WHEN REACHED BY PHONE, American Analog Set singer/guitarist Andrew Kenny is uncharacteristically imprecise when asked for his coordinates. "Somewhere between Liverpool and Leeds" is the best he can figure. A graduate student in a rigorous molecular biology program at New York's Columbia University, Kenny just might be fudging his location on purpose: Touring with a rock band isn't a summer activity that's encouraged by his white-coated superiors. "At Columbia, if they find out you have other creative interests, they ask you to leave the program," says Kenny. "So I'm kind of playing hooky right now. I'd have to make the cover of Time before they would know I was doing anything outside of school. Right now, I'm supposedly on some kind of leave of absence doing research in Texas."
AMERICAN ANALOG SET Graceland, 206-381-3094, $7adv. 8 p.m. Wed., July 2
Some things are worth getting expelled for. Even before Kenny saw the inside of a lab, the American Analog Set specialized in microcosmic rock based on three scientific-enough principles: repetition, precision, and control. The band formed in Dallas in 1995 as a modest aggregation of friendsthe current lineup includes Mark Smith on drums, Lee Gillespie on bass, Shawn O'Keefe on vibes/percussion, and Craig McCaffrey on keyboards and defined its intimate intent with the title of its 1997 album, From Our Living Room to Yours. Emboldened by lo-fi pop (the stilled psychedelia of Galaxie 500, the quietude of Low) and '70s Krautrock (the lulling, locked rhythms of Can, Neu!, et al.), the group attracted college-radio devotees looking for a subdued fix but struggled to find its own niche.
"We kind of get lost," says Kenny. "We're a small band, and we're used to it. I think I'll let our longevity speak for us a little bit, but we've always been lumped because we don't try to be distinctly different from other bands. We were 'space rock,' and then [we were compared to] Spiritualized and Stereolab, and then when they were less popular, it was Belle & Sebastian. I don't know who we are [compared to] now. It seems like we're writing the same songs we always have."
DON'T BE FOOLED, howeverthings have changed; 2001 saw the release of the catchier, more concise Know by Heart, which Kenny says was an exercise in finding out "what a pop American Analog Set record would sound like." The new Promise of Love (Tiger Style), the group's fifth album, strikes a concise balance between Know by Heart's lovelorn pop songcraft and the extended, Stereolab-like grooves of the earlier records. "Come Home Baby Julie, Come Home" sounds like a mellower version of Smashing Pumpkins' "1979," while album opener "Continuous Hit Music" features a Yo La Tengo-ish pulse, bent Farfisa notes, and a cryptic lyrical slam at radio.
"That came out of a conversation with a friend of mine, about how we were kind of bummed around '88 or '89," says Kenny. "It was about the time our favorite bands were still making records but it was still underground. It was just kind of gross all of a sudden that the same people who stuffed us inside our lockers in high school were getting nose piercings and tattoos and growing long hair. It took the one thing that was important to us and made it a fad."
Perhaps the most current challenge for the American Analog Set is how Kennywho three months ago moved to Brooklyn, leaving the rest of the band's members in Texaswill reconcile school and rock. He admits a practical decision is imminent, but in the present maintains a balance of left- and right-brain commitments.
"As far as the creativity and the repetition involved, they're pretty similar to me. You can't 'see' genetics, or you can't 'see' molecular biology, so you have to think about it in terms of a model in your head. When I think about genetics, I typically think of things as giant reels of tape. When I think about rearranging and splicing genes, it's just like splicing tape. . . . I'm definitely a better scientist than I am a songwriter, but I'm not especially good at either."
When it's argued that he's not exactly a songwriting slouch, Kenny is modest. "Well, I'm sure you had a good conversation with my mom," he says. "She thinks I'm a good scientist, too, but she's never been in a lab with me."