Andrew Bird's hardly a household name but he's no longer Chicago's best-kept secret, either. Rather, the eccentric and
eclectic violinist/singer/whistler/guitarist/looper falls somewhere in the
middle, even if his commercial ascent is steadily swinging him closer to the former.
We recently caught up with Bird, who was simultaneously
jetlagged from an extensive European tour, nervous about his upcoming
appearance on "Late Night With David Letterman", and anxious to embark on his
biggest American tour yet. But somewhere between the bad connections and the
airport announcements, we connected on the topics of the (musical) voices in
his head, keeping it simple, and playing in a band versus doing it all yourself.
Pitchfork: How did all the European dates go?
Andrew Bird: They were good, but it was a typically chaotic
Pitchfork: What makes it more chaotic than a U.S. tour?
Andrew Bird: Well, the real drag is trying to fly from
country to country, day of show, with all your gear. You get hassled all the
time. It's hard trying to keep it together. I started the tour with a raging
fever, and then the airlines lost our gear for a week-and-a-half. Show to show
we just pieced together what we could, but [Martin] Dosh had a hard time replacing
pretty specific stuff. It was fine, but stressful. We just had the clothes on
our back for a week.
Pitchfork: Do they still categorize you as "Americana" over
Andrew Bird: Not anymore. They used to do that, a little
bit. Now they drop names a little more often. It's a little
irritating. I've spent several months there and it's still "Jeff Buckley" and "Rufus Wainwright." It seems
important to them to have those references.
Pitchfork: You could shake it up by citing misleading
influences. Like Judas Priest or something.
Andrew Bird: That might be a good idea, to just derail the
whole process. Lately it's moved on to "Sufjan Stevens" or "Joanna
Newsom." Which is weird. But I
understand people need to communicate, to better relate to you.
Pitchfork: Do you feel that anyone ever gets you pegged
Andrew Bird: You know, the other thing over there is that
they are really listening, both to the music and to what you're saying. Nine
times out of 10, it seems like they've really done their homework, to the
point where you're, like, jeez. But do they get it right? I don't know. You
just have to deal with all the namedropping and references until you're
essentially anonymous. No one compares Tom Waits with anyone, but I guess that
comes from being around a couple of decades, at least. They're not too far off
in trying to describe what I sound like, I guess. They do like to get
intellectual about music over there. I find whatever medium it is I'm operating in now gives me the most
freedom, whereas if I was in any other genre it'd be dictated more. I have a
lot of ideas, and they're not really connecting to any specific genre, but they
need kind of ritual to hang everything on. I guess writing a pop tune is that
Pitchfork: From the start, a lot of people have noted
elements of Eastern European music, or European music in general, in your
Andrew Bird: I think the French notice some of my
influences, like Ravel and Debussy. They pick up on that, for sure. But I don't
think it's their own music they're identifying in mine. It's more what's not
there. I think that's why they're bringing in a lot of experimental or indie
rock bands. I think those countries, even though their politics are oftentimes
to the left, they're still fairly conservative. Especially France,
Spain, and Italy. There's a uniformity to those countries. Not that there isn't
ambition going on, but there's not a noticeable amount of individual
expression on the street. Though that's arguable, for sure. I don't want
to just make a blanket statement.
Pitchfork: Are those classical elements as pronounced in
your music as some of those people might notice?
Andrew Bird: The violin is just the easiest way I have to
express what's in my head. I'll just fully, unconsciously do whatever it takes
to make that sound happen. Just like I would with my own voice. I don't even
think of the violin as being part of any discipline. When I'm doing that tune
"Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left", half of the time I may be out of
my mind on stage. I may be supposed to whistle the next line but I actually
sing it, or I'm supposed to sing the next line and actually whistle. Or I'm
supposed to whistle and I play it on the violin. They're all very direct
mediums of connection. It's all coming from the same place.
I've never approached classical music in a formal way, ever.
I couldn't read very well. I'd have to play every piece and internalize it,
almost as if I had written it myself. So classical music is right in there with
all of the other stuff, Lester Young as well as Bartok. It's part of my
collective experience. Bringing that into pop music, or writing a three and a
half minute tune or melody, that just seems like the most interesting medium to
put all my ideas into. Now if I hear any inflection of any specific genre of
music … that's kind of why I had to go solo for so long. If I had someone
around me who played with a little twangy inflection, I'd think, OK, this is a
western swing tune, or this or that. My ear just makes me go there. I needed to
get away from that, completely.
Pitchfork: Dissonance is almost de rigueur in rock music,
but less so in classical. An ugly violin sound is still kind of shocking to a
lot of listeners.
Andrew Bird: When I hear classical music today, I find a lot
of it to be very static, physically. Often there's not enough dissonance, or
not enough tension. But from Beethoven to the Ramones or whatever, everyone's
just looking for the simplest basic hook, or motif. Beethoven's Fifth, everyone
knows that. [sings] "Da da da dah." It's just what you do with that, how you
work it. You can take two basic, three-chord punk rock bands, executing exactly
the same stuff, the exact same notes, and one of them is great and the other
one is awful. You can't really put your finger on why. Classical music, you
feel like you can get away with murder, because it's considered so sacred. I
like it when it just boils down to a few chords. Take all the style out, and
all the appropriation, and what are you left with? I've been thinking more and
more about what happens when the style gets stripped away. Lately I've been
totally satisfied playing the same two chords over and over again. Just playing
a B chord and a G chord back and forth. I never get tired of that. I try to
remind myself that I could be playing a show, the power could go out, and
something has to happen.
Pitchfork: After you disbanded the Bowl of Fire, you toured
a lot as solo act, then as a duo. Now that you're a trio, do you feel like a
Andrew Bird: Yeah. At moments I'm either rethinking it or
enjoying it. I'm still feeling it out. It's strange, because somehow just
playing with Dosh, we both respect how we had cut ourselves off for many years, and when we combined what
we were doing, somehow it worked. Once you add one more variable, you wouldn't
think it would change he dynamic that much, but it does. Quite a bit. I'm still
trying, in the shows, to figure out how to keep the subtleties there, but still
enjoy rocking out. I don't really want to let go of all the cool shit that I learned
as a solo artist. I'm still juggling four different instruments, but I've got a
backing band. It's just multiplying variables right now. It's kind of exciting,
but it's kind of a lot to do. I'm trying to get ready for Letterman, where we
have to play "Plasticities" for exactly three and a half minutes. It's
basically live. There are no re-dos. I'm doing live looping, where my pizzicato
has to be absolutely precise, and I have to put down my violin in exactly,
like, one and half seconds, then start singing or whistling. It can be a bit
Pitchfork: Couldn't you just get Paul Shaffer to do it for
Andrew Bird: I enjoy the perilousness of all that stuff. I
almost cultivate it.
Pitchfork: Isn't that the whole reason to do all that stuff
yourself, as opposed to hiring people to play all those parts for you? That
element of uncertainty?
Andrew Bird: Yeah, that is part of the fun of it. The thing
that keeps coming up, now that we're a three piece, is, yeah, I could just play
violin and sing. But I don't want to let go. I feel like we're really starting to get somewhere. We were
trying to book shows, as low-key practice shows, but then 1,000 people show up
and you're, like, crap.
Pitchfork: Are you starting to write with three people in
Andrew Bird: Not yet. What I want to do, and I've never done
this, is to bring those guys out to the barn in late summer and just have a
week of casual practice recording sessions. The problem is, I just don't like
jamming. [laughs] I don't like practicing. But I do think it would be a cool
thing to try. Jeremy Ylvisaker, the guy who plays bass, he's a really
creative musician, and so far he's not being fully tapped for what he can do.
But I haven't tried that for years, if ever. Just take people down there to
record. I'm into that.
Pitchfork: You guys all live in the Midwest, but your music
would fit in slightly more "hip" places, like New York or Los Angeles. Is there
anything about the place you live that directly relates to the music you make?
Andrew Bird: Definitely. Especially getting out to the rural
Midwest. I remember talking to a friend of mine, deciding whether to move to
New York, but if I moved to New York I would probably be making much more dense
music. I haven't even gotten as far as I want to go, in terms of unfolding
songs. I've been hearing something in my head that I've been too overstimulated
to have the patience to unfold.
Pitchfork: That's ironic, because rock or pop music-- the
medium you're working in-- is generally known for its immediacy.
Andrew Bird: Right. There's always a tension between wanting
to write a really concise, instant gratification type song that gets under your
skin the first time you hear it, and wanting to really stretch out. I think it's
a healthy tension. I think I need to, in the future, go further into textural
stuff. The original question was about the Midwest, and the landscape. But
Chicago and Minneapolis are the two communities I've been involved with.
Minneapolis-- there are a lot of really creative people up there. I'm really
enjoying it. Chicago as well, but Chicago is so familiar to me. So am I an
advocate for the Midwest? I don't know [laughs]
Pitchfork: Well, a lot of other major urban centers,
especially New York and L.A., are
artistic destinations, places people go, whereas a city like Chicago is where a
lot of people come from.
Andrew Bird: I do think people [in Chicago] are making art
maybe for different reasons. That's how I've always felt. People move to L.A.
waiting for something to happen to them. It takes some initiative. I think
people in Chicago, or Minneapolis, I've always appreciated the sort of
anonymity of it, a humbleness to the work ethic.
Pitchfork: You've released three volumes of "Fingerlings".
What creative role have they played for you between recording and releasing
Andrew Bird: Well, they've been pretty effortless, besides a
little bit of sequencing and going through old recordings. But they sometimes
come together and make way more sense right away than the albums do. The
material is pretty disparate, from five-piece Bowl of Fire stuff to solo, but
they all kind of effortlessly make sense. It's mostly live recordings, but I
really believe there's more honesty in one live show than there may be in my
whole output. [laughs] I don't know.
Pitchfork: A lot of people still go to shows expecting to
hear the record.
Andrew Bird: I get a few kids who come up to me at the show
and ask "is it supposed to be like this?" But that's kind of rare. Most people
are very happy with the live show. They usually say "it makes sense to me now."
I also feel like it's gotten to the point now where it doesn't really matter
what kind of record I make. Everyone's expecting the next Arcade Fire, or the
next Modest Mouse record, to be as good as the last record. But it doesn't
really matter what kind of record I put out. It's really the whole thing. I
mean, I put a lot into my records, and I won't release anything I'm not totally
thrilled with. But on the other hand, it's now gone beyond that shiny plastic
Pitchfork: That's another source of positive creative
tension. For record buyers, the album might seem like the end product. But from
the musician's perspective, about to head out onto the road, the record may
just be the starting point.
Andrew Bird: Yeah. I don't like to disappear between
records. I like to play shows while I'm making the record. I've never really
understood bands that…I can't relate to the process of just disappearing and
writing a record, all at the same time, followed by the sort of drudgery of
going out on tour and trying to recreate the record, playing the same 12 songs
Pitchfork: You write a lot of songs while you're traveling,
but not a lot of songs about traveling.
Andrew Bird: A
lot of these new songs I wrote in France, traveling on tour. "Fiery Crash"-- I
wrote half of that when I was in Marseille, right before the riots. Then there
are the times you're just sitting in an airport for five hours, and CNN keeps
coming on. How are you supposed to keep your imagination alive when you're just
getting worn down by it all? I think there's a lot of me [lyrically]
desperately searching for something, to feel alive. Some of your best songs
come from a desperate attempt to
escape, so sitting in an airport for hours I can just start pulling out little fragments of songs from my
head. A lot of times a melody will just occur to me and be my companion for a
couple of months.