding the song at hand, the “wings over Sweden” line is meant to reference, besides the obvious Wings joke, my newly discovered love for ABBA as well as being a shoutout to Broyhill, my engineer pal, once a Sacramento homie, now a father of Swedish twins.
12. Manbird (Oxford Variation) – This “home” notion, eh? Even though I was in Cambridge for five years, Oxford has always been my home in England. Much love, many profound, life-changing moments, lots of rock and roll, a few particularly purple wanders – I could go on and on about how I adore this place. I knew Oxford had to be honoured on the album, and with the help of Sharron Kraus, Su Jordan and Stornoway’s Jon Ouin, a decent job has been done! Guitarist Kevin Allison is also on the track — he’s got nothing to do with Oxford at all, but he’s been my musical “brother” since we met in Alameda. It was vital for me to have him on the album, and his scrappy little guitar squiggles here do the trick.
13. Space Force – of all the songs on Manbird, this might be the most confusing for me to write about. If you look at the lyric sheet during the bridge sections, maybe you’ll get what I mean. Basically, though, after all the airports and airplanes and jet lag and flying back and forth and always being in the air and trying to get home, our hero decides instead that the only answer is to leave earth for good in a spaceship. Befitting the convoluted nature of the song, it was written mainly in California after a cosmic coffee shop encounter with Dave, whom we intuitively identified as a member of Space Force. The guts of the song were recorded on the Farm, but it was then spread far and wide for effect. Stephane Schück from French band Salt sent a guitar track from Paris. Bryan Poole came over to the Berlin flat to add his freako guitars. Then, I took the song to Oxford to have my choir of screwy angles add the final, layered vocal touches. It’s more of a mess than the other songs on the album, and it has a different sonic vibe, but I love that it sounds like the album ends with a blast off — a fresh start — rather than some kind of final landing.