In Under The Influence, The A.V. Club asks a musician to pair three of their songs with a non-musical influence.
Multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird (violin, guitar, glockenspiel) was an auxiliary player in the nostalgia-inspired swing band Squirrel Nut Zippers in the ’90s, then took off on his own to create his own outfit, Bowl Of Fire. More recently, he’s focused on a solo career of his eclectic pop orchestrations that show influences from Gypsy music to folk. He’s prolifically released an album every few years since 2003, including Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…, a 2014 release of Handsome Family covers. He also wrote and performed “The Whistling Concerto” for the 2011 movie The Muppets, and recently drafted the score for the new Zach Galifianakis series Baskets. Bird left Chicago long ago for California, where he’s now a family man with a young son. For Under The Influence, Bird selected one older song and two new ones from his current record (and eighth album), Are You Serious, and called us from California to talk about his various inspirations that fall outside of the musical realm.
Andrew Bird: In this Graham Greene novel, The End Of The Affair, the protagonist is on his way to the funeral of his ex-lover, and sees the smoke from the crematorium drifting over the wall of the cemetery. He says, “Oh, her smoke blows across the suburbs,” or something like that. That was the original thought I had, except transpose that to where and when I was writing this song, I was living in a barn in the middle of western Illinois. It was a pretty remote area, and I had chickens, and the chicken coop was connected to the barn. I was having the hardest time keeping the raccoons and coyotes from eating the chickens. You’ve got to bury the chicken wire a couple feet underground, because they’ll dig underneath, they’ll gnaw through the wood.
One morning I came out and it was just a massacre. It was a misty morning, and it was just a bloody mess. It was total horror. I felt pretty bad that I had let down my chickens. They had ways of reminding me how I let them down even after they passed away, because their feathers would get stuck in the chimney. And all I had was a wood-burning stove, and it would get pretty hot, and I’d imagine the feathers getting incinerated.
I thought of the feathers turning into smoke and blowing across the suburbs. I think there are other facets to the song, but… that’s where it came from, from that novel.
The A.V. Club: I hear birds in the background. What kind of birds do you still have?
AB: There’s a resident mockingbird that is just ripping everybody off. A lot of hummingbirds, actually.
AB: “Chemical Switches” is a bit more, lyrically, like what I’ve done in the past. It starts with a really strong melody that I did as an instrumental on “Pulaski At Night.” Then I thought, “This is such a great melody, I want to sing it,” so then I had to come up with words. But I didn’t want to cop the melody. Usually when you’re working that way, it’s best to work off your subconscious, or just kind of speaking in tongues and making vowel sounds that work with the melody, and then the personal nature of the song reveals itself by accident. But then, often I’ll find my way to a personal story in there.
There are a lot of songs where you should be able to tell what I’m talking about. This is not one of them, so let’s talk about it. It’s based on this story that kind of came out of repressed memories, perhaps. It’s sort of a formative experience I had when I was maybe 6 years old. My friend and I had just gotten Wrist-Rockets, these high-powered slingshots. We were out in the woods just shooting at trees and squirrels and stuff, and we came upon our neighbors’ camping tent, which was uninhabited; we were sure of that. It was just kind of tempting to start pelting it with rocks, and it was all fairly harmless. But then something kind of kicked in, this bloody frenzy, and the next thing we knew we were heaving bricks on top of this tent, and we kind of lost our minds for a minute. And then our neighbor’s mom came out and caught us red-handed, yelling at us. I wasn’t the kind of dude that did stuff like that. I was so mortally ashamed that I didn’t leave the house for awhile, because I was afraid they would see me. I just thought about it day and night for awhile. Ever since then, I’ve had this aversion to crowds, or crowd mentality, or sporting events, or anything where people kind of tend to lose their heads in a mob sort of way. So that line, “the short walk from pebbles to bricks / from stones back to sticks / we’re lowering the boiling point,” that’s where that comes from.
So I guess the chemical switches part is like, “chemical switches thrown in the dark” is sort of mysterious, where we kind of lose our rational mind. That’s kind of what I’m talking about with the switches. Who’s behind that? Who’s running that ship?
The track is entirely acoustic, one acoustic guitar and my voice. That’s Blake Mills playing guitar.
AVC: It sounds like so much more than that.
AB: Yeah, he’s pretty virtuoustic. He’s quite a player. I had all the intentions of there being more stuff on there, but we started with that and it seemed a shame to put anything else on it. There’s no violin, there’s nothing, just guitar.
Song: “Saints Preservus” (Are You Serious, 2016)
Source: A traumatic experience at Costco
AVC: Unlike “Saints Preservus,” which has a lot going on.
AB: Yeah, that’s kind of an anomaly on the record. It’s pretty thoroughly composed and almost baroque in its sound, and that has a long history. The melody first popped up when I was asked to submit some music for when Tarantino was working on Django. So I did my take on a sort of spaghetti Western thing. It’s a little bit of that, and it’s got a mix of high-brow and low-brow, and interlocking parts, and it’s classical-sounding, and then it kind of kicks into this galloping thing.
And then, like a year and a half ago, Zach Galifianakis asked me to score Baskets, the show that he just started on FX, and I was excited to do that. I was especially excited to write a theme song for the show, ’cause that’s kind of the Holy Grail as a composer, if you can get the title—it’s something you hear every week. You think of Six Feet Under, the art of the title theme is kind of cool. So I kind of took the spare parts of the Tarantino thing that didn’t go anywhere and I said, “I’m gonna write you a scene.” And he gave me the premise of Baskets, and I took a personal experience I had at a Costco.
I had this thing when I go to big box stores with the massive concrete floors, where I feel like my essence is being drained through my feet. Something happens atomically with those massive concrete floors. It changes your ions or something. Anyway, it pulls your soul of it, out of your body, and down into this substructure of the store, and down into the limestone, and I imagined it getting fossilized there. It turns out that I didn’t even know that Costco is kind of a character in the show Baskets. It plays a pretty prominent role. I don’t mention it by name of course, but I’m talking about Bakersfield, and I was picturing him in this clown outfit walking by the Applebee’s, and all the chain stores, and the beige strip malls, and the asphalt. Anywhere, U.S.A. It’s about someone kind of struggling with being a stranger in a place that’s anything but strange.
AVC: With Costco, it’s like you want to escape it, but with kids, you really can’t, because it’s a necessity.
AB: [Sighs.] Yeah, you just have to be pretty surgical and premeditated. Get in and out before it can do what it does to you. So it’s a race, you know? You don’t have to buy dental floss for two years. I mean, what a gift.
AVC: And who has that kind of room?
The whistling seems to be going on a lot in the new record. How is that something that you started incorporating into your own music?
AB: I resisted it at first. I whistle constantly, like it’s incessant. If I’m not eating, or sleeping, or who knows, maybe I do it in my sleep, or talking… I’m pretty much whistling. After awhile it seemed kind of strange to step on stage and not whistle. For instance, on “Chemical Switches,” I had no intention of that carrying the melody, but it was just so honest and sort of free of any associations. I tried doing violin on that melody, and it sounded a little too romantic.
It was a concerted effort to disrupt. I tried it with violin, and it sounded a little too Celtic, and a little too romantic, and it just wasn’t right. And the whistle just kind of like, that’s what happened, that was honest. I really started doing it when I went solo and I just needed everything in my arsenal to get people to stop their conversations and pay attention in a bar, you know? I would just fill my lungs and hold a note until they stopped talking. It was pretty effective.
AVC: That was in Chicago, right? When you really kicked off your solo stuff?
AB: Yeah. I was already touring nationally before I really started doing that, but yeah, places like The Abbey Pub or Schubas.
AVC: One last thing about “Saints Preservus”: It starts out like as kind of like a ’60s pop song, and then there are all these departures, like an organ overlay. You don’t seem constrained by like, “This is what the song is gonna sound like ’til the end.” It just changes course mid-direction.
AB: Either that can be restrictive, or that can kind of give you free rein. That song doesn’t really fit into my intentions with this whole record. I was all about not being whimsical, and this song is pretty whimsical.
AVC: So that was a thing you were thinking: “I’m not gonna be whimsical this time.”
AB: Right. Then I was like, that is just sitting there, and I put so much work into it, I thought, “Deep in the record, let’s put it toward the end.” I got pretty attached to it. Because even when I’m writing for other stuff, I still put it through the same personal process as I do my record stuff. But yeah, writing for film can either be restrictive in some ways or it can give you license to be indulgent like this. I mean, that’s a sort of digressive section with the pizzicato—that gets pretty out there. I thought I’d already made my statement by then, by the time you get to that song, and you’re ready for something different.