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The way musician Adam Spark sees it, there’s nothing quite like the thrill and dynamism of collaborating and playing with an orchestra. “Honestly, I love watching people’s faces when we play with an orchestra. It's really cool when you’re in a room with 50 to 60 people on stage and a few thousand in the audience – it’s a whole lot of people having a big old string love-in. And horns, and percussion.”

At first glance, Spark might not seem like the most likely candidate to share a stage with a conductor and 40-piece classical ensemble. He is a founding member of Birds of Tokyo, a rock band more readily associated with sweat-soaked gigs and festival sets than they are the concert hall. Over their nearly two-decade career, the group has ticked off all the markers of mainstream music success, picking up ARIA Awards and releasing platinum-selling albums. But Spark feels that the “cinema, drama and heartache” found in their brand of emotive, anthemic rock lends itself perfectly to an orchestra – which is what keeps bringing him back to it. “The band has always tilted in the direction of big and grand,” he says. “So it felt like a right fit.”

You might find their music in the rock category on Spotify, but Birds of Tokyo actually have a long history in the orchestral world. The band did their first live collaboration with a string ensemble in 2007, recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra for their 2010 self-titled album, and realised their dream of performing with a full orchestra in 2021 when they did a run of symphonic shows around the country – including one with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. “We wanted to create a big symphony for a long time,” Spark says. “When we did the first in the series of these shows a few years ago, it really worked. And it proved the concept.”

MSO Birds of Tokyo 2021 credit Mark Gambino 8701

Those 2021 performances were such a hit that Birds of Tokyo have decided to do it all again this year. In September, Spark and bandmates will play three dates with the MSO at Hamer Hall as part of a national symphony orchestra tour called Birdsongs. It’s set to be their most ambitious live performance yet, and one the band has begun work on months in advance of the curtains coming up.

Translating rock music to the symphony orchestra takes a lot of work. First, Birds of Tokyo must determine which songs they want in the set list – usually a mix of their best-known hits and the deeper cuts they can get truly creative with. Then, every song is broken down and rebuilt with an orchestra in mind. That’s because Spark and his bandmates aren’t content to just add strings behind their back catalogue and call the job done – they want to hero the Orchestra and position it at the centre of the songs, slotting themselves around the violinists, percussionists and double-bassists.

Every song is broken down and rebuilt with an orchestra in mind.

They believe the orchestra-first approach makes for more beautiful, three-dimensional music. And the band likes to make use of everything a 40-piece ensemble has to offer, in terms of what Spark describes as “colour, texture, heaviness” and even well-deployed moments of stillness. The vision is to deliver something truly cinematic. “We like taking the songs and converting them into mini film scores. So, rather than us playing the songs as they are, we prefer to strip them back to their core and rewrite the work as if it were a little Hans Zimmer piece,” Spark says.

To recreate each song, the band often put together mock versions with digital strings for a rough sketch of what they think a track could become. They send those drafts over to Nicholas Buc – the conductor/arranger who worked with Birds of Tokyo for their 2021 shows, and is on board again this year – who then develops the ballpark ideas for the symphony stage. Buc and the band workshop from there, but Spark says they have a “simpatico” relationship that makes collaboration easy. “Nine times out of 10, everything we sent him came back as a thumbs up,” he says.

And Spark has ultimate faith in the orchestras he is handing his work over to. “We have so much trust in the fantastic conductors and Australia’s best players, so it allows you to relax … I mean, these people are way better musicians than we are – way better!” he laughs. “So we’re just trying to be the ones to not [mess] up their work, you know?”

MSO Birds of Tokyo 2021 credit Mark Gambino 8707

While the whole of the collaboration process is highly rewarding, revisiting old songs can initially be daunting. It plunges Spark back into the situation in which he first wrote a song – remembering, say, the break-up or breakthrough it was penned about. As well as reliving that emotion, the process can make him critical of previous artistic choices, be it the sound of a bassline or lyrical decision. But once it’s done, hearing what Buc has come up with is “overwhelming” – in a good way. “You get to sit back and listen to this enormous world around the work that you've written… it’s really quite emotional hearing that stuff,” he says.

Reimagined songs can go in all different directions. In 2021, Buc transformed a track called Brace into dark, filmic work with a “full Batman vibe”. Another song, Unbreakable, was made bigger, grander and more festive with energetic strings. And on their 2020 cut Greatest Mistakes, the band stripped everything back to just vocalist Ian Kenny singing, Spark on acoustic guitar and the first violin doing some “really Irish fiddle stuff” at the front and centre
of the stage.

WASO Birds of Tokyo Perth Concert Hall 140121 71

But don’t expect the same set list in September – the vision for this year’s show is to deliver something evolved and even bigger than before. “We need to give people new experiences and a more developed version of what we've done before,” says Spark. “This time around, we really want to see how much we can turn our catalogue into an incredibly dynamic film – see how much of a blockbuster we can make. The idea is to present works in a way for the people who know them, there’s some sort of familiarity. But it’s also our job and artistic licence to present the songs in a way that’s hopefully even more beautiful and interesting than the way they know them.”

Spark is excited to spend the coming months dreaming big with Buc and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. He’s happy to be one of the rare contemporary acts to truly embrace the potential of working with orchestras. “We’d do it forever if we could,” he says. “The sheer joy and power and spirituality of music in that format – when it all comes together, it’s just spine-chilling. And we’re not separate from the audience or the orchestra – we’re right in the middle of it. We literally set up in the middle of the orchestra. Being in the centre of that energy, but then also just being able to sit back and see the effect that the full symphony has on the audience – it melts the bloody heart, I tell you. It’s amazing.”

2023 Birds Of Tokyo 1200X800

Birds of Tokyo x MSO

21-23 September 2023
Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall

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