Andrew Bird is a virtuoso violinist, multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter, and whistler from Illinois who has slowly built a robust following from his idiosyncratic take on Americana. Trained in the violin, by ear, from four years of age, Bird was schooled in jazz performance, and early in his life joined swing-revivalist outfit Squirrel Nut Zippers. After presiding over a project, Andrew Bird and Bowl of Fire, saddled with next-big-thing expectations, he slowly reinvented himself as a solo performer making inventive use of loop-pedals on stage. After earning plentiful critical acclaim with 2007's Armchair Apocrypha, it was 2009's Noble Beast —an LP Bird memorably described as "warm, woody, fecund, bubbly, mossy... like some nook in a forest that's steamy and green and verdant and buzzing and alive with microscopic life"— that proved his commercial breakthrough, debuting at #12 on the Billboard album charts. He eventually followed it with Break It Yourself, which would land at #10 on its release in early 2012.
Interview: 25 April 2012
You've just announced yet more tour dates. How does the wandering minstrel's itinerate existence treat you?
"It's something I've grown used to, by now; I've adapted as best I can. It does weird things to your health, to tell you the truth, when you do it a lot. Not just being sick all the time; I feel like it changes my whole body temperature. Getting your body up to perform, your endorphins are squeezed dry every night. You do that enough, it starts to effect your body."
What's it like when you step off that touring locomotive?
"You get a little whiplash, you get the shakes a little bit; each day when it comes to performance time and you're not performing, your body temperatures starts to habitually shift. We're doing two weeks on, two weeks off at the moment, and by the end of that two weeks off, you're almost back to normal, and then you get thrown back into it. It's a schedule my drummer demanded, because he has kids, now I have a kid. Sometimes I think it'd be better to go off and do them all in one massive tour, because of that whiplash I was talking about, but that just doesn't make sense; it's far too long to be away from a developing child. Aside from all that, I still like being on tour. It's a strange mixture of knowing what to expect and not knowing what to expect. It's satisfying, because every day you roll forward into a different environment, and you have to forge forward and forage; hunt-and-gather throughout the day. Then you hop on stage and the show is always an unknown; I never know what's going to come out of myself and my bandmates. But at the same time there's a regimen to it; there's structure, and you know how to do your job, and that's satisfying. You don't get despondent and depressed on tour, because it's a very purposeful existence."
Have you felt like you've actually been able to see the world, through touring, is it too sheltered a form of traveling to really engage in your surrounds?
"Parts of it are isolating; you do mainly interact with promoters and liaisons and people who are contractually obligated to take you out to dinner before the show. But I feel like I'm a pretty observant person; I like to read the local papers, get a real sense of what that place is about. Sometimes I'll come back to places I really liked and stay there, take a little sabbatical; I just did that in Portugal, just lived in a working class neighborhood in Lisbon for a month. Travelling, hurtling through space, it really makes you think about, shit, well, globalism for one. It's kind of overwhelming; you can be in a place like Lisbon and see people in high-rises and think 'wow, they all have pensions' and then you see a ship coming into port, and it's got, like, apples from New Zealand on it, and you're in a country that doesn't really have any natural resources; and you think 'how does this all hold together?' Not why is the world so chaotic and violent and messed-up, but why isn't it moreso? That's what it does to you. Or to me, at least."
Have you thought of globalism into terms of your own music, and being a musician?
"It's interesting to me, to think of how these really different, distinct traditional musics would develop in these places that were completely different from one the hamlet over; there'd be these totally individual forms, within the one culture, that weren't influenced by one another. But, I think people have realised that multiculturalism and cross-pollination —all these things that were happy, good words in the '90s, and maybe a bit overrated— have lead to a homogenisation of music, on a popular level. Otherwise, I don't know. It's a really good question."
M. Ward recently talked to me about the surreal feeling of playing in non-English-speaking countries where people still know all the words to his songs; have you felt that same surreal sense?
"It's pretty surreal, yeah. Not-English-speaking countries seem to pay more attention to the lyrics, because it's not their language. And they also all seem to think that Bird is not my real name; like, it makes too much sense for me to be called that, especially given that I whistle. But no one in English-speaking countries has ever asked me that, or pointed that out. Sometimes, you'll go to a culturally-rich place, whose culture and traditions you've admired, and you want to talk about that, but people there aren't interested in that, in their traditions; they're interested in me, this guy from the Chicago suburbs. That feels really odd."
That reminds me of being in Brazil, and anytime I told a young person I was really into Os Mutantes or Gilberto Gil, they were embarrassed for me; because, to them, that was their dad's music. But, um, anyway: do you think of your music as being multi-cultural? As being a cross-pollination of different forms and traditions?
"Not consciously. When I was younger I made more overt attempts to pick up particular types of music. I learned by ear from an early age, so I learned music as if it were a language, and other musical languages are very easy for me to pickup; at least the accents, and then the vocabulary follows from that, usually pretty quickly as well. I definitely had a student phase up until age 26, when I was just devouring everything I could find around the world. I was certainly coming up when 'World Music' was hitting its peak; I was really excited about everything that wasn't American, and the more exotic I could find the better. At some point, I had just exhausted that, and was more into just seeing what had congealed inside of me from my collective experiences, rather than seeking it out inside of me."
Is that still the case? Do you still not really listen to that much music?
"I really don't, honestly. Because it competes with what's in my head, for one. If I do listen to music, now, it's not how it used to be, when I would soak it up like a textbook. Now it's almost entirely for social reasons, something for a mood or a dance party or something like that. But maybe that just puts me in touch with what everyone else listens to music for. I don't try to glean things from records anymore, whereas in my student phase all I ever asked myself was 'What can I learn from this? What can I take from this?' My head's full of music all day, and my head's full of words, and usually I'm just trying to mix and match them all day, and that takes up a lot of mental real estate, so walking into restaurants or stores or elevators with their piped-in music, it can be hazardous."
What did you hope to do, to make, with Break It Yourself?
"I think I succeeded in tricking myself and my band into making a record without knowing we were making one. Because I just brought the band down to my farm for eight days, just to hang out and eat and drink and learn some new songs. And roll tape. And that's what the record came out of. I didn't really expect it to yield a record. But something about that lack of pressure and self-consciousness lead to something we couldn't be, we couldn't have made, in a more ceremonious 'we're-making-a-record' kind of situation. There's a real lack of production; there's almost no post-production at all. All the tricks we've learned on stage, with looping, and all the colour-palette we have from our pedals and whistling and glockenspiel, that's all there. But the way we made it was so different: just four people in a room."
Why didn't you think that'd yield an album?
"Because the band didn't know the songs at all. None of us has ever lived in the same city, and so we've never gotten together to play like this. 'Jamming' has always been a dirty word. Even though we all come from jazz backgrounds. For the last, like, ten years, I've been much more into succinct, pop-songwriting forms: good ideas carefully written into three-and-a-half minute songs. A lot of bands, for better or worse, they get together and jam, and we've never done that. We do that on stage, we mess with the songs night after night, but only ever after the record's out. We've never done it before the record's out. I wanted to try and do that, and that was the point of getting together; it was to play the songs before recording them, not actually make the record."
Were you surprised not just that you got a record out of it, but how the record itself turned out?
"We all realized, pretty early on, that it had a pretty special sound to it: the barn in August, with all the windows and doors open, crickets chirping, this general, relaxed atmosphere. I guess I was surprised that it lead to some of our best work, I feel, on a record. Having to sing over drums that were six feet away from me, I did some of my best singing. The record is not a headphone symphony; there were no headphones, at all, in the making of it. There wasn't that 'let me sculpt my vocal over this backing track', it was 'how can I belt over this drumset?' And there were no overdubs, so there was none of that 'oh, I don't like the way my voice sounds, let me go re-cut that'. In the past, that's lead to a certain dishonesty; like 'I don't like the way my voice sounds on the outgoing message on my voicemail, I'm going to re-record that ten times 'til I'm satisfied.'"
Like the possibilities for endless iteration in the digital era can just as often doom recordings as they can help them.
"I've gotten so tired of production in other records that I hear. It just feels like every measure, every beat, every second, is so perfectly accounted for; it feels like it's on a grid, everything feels so separate, so divided. It ends up sounding, to me, like karaoke: this vocal sung over top of music that it's not really a part of. I wanted to make a record that felt the opposite of that, just totally unproduced."
Are there themes or motifs you identify as stitching the songs on the album together?
"Yeah, for sure. The most dominant theme is definitely the idea of self vs group; and the conflict that it creates, about being self-contained vs our need for others. 'Danse Caribe' talks directly about autonomy, and the song 'Eyeoneye' is about if it's possible to break your own heart if you can't find anyone else to do it, just for the life experience. 'Lazy Projector' is talking about selective memory. A couple of songs, moreso than other records, are about the personal shit I was going through at the time I was writing, and had that end up on the record. That's clearly in there; because of the way we recorded it, it feels a little more direct, and personal, and of-that-particular-moment than it ever has in the past."