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Interview: Tom Kenny from Koi Child

Koi Child

One of this year’s most intriguing and globally recognised Australian groups was 7-piece group Koi Child, out of Freemantle. Uniquely blending jazz and hip-hop among other styles, the band has managed to catch the attention of the successful producer Mark Ronson and even Ebro Darden from Beats 1. Recently coming off from yet another tour, we managed to catch up with keyboardist Tom Kenny to talk about this year, their debut album, and what’s next for Koi Child.

You’re having such a crazy year with Koi Child at the moment, releasing your debut album, supporting acts like Tame Impala and Hiatus Kaiyote. You’ve just finished your huge tour in support of the single Touch ‘Em, how’s this tour been in comparison to your last and do you have any standout moments?

This tour was a little bit smaller in scale than the last one, but it’s been really amazing musically. In Perth, we had like Mathas, Akioka, and Hideous Sun Demon as supports, and it’s just been a real treat to play with these acts that we look up to, who we see as the very best. Then we got to play with Friendships in Melbourne, and they’re incredible.

The last night in Melbourne at Howler was probably one of the best gigs we’ve ever played, the crowd and vibes was just like magic. Shannon even got them to sit down at two separate points during quiet portions and then get back up again, it was incredible!

Is that up there with one of the craziest moments of your touring career so far?

Yeah that felt just like magic. That’s up there with a guy who came up and stage dove when we did this hell stupid kind of heavy cover of Breathe by The Prodigy. It was just fantastic, I think Melbourne audiences are really open-minded, like fully put themselves into what they’re listening to.

Sounds crazy! So it’s been almost six months since you released the debut album. Were you expecting such a warm, worldwide response?

No (laughs), we would be very happy just to be able to pay record labels, we weren’t even expecting to pay the record labels actually, wait…I’m not sure if we have yet! But the fact that it got played on BBC and stuff, like come on, even Ebro Darden from Beats 1 picked it up and got behind us. You only ever put it in our small world, and dream about it for so long! Even getting airplay on 4ZZZ and FBi radio, arriving in a different city and having people know the lyrics is simply incredible!

Do you listen back and think you wanna change a few things or are you happy with how it turned out?

Yeah, I think everyone kinda does that. How we’ve got the songs recorded compared to how we’ve rearranged them for live settings, I do feel like there are better versions of them. To equate digital distribution to how the video game world is operating now, how you can release a product, test it, and update it after that, I think that might be a thing of the future, like a linear publishing form for an album. But yeah there’s so many things I’d love to change. (laughs)

With such a large group of musicians, all trained in various styles, what would the creative process be like? Is it jamming like you mentioned or do things come to the table in different ways?

Nowadays, most of the ideas are really presented through jamming. It’s different for each song, but we’ve definitely learned a lot about negotiation, and trying to reach something creatively that isn’t just a halfway point of everyone’s ideas. So if you can think of an idea that solves everyone’s problems, and has an expression of everyone’s thoughts at the same time, that’s the kind of challenge that we had to meet.

Delving into your past a little bit, Koi Child was the result of two bands Kashikoi and Child’s Play merging together thanks to a joint gig. How did you guys decide to collaborate further after that?

We’d seen each other play around Freemantle, especially at a bar called Mojos. But it turned out we both independently thought, “we should work with that band” (laughs). I play in Kashkoi, which was like a jazz/prog-rock quartet thing, basically a rhythm section with an alto player. They were making laptop beats with two people on horns, so it made sense.

Then when we met up and just had a few pub jams, then did a gig with that. Even though we weren’t that ready, most of it was just improvised and it just went really well, it was just like a really small café, so had like five people dancing. It just felt really great, and it was even better because Kevin Parker [Tame Impala] was there and helped us pack down!

It sounds like it was meant to be right?

Definitely! A Japanese fan told us that koi, like koi fish, is like a homonym for the word that means “affectionate love” in Japanese. So you can take our name to mean “love child” (laughs). For a band that’s a product of two separate band coming together, it’s perfect. It definitely feels like there’s a bit of destiny in there…

Did you find it hard to go from the smaller group to the huge seven piece?

It was always exciting, there was always stuff coming up when were together, it was just one big party! That’s a side of the group we never really worried about until we started touring, the difficulty budgeting with such a large act. It’s definitely hard economically, but we haven’t really thought of doing it any other way.

Delving into the process behind that a little bit, you recorded your album out on an isolated river island with the aforementioned Kevin Parker from Tame Impala, how did that solidarity affect the writing and what did you learn from that experience?

The main thing I learned personally from Kevin is that the idea that his genius was definitely reaffirmed and strengthened by the whole process. It was just common sense, making hundreds of small potential decisions about what we wanna do with the composition or the production. He arrives at these amazing works and everyone just think’s he’s magic.

Watching him through that thought process with our music is really, really mind blowing. It’s just nice to know that level of mastery is accessible to anyone that works hard enough, seeing as he himself is self-taught.

You’re often compared to a lot of other legends in their own rights, BADBADNOTGOOD and The Roots seem to crop up quite a bit, do you welcome these or do you feel it’s broad label simply because occupy that live jazz and hip-hop niche?

I can see where people are coming from, and that it’s a compliment and I get that. For instance with the BADBADNOTGOOD, as KashiKoi we’d started to play the heavily road and groove based, hip-hop influenced jazz sound, that’s what we’d just turned to, and then once everyone heard BADBADNOTGOOD it was just like, ‘ohh f*ck, everyone’s just going to this we’re some BBNG rip off!”.

Don’t get me wrong they’re both amazing bands, it’s just on one hand is frustrating because we really did write the stuff quite organically, but on the other hand it’s amazing because we love both of them, especially BBNG.

You’re all pretty patriotic about Freemantle, what is it about the city that you all love so much?

It’s essentially a crew tribalism. I think it’s in the fact that in the Western Australia it’s like a bastion of the west. There’s just so much empathy and consideration, and just a little bit more going on culturally than the most of the WA. Freemantle is just a bit more open-minded. For instance, just a few weeks ago they cancelled the fireworks on the 26th of January and they’re moving the celebration of Australia day, which is a fantastic step, especially given Freemantle’s past. It’s just a bit more free thinking, we may even want to isolate ‘Freo’ from the rest of Western Australia.

Just to wrap things up, coming off from such a diverse debut album, what’s next? Have you begun writing the next project? 

Yeah, we have actually! We have two or three songs we’re developing at the moment, and we’re definitely going to be taking out heaps of time to write the next one. Shannon’s got a concept in mind, (Shannon: don’t talk about me!), basically trying to combine the sound and the lyrics together more intricately. So that’s the angle we’re looking into at the moment, and we’re definitely looking forward to getting back into writing again!