Interview: Andrew Bird

Interview: Andrew Bird

Andrew Bird hatched onto the national stage as the violinist for Squirrel Nut Zippers during the short-lived 1990s swing trend, but as a solo artist, he's revealed a rare, remarkable talent that goes far beyond retro kitsch. His 2003 album Weather Systems and last year's superb The Mysterious Production Of Eggs combined Bird's vibrant compositional skill with allusive, surreal lyrics and a formidable ability as a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist—not to mention whistler. Live, he's a veritable one-man orchestra, lacking only a drummer—and he found a great one last year in another polymathic talent, Minnesota-based Martin Dosh. Their instantaneous rapport quickly developed into a full-fledged collaboration and tour. The A.V. Club caught up with Bird recently by phone to talk about his music and what he would do if he got more chickens.

The A.V. Club: It's been about a year since Mysterious Production Of Eggs came out. What have you been up to since then?
AB: I pretty much was on the road until very recently. Last year was unprecedented in the number of shows and gigs—220-plus days on the road. So I'm still catching my breath from that. But I've been doing demos and new songs. I've got another record ready to go; I'm just trying to figure out what kind of record I'm making next. The last one was quite an epic struggle. And I don't know if I just want to simply go in. It just seems unceremonious to just jump right back in the studio for some reason.
AVC: Last April, you said that you already had what you thought was two-thirds of an album done. But considering the tumultuous production of Eggs—you scrapped and redid the entire album twice—it's worth asking if is that still the case.
AB: I hope that doesn't happen again, because that was kind of a painful process. But I am kind of planning a little side project. Weather Systems was kind of a little stepping stone to Eggs to help me figure out how I was making the record, so I think it might be smart to have a side project to take some of the pressure off. It seemed to be helpful last time. I'm just trying to reconcile the songs I have with the music I actually want to make or want to hear, as I go ahead and write songs, because that's just the process. Every time I get up in the morning, melodies occur to me and I start trying to shape lyrics to melodies. So I've got 10 or 11 songs, which I think would make a fine record, but I want to do something different. The most interesting music I think I've made in the last year has been mostly instrumental. I'm trying to figure that out.
AVC: Do your lyrics tend to come after you've written the music, though?
AB: Yes. Pretty much any given day, barring some major distraction, I get melodies coming to me. Lyrics don't come quite as easily. So I've been inventing little projects and challenges to sort of kick my ass with the lyrics.
AVC: Like what?
AB: Well, I've got a song I'm working on, and I bought this book about ancient tribes, ancient cultures from 3000 B.C. to 300 A.D. This new song is called "Scythian Empire." When I was in 8th grade I became somewhat obsessed with the Scythians—they're kind of lesser-known archers and horsemen in the Russian steppes. Everyone else was doing reports on Julius Caesar and I just got obsessed with this Scythians. So I'm sort of bringing back that obsession and working on a song that's all about the Scythians. I don't usually invent concepts like that for songs. Usually I just let words come—I start speaking in tongues and making shapes and vowels, and subconsciously I'll end up with most of a song. This is a little more deliberate than usual. I create little challenges for myself, like, "Okay, whatever you do in this song, you've got to somehow work in Greek Cypriots," or something like that. Songwriting requires some sort of ceremony to even get the process started, and it can be somewhat arbitrary what that is.
AVC: If you've got an idea or a goal in mind, even if it's not necessarily the main goal, it gives you something to work toward.
AB: Yeah. So lately I've been going to that process more than I usually do. Greek Cypriots, Scythians, and obscure ancient cultures seem to be a good, fertile area for me.
AVC: Tell me about your studio—you live out in the country near Chicago, and built your studio in a converted barn, is that correct?
AB: It's a family farm that my folks got like 20 years ago. My dad's from Iowa and my mom's grandfather had a farm in western Illinois, so that area's kind of in family history. Four years ago, I was living in Chicago and 28 years old. Most of my friends were considering moving to New York or L.A., and I was like, "Why not go live in a barn by myself for three or four years and see what happens?" But now I have an apartment in Chicago. I still have the barn, it's just kind of like a studio. Almost all artists have la studio to work in, and that's really what it is. A place to get away. I'll spend maybe four days out there if I can, just completely immersed—like where I don't bathe or brush my teeth for a few days, just get up and make coffee and experiment until the sun goes down.
AVC: Do you record your albums out there?
AB: No—in fact, I have recorded very little that ends up on a record at the barn. I'm not a home-studio guy. I spend a lot of time working by myself developing songs, but I really need some other counterpart to help me pull it all together, because you go nuts working if I had to finish an entire project all within my own head. When I had a band, it was a different story; you had a little more moral support. Now that I'm recording most of the instruments myself—everything but the drums pretty much—I need a good engineer to help me pull it all together and realize it.
AVC: So the barn is for making demos and experimenting, things like that?
AB: Yeah. It's not so much a full-service studio, but it's been totally invaluable. I did do a couple of days in August where we brought out a tape machine and I set up five different amps all around the barn, because the sound in there is really great. It was middle of August and all the windows were open and the crickets and the birds and the ambient noise was really intense. We just set up a few room mics and I did all this instrumental atmospheric stuff for hours and hours. I'm thinking of using a lot of that on the next record. I keep coming back to it and listening to it, because I was pretty happy when I made it, and the environmental noise is really, really calming and pleasant.
AVC: How do you think the next record might differ from Mysterious Production Of Eggs?
AB: It's a little early to say. All I know is, I don't want to do the same thing I did last time. I want to be really excited about what's coming out of me, so I'm trying to set things up so that can happen. I'm working with Martin Dosh now, and that's bound to have an effect—I've been playing with the same drummer for 11 years, and now I'm playing with Martin.. I'm planning some recording in Minneapolis for the end of this tour to try to capture some of what happens. We're going to record all the live shows and then go in the studio right after that tour. I want to capture the best of when we're experimenting, but I want to try to cram that into a three- or four-minute song. The big challenge is to get both those things into one record.
AVC: Is live performance more appealing to you than the studio?
AB: I would say that's true. The rest of the time that I'm not on stage is pretty miserable. But when I'm onstage, I'm completely comfortable, and I feel very vital and alive. I started out thinking that I'd make records and do a few shows to support the record, but now I make records to justify touring. I feel much more comfortable onstage than I do in a studio—after the second day in the studio, I start to really lose it. [During] the live show, I feel completely uninhibited, and I'm not worried about how I'm singing or what I'm doing.
AVC: You've got an unusual live setup that allows you to loop elements of a song and play multiple instruments by yourself simultaneously.
AB: It's a bit of a balancing act. I've got my fiddle, and usually we'll start a song by looping the violin pizzicato to get the rhythmic framework. Then I'll use an octave pedal to get bass sounds and cello sounds, and then layer in strings on top of that. Once I get that rolling, I pull the guitar around and whistle, or sing and whistle and play glockenspiel at the same time.
AVC: And this is all part of the same song?
AB: Yeah. The intro to the song will be the layering of the looping. And the audience can hear how the song was constructed as the intro to the song. Then I'll manipulate that loop throughout the song, either in the chorus or the verses, and use either singing or whistling or playing—those three things, oftentimes I get them confused. They're all kind of the same thing. Sometimes I'll be ready to sing the next verse and I'll forget—my neural pathways get kind of confused, and I'll start whistling the same line instead. Playing the violin and singing and whistling are just three different ways of making sound. It's not trying to replace a band, per se. It's become a completely different thing. And it's not just simply an effect. It's just a very surprisingly intuitive thing. I've never been into pedals and gear and tricks like that, but it's become an easy way to completely lose myself and be [more] musical on stage than I really could with a band. But now, playing with Martin, I get the best of both worlds. We can rock out and not worry about the looping thing so much, or we can both combine the looping process and take it to the extreme. Since we're both doing it on stage, there's a lot of possibilities. But considering that I've got to nail a lot of rhythmic things, [so the song doesn't] just completely fall apart, it really is strangely forgiving. I just get in some kind of different universe sometimes, like I'll wake up three songs later halfway across the stage after closing my eyes and forgetting where I was.
AVC: You get so lost in the songs that you forget where you are?
AB: Yeah, that happens. That's what I hope happens. And I try not to bog myself down with too much to think about so that that can happen. There's something about the nature of looping that is a little more [trance-inducing], where you can lose yourself in the texture of it.
AVC: How did you first get in touch with Martin Dosh?
AB: My manager is from Minneapolis, and she knew of him. He opened for me last spring, and at the time, I was thinking, "I really need to get another drummer. But where am I going to get a drummer that can play keyboards and drums at the same time?" I thought of him more as just an electronic artist; I didn't really think of him as a drummer.
AVC: He came from drumming first before branching out into other things.
AB: Yeah. [But] my introduction was through one of his records, and I thought he was just an experimental electronic guy. But then I was watching him play drums, and he was playing really cool, interesting patterns. So I was like, "I think I'd better pursue this." It's been going extremely well. I think after just two rehearsals, we just started touring. He's really intuitive and always has my back. I lucked into that. We really haven't even scratched the surface of what I think we could do.
AVC: You've mentioned having a particular affinity for the music of 1930s-era Delta bluesman Charlie Patton.
AB: I was introduced to him doing a tribute record with [Squirrel Nut Zippers leader] James Mathus in New Orleans years ago. He was making a tribute record [Songs For Rosetta] to benefit Charlie Patton's daughter Rosetta, who is still alive and living in Clarksdale, Mississippi. I didn't really know who he was, but ever since then, I've just been just fascinated by him because he had this mysterious persona. His songs, the recordings are mostly indecipherable. I've never really sought out his lyrics. I enjoy misunderstanding what he's singing about. A tune like "Elder Greene," even with the lyrics in front of you, you don't know what that song's about. I just love that sort of mystery. And going back to the history thing, I like incomplete histories where it sparks the imagination. I've gotten a lot of good ideas from Charlie Patton over the years, just from misunderstanding some of his lines and trying to think what he was actually talking about.
AVC: And musically he's not doing the typical 12-bar blues stuff, but something more complex.
AB: A lot of [his songs] are very hymn-like, as opposed to Robert Johnson, who's mostly in the 12-bar blues vein. I think of Charlie Patton and Joseph Spence together, being kind of hymn-based. But other moments I love, when the beat turns around, it's almost as if he never got the memo on how a song was supposed to be put together. And I just love that. This bridge here has three and three-eighths beats in it—it just doesn't conform to Western formulaic song structures all the time. And that's what I'm listening for in a lot of pre-war stuff—the Alan Lomax stuff and the Smithsonian Folkways stuff—both in lyrical references to things that are completely archaic, and then musically, notes that fall between the keys of the keyboard. It's the stuff I'll fall back on—if I want to listen to music at all, it's usually that stuff.
AVC: Is that a very direct influence on your songwriting?
AB: Nothing is that direct anymore. It was when I started out. I was being more referential and thinking, "that's cool, I'm gonna write a song like that," but that impulse hasn't occurred to me in quite a few years now. Pretty much, I'm done soaking up records. [Now] I'm just letting things come out of me at random and trying to make sense of them and turn them into songs and records. I think that's turning into more interesting music. I do ask myself these days, if I've just written a song, "Does anyone need to hear this? Is this worth hearing at this point in history?" That's about as conscious as things get.
AVC: I've talked to authors who say that when they're writing, they avoid reading anything else. It sounds like it's similar for you.
AB: That's kind of what the barn was [for]—putting myself in a vacuum for a couple of years and see what happens. That didn't really cross my mind, but that's what I think I was doing. You know, people ask me, "oh, do you listen to Jeff Buckley," or "do you listen to Rufus Wainwright?" And I'm like, what would be the point? If I listen to anything at all, it's something that's from a completely different cultural universe than I'm actually a part of. I guess it goes back to that I still can't help that I listen to music so I can glean something from it. I listen to it and I enjoy it, and as soon as I hear something, I want to participate in it. I rarely have those moments where I sit back and let the music wash over me. And not since I was 16 or 17 have I really been like that.
AVC: You began studying violin at a very young age, right?
AB: It's been part of my day pretty much every day since I was four. I've been doing it for so long, I almost forget to think of myself as a musician. It's just who I am now. That's especially happened in the last couple years. I have no perspective on it any more. There's not even a sense of a discipline like a writer might have—"Okay, I'm going to write for five hours today." Just the idea of this being a discipline doesn't make sense any more. It's just simply what's going to happen when I wake up in the morning. And being onstage and performing is an essential element to that. I'm not the kind of artist who's going to disappear for a year and a half and come back with a record. It has to be this continual process of performing and writing.
AVC: One of the unusual elements in your music is your whistling. In a way it's surprising that it's not more common, because it's something that you don't need an instrument to do, and to some extent anybody can do it. And yet you're one of the few people that includes whistling as a part of your music.
AB: I had to get past thinking that it was just a whimsical novelty thing, and I also had to get over thinking that it was too easy, because I whistle constantly and I didn't have to suffer years and years of practicing and physical pain to be able to make the sound. So there was that. But it's strange. It didn't occur to me for so long because it was right there, literally under my nose. I was hearing in my head a certain sound, an instrument that was sort of glass-pure, and I was wondering how I was gonna create that sound. I knew it existed somewhere. And then I bought this glockenspiel, and I started whistling along with the glockenspiel, and the way those two pure tones would rub together created that sound I was looking for. I wonder sometimes if I'm doing too much of it, but it's a pretty powerful thing live, I've found. If ever I'm facing a tough crowd, I just hold a note for as much breath as I have in my lungs, and it usually gets people to pay attention. It's just not what you're expecting to hear at a club.
AVC: It's certainly a noticeable part of Mysterious Production Of Eggs, but it never dominates a song.
AB: I just sometimes can't think of a better way to carry a tune than to whistle it. You know like I was saying how I have these different streams of creating sound and sometimes they get confused. … It's kind of like the slide whistle. That's how I approach the violin; I've never really mapped out the instrument geometrically. I never practiced my scales. It's kind of a shot in the dark, and that's what whistling is like, that's what singing is like. I like to keep it that way. Even though I've been playing music every day since I was 4 years old, it's still mysterious to me and you don't know where things are going to come from. I consciously try to keep it that way.
AVC: I found a site on the Internet that reminded me of you, the Online Guide To Whistling Records, which is devoted to something that I had no idea existed, an entire genre of whistling music from back in the '50s and '60s, the main survivor of which is Brother Bones' "Sweet Georgia Brown," the Harlem Globetrotters theme. It included everything from people simply whistling over popular songs of the day, to recordings of canaries with orchestral music behind them. Have you heard of this?
AB: No, I haven't. Recently I've been contacted by professional whistlers and people who are enthusiasts, and I've heard about a whistling competition in North Carolina. [So] I've recently become aware of a subculture that exists, but I haven't really sought it out or listened to any other whistlers.
AVC: That's interesting. I didn't know that there was a subculture still in existence.
AB: Yeah. There was some guy in Boston that wanted to interview me for a scientific study of whistling. That'd be interesting. And a guy in L.A. who e-mailed me. I have yet to respond to either of those. It's interesting, but I don't plan on socializing with other whistlers. [Laughs.] People are now accusing me that Bird isn't my real name. [Laughs.]
AVC: Even though the title of Mysterious Production Of Eggs came from a phrase you found in an old catalog, you must have been thinking about the juxtaposition of "Bird" and "eggs."
AB: I wasn't really. I was thinking about my chickens and how they became part of my writing process out at the barn. It blew my mind every day that I would go get an egg that just came out of the body of this chicken and carry it back to my kitchen and crack it into my pan and eat it. Every day, I would have to remind myself how weird and how cool it was. And just observing chickens and thinking, "Wow, why do these flightless birds drop an egg every 36 hours?" Questions like these that I still haven't answered, and now my chickens are dead, so what am I going to do?
AVC: They're dead? What happened?
AB: Oh, they got picked off by coyotes and raccoons. It's very hard to keep them safe, especially when you're not around that much, but yeah, it's kind of sad. But I hope to get some more chickens and this time keep them alive.

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