Meet: We chat to Martin Kennedy (All India Radio, Kilbey/Kennedy, Observers) about recording, heavy metal, and collaborating with Steve Kilbey (The Church)


Feature Photograph: Arun Kendall

Martin Kennedy has a had a long and impressive career in music. He was given a guitar with four strings at the age of fourteen, made up his own chords and eventually formed Melbourne band Pray TV, releasing 5 albums and touring the US, before forming All India Radio and collaborating with other musicians such as Steve Kilbey of The Church.

According to Kennedy, Pray TV was killed by grunge and record company pressure to sound like Nirvana, and he ended up drifting into the opposite side of the musical spectrum with All India Radio’s luscious ambient soundscapes.

Kennedy has just announced a new band (or project) – Observers – that has seen an exploration of heavy metal music through the release of an EP entitled ‘Secret Spaces’, with two full albums on the way. I caught up with Kennedy in his studio near Hobart to investigate.

Kennedy is a prolific creator – witness in just the past two years the release of two albums with Kilbey (‘Jupiter 13’ and ‘The Strange Life of Persephone Nimbus’) as well collaborations with Gareth Koch (‘Music In The Afterlife’) as well as All India Radio releases. All of which featured in our annual best of releases from down under. He works to a strict timetable – mirroring the discipline shown by Nick Cave – keeping office hours to write and record utilising his Pro Tools software and Apple computer, and composing mostly on a Martin acoustic guitar, his preferred instrument.

I used to do work on my music into the evening but I had full time job from for 20 years up until 2009 so during that time my life as a musician was evenings and weekends but then that job finished and I’ve then shifted my creative activities to during the day. I’m definitely not doing anything in the evening some people come alive artistically at night but I get all fuzzy. (laughs)

Kennedy recently announced that he was ending All India Radio but later walked this back slightly and said it was on hiatus. Noting that in the recent spate of Spotify wraps, All India Radio had 4.1 million plays over the last year, I wondered why he would do this.

I really needed to draw the line just in my own head because I’ve just felt it wasn’t going anywhere and with the sort of songs I was coming out with, thought I should start another project with a different name – I felt sort of almost a bit of a fraud just changing the style so much and still calling it All India Radio, so I just kind of needed to draw the line in the sand and say OK that’s done now after 20 years or whatever it was yeah and I’ll start something new.

The new project was a turn to metal which shocked quite a few people (including myself). Kennedy notes that he understands not all All India Radio fans would follow, but also noted that change has always been part of his nature:

All India Radio started out being sort of a weird sonic experiment in the late 90s and then it was kind of ambient music and then I added pop and rock in the live band, so it was kind of all over the place really – so a lot of the early fans dropped off a lot off and later fans jumped on board and liked what I’m doing now, so it’s over the place.

With respect to All India Radio, Kennedy accepts that nothing is certain with his artistic endeavours and jokes:

Now that I’ve finished recording my heavy metal project, I’ve kind of got that out of my system so you know maybe I’ll go back to All India Radio, but I don’t really know, so I’m saying hiatus to hedge my bets which is of course the safest thing to do!

So why heavy metal music? I confess to not being a great fan and wondered if he was being deliberately provocative with this sudden change or if it was a secret love.

I was always really fascinated by heavy metal – I remember seeing KISS years ago (although they are not really heavy metal) and I want to inject a little of the ambient All India Radio into metal and maybe there’s an option for the future in that.

Kennedy noted that in the process of recording as Observers he hired session musicians – a practice he has always followed – but noted that with the heavy metal project:

You can’t fake it – metal fans will always know if you’re being a dick head or a poser so I hired people who actually play metal music, and that really worked well.

The inspiration for the new project arose out of a desire to pay tribute to the film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Kennedy has always shown a fascination for science fiction – it seeps into all his recent work and plays an important role in the artwork for his releases. He explains his inspiration:

My initial seed of an idea was to do a really gothic weird version of 2001 so every song is named after a scene or a line in the book or something like that, and since there’s no vocals the connection is sort of tenuous. That’s the whole idea or theme of it, and the front cover artwork will will reflect that as well. So the first song on the ‘Silent Space’ EP is one from the forthcoming album- a really heavy sort of pounding song.

There will be two albums forming the project – already recorded but just in the process of finalisation for release next year and consisting of a main album and a b-sides album.

Any album release from Kennedy comes with stunning artwork – something Kennedy takes very seriously and which he designs himself.

An album sleeve has to be eye catching and for me an album’s music has to match the artwork otherwise it doesn’t work. There’s some fantastic albums with really magnificent art but then you listen to the music and you just can’t connect the two, but then some albums really somehow just perfectly reflect the artwork, so I just decided to have covers that reflect the music perfectly – such as using David A. Hardy who’s a famous British sci-fi artist who started in the 1950s and is still alive.

Kennedy finds suitable art and contacts the artist himself for permission to use the art. He shows me the designs for the forthcoming work, noting the reflection of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ motifs. It is visually stunning.

We turn to the new collaboration with Steve Kilbey, to be called ‘Premonition K’. Noting with amusement that Kilbey only just came up with the name a few days ago, Kennedy advises that it should be released in March or April depending on the UK label responsible for the release but was otherwise all finalised.

I note that ‘Jupiter 13’ and ‘The Strange Life of Persephone Nimbus’ could be seen as companion pieces and concept albums and question whether the new album is similarly connected, as a trilogy. Kennedy is circumspect about any connection – noting that the new album does have elements of a concept album with its unifying theme about near death experiences but veered off on its own trajectory. He notes that ‘Jupiter 13’ and ‘Persephone’ were set by Kilbey in a vaguely sci-fi steampunk world but the new one isn’t, although the art work is the same so it looks like it forms part of a trilogy. I asked if Kennedy could be seen as influencing The Church’s well received album ‘The Hypnagogue’ and he laughs, saying that would be cheeky. He notes it is Kilbey’s thing at the moment – concept albums.

Whatever our next album is, it probably won’t be a concept album…but then, who knows? (laughs)

I wondered how he came to work with Kilbey.

…I was about three albums into All India Radio in the early 2000s and I got an email from his brother John Kilbey who ran the Karmic Hit label, and he had heard a particular All India Radio album and really liked it and asked if I be interested him in releasing it. Somehow that never came about, but John had played the album to Steve and Steve really liked it. He wanted to know if I had any spare songs I could send him to do some singing on, so that was kind of start of it in the early 2000s and I sent him bits and pieces over a couple years, so it actually took a long time for it to become the final finished product, so that’s how we did it. I hadn’t actually spoken to Steve all during those years – it was all via email through his brother so it’s quite funny.

The result, ‘Unseen Music, Unheard Words’, was released in 2009 but had taken five or six years of development before that. Kennedy muses that since then, the collaboration has been a lot more prolific and has kept him well occupied.

Kennedy has a few mysterious projects ahead including a soundtrack. I ask him if there is anyone he would like to collaborate with in the future, and he jokes only David Gilmour from Pink Floyd (his favourite band). Whatever is ahead, one thing is assured: it will be impressive. I’ve had a sneaky listen to ‘Premonition K’ and can say it is absolutely stunning.

‘Silent Spaces’ is out now and available through the link below:

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