Andrew Bird is a violin-playing virtuoso from Chicago who doubles as a gifted multi-instrumentalist and poignant songsmith. Blessed with a husky tenor, a bibliophile's vocabulary, and an ability to rise above genre, Bird fashions a distinctive, singular take on Americana.
Interview: 12 December 2008
How's the Chicago winter?
“Pretty brutal, but still novel. A Chicago winter you just have to go out and flail around, instead of hiding inside, so I still bike around, cross-country ski. I'm used to it: I’ve always lived in and around Chicago, it's where I was born, where my family and friends are. I like the work-ethic in Chicago: here people are just making things. It’s a pretty healthy community, and people work their asses off."
Do you feel part of the city's musical community?
“That’s a good question. Sometimes I question that, because I’ve been gone so much I can hardly be a part of things. I’ve never really had that much musical affinity with other artists here, but they’ve always been supportive of me, and never judged me too harshly. When I first came here in the mid-90s, I didn’t get the music. It seemed alien to me.”
“Yeah. If you drive around Chicago in the winter, that music makes a lot of sense. It’s a stark, bleak place. But that’s not the kind of music I’m into, the kind of music I hear in my head. For me, I definitely need to feel a connection to other people, because it's important my music has a social context, to counter these periods of isolation I have to indulge in."
Those periods of isolation are the creative phases?
“They’re all creative phases. I view playing live as the most creative state to be in: you’re trying to play the songs every night as if you’ve just written them that day, that moment. Performing is, to me, a joyous thing; recording is a necessary evil. I try and record so fast you can’t stop long enough to doubt yourself. That’s the way I’ve always done it: work like crazy, don’t take any breaks, eat standing up, and then get the hell out. It's like being on a bender for four days. You’re hearing stories about what happened, but you don’t remember it. It’s very unhealthy.”
Does that mean you never know what you’re going to do on an album?
“Not quite. [With Noble Beast] I had a very specific thing I wanted to hear: the music I was hearing in my head, but wasn’t hearing in the world. I wanted to work with warm, woody, fecund, bubbly, mossy textures; I wanted to get a sense of decay in the sound, like some nook in a forest that’s steamy and green and verdant and buzzing and alive with microscopic life. This emotional, ecological Steve Reich kind of thing. But nothing ever goes to plan. The microscopic organisms took on a life of their own, evolved into something else entirely.”
How do you capture the music you hear in your head?
"Never write anything down! That’s key, because ideas remain fluid, and they’ll grow and change inside your mind, as a result of being alive. That’s why I have to isolate myself on my farm: to get away from outside sounds and sources so I can be sure what I’m hearing isn’t the left-over remnant of some song I heard playing on the radio in the background at the supermarket, but something that’s mine. I feel blessed to know that I have my own style, my own voice. I’ve never been beholden to any written or scholastic tradition. If I hadn’t resisted mapping out my instruments in a geometric, mathematic way, like everyone wanted me to, I wouldn’t be the kind of musician I am now. I’d be locked into one perception, one pattern. Instead, I hear all music, regardless of culture or style, as part of this one oral tradition.”
Did you always have a strong sense that you would be a musician?
“It’s been a part of my life every single day from the age of 4, but it wasn't until I was 16 that I finally registered it as something I was pretty good at, that I was going to throw myself into. I was going to become a musician, with all the attendant romantic and egotistical impulses. I practiced six hours a day, all the way through music school. There, I saw everyone being groomed for one institutionalized way of making music. I could tell that I'd be completely depressed playing violin in an orchestra. I knew, from that time on, I’d have to sew my own coat, book my own shows, wait for people to come to me. Got into this racket of getting in a van, driving round the country, and that’s still what I’m doing.”
Was being in Squirrel Nut Zippers during the ‘swing revival’ craze crazy?
“I was associated with them right as they were breaking and scrambling to pull it together. It was a chaotic time to say the least, and they all were —considering they were playing early jazz— living the rock’n’roll cliché as far as lifestyle goes. I was along for the ride, saw how bad it could go; it all exploded and collapsed. No one speaks to each other in the band anymore. I was never really a core member, I just happened to share tastes. I was 23, into all that hot club jazz stuff, coming from the classical world, all prim and proper, into rock’n’roll band. I wanted to be like Lester Young and Johnny Hodges, but they were just a pop-band, or, moreso, kind of the punk shambles of a pop-band. That’s when they were at their best, when they were just barely holding it together. They held it together for a while, then it fell apart. I never fully joined that band, glad I never did.”
Has your recent popularity surge been at all like that experience?
“Not at all. This isn’t some meteoric shot towards fame, this is still me on the same path, in it for the long-haul, sticking to my guns, winning over one person at a time. I have been surprised so many other people have come to the party, because I’m used to struggling. When I come back from getting my coffee before the show, and I see the line of people out the front of the club, my stomach sinks a bit with the presence of every single person in that queue. Like: 'don’t disappoint them now!' It feels like everything is weighing on me. Except for that weird thing with the Zippers, which did more harm than good in a way, I was never part of a movement, or a hyped scene. I’ve spent years in the trenches, battling just to get to this point. So, I can’t blow it now."