Andrew Bird is many things, but he isn’t lazy. In the three years since the release of his last LP, Noble Beast, Bird has continued his heavy touring schedule, launched his Sonic Arboretum project, and somehow found time to write and record a new album, Break It Yourself. That touring schedule found him playing across Europe, Asia, and the United States, including a prime slot at Lollapalooza in 2009 and a series of special Gezelligheid shows in 2009 and 2010. Bird has also been involved in filming two documentaries: Fever Year, about his 2009 tour, and Here’s What Happened, which captured the experience of recording the new album. And yet through such a hectic schedule, Break It Yourself emerges as his best album to date, one that shows him as more comfortable with collaboration and in letting his music stretch past typical structure, spilling over enforced boundaries into panoramic sonic symphonies at the intersection of folk, classical, freestyle jazz, and even pop. The A.V. Club recently talked to Bird about collaboration and improvisation on his new album, his experimentations with sound, and letting his music evolve organically.
The A.V. Club: This is your third album with Martin Dosh, Jeremy Ylvisaker, and Mike Lewis as your backing band. How has this extended collaboration changed the way you approached pulling the album together?
Andrew Bird: This is the first time I’ve kind of treated it more like a quartet, like a band. The whole record is pretty much live in a room together, no separation, and we’ve never done that before. I’d brought them in for recordings to be part of the construction of the song, but this is more like four guys playing music together. And as awesome as they are, it took a while for me to feel comfortable with that.
AVC: So there wasn’t as much studio massaging post-production?
AB: There was a minimal amount of that. There are no vocal overdubs. All the vocals are live. It’s not like we put down basic tracks and then did a bunch of post-production; it’s nothing like that. We just took an eight-track tape machine out to my barn, had Mike’s Aunt Wendy cook for us, used our front-of-house engineer Neal [Jensen] to record, and it was a pretty un-fussy—it took about seven tracks to do the whole band. The mixing was pretty extensive, and there’s a little bit of editing here and there. But compared to most productions, it’s about as bare-bones as it gets.
AVC: Do you feel more comfortable fostering collaboration than you did earlier in your career?
AB: Yeah. I’m coming out of an eight-year period of being pretty self-sufficient musically. I felt like it was time to get back to why I started on this path in the first place, which is playing music in a comfortable social—it’s a social conduit. That’s why I got out of the classical world, taking a more comfortable, enjoyable, social-music atmosphere. I went through [my group] Bowl Of Fire for four or five years, and then sort of disbanded that and then went on this kind of solo course. And that’s still a pretty healthy part of what I’m doing, but I don’t know. I just got really tired of production. I wanted to not play it safe, to just go out there and play.
AVC: You say you’re moving away from classical, but on this album, particularly “Give It Away,” you toy with time signature. That’s something seen more in longer classical movements than in typical pop songs.
AB: Passages in “Give It Away” are closer to pretty wild improvisation and more jazz spirit than classical; that was just completely off the cuff. And the pizzicato solo—it sounds like a guitar solo, but it’s a pizzicato solo—is pretty spontaneous. But there are songs like “Orpheo Looks Back” that have pretty odd time signatures in them. In the past, that’s the way an idea would occur to me, not conforming to any bar phrase, and I would just give up at some point trying to keep it that weird, and I would let it conform to that bar phrase. This time, I didn’t let that happen. I just made the band try to figure out how to fit that into the puzzle. So you end up with a lot more odd time signatures. And the fact that it’s off the cuff—we weren’t really expecting to nail the record, so there wasn’t this pressure.
In the past, with Noble Beast, the record was one thing and the live performance is another, so I made two records to capture the more experimental live feel and the more carefully crafted pop songs. On this album, I just threw that out the window and brought them back together again. You have these kind of grounded songs followed by wild solos, and that’s one of the things I’m most proud of with this record.
AVC: So there was more improvisation on this record than before?
AB: Oh yeah. In the past, I would have improvised until I found a more concise melody, and then pared that down to turn it into a three-and-a-half-minute pop song. And in this one, the original improvisation is what’s on the record. There is no paring-down; a lot of what you hear is soloing.
AVC: Did the way you approached recording this new album affect the way you wound up sequencing it?
AB: Not much got cut, and it’s almost in order. “Desperation Breeds…” was the first one we did. “Danse Caribe” was the second, although that was the only one that was done in a different studio. And “Give It Away,” that was just, second take, the band hardly knew the song and ended up feeling their way through it. The sequencing took a while, though. It always does. I always think of things as an album, not as individual singles.
AVC: I recognized the melody in “Eyeoneye” from an instrumental you performed at one of your Gezelligheid shows. A lot of artists work songs out onstage, but because your music is so often divided between instrumental and vocal songs, at what point in the songwriting process do you decide whether a song is going to be instrumental or vocal?
AB: It depends on what stage I capture it for a record. Those Useless Creatures ideas would have eventually become pop songs if I hadn’t captured it in that stage and decided I wanted to do just that, an instrumental record. But I kind of stumbled on that melody around that time of the Gezelligheid, and I thought, “Well, this is an exceptionally nice melody. And I think if I’m really gonna have it reach its full potential, I gotta make it into a song.” I just kept hammering away at it for the next couple years. But then a year later, I debuted it at a TED conference, as a half-completed song—I had half the lyrics and half the melody—so the pressure was mounting to have it be this exceptional song. I ended up having to record that song six different ways to be satisfied. It was a burden of expectations, but it kind of ended up working out well for that song.
AVC: Can you elaborate a little on those six different ways?
AB: Well, it started off the first year we did the barn sessions for this record. It always had that melody; you know, [sings the melody]. But the song was darker, brooding. I find it boring when the lyrics are a bit dark and brooding and then the music follows suit. That’s not enough tension in there for me. It wasn’t lifting off, you know? Then we tried kind of a Stones version of it; I started playing it finger-style guitar, but on the violin, and then working in all these early Keith Richards-type licks. That was cool, but it just sounded like that. That’s limiting what this song could be.
I did a more acoustic-guitar, a little dreamier version—it was good. I was ready to put it on the record. It was really getting close, but just on a whim, we tried it in the barn again a year later. We did the whole thing exactly the same to try to nail that song, and also brought a film crew out to film the way we made the record [the documentary Here’s What Happened, available with the deluxe version of the new album]. We blew through the whole record to see if we could get any better versions than we did the year before. And while we were filming that one—we weren’t really going for a record take, we were just filming—something clicked in the middle of the song where we were just kind of doing another version of it for another camera angle, and we were like, “Holy shit. This is better than any other version we’ve done.” We collectively realized it. You can hear it in the middle of the song; a switch gets flipped and we race to the finish line. It’s this injection three-quarters of the way into the song. And that’s what you can only hope for, is that a recording that’s on a record has a real—that the tempo’s kind of fluctuating, the tempo’s kind of leaning this way or that way, but it’s anything but static. You don’t hear that much on records, because they track the rhythm section, and then you sing over it like it’s karaoke. I hear that in records and I don’t like it.
AVC: In regards to that tension in your music, on “Near Death Experience Experience,” you create this imagery of dancing while a plane crashes, backed by an upbeat melody. How do you go about creating this tension?
AB: It’s just a reflection of the thought process that’s going on as I’m writing the song: “Whoa, this is getting dark. And I think we need some levity here.” A lot of the songs do kind of head down that dark path, and then switches get flicked. That song backs off from going over the edge, and it’s like, “Wait, wait wait wait. Let’s just laugh at ourselves here for a second.” The tone of the music, though, I don’t really think about that. It’s kind of unconscious, the music being happy or sad, for example, or the lyrics. For “Near Death Experience Experience,” I was just trying to nail a feel, and the lyrics were kind of immaterial. But they certainly come to me. I’m imagining if you could take a pill that could kind of simulate a near-death experience—which, of course, is impossible, because if you know it’s safe, it’s not a near-death experience—it would then make you appreciate every living moment. Would you take that pill? And the song is kind of open-ended. I can’t resolve that question at all, so it just kind of keeps on grooving.
AVC: You’ve spent some time recording in New Orleans; how much of “Hole In The Ocean Floor” was explicitly inspired by the BP oil spill?
AB: It was totally inspired by it. I woke up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, just totally panicked, spooked, thinking. This was before they capped it, so it was just a disaster that’s perpetually happening. There’s no resolution to it. And I just woke up in this panic like, “Oh, shit, it’s still leaking.” It sounds ridiculous now, but I felt like I could hear that collective scream of the entire animal planet.
AVC: It seems unusual because it’s so explicitly tied to an event. That doesn’t happen a lot in your music.
AB: Yeah, I suppose I’ve done it before. But to tell you exactly what that song is based on is not always that easy to explain as “Hole In The Ocean Floor.” That one is a lot about the playing of the music.
AVC: Do you ever go into a record with the aim of balancing instrumentals vs. vocals?
AB: Yeah, because I think any songwriter or record, no matter how good it is, can become tedious if it’s the same person’s point of view. After four tracks, you start to get worn down no matter how good it is. It can be relentlessly good, but it’s still going to wear you out. Putting in these instrumentals serves as a break for the listener, and also serves as a chance to enjoy playing for a minute and not worrying about serving the song.
AVC: When you perform these songs live, particularly solo with looping, does that affect the songs’ development?
AB: When I brought the band down to the barn, I’d been working on these loops for a long time; I’d play the loop, just to show the band what the feel is like. That also keeps the songs weird, you know? They don’t deconstruct it. [I tell them] “These are the way the songs have been going in my head for the last year, you guys just respond to that and see if you can make it better, or add to it.” So the loops are always in there. Like “Desperation Breeds…,” that’s what happened to me: the loop and the band starts. Mike Lewis was playing this odd but awesome bassline, and everyone just felt their way through the song ’til the end. And literally, at the end of that song, we’re all looking at each other like, “Okay, we’re gonna end the song now.” And there’s a lot of desperate gestures to each other to try to wrap it up.
To let the loops go and let it just be a four-piece band, something about the loops just keep us in touch with the way the music percolates in my head. And it also keeps things risky onstage. I think that helps the music. Every time we do a song we have to do on TV, it’s got something that could go terribly, terribly wrong in it. And again, “Eyeoneye”—it’s got, like, you know, it’s a song where—on most of these songs, Martin loops me. So I’ve gotta count the song in, Martin clicks a pedal, and I play violin, and I send this violin signal through Martin’s whole chain, which is really—one little cable could be bad, and then the whole thing wouldn’t work. Which has happened to me before on TV. So here we are with another single that can and will—well, it keeps us on our toes.
AVC: You’re fueled by this internal fear of it failing.
AB: Well, it keeps you from certainly getting complacent, or phoning it in. There’s no risk of that, and it’s exciting. You get a little panic, a little embarrassment. I think it’s a healthy thing in part of a show, as opposed to coasting.
AVC: You’ve been doing a lot of sound experimentation, like the Sonic Arboretum. In an interview last year, you said “the music I’ve been making at my barn has recently been less about songwriting and more about just sounds.” Did the Sonic Arboretum influence what’s on the album?
AB: No, the Sonic Arboretum is really its own thing. It’s just an amazing compositional tool that barely scratches the surface of what it could be. My fantasy is to get up and ride my bike to a museum, like the MCA [the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago], in the morning when everyone else goes to work, enjoy my coffee and compose on the fly for three or four hours, and then sit back and look at what I’ve done, and then go home. There’s not this intense focus on me and my persona. There’s also a different attention span for an installation, that you can come and just immerse yourself in it, or just hang around. There’s not that clock ticking on that concertgoer’s attention span.
But to inform the record, no. The record is its own thing. The record is kind of a performance; it’s breathing, lopsided, full of instinctual moods. And so is the Arboretum. It’s like a different rate of composing, you know? I’m somewhere on the spectrum between a classical composer that writes stuff down and a total free-jazz improviser. The rate of composition is fast, it’s on the fly, but it’s not completely free. The arboretum—you could say the ideas that are in the songs are unfolded in the arboretum, opened up and made more pastoral, and have a more distant horizon, more open sky to them.
AVC: You just did an unusual performance in London, in a room in a boat on top of Queen Elizabeth Hall. How did that come about?
AB: They asked me to be the first performer. They had writers and musicians and thinkers in general visit to have a residency, and I got to stay there for two nights. It’s this pretty slick little apartment in a Joseph Conrad-themed, Heart Of Darkness boat. It’s pretty awesome that an idea so impractical like that could actually make it to fruition. The idea is, if you stay there for a couple of days, how will it influence your performance, or what you do or say? I came in there without a plan and just waited to see what felt right. It kind of fit in thematically, and that’s what happened. It was fun.
AVC: Do you have any other sound experiments like the arboretum planned for the future?
AB: We’re going to keep developing the arboretum, and that has lots of possibilities. I’d like to have that in a different museum, or maybe turn it into a public art project eventually. Hopefully there’s a future in that. And I’ll keep waiting for that film that I can give something to as a soundtrack. I know that the next Jim Jarmusch is out there somewhere, so I’m kind of waiting for that. There are little projects that come along that I pick up, like this modern-music, modern-art magazine called Esopus—I have to compose a piece based on this catalogue of very dense scales. I just tune a scale and write a piece based on that. Little things like that. My job is full of surprises.
AVC: Do you see yourself tackling orchestral works or scores on a bigger scale?
AB: Someday. It deserves all my attention. I don’t want to do it half-assed. And I don’t want to just arrange my songs for orchestra. I think that might be kind of boring and a little bit overdramatic, perhaps. I like being able to travel light. The orchestra’s an amazing instrument, but I’m still just having too much fun doing it my way, for the time being.
I’m interested in it, but then you’ve got to write everything down. I’m going to try it someday and see if it can still be flexible, like I would want it to be. The problem is, when you’re working with orchestras, you only get the orchestra for about two hours before the performance to pull it all together, and that doesn’t sound like a real collaboration. I might find a more fleet-of-foot kind of ensemble to work with.
AVC: In a 2009 interview while you were promoting Noble Beast, you described how you had previously found indie rock boring and repetitive, but that your view had changed and that you’d grown more patient. Though your music doesn’t fit neatly into the indie-rock category, you’ve still been embraced by that scene. What changed introspectively for you?
AB: It depends on the artist. What’s cool about indie rock is that one band can do effectively the same thing as another band, and one band nails it, and the other one doesn’t. I like that elusiveness. A band like Yo La Tengo nails it with this sort of minimalist approach, but another band could try to piece their songs together, or do exactly what they did, and it doesn’t work. I’ve always found that whatever you say about indie rock, it is the most inclusive genre or title for anything. It doesn’t pin you down too much, like other labels would. It’s just newer, it has less baggage. I’m happy to be in that category. When I was younger, I liked music that was more exotic and far-flung, more dense and complicated. Pop music, indie rock, Britpop, and what my friends were listening to did sound kind of boring. But I’m picking up on some stuff I missed because I’m not prejudiced. There is a lot of bad music, and there’s some really amazing pieces of music.
AVC: Is there a specific band you missed the first time around, then?
AB: The Smiths—I dismissed them early on. There’s a lot of bands I dismissed because they just weren’t exciting enough for me to—like I said, it wasn’t exotic enough. And this isn’t indie rock, but The Band—I missed them the first time around. Not that they were of my generation, necessarily, but it’s something everyone should check out. I completely missed The Band until the last two years. And I’m just kind of picking up on this stuff, like Jonathan Richman and Modern Lovers—stuff like that, I would have dismissed when I was younger, and it’s really good stuff. Again, this isn’t all current indie rock, but it feeds into it. The Velvet Underground, I didn’t like them when I was 19, but I totally get it now. There’s also Townes Van Zandt, John Prine—and The Handsome Family, of course, has always been a touchstone.
AVC: Your music is at the intersection of several genres: classical, free-form jazz, even pop. Speaking about the music that you sought as a youth, do you see your music as a bridge to similar-minded youths, especially those who are interested in free-form jazz and classical music?
AB: Yeah, and I think what happens is, or what used to happen and still does, to young people, the band they get into, that becomes part of their markation and their identity, that helps them identify others and helps them find their friends. It’s a social-networking identifier. I skipped all that, because I was in my own classical universe when I was that age. Now, I kind of have this diplomatic immunity, if you will. I feel like I can jump from one thing to another thing; “The way that song’s put together is pretty amazing.” You can’t script anything that good. It could either be “How Soon Is Now” by The Smiths, or it could be this North African cassette tape, or a gospel tune. I just never got indoctrinated as a musician or as a listener, I just kept listening. That’s what I tell young musicians or anyone: just don’t stop listening.
AVC: When you record an album, how much thought do you put behind the balance of style in regards to the violin parts? Classical style vs. fiddle, and so on?
AB: Not much thought goes into that. It just tells me what it’s supposed to be. “Orpheo Looks Back” is supposed to be more raw, so I’m playing a little more like a fiddle player there. Whereas on “Desperation” and “Danse Caribe,” I’m playing a little more like a tenor saxophone player, a little more fluid and round. “Orpheo” is old-time fiddle music; you’re playing your own backbeat. The bowing is that way, a little more raw and scrappier. But it’s not like, “Okay, I’m gonna play it this way.” If I tried to play “Orpheo” with too beautiful of a sound, it would just sound stupid. [Laughs.]
AVC: It would change the meaning of the song.
AB: Perhaps, yeah. But also I want to make sure I got enough things on the record, because I have to play it for the next two years. I want to make sure there’s enough ways of playing represented that I’ll keep myself entertained and satisfied.
Andrew Bird headlines Auditorium Theatre Saturday, May 12.