If you weren’t aware, the one-of-a-kind camping music festival Unify Gathering is happening next month! Spanning for three days from 11th January (with a cheeky AMPM pre-party the night before) music fans will gather in the paddocks of Tarwin Meadows in Gippsland, Victoria, with a purpose to celebrate music and the passionate community of people that it creates.
Taking to the stage on the Friday night will be Karnivool, the Perth based quintet whose innovative brand of progressive metal has mesmerised listeners and inspired musicians all over the world. Since their formation in 1997, Karnivool have remained as an unwavering entity, while also carrying a mystique about them when it comes to carefully created music; so far releasing only three albums in their 21 year career.
I’m not sure how, but I’d only recently crossed paths with the legendary band’s music, instantly falling in love with the fluid and fascinating Sound Awake album in particular. Getting on the phone with Karnivool’s vocalist Ian Kenny, I was upfront about my greenness when it came to his band, with pre-apology that my questions might reflect that. With immediate relaxed ease and reassurance, Ian said “Don’t sweat it, man. Do your thing. All good!”
The band’s name was the first thread of curiosity that I pulled, and an easy question to start with. Having focused on those double-o’s, I asked Ian about the pronunciation. “Straight up ‘carnival’. Karnivool, karnivool. The more you say it, the more you want to say ‘ooo’. Karnivooool? No, it’s just ‘carnival’.”
The name was inspired from the original band that Ian had formed while in high school, who were referred to as ‘a bunch of clowns’. Instead of defending against the judgement, they embraced it. Ian shared “God we were much younger then. We were a bunch of clowns. There was an EP we did. It was probably the first decent thing we released, called Persona. It was all built around the kind of ‘carney’ clown artwork. I believe that there’s a certain frame in the artwork. You know those clowns that are all lined up in a row and you’ve got to throw the ball into their mouth? We sort of got more serious about that sort of thing and ‘Karnivool’ came off of that from memory. But yes, we’re a bunch of clowns. Still are clowns.”
I had to wonder if there was a connection between the embracing of criticisms and unbridled creative freedom, and whether they carried that ‘up yours’ vibe of doing whatever they wanted into their music. Ian feels that they probably did, but not until a little later. “When we released Persona, we didn’t know what we were doing. And then we released Themata and we got a grip on what we were doing then and we got confident after that. So after Themata came out, we kind of understood a bit about what our potential was and what this thing could mean. That sort of came a bit later, maybe not so much off the name as such. I don’t know! I’ve always thought the name was a bit juvenile, but of course it is, because we were fucking teenagers at the time. We were kids pretty much!”
Despite a ‘juvenile’ name, ‘Karnivool’ has become synonymous with innovation and become a living and breathing entity in its own right, seeming to be on an easy peak. I wondered from Ian’s perspective whether there was very very slow and gradual growth for Karnivool, or pivotal moments that sparked exponential recognition.
“It’s come with each sort of release. It’s been such a long game for us, that yeah we grow each time we release and work on stuff and sort of commit to music. But you know Themata really opened a door for us and access to a greater sort of type of fan. It really just connected with people. And then the band sort of understood itself a bit and we got confident. And then we put out a record called Sound Awake in 2009 and that just reinforced it, it kicked the door open even further. And that took us right around the world and has been doing so since. It usually comes with each time we actually get our shit together and release a record.”
Going more into Sound Awake with Ian, I shared my impression that the album feels welcoming and easy to embrace, drawing in what feels like a story behind it. I was curious whether it was intended as a concept album, to which Ian clarified why it comes across as such. “It wasn’t really but there’s enough happening in the musical narrative of that record to make it feel that way. From go to whoa it just flows really well. Just the feel of the record from beginning to end.. I don’t know how but we nailed that. It just carries this sort of emotional thread with it and you can’t help but feel that at certain points through the record and I think that’s what connected it with our fans. There’s this emotional current with the music and it’s kind of hard not to feel that.”
Ian is also the vocalist of Birds Of Tokyo, which exists in the realm of contemporary rock and vibes as a ‘younger sibling’ of Karnivool more than any kind of competitor. Before Karnivool released third album Asymmetry, and were hitting strides with selling out tours and gaining mammoth success, attention was then shifted toward Birds Of Tokyo. I’m no musician, but I was wondering how this track-shift to another project could occur without any kind of fear of loss of momentum in Karnivool.
Ian was clear that there was never any sense of ‘pausing anything’, and shared light on how he manages to have two highly successful projects concurrently. “Both bands can work at their own rate without really any disruption from either side, so it was just.. It’s a funny thing; Karnivool takes a long time to get right with its music and know where it is and get ready to release it. Birds is a different machine altogether. It’s a different writing operation. It’s a completely different band, so that band can sort of operate and release stuff a bit quicker and in a different way. I think Karnivool just had to figure out what was happening there and how to write the next thing.”
As a (impatient) creator, I was curious about the ‘long game’ perspective that Ian had described in relation to Karnivool, admiring the faith and respect they seem to hold for this entity. Ian was open to admit that this can hold frustrations as well as affection, sharing “We put a lot of time into the records and the songs that we write and sometimes the hours that we put in, it doesn’t really offset the product. Sometimes I wish there was a quicker way to get results in that band, but it’s just the nature of the guys we are, the creators we are, and our processes. And I say long game, because the band has never gone away and I don’t think it’s going away as such. It’s always such an attractive creative space for the people involved. We always find ourselves back there wrestling things and falling in love with the creative side of this thing and sometimes fucking hating it as well, but it’s just the way it is. It’s this crazy thing.”
Loving the romanticism involved in how the creative project has a magnetic appeal for those involved, I asked to hear a little more on their processes. “We generally go on feel,” Ian began, “So it can be any sort of riff that’s brought into the room. Drew [Goddard] our guitarist generally works well when he can get his side of things together first. If he can get his basic song idea out first or if he can get his guitar parts together. We can follow that. Or if I’ve got decent melodies and they sort of kick things off, we can follow that and try and build on that in a room together. That’s how we try and do it. Doesn’t always work and sometimes we’ll get a few songs together out of that process and we’ll write them and almost write them to the end. And if they’re not right or we think we can do better, sometimes we scrap them and we have to repeat that process and try to think how to approach it again, you know?”
Always curious about lyrical themes and meaning, I asked if awareness of this was something that came in conjunction with the instrumental songwriting. “Not always, no! Although these days, I find that we’re paying more attention to that. These days i feel like we’ve got enough life under our belt, we’ve got themes to play on and things to sort of pull out. And we’re aware dudes these days. When we were younger, we were basically to be honest running on pure emotion of what felt right. Fuckin lyrics? I didn’t even care about lyrics. I was just writing things that felt right and kind of made sense or I had some kind of weird attraction to them and I just loved them. I was like ‘This is fucking great, I’m going to say this!’. Kind of different these days. We’re kind of more aware dudes now.”
Kel: “When you say ‘aware’ do you mean like what’s going on in the world or within you or..?”
Ian: “Aware with ourselves, aware of what’s happening in our music, and then yeah aware of our influence and aware of what’s happening in the world. We’re just paying a bit more attention to what we’re writing these days and why we’re writing it, you know?”
Turning attention to Unify Gathering, it will be the band’s first east coast show since 2016. I asked if this came with nerves or was daunting at all. “No it doesn’t feel daunting. We’re going to have enough rehearsal time before. And we’ve all missed it, man. Like really missed playing. Like Karnivool’s this thing that if you’re involved in it and you don’t get to have it enough, you can easily miss it. So I think we’re all really eager to play. We’ll be nervous – hell yeah. We’re nervous at every show!”
With hints about new music that might be shared at Unify, Ian elaborated for me, saying “Yeah, we’re working on two new things. If we can get them to a playable point. Even a point where we can kind of roadtest them to be honest, we’d love to show a couple new things. But we’re working on them at the moment and we’ll see if we can get it there.”
More on Unify Gathering: https://unifygathering.com/